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Associated Press

Posted on February 1, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Updated Saturday, Feb 1 at 6:02 AM

State Dept gives Obama political cover to OK Keystone XL pipeline looming over his legacy

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is running out of reasons to say no to Keystone XL, the proposed oil pipeline that's long been looming over his environmental legacy.

Five years after the pipeline's backers first asked the Obama administration for approval, the project remains in limbo, stuck in a complex regulatory process that has enabled Obama to put off what will inevitably be a politically explosive decision. But the release Friday of a long-awaited government report removes a major excuse for delay, ramping up pressure on the president to make a call.

The State Department's report raised no significant environmental objections to the pipeline, marking a victory for proponents, who argue the project will create jobs and strengthen America's energy security.

Environmentalists disagree and insist approval would fly in the face of Obama's vaunted promise to fight climate change, even as the report gives him political cover to approve it. They argue the report, which provides a detailed assessment of tar sands emissions, offers Obama more than enough justification to oppose the pipeline.

Obama is not tipping his hand. But the White House pushed back on the notion that the pipeline is now headed for speedy approval. Only after various U.S. agencies and the public have a chance to weigh the report and other data will a decision be made, said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich.

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Christie critics seize on ex-loyalist's allegation that NJ governor knew about traffic tie-ups

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — As New Jersey lawmakers last year began investigating lane closures that caused four days of brutal traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie was insistent about one thing: He did not know about the tie-ups until they were over.

His critics had doubts but not proof, even as emails made public in January showed that one of Christie's aides called for "some traffic problems in Fort Lee," apparently as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of the town for not supporting Christie's re-election campaign.

Friday, the lawyer for a former Christie loyalist said in a letter that "evidence exists" that Christie knew about the closures as they were happening, although he did not accuse the Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate of knowing about it beforehand. In a statement, Christie's office denied the allegation made on behalf of former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein.

But even without detailing any evidence, the claim gave Christie's critics something new to seize on as they bashed the governor as he appeared at events leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl in his state.

"I know it's Super Bowl weekend and Chris Christie doesn't want to talk about anything but the game, but it looks like he's going to need to change his plans," Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in a statement.

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10 Things to Know: This Week's Takeaways

Looking back at the stories to remember from the past week:

1. OBAMA DELIVERS STATE OF THE UNION

President Obama sought to use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to re-energize his sluggish second term, declaring that he would sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever" necessary to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The president's proposals included increasing the minimum wage for some federal contract workers and making it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement. Said Obama: "America does not stand still and neither do I." The speech was the opening salvo in a midterm election fight for control of Congress.

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Maidan protest camp in Kiev determined despite discomfort and freezing temperatures

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The clock over Kiev's protest encampment showed 4:40 a.m. and minus-19 C (minus-2 F). Despite the brutal conditions, Alexander Kravchuk laughed lightly about how he'd ended up standing guard at a first-aid point thrown together with tents and rough planks.

"I came here for a couple of days, and now it's two months," he said, his chin tucked into his thick coat's collar on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the focal point and symbol of Ukraine's opposition protests.

The 20-something Kravchuk was one of hundreds of true believers manning the tent camp in the dead of night, both committed to keeping the anti-government protest going until their demands are met and gripped by a larger sense of belonging they can't quite articulate.

"It's like a drug," said Lolita Avetsiyan, who travels an hour from her home on Kiev's fringes every night to help out at a field kitchen.

Their firmness in the face of discomfort and constant worry of a violent police sweep have kept the protests going longer than many expected. Despite authorities' nominal concessions over the past week, the core protesters are unmoved.

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Kerry decries 'disturbing trend' of governments trampling aspirations of the people

MUNICH (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday decried what he calls a "disturbing trend" of governments in central and eastern Europe — including in Ukraine — trampling on the aspirations of ordinary people.

"The aspirations of citizens are once again being trampled beneath corrupt, oligarchic interests — interests that use money to stifle political opposition and dissent, to buy politicians and media outlets, and to weaken judicial independence and the rights of non-governmental organizations."

Speaking at an international security conference at which the crisis in Ukraine was a prominent topic, Kerry said, "We see a disturbing trend in too many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans."

Kerry said the crisis in Ukraine is about ordinary people fighting for the right to associate with the European Union. And he said Ukrainians have decided their futures don't have to lie with one country — an allusion to Russia.

"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine. While there are unsavory elements in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country," Kerry said.

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Differing perspectives fuel debate over Knox case, and whether she should be returned to Italy

SEATTLE (AP) — To some Americans, especially those in her hometown of Seattle, Amanda Knox seems a victim, unfairly hounded by a capricious legal system in Italy that convicted her this week in the death of a 21-year-old British woman.

But in Europe, some see her as a privileged American who is getting away with murder, embroiled in a case that continues to make global headlines and reinforces a negative image of U.S. citizens behaving badly — even criminally — abroad without any punishment.

As she remains free in the U.S., the perceptions will likely fuel not only the debate about who killed Meredith Kercher in 2007 and what role, if any, Knox played in her death, but complicate how the U.S. and Italian governments resolve whether she should be sent to Italy to face prison.

"It's been a polarizing case, and that polarization will remain," said Anne Bremner, a Seattle attorney and Knox supporter.

The divergent views on who killed Kercher are rooted not just in the typical dynamics of a legal case in which the two sides hold opposing narratives, but also in the differences between the justice systems in the U.S. and Italy, and examples of Americans avoiding Italian justice.

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UN chief Ban presses US, Russia to help ensure Syria peace talks can resume on Feb. 10

BERLIN (AP) — The United Nations' secretary-general pressed the U.S. and Russia to help ensure that peace talks aimed at stemming Syria's civil war can soon resume, while Russia's foreign minister said Saturday that it is "very difficult" to push Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to make concessions.

A week of peace talks ended in Geneva on Friday with no concrete progress and no immediate commitment from Assad's envoys to return on Feb. 10 for more meetings with the Western-backed opposition as suggested by mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a conference of global security officials in Munich that he urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting on the sidelines "to use their influence to ensure the talks proceed as scheduled on Feb. 10."

The U.S. has insisted that Assad cannot be part of a transitional government and has lost his legitimacy to lead, while Russia has been a key ally of Assad's government.

Ban urged the warring parties to "come back with more sense of earnestness as well as seriousness and urgency." Specifically, he called on "both sides and the government in particular to allow the unfettered access required under international humanitarian law."

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Trial of Egypt's ousted leader on charges of incitement to murder resumes

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's official news agency says the trial of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and 14 others, all accused of inciting the killing of protesters in 2012, has resumed.

The agency's report gave no details on Saturday's proceedings, held in a makeshift courtroom in the national police academy in eastern Cairo.

The trial is one of four the Islamist Morsi and top leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood face. The charges they face mostly carry the death penalty.

Morsi was ousted by a popularly backed military coup on July 3.

The charges against the defendants stem from violence outside the presidential palace in December 2012 when his supporters attacked protesters staging a sit-in. The clashes killed at least 10 people. The defendants are charged with inciting the killing of three of those protesters.

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Woman convicted of manslaughter in Mississippi buttocks-injection murder trial

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — To hear Natasha Stewart tell it, she was just trying to help an insecure woman when she helped arrange for her to get silicone injections in her buttocks, shots that prosecutors say were deadly. A jury disagreed, convicting Stewart on Friday of culpable negligence manslaughter.

Stewart, of suburban Memphis, Tenn., was found guilty Friday in Jackson, Miss., in the death of 37-year-old Karima Gordon of Atlanta.

Authorities say Stewart, an adult entertainer also known as Pebbelz Da Model, took $200 for a referral to the alleged injector and falsely represented that the injector was a nurse.

Stewart testified Friday that Gordon was insecure about her body and wanted help fixing previously botched buttocks enhancements. Stewart said she connected Gordon with the woman performing the injections to help her out, not for money, but she said Gordon insisted on paying her.

Stewart had been charged with "depraved-heart" murder, defined as a "callous disregard for human life" resulting in death, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. She also had been charged with conspiracy to commit depraved-heart murder.

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Talk show veteran Howard Stern marks his 60th birthday with a star-studded radio bash

NEW YORK (AP) — For those who were there, it was like the Super Bowl without the bother of football.

For listeners of the Howard Stern Birthday Bash that aired live Friday on SiriusXM radio, it was like the Golden Globes without the distraction of awards, but with Stern, lots of merry-making celebs, and at least as much free-flowing booze.

Civilian Stern fans joined tribute-paying glitterati like Robert Downey, Jr., Bryan Cranston, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, Ryan Phillippe, Heidi Klum, Fred Armisen, Rosie O'Donnell and Katie Couric at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom.

Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was on hand, taking a brief respite from the political retribution scandal that has engulfed his administration to wish Stern a happy birthday. He reminded everyone who plans to be at Sunday's Super Bowl that, to get there, they will "have to go to the right side of the (Hudson) river."

He then introduced one of the night's many musical guests: Jon Bon Jovi.

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