Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

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):

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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 7:18 PM

Blizzard Latest: NYC Wakes Up to...Not That Much Snow. Storm Still Hitting New England Hard.  

This blizzard is now in full swing, with the worst conditions in New England. Slatest will have continuous updates until the storm tapers off on Tuesday night.

Here’s the latest:

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In New York City, the storm isn’t panning out as forecasted. States of emergency are still in effect for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine, though New York City and New Jersey have been removed from official blizzard warnings.

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 bold prediction that looks prescient in hindsight.

The reason for New York City’s low totals? The National Weather Service strongly weighted their forecast toward the historically more accurate European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting model (ECMWF) and the high resolution North American Model (NAM), which showed the Long Island snow band stalling out directly over the city. That didn’t happen. In constructing their forecast, the New York City office of the NWS all but ignored their own recently upgraded Global Forecast System (GFS) model, which showed significantly less snow in the city. As late as Monday evening, the NWS emphasized that the storm could over-perform in NYC, saying, “it should be a raging blizzard.”

New York Gov. Andrew 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. Though Cuomo said in a morning press conference that the trains are going back into service more quickly than if they had been exposed last night, the total transportation shut down is not looking necessary in hindsight.

Meanwhile, just because the blizzard didn’t pound NYC doesn’t mean it’s not a big one. The storm continues to rage over parts of Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. The storm’s biggest totals so far are on eastern Long Island, where more than two feet of snow has been reported, along with wind gusts up to 60 mph in the Hamptons. Up to 18 inches has been reported in parts of Massachusetts, and official blizzard conditions (winds exceeding 35 mph and visibility less than a quarter mile) are now occurring in Boston. The National Weather Service expects an additional 6 to 10 inches there today. 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.

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.

Jan. 26 2015 3:10 PM

Greece Is Just the Beginning

Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister today after his left-wing Syriza party, campaigning on a pledge to renegotiate the strict terms of the country’s bailout, trounced the mainstream parties in a snap election held yesterday.

Syriza won 149 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament, putting it just two short of an outright majority. To get over the top, it partnered with the right-wing Independent Greeks party. The two parties are sharply at odds on a number of issues—from immigration to the role of the Orthodox Church in politics—but both want Greece to write off its debts and roll back the strict austerity measures imposed as part of the bailout package.

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In exchange for billions of dollars in loans from the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF—the so-called troika—Greece’s government agreed to steep cuts to social programs and government spending. Tsipras now says he wants to renegotiate the terms of the deal and has pledged to raise the minimum wage and hire back public-sector workers, moves that are probably irreconcilable with the demands of the country’s lenders, particularly fiscal disciplinarian Germany. Tsipras maintains that he doesn’t want to take Germany off the euro, but if the two sides can’t reach an agreement, that scenario becomes more likely. 

The Greek election kicked off what could be a breakthrough year for anti-establishment parties as well as anti-EU appeals from both the left and right in Europe. Syriza’s victory was hailed today by  ideological allies, like the leader of Spain’s Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, who said at a rally that Greece would finally have a real leader rather than a “delegate of Angela Merkel.” Founded just last year, Podemos is another anti-austerity party, and, according to recent polls, if elections were held in Spain today, it would hold the most seats. If this sentiment holds until elections are held, probably in December, it would mark a stunning shift in Spanish politics: Just two parties, one center-left and one center-right, have dominated national elections since the early 1980s.

Then there’s Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which is likely to gain seats in May’s British elections. And even if the establishment holds out, Prime Minister David Cameron is under heavy pressure from euroskeptics in his Conservative party and will likely be forced to hold a public referendum on British membership in the EU. (It’s also possible that UKIP’s growing strength could actually hurt the euroskeptic cause by taking enough votes away from the Conservatives to put the pro-EU Labour in power.)

France isn’t holding national elections this year, but local elections in March will likely see major gains for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Polls in December showed a plurality of voters planning to cast a ballot for the far-right party, and that was before this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which will likely help Le Pen’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration and Islam resonate with more voters.

This could also be a big year for the far-right Danish People’s Party. Denmark is due to hold general elections this year, and recent polling shows that the party, which wants less EU influence in Danish politics and tougher border controls, is now the country’s largest.

With close to 50 percent youth unemployment and deep cuts to social services, the frustration of the Greek public is clearly an extreme case—in an alarming development, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came in third with 6.3 percent of the vote—but it’s also clearly not the only place where anti-EU messages from both the left and right are resonating with voters. So far, these anti-establishment parties have been able to perform well in local elections and EU votes, where voters often perceive the stakes to be lower. But this could very well be the year that the extreme parties from both sides finally break into the mainstream. 

Jan. 26 2015 1:24 PM

At Least 43 Police Officers Killed by Jihadist Rebels in Philippines

At least 43 Philippine police officers have been killed in an attempt to capture a high-profile terrorism suspect wanted by the United States and Malaysia. Confusingly, the suspect, Zulkifli Bin Hir, is affiliated with the Jemaah Islamiyah jihadist group, but the rebels who killed police officers are part of a different group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is engaged in peace talks with the government, and authorities say they did not intend to target it in the raid. From the New York Times:

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front had not been informed of the police operation, which triggered a series of firefights between government forces and rebels, said Mohager Iqbal, a peace negotiator for the rebels.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas called the incident a “misencounter” between government and rebel forces and said the operation would be investigated to determine whether proper procedures were followed to avoid conflict with the rebels under the cease-fire pact.
“We are hopeful and confident that this will not derail the peace talks,” he said during a briefing Monday on the incident.
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Officials said they “believe” Zulkifi was killed in the operation and are conducting DNA tests to confirm his death. According to the FBI, Zulkifi is/was a U.S.-trained engineer who “conducts bomb-making training for terrorist organizations” including the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

In June 2014 the Pentagon said a United States counterterrorism unit based in the Philippines would be “phased out” because of the declining threat posed by terror groups in the region.

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