Congressional Panel: NSA Bulk Collection of Phone Records Illegal

An independent congressional panel has concluded the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records is illegal. In a new report, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board says the NSA program has had only minimal benefits in stopping terrorism and should be brought to an end. The panel says the program "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215 [of the PATRIOT Act], implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value," adding: "The board recommends that the government end the program." President Obama said last week he intends to reform the bulk collection, but his plan would preserve its capabilities.

Holder Rules Out Snowden Clemency, Open to Plea Deal

The congressional panel’s conclusion will likely reinforce calls for the granting of clemency to Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who brought bulk collection and other surveillance programs to light. At a public event on Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder continued to rule out clemency for Snowden. Holder said he is only open to discussing a plea deal if Snowden returns home and pleads guilty.

Eric Holder: "The notion of clemency was not something that we were willing to consider. But as I said, were he to come back to the United States, enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers."

Interviewer: "And presumably that would be a guilty plea to something."

Eric Holder: "Yeah."

In an online chat on Thursday, Snowden said he would consider returning to the United States if the government reformed its whistleblower protection laws, which failed to cover him as a private contractor. Referring to his concerns about mass surveillance, Snowden said: "It’s not good for our country, it’s not good for the world, and I wasn’t going to stand by and watch it happen, no matter how much it cost me."

South Sudan Rivals Agree to Ceasefire

South Sudan rivals have signed a ceasefire agreement after five weeks of violence that killed thousands of people and displaced more than half a million. Earlier efforts reached an impasse over key disagreements, including the rebels’ demand for the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of Ugandan troops fighting alongside government forces. The ceasefire is being hailed as the first step to ending the conflict, but both sides have voiced caution and reiterated concerns over unmet demands. The most recent bout of fighting began last month as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, but quickly escalated into ethnic clashes that raised fears of a civil war.

Syrian Opposition Refuses Direct Talks with Assad Regime

The U.N.-brokered Syrian peace talks have hit a new snag today with opposition delegates refusing to meet directly with government counterparts. The two sides were due for their first face-to-face talks in Geneva after an opening round of speeches on Wednesday. But the Assad regime rejected the opposition’s precondition of endorsing the formation of a transitional government. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is shuttling between the two sides today to keep the meeting alive.

5 Killed in Multiple Egypt Bombings Ahead of Uprising Anniversary

At least five people have been killed and more than 70 wounded in three separate bombings in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. The first attack hit the main headquarters of the Egyptian police, shattering windows and leaving a gaping hole in the street. No one has claimed responsibility, but a Sinai-based militant group that carried out previous attacks on police released a statement threatening further violence. The military government has used previous incidents to increase its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In a statement, the Brotherhood said it "strongly condemns the cowardly bombings." The attacks come one day before the third anniversary of the launch of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

Iranian President Calls for "Constructive Engagement" with U.S., Neighbors

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has issued a new overture to the United States and neighboring Middle Eastern countries, saying his government is ready for "constructive engagement." Rouhani spoke Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: "I hereby announce that one of the theoretical and practical pillars of my government is constructive engagement with the world. My government is fully prepared and ready to engage with all neighboring countries to achieve shared practical solutions and sustainable legal regimes on a range of issues, such as the environment, joint economic projects, trade expansion, realization of the Palestinian people’s rights, tackling the humanitarian crisis in Syria, security of the Persian Gulf, as well as the fight against terrorism and extremism."

The interim deal to slow Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief took effect earlier this week.

India’s Top Court Orders Gang Rape Probe

India’s Supreme Court has ordered a probe after the gang rape of a woman in eastern West Bengal state. Thirteen suspects have been accused of gang-raping the victim on the orders of village elders as punishment for her having a relationship with a man outside their tribe. A doctor treating the victim says she is in stable condition.

Doctor: "She is normal. I have already told she is stable, so she’s taking her food and other fluids also. We have yet to decide [on when she’ll be discharged], and doctors are looking on that."

Last month marked the first anniversary of the death of an Indian woman who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus. That case ignited the country and drew attention to sexual violence around the world.

Study: U.S. Drones Killed Up to 4 Civilians in Pakistan, 29 in Yemen During 2013

A new study says the number of civilian casualties from the U.S. drone war in Pakistan saw a major decline in 2013. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says as many as four, but possibly zero, civilians were killed by CIA drones last year. As many as 63 civilians were killed in Pakistan the previous year. Yemen, meanwhile, saw as many as 29 civilians killed, including up to 15 in an attack on a wedding convoy late last month.

Appeals Court Rules Against Oil Drilling in Chukchi Sea

A federal appeals court has sided with a challenge to oil drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast. A coalition of native and environmental groups had objected to the U.S. government’s authorization of oil and gas projects in the Chukchi Sea, warning of threats to sea life and contamination of the ocean. In a ruling this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the government performed an inadequate assessment of the potential environmental impact that used only the "best case scenario." The ruling could jeopardize the oil giant Shell’s plan to resume drilling operations in the Arctic this summer. Shell previously suspended its drilling after a series of mishaps. In a joint statement, the plaintiffs in the case called the ruling "a victory for the Arctic Ocean," adding: "We should not have to depend on courts to protect our oceans. President Obama must now take seriously his obligation to re-think whether and under what conditions to allow risky industrial activities in the Chukchi Sea."

Obama Launches Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault

President Obama has launched a new task force to combat sexual assault on college campuses. A new White House report says one in five women college students have been sexually assaulted at school, but just 12 percent notify police. The task force will be asked to lay out goals for increasing rates of arrests, prosecutions and convictions.

Virginia to Stop Defending Gay Marriage Ban in Court

Virginia has announced it will no longer defend its ban on same-sex marriage from federal lawsuits. Attorney General Mark Herring says he has concluded the ban is unconstitutional, a sharp departure from his predecessor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

Family Seeks New Trial for Black Teen Executed in 1944

The family of an African-American teenager executed in South Carolina nearly 70 years ago is asking for a new trial. Fourteen-year-old George Stinney Jr. was put to death in 1944 for the murders of two white girls. He was the youngest prisoner to be executed by the U.S. government in the last century. In a historic move, Stinney’s family says they want the case retried in order to clear his name. Defense attorney Miller Shealy says Stinney’s family deserves justice.

Miller Shealy: "There was no cross-examination. That’s what we know. This case was handled so poorly, his family was treated so poorly in the circumstances of March to June 1944, that his rights were snuffed out then. And it was only later, when the state changed, the political system changed, and the criminal procedural revolution we have today, that we are able to come before the court and even bring his rights and his case to the court in some way where he can get justice."

Black Teen Charged After Suffering Genital Injury in Search by Philadelphia Police

An African-American teenager in Philadelphia is facing charges stemming from an incident in which police left him seriously injured. Sixteen-year-old Darrin Manning was on his way to a basketball game when he was stopped and frisked earlier this month. Manning says that in the course of being patted down, an officer squeezed his genitals with such force that he suffered a ruptured testicle. Manning underwent emergency surgery and is still having trouble walking. His family now says they worry if he will be able to father children. Manning, a straight-A student, has now been charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment. A trial date has been set for March. On Thursday, a crowd of demonstrators braved freezing temperatures to rally in support of Manning outside a preliminary hearing. Manning’s attorney is calling for a federal investigation into whether police violated his client’s civil rights.


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