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Church nativity scene depicts Holy Family as caged refugees


CLAREMONT, Calif. (Reuters) – A Methodist church in Southern California has turned a classic Christmas tradition – the Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus – into a statement about immigration by putting the Holy Family in cages.

A sculpture of Mary, depicted as a refugee in a cage, forms part of a Nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, California, U.S. December 9, 2019. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

The United Methodist Church in Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, built the display last weekend to draw attention to the plight of migrants and refugees in the United States.

“We don’t see this as political at all, we see this as theological,” said the church’s pastor, Reverend Karen Clark Ristine. “We know that this infant baby Jesus … grew up to be a Christ who calls us to compassion for our neighbor, compassion for one another.”The Nativity display, which was installed Sunday night, shows the Holy family separated in their own cages each topped with barbed wire. The baby Jesus is wrapped in silver Mylar, similar to ones given to migrants at detention centers to use as blankets.

While the church makes no mention of Trump administration policies, some visitors saw it as a slam against the president.

“I think is disgusting. I think it’s political and this is aimed at Trump,” said Tony Papa, who came to the display. “If I were a member of this church, I’d drop out, I really would, it’s very disgusting.”

SANCTUARY STATUTESPresident Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a central issue of his 2020 re-election campaign. His administration has worked to restrict asylum access in the United States in an effort to curb the number of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump and his top officials have argued that most migrants travel to the United States for economic reasons and lack valid claims to protection.

California, which shares a border with Mexico, has adopted “sanctuary” statutes that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement when it comes to rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants.

Irene Reyes, a tourist from Arizona, stopped by the nativity scene and became emotional as she talked about its message.”That’s what’s actually happening,” she said about the migrant children detained in cages at detention centers along the border earlier this year. “And it’s like it was brought out to the world and then nothing happened.

“And if you think about it now during the holidays, that these kids, sorry, aren’t with their families and what are we going to do about it? … Like we see it and then we close our eyes to it and it’s not right,” Reyes said.

Reporting by Norma Galeana; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Michael Perry

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FBI thinks Saudi shooter acted alone, Florida governor decries ‘deep-seated’ hatred


PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) – Investigators believe a Saudi Air Force lieutenant acted alone when he killed three people and wounded eight at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, before being fatally shot by a deputy sheriff, the FBI said on Sunday.

But they have yet to determine a motive for the rampage, even though fellow Saudi students at the base who were close to the shooter are cooperating with investigators, said Rachel Rojas, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville office and lead investigator on the case.

Rojas said the FBI was working, as it does in most mass shootings, on the presumption that it was an act of terrorism, but she stressed that was largely to allow investigators to use special tools afforded to them in terrorism cases.

“We are looking very hard at uncovering his motive and I would ask for patience so we can get this right,” she said, adding that 80 FBI special agents, 100 support staff and scores of other investigators from the Navy and multiple federal agencies were working the case.

The FBI identified the shooter as Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, and said he opened fire inside a classroom at the base early on Friday morning.

Rojas said the pistol he used – a Glock 9mm handgun that can be paired with a magazine holding 33 rounds – was legally purchased by the shooter somewhere in Florida. According to U.S. regulations, it is legal for a foreigner in the United States on a nonimmigrant visa to buy a gun if certain conditions are met – including if they simply have a hunting license.

Alshamrani was on the base as part of a U.S. Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies. He had started training in the United States in 2017 and had been in the Pensacola area for the past 18 months, authorities said.

His fellow Saudi students were speaking directly with American investigators and were restricted to the base on order of the Saudi military, Rojas said.

“I thank the kingdom for their pledge of full and complete cooperation,” she added.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were “devastated” by what took place and pledged to help families of the victims.

But members of Congress representing Florida have blasted the U.S. government for not already labeling the shooting as a terrorist attack and have demanded more details about what the Saudi government is doing to help the investigation and prevent future violence by members of its military.

The attack comes as the Trump administration has maintained warm ties with Riyadh amid Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, high tensions with Middle East rival Iran, and continued political fallout from the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, airman accused of killing three people at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, is seen in an undated military identification card photo released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation December 7, 2019. FBI/Handout via REUTERS.

A group that tracks online extremism has said Alshamrani appeared to have posted criticism of U.S. wars in predominantly Muslim countries and quoted slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Twitter hours before the shooting spree.

In English, he also wrote that he hated the American people for “committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity,” and he criticized Washington’s support for Israel, according to analysis by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Reuters has not verified the authenticity of the account, @M&MD_SHAMRANI, which was suspended by Twitter on Friday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking at a Sunday afternoon press conference, answered “yes, yes” when asked if he considered the shooting an act of terrorism.

“There is a lot of frustration in our state over this,” DeSantis said. “You have foreign military personnel coming to our base. They should not be doing that if they hate our country.”

DeSantis said Alshamrani took advantage of a “federal loophole” to buy the gun he used, and he confirmed that the suspect, since arriving in the United States in 2017, made a return trip to Saudi Arabia and also recently visited New York. The governor declined to give further details.

“He had a deep-seated hatred for the United States,” DeSantis said. “For us to be bringing in these foreign nationals, you have to take precautions. Bringing in people from Saudi Arabia – we need to be on guard against that.”

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Alshamrani was one of about 200 foreigners at the Pensacola base and thousands around the United States who participate in military training, a program that U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said was “very important to our national security.”

Esper told “Fox News Sunday” that he had asked top defense officials to make sure all necessary precautions were taken to ensure safety at military installations, and that he asked the Pentagon to review screening procedures for military personnel from other countries coming to the United States for training.

Those personnel were already screened by the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, Esper said.

Reporting by Brad Brooks; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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Prosecutors seek to up Harvey Weinstein’s bail, citing violations


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has at times failed to wear a required electronic tracking device, New York prosecutors said Friday, asking a judge to increase his bail to $5 million, from $1 million, as he awaits trial on sexual assault charges.

Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi made the request at a hearing before Justice James Burke in Manhattan state court. She said Weinstein had failed to wear an electronic transmitter that works in tandem with his ankle bracelet on “numerous” occasions.

“It is the people’s position that none of those ‘bracelet gone’ violations were accidental,” she said.

Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, said the violations were a “technical” problem and that her client had never tried to flee, arguing that there was no need to increase his bail. She noted that he had always appeared on time for every court date.

Burke did not make a decision, but scheduled another hearing on the issue for next Wednesday.

Weinstein, 67, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he sexually assaulted two women, one in 2006 and another in 2013. His trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 6, 2020.

Weinstein has been accused of sexual misconduct dating back decades by more than 70 women. He has denied the allegations, saying any sexual encounters were consensual.

The accusations against Weinstein helped spark the #MeToo movement in late 2017, in which hundreds of women have claimed sexual misconduct by powerful men in entertainment, business, media, politics and other fields.

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In addition to the two main accusers in the case, prosecutors have said they intend to call other women to testify at trial in order to establish a pattern of behavior.

Weinstein has sought to block some of that testimony. Burke has not ruled on the issue.

Weinstein could face a life sentence if found guilty. Burke last week denied Weinstein’s bid to dismiss some of the charges.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Richard Chang

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Special Report: 2020 U.S. census plagued by hacking threats, cost overruns


(Reuters) – In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau faced a pivotal choice in its plan to digitize the nation’s once-a-decade population count: build a system for collecting and processing data in-house, or buy one from an outside contractor.

FILE PHOTO: An informational pamphlet is displayed at an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

The bureau chose Pegasystems Inc, reasoning that outsourcing would be cheaper and more effective.

Three years later, the project faces serious reliability and security problems, according to Reuters interviews with six technology professionals currently or formerly involved in the census digitization effort. And its projected cost has doubled to $167 million — about $40 million more than the bureau’s 2016 cost projection for building the site in-house.

The Pega-built website was hacked from IP addresses in Russia during 2018 testing of census systems, according to two security sources with direct knowledge of the incident. One of the sources said an intruder bypassed a “firewall” and accessed parts of the system that should have been restricted to census developers.

“He got into the network,” one of the sources said. “He got into where the public is not supposed to go.”

In a separate incident during the same test, an IP address affiliated with the census site experienced a domain name service attack, causing a sharp increase in traffic, according to one of the two sources and a third source with direct knowledge of the incident.

Neither incident resulted in system damage or stolen data, the sources said. But both raised alarms among census security staff about the ability of the bureau and its outside security contractor, T-Rex Solutions, to defend the system against more sophisticated cyberattacks, according to five sources who worked on census security, as well as internal messages from security officials that were reviewed by Reuters.

Among the messages, posted on an internal security registry seen by Reuters, was a note observing that T-Rex’s staff lacked adequate forensic capability as recently as June of this year. “In the event of a real-world event such as a significant malware infection,” the team would be “severely limited in its capability to definitively tell the story of what occurred,” the message said.

One of the sources with direct knowledge of the hack involving Russian IP addresses described the internal Census Bureau reaction as a “panic.” The incidents prompted multiple meetings to address security concerns, said the two sources and a third census security source.

Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook declined to comment on the incidents described to Reuters by census security sources. He said no data was stolen during the 2018 system test and that the bureau’s systems worked as designed.

The work of Pega and T-Rex is part of the bureau’s $5 billion push to modernize the census and move it online for the first time. The project involves scores of technology contractors building dozens of systems for collecting, processing and storing data and training census workers for the once-a-decade count. T-Rex’s security work is projected to cost taxpayers up to $1.4 billion, according to the census budget, making it the largest recipient of the more than $3.1 billion that the bureau set aside for contracts.

The problems with Pega and T-Rex reflect the Census Bureau’s broader struggle to execute the digitization project. The effort has been marred by security mishaps, missed deadlines and cost overruns, according to Reuters interviews over the past several months with more than 30 people involved in the effort.

“The IT is really in jeopardy,” said Kane Baccigalupi, a private security consultant who previously worked on the census project for two years as a member of the federal digital services agency 18F, part of the General Services Administration. “They’ve gone with a really expensive solution that isn’t going to work.”

The potential costs of a hacking incident or a system failure go beyond busted budgets or stolen data. A technological breakdown could compromise the accuracy of the census, which has been a linchpin of American democracy since the founding of the republic more than two centuries ago.

The U.S. Constitution requires a decennial census to determine each state’s representation in Congress and to guide the allocation of as much as $1.5 trillion a year in federal funds. Census data is also crucial to a broad array of research conducted by government agencies, academics and businesses, which rely on accurate demographic statistics to craft marketing plans and choose locations for factories or stores.

In a worst-case scenario, according to security experts, poorly secured data could be accessed by hackers looking to manipulate demographic figures for political purposes. For example, they could add or subtract Congressional seats allocated to states by altering their official population statistics.

The Census Bureau says its information-technology overhaul is on-track. Systems supporting initial census operations – such as creating its address database and hiring workers – are “fully integrated with one another, performance-tested, and deployed on schedule and within budget,” bureau spokesman Cook said.

Cook said that the bureau had conducted a “bug bounty,” a bulletproofing practice in which benevolent hackers are invited to search for vulnerabilities. He called the effort successful but declined to provide details for security reasons.

Lisa Pintchman, a spokeswoman for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Pega, said the company was selected through a “very rigorous process” and stands by its work. T-Rex, headquartered in Maryland, declined to comment.

The escalating costs and reliability concerns for Pega’s front-end website have prompted the bureau to consider reverting to an in-house system, which remains under construction as a backup, according to three technology professionals involved in the census project. Census spokesman Cook confirmed that the in-house system, called Primus, would be available for use if needed next year.

This exclusive account of the Census Bureau’s technology troubles comes after government oversight agencies have chronicled other security problems, delays and cost overruns.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the fiscal watchdog for Congress, has said the 2020 census is at high risk for a breach or system outage that could prevent people from filling out surveys. The GAO has also said the bureau’s information technology systems won’t be fully tested before the census kicks off for almost all Americans on April 1, 2020, and that 15 of the bureau’s systems – including Pega’s data collection mechanism – were at risk of missing development deadlines ahead of the census.

The Inspector General of the Department of Commerce, meanwhile, in October announced plans to audit the bureau’s technology operations, months after identifying mismanagement of its cloud data-storage system that left it vulnerable to hackers.

Cook declined to comment on the audit but said the bureau is poised to “conduct the most automated, modern, and dynamic decennial census in history.”

The effort to move the census online aims to streamline the counting process, improve accuracy, and rein in cost increases as the population rises and survey response rates decline. Adjusting for 2020 dollars, the 1970 census cost $1.1 billion, a figure that rose steadily to $12.3 billion by 2010, the most recent count. The 2020 tally is projected at $15.6 billion, including a $1.5 billion allowance for cost overruns.

The bureau’s technology woes mounted outside the limelight, as Washington focused on the Trump administration’s push to add a question asking census respondents if they were U.S. citizens, part of a larger effort to curb illegal immigration.

The president abandoned that effort in July after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected it, cheering civil rights groups who had worried it would dissuade immigrants from responding and cost their communities political representation and federal dollars. Still, an October 18 study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that more than one-fifth of Hispanics say they may not participate in next year’s census, compared to 12% of whites.

‘SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE’

The census technology overhaul got off to a late start, in part because Congress gave the bureau less funding than it requested for most of the decade. Pressed for time, bureau leadership at times prioritized speed over security, according to four people familiar with the bureau’s security operations.

New technology systems, they said, were tested in settings that were vulnerable to hackers despite carrying unresolved risks that had been identified by the bureau’s in-house security team. The testing was authorized by bureau leadership and supported by T-Rex, over the objections of the in-house security officials, who wanted the vulnerabilities fixed first, three of the people said. It stoked internal tensions that ultimately led one security boss to quit his post, the people said.

The Census Bureau’s Cook declined to comment on whether the testing was done over the objections of in-house security officials but said that the bureau follows a strict protocol to minimize risk.

The bureau began rolling out its technology plans in 2014, promising a technological tour-de-force with 52 separate systems. Twenty-seven of them will be used for collecting census data, which include building the website where respondents submit forms and the tools used by door-knockers tasked with nudging stragglers.

Most of the Census Bureau’s $5 billion in technology spending has gone to seven main contractors, who together have tapped another 41 companies as subcontractors, according to public presentations by the Census Bureau in 2018.

Within months of the rollout, government advisors from two outside agencies – the U.S. Digital Service and 18F – began warning officials off the sprawling approach, according to Baccigalupi and five other people familiar with the discussions. The outside advisers urged a simpler system, one that would be easier to defend against hacks and glitches.

The Digital Service was created in 2014 by President Barack Obama after the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov, the website meant to allow Americans to sign up for health insurance under Obamacare. Design flaws left the site overwhelmed by higher-than-expected traffic and prevented many users from registering for weeks. Digital Service officials saw the 2020 census as a potential repeat of that fiasco, two of the people said.

The General Service Administration’s 18F unit – named for the address of its Washington, D.C. office – functions like a private-sector consultant and is paid by agencies seeking technology help.

18F declined to comment for this story, and the Digital Service did not respond to requests for comment.

The debate between Census Bureau leadership and its advisors from the Digital Service and 18F focused on two broad approaches to software production: monolithic versus modular.

A monolithic framework – like the one envisioned by Census Bureau officials – bundles different functions into one system. In the case of the census, that could mean a system that allows people to answer the survey on a website, translates incoming responses into data and stores it. Monolithic systems can be easier to build, but critics say they become hopelessly complex when something goes wrong. A problem with one function can shutdown the whole process.

“It’s a single point of failure,” Baccigalupi said.

In a modular system, by contrast, engineers build different pieces of software for each function, then write code to allow them to interact. While it’s more challenging to move data through different components, the risk of a system collapse is much smaller. If one function breaks, others can still work while it’s repaired.

Census officials brought in 18F and Digital Service consultants on long-term secondments to help with aspects of the project but largely ignored their recommendations to take a more modular approach, said 18F’s Baccigalupi and Marianne Bellotti, a former agent at the Digital Service who consulted on the project in 2017.

“I told them pretty consistently in 2017: If you suffer a denial-of-service attack, I’m not sure your architecture can withstand it,” Bellotti said.

In a denial-of-service attack, a hacker tries to prevent legitimate users from accessing a program, often by overwhelming it with more connection requests than it can process. Any extended outages during the census would reduce response rates, compromising the accuracy of the data and making it more expensive to collect.

Cook, the Census spokesman, did not comment on why the bureau chose a more monolithic approach but said the consultants recommending against that path did not fully understand its systems.

“18F and USDS looked at portions of our systems and provided recommendations, but neither group had an overall understanding of how those systems integrated or their capabilities,” Cook said.

RISING COSTS

Bellotti and Baccigalupi say they told the bureau repeatedly in 2016 and 2017 that Pega’s technology wasn’t well-suited to its central tasks – building the self-response website and the mobile applications to be used by census door-knockers. Pega’s code, they argued, would require so much customization that the final product would be slow and prone to glitches.

“If you want to build the fastest car in the world, you build that car from scratch,” Baccigalupi said. “You don’t try to customize a tour bus until it’s the fastest car in the world.”

The Census Bureau’s outside advisers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute shared the concern and told the bureau in a 2016 memo, which was reviewed by Reuters, that commercial products such as Pega’s “are not designed to meet an organization’s specifications.”

Neither the bureau nor Pega commented on the assertion that the need for customization made the system expensive and unreliable.

Before hiring Pega, the bureau already had a workable system for data collection, built by in-house staff, Baccigalupi said. Starting in 2014, small teams had fashioned prototypes for online responses and mobile apps that seemed to work. The online response prototype, known as Primus, had been built at little cost beyond the salaries of the half-dozen or so coders.

The in-house systems were tested, and Primus was used in a real-world setting during smaller surveys conducted by the bureau. All performed well, John Thompson, who served as Census Bureau director from 2013 to 2017, said in an interview.

In a 2016 public report explaining its choice to go with an outside contractor, the bureau called Pega’s product a “commercial off-the-shelf solution” that could work with minimal alterations. Pega would do what Primus and the in-house mobile apps could do, but cheaper, with an estimated price tag of $84.5 million, compared to the $127 million forecast for building in-house. Pega would also supply other key functions, such as transferring user responses to data storage.

The reality was messier. Pega’s off-the-shelf solution has required so much modification that it has become “unrecognizable,” said one former Census Bureau official involved in the contracting process. In January 2018, the bureau nearly doubled Pega’s cost estimate to $167.3 million. It has spent about $149 million so far.

Contract documents reviewed by Reuters showed about $121 million of Pega’s contract has gone toward “contracting services,” a category that two former bureau contracting officials said typically refers to the labor required to write and customize code. The figure is more than 13 times Pega’s initial estimate for contracting services.

The bureau did not comment on the escalating costs. Pintchman, the Pega spokeswoman, said the work is “on budget” and that “any changes in estimates would be a result of changes in project scope as well as the Census Bureau identifying additional opportunities for us to add value.”

Thompson, who ran the bureau at the time it decided on Pega, described the decision as a “tough call.” While Thompson and his team viewed Primus as capable of scaling up for the 2020 Census, he said the prospects for scaling up the in-house prototypes for census-worker mobile apps were less certain.

As Pega’s problems have become more clear, Census officials have considered reverting to Primus, the in-house system, for data collection, said three sources familiar with the bureau’s thinking. As recently as this summer, they were instructing employees “to build Primus out, in case it was needed,” said one of those people.

SECURITY INCIDENTS

The only full-scale test of the system took place in Providence, Rhode Island, last year. The bureau conducted a kind of dress rehearsal – essentially a mini-census, with respondent data collected and stored online.

That’s when the system was accessed from IP addresses in Russia, the two census security sources said. Other hackers launched a domain name system attack on the website, which one source described as similar to a denial-of-service attack.

The domain name system attack was not as worrisome as what it revealed about the abilities of T-Rex to respond to such a threat, according to five people involved in census security.

T-Rex staffers “didn’t know how to access the cybersecurity defense tools that were in place, and they didn’t know what to look for,” said a person familiar with the operation. This source added that the bureau had purchased a license to use forensic-analysis software, called EnCase, to investigate hacks more than a year earlier, but T-Rex had yet to fully integrate EnCase into the security system when the security incidents occurred.

T-Rex’s security work had encountered trouble early on. The GAO reported that, by June of 2018, Census’ Office of Information Security (OIS) had flagged more than 3,000 security compliance deficiencies, 2,700 of which were related to components being developed by T-Rex.

OIS voiced concern over the flags and recommended addressing the bulk of them before testing, according to two security officials familiar with the matter. But bureau leadership authorized live-testing of the systems anyway to keep the project on schedule, the people said. The bureau’s Office of Information Security chief, Jeff Jackson, quit his post in October out of frustration over his office’s lack of influence on the project, two sources familiar with the matter said. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.

A June report by the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General called attention to other snafus. It revealed that, for a prolonged stretch in 2018, the bureau lost the codes needed to gain unrestricted access to its Amazon-based cloud data-storage system. Without the codes, the IG reported, the bureau could not have stopped a hacker from accessing or destroying data stored in the cloud.

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The IG, in an October 17 letter to Census Director Steven Dillingham, said it would “immediately” begin auditing the bureau’s technology to “determine the effectiveness of security measures.”

Baccigalupi, the former 18F consultant, called the project’s problems to date “infuriating” given the high cost to taxpayers, and said the bureau’s internal staff could have built the systems better and cheaper.

“Those teams are eager to do it,” Baccigalupi said, “and demoralized to see bad and expensive software going out instead.”

Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot

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U.S. snowstorms turn Thanksgiving holiday travel into a nightmare


FILE PHOTO: A line of jets wait to takeoff after a pre-Thanksgiving holiday snowstorm caused more than 460 flight cancellations at Denver International Airport, Colorado, U.S., November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Heavy snows in the United States closed roads and canceled nearly 900 flights on what was forecast to be the busiest day of the year for highways and airports, stranding hordes of travelers trying to head home on Sunday after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The storm was expected to dump 12 inches (30.48 cm) of snow on the western part of the Boston metro area by Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Heavy snow and freezing rain was forecast overnight across a vast area stretching from the Great Lakes across the Northeast. Blizzards pounded the Great Plains and upper Midwest all day Sunday and heavy rains hit the West Coast.

Flight cancellations and delays mounted through the day, most in airports in San Francisco, Newark, and Boston. At 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, 881 flights were canceled and 7,122 delayed, according to FlightAware.com.

Airlines for America, an industry trade organization, forecast that a record 3.1 million passengers would fly on Sunday, which it said would be the busiest day ever. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is also the busiest day of the year for roadways, according to the American Automobile Association.

All told, some 55 million people tried to take to the air roads, rails and waterways to make it home from their holiday feast.

“This has been a really long-lived and intense storm that effected the entire nation for the past five or six days,” said Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center. “It’s reforming and taking aim directly at the Northeast.”

Burke said that even a slight shift in the forecasted path of the East Coast storm in the coming hours could mean far more snow for major cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

(The story corrects number of flights canceled in first paragraph; Adds exact number of flights canceled and delayed in fourth paragraph)

Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell

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Factbox: Quotes from shoppers as they scour for the best deals on Black Friday


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Shoppers headed out to stores across the United States in a quest to score the best Black Friday discounts on everything from handbags to 4K TVs, with early promotions marking the start of a condensed holiday shopping season.

People wait in line to pay for purchases at Best Buy during a sales event on Thanksgiving day in Westbury, New York, U.S., November 28, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The following are quotes from shoppers and store managers in the midst of America’s biggest shopping day:

DICK DOYLE, 76, RETIRED, SHOPPING AT MODELL’S SPORTING GOODS IN VIRGINIA:

“I will come to the mall, look at prices and go back and check them online. Prices and discounts online are competitive to what’s available in stores.”

MARIAH BERRY, 22, UNIQLO TRAINEE SUPERVISOR, CHICAGO

“We tend to have more deals in-store, so people come in rather than go online … The only problem today is we didn’t expect how slow it would be. It’s the same with Macy’s and all the others, but that’s been surprising.”

ANTHONY WRIGHT JR, 26, ENGINEERING PHD STUDENT, SHOPPING AT BEST BUY (BBY.N) IN CHICAGO:

“We literally drove by at 2 o’clock after looking at YouTube videos of people sleeping outside. There weren’t really a lot of people so we went back home and came back around six.”

EVAN HOUSER, 22, ELECTRONICS SALESMAN AT TARGET (TGT.N) IN DOWNTOWN CHICAGO:

“It’s slow now because we had a big, big rush last night – we had a line around the block from like 4:30.”

SERGE MENENG, 48, ENGINEER, SHOPPING AT COSTCO (COST.O) IN VIRGINIA:

“I came in to Costco this morning, hoping to get a good deal on a Canon camera I have been wanting to buy and I checked the price online versus in-store and it was better here.”

MONYETTA MONK, 30, WORKS IN EMERGENCY AT A HOSPITAL, SHOPPING AT TARGET (TGT.N) IN VIRGINIA:

“We are doing some Christmas shopping and for some birthdays between now and the end of the year. We came out this morning for a popular LOL toy and were able to save $30. Target is very competitive when it comes toys.”

Reporting by Melissa Fares, Andrew Kelly and Shannon Stapleton in New York, Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Richa Naidu in Chicago and Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Maju Samuel

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Two injured in TPC Port Neches, Texas chemical plant blast: official


HOUSTON (Reuters) – Two workers were injured in an early Wednesday explosion at TPC Group’s chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, that felt more than 30 miles (48 kms) away from the plant, said a law enforcement official.

KFDM-TV in Beaumont, Texas, quoted Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick saying all workers had been accounted for following the blast that shattered windows and blew doors of their hinges.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said two injured people were taken to an area hospital.

Captain Crystal Holmes of the sheriff’s office said rescuers were “able to pull two injured employees out.”

The plant employs 175 and routinely has 50 contract workers on site.

A company spokesman was not immediately available to discuss the blaze.

The extent of the injuries were unknown, said five sources familiar with the fire-fighting and rescue operations in Port Neches.

Residents within a half-mile (0.8 KM) of the plant were ordered to evacuate.

Holmes said in addition to search and rescue operations in the plant, police officers were going door-to-door in nearby neighborhoods to check for injured people.

Some homes sustained heavy damage from the initial explosion and several secondary blasts, the sources said.

Firefighters continued to battle the blaze two hours after the first explosion, which occurred at about 1 a.m. local time (0700 GMT), the sources said.

The Port Neches plant can produce more than 900 million pounds (408,233 metric tons) of chemicals, according to the company’s website.

Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston and K. Sathya Narayanan in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Arpan Varghese, editing by Louise Heavens

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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U.S. defense secretary fires Navy chief over handling of SEAL saga


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the Navy’s top civilian after losing confidence in him over his handling of the high-profile case of a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct in Iraq, the Pentagon said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing the closing NASDAQ bell for Veterans Day in New York, New York, November 11, 2019. DoD/Lisa Ferdinando/Handout via REUTERS

Esper also determined that the sailor in question, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, should be allowed to retain his Trident pin designating him as a SEAL – effectively ending the Navy’s efforts to carry out a peer review that could have led to his ouster from the elite force.

President Donald Trump had publicly opposed taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin. Trump had already intervened in Gallagher’s case earlier this month, using his authority to restore the decorated officer’s rank and pay and allow him to retire later this year on a full pension.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer made headlines last week for suggesting a possible split with Trump by saying Gallagher should face a peer review board.

But Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Spencer also had a private line of communications with the White House.

“Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Spencer never informed Esper of his private proposal, Hoffman said.

Esper decided to ask for Spencer’s resignation after “losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House,” Hoffman said.

Gallagher, 40, was demoted in rank and pay grade after being convicted by a military jury in July of illegally posing for pictures with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter.

On Nov. 15, the White House said in a statement that Trump had restored Gallagher’s rank and had pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Critics had said such actions would undermine military justice and send a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, Gallagher indicated that he hoped to retire next Saturday, “without the board” convening to decide whether he could continue to be a SEAL, considered among the most elite of U.S. fighting forces.

Reporting by Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle and Howard Schneider; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Cooney

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Trump travels to Delaware base to honor two U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan


DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Thursday to receive the remains of two American soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan this week.

Trump, who met with families of the soldiers, was accompanied at the base by first lady Melania Trump, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

The president and the other officials looked on as six military personnel in army fatigues, white gloves and black berets lifted the flag-draped transfer cases onto a van.

The Pentagon on Thursday identified the two soldiers as Chief Warrant Officer David Knadle of Tarrant, Texas, and Chief Warrant Officer Kirk Fuchigami Jr. of Keaau, Hawaii.

The U.S. military said the cause of the Wednesday crash in Logar province south of the capital, Kabul, was under investigation but preliminary reports did not indicate it was caused by enemy fire. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter.

The crash came after the Taliban swapped two Western hostages for three of its commanders held by the Afghan government, raising hopes of a thaw in relations between the militant group and coalition forces.

In September, Trump canceled peace talks with Taliban leaders aimed at ending their 18-year war after the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Slideshow (6 Images)

The surprise move left in doubt the future of a draft accord that offered a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

Actor Jon Voight, a Trump supporter who received a National Medal of the Arts from the president at the White House earlier on Thursday, accompanied Trump on the visit to the Dover base and called the experience “very powerful.”

“Who can speak for these families and what they’re going through?” he told reporters after the transfer. “So respectful and so dignified. It must be some comfort that their children were cherished by their country.”

Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Peter Cooney, Robert Birsel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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