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WORLD BRIEFLY: Lawmakers object to NSA phone-call surveillance

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | 5:56 p.m. CDT; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Here are today's top national and world news stories, according to The Associated Press.

Congress threatens to curtail surveillance power over NSA phone data

WASHINGTON — In a heated confrontation over domestic spying, members of Congress said Wednesday they never intended to allow the National Security Agency to build a database of every phone call in America. And they threatened to curtail the government's surveillance authority.

Top Obama administration officials countered that the once-secret program was legal and necessary to keep America safe. And they left open the possibility that they could build similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.

The clash on Capitol Hill undercut President Barack Obama's assurances that Congress had fully understood the dramatic expansion of government power it authorized repeatedly over the past decade.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing also represented perhaps the most public, substantive congressional debate on surveillance powers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Previous debates have been largely theoretical and legalistic, with officials in the Bush and Obama administrations keeping the details hidden behind the cloak of classified information.

That changed last month when former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents to the Guardian newspaper revealing that the NSA collects every American's phone records, knowing that the overwhelming majority of people have no ties to terrorism.

House GOP pushes for delay in health care law requirements

WASHINGTON — House Republicans pressed ahead Wednesday on delaying key components of President Barack Obama's signature health care law, emboldened by the administration's concession that requiring companies to provide coverage for their workers next year may be too complicated.

The House has scheduled votes later Wednesday to delay the law's individual and employer mandates, the 38th time the GOP majority has tried to eliminate, defund or scale back the program since Republicans took control of the House in January 2011.

The votes were a chance to score political points, as the legislation is going nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, public unease with the law and the Republican attacks clearly caused consternation at the White House.

Eager to counter the Republican criticism, Obama plans to deliver remarks Thursday focusing on rebates that consumers are already receiving from insurance companies under the health care law.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will draw attention to the 8.5 million consumers who have received an average consumer rebate of about $100. Carney also highlighted reports that some states are already anticipating lower premiums under the Affordable Care Act.

Experts say Cuba arms explanation credible but leaves questions

HAVANA — North Korea on Wednesday repeated Cuba's assertion that the antiquated weapons systems found on a cargo ship in Panama were headed to the Asian county for repair. But while the explanation is potentially credible, it leaves troubling questions unresolved, international arms experts say.

Acting on intelligence it hasn't publicly described, Panama seized the rusting, 34-year-old North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang on July 11 as it headed toward the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific and its final destination of North Korea.

Hidden under about 240,000 white sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar, Panamanian officials found shipping containers with parts of a radar system for a surface-to-air missile defense system, an apparent violation of U.N. sanctions that bar North Korea from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry commented on the seizure for the first time Wednesday, saying: "This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which (North Korea) are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract."

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, who was not named by the official Korean Central News Agency, said "the Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of 'drug investigation' and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug."

Stars that crashed long ago forged gold, other heavy metals, study finds

LOS ANGELES — A strange glow in space has provided fresh evidence that all the gold on Earth was forged from ancient collisions of dead stars, researchers reported Wednesday.

Astronomers have long known that fusion reactions in the cores of stars create lighter elements such as carbon and oxygen, but such reactions can't produce heavier elements like gold.

Instead, it was long thought that gold was created in a type of stellar explosion known as a supernova. But that doesn't fully explain the amount of the precious metal in the solar system.

About a decade ago, a team from Europe using supercomputers suggested that gold, platinum and other heavy metals could be formed when two exotic stars — neutron stars — crash and merge. Neutron stars are essentially stellar relics — collapsed cores of massive stars.

Now telescopes have detected such an explosion, and the observation bolsters the notion that gold in our jewelry was made in such rare and violent collisions long before the birth of the solar system about 4½ billion years ago.


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