Vacationers’ Mystery Ailment Is Really a Brownie Problem

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It’s a rare but not unheard of tragedy: succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning in a vacation rental. Canadian police feared that situation was on the brink of repeating itself in Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, early Saturday. They were called to a cottage by 10 vacationers, some of whom had started to mysteriously feel unwell. But testing soon showed there was no carbon monoxide issues. Then the real culprit emerged: a brownie cake made with pot that some of the group had partaken in. The Toronto Star reports no charges were filed.

UK blames Russian military for ‘malicious’ cyberattack

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Britain blamed the Russian government on Thursday for a cyberattack that hit businesses across Europe last year, accusing Moscow of “weaponizing information” in a new kind of warfare.

Foreign Minister Tariq Ahmad said “the U.K. government judges that the Russian government, specifically the Russian military, was responsible for the destructive NotPetya cyberattack of June 2017.”

The fast-spreading outbreak of data-scrambling software centered on Ukraine, which is embroiled in a conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the country’s east. It spread to companies that do business with Ukraine, including U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck, Danish shipping firm A.P. Moller-Maersk and FedEx subsidiary TNT.

Ahmad said the “reckless” attack cost organizations hundreds of millions of dollars.

British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of “undermining democracy, wrecking livelihoods by targeting critical infrastructure, and weaponizing information” with malicious cyberattacks.

“We must be primed and ready to tackle these stark and intensifying threats,” Williamson said.

Danish defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said intelligence agencies in Britain, Denmark and elsewhere had uncovered the Russian responsibility.

Speaking at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, he said the hack was meant to cause damage and should “be compared with a military attack.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied Russia’s involvement.

“We categorically deny the accusations. We consider them unfounded and baseless and see them as continuation of groundless Russophobic campaign,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

Key senator to stop blocking U.S. arms sales to Persian Gulf

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The United States is poised to let Persian Gulf nations resume buying American-made lethal weapons after a key U.S. senator said he would stop blocking the sales, even though the Qatar diplomatic crisis that prompted the freeze is no closer to being resolved.

Last year, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said he was putting a “blanket hold” on sales to Gulf Cooperation Council countries, aiming to put pressure on Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to resolve their dispute. But Corker, in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released Thursday, acknowledged “there still isn’t a clear path to resolving the GCC rift.”

“Given that weapons sales are part of our security cooperation with these states, I am lifting my blanket hold on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC,” wrote Corker, R-Tenn. He said he would start letting the sales proceed if the Trump administration could make the case that selling the weapons helps combat support for terrorism.

Tillerson, who has steered clear of the Gulf crisis after his initial attempt to broker a resolution failed, welcomed the decision. In a response to Corker, Tillerson said the U.S. will keep working with Gulf countries to resolve the dispute but that in the meantime, the U.S. would keep cooperating with those same countries to fight terrorism

“Each of the countries involved in the dispute is a strong counterterrorism partner of the United States,” Tillerson said.

It wasn’t immediately clear what potential sales that had been put on hold might now be allowed to proceed. But the Gulf countries involved in the dispute have historically been major purchasers of U.S.-made weapons, including from prominent defense manufacturers such as Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. and Chicago-based Boeing Co.

Even while it was in effect, Corker’s freeze was not without exception. Several sales to Bahrain, Qatar and others in the dispute were allowed to proceed, including those involving upgrades or servicing for previously purchased equipment.

Under U.S. law, Congress reviews sales of U.S.-made weapons to foreign nations and can block specific sales by passing a resolution within a specific window of time. Typically, the federal government consults informally ahead of time with the leaders of key congressional committees such as Corker’s to identify which sales are likely to receive congressional approval.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with tiny Qatar and worked to blockade it by air, land and sea, while accusing the tiny gas-rich nation of funding terrorism and fomenting unrest throughout the region. Tillerson said this week that the crisis is having direct economic and military consequences on the U.S., which has some 10,000 troops in Qatar and uses a key air base there as a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

U.S. says detainee studied in Louisiana, became IS fighter

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He was an unruly college student in Louisiana where he mixed booze and gambling with classes on electrical engineering. A decade later, he was guarding an Islamic State oil field in Syria and storing bomb-making files and military handbooks on thumb drives.

This still-unidentified dual American-Saudi citizen, who’s been detained by the U.S. military in Iraq for nearly five months, has become a test case for how the government should treat U.S. citizens picked up on the battlefield and accused of fighting with IS militants.

U.S. authorities say that when he surrendered in mid-September to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, he was carrying thumb drives containing thousands of files. There were 10,000 or more photos — some depicting pages of military-style manuals. There were files on how to make specific types of improvised explosive devices and bombs. There also were nearly a dozen spreadsheets in Arabic, including one, dated Nov. 11, 2016 titled: “Islamic State Spoils and Booty Bureau.”

The government made its case against the detainee in a public version of a sealed document filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It said he voluntarily signed up to be an IS fighter, worked for the group for 31 months and has an extensive social media history espousing pro-IS philosophy.

The government also said it discovered the detainee’s name, biographical details and information labeling him as an IS fighter on another thumb drive the Defense Department obtained separately in November 2015. That drive, full of what appear to be intake forms for new IS recruits, was recovered by local Syrian forces in July 2015.

While the government’s more than 150-page filing doesn’t identify the detainee or say when or where he was born in the United States, it discloses extensive detail about his activities and travels worldwide leading up to his surrender at a Syrian battlefield checkpoint.

The detainee, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, has black hair, brown eyes, is about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 140 pounds.

An individual who met the detainee in July 2005 in New Orleans where he was studying told the FBI that he was a “wild and typical” college student, who drank and partied. He said the detainee used marijuana and gambled at Harrah’s casino in the city. The detainee didn’t work, he said, but received “a sizable amount of money from the Saudi Arabian government each month” and that his “mother was very wealthy.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington said Thursday that it is common for the Saudi government to provide monthly stipends to students studying abroad to cover living expenses.

The associate said the detainee lived briefly during 2005 or 2006 in Covington, Louisiana, where he frequented casinos and strip clubs. After an argument with friends about not repaying money he used to gamble, the detainee left the United States for Saudi Arabia.

Between 2006 and 2014 the detainee got married and lived in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, working in various family businesses, including a women’s tailoring shop and a construction company. While his wife was pregnant, he traveled on business to Indonesia, Singapore, China and Malaysia.

While in Asia, the government said, the detainee tweeted pro-IS messages, including one that said: Muhammad “is the messenger of God and those who are with him are harsh against the infidels and merciful among themselves.”

The associate from New Orleans said the detainee stayed with him briefly in the summer of 2014 when he tried unsuccessfully to get a U.S. passport for his daughter. He said the detainee returned with his wife and child on a second visit to New Orleans in late 2014.

He lost contact with the detainee, but said he had heard he had disappeared. He described him as being “enthusiastic to an extreme” and “having a good heart, but noted that he could be misled,” the government said. The associate said the detainee had spoken “very passionately” about how the Syrian regime needed to be overthrown and how IS was justified in beheading captives.

In early 2015, he flew to Athens, Greece, and then to Gaziantep, Turkey where he paid a smuggler $300 to get him into Syria. He arrived there with $40,000 in his pocket.

The detainee said that three days after he entered Syria he was kidnapped by IS militants and imprisoned for seven months. He said he was released only after agreeing to work for IS. He spent two months at a IS training camp near Mayadin, Syria, before being assigned to a brigade responsible for guarding the front lines in Deir el-Zour province.

After that he worked getting fuel for IS vehicles, handling brigade expenses and guarding a gate of an oil field. He left the oil field without permission one day and headed to Deir el-Zour, where he was apprehended by IS military police. After another stay in IS detention, he worked for IS monitoring imams and prayer callers and civilians running heavy equipment.

Upon learning that he had a background in electrical engineering, IS gave him a car to drive to Raqqa, Syria, where IS militants told him about a project to “use a type of machine, similar to a satellite dish, to transmit microwaves that could bring down an airplane,” the government document said. The detainee declined to work on the project.

In late 2016, he rented 200 acres in Hamah, Syria, from IS for $750 and spent at least $12,000 on olive and almond trees. He spent another $4,000 to buy 80 sheep. “He hoped to flee into Turkey as a shepherd,” the government said.

He remained in contact with his wife and last spoke with her via WhatsApp in July. He told his sister via text and through WhatsApp that everyone was leaving the IS and he was leaving, too. He was captured three weeks later at the checkpoint.

He told the American-backed SDF forces that he was “daesh,” which is another name for IS, and said “he wanted to turn himself in and speak to the Americans.” When he surrendered, he was carrying the thumb drives, $4,210, a global positioning device, hats, clothes, a Quran and a scuba snorkel and mask.

The government claims presidential authorities as well as congressionally approved war powers written after 9/11 provide the legal basis to hold the detainee as an enemy combatant linked to IS.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the detainee, argues those war powers pertain to al-Qaida and the Taliban and don’t apply in the battle against IS.

The ACLU claims the government has not provided any evidence that he took up arms against the United States and notes that he was imprisoned by IS. The detainee said he had press credentials to do freelance writing about the conflict in Syria, although the FBI hasn’t found any published articles or blogs he authored.

“The bottom line is that the government is holding him illegally,” said ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz. “If the government wants to continue to detain him, they should charge him with a crime.”

The government says it’s still deciding what to do with him.

Government lawyers say options include continuing to hold as an enemy combatant or charging him in U.S. federal court — possibly with providing material support to terrorists. One other option is to hand him over to another country, perhaps Saudi Arabia because of his dual citizenship.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan has ruled that the government must provide 72 hours’ notice if it wants to transfer the detainee so that it can be contested in court.

European officials: Virtual currencies are no way to pay

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Several of Europe’s top finance officials are skeptical about virtual currencies like bitcoin, saying they are risky for investors and inefficient as a way to pay for things.

Germany’s top monetary official, Jens Weidmann, said in a speech Wednesday that virtual currencies such as bitcoin are not good means of payment because their values fluctuate so rapidly. The value of bitcoin jumped last year from below $1,000 to almost $20,000 in December before falling back to around $9,000 currently.

Weidmann, who heads Germany’s national central bank and sits on the governing council of the European Central Bank, the issuer of the euro, added that virtual currencies are no substitute for conventional money.

“For a stable monetary and financial system we need no crypto-tokens, but rather central banks obligated to price stability and effective banking regulation, and we have both in the eurozone,” he said.

He said that central banks did not need to issue such currencies themselves, which he said could heighten the risk of bank runs. If people were able to transfer bank deposits with the click of a computer mouse to an account at the central bank, the threshold for fleeing the private banking system would be lowered, he said.

Weidmann’s remarks follow a series of statements from top European officials warning banks and consumers about virtual currencies. The three European supervisory authorities for banking, securities, and insurance and pensions have warned consumers of the risks of buying such currencies, saying they are “highly risky and unregulated products and unsuitable as investment, savings or retirement products.”

Last week, top European Central Bank official Yves Mersch said that central banks were concerned about the social and psychological effects the currencies seem to have. “There’s so much money flowing in that it’s like a gold rush — but there’s no gold,” he said in an interview with the Bloomberg news service.

Mersch is a member of the bank’s six-person executive board that runs the institution day to day at its headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. He said that if banks started loaning money to finance such activities, “it would obviously be of concern for us.” The ECB is the top banking supervisor in the eurozone.

The skeptical stance by eurozone officials contrasts with the effort by Sweden’s central bank to study the possible introduction of an e-krona, an electronic currency linked to the country’s central bank. Sweden is not a member of the eurozone and controls its own currency, the krona. The central bank says no decision has been made and laws would have to be changed to implement such a proposal. The use of cash has dwindled in Sweden to about 15 percent of retail transactions in 2016, according to the bank.

On Wednesday Mersch defended the continuing use of physical notes and coins, in the face of occasional proposals to limit or do away with cash entirely in favor of electronic payments. Mersch said that cash enabled people to exercise their rights to privacy and independent action without monitoring or interference by others.

Mersch and Weidmann said that the Group of 20 is looking into how to ensure that virtual currencies do not disrupt financial stability. They said a global forum such as the G-20 is a good place for the discussion since some of the virtual currencies have no national base. The G-20 is made up of 19 countries with 85 percent of annual global economic output plus the European Union. The group presidency is held this year by Argentina, which will host a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors March 19-20 in Buenos Aires.

U.S. boosts aid to Jordan despite Trump threats of cut

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Donald Trump’s rhetoric on punishing countries that don’t agree with U.S. policy in the Middle East collided with reality as his administration announced it would boost aid to Jordan by more than $1 billion over the next five years.

Despite Trump’s repeated threats to cut assistance to such nations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi signed the increased aid package, which represents a 27-percent increase over current levels and is two years longer than the existing one negotiated by the Obama administration.

Tillerson called the package “a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S-Jordan partnership has never been stronger.”

Jordan is a critical American partner in the volatile Middle East but has opposed the administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan voted in December to condemn the U.S. for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and criticized the U.S. last month for withholding tens of millions of dollars in funding for Palestinian refugees, many of whom live in the country.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s memorandum of understanding will provide Jordan with $1.275 billion in U.S. aid annually until 2022. That’s $275 million more per year than the current level. The annual amount includes $750 million in economic aid that will support Jordanian reform efforts and $350 million in military assistance.

Both Tillerson and al-Safadi acknowledged the disagreements but said the end goal of both countries remains the same.

“We have different views on Jerusalem but we share a commitment to peace,” al-Safadi said.

“We have differences as any countries may have from time to time, over tactics I think more than final objectives,” Tillerson said. “I think our final objectives are quite clear and are shared and those are unchanged. We may take different approaches but we consult and we know that what we’re trying to achieve at the end is still the same.”

Jordan, a longtime partner of the U.S and one of only two Arab nations to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, plays an instrumental role in the region and in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Jordanian officials were disturbed by Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and said it could hurt efforts to forge a two-state solution to the conflict.

Al-Safadi said Jordan sees no alternative to a two-state solution and that his country looks forward to a peace proposal that the Trump administration has been preparing for release in the coming months.

Tillerson said the proposal is “fairly well advanced” but would not comment on when the administration might put it forward.

Wednesday’s aid announcement represents something of a victory for Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both of whom argued against the Jerusalem decision and had lobbied to continue assistance to Jordan on national security grounds. Trump and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have both spoken in favor of cutting aid to nations that don’t back the administration’s positions.

Greeting Tillerson at his palace in Amman, Jordan’s King Abdullah II acknowledged the secretary’s stance in the administration’s decision. “Thank you, for I know that you played a very vital role,” he said.

In the wake of the U.N. General Assembly vote on the administration’s Jerusalem decision, Trump and Haley questioned whether aid to the Palestinians was worth the expense and whether the U.S should continue to assist countries that did not support the administration’s position.

“Let them vote against us,” Trump said at the time. “We’ll save a lot. We don’t care. But this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer.”

In January, the administration withheld more than half of a $125-milllion pledge to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.

Jordan hosts almost half of the roughly five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the region. As such, it will be hit hard by the cuts because it depends on UNRWA welfare, education and health services for these people and is coping with an economic downturn and rising unemployment.

Tillerson said continued U.S. funding for UNRWA would depend in part on whether other donors step up their contributions.

New U.S.-Turkey tensions overshadow anti-IS unity meeting

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The Trump administration’s appeal for unity fell on a critical deaf ear Tuesday as the latest expression of U.S. support for Kurdish rebels in Syria enraged America’s NATO ally, Turkey, and overshadowed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plea for nations fighting the Islamic State to overcome rivalries and concentrate on eradicating the extremist group from the Middle East.

While Tillerson sounded the alarm over distractions that threaten the gains of the anti-IS coalition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bashed the United States for proposing to send $550 million dollars in new assistance to Syrian opposition forces. Most, if not all, will go to Syrian Kurds, counted on by the U.S. to defeat IS forces, but seen by Turkey as terrorists in their own right.

Turkey has been attacking the Kurds in Syria for the past three weeks, despite U.S. calls for restraint. And Erdogan’s angry comments — including a warning that Turkey’s foes may feel “the Ottoman slap,” a reference to the Ottoman Empire’s onetime might — set the stage for contentious talks to come when Tillerson visits Ankara later this week.

U.S. officials already expected the Friday discussions would be difficult and had sought to soothe Erdogan’s anger by stressing transparency in their support of the Kurds and commitment to Turkey’s security. But the proposed new assistance to the Kurds, outlined Monday in the Trump administration’s budget request, clearly undermined the calming effort.

The White House is asking Congress for $300 million “to train, equip, sustain and enable” vetted Syrian opposition groups to defeat the Islamic State. It wants $250 million for a border security force that would stem the flow of extremist fighters.

“If we are together in NATO, the United States has to abide by NATO rules as much as Turkey,” Erdogan said. “If a terror organization is attacking your ally, as a NATO member you have to stand against this.”

Erdogan also took aim at comments from a U.S. commander who said the United States and its partners in Syria would hit back if attacked. “To those who say, ‘If they hit us, we will respond with force’, it is clear that they have never experienced the Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said.

The Turks are riled over Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units — the top U.S. ally in the fight against IS. Turkey considers them a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders.

Tillerson, meanwhile, appealed for coalition members not to lose sight of their ultimate goal in Iraq and Syria at a critical moment with the mission shifting from offensive military operations to stabilization.

“The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he told a meeting in Kuwait City, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. “ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe. Without continued attention and support from coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS liberated areas of Iraq and Syria and their spread to new locations.”

Turkey’s hardly the only distraction. Renewed spillover from Syria’s civil war is creating conditions for a host of new conflicts in the region. A U.S. strike last week reportedly killed private Russian military contractors fighting in the country, though the reports couldn’t be immediately verified. Iran and its proxies in Syria have clashed with Israel.

As he has before, Tillerson said he appreciated Turkey’s security concerns. But the U.S. message was clear: Addressing those shouldn’t come at the expense of fully defeating IS. If the Syrian Kurds feel threatened, American officials said, they’ll move their forces away from Islamic State fronts, prolonging the fight.

In Rome, at a meeting of defense ministers Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis flatly rejected one claim by Turkish officials that the U.S. is leaving pockets of Islamic State militants in Syria to prolong the war. He said the large number of U.S.-backed forces and rising Islamic State group casualties are proof such claims aren’t true.

“We don’t bypass ISIS,” Mattis said. “Our tactics are tactics of annihilation.”

Police recommend indictments of Netanyahu

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Israeli police on Tuesday recommended that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in a pair of corruption cases, dealing an embarrassing blow to the embattled prime minister that is likely to fuel calls for him to step down.

Netanyahu angrily rejected the accusations, which included accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from a pair of billionaires. He accused police of being on a witch hunt, vowed to remain in office and even seek re-election.

“I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel choose me to lead you,” an ashen-faced Netanyahu said in a televised address. “I am sure that the truth will come to light. And I am sure that also in the next election that will take place on time I will win your trust again with God’s help.”

The recommendations marked a dramatic ending to a months-long investigation into allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, and suspicions that Netanyahu offered to give preferential treatment to a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage.

The recommendations now go to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, who will review the material before deciding whether to file charges. Netanyahu can remain in office during that process, which could drag on for months.

But with a cloud hanging over his head, he could soon find himself facing calls to step aside. During similar circumstances a decade ago, Netanyahu, as opposition leader, urged then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign during a police investigation, saying a leader “sunk up to his neck in interrogations” could not govern properly.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a bitter rival of Netanyahu, called on him to suspend himself and for the coalition to appoint a replacement on Wednesday morning.

“The depth of corruption is horrifying,” Barak said. “This does not look like nothing. This looks like bribery.”

In a statement, police said there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu in the first case, known as File 1000, for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.

It said Netanyahu had accepted gifts valued at 750,000 shekels ($214,000) from Milchan, and 250,000 shekels (or $71,000) from Packer. The gifts from Milchan reportedly included expensive cigars and champagne.

Police said that in return, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislating a tax break and connecting him with an Indian businessman. It said he also helped Milchan, an Israeli producer whose credits include “Pretty Woman,” ″12 Years a Slave” and “JFK,” in the Israeli media market.

In the second case, known as “File 2000,” Netanyahu reportedly was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for reining in a free pro-Netanyahu daily that had cut into Yediot’s business.

Police said there was sufficient evidence to charge both Milchan and Mozes with bribery. There was no immediate comment from either man.

In his TV address, Netanyahu said that his entire three-decade political career, which included serving as Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., a stint at prime minister in the 1990s and a series of Cabinet posts, were meant only to serve the Israeli public.

He acknowledged aiding Milchan with his visa issues, but said Milchan had done much for Israel and noted that the late Shimon Peres, had also been close with Milchan.

He also said that over the years he had taken decisions that hurt Milchan’s business interests in Israel.

“How can allegations be taken seriously that in exchange for cigars I acted for Arnon Milchen’s benefit?” he said.

He said all the allegations over the years against him had one goal: “to topple me from government.”

He said past scandals had all “ended with nothing” and “this time as well they will end with nothing.”

As the police investigation gained steam in recent months, Netanyahu has claimed to be a victim of an overaggressive police force and a media witchhunt.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for nine straight years, and his family have become embroiled in a series of scandals in recent months.

Recordings recently emerged of his wife, Sara, screaming at an aide, while separate recordings emerged of his eldest son, Yair, on a drunken night out at a series of Tel Aviv strip clubs while traveling around in a taxpayer-funded government car with a government-funded bodyguard.

Netanyahu has said the scandals are all the work of media out to get him.

$88.2B price tag for rebuilding Iraq after Islamic State war

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Kuwait opened a week of conferences seeking aid for rebuilding Iraq after the onslaught of the Islamic State group, seeking tens of billions of dollars for a nation only a generation ago that invaded it.

Authorities estimate Iraq needs $88.2 billion to restore a country smashed after the Sunni extremists seized the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and a mass of territory in June 2014.

“We finished one battle but we are engaged now with a war for reconstruction,” said Mustafa al-Hiti, the head of Iraq’s reconstruction fund for areas affected by terrorist operations.

Among the hardest-hit areas is Mosul, which Iraqi forces, aided by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and a U.S.-led coalition, recaptured in July 2017. Their victory came at a steep cost for Mosul, as coalition airstrikes and extremist suicide car bombs destroyed homes and government buildings.

Of the money needed, Iraqi officials estimate $17 billion alone needs to go toward rebuilding homes, the biggest single line item offered Monday on the first day of meetings. The United Nations estimates 40,000 homes need to be rebuilt in Mosul alone.

“The majority of the damage was to western Mosul as it went through one of the worst and fiercest battles in history,” said Nofal al-Akoub, the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh province. It “led to the total destruction of its infrastructure.”

Al-Akoub said $42 billion was needed for his province alone, as it is home to Mosul. Iraq needs some $20 billion now to begin its reconstruction, al-Hiti said.

The war against the Islamic State group displaced more than 5 million people. Only half have returned to their hometowns in Iraq.

However, officials acknowledge a feeling of fatigue from international donors, especially after the wars in Iraq and Syria sparked the biggest mass migration since World War II.

President Donald Trump himself on Monday tweeted that America was “so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR country.” The U.S. has no plans to make any new pledges at this week’s conferences. Even in Kuwait, some social media users questioned why more wasn’t being done in their own country.

Billions of dollars poured into Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, with what feels now like little visible effect.

The U.S. alone spent $60 billion over nine years — some $15 million a day — to rebuild Iraq. Around $25 billion went to Iraq’s military, which disintegrated during the lightning 2014 offensive of the Islamic State group, which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. government auditors also found massive waste and corruption, fueling suspicions of Western politicians like Trump who want to scale back foreign aid.

Meanwhile, the Middle East as a whole, especially countries like Kuwait whose deep pockets rely on oil production, have taken a hit in recent years as energy prices crashed and only recently began regaining ground.

Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest crude producer and home to the world’s fifth-largest known reserves, says it needs $7 billion to repair its oil and gas fields. It has struggled to pay international firms running them.

Kuwait, hosting the conferences this week, has a deep interest in seeing a stable Iraq, especially after Baghdad’s 1990 invasion of their small, oil-rich emirate. It announced $330 million alone had been pledged Monday for Iraq at a humanitarian conference in Kuwait City.

That money is desperately needed as more than 4 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance while 3 million are unable to regularly go to school in Iraq, said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. One out of four Iraqi children across the country live in poverty in the nation of 37 million people.

“There may be donor fatigue, but no one today can tell me there isn’t money. There is money to continue fighting, there is money to continue agendas that are not serving children,” Cappelaere said. “What we are asking today is to put that money where children’s interests are and we may get in the Middle East a much-brighter future.”

But Iraq needs more than just cash as thousands remain held after the rout of the Islamic State group, including women and children. It must renew its embrace of the rule of law, as well as provide answers to families whose loved ones went missing in the war, said Katharina Ritz, the head of the delegation in Iraq for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“We know that many people think about, ‘OK, it’s the second time we have to rebuild Iraq,’ ... (but) we have to get it right this time for the Iraqi people,” Ritz said.

“This will take time and probably it will also take generations to deal with the past, because if you look at the future, you also have to look back,” she added.

Drones grounded at opening ceremony _ but not on tape delay

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An army of high-flying drones expected to light up the sky at the opening ceremony of the Olympics was grounded.

Viewers of NBC’s tape-delayed broadcast in the United States still saw it, but it was a pre-recorded version.

Intel Corp. was expected to launch 300 drones as part of an extravagant light show, but those plans were scrapped. International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said Saturday that the drones were not deployed Friday night because of an “impromptu logistical change.”

NBC aired a light show, but it was from Intel’s launching of more than 1,200 drones in December in Pyeongchang. That didn’t keep the television network from highlighting the moment. NBC tweeted on its official @NBCOlympics page: “A swarm of drones brings us one of the most incredible sights of the #OpeningCeremony.”

Intel celebrated breaking a Guinness World Record for the most drones flown simultaneously by tweeting a link to the video . “More than 1,200 drones,” the Santa Clara, California-based company tweeted. “One amazing show. See how our drone team pulled off a Guinness World Records title for the Opening Ceremony.”

The incident was reminiscent of the Sochi Games in 2014, when one of the five Olympic rings failed to light — but Russian state television aired rehearsal footage of it happening.

Romanian study: Half-day old snow is safe to eat

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How safe is it to eat snow? A Romanian university has published the results of just such a study.

The 2017 experiment showed it was safe to eat snow that was a half-day old, and safer to eat it in the colder months. But by two days old, the snow is not safe to eat, Istvan Mathe, a professor at the Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, told The Associated Press.

Scientists collected snow from a park and from a roundabout in Miercurea Ciuc, central Romania, in January and February and placed it in hermetically-sealed sterile containers. They then tried to grow bacteria and mold in them.

The study took place in temperatures ranging from minus 1.1 degrees Celsius to minus 17.4 C (30 degrees to 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the city, one of the coldest in Romania.

After one day, there were five bacteria per millimeter in January, while in February that number quadrupled.

“Very fresh snow has very little bacteria,” Mathe said Thursday. “After two days, however, there are dozens of bacteria.”

He said the microorganisms increase because of impurities in the air.

Mathe first had the idea for the study when he saw his children eating snow.

“I am not recommending anyone eats snow. Just saying you won’t get ill if you eat a bit,” he said.

Eiffel Tower shuts down as snow, freezing rain pummel France

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The Eiffel Tower was closed and French authorities told drivers in the Paris region to stay home Friday as snow and freezing rain pummeled parts of the country that are ill-prepared for the wintry weather.

The company that manages France’s most-visited monument said the 19th-century Eiffel Tower will be closed all day Friday and Saturday “to ensure the security of visitors.”

Workers with hand shovels were carefully clearing snow from the monument’s intricate ironwork and de-icing stairs and platforms. The company said they can’t use salt because it could corrode the Eiffel Tower’s metal and damage its heavily used elevators.

Heavy snowfall earlier this week trapped hundreds of drivers in cars and caused the worst-ever traffic jams in the Paris region.

More snow is forecast Friday and authorities are warning of dangerous conditions in about one-fourth of the country.

Venezuela election could trigger deeper sanctions, exiles

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The Venezuelan government’s decision to plow ahead with early presidential elections over the objections of the opposition risks spurring more international sanctions and exacerbating an economic and social crisis driving increasing numbers of Venezuelans into exile, analysts said Thursday.

Opposition politicians were meeting the day after officials announced the April 22 vote, deciding whether to challenge socialist President Nicolas Maduro in an election that several foreign nations have already vowed not to recognize — or to boycott it.

They accuse Maduro’s government of rigging recent elections and making a fair race impossible, in part by barring the most popular opposition parties and candidates. International condemnation of the snap election has begun pouring in.

Once among Latin America’s wealthiest countries, oil-rich Venezuela is in a deepening crisis marked by soaring inflation and food shortages.

But analysts say massive street protests are unlikely to re-ignite because many were frightened by the government’s brutal response to unrest last year. They say people are more inclined to abandon their native country than risk jail or death.

The real pressure driving change could come from the United States and possibly European nations, targeting Venezuela’s oil exports. Maduro’s government relies on that cash flow the oil provides to maintain power inside his government, especially military support.

“When you run out of money, your friends become your enemies,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Markit. “That could be a game changer.”

Election officials loyal to Maduro moved swiftly Wednesday to set a date for the early presidential election, acting just hours after a breakdown in talks between the government and opposition over how to conduct the vote.

Venezuela traditionally has held its presidential elections late in the year, and the United States along with several countries in Europe and Latin America condemn the rushed vote, saying it undercuts political negotiations and is unfair to the opposition.

“If the government wasn’t afraid of a free election, it would have no choice but to sign our document, which is based on Venezuela’s laws,” said Julio Borges, opposition leader at the talks.

The vote also might prompt the U.S. to follow through on a threat to cut off oil shipments from Venezuela, which is an OPEC nation.

While Venezuela has diversified its exports in recent years, it still depends heavily on shipments to the U.S., where several refineries are designed to handle Venezuela’s heavy crude.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who just finished a tour of the region, said he was more favorable now to the idea of oil sanctions because the situation in Venezuela has steadily worsened.

The ultimate decision will be left to President Donald Trump, he said.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Thursday that the snap election date denies the opposition its ability to take part in the electoral process.

“The Maduro regime continues to dismantle Venezuela’s democracy and reveals its authoritarian rule,” she said. “It is unfortunate the Maduro regime is not courageous enough to contest elections on a level playing field.”

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza railed against Tillerson’s Latin America tour via Twitter, saying it was aimed at shoring up support among “ruling elites” in the region against Venezuela.

“Our sovereign democracy does not obey imperialist pressures,” Arreaza said. “It obeys a free people.”

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court announced that it is opening preliminary probes into alleged crimes by police and security forces in Venezuela stemming from violent clashes last year with protesters.

It will look at allegations that since April 2017 government forces “frequently used excessive force to disperse and put down demonstrations” and abused some opposition members in detention.

Underscoring the impact of Venezuela’s crisis on its neighbors, Colombia announced Thursday that it will tighten the countries’ porous shared border as thousands of migrants flee the deteriorating country.

Visiting a border city, President Juan Manuel Santos had harsh criticism of Maduro’s leadership, calling the flood into Colombia a “tragedy.”

“I want to reiterate to President Maduro: This is the result of your policies. Not Colombia’s. And your refusal to accept the aid we have offered you,” Santos said.

Back in Venezuela’s capital of Caracas, Isabel Sanchez was among roughly 200 people who protested to vent frustration over the shortage in and soaring cost of medicine.

Sanchez said her husband worked as a police officer, but died because he couldn’t get the medicine he needed. Many people have left Venezuela, but not Sanchez.

“We have to stay here in Venezuela, because the struggle is here,” she said, urging young people to resist the urge to flee. “If we leave, that’s what the government wants.”

Trudeau pitches Canada’s tech jobs to San Francisco market

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brings what some call his “maple charm offensive” to San Francisco on Thursday with a dual agenda: Pitch Canada as a destination for American tech firms amid increasing unease over U.S. immigration policy and remind California of its long trade relationship with the country, despite President Donald Trump’s threat to bow out of NAFTA.

The heated debate over immigration since Trump’s election has provided a clear opening for Canada to pitch itself to Silicon Valley. As American employers worry about access to foreign workers, Canada is offering a two-week fast-track employment permit for certain workers, dubbed the “global skills strategy visa.”

Government-sponsored billboards in Silicon Valley pitch: “H1-B Problems? Pivot to Canada.” Recruiters from cities in Canada attend Canadian university alumni events in the valley, urging graduates to come home “to your next career move in the Great White North.”

There are also hundreds, maybe thousands — no one can say for sure — of Canadians in the tech industry in Northern California, many of them on visas made possible through the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump called NAFTA a job-killing “disaster” on the campaign trail and has threatened to withdraw from it if he can’t get what he wants.

“Without the NAFTA, those (jobs) go away. That could cause immediate disruption for the tech community” on both sides of the border, said Daniel Ujczo, an international trade lawyer based in Columbus, Ohio, who has been part of the NAFTA talks, now in their sixth round.

“It’s unfortunately not an area that is up for discussion. Canada and Mexico keep raising worker mobility issues, but the U.S. won’t discuss it,” he said.

Trudeau is meeting Thursday with eBay CEO Devin Wenig, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. Salesforce, which provides online software for business, announced Thursday it will invest another $2 billion in its Canadian operations. Trudeau’s meeting with Bezos comes just weeks after Toronto, which has created a government-sponsored innovation hub for tech companies, was among the cities that made the shortlist for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The San Francisco Bay Area has become increasingly important to the Canadian government, said Rana Sankar, the consul general of Canada in San Francisco. He said it fits with the “innovation strategy” the Trudeau government has promoted since its election in 2015.

“It’s the global epicenter for many of these revolutions. We need to be here both offensively to ensure that we’re telling our story. ... And we’re also here defensively to ensure that we’re here at the table when the decisions about the next economy are made,” Sankar said.

Trudeau’s stop in San Francisco also highlights the already strong ties between Canada and California, particularly in research, academia and technology. While much of the attention on the trade pact has focused on physical commodities such as vehicle manufacturing, dairy and timber, skilled workers have also become increasingly mobile between the three countries.

Google built its latest DeepMind artificial intelligence facility at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, after several of its graduates came to work on the project.

“There is this coda of strong infrastructure, openness, a real commitment to diversity, all of the funding and infrastructure requirements that are required for companies to succeed,” in Canada, Sarkar said.

Still, the next round of NAFTA talks in Mexico later this month loom over Trudeau’s visit.

The lengthy talks have increased the political pressure and the rhetoric in Canada, where the stakes over NAFTA are high.

“Canada has over the recent weeks become more aggressive with the United States,” Ujczo said. “Trudeau said ‘We’re not going to take any old NAFTA deal, so it better be good.’ ... It’s good politics in Canada to take on Trump.”

Trudeau will meet with Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, on Friday before he travels to Southern California to deliver a speech at the Reagan Library.

The location is a symbolic choice, referring to the longstanding trade relationship between the U.S. and Canada. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the first free trade agreement — a precursor to NAFTA — and enjoyed a warm relationship.

Russian hackers hunt hi-tech secrets, exploiting U.S. weakness

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Russian cyberspies pursuing the secrets of military drones and other sensitive U.S. defense technology tricked key contract workers into exposing their email to theft, an Associated Press investigation has found.

What ultimately may have been stolen is uncertain, but the hackers clearly exploited a national vulnerability in cybersecurity: poorly protected email and barely any direct notification to victims.

The hackers known as Fancy Bear, who also intruded in the U.S. election, went after at least 87 people working on militarized drones, missiles, rockets, stealth fighter jets, cloud-computing platforms or other sensitive activities, the AP found.

Employees at both small companies and defense giants like Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co., Boeing Co., Airbus Group and General Atomics were targeted by the hackers. A handful of people in Fancy Bear’s sights also worked for trade groups, contractors in U.S.-allied countries or on corporate boards.

“The programs that they appear to target and the people who work on those programs are some of the most forward-leaning, advanced technologies,” said Charles Sowell, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who reviewed the list of names for the AP. “And if those programs are compromised in any way, then our competitive advantage and our defense is compromised.”

“That’s what’s really scary,” added Sowell, who was one of the hacking targets.

The AP identified the defense and security targets from about 19,000 lines of email phishing data created by hackers and collected by the U.S.-based cybersecurity company Secureworks, which calls the hackers Iron Twilight. The data is partial and extends only from March 2015 to May 2016. Of 87 scientists, engineers, managers and others, 31 agreed to be interviewed by the AP.

Most of the targets’ work was classified. Yet as many as 40 percent of them clicked on the hackers’ phishing links, the AP analysis indicates. That was the first step in potentially opening their personal email accounts or computer files to data theft by the digital spies.

James Poss, who ran a partnership doing drone research for the Federal Aviation Administration, was about to catch a taxi to the 2015 Paris Air Show when what appeared to be a Google security alert materialized in his inbox. Distracted, he moved his cursor to the blue prompt on his laptop.

“I clicked on it and instantly knew that I had been had,” the retired Air Force major general said. Poss says he realized his mistake before entering his credentials, which would have exposed his email to the hackers.

Hackers predominantly targeted personal Gmail, with a few corporate accounts mixed in.

Personal accounts can convey snippets of classified information, whether through carelessness or expediency. They also can lead to other more valuable targets or carry embarrassing personal details that can be used for blackmail or to recruit spies.

Drone consultant Keven Gambold, a hacking target himself, said the espionage could help Russia catch up with the Americans. “This would allow them to leapfrog years of hard-won experience,” he said.

He said his own company is so worried about hacking that “we’ve almost gone back in time to use stand-alone systems if we’re processing client proprietary data — we’re FedEx’ing hard drives around.”

The AP has previously reported on Fancy Bear’s attempts to break into the Gmail accounts of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, American national security officials, journalists, and Kremlin critics and adversaries around the world. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the hackers worked for the Kremlin and stole U.S. campaign email to tilt the 2016 election toward Donald Trump.

But the hackers clearly had broader aims. Fifteen of the targets identified by the AP worked on drones — the single largest group of weapons specialists.

Countries like Russia are racing to make better drones as the remote-control aircraft have moved to the forefront of modern warfare. They can fire missiles, hunt down adversaries, or secretly monitor targets for days — all while keeping human pilots safely behind computer controls.

The U.S. Air Force now needs more pilots for drones than for any other single type of aircraft, a training official said last year. Drones will lead growth in the aerospace industry over the next decade, with military uses driving the boom, the Teal Group predicted in November. Production was expected to balloon from $4.2 billion to $10.3 billion.

So far, though, Russia has nothing that compares with the new-generation U.S. Reaper, which has been called “the most feared” U.S. drone. General Atomics’ 5,000-pound mega-drone can fly more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to deliver Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. It has seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The hackers went after General Atomics, targeting a drone sensor specialist. He did not respond to requests for comment.

They also made a run at the Gmail account of Michael Buet, an electronics engineer who has worked on ultra-durable batteries and high-altitude drones for SunCondor, a small South Carolina company owned by Star Technology and Research. Such machines could be a useful surveillance tool for a country like Russia, with its global military engagements and vast domestic border frontier.

“This bird is quite unique,” said Buet. “It can fly at 62,000 feet (18,600 meters) and doesn’t land for five years.”

The Russians also appeared eager to catch up in space, once an arena for Cold War competition in the race for the moon. They seemed to be carefully eyeing the X-37B, an American unmanned space plane that looks like a miniature shuttle but is shrouded in secrecy.

In a reference to an X-37B flight in May 2015, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin invoked the vehicle as evidence that his country’s space program was faltering. “The United States is pushing ahead,” he warned Russian lawmakers.

Less than two weeks later, Fancy Bear tried to penetrate the Gmail account of a senior engineer on the X-37B project at Boeing.

Fancy Bear has also tried to hack into the emails of several members of the Arlington, Virginia-based Aerospace Industries Association, including its president, former Army Secretary Eric Fanning. It went after Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, who has served in the military and aerospace industry as a corporate board member. He has been involved with major weapons and space programs like SpaceX, the reusable orbital rocket company founded by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Along another path, the hackers chased people who work on cloud-based services, the off-site computer networks that enable collaborators to easily access and juggle data.

In 2013, the CIA signed a $600 million deal with web giant Amazon to build a system to share secure data across the U.S. intelligence community. Other spy services followed, and the government cleared them last year to move classified data to the cloud at the “secret” level — a step below the nation’s most sensitive information.

Fancy Bear’s target list suggests the Russians have noticed these developments.

The hackers tried to get into the Gmail accounts of a cloud compliance officer at Palantir and a manager of cloud platform operations at SAP National Security Services, two companies that do extensive government work. Another target was at Mellanox Federal Systems, which helps the government with high-speed storage networks, data analysis and cloud computing. Its clients include the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

Yet of the 31 targets reached by the AP, just one got any warning from U.S. officials.

“They said we have a Fancy Bear issue we need to talk about,” said security consultant Bill Davidson. He said an Air Force cybersecurity investigator inspected his computer shortly after the 2015 phishing attempt but found no sign that it succeeded. He believes he was contacted because his name was recognized at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where he used to work.

The FBI declined to give on-the-record details of its response to this Russian operation. Agency spokeswoman Jillian Stickels said the FBI does sometimes notify individual targets. “The FBI takes ... all potential threats to public and private sector systems very seriously,” she said in an email.

However, three people familiar with the matter — including a current and a former government official — previously told the AP that the FBI knew the details of Fancy Bear’s phishing campaign for more than a year.

Pressed about notification in that case, a senior FBI official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the hacking operation because of its sensitivity, said the bureau was overwhelmed by the sheer number of attempted hacks. “It’s a matter of triaging to the best of our ability the volume of the targets who are out there,” he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Heather Babb, said she could release no details about any Defense Department response, citing “operational security reasons.” But she said the department recognizes the evolving cyber threat and continues to update training and technology. “This extends to all of our workforce — military, civilian and contractor,” she added.

The Defense Security Service, which protects classified U.S. technology and trains industry in computer security, focuses on safeguarding corporate computer networks. “We simply have no insight into or oversight of anyone’s personal email accounts or how they are protected or notified when something is amiss,” spokeswoman Cynthia McGovern said in an email.

Contacted by the AP, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Airbus and General Atomics did not respond to requests for comment.

Jerome Pearson, a space system and drone developer, acknowledged that he has not focused on security training at his company, Star Technology, where Buet has consulted. “No, we really haven’t done that,” he said with a nervous laugh. “We may be a little bit remiss in that area.” He said they may do training for future contracts.

Cybersecurity experts say it’s no surprise that spies go after less secure personal email as an opening to more protected systems. “For a good operator, it’s like hammering a wedge,” said Richard Ford, chief scientist at the Forcepoint cybersecurity company. “Private email is the soft target.”

Some officials were particularly upset by the failure to notify employees of cloud computing companies that handle data for intelligence agencies. The cloud is a “huge target for foreign intelligence services in general — they love to get into that shared environment,” said Sowell, the former adviser to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“At some point, wouldn’t someone who’s responsible for the defense contractor base be aware of this and try to reach out?” he asked.

Even successful hacks might not translate into new weapons for Russia, where the economy is weighed down by corruption and international sanctions.

However, experts say Russia, while still behind the U.S., has been making more advanced drones in recent years. Russian officials have recently been bragging as their increasingly sophisticated drones are spotted over war zones in Ukraine and Syria.

At a 2017 air show outside Moscow, plans were announced for a new generation of Russian combat drones.

Rogozin, the deputy prime minister, boasted that the technological gap between Russia and the United States “has been sharply reduced and will be completely eliminated in the near future.”

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