U.S. defends prisoner swap with Taliban as Army sergeant and Gitmo detainees freed
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Five years a captive from the Afghanistan war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in a swap stirring sharp debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. Republicans said the deal could place U.S. troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight -- one called it "shocking." Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five detainees, "These are the hardest of the hard core."
Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl, who officials said was the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in that conflict. Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke of the excitement that spread through U.S. ranks when the sergeant’s release was confirmed. "You almost got choked up," he said. "It was pretty extraordinary."
Tireless campaigners for their son’s freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him. "You were not left behind," Bob Bergdahl told reporters, as if speaking to his son. "We are so proud of the way this was carried out.
Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: "This is a happy day. We got one of our own back." It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
Is decentralized al-Qaida weaker or gaining strength?
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.
Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.
"But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi," he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.
"We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger," said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
Some states move to blunt impact of expected emission standards for power plants
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- As President Barack Obama prepares to announce tougher new air quality standards, lawmakers in several states already are trying to blunt the impact on aging coal-fired power plants that feed electricity to millions of consumers.
The push against Obama’s new carbon emission standards has been strongest in some states that have large coal-mining industries or rely heavily on coal to fuel their electricity. State officials say the new federal regulations could jeopardize the jobs of thousands of workers and drive up the monthly electric bills of residents and businesses.
It remains to be seen whether new measures passed by the states will amount to mere political symbolism or actually temper what’s expected to be an aggressive federal effort to reduce the country’s reliance on coal. But either way, states likely will play a pivotal role, because federal clean air laws leave it up to each state to come up its own plan for complying with the emission guidelines.
The proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules to be announced Monday could be the first to apply to carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants. Coal is the most common fuel source for the nation’s electricity and, when it’s burned, is a leading source of the greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Without waiting to see what Obama proposes, governors in Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have signed laws directing their environmental agencies to develop their own carbon emission plans that consider the costs of compliance at individual power plants. Similar measures recently passed in Missouri and are pending in the Louisiana and Ohio legislatures.
Suspect in Belgian Jewish museum killings was in Syria, tried to film shooting
PARIS (AP) -- A suspected French jihadist who spent time in Syria is in custody over the shooting deaths of three people at a Belgian Jewish museum, prosecutors said Sunday, crystalizing fears that European radicals will parlay their experiences in Syria into terrorism back home.
When Mehdi Nemmouche was arrested in southern France on Friday, he was in possession of firearms, a large quantity of ammunition and a video claiming responsibility for the May 24 attack, a Belgian prosecutor said.
In a one-minute rampage that deeply shook Europe’s Jewish community, a gunman opened fire at the Brussels museum. In addition to the fatalities, another person was gravely wounded.
Authorities raised anti-terror alert levels as they searched for the attacker. But it was ultimately a customs inspection in the French port city of Marseille that turned up Nemmouche, as he disembarked from a bus coming from Amsterdam, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.
The suspect had a revolver and a retractable automatic weapon like those used in the Brussels attack, and ballistics analyses were underway to determine if they were used in the attack, Molins said.
Cousteau’s grandson extends Conshelf II legacy with 31-day underwater mission
ISLAMORADA, Fla. (AP) -- Like viewers worldwide, Fabien Cousteau was entranced by his famous grandfather’s films about marine life and human exploration underwater. Now he’s adding to his family’s sea stories with a 31-day underwater expedition in the Florida Keys.
Cousteau dove Sunday to Aquarius Reef Base, a school bus-sized laboratory 60 feet below the ocean’s surface, a few miles off Key Largo. He plans to spend more than a month living underwater with a five-person crew, making a documentary and leading science experiments on the nearby coral reef.
Before their boat left an Islamorada dock Sunday morning, Cousteau and his crew said they would miss seeing the sun for more than month, but they weren’t nervous about being isolated in the undersea lab.
"I imagine we’ll want to stay down once we get comfy down there," Cousteau said. "We won’t want to come back up to the surface because it’s such a magical place."
The idea for "Mission 31" came to Cousteau two years ago when he visited Aquarius during a fundraising push to save the lab, which federal budget cuts had threatened to permanently close.
Rare ‘mono mono’ newborn twins gaining weight and could be home by Father’s Day
CINCINNATI (AP) -- An Ohio couple is getting a taste of what it’s like to be celebrity parents.
The identical twins, born sharing the same amniotic sac and placenta, are making progress toward going home from the hospital, their parents say. A photo showing twins Jenna and Jillian holding hands taken shortly after birth May 9 at Akron General Medical Center went viral.
"It’s still been crazy," father Bill Thistlethwaite said. "Everywhere we go, someone saw it. People are still talking about it."
He said he and his wife, Sarah, were approached by people Saturday while having breakfast at a diner in their hometown of Orrville before going to visit the girls. They want to know how the twins are doing and express their good wishes, he said.
Both girls are taking full bottles and have gained weight, each now at 5 pounds or more.
Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner among 7 killed in Massachusetts plane crash
BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) -- Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz was killed along with six other people in a fiery plane crash in Massachusetts, just days after reaching a deal that many hoped would end months of infighting at the newspaper and help restore it to its former glory.
The 72-year-old businessman’s Gulfstream corporate jet ran off the end of a runway, plunged down an embankment and erupted in a fireball during a takeoff attempt Saturday night at Hanscom Field outside Boston, authorities said. There were no survivors.
Katz was returning to New Jersey from a gathering at the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Also killed was a next-door neighbor of Katz’s, Anne Leeds, a 74-year-old retired preschool teacher he had invited along.
The identities of the other victims weren’t immediately released. Nancy Phillips, Katz’s longtime partner and city editor at the Inquirer, was not aboard.
Investigators said it was too soon to say what caused the crash.
NASA plans launch of saucer-shaped vehicle to test Mars parachute off coast of Hawaii
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The skies off the Hawaiian island of Kauai will be a stand-in for Mars as NASA prepares to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle in an experimental flight designed to land heavy loads on the red planet.
For decades, robotic landers and rovers have hitched a ride to Earth’s planetary neighbor using the same parachute design. But NASA needs a bigger and stronger parachute if it wants to send astronauts there.
Weather permitting, the space agency will conduct a test flight Tuesday high in Earth’s atmosphere that’s supposed to simulate the thin Martian air.
Cameras rigged aboard the vehicle will capture the action as it accelerates to four times the speed of sound and falls back to Earth. Viewers with an Internet connection can follow along live.
Engineers cautioned that they may not succeed on the first try.
Recovery of climbers who fell at Mount Rainier not certain
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. (AP) -- Two Seattle-based climbing guides and four clients set out Monday to summit Mount Rainier in Washington state, following one of the most technical and physically grueling routes to the peak.
They were last heard from Wednesday at 6 p.m. when the guides checked in with their company, Alpine Ascents International, by satellite phone. The group failed to return Friday as planned.
Park officials believe the group fell 3,300 feet from their last known whereabouts at 12,800 feet on Liberty Ridge. They are presumed to be dead in one of the worst alpine accidents on the mountain in decades.
Glenn Kessler, the park’s acting aviation manager, said "they are most likely buried," making recovery efforts even more challenging. They may be in an area too hazardous for rescuers to reach on the ground.
"We will likely fly over something this week if we have an aircraft," to monitor the situation, he said.
Angelina Jolie and ‘Maleficent’ spook box office with $70M debut
NEW YORK (AP) -- The biggest box-office debut of Angelina Jolie’s career propelled Disney’s twisted fairy tale "Maleficent" to a scary-good $70 million opening.
The PG-rated fantasy beat forecasts to easily top all films over the weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. Though "Maleficent" was early on considered a risky endeavor for Disney that might turn away family audiences by retelling "Sleeping Beauty" from the villain’s perspective, the film emerged as a hit largely because of the draw of Jolie.
Star power has been increasingly elusive in modern Hollywood, where name-brand concepts often rule the box-office. But Jolie, in her first live-action starring role in years, drove interest for "Maleficent" despite lackluster reviews from critics.
"It’s a unique thing," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. "Her star power transcends borders and genre."
Seth MacFarlane’s Western comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West" was out-gunned by "Maleficent." The R-rated Universal release opened in third place with a tepid $17.1 million despite a starry cast of Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried. By contrast, MacFarlane’s "Ted" (for which he’s making a sequel) opened with $54.4 million in 2012.