Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 27 2015 12:36 PM

Blizzard Latest: Boston Cracks Top 10 All-Time Snow Storms, With More on the Way

This blizzard has peaked but will continue throughout the day on Tuesday, with the worst conditions in coastal New England. Slatest will have continuous updates until the storm tapers off Tuesday night.

Here's the latest:

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An intense band of snow is currently situated directly over the city of Boston, where snow totals are already approaching two feet in Copley Square. The National Weather Service estimates the band is producing additional snow at a rate exceeding one inch per hour, meaning this storm could still easily threaten the city’s all-time single snowstorm record of 27.5 inches set in February 2003.

In sharp contrast, the storm was a flop in New York City. It’s essentially stopped snowing there, with totals averaging between 8 and 12 inches across the city. In a midday press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We obviously missed the worst of the storm.” Defending actions by his office and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to shut schools and freeze regional transportation, de Blasio added, “Prepare for the worst. Hope for the best.”

With the primary snowfall band well east of the city, over Long Island, the National Weather Service now expects just 2 to 4 additional inches of snow during the day on Tuesday in New York City, producing storm totals of around 10 to 14 inches, well below yesterday’s forecast of 20 to 30 inches. In contrast, the Weather Channel was forecasting 12 to 18 inches for New York City most of the day Monday, a prediction that looks prescient in hindsight.

The reason for New York City’s low totals? The National Weather Service strongly weighted its forecast toward the historically more accurate ECMWF model and the high-resolution NAM model, which showed the Long Island snow band stalling out directly over the city instead. That didn’t happen. In constructing its forecast, the New York City office of the NWS all but ignored its own recently upgraded GFS model, which showed significantly less snow in the city. As late as Monday evening, the NWS emphasized that the storm could overperform in NYC, saying “it should be a raging blizzard.” Late Monday night, a Philadelphia-area National Weather Service meteorologist publicly apologized via Twitter for the poor forecast, saying, “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn't. Once again, I'm sorry.”

New York Gov. Cuomo, perhaps conditioned by the state’s slow response to the recent Buffalo snowstorm, ordered a shutdown of virtually all modes of transportation in the New York City area on the basis of the National Weather Service forecast, including the city’s subway system, which had never previously closed for a snowstorm. As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilly notes, many subway trains ran devoid of passengers throughout the night, despite the “shutdown.”

Winds briefly exceeded hurricane force this morning on Nantucket, with thundersnow reported in Cape Cod. The National Weather Service in Boston continued to refer to the storm as “crippling” and “historic” in a morning forecast update. Winds throughout the entire region—gusting at times to 50 mph—will produce whiteout conditions for much of the day on Tuesday. Travel will continue to be impossible in the hardest-hit areas.

The National Weather Service in Boston has warned that this storm may be strong enough to permanently alter the Massachusetts coastline. “One or more new inlets” may be formed on barrier beaches, boosted by around three feet of storm surge and 20-foot waves. The Nantucket police reported “significant flooding” during the morning high tide cycle, and similar flooding is expected on mainland Massachusetts during this afternoon’s high tide as well.

There’s a link to climate change here, too. Ocean water temperatures off the East Coast are much above normal right now, as they have been nearly all year. That’s helping to boost the amount of moisture the storm is able to convert into snow via enhanced evaporation. But there’s an even easier link to climate change: Sea levels in the Northeast have risen by about a foot over the last 100 years or so, about half of which is directly attributable to warming seas and melting glaciers worldwide. There’s 100 percent certainty, in my view, that sea level rise is making the impact of extreme coastal storms like this one worse.

We’ll continue to update this post throughout the storm.

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Jan. 27 2015 11:23 AM

Freed POW Bowe Bergdahl Will be Charged With Desertion (Update: Army Denies)

Update, Jan. 27, 11:35 a.m: An Army spokesperson is denying that a decision has been made to charge Bergdahl. From the Army Times:

The Army continues to review the case against Bergdahl, said Paul Boyce, a spokesman for Forces Command, on Tuesday...Gen. Mark Milley, commanding general of Forces Command, "is reviewing now the Army's facts and findings to determine, impartially, any appropriate next steps and possible actions," Boyce said. Milley is "actively reviewing the case," he said. "No decision's been made."
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Original post, Jan. 27, 11:23 a.m.: The May 2014 release of American Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, became almost immediately controversial for two reasons. The first was that the United States had secured Bergdahl's release by freeing five Taliban prisoners. The second was that Bergdahl was credibly accused of having deserted his unit before he was captured in June 2009. Today, NBC reports, the Department of Defense has determined that Bergdahl (who is still on active duty) will in fact be charged with desertion:

According to the officials, the desertion charges would be based on allegations that Bergdahl abandoned his remote outpost in June 2009 to avoid hazardous duty or important service, which are grounds for charges of desertion under the Uniform Military Code of Justice, or UCMJ. According to one senior official, Bergdahl's actions in Afghanistan go well beyond the lesser offense of AWOL, absent without leave, because he allegedly abandoned his post "in the middle of a combat zone, potentially putting the lives of his fellows soldiers at risk."

NBC reports that, in light of the time he has already spent in captivity, Bergdahl will likely be offered a deal that would allow him to avoid a prison sentence while leaving the Army with a "less than honorable" discharge and forfeiting back pay.

Jan. 27 2015 10:24 AM

Many New York Subway Trains Ran Overnight Despite Purported Shutdown

New York City subways are open to passengers again after a storm-related shutdown ordered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. At a press conference Monday, Cuomo said that subway cars needed to be moved during the storm to areas where they could be protected. But overnight and Tuesday morning, reports emerged that trains were in fact still running overnight—without passengers—to help keep tracks clear of snow. From the Brooklyn Paper:

The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said.
“I think it’s horrible, purely political decision, not based on anything that’s needed,” the insider said. “It seemed like cutting out a necessary lifeline unnecessarily.”
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Echoing this harsh assessment was the Second Avenue Sagas blog, which covers NYC transportation issues:

It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.

On the other hand, as Cuomo has alluded to Tuesday, the idea that a train could get stranded during a storm is not implausible. Limiting the number of trains on the tracks and keeping passengers off trains that might become stranded could avoid a potential crisis that might slow down the restoration of full service once the storm is over.

On the other other hand, Cuomo doesn’t seem to have said anything on Monday about trains running without passengers overnight, leading one to wonder whether he in fact knew that’s what would happen when he made his announcement. As writer Josh Barro observes, Cuomo has a very recent history of making bold leadership decisions that turn out not to be supported by reason or evidence.

Jan. 26 2015 10:25 PM

The Best Photos From the Great East Coast Blizzard of 2015

We'll be posting the best images we find from Winter Storm Juno/Snowpocalypse 2015/SnowmaggedonExplosion3000 below. (Timestamps refer to the time of posting on Slate, not the exact time the photo was taken.) Stay safe, everyone!

Update, Jan. 26, 10:25 p.m: 

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Update, Jan. 26, 7:25 p.m. Grand Central and the Chrysler Building in New York:

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

A man stops in Times Square to contemplate the nature of existence:

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Mike Segar/Reuters

This cat is tripping:

And last, a photographer who knows that while the Brooklyn Bridge is more famous, the Manhattan Bridge deserves our respect and admiration as well.

N.b.: We're looking for photos from Boston, Philly, and other cities too—but it seems that at this point the storm has been most picturesque in NYC. With up to three feet possible in Boston, that will no doubt change.

Update, Jan. 26, 4:35 p.m. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enhanced satellite image from earlier today:

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NOAA/NASA/Reuters

A lot of snow selfies being taken, including one by this handsome side of beef in New York's Chelsea neighborhood:

First post, Jan. 26, 4:10 p.m. From an Instagram user in New York City:

A tired if inventive traveler at LaGuardia Airport, where scores of flights have been delayed or canceled:

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

More Brooklyn Bridge (it's a very photogenic bridge):

Jan. 26 2015 9:52 PM

After Months of Fighting in Syria, U.S.-Backed Kurdish Forces Drive ISIS Out of Kobani

Kurdish forces registered an important victory in the fight against ISIS on Monday, successfully expelling the group from the contested city of Kobani on the Syrian border with Turkey. The Wall Street Journal reports Kurdish fighters were “hoisting their flags atop strategic hilltops,” signifying a final turn in the Kurds four-month long battle, backed by American-led airstrikes against the Islamist group.

The victory, like the battle for Kobani itself, may be more important symbolically than militarily. “[Kobani] became the most visible arena in the American-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, and the militant group’s retreat dented the aura of invincibility it has sought to cultivate,” the New York Times notes.  “But even as the Kurds celebrated, some activists said clearing the town was no great victory, given that it took more than 700 airstrikes to do it — nearly three-quarters of all the coalition’s strikes in Syria so far — and that Kobani was a relatively minor border city with a prewar population of 45,000.”

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“Unlike in many other parts of the country, in Kobani the U.S. could count on—and work closely with—a viable local militia, the so-called People’s Defense Units, or YPG, a Kurdish secularist group,” the Journal reports.

Jan. 26 2015 7:56 PM

Obama’s Gallup Job Approval Rating Reaches 50 Percent for First Time Since 2013

President Obama has been riding a popularity hot streak of late. Buoyed by a brightening economic outlook, and perhaps by his newfound policy assertiveness, Obama’s poll numbers have steadily climbed from their pre-midterm lows last fall. On Monday, Gallup announced, the resurgent Obama, with a small boost from the State of the Union, reached the 50 percent job approval threshold in Gallup daily tracking for the first time since June 2013.  

The Gallup numbers coincide with a Washington Post-ABC News poll on the eve of the State of the Union that showed Obama’s job approval rating at the 50 percent mark. As recently as October, Gallup found only 39 percent of the American people approved of the job Obama was doing. But times have changed.

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“It is difficult to determine which groups are most responsible for Obama's immediate post-speech approval gains, as many of the changes are within the margin of error,” Gallup writes. “However, compared with late December, it is clear that Obama's approval rating is up more among whites than among nonwhites, as well as up more sharply among younger adults—those aged 18 to 49—than among older adults. Also, his rating is significantly improved among lower-income and lower-middle-income Americans, whereas it is flat or down among higher-income Americans.”

Jan. 26 2015 6:45 PM

Former CIA Agent Convicted of Espionage in New York Times Case

A former CIA agent named Jeffrey Sterling has been convicted of espionage for leaking information about an agency operation to a New York Times reporter. The Times' James Risen wrote about the operation, which involved Iran's nuclear program, in his 2006 book State of War. Prosecutors believed that Sterling had given Risen classified information and subpoenaed Risen, demanding he reveal the sources of the account in his book. Risen refused and the Justice Department ultimately backed off the demand. That did not stop prosecutors from building a case against Sterling.

The Justice Department had no direct proof that Mr. Sterling provided the information to Mr. Risen, but prosecutors stitched together a strong circumstantial case. They described Mr. Sterling, who is black, as bitter and frustrated about what he believed was workplace discrimination. Telephone records and emails showed that Mr. Sterling and Mr. Risen talked frequently, and prosecutors argued that only Mr. Sterling had the information, the motive and the opportunity to leak it.
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Sterling was convicted on nine counts and could face "dozens" of years in prison. He is set to be sentenced on April 24.

Jan. 26 2015 6:02 PM

Pilot Saved by Giant Airplane-Sized Parachute, Cruise Ship in Amazing Video

Truly amazing: Footage, taken Sunday by a Coast Guard plane, of a pilot deploying a "whole-airplane parachute," landing in the ocean, climbing out of his plane with a life raft, and being rescued by a vessel deployed from a nearby cruise ship. (Whole-plane parachutes have been around for many years but started being manufactured and used regularly in the 1990s.)

As Atlantic writer James Fallows explains at the link above, the pilot of the Cirrus SR-22 plane—travelling from northern California to Hawaii—realized that, due to a faulty valve, he would not have enough fuel to complete his trip. He alerted the proper authorities and directed his aircraft toward the MS Veendam, a Holland America Line cruise ship. He was rescued 250 miles off the coast of Maui.

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The BBC wrote about whole-plane parachutes, and considered the feasibility of equipping full-size passenger planes with such devices, in 2013. (Takeaway: It might be possible but the parachute would take up a great deal of space that could otherwise be used for passengers and cargo.)

Jan. 26 2015 6:02 PM

House Conservatives Form "Freedom Caucus" as Right-Wing Rebellion Continues

A cluster of far-right Republicans in the House of Representatives announced on Monday the formation of the Freedom Caucus, a group intended to combat a perceived centrist drift in the House's long-time home of conservative thought, the Republican Study Committee.

The RSC, formed in 1973 as a conservative watchdog to keep the Republican Party from becoming too moderate, has grown to 170 members, encompassing a large part of the GOP caucus. In recent years, hard-right members have complained that House leadership has seized control of the group and compromised its conservative principles.

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In 2013, the RSC's Executive Director, Paul Teller, was fired by then-chair Steve Scalise, and Teller's supporters claimed that he was pushed out because he upset John Boehner by opposing the budget deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray. Around the same time, the RSC barred members of the conservative Heritage Foundation, including former Sen. Jim DeMint, from attending the committee's meetings after Heritage's role in the failure of Republicans to pass a Farm Bill that year.

Writing on the formation of the new Freedom Caucus, the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal news service says:

Membership in the Freedom Caucus will be by invitation only, and the group plans to "advance an agenda of limited, constitutional government in Congress."
"The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them," its mission statement says. "We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans."

While several members of the Freedom Caucus, including its interim chair Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have been unabashed thorns in House Speaker John Boehner's side—two of them, Jordan and Justin Amash of Michigan, received votes from Republican rogues in the last Speaker's election—the new conservative group does not appear to threaten the Republican Study Committee's influence. The invite-only roster lists only nine members for now, most of whom remain members of the RSC.

Jan. 26 2015 5:05 PM

Protests Turned Deadly This Weekend in Egypt. President Sisi Doesn’t Really Have to Care. 

At least 17 people were killed over the weekend in protests throughout Egypt marking the four-year anniversary of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. And 516 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were also arrested.

The killing of one of the unarmed protesters, 31-year-old Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, prompted a rare critical op-ed from Egypt’s most important state newspaper, Al-Ahram, which laid responsibility for her shooting by masked policeman at the hands of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

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But if the violence and the public anger it provoked have Egypt’s leaders concerned, they’re not showing it. Today Mubarak’s sons, who were widely criticized for their accumulation of wealth prior to his overthrow, were released on bail pending retrial on corruption charges. Mubarak himself remains confined in a military hospital, though the grounds for that are unclear given that all the charges against him were dropped in November.

Sisi certainly hasn’t been acting like a leader in crisis. Last week he was in Davos calling for Muslims to reform their religious discourse. This week he’s heading to Addis Ababa for regional talks about water rights, a critical issue for the Egyptian economy but not exactly at the forefront of public debate right now.

Al-Ahram’s editorial is being read by some as a sign of emerging splits in the Egyptian establishment, but it could also be read as a signal that the government is secure enough to allow a certain amount of criticism through approved channels. And Sisi has reason to feel secure. The retired general is believed to be firmly in control of his regime, with a growing personality cult to match. The opposition is demoralized and divided. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood is thought to be low following Mohamed Morsi’s deeply unpopular presidency. And the anti-Sisi forces are split between Brotherhood supporters and liberals, strange bedfellows to begin with. (That split has emerged again in the wake of Sabbagh’s killing, with some Islamists complaining that the secular socialist’s death provoked much more public outrage than the killing of another female protester, a 17-year-old Brotherhood supporter, in a rally several days earlier.)

More good news for Sisi: Given the post-revolutionary turmoil in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will put too much pressure on him beyond some cursory statements on the importance of human rights. Last summer the U.S. resumed the military aid that had been frozen after Morsi’s ouster. Other Western governments followed suit: Even as Canada has pushed for the release of the Canadian-Egyptian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, it’s also signed on to a new program to train Egyptian police.

Though this past weekend’s violence is rocking parts of Egypt, it is unlikely to get to Sisi. He’s  no doubt studied the mistakes of Mubarak, who allowed protests to get out of hand and at a critical moment lost the support of both his own generals and his international backers. At least for the moment, Sisi seems unlikely to make the same errors.

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