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ISRAELI MINISTERS DEMAND END TO US SPYING

Monday, 23 December 2013 06:39 Published in National News

JERUSALEM (AP) — Senior Israeli officials on Sunday demanded an end to U.S. spying on Israel, following revelations that the National Security Agency intercepted emails from the offices of the country's top former leaders.

It was the first time that Israeli officials have expressed anger since details of U.S. spying on Israel began to trickle out in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The scandal also spurred renewed calls for the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former American intelligence analyst who has been imprisoned in the U.S. for nearly three decades for spying on behalf of Israel.

"This thing is not legitimate," Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio. He called for both countries to enter an agreement regarding espionage.

"It's quite embarrassing between countries who are allies," Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said. "It's this moment more than any other moment that Jonathan Pollard (should) be released."

Documents leaked by Snowden and published in The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times last week revealed that British intelligence agency GCHQ worked with the NSA from 2008-2011 to target email addresses belonging to the offices of then-serving Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Amir Dan, a spokesman for Olmert, played down the revelations. He said the email address targeted was one meant for queries from the public and was not used for sensitive communications. "There is no chance there was a security or intelligence breach caused from this email address," Dan said.

Barak could not immediately be reached for comment.

But top Israeli officials work on the assumption that they are being monitored. Officials use special secure lines for certain types of communications, and for the most sensitive matters, issues are discussed only face to face in secure rooms.

Even so, Israeli officials reacted with uncharacteristic anger toward the U.S., Israel's closest and most important ally.

Lawmaker Nachman Shai, a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee, which deals with intelligence matters, called for an urgent intelligence briefing on the reported spying.

Shai called for a "full report about what we know, what we have done, and just to find out."

He added that he was "really surprised that my government, which is very easily responsive on any given issue, on this we keep silent, which is not the right policy and right behavior."

Espionage is a sensitive subject between Israel and the U.S. because of the Pollard affair.

Pollard, a former civilian intelligence analyst, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified material to Israel. Israeli leaders frequently call for his release and say his nearly three decades in prison are punishment enough, but stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred a string of American presidents from releasing him.

Since Pollard's conviction, Israel has promised not to spy on the U.S. Ministers stressed Sunday that Israel does not spy on the U.S. president or defense secretary. "I think we should expect the same relations from the U.S.," Steinitz said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a more subdued reaction, saying that Israel continues to press for the convicted spy's release.

"This is not conditional and not connected to the latest events, even though we gave our opinion about these developments," Netanyahu told his Cabinet, presumably referring to the reported U.S. spying.

MASSIVE, SLOPPY STORM SYSTEM SNARLS HOLIDAY TRAVEL

Monday, 23 December 2013 06:36 Published in National News

CHICAGO (AP) — Those who got a jump on their holiday travels this year apparently got it right. Those who didn't may have to wait a bit.

A large storm system moved into the Midwest on Friday for the start of one of the busiest travel periods of the year, but things didn't really get messy until Saturday, when it delivered a bit of everything — freezing rain, snow, ice, flooding and even tornadoes — to an area that stretched from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.

Those who took to the roads or skies before midday Saturday likely got where they wanted without a major hitch, but by midafternoon, roads had become slick in many places and flight cancellations and delays started to mount.

The system's strange swirl of winter and spring-like conditions produced starkly different weather at times in areas separated by a couple hundred miles. While drivers in Oklahoma and eastern Missouri were navigating ice-slicked streets Saturday, residents in Memphis, Tenn., were strolling around in T-shirt temperatures that topped out above 70 degrees.

By Saturday night, a line of thunderstorms stretching from southern Louisiana to Indiana began wreaking havoc, causing rivers and creeks to swell, flooding roads and spawning winds strong enough to force cars and trucks off of highways. At least two suspected tornadoes touched down in Arkansas, injuring a total of five people and damaging nearly two-dozen homes in or near the towns of Dermott and Hughes. And a man in Rena Lara, Miss., was killed Saturday when wind flipped his mobile home.

"This is a particularly strong storm with very warm, near record-breaking temperatures in the East and very cold air in the Midwest, and that contrast is the sort of conditions that are favorable for not only winter weather but also tornadoes," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher in College Park, Md.

The worst of the storm wasn't supposed to hit Chicago until late Saturday or early Sunday, giving those traveling to, from or through the Windy City a window at the start of the holiday rush.

By midnight EST, nearly 500 flights had been canceled Saturday and more than 7,000 had been delayed, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.com. Many affected flights were in or out of major hubs, including Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Houston's Bush International, Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver International.

Given the potential problems with flying and driving, some travelers went another route.

Darren Hall, 45, of Raymore, Mo., normally drives to St. Louis for the holiday, but decided not to risk it because of the freezing rain hitting the area and the promise of worse to come. Instead, he was waiting for a train at Kansas City's Union Station.

"You don't have to deal with all the roads. It's safer, less hassle," Hall said.

Freezing rain coated parts of northern New England Saturday night, as officials warned people to stay off the roads and utilities prepared for the possibility of widespread power outages. Burlington, Vt., had received a quarter-inch of ice by late Saturday, and the city's airport was forced to rely briefly on generators after losing power briefly.

"We've lined up hundreds of additional out-of-state line workers and tree trimmers in addition to all the GMP employees who will be working until all power is restored," Vermont Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said.

Many Midwest cities that spent Saturday dealing with rain and ice were expected to get significant snowfall overnight, with up to 6 inches forecast for the Kansas City area by Sunday and up to 8 inches for southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois.

Authorities in several states, including Indiana and Ohio, warned drivers to be especially vigilant about flooded roads. In Indiana, the weather service had posted flood warnings along southern and central Indiana streams and predicted the highest flood crests along the East Fork of the White River since April 2011.

In addition to the Mississippi weather-related death, authorities in Oklahoma were blaming two traffic deaths on the rain and ice. A 16-year-old boy died early Saturday after his car crashed and overturned on U.S. 64 near Tulsa, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. And Oklahoma City police said a woman was killed Friday night in a collision on a slick roadway.

If there is a silver lining for the estimated 94.5 million Americans who were planning to travel by road or air during this holiday season, which runs from Saturday through New Year's Day, it's that Christmas happens mid-week this year, AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter said.

"When a holiday falls on a Wednesday it gives travelers more flexibility of either leaving the weekend before, or traveling right before the holiday and extending the trip through the following weekend," Hunter said.

___

Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Shelley Adler in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

A SECOND WIND FOR HEALTH LAW? OR JUST HOT AIR?

Monday, 23 December 2013 06:35 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Whether you love it or hate it or are just plain confused by it, you've got to give the health care law this much: There's plenty of drama.

The nail biting goes on. As the clock ticks toward the Jan. 1 start of insurance coverage under President Barack Obama's big, bold and bedraggled creation, there are inklings it might get a second wind.

But that could turn out to be just hot air.

Time will tell, soon, as policies take effect in new health insurance markets that have been enrolling customers - or trying - for nearly three months.

A look at the law's broad strokes, its brush with disaster and the roots of a possible rebound:

---

THE GOOD

No more denying people coverage when they've been sick. No more stratospheric premiums for the previously or currently ill, either. No more cutting off insurance payments because someone has used up a year's worth of benefits. For all the headaches signing up, questionnaires are also notable for questions they do not ask: Have you been treated for cancer? What is your medical history? It won't matter anymore.

Few in the polarized debate over the health care overhaul defend the history of an insurance system that can drive people into poverty when they get sick or steer them away from treatment they need. The critics quarrel with the means more than these particular ends. And families like the fact that adult children can stay on their parents' plans until they are 26, an early consequence of the law and one of its few visible effects until now.

---

THE BAD

More than 4 million people lost coverage because their policies fell short of new federal standards. Far fewer gained insurance in the new markets in that time. This happened despite Obama's repeated and now discredited pledge that people happy with their insurance could simply keep it. He partnered that assurance with a promise that people happy with their doctors could keep them, too. Not so, in many cases. Another rude awakening.

After a wave of cancellations, the government revised its rules on substandard policies to let insurance companies offer them for one more year. It's not clear how many plans will be retrieved from the dustbin as a result. Some will be allowed to buy bare-bones catastrophic plans. And people who lost their insurance can shop for new plans that in many cases will offer better terms. But better coverage will often come at a higher cost.

---

THE UGLY

Ugly goes to HealthCare.gov, the federal government's buggy online insurance portal, impenetrable for weeks for many if not most who tried to see what plans they could choose from and perhaps sign up for one. It's on the mend. But until coverage begins for those who took that route, its prognosis remains uncertain.

---

THE UNRAVELING

Washington can put a positive spin on almost anything, and federal officials did just that at the very start. Yes, HealthCare.gov is buckling under the user load. That's because folks love it!

The smiley face soon melted into a swamp of recriminations. Led by Republicans, of course, who feigned indignation that the law many of them despise wasn't working out so well. A more authentic response came from Democrats: the heebie-jeebies. They'd gone to bat for the law in the mighty struggle to pass it in 2010 and faced down all efforts that followed from the GOP to repeal it. With elections coming next year, Democrats are not happy.

"The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible and fire them," Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota steamed.

"No one is held to account," agreed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

On opening day, Oct. 1, some 3 million people had tried to access the site. Merely six people signed up for coverage, according to a congressional committee's documents. The online Spanish-language portal wasn't ready as promised. But really, for weeks, the English one wasn't, either.

"No excuse for it," Obama said, repeatedly vowing to fix it.

No one has been fired. When GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee asked who's to blame for the "debacle," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius replied, "Hold me responsible for the debacle."

So everyone, rather unusually, was on the same page in sizing up the launch, or at least they were on the same word. It was a debacle.

---

THE IMPROV

Seat-of-the-pants patches, pivots and delays began before the debut of the woebegone 1.0 website and spread well beyond it.

In July, the government postponed one of the law's central features for a year - the mandate that all businesses employing 50 or more people provide health coverage or risk a penalty.

In late November, it announced a one-year delay in the online marketplace for small businesses to find coverage for their employees. They could still get insurance from the exchanges through traditional avenues like brokers, but direct access had to wait as the government gave priority to making the portal work for individuals.

Meantime, insurance companies were sending out cancellation notices for more than 4 million individual policies that didn't meet new federal requirements, prompting an about-face by the government. Federal officials decided these substandard policies could exist for one more year. It remains to be seen how many canceled policies will be revived as a result.

Then there was the paper-phone-Web conundrum.

With the online system ailing, Obama urged people to apply by mail and phone and used the megaphone of the presidency to give out the toll-free number, 800-318-2596.

But snail mail, if helping in a pinch, wasn't proving to be an efficient substitute for the streamlined process envisioned by the law. Kelly Fristoe, an insurance agent in Wichita Falls, Texas, told AP he'd submitted 25 paper applications in two months and hadn't received any responses by early December, despite assurances from Washington that all paper applications received in October had been processed.

The same week that federal health officials told reporters there were no problems with paper applications, they were quietly discouraging further use of paper in contacts with enrollment counselors, insurance brokers and others. It was time to get back to the website as time grew ever shorter to apply by Dec. 23 for coverage starting Jan. 1.

As December progressed, another batch of improvisation emerged.

The government announced a one-month extension of a special insurance program for nearly 86,000 people who cannot get any other coverage because of pre-existing illness. The program should not be needed in the new year because coverage can no longer be denied to the previously sick. But the risk of insurance gaps from the troubled rollout prompted officials to keep the program around a while longer to be safe.

Similarly, Washington ordered insurers to provide coverage on Jan. 1 for any customer who pays by New Year's Eve. The industry went the government one better, extending the deadline until Jan. 10. The administration also allowed some of those with canceled policies to sign up for catastrophic insurance.

---

THE REBOUND?

On Dec. 1, the government reported progress fixing the website. Now people had a 19-in-20 chance of finding it in operation. You could click more than 99 times out of 100 and not see pages crash. Some 50,000 people could use it at once. But did that mean smooth signups? Not necessarily.

The user experience was clearly much better, but that's only half of it. The back end, where insurance companies take in the information for processing, was problematic. Insurers complained of errors, garble and duplication, a data tangle that the government blamed mostly on a bug affecting Social Security numbers - soon overcome, officials said.

By the middle of the month, things were looking up, though not rosy.

On Dec. 20, Obama said more than a million people had been able to sign up for coverage, a big improvement over the 365,000 who'd had coverage three weeks earlier. But even as he announced the new number at a news conference, some applicants were having problems with the website.

Officials are braced for a late surge of insurance hunters. And for the 2014 installments of a drama seemingly without end.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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