News Wrap: Miss. man pleads guilty to sending poisoned letters to politicians

January 17, 2014 at 1:11 PM EDT
In our news wrap Friday, James Everett Dutschke of Mississippi pleaded guilty to sending letters laced with the toxic substance ricin to the president, a U.S. senator and a judge. Also, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in light of the state's worst dry spell in 100 years of record-keeping.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: After months of leaks and growing criticism, President Obama laid out surveillance reforms today. He said the National Security Agency must no longer be the storehouse for phone metadata that it collects. And he promised an end to spying on allied leaders. We will hear some of what the president said, and have reaction, right after the news summary.

Later in the day, the president signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that puts an end to the budget wars for now. He held the ceremony before employees of the Office of Management and Budget. The bill funds government operations through the rest of the federal fiscal year.

A Mississippi man accused of sending poisoned letters to the president is pleading guilty after all. James Everett Dutschke changed his plea today at a federal court hearing in Oxford, Mississippi. He was charged with mailing letters tainted with ricin, a highly toxic substance, to the president, a U.S. senator and a judge.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency, amid the state’s worst dry spell in 100 years of record-keeping. Reservoirs are drying up and snowpack in the mountains has dropped to 20 percent of normal.

Speaking in San Francisco today, Brown appealed for voluntary water conservation and he left open the possibility of making it mandatory.

GOV. JERRY BROWN, D-Calif.: We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation, and people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, on nature, and one another. And I’m calling for a collaborative effort to restrain our water use. I’m also setting in motion easier water transfers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The parched conditions are also fueling wildfires. One blaze burned today in the foothill suburbs northeast of Los Angeles, keeping thousands of people away from their homes. The fire was 30 percent contained.

Scores of bushfires raged out of control in Southern Australia today, fueled by high winds and a searing heat wave. The combination fanned the flames, forcing hundreds of people to flee. At least one person was killed there. Police officials say at least a dozen of the fires were intentionally set.

The Syrian government has floated an offer to negotiate a partial cease-fire and prisoner swap with rebels. Syria’s foreign minister presented the offer today as he met with the Russian foreign minister in Moscow. It came just before scheduled peace talks in Geneva next week.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry warned, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must agree to give up power.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. Secretary of State: There is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he’s going to be part of that future. It’s not going to happen. The people who are the opponents of this regime will never, ever stop. It will be a low-grade insurgency at least, at worst, potentially even a civil war, if it continues, because they will not stop.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, the main Western-backed opposition group met today on whether to attend the Geneva conference. Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, will have more on all of this later in the program.

Pennsylvania’s attempt to impose a photo I.D. requirement for voters has run into a legal roadblock. A state judge struck down the 2012 law today. He ruled the statute — quote — “doesn’t further the goal of free and fair elections,” as Republicans had argued. The ruling likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma will retire at year’s end, with two years left in his second term. In a statement, Coburn said he’s shifting his focus elsewhere. He said a recurrence of prostate cancer didn’t affect his decision. Coburn is 65 years old. He’s been a fierce advocate of cutting federal spending. His announcement is the latest in a spate of congressional retirements in recent days.

The Surgeon General’s Office has significantly expanded the already long list of diseases caused by smoking. Today’s announcement follows the 50th anniversary of the 1964 report that formally declared smoking a human health hazard.

Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris Lushniak said cigarettes are still killing people.

DR. BORIS LUSHNIAK, acting U.S. Surgeon General: Since the first surgeon general’S report in 1964, over 20 million premature deaths can be attributed to cigarette smoking. Today, the annual death toll from smoking is approaching 500,000 per year.

The science has revealed, in stark clarity, that common disease such as diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon and rectal cancer are also caused by smoking. Enough is enough.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lushniak called for more aggressive action to make the next generation of Americans smoke-free.

The company involved in the West Virginia water crisis filed today for federal bankruptcy protection. Freedom Industries owns the plant that leaked a chemical into the Elk River last week. The contamination cut off water to some 300,000 people in Charleston and nine counties. Officials began restoring water service in stages on Monday.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 41 points today to close at 16,458. The Nasdaq fell 21 points to close at 4,197. For the week, the Dow gained a .01 percent; the Nasdaq rose half-a-percent.

The last Japanese soldier to surrender after World War II has died at a Tokyo hospital. Hiroo Onoda hid out in a Philippines jungle for 29 years after the war ended in 1945. He finally emerged in March of 1974 and returned home to Japan and a hero’s welcome. Later, he became a rancher and even ran a children’s nature school. Hiroo Onoda was 91 years old.