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Associated Press/Photo by Paul Sancya

Dispatches

News

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

March 3: Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart at the start of spring training throws before an exhibition baseball game against the Seattle Mariners in Goodyear, Ariz.

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Wednesday, Feb. 19

Jan Koum
David Ramos/Getty Images
Jan Koum

Buy me

Facebook announced plans to buy the little-known WhatsApp phone and texting mobile app—for a whopping $19 billion in cash and stock options. Facebook in 2012 paid $1 billion for the popular app Instagram. The arrangement surprised industry and stock analysts but reflects the global market of mobile social media and growing influence of emerging nations: WhatsApp has 450 million users, the majority residing outside the United States (most are in India), and CEO Jan Koum grew up in Soviet Ukraine. 

Ice break 

Shards of ice shed from the new World Trade Center forced New York authorities to close sidewalks and roadways in lower Manhattan, snarling traffic. With record snowfall (57.1 inches through Feb. 20), ice and snow sheering off skyscrapers proved a menace to New York residents, with one receiving over 60 stitches after a chunk the size of a football fell from above his store: “Ice has been falling off buildings since there have been buildings,” contractor Jordan Barowitz told The Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, Feb. 20

Pot of gold 

With retail sales starting Jan. 1, tax revenue from the legal sale of marijuana in Colorado is projected to exceed budget expectations, according to figures released by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The governor predicted sales and excise taxes next fiscal year would produce some $98 million, well above a $70 million annual estimate given to voters when they approved pot taxes last year. The Colorado tax plan doesn’t include an additional 15 percent pot excise tax, of which $40 million a year already is designated for school construction. The governor projected the full $40 million to be reached next year, according to The Associated Press.

Lawbreakers 

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced she won’t defend the state’s ban on gay marriage, arguing in documents filed in federal court that it cannot withstand a constitutional challenge. Rosenblum, along with Democratic attorneys general in at least five other states, now have pledged not to defend state constitutional bans on gay marriage.

Friday, Feb. 21

Yulia V. Tymoshenko
Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA/Landov
Yulia V. Tymoshenko

Back from the abyss

Ukraine’s leaders agreed to a European-brokered compromise with opposition groups—yanking the country from a violent abyss that left dozens of protesters dead and hundreds wounded three days after the government launched a crackdown in Kiev. Following the breakthrough, lawmakers once loyal to President Viktor Yanukovych broke ranks, voting to oust him along with cabinet ministers. With the president fleeing the capital, lawmakers also restored the pre-Yanukovych constitution. By Saturday night Ukrainians returned to the streets—this time for fireworks and singing to celebrate the start of a post-Yanukovych era and the first public appearance of former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko following four years in prison (see "Crimean war" in this issue). 

Pipeline pressure 

Writing in Science, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt announced her support for the Keystone XL pipeline. McNutt, who served as head of the U.S. Geological Survey, became the third former top Obama official to support the pipeline. President Obama has delayed action on building the Midwest pipeline after TransCanada Corp. reapplied with the State Department for the project in 2012. Building Keystone would not speed up oil sands development, McNutt said, and provides a more environmentally safe way to transport crude. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon also have spoken in support of Keystone.

Saturday & Sunday, Feb. 22-23

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Gold-plated games 

The 2014 Winter Olympics ended with a glitzy closing ceremony that featured boats floating in air and the Bolshoi Ballet. Russia topped the medal roster in overall medals won, 33, and gold medals, 13, with the United States in second place followed by Norway and Canada. The two-week event featured camera drones covering the ski slopes and a $51 billion price tag for Russia (that’s $1.54 billion per medal), the most expensive games in history.

Nabbed 

Mexican authorities captured Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in the coastal town of Mazatlan after a weeks-long chase that ended a 13-year manhunt and brought down the head of the world’s largest drug cartel—one that’s been tracked to every corner of the United States and to 54 countries. U.S. officials say his Sinaloa cartel is responsible for as much as a third of the cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines smuggled across the border from Mexico into the United States. Mexican authorities quickly brought drug trafficking charges, and he is unlikely to be extradited to the United States.

Monday, Feb. 24

African Spotlight

School attack

Overnight gunmen from the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram shot or burned to death 59 students at a boarding school in northeast Nigeria. All the victims were boys, and the 24 buildings of Buni Yadi, a secondary school in Yobe state, near the state’s capital city of Damaturu were burned to the ground. “Some of the students’ bodies were burned to ashes,” said Police Commissioner Sanusi Rufai. Boko Haram has killed more than 300 civilians so far in 2014, making it the biggest threat to security in Africa’s most populous nation.

Egyptian change-up 

Egypt’s interim prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, along with his entire cabinet, resigned amid mounting labor strikes involving public transportation, garbage collectors, and health workers. Military head of state Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi quickly appointed in el-Beblawi’s place Ibrahim Mehleb, former housing minister and head of a large Cairo construction company. The move was seen as part of the government’s efforts to shore up economic confidence in a country with rampant unemployment and business downturns in three years’ unrest since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. 

When a bill becomes a law  

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill criminalizing homosexual activity. The law allows for life in prison for the “offense of homosexuality.” Museveni pushed aside pressure from the Obama administration and sidestepped a questionable Ministry of Health commission report in finalizing the controversial law. With Western nations threatening to cut off aid to Uganda, Museveni said: “We have been disappointed for a long time by the conduct of the West. There is now an attempt at social imperialism.”

Tuesday, Feb. 25

Chuck Hagel
Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster
Chuck Hagel

Defense cuts 

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel went on the defensive after announcing plans to cut the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels—the largest troop reductions in decades. Hagel wants to reduce the number of U.S. troops to about 440,000, a number below the redline for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and others.

Pay up 

Christians in Syria’s northern city of Raqqa have reportedly signed a document agreeing to pay a fine and end expressions of faith—including churches with crosses and public reading of Scripture or singing—in return for protection by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda splinter that controls the region. This jizya, the traditional Muslim tax demanded of non-Muslims to survive under Muslim rule, is part of the group’s ongoing effort to Islamicize Syria. The group also decreed changing the weekend to Thursday and Friday, calling a Friday-Saturday weekend common in the Middle East something for “faithless countries.”

Wednesday, Feb. 26

Jan Brewer
Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin
Jan Brewer

Vetoed

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer handed down an evening veto to state lawmakers who passed SB 1062, a bill to modify the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to cover businesses. The bill gained traction as other western states brought suit against Christians for refusing on the basis of their religious beliefs to provide services for same-sex weddings. Brewer, a conservative who did sign in 2012 a state law exempting “religiously affiliated” employers from providing contraceptive coverage in health insurance, said the changes to existing law in SB 1062 were “broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.” One of those consequences for Arizona was the threat from the NFL of losing the 2015 Super Bowl if the bill, widely viewed as discriminating against homosexuals, had become law.

Remains of the day 

Controversy ensued after researchers at the University of Leicester announced plans to sequence the genetic code of King Richard III, the medieval English monarch whose remains were found in a Leicester parking lot a year ago. But the debate over whether a head of state should have his DNA decoded could be dwarfed by the fight over where to rebury Richard: His descendants want his remains to rest in his native York, while the university plans to rebury him at Leicester Cathedral, near where he fell in battle in 1485. 

Photo bomb 

A visit to Israel by Chancellor Angela Merkel proved successful, but a photo that went viral the day after was a tragi-comic reminder of a bitter past. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to something off camera, the shadow of his finger across Merkel’s upper lip cast a vivid reminder of the countries’ shared history and another chancellor both would like to forget.

Thursday, Feb. 27

Outbreak 

Doctors suspect a mysterious enterovirus, similar to those linked to outbreaks of polio in Asia and Australia, may be the culprit in 20 or more cases of children in California with polio-like symptoms, including paralysis. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., formally asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to join a state investigation.

Scuds launch 

North Korea’s military regime fired four short-range Scud missiles in a breach of UN resolutions requiring the country to abandon its ballistic missile arsenal. The tests, repeated on March 3, appeared timed to coincide with joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises.

Friday, Feb. 28

Associated Press/Photo by Sergei Grits

Next challenge

Russian forces took control of two airports in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, as dismissed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich surfaced in Russia and called on Moscow to use all means at its disposal to stop the chaos. Thousands of Russian military personnel wearing black masks and backed by tanks and helicopters took control of Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet already is based. Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted he did not intend to take over all of Ukraine, but he also called Ukraine’s new government “anti-constitutional.” The United States and European allies debated whether sanctions or aid incentives could avert the armed crisis. On March 4 Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kiev, meeting with political and church leaders, and offering $1 billion in an American loan guarantee and pledges of technical assistance.

Clinton files 

About 4,000 pages of previously unreleased documents of former President Bill Clinton’s administration were made public by the National Archives. The once-confidential files contain some gems. “Members going to their home districts for the August break are petrified about having difficult health care reform issues/questions thrown at them,” said a 1993 White House memo. And according to another, “Doesn’t anybody care about me?” Bill Clinton asked aides during his final days in office.

Saturday & Sunday, March 1-2

Obamacare 

March dawned no rosier for meeting benchmarks under the Affordable Care Act, and the White House prepared to announce  a new delay—this one allowing insurers to continue offering health plans that do not meet Obamacare’s minimum coverage requirements. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicted 7 million Americans would enroll in healthcare marketplaces by March 31, when 2014 enrollment was set to end, but by March 1 only about 4 million had.

Oscars 

Films with challenging themes and relentlessly serious storytelling dominated the 2014 Oscars, as 12 Years a Slave walked away with Best Picture while Gravity took seven awards. The ceremony also highlighted young stars like best supporting actor Jared Leto and the Mexican-born Kenyan best supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” said Nyong’o.

Monday, March 3

Venezuela

With the commencement of Mardi Gras and the anniversary of the death of president Hugo Chavez a year ago, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro declared a weeklong national holiday, hoping in the process to blunt student protests that have widened and deepened across the country. But with a toilet paper shortage and spiraling prices in the crumbling socialist economy, demonstrations entered a third week, crowding out of the streets Mardi Gras revelers.

Reversal 

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a final appeal for a German homeschooling family threatened with deportation. Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, Christians who under German law faced thousands of dollars in fines and losing custody of their children for homeschooling, fled to the United States in 2008. But a day after the high court declined the case, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted the family “indefinite deferred status,” allowing them to remain in the United States. 

Tuesday, March 4

Obama budget 

President Obama proposed to Congress a $3.9 trillion federal budget replete with new taxes on upper-income Americans and businesses, along with the most dramatic cuts to defense spending in decades, in large part to pay for expanded domestic spending.

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