Top Railroad Safety Official Resigns, Amid Questions About Holding A Second Job

Amtrak has experienced four fatal crashes since December, and last year’s 828 railroad deaths marked the deadliest year on rail in at least a decade, according to Politico.

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Heath Hall, who became the Federal Railroad Administration’s acting chief in June, resigned Saturday after a Politico reportraised questions about whether he was simultaneously working another job.

NPR has confirmed the resignation with the Department of Transportation.

“DOT was unaware of the information that is being reported regarding outside work Heath Hall took on during his time at FRA, but those allegations, if true, are troubling,” DOT said in a statement Saturday.

Hall had been on leave since early January for what the Department is calling a “family matter.”

“Attempts to reach Hall were unsuccessful,” Politico also reported Saturday.

According to Politico, after he became acting chief of an agency with a $1.7 billion dollar budget, he may have also been working as a public relations consultant in Mississippi:

“He subsequently appeared at least twice in local media reports last summer as a sheriff’s spokesman in Madison County, Miss., where he has long run a public relations and political consulting firm.”

“The firm also continued to receive payments from the county for its services from July through December, despite Hall’s pledge in a federal ethics form that the business would be “dormant” while he worked at DOT. And Tiffany Lindemann, a former FRA public affairs official who left the agency in September, told POLITICO this week that she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall during the summer.

This was during a period when Hall was in charge of an agency with a $1.7 billion budget, overseeing the safety of 760 railroads, a multibillion-dollar freight rail industry and the safety of millions of passengers.”

As Politico notes, it’s not an ideal time for another leadership shake-up at the agency; last year marked the deadliest year in terms of railroad deaths nationwide in at least a decade.

In just the past two weeks, a train carrying House and Senate Republicans to their annual retreat struck a garbage truck, killing one person, and a train collision in South Carolina killed two and injured more than 100 more. In December, an Amtrak passenger train derailed and plummeted off an overpass in Washington state, killing three people.

The FRA hasn’t had a permanent leader in more than a year, as Senate Democrats have blocked the confirmation of former railroad executive Ron Batory, who is President Trump’s nominee for the position.

Juan Reyes, a New York attorney and the FRA’s chief counsel, took over the acting administrator role when Hall went on leave, and he continues to lead the agency now.

NPR’s Amy Held contributed to this report.

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First Female Leader Of Sinn Féin Looks At Fresh Start For Party

Mary Lou McDonald acknowledges the applause of delegates after she was elected as Sinn Fein’s president at the party’s special conference in Dublin on Saturday.

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Mary Lou McDonald was elected the new leader of Sinn Féin at a conference in Dublin on Saturday, in what represents a major shift for the left-wing Irish republican party.

In a first, the party’s leadership is entirely female; McDonald is the only woman to have led Sinn Féin, which was founded in the early 1900s. Another woman, Michelle O’Neill, was elected as vice president Saturday. Both women ran unopposed.

McDonald replaces Gerry Adams who announced his intention to step down late last year. The 69-year-old’s 35-year-tenure partly spanned what is known as the Troubles; a period of discord and bloodshed relating to British rule in Northern Ireland. Majority-protestant unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain with the United Kingdom, while majority-Catholic nationalists wanted it to be part of the Republic of Ireland. Both sides are blamed for the violence, which saw more than 3,500 people die and 50,000 people injured over the past three decades of the 20th century, says the BBC.

And that’s a wrap folks. After 35 years of visionary & dedicated leadership, Gerry Adams is replaced as Uachtarán Shinn Féin by the great Mary Lou McDonald.#SlánGerrypic.twitter.com/qvdz9ZLR9j

— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) February 10, 2018

With no direct connection to the Troubles, 48-year-old McDonald is seen as a fresh start for the party.

“We must only agree that the past is never again repeated,” she said in a speech Saturday, as quoted by The Associated Press. “On other things, we can agree to disagree. The poet Maya Angelou put it well: ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’ ”

McDonald takes over from a divisive leader; on the one hand Adams was part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that saw the end to the sectarian violence through a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. But others say he was far from a peacemaker and defended killings by the Irish Republican Army, believed to be responsible for 1,700 deaths during the Troubles, reports the BBC.

Sinn Féin is among the top political parties in Ireland as well as Northern Ireland. But its association with the Troubles has prevented it from gaining more popularity among voters, reports the AP.

In her speech Saturday, McDonald said with the party’s new leadership, it was time to bring “innovative and modern ways of advancing our politics,” reports The Guardian.

McDonald said the party would campaign for abortion rights in Ireland’s referendum set for later this year.

She also maintained Sinn Féin’s opposition to border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as part of a Brexit deal. While the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the Republic of Ireland remains part of the E.U. and the question of what to do with its border to the north has been a sticking point in negotiations, as it has sparked fears of reawakening old tensions.

But The Irish Times notes McDonald struck a more conciliatory tone toward the E.U. than the party has used in the past.

“The European project has the potential to transform the lives of citizens for the better, but it can only do so if the social agenda becomes its driving force,” she said.

One thing that has not changed, McDonald said, is a core principle of the party: a united Ireland.

“We are the generation of republicans who will see the rising of the moon,” she said. “Sinn Féin in government, both North and South. Irish unity in our time.”

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Oscar-Nominated Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Dies At 48

Jóhann Jóhannsson.

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Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of the avant-garde’s most beloved film scorers, died Friday in Berlin, Germany. His death was confirmed by his manager, Tim Husom, but according to an official statement, the cause is unknown at this time. He was 48 years old.

Jóhannsson, who worked at the intersection of electronic and classical music, received two Academy Award nominations for the original scores to The Theory Of Everything (2015) and Sicario (2016), the former of which took Best Original Score at the Golden Globes that year. He also received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Arrival (2017).

In a statement, Husom wrote, “I’m so very sad. Today, I lost my friend who was one of the most talented musicians and intelligent people I knew. We came a long way together.”

Before Jóhannsson became a go-to composer for film, he was one of the world’s most renowned avant-garde composers. His work often wove together traditional classical instruments and contemplative electronic timbres. Jóhannsson’s debut album, Englabörn, caused an immediate stir in 2002, and he went on to release music on celebrated record labels 4AD and Deutsche Grammophon.

As the news spread on Saturday morning, the avant-garde community took to social media to memorialize Jóhannsson.

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“One of the greatest artists of our time,” tweeted fellow Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. “And a huge influence on me. I hope you are in a good place Jóhann.”

“Johann Johansson has been such an influence, especially lately,” tweeted Flying Lotus. “I’m in disbelief.”

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Winter Olympics Kick Off With Biting Winds And History-Making Wins

The first medals of the Games were awarded to the women’s cross-country 15-kilometer skiathlon athletes. From left, Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, silver; Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, gold; and Finland’s Krista Parmakoski, bronze, pose during their medals ceremony in at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

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Sweden won the first gold medal of the Winter Games on Saturday, but the United States and Norway also made history on a blustery and bitter cold day in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Swedish cross-country skiier Charlotte Kalla won top honors in the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon with a finishing time of 40:44.9.

Wohoo, ski queen Charlotte Kalla wins Sweden’s first Olympic gold medal! Congrats! 🎉🥇🇸🇪 pic.twitter.com/IUNhSdTjC5

— Sweden.se (@swedense) February 10, 2018

Norway’s Marit Bjoergen came in fewer than eight seconds behind to take silver, adding to her trove of 10 prior Olympic medals, making her the most decorated female Winter Olympian of all time.

In 2014’s Sochi Winter Games, at the age of 33 and 324 days, Bjoergen became the oldest individual female gold medalist in the sport.

On Saturday, the 37-year-old acknowledged that her age may be catching up with her. “I have been very good for many years but I’m also getting older and the younger girls are getting better,” she said, reports The Associated Press.

Finland’s Krista Parmakoski rounded out the top three with Sweden’s Ebba Andersson finishing fourth.

With a clean sweep for The Netherlands, gold medallist Carlijn Achtereekte, (center), jumps for joy as silver medallist Ireen Wust, (left), and bronze medallist Antoinette de Jong, (right), watch during the flower ceremony of the women’s 3,000 meters race at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

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Petr David Josek/AP

And it was American Jessica Diggins, 26, who broke the Scandinavian dominance with a time of 40:59.6.

While her time fell short of a medal, Diggins’ fifth place finish represented another history-making moment — it was the best ever for an American woman in the sport.

ESPN reports Diggins is scheduled to race again Tuesday in the women’s individual sprint.

“It was really cool being seconds away from a medal, and seeing it right there,” Diggins said. “I know it’s possible. I know I have what it takes.”

#ICYMI: @jessdiggs made #TeamUSA history last night with her 5️⃣th place finish! 🇺🇸
➡️ https://t.co/znBmAyBvFApic.twitter.com/mE5HMPlGL8

— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) February 10, 2018

Also Saturday, host country South Korea got the chance to celebrate one of its own, when Lim Hyojun won gold in the men’s short track speed skating. ESPN reports that it was actually Hwang Dae-heon who had been heavily favored to win, but his crash in the final allowed his compatriot to overtake him.

The Netherlands’ Sjinkie Knegt took silver. And Semen Elistratov won bronze, giving Russia its first medal, although Elistratov is competing under the Olympic flag, in accordance with the rules the IOC instated following Russia’s doping scandal.

In the women’s 3,000 meter speed skating, the Netherlands made a clean sweep taking all three of the top spots.

Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier won the first biathlon gold of the Games in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint. And German Andreas Wellinger won the men’s normal hill title. He said the harsh conditions may actually have helped him nail his jump of 113.5 meters.

“The wind was quite good,” Wellinger told ESPN.

And while the Korean women’s ice hockey team may embody lofty hopes around reunification, they were trounced by Switzerland Saturday. The gaze of South Korea’s president and the sister of the North Korean leader, alongside the choreographed moves of the famed North Korean cheerleaders couldn’t help elicit a single goal; the Swiss won eight to zero.

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White House Security Clearance Trouble Shines Light On 'High Risk' Backlog Problem

Ousted White House staff secretary Rob Porter speaks to President Trump after remarks he made on violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister, N.J.

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The resignation of White House staff secretary Rob Porter after media reports of domestic abuse allegations against him — allegations he has denied — raises some key questions about government security clearances, and how they’re obtained.

More than 3 million government employees hold some type of security clearance, most in the Department of Defense. That’s more than half of all federal jobs. Another 1.2 million government contractors held clearances, as of 2015.

And the government is running into what security experts warn is a major problem — a mounting backlog that is hampering critical functions of the government. Some 700,000 people are waiting to have clearances processed, according to a report issued last week by the U.S. Comptroller’s office, and many see the process as broken.

The problem is so acute that the Government Accountability Office two weeks ago added it to its list of “high-risk” programs “in need of either broad-based transformation or specific reforms to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.”

“A high-quality and timely personnel security clearance process is essential to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that information about individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior is identified and assessed,” U.S. Comptroller Gene Dodaro noted. “Our objective for the High Risk List is to bring attention to policymakers of the need for action sooner, rather than later. Renewed and strong top leadership commitment will be critical to facilitate progress in reducing the backlog and completing key improvements to the personnel security clearance process.”

Sen. Mark Warner agrees.

“We are wasting money hiring people, then not allowing them to do their job that they were hired for, because they may have to wait months or in certain cases even beyond a year before they get the security clearance,” the Democrat from Virginia and ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee told NPR.

The Porter situation

White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said Thursday that Porter was working under an interim security clearance while his background check was being completed. For White House employees, President Trump, as commander in chief, can determine which executive branch workers have access to classified documents.

The FBI conducted interviews with Porter’s former spouses, and the New York Times reported that Porter told his second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, that he believed the allegations against him had delayed his receiving a security clearance. His first wife, Colbie Holderness, released photos of herself with a black eye. Porter denies the allegations.

A second White House official, David Sorensen, was forced out Friday after allegations of domestic abuse by a former spouse surfaced. Sorensen was a speechwriter. He, too, denies to allegations.

President Trump seemed to leap to their defense Saturday, tweeting that “peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”

Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeted Thursday, however, that there were “chilling lapses in security and background clearance process shown by Rob Porter’s access to classified info.”

Chilling lapses in security and background clearance process shown by Rob Porter’s access to classified info. White House indifference, on full display at today’s press briefing, should outrage and frighten everyone.

— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) February 8, 2018

The problem is that with something like this in a White House official’s background — something could and did cost him his job — national-security experts warn that they could be subject to blackmail by a foreign or domestic adversary. That’s especially true when it comes to a person with close access to the president, like one who was responsible for putting the papers he read in front him.

What’s more, the Washington Post reports this was not an isolated incident, and there’s something of a security-clearance backlog at the White House, too:

“Dozens of White House employees are awaiting permanent security clearances and have been working for months with temporary approvals to handle sensitive information while the FBI continues to probe their backgrounds, according to U.S. officials.”

That includes the president’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, who has been a subject in the ongoing Robert Mueller Russia probe.

So how do security clearances actually work?

The process throughout government to receive a security clearance is complex.

Clearances range from “confidential,” the lowest level, to “secret” and “top secret.

“You’re looking at anyone from the guy that washes dishes in the White House all the way up to Ph.D.-level scientists doing, you know, nuclear and biological work,” said Evan Lesser, founder and president of ClearanceJobs, a website that attempts to match job applicants to openings in the government and with contractors.

He said security clearances are needed not just because a worker deals with classified documents — maybe they just work near them.

“That’s why you’ll have someone who is working in the White House in a blue-collar position, needs a security clearance,” Lesser said. “So someone who’s fixing the air conditioning in a government contracting facility needs a security clearance. It’s not just spy work, as most people think when they talk about security clearances.”

With all those jobs requiring security clearances, it stands to reason there’s a bit of a wait to get one. The government has investigators and hires other contractors to conduct background checks of job applicants.

“At the basic level, they’re going to look at, are you financially sound, your employment history, kind of the basics. Do you have a criminal record?” said Meagan Metzger, founder of Dcode, which helps companies work with the government. She herself held a Top Secret clearance at the Defense Department.

And for a Top Secret clearance, Metzger said there’s a lot more that goes into it.

“It’s going to go much deeper than that,” she said. “They’re going to talk to everyone you know, everyone you’ve lived with. They’re going to conduct a polygraph. They’re going to kind of do a lot more investigation into your background.”

That can take time. For a Top Secret clearance, sometimes it can be more than a year. So what happens, in many instances, agencies hire applicants because of their skills, but then they can’t be put into the jobs until they get their clearance.

And guess what? While they wait, many of the applicants are being paid, even though they’re not filling the jobs they were hired for by government agencies or by contractors who fear the qualified applicants will take their skills elsewhere.

Warner, who has called for reforming the clearance approval process says it’s a waste of taxpayer money.

“That’s not an efficient way to run an operation,” Warner said. “And many of these individuals have talents and skills, particularly as we move into the technology field, where they are desperately needed.”

One reason for the backlog is the often low-tech methods investigators use to conduct background checks. Warner wants to see reforms to the background-check system, including better utilizing technology.

“Do you really need to personally talk to an individual’s neighbors?” Warner asked. “Or the fact that you’ve traveled overseas one time — should these be the determining criteria rather than using technology means.”

He points out that in some cases, investigators will pay an in-person visit to an applicant’s college “and physically check the college records of individuals rather than doing that online.”

Metzger said too many tactics haven’t caught up to modern practies. She said she has sat in on background interviews where the investigators took notes on a pad of paper rather than using a tablet or even recording them.

More broadly, Metzger said investigators could and should a better job using technology to make connections they might miss with human interviews, including using data to “pinpoint connections and understand relationships” between people.

But background investigators and the agencies are risk-averse. Metzger added they worry about the headlines that would ensue “if we change this system and something goes awry, and we let a terrorist in the building.”

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A Podcast Playlist For All Those Looking For Love (Stories)

Heart-shaped balloons were tied to the summit of the Sydney Tower to mark Valentine’s Day in 2012. The tower is Sydney’s highest viewing platform.

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Whether you’re planning the ultimate romantic evening or a night alone in your sweats, this list of podcasting’s best love stories are sure to put you in the Valentine’s Day mood. Listen to individual episodes on NPR One or wherever you get podcasts.

Love Me, “At a Loss for Words” from CBC

Two travelers fall in love over Google Translate. But, some sentiments just don’t easily translate from one language to another. This is all about how they find a common language (of love!).

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

Death, Sex & Money,Finding Love, and a Kidney, On Tinder” fromWNYC

Alana and Lori had an unusual beginning to their relationship. Lori gave Alana her kidney. Can their relationship ever be normal after that?

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

StoryCorps,Certain Kinds of Love” from NPR

This episode is a compilation of some of StoryCorps’ favorites stories of new and lasting love. Keep the tissues handy.

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

Ear Hustle, “The Boom Boom Room” from PRX

Love in jail? How married couples find opportunities for intimacy even when one of them is incarcerated.

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

Two-Up, “36 Questions Act 1 of 3” from Two-Up

A musical love story podcast based around the 36 questions that can even make strangers fall in love? Yes, please! Prepare for a binge-worthy experience.

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

Modern Love, “A Millennial’s Guide to Kissing” from WBUR

In this story of two strangers meeting on a plane, there’s no storybook ending. Their encounter tells us about the modern dating scene and the walls we put up to protect ourselves.

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

The Truth, “Falling” from Radiotopia

When a relationship feels uneven, how far should you go to try to fix the balance? This little nugget of audio fiction tries to answer that question.

Listen on NPR One or download from Apple Podcasts

We’ll be featuring one of these episodes, and a few more of our favorites, each day from Feb. 8 to 14 on the “Explore” page of the NPR One app.

NPR One lets you listen to a personalized, curated selection of the best podcasts from NPR, public radio and beyond, alongside great news content from NPR and your local member station.

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Israeli Jet Downed During Attack On Syria After Drone Intercepted, Says Israel

Israeli security stands around the wreckage of an F-16 that crashed in northern Israel on Saturday. The Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone it said infiltrated the country before launching attacks on at least a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria.

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Tensions ratcheted up on Saturday as an Israeli fighter jet that was part of a squadron launching air strikes on Syria was downed amid anti-aircraft missile fire, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel said its aircraft targeted 12 sites in Syria in response to an Iranian drone launched from Syria infiltrating its airspace earlier in the day. An Israeli Apache helicopter was able to intercept the drone, after detecting it “early on” and placing it under surveillance, said the IDF.

Original footage showing #Iranian UAV infiltrating and then shot down over Israel, and #IDF strike on Iranian command vehicle in #Syriapic.twitter.com/Sz6poAOdjc

— Jonathan Conricus (@LTCJonathan) February 10, 2018

Israel said several of the sites it targeted on Saturday “are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”

The two pilots of the Israeli F-16 ejected before it crashed in northern Israel; both were reported as “safe” but one was left seriously injured.

The incident, which triggered sirens in the northern Golan Heights, is believed to be Israel’s most significant involvement in Syria since the war began there some seven years ago.

“The Syrians are playing with fire when they allow the Iranians to attack Israel from their soil,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, in a statement. “We are willing, prepared, and capable to exact a heavy price on anyone that attacks us. However, we are not looking to escalate the situation.”

Iran dismissed Israel’s claims that Israeli forces downed one of its drones and that Iran was involved in an attack. Its Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi called them the claims “ridiculous,” according to Reuters.

Iran denies having conventional armed forces in Syria, reports the wire service. Qasemi went on to say, “Iran only provides military advice to Syria based on the request of the country’s legitimate government.”

Smoke rises from a missile in southwest Lebanon, which the Lebanese National News Agency says was fired by Israel toward Syria.

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For its part, Russia, which has troops in Syria aiding President Bashar Assad in what it calls “the fight against terrorists,” expressed concern over the escalations.

“We urge all parties involved to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We consider it necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries of the region.”

Neighboring Lebanon said it will file a complaint with the United Nations Security Council over Israel’s use of its airspace to launch attacks on Syria.

“Such an aggressive policy practiced by Israel threatens stability in the region,” said its Foreign Ministry in a statement. “The Ministry calls on the countries concerned to curb the Israeli practices and stop its attacks.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s National News Agency reports an errant anti-aircraft missile “fired by the Israeli enemy” fell in a Lebanese citrus grove.

Hezbollah, a Lebanese Islamist political party, said in a statement that the downing of the Israeli jet marks the “start of a new strategic phase.”

The statement went on to say, “Today’s developments mean the old equations have categorically ended.”

Conricus, IDF spokesman, maintains Iran is the aggressor and Israel’s military is “ready for all scenarios.”

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