- Associated Press - Friday, February 6, 2015

Islamic State claims Jordanian airstrike killed US woman held in Syria; US skeptical

BEIRUT (AP) - Islamic State extremists claimed that an American woman held hostage by the group was killed Friday in a Jordanian airstrike in northern Syria, but the government of Jordan dismissed the statement as “criminal propaganda” and the U.S. said it had not seen any evidence to corroborate the report.

The woman was identified as Kayla Jean Mueller, an American who went to Syria to do aid work, but there was no independent verification of the militants’ claim. The statement appeared on a militant website commonly used by the group and was also distributed by Islamic State-affiliated Twitter users.

The 26-year-old Mueller, of Prescott, Arizona, is the only known remaining U.S. hostage held by the Islamic State group.

If the death is confirmed, she would be the fourth American to die while being held by Islamic State militants. Three other Americans - journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig - were beheaded by the group.

Journalist Austin Tice, of Houston, Texas, disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria’s civil war. It’s not clear what entity is holding him, but it is not believed to be the Islamic State group or the Syrian government, his family has said.

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January job gains, wage increases show US recovery getting stronger, closer to full health

WASHINGTON (AP) - A resurgent job market in January signaled that the U.S. economy is finally regaining the kind of strength typical of a healthy recovery - with hiring accelerating, wages rising and people who had given up their job hunts starting to look again.

Freer-spending consumers and steady economic expansion have boosted hiring for the past three months to the most robust pace in 17 years.

In January, employers added 257,000 jobs, after 329,000 in December and a sizzling 423,000 jobs in November, the government reported Friday. The November and December gains were much higher than the government had first estimated.

“The labor market was about the last thing to recover from the Great Recession, and in the last six months it has picked up steam,” said Bill Hampel, chief economist at the Credit Union National Association. “The benefits for the middle class are now solidifying.”

The average hourly wage rose 12 cents to $24.75 in January, a jump of 0.5 percent - the sharpest since 2008. In the past year, hourly pay, which has long been stagnant, has risen 2.2 percent. That’s well above inflation, which rose just 0.8 percent in 2014.

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Talks on Ukraine end; Putin, Poroshenko to hold weekend phone call on peace initiative

MOSCOW (AP) - Talks among the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on a peace initiative for Ukraine ended early Saturday with an announcement that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart would discuss a proposal to end the fighting in a four-way telephone call this weekend.

The planned discussions Sunday involving Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of France and Germany came amid urgent shuttle diplomacy to halt the recent intensification of fighting in Ukraine and suggested that a cease-fire proposal was still on the table, although there was no firm announcement of progress.

Even getting the arms to fall silent would be a significant diplomatic breakthrough. The resurgent fighting has fueled fears the conflict is threatening Europe’s overall security and has prompted the U.S. to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande came to Moscow on Friday on the second leg of a hastily arranged trip to try to halt the spiraling conflict. They had met with Ukraine’s president the previous day in Kiev.

The contents of their proposal have not been revealed, but it is aimed at salvaging a peace plan agreed to in September in Minsk, Belarus.

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‘Like daggers’: Did the electrified third rail’s design make New York train wreck deadlier?

VALHALLA, N.Y. (AP) - It was a hellish scenario investigators had never seen before: 400 feet of electrified third rail snapped into 12 pieces and speared a commuter train during a fiery collision with an SUV. Now officials want to know whether the rail’s unusual design explains why the crash was so deadly.

The 39-foot lengths of rail sliced through the first car of the train “like daggers going into the heart of that chamber,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday after getting a chilling look at the blackened, mangled wreckage.

The SUV driver and five train passengers were killed Tuesday evening in the rush-hour collision in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City. The SUV had stopped on the tracks, between the lowered crossing gates, for reasons still unclear to investigators.

Metro-North, who operates in New York and Connecticut, is believed to be the only U.S. commuter railroad that uses the “under-running” or “under-riding” configuration: A metal “shoe” slips underneath the third rail rather than skimming along the top. Some have questioned whether the collision caused the shoe to pry up the third rail.

“This has never happened before, and this is a rare configuration of a third rail,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Do those two add up to the explanation for this terrible, terrible tragedy? Very possibly.”

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Rebels and Ukrainian authorities jointly evacuate residents from battle-scarred eastern town

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AP) - In the freezing, muddy winter that plagues eastern Ukraine, dozens of buses rolled down a highway Friday, bringing a glimmer of hope to those trapped for weeks in the crossfire of a relentless war.

The government-held town of Debaltseve, a key railway junction, has been the epicenter of recent battles between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. For two weeks, the town has been pounded by intense shelling that knocked out power, heat and running water in the dead of winter.

Separatist fighters have made advances, taking Vuhlehirsk, a rural settlement 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the west, as they sought to capture Debaltseve, which links by rail their two main strongholds, the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

On Friday, in a move not seen before in this war, the two sides briefly ceased hostilities to jointly evacuate the few residents still remaining. Dozens of buses traveled in convoys to Debaltseve from both rebel and government territory to ferry locals away from danger.

“We agreed with the Ukrainian authorities that this would be done jointly, to give people the right to choose to go to the Ukrainian side or to go to Donetsk,” said Daria Morozova, a separatist official.

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Anthem: Hackers compromised 5 workers’ credentials, may have been in network since December

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The hackers who stole millions of health insurance records from Anthem Inc. commandeered the credentials of five different employees while seeking to penetrate the company’s computer network - and they may have been inside the system since December.

Anthem said this week that hackers stole names, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information for up to 80 million Anthem customers, in a breach that was first detected on Jan. 27. That’s when an Anthem computer system administrator discovered outsiders were using his own security credentials to log into the company system and steal data.

Investigators now believe the hackers somehow compromised the credentials of five different tech workers, possibly through some kind of “phishing” scheme that could have tricked a worker into unknowingly revealing a password or downloading malicious software.

The company also confirmed Friday that it found that unauthorized data queries with similar hallmarks started as early as Dec. 10 and continued sporadically until Jan. 27. Attempts may also have been made earlier in 2014, said Kristin Binns, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis-based Anthem, the nation’s second-largest health insurer.

Those earlier attempts, including the one on Dec. 10, were deflected by the company’s network security defenses, Binns said. Like most companies, Anthem routinely deflects a variety of attempts to make unauthorized access to its systems, she added.

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A gap in health privacy law? US doesn’t require encryption to keep hackers from reading data

WASHINGTON (AP) - Insurers aren’t required to encrypt consumers’ data under a 1990s federal law that remains the foundation for health care privacy in the Internet age - an omission that seems striking in light of the major cyberattack against Anthem.

Encryption uses mathematical formulas to scramble data, converting sensitive details coveted by intruders into gibberish. Anthem, the second-largest U.S. health insurer, has said the data stolen from a company database that stored information on 80 million people was not encrypted.

The main federal health privacy law - the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA - encourages encryption, but doesn’t require it.

The lack of a clear encryption standard undermines public confidence, some experts say, even as the government plows ahead to spread the use of computerized medical records and promote electronic information sharing among hospitals, doctors and insurers.

“We need a whole new look at HIPAA,” said David Kibbe, CEO of DirectTrust, a nonprofit working to create a national framework for secure electronic exchange of personal health information.

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Emergence of measles in Chicago suburb raises concern about vulnerability of day care centers

CHICAGO (AP) - Measles infections in five babies at a suburban Chicago day care center reveal a potential weak link in public-health efforts to contain the disease, officials said Friday, explaining that infants who are too young to be vaccinated and in close quarters are among the most vulnerable to the virus.

“They’re sort of like the canary in the mine,” said Dr. Tina Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital.

State regulations in Illinois and elsewhere generally require vaccinations for older children in day care centers, but measles shots are not recommended for children under age 1. And like most states, Illinois does not require vaccinations for day care center staffers.

“Unfortunately, there is no requirement. But this is on our radar,” said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The cases are among more than 100 nationwide this year, most of them linked with a Disneyland outbreak. Ten other young children at the suburban center were exposed and are being monitored for symptoms.

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NBC assigns its own investigator to look into Brian Williams claims

NEW YORK (AP) - NBC News has assigned the head of its own investigative unit to look into statements that anchor Brian Williams made about his reporting in Iraq a dozen years ago, an episode that’s ballooned into a full-blown credibility crisis for the network.

NBC News President Deborah Turness announced the probe in an internal memo on Friday. Williams has apologized for falsely saying on the air that he was in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while in Iraq in 2003, and Turness said Friday the anchor expressed his regrets to his colleagues for the impact the episode has had.

“As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired,” Turness wrote. “We’re working on what the best next steps are.”

Richard Esposito, who has worked at the New York Daily News, New York Newsday and ABC and is now at NBC, is leading the investigation.

Williams anchored “Nightly News” from New York on Friday, making no mention of the criticisms of his work.

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Chris Paul: Criticism of a female rookie referee “was about a bad call”

NEW YORK (AP) - Chris Paul made it clear: His problem with referee Lauren Holtkamp was with her call.

He left it to others to say it wasn’t about her gender.

His criticism of the rookie official drew a rebuke from the referees union Friday followed by strong backing from the female executive director of the NBA Players Association.

“Any suggestion that Chris Paul would ever conduct himself in a disrespectful manner towards women is utterly ridiculous, outrageous and patently false,” Michele Roberts said in a statement, noting Paul’s role in making her the first woman to head a North American major sports union last summer.

The Los Angeles Clippers guard criticized Holtkamp on Thursday night after a 105-94 loss at Cleveland, saying she might not be ready for the big leagues after six seasons in the NBA Development League.


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