Did You Know
WASHINGTON: Four US senators expressed concern on Wednesday (Jan 24) that federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown could lose their dental and vision health insurance benefits if they are unable to pay their premiums.
In a letter to the government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin said forcing workers to pay the premiums during the shutdown would be "unacceptable."
Some 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or are working without pay since the shutdown began on Dec 22, after Republican President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress deadlocked over his demand for US$5.7 billion for a border wall with Mexico.
With no paychecks and thus no payroll deductions, federal workers subject to the shutdown will miss paying their vision and dental premiums. OPM has said workers would start receiving bills for the premiums depending on how long the shutdown lasts.
"We are alarmed that unpaid federal employees will be required to incur this additional financial hardship during a time when they can least afford it," the senators said.
The senators said some insurers were willing to allow workers to continue coverage without payment and urged OPM to work with all insurers to help employees maintain their coverage.
The states the senators represent - Virginia for Warner and Kaine and Maryland for Cardin and Van Hollen - have a large population of federal workers. Many of those affected by the shutdown have turned to unemployment assistance, food banks and other support, or have sought new jobs.
OPM did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
WASHINGTON: China is making technological advances in a far shorter timeframe than it took the United States, rapidly narrowing the gap between the two countries, a senior US intelligence official said Tuesday (Jan 22).
Reaping the benefits of sending tens of thousands of students and researchers to the United States, and a determined policy to buy and steal US technology, Beijing has "compressed the timeframe" for catching up, and now has "remarkable" capabilities, the official told journalists on condition of anonymity.
That is one of the key challenges for the United States, according to the new US National Intelligence Strategy.
In unveiling the strategy, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said it sets a focus for the US intelligence community in a time of rapid technological change.
"Today, we face the most diverse and complex set of threats that we have ever seen," Coats said in a speech to the intelligence community.
"The question then becomes what do we need to do now ... We must become more agile."
The strategy, the first drafted in five years, notes major changes in the world led by the weakening of the post-World War II global order, China's emergence as a global economic and military power, and the rise of cyber threats.
Coats named China, Iran, North Korea and Russia as key state threats, but said a broad range of non-state actors - jihadist groups, organised crime and others - are empowered by new technologies and could find common interests among themselves.
"Our greatest concern comes from those forces merging together," Coats said.
"You're going to see interests aligned," between non-traditional allies, warned the senior official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
That goes for the United States as well, the official said: "We need partnerships with non-traditional partners, state, local and tribal."
US SPACE LEAD ERODED
At the time of the previous strategy in 2014, cyber attacks, along with threats to economic and financial security and to election security, were relative afterthoughts.
Now, they are at the forefront, underscored by persistent attacks from Russia and China in recent years - with cyber security paramount, according to the new strategy.
"Cyber hygiene is 90 per cent of the issue" in confronting these challenges, the official said.
The other area that deeply worries US intelligence is the loss of America's longstanding lead in space.
China and Russia especially are aiming for parity with the United States in space, but technology and commercialisation have given many countries and non-state actors space capabilities as well.
"We worry a lot about advantage," the official said.
WASHINGTON: The United States (US) has informed the Canadian government that it plans to proceed with a formal request to extradite Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on allegations violation of US sanctions against Iran, the Globe and Mail reported on Monday (Jan 21).
However, Canada's ambassador to the US David MacNaughton, in an interview, did not say when the formal extradition request will be made but the deadline for filing it is Jan 30, according to the Globe and Mail.
Canada arrested Chinese telecoms giant Huawei's global CFO in Vancouver last month in relation to violations of US sanctions.
Huawei said it has no comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, while the US Justice Department officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
WASHINGTON: A high school student seen with classmates appearing to confront a Native American Vietnam war veteran near the Lincoln Memorial issued a statement on Sunday (Jan 20) that a video of the incident that went viral gave the false impression that the teens were instigators.
Nick Sandmann, a student from the private, all-male Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky, is seen in the video standing face to face with the Indian activist, Nathan Phillips, staring at him with a smile, while Phillips sang and played a drum.
The footage, shared online by organisers of an indigenous people's march that took place in Washington on Friday before the incident, shows a group of fellow Covington students surrounding Phillips and apparently mocking him.
Phillips recounted in a separate video that he heard the students chanting "build that wall", during the encounter.
The students, many wearing baseball caps emblazoned with President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, were in the nation's capital the same day for an anti-abortion rally.
The footage sparked outrage on social media and led the high school to issue a statement condemning the students' actions and promising an investigation.
But Sandmann, whose statement was tweeted by CNN anchor Jake Tapper late on Sunday, insisted the video was misinterpreted, leading to "outright lies being spread about my family and me".
He denied acting with any disrespect towards Phillips.
According to Sandmann, his group was waiting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for their bus back to Kentucky when four African American protesters nearby began shouting racially charged insults at them.
With permission from their teacher chaperones, the students responded by shouting "school spirit" chants to "drown out the hateful comments" directed at them.
In the midst of this interaction, Sandmann said, he noticed that a Native American protester - since identified as Phillips - "began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him".
"He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face," Sandmann recalled.
"I never interacted with this protester. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves," Sandmann wrote, adding that he was "startled and confused" as to why Phillips approached him.
Sandmann said he reasoned that by remaining "motionless and calm" he hoped to diffuse the situation.
His account was reinforced, at least in part, by a New York Times report on Sunday quoting Phillips, 64, as acknowledging he had approached the crowd of students in a bid to ease racial tensions that had flared between the mostly white teens and the African American protesters.
"I stepped in between to pray," said Phillips, an elder of Nebraska's Omaha tribe and a well-known activist who was among those leading the Standing Rock protests in 2016-2017 against construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Phillips could not be reached by reporters for comment over the weekend.
BALTIMORE, Maryland: At age 17, Joseph Sakran was shot in the throat after a high school football game - a life-threatening injury that set him on the path to becoming a doctor.
Now a trauma surgeon who fights to save shooting victims on the operating table, Sakran says gun violence in America is a health crisis that medical professionals can and should help address.
He has become the public face of a campaign to unite doctors, nurses and others who treat gun violence victims in an effort to reduce it, pushing back against the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby's assertion that the issue is none of their concern.
"When you look at firearm-related violence ... there's no question that it is a public health crisis that we are facing in this country," Sakran said at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he is director of emergency general surgery.
The 41-year-old doctor said that firearms deaths should be approached like other major threats to health, such as smoking and obesity.
"It falls under the injury prevention piece that we as clinicians and as scientists really consider as ... part of our responsibility," he said.
For Sakran - who said he has talked with "hundreds if not thousands" of gun owners, finding that "we actually have a lot more in common than we have that divides us" - the issue is not banning firearms.
"In the '60s and '70s, when people were dying from motor vehicle crashes, we didn't get rid of cars. We figured out, 'How do we make cars safer?'"
"THIS IS OUR LANE"
As someone who both survived a gunshot wound and treats them, Sakran was "a little bit incensed" when the NRA took aim at the involvement of doctors in the debate over gun violence.
Firearms killed nearly 40,000 people in the US in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And despite the scale of the problem, efforts to address it legislatively have long been largely deadlocked at the federal level.
"Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane," the NRA tweeted in November, calling out a particular medical journal for publishing what it deemed to be too many articles backing gun control.
"I think there was a significant amount of outrage from the medical community - and not just non-gun owners but also gun owners - for a group to say that we are not part of the solution," Sakran said.
He started the @ThisIsOurLane account on Twitter, which currently has over 28,000 followers.
Sakran is one of the leaders of a campaign of the same name and has argued on social media, in print and on television that medical professionals are in fact "in their lane" when discussing gun violence.
This Is Our Lane has several aims: communicating about firearms violence, research, educating medical professionals about how to discuss issues such as safe gun storage with patients, and pushing for "common-sense legislation to be passed," he said.
And while it came about as a response to the NRA's message, This Is Our Lane is ultimately "not about us versus them," Sakran said.
"This is really about ... working together to engage as Americans and ensure that we're making communities safer."
"ON THE FRONT LINE"
Sakran's journey to becoming a doctor began in 1994, when he was spending time with friends after the first football game of the high school season in Burke, Virginia.
A fight broke out and Sakran saw a flash as someone opened fire, striking him in the neck and another person in the shoulder.
"I noticed very quickly that I must have been hit because I had a lot of blood all over me," he said.
He made it to the street curb and sat down, but was drenched in so much blood that it was difficult to determine where he had been shot.
When his friends tried to lay him down, he started to choke.
Sakran was brought to an area hospital, where a piece of vein was taken out of his leg to patch up his carotid artery.
He was hospitalized for weeks, required multiple operations and still bears scars on his neck from the surgery that saved him.
"That moment really inspired me, inspired me to go into medicine, it inspired me to become a trauma surgeon," Sakran said.
He eventually returned to that same hospital as an emergency room technician and later as a medical student and a surgical resident, training with the same people who saved his life.
For Sakran, medical professionals have a unique perspective on gun violence from treating and caring for its victims and their families, one they can bring into the discussion.
"We're on the front line of taking care of the patients that are being injured and brought into our trauma centers," he said. "We see them in their most vulnerable and difficult times."
WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump laid out a White House feast fit for a government shutdown on Monday: Silver platters heaped high with McDonald's quarter pounders and the red-and-white burger wrappers of Wendy's.
White House chefs normally would serve much fancier fare underneath the stern gaze of the portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room.
But they are furloughed, staying home without paychecks as Trump fights with Congress over funding the federal government.
The White House said Trump himself sprang for what he pronounced to be "great American food" for the visiting Clemson Tigers, winners of the US college football championship.
"We have pizzas, we have 300 hamburgers, many, many french fries, all of our favourite foods," Trump told reporters, as one White House worker still on the job lit tapered candles.
"I want to see what’s here when we leave, because I don’t think it’s going to be much," Trump said, before the players, dressed in dapper suits, flooded the room and piled their plates high.
Asked to name his own favorite fast food -- as he stood smiling behind the gargantuan spread -- Trump demurred, insisting: "I like them all."
"If it's American, I like it. It's all American stuff."
About a quarter of the federal government has been shut down for the past 24 days after Trump dug in on a campaign pledge to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, demanding US$5.7 billion from Congress for the project. Democrats have rejected his demand.
Trump told the players afterward that he did not want to postpone the event until after the shutdown - which is already the longest in history - ended.
"The reason we did this is because of the shutdown," he said. "We want to make sure that everything is right, so we sent out, we got this."
MELBOURNE: A woman was injured after an overhead traffic sign crashed onto a freeway in Melbourne, Australia last Tuesday (Jan 8), crushing her car, according to Australian media reports.
The metal sign measuring 5m by 4m was part welded and bolted to an overhead structure when it fell during evening peak hour traffic.
She was taken to hospital where she was said to be in a "stable condition".
"It felt like a roller door had slammed shut in front of me," Ms Lettieri told reporters.
"I've gone to swerve, but as I swerved, it just felt like the sign was actually falling on the car. And it just kept bouncing, and I felt like it was pushing me to the right."
Authorities launched an investigation following the incident, but deemed the freeway safe.
VicRoads, the road and traffic authority in the state of Victoria, brought in an independent reviewer to get to the bottom of the incident, reported ABC News.
"It's too early to talk about the detailed findings of that investigation, there's a lot of work that needs to be done," said VicRoads deputy chief executive Robyn Seymour when asked about the seeming appearance of rust at the bottom of the sign, according to reporters.
"At this point we don't know what's caused it. We really need to have metal specialists looking at the sign, as well as our engineers.
"We really need to, and we want to, get to the bottom of what went wrong in this situation so that we can ensure that it doesn't happen again."
As a precaution following the incident, a second sign on the gantry at the centre of the incident has been taken down for an inspection, said reporters.
"They have taken down one other sign on that cantilever," Victoria's Acting Premier, Tim Pallas, said, as quoted by reporters.
"Because people, with a fair degree of reason, would be concerned about signage on that section of freeway, the major road projects authority has overnight inspected all the signs and have satisfied themselves that those signs are in good order."
Seymour also assured that similar-sized signs and gantries around the state were being audited. So far, no issues were uncovered in the first six audits carried out, said reporters.
WASHINGTON: The US military has removed some equipment from Syria, a defense official confirmed Thursday (Jan 10), following a report that the drawdown ordered by President Donald Trump is now underway.
"I can confirm the movement of equipment from Syria," the official told reporters. "For security reasons, I am not going to provide further details at this time."
Trump's shock announcement on Dec 19 that he was withdrawing all 2,000 American troops from the conflict-wracked Middle Eastern country concerned allies and prompted the resignation of his then defense chief Jim Mattis.
Since then, however, administration officials appear to have walked back considerably and the current envisaged timetable is unclear.
The removal of the equipment in recent days was first reported by CNN, which quoted an administration official with direct knowledge of the operation as saying it signaled the beginning of US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern country.
The official quoted by reporters would not describe exactly what the cargo was or how it was being transported.
They also did not say what part of Syria it came from, though it is expected the drawdown would begin in the country's north.
The CNN report added that officials it had previously spoken to said the Pentagon wants to signal to the president it is working towards his goals following his withdrawal decision last month.
Though the removal of troops is not on the cards immediately, withdrawing equipment is a means of showing progress towards this goal, it added.
On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton set out stringent conditions for the proposed withdrawal, saying the defense of allies must first be assured.
"We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again," Bolton said when meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Speaking in Egypt Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed the troop pullout from Syria would go ahead as he urged Middle East nations to forge a common stand against Tehran.
SYDNEY: A woman and a child were bitten by a shark in the popular Whitsunday Islands near Australia's Great Barrier Reef on Thursday (Jan 10) in the latest of a string of such attacks, reports and officials said.
The Queensland state ambulance service said the pair were rushed to hospital with leg and foot wounds from the attack along a beach on Hamilton Island, but the injuries were not life-threatening.
Local media said the victims were a woman and young child playing in the shallow waters of the island's Catseye Beach.
It was the latest in a series of shark attacks in waters around the Whitsunday islands, which had been considered safe for swimming.
One man died of his injuries from an attack in November, and a 12-year-old girl lost a leg after another mauling in September.
Australia has one of the world's highest incidences of shark attacks, but fatalities remain rare.
There were 20 "unprovoked" shark attacks off the vast continent's coast in 2018, though only one was fatal, according to data compiled by the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
Hamilton island grabbed global headlines in 2009 when 34,000 people entered a competition to land the "Best Job in the World" - a six-month stint as "caretaker" of the idyllic destination.
BEIJING: US and Chinese negotiators extended trade war talks into a third day on Wednesday (Jan 9), with President Donald Trump boasting that discussions to resolve the dispute were going "very well".
An American delegation has been in Beijing since Monday for the first sit-down talks since Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to a three-month truce on Dec 1.
Asian markets rose on increasing optimism that the two sides would be able to hammer out a deal ahead of a March deadline and avert further import tariff hikes.
"Talks with China are going very well!" Trump tweeted after the second day of negotiations on Tuesday.
The US delegation, led by Deputy Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish, was supposed to end its visit on Tuesday.
But a US government official told reporters on condition of anonymity that "the trade talks have continued today (Wednesday)", without providing more information.
Washington has been clamouring for an end to the alleged forced transfer - and even theft - of American technology, as well as steep government subsidies for Chinese companies.
The Trump administration also wants Beijing to buy more American goods to narrow a yawning trade gap and allow foreign players better access to the Chinese market.
Neither Chinese nor US officials have given any details about the discussions.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross signalled in a CNBC interview on Monday that there was a "very good chance" of reaching an agreement.
China's economy was more vulnerable to the fallout from the trade war, he said, noting that Beijing exports more goods to the United States than the other way around.
"I think a deal is very possible and I've heard some very encouraging words," Apple chief executive Tim Cook told reporters.
"I don't speak for them obviously," Cook said in reference to the Trump administration. "I do talk with them and I give them my ideas and thoughts."
The US smartphone maker has felt the pinch of the bruising trade spat, and warned that 2018 revenues would miss its forecast - in large part due to a slump in iPhone sales in China.
The temporary ceasefire came after the two sides imposed import duties on more than US$300 billion of each other's goods.
Without a resolution, punitive US duty rates on US$200 billion in Chinese goods are due to rise to 25 per cent from 10 per cent on Mar 2.
The current trade round coincided with an unannounced visit from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for talks with Xi in Beijing ahead of a possible second meeting between Kim and Trump.
China - Pyongyang's sole diplomatic ally and main source of trade - said it would not use Kim's visit as a bargaining chip in the US trade talks.