Obama meets with Saudi king, weighs air defense help for Syrian rebels

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- The United States is considering allowing shipments of portable air defense systems to Syrian rebels, a U.S. official said Friday, as President Barack Obama sought to reassure Saudi Arabia’s king that the U.S. is not taking too soft a stance in Syria and other Mideast conflicts.

The president and King Abdullah met for more than two hours at the aging monarch’s desert oasis outside the capital city of Riyadh. Obama advisers said the two leaders spoke frankly about their differences on key issues, with the president assuring the king that he remains committed to the Gulf region’s security.

Saudi officials have grown particularly concerned about what they see as Obama’s tepid response to the Syrian civil war and have pressed the U.S. to allow them to play a direct role in sending the rebels the air defense systems commonly known as manpads. While administration officials have previously ruled out that option, a senior official said it was being considered, in part because the U.S. has been able to develop deeper relationships with the Syrian opposition over the past year.

The official said no final decision had been made and the president might ultimately decide against the proposal. One of Obama’s top concerns continues to be whether the weaponry would fall into the wrong hands, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations by name and commented only on condition of anonymity. The official cast the approach as less of a sudden change in position and more an indication of how the U.S. has viewed the issue for some time.

A second senior official said there had been no change in the U.S. position on manpads, but did not specifically rule out the notion that the option was under consideration.

Safety agency missed trends that could
have led to quicker recall of GM cars

DETROIT (AP) -- For years, the U.S.government’s auto safety watchdog sent form letters to worried owners of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other General Motors small cars, saying it didn’t have enough information about problems with unexpected stalling to establish a trend or open an investigation.

The data tell a different story.

An Associated Press review of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that over a nine-year period, 164 drivers reported that their 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning. That was far more than any of the car’s competitors from the same model years, except for the Toyota Corolla, which was recalled after a government investigation in 2010.

Stalling was one sign of the ignition switch failure that led GM last month to recall 1.6 million Cobalts and other compact cars, including the Saturn Ion, Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet HHR. GM has linked the problem to at least 12 deaths and dozens of crashes. The company says the switch can slip out of the "run" position, which causes the engine to stall. This knocks out the power steering and power-assisted brakes, making the car harder to maneuver. Power to the device that activates the air bags is also cut off.

GM has recently acknowledged it knew the switch was defective at least a decade ago, and the government started receiving complaints about the 2005 Cobalt just months after it went on sale. House and Senate subcommittees have called the current heads of the automaker and NHTSA to testify on April 1-2 about why it took so long for owners to be told there was a potentially deadly defect in their cars.

Investigators shift search zone for Malaysian jetliner after new data analysis

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Three weeks into the mystery of Flight 370, investigators relying on newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone yet again, focusing on a swath of Indian Ocean where better conditions could help speed a hunt that is now concentrated thousands of miles from where it began.

Planes combing the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia spotted several objects Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. Although those are part of the colors of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, it was not clear if they were from the plane.

The newly targeted zone is nearly 700 miles northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the jet may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner, officials said.

"This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

The Australian maritime agency will analyze photos of the objects seen in the area, and a Chinese patrol ship will try to locate them Saturday, officials said.

Investigators says nuke commanders demanded perfection but also tacitly condoned rule-bending

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A basic contradiction lies at the root of an exam-cheating scandal that decimated the ranks of an Air Force nuclear missile group, investigators say: Commanders were demanding perfection in testing and ethics but also tacitly condoned rule-bending or even willfully ignored cheating.

An Air Force investigation concluded that no commanders participated in or knew about the specific forms of cheating in which 91 missile officers were implicated at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. But nine commanders, representing nearly the entire operational chain of command in the 341st Missile Wing, were fired and the wing commander, Col. Robert Stanley, was allowed to resign.

"From the perspective of a young company-grade officer looking up the chain of command, leadership has delivered conflicting messages" on integrity and test performance, the report said. Leaders pressured young officers to achieve high scores "while tacitly condoning" acts that "take care of" crew members who might otherwise fall short of the expected perfect result, it said.

This "blurs the line between acceptable help and unacceptable cheating," it said.

Malmstrom is home to one of three Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile wings, each responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles. The other wings are the 90th at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and the 91st at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

Ousted Ukrainian leader calls for referendum, Russia denies troop buildup

MOSCOW (AP) -- Ukraine’s fugitive leader pushed Friday for a vote to determine the status of each of the country’s regions -- a call serving the Kremlin’s purpose of turning Ukraine into a loosely knit federation.

The statement from Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Russia last month after three months of protests, raised the threat of more unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces, where many resent the new Ukrainian government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama to discuss a U.S. proposal for solving the crisis, and they agreed that top U.S. and Russian diplomats should work on details.

Also Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that the Ukrainian military withdrawal from Crimea was complete. Ukrainian soldiers were seen carrying duffel bags and flags as they shipped out of the Black Sea peninsula that Russia has annexed.

While Yanukovych has practically no leverage in Ukraine, his statement clearly reflected the Kremlin’s focus on supporting separatist sentiments in eastern Ukraine.

Christie puts up traffic cones to separate self from scandal that has consumed year

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spent the past few days putting down traffic cones to separate himself from scandal.

The usually garrulous Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential contender had avoided news conferences and interviews for more than two months until Thursday, the day a report he commissioned cleared him of any involvement in the politically motivated plot to create huge traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge last year.

With investigations by federal prosecutors and state lawmakers still looming, Christie also submitted to an interview Thursday with Diane Sawyer on ABC and another set to air Friday night on Fox News.

And a vintage, defiant Christie re-emerged Friday at a Statehouse news conference in which he cracked jokes, jousted with reporters and acknowledged the toll of the scrutiny.

"There is no question this shakes your confidence," he said. "If it doesn’t, you’re arrogant."

Mountain community waits in anguish to hear full death toll of Washington mudslide

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- A mountainside community waited in anguish Friday to learn the full scope of the Washington state mudslide as authorities worked to identify remains and warned that they were unlikely to find anyone alive nearly a week after the disaster.

Leslie Zylstra said everybody in town knows someone who died, and the village was coming to grips with the fact that many of the missing will never turn up.

"The people know there’s no way anybody could have survived," said Zylstra, who used to work in an Arlington hardware store. "They just want to have their loved ones, to bury their loved ones."

Authorities delayed an announcement that they said would substantially raise the death toll to allow the Snohomish County medical examiner’s office to continue with identification efforts.

That job, along with the work of the exhausted searchers, was complicated by the sheer magnitude of the devastation from Saturday’s slide. Tons of earth and ambulance-sized boulders of clay smashed everything in their path, leaving unrecognizable remnants in their wake.

Mudslide survivor tells of swimming to surface after ‘wave’ of mud, water hit home

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- The roar of the hillside collapsing was so loud that Robin Youngblood thought an airplane had crashed. But when she looked out the window of her mobile home, all she saw was a wall of mud racing across her beloved river valley toward her home.

"All I could say was ‘Oh my God’ and then it hit us," Youngblood told The Associated Press. "Like a wave hit our mobile home and pushed it up. It tore the roof off of the house. When we stopped moving we were full of mud everywhere. Two minutes was the whole thing."

Youngblood is among the few survivors of the massive, deadly mudslide that destroyed a rural community northeast of Seattle last weekend. Five days after the destruction, Youngblood visited Darrington to see her cousin and follow up on the process of federal aid.

"It’s really hard to see all of this. It’s really hard to know that I can’t go home. Several times this week I’ve said ‘I need to go home now.’ Then I realize, there’s no home to go to," she said Thursday.

In the early 1900s, Youngblood’s family helped establish the community of Darrington. They were Cherokee who had been forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas, but decided to move to Washington. Youngblood’s great grandmother is buried a few blocks from the Darrington town center, she said.

Colbert’s comedy causes Twitter storm

NEW YORK (AP) -- Sometimes satire isn’t made for Twitter’s 140-character world.

Comedy Central deleted a message Thursday from its "Colbert Report" Twitter feed showing a still from Wednesday night’s show where Stephen Colbert joked about starting a "Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

The joke was part of a skit in which Colbert talked about the Washington Redskins’ owner buying things for Native Americans upset with the team’s name.

A (hash)CancelColbert hashtag then appeared on Twitter, igniting a debate over what is funny and what is offensive.

Comedy Central deleted the tweet and made clear the feed was not controlled by the show. On his personal Twitter feed, Colbert said of (hash)CancelColbert that "I share your rage."