NSA director says surveillance programs disrupted dozens of terrorist attacks
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The director of the National Security Agency vigorously defended once-secret surveillance programs as an effective tool in keeping America safe, telling Congress on Wednesday that the information collected disrupted dozens of terrorist attacks without offering details.
In his first congressional testimony since revelations about the top-secret operations, Army Gen. Keith Alexander insisted that the public needs to know more about how the programs operate amid increasing unease about rampant government snooping and fears that Americans’ civil liberties are being trampled.
"I do think it’s important that we get this right and I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country," Alexander told a Senate panel.
He described the steps the government takes once it suspects a terrorist organization is about to act -- all within the laws approved by Congress and under stringent oversight from the courts. He said the programs led to "disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks," but he did not give details on the terror plots.
Half a world away, Edward Snowden, the former contractor who fled to Hong Kong and leaked documents about the programs, said he would fight any U.S. attempts to extradite him. American law enforcement officials are building a case against him but have yet to bring charges.
Leaker who told about U.S. secrets also says much about himself; some details questioned
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The man who told the world about the U.S.government’s gigantic data grab also talks a lot about himself.
Mostly through his own words, a picture of Edward Snowden is emerging: fresh-faced computer whiz, high school dropout, wannabe Green Beret, disillusioned cog in a secret bureaucracy.
He’s retained an aura of secrecy despite sitting for several days of interviews with The Guardian, some posted in online video. Snowden combines an earnest, deeply serious demeanor with a flair for the dramatic.
Snowden, 29, fled the U.S. for a Hong Kong hotel last month to go public with top secret documents gathered through his work in Hawaii as a contractor through Booz Allen Hamilton with the National Security Agency, where he worked as a systems analyst. He revealed startlingly voracious spy programs that sweep up millions of Americans’ telephone records, emails and Internet data in the hunt for terrorists.
With the United States considering criminal charges against him, Snowden told the South China Morning Post he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because and he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
Massive thunderstorms, strong winds, hail pelt Midwest, could affect Iowa to Maryland
CHICAGO (AP) -- A massive line of storms packing hail, lightning and tree-toppling winds began rolling through the Midwest Wednesday evening and could affect more than one in five Americans from Iowa to Maryland before subsiding.
In the small town of Belmond, Iowa, about 90 miles north of Des Moines, Duwayne Abel, owner of Cattleman’s Steaks & Provisions restaurant, said a tornado swooped through his business’ parking lot and demolished part of the building. No one was in the restaurant at the time.
"I was, oh, eight miles west of town and I looked toward town and I could see a funnel cloud, having no idea it was exactly where our restaurant was," Abel said. His wife and an employee were able to get out of the restaurant and sought shelter in a basement.
Other small tornadoes were also reported in other parts of Iowa and in Illinois. More than 1,200 customers in northern Iowa have lost power.
In addition to tornadoes, lightning and large hail, meteorologists were warning about the possibility of a weather event called a derecho, which is a storm of strong straight-line winds spanning at least 240 miles. The storms are also likely to cause power outages that will be followed by oppressive heat, said Russell Schneider, director of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Flash flooding was also a concern in some areas.
Syrian extremist rebel fighters raid a Shiite village in retaliation, killing at least 60
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels, including Sunni extremists, stormed a village and battled pro-regime militiamen, killing more than 60 Shiite fighters and civilians in an attack steeped in the sectarian hatreds that increasingly characterize the civil war, activists said Wednesday.
In the raid, which comes at a time when the West is worried that extremists are increasingly joining the rebellion, the victorious fighters raised black Sunni Islamist flags over the eastern village of Hatla. In amateur videos, the fighters -- some wearing al-Qaida-style headbands -- vented anti-Shiite slurs and fired in the air.
"The homes of the infidel Shiites were burned," the voice behind the camera in one video shouted as smoke rose in the background from several houses.
In another video, the fighters pulled blankets off corpses to show them off, one with a wound to the head. A gunman talking to the camera gloated, saying, "This is your end, dogs." The videos appeared genuine and conformed with other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.
The attack Tuesday on Hatla, in Syria’s Deir el-Zour region near Iraq, underlined the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict.
Party official: Turkish gov’t open to referendum over development plans that started protests
ISTANBUL (AP) -- Turkey’s government on Wednesday offered a first concrete gesture aimed at ending nearly two weeks of street protests, proposing a referendum on a development project in Istanbul that triggered demonstrations that have become the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 10-year tenure.
Protesters expressed doubts about the offer, however, and continued to converge in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park, epicenter of the anti-government protests that began in Istanbul 13 days ago and spread across the country. At times, police have broken up demonstrations using tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to a development project that would replace Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to dozens of cities, rallying tens of thousands of people each night.
In a skirmish late Wednesday in Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up some 2,500 protesters who set up makeshift barricades on a road leading to government offices.
The referendum proposal came after Erdogan, who had been defiant and uncompromising in recent days, met with a group of 11 activists, including academics, students and artists, in Ankara. However, groups involved in the protests in Taksim and the park boycotted the meeting, saying they weren’t invited and the attendees didn’t represent them.
Family: Pa. girl whose plight stirred debate on organ donation has successful lung transplant
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A 10-year-old girl whose efforts to qualify for an organ donation spurred public debate over how organs are allocated underwent a successful double-lung transplant on Wednesday, the girl’s family said.
Sarah Murnaghan, who suffers from severe cystic fibrosis, received new lungs from an adult donor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, spokeswoman Tracy Simon said.
The Murnaghan family said it was "thrilled" to share the news that Sarah was out of surgery.
"Her doctors are very pleased with both her progress during the procedure and her prognosis for recovery," the family said in a statement.
During double-lung transplants, surgeons must open up the patient’s chest. Complications can include rejection of the new lungs and infection.
Wildfire burning out of control near Colorado Springs destroys 92 homes, evacuates thousands
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- A wildfire fueled by hot temperatures, gusty winds and thick, bone-dry forests has destroyed 92 homes, damaged five more and prompted more than 7,000 residents northeast of Colorado Springs to flee, sheriff’s official said Wednesday.
A separate Colorado wildfire to the south led to the evacuation of about 250 residents and nearly 1,000 inmates at medium-security prison, while to the north another fire burned in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires.
Crews were so busy battling blazes across the West that the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday it is mobilizing a pair of Defense Department cargo planes to help -- a step taken only when all of the Forest Service’s contracted tankers already are in use.
The fire near Colorado Springs, one of several that broke out Tuesday along Colorado’s Front Range, has prompted evacuation orders and pre-evacuation notices to between 9,000 and 9,500 people and about 3,500 homes and businesses, sheriff’s officials said.
Top military leader says Army special forces never told to stand down after Benghazi attack
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday that four members of Army special forces in Tripoli were never told to stand down after last year’s deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, disputing a former top diplomat’s claim that the unit might have helped Americans under siege.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said timing and the need for the unit to help with casualties from Benghazi resulted in orders for the special forces to remain in Tripoli. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, died in two separate attacks several hours apart on the night of Sept. 11.
Gregory Hicks, a former diplomat in Tripoli at the time of the attack, told a House panel last month that the unit was told to stand down.
Dempsey said that was not the case.
"They weren’t told to stand down. A ‘stand down’ means don’t do anything," he said. "They were told that the mission they were asked to perform was not in Benghazi, but was at Tripoli airport."
Soledad O’Brien is joining HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ as correspondent
NEW YORK (AP) -- Soledad O’Brien is joining fellow "Today" show alum Bryant Gumbel at HBO’s "Real Sports."
HBO said Wednesday that O’Brien will be a reporter on the monthly magazine show, which is anchored by Gumbel. Her first story, due this month, is about war veterans who use martial arts to help cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a long time -- telling stories about human beings and their struggles," she said.
She most recently was a morning-show host on CNN, but the news network has given the program an overhaul that will debut next week. O’Brien was replaced by the anchor team of Kate Balduan and Chris Cuomo.
O’Brien’s experience with sports has been limited, although she did play rugby while studying at Harvard. She will be a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education during the next school year.