US Life Expectancy Rose Last Year, But it Remains Below its Pre-Pandemic Level 

U.S. life expectancy rose last year — by more than a year — but still isn’t close to what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 rise was mainly due to the waning pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers said Wednesday. But even with the large increase, U.S. life expectancy is only back to 77 years, 6 months — about what it was two decades ago.

Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live, assuming the death rates at that time hold constant. The snapshot statistic is considered one of the most important measures of the health of the U.S. population. The 2022 calculations released Wednesday are provisional, and could change a little as the math is finalized.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy rose a little nearly every year. But about a decade ago, the trend flattened and even declined some years — a stall blamed largely on overdose deaths and suicides.

Then came the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.1 million people in the U.S. since early 2020. The measure of American longevity plunged, dropping from 78 years, 10 months in 2019 to 77 years in 2020, and then to 76 years, 5 months in 2021.

“We basically have lost 20 years of gains,” said the CDC’s Elizabeth Arias.

A decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 2022’s improvement.

In 2021, COVID was the nation’s third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer). Last year, it fell to the fourth leading cause. With more than a month left in the current year, preliminary data suggests COVID-19 could end up being the ninth or 10th leading cause of death in 2023.

But the U.S. is battling other issues, including drug overdose deaths and suicides.

The number of U.S. suicides reached an all-time high last year, and the national suicide rate was the highest seen since 1941, according to a second CDC report released Wednesday.

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. went up slightly last year after two big leaps at the beginning of the pandemic. And through the first six months of this year, the estimated overdose death toll continued to inch up.

U.S. life expectancy also continues to be lower than that of dozens of other countries. It also didn’t rebound as quickly as it did in other places, including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

Steven Woolf, a mortality researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he expects the U.S. to eventually get back to the pre-pandemic life expectancy.

But “what I’m trying to say is: That is not a great place to be,” he added.

Some other highlights from the new report:

Life expectancy increased for both men and women, and for every racial and ethnic group.
The decline in COVID-19 deaths drove 84% of the increase in life expectancy. The next largest contributor was a decline in heart disease deaths, credited with about 4% of the increase. But experts note that heart disease deaths increased during COVID-19, and both factored into many pandemic-era deaths.
Changes in life expectancy varied by race and ethnicity. Hispanic Americans and American Indians and Alaska Natives saw life expectancy rise more than two years in 2022. Black life expectancy rose more than 1 1/2 years. Asian American life expectancy rose one year and white life expectancy rose about 10 months. But the changes are relative, because Hispanic Americans and Native Americans were hit harder at the beginning of COVID-19. Hispanic life expectancy dropped more than four years between 2019 and 2021, and Native American life expectancy fell more than six years.

“A lot of the large increases in life expectancy are coming from the groups that suffered the most from COVID,” said Mark Hayward, a University of Texas sociology professor who researches how different factors affect adult deaths. “They had more to rebound from.”

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US Military Osprey Aircraft With 8 Aboard Crashes Into Sea

Japan’s coast guard has found a person and debris in the ocean where a U.S. military Osprey aircraft carrying eight people crashed Wednesday off southern Japan, officials said.

The cause of the crash and the status of the person and the others on the aircraft were not immediately known, coast guard spokesperson Kazuo Ogawa said.

The coast guard received an emergency call from a fishing boat near the crash site off Yakushima, an island south of Kagoshima on the southern main island of Kyushu, he said.

Coast guard aircraft and patrol boats found one person, whose condition was not immediately known, and gray-colored debris believed to be from the aircraft, Ogawa said. They were found at sea about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) off the eastern coast of Yakushima.

“The government will confirm information about the damage and place the highest priority on saving lives,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.

The Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but during flight can rotate its propellers forward and cruise much faster like an airplane. Versions of the aircraft are flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

Ogawa said the aircraft had departed from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture and crashed on its way to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. The Osprey apparently attempted to make an emergency landing at the Yakushima airport before crashing, he said.

Kyodo News agency, quoting Kagoshima prefectural officials, said witnesses reported seeing fire coming from the Osprey’s left engine.

U.S. and Japanese officials said the aircraft belonged to Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo. U.S. Air Force officials at Yokota said they were still confirming information and had no immediate comment.

A U.S. Marine Corps Osprey aircraft with 23 Marines aboard crashed on a north Australian island in August, killing at least three and critically injuring at least five during a multinational training exercise.

There have been at least five fatal crashes of Marine Ospreys since 2012, causing a total of at least 19 deaths.

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US Sends First of Three Military Planes With Gaza Aid

The United States on Tuesday sent the first of three military planes to Egypt with humanitarian aid for Gaza, promising to assist Palestinians during a truce between Hamas and U.S. ally Israel. 

The relief flights carrying food, medical supplies and winter gear are the first by the U.S. military since the conflict began with the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel. 

The flights started a day after President Joe Biden said he would use an extension of the truce to get more aid into Gaza, and as international efforts continue to further prolong the pause. 

“The humanitarian needs in Gaza demand that the international community do much more. The United States is committed to this effort,” Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security adviser, said in a statement.  

Sullivan said Biden would work to “rally the international community to urgently increase support” in a U.N. appeal for Gaza. 

‘Supplies will save lives’

The first Air Force C-17 aircraft landed Tuesday in Egypt with 24.5 metric tons (54,000 pounds) of medical supplies and ready-to-eat food, the U.S. Agency for International Development said. 

The United Nations will take the aid from Egypt’s North Sinai region, which borders the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, into the stricken Palestinian territory itself, U.S. officials said. 

“These U.N. supplies will save lives and alleviate the suffering of thousands in Gaza,” Sullivan said. 

Two further planeloads will arrive in the coming days, officials said. 

Mediator Qatar on Monday announced a 48-hour extension of an initial four-day truce, opening the way for further releases of hostages seized by Hamas during its attack on Israel. 

‘Significant surge’ 

Eight hundred aid trucks reached southern Gaza from Egypt in the first four days of the truce, with some aid also reaching badly hit northern Gaza, the U.S. officials said. 

“The movement over the last four or five days of assistance has been so significant in volume that a backfill … is now needed and these planes are part of that backfill,” a senior U.S. official told reporters on Monday. 

While Washington has deployed two aircraft carriers in the region to deter Iran and its allies, and ferried military assistance to key ally Israel, it has not previously used military assets during this conflict to deliver humanitarian aid. 

Biden, who has firmly backed Israel while calling on it to reduce civilian casualties, said on Monday that the truce had allowed a “significant surge” in aid. 

The White House said on Monday, however, that Israel had made it clear it would continue its war on Hamas whenever the truce ended.  

U.S. officials said Biden had warned Israel that it must not cause the same kind of mass displacements in southern Gaza that its offensive in the north triggered earlier this month. 

“From the president down we have reinforced this in a very clear way for the government of Israel,” another U.S. official said. 

Hamas staged the deadliest attack in Israel’s history when it broke through Gaza’s militarized border on October 7. Israel says the attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and that around 240 others were taken hostage.    

In response, Israel launched a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, which the Hamas government says has killed 15,000 people, thousands of them children. 

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As Israel and Hamas Extend Truce, More Pressure on Biden to Push for Permanent Cease-fire

The decision by Israel and Hamas to extend their temporary truce in Gaza from four days to six has raised expectations that both sides will agree to further extensions to allow for more hostage swaps and humanitarian aid to enter the Palestinian enclave.

Washington is stepping up efforts to extend the pause that allowed the release of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention. CIA Director Bill Burns was in Doha on Tuesday meeting his Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari counterparts.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be back in the region later this week with stops including Dubai, the West Bank and Israel.

The latest Israel-Hamas deal brought the number of Israelis freed to 60. An additional 21 hostages have been released in separate negotiations.

“We want to get them all back,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters on Tuesday.

One hundred fifty Palestinians have been released from Israeli prisons, but thousands remain.

While the administration considers the brief truce a diplomatic win, it has also placed more pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to make the stop in fighting permanent.

The White House has so far resisted demands from human rights activists and the progressive wing of Biden’s Democratic Party to end U.S. support for Israel’s strikes and push for a permanent cease-fire. Administration officials repeatedly say that at this point, humanitarian relief can be achieved only through hostage deals that allow temporary stops on Israeli attacks and more aid to flow in.

“Short-term pauses are entirely insufficient to meet the needs on the ground and to address human rights conditions on the ground,” said Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

On Wednesday, his group and others will be presenting nearly 1 million signatures calling on Biden to use his influence to bring about a sustained cease-fire in Gaza.

“More and more Americans want this cease-fire,” he told VOA. Fifty-three percent of American voters support calls for a cease-fire, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

Changing US calculus

The United States has staunchly supported Israel’s right to defend itself since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks killed 1,200 people in Israel. However, as the number of Palestinian deaths grows — topping 14,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — the administration has been increasingly vocal that Israel must minimize civilian harm. Last week, Biden said he is considering making aid to Israel conditional based on its conduct in the war.

Mounting Arab and international pressure, along with domestic anger, is changing the administration’s calculus, said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East political analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Biden is now “attempting to strike a moderate tone that addresses competing priorities,” Alkhatib told VOA.

Domestic pressure comes not only from Arab Americans, American Muslims and some Democrats but also from a Jewish group advocating for American leadership to end the conflict diplomatically.

In a statement released Tuesday, the group J Street urged the Biden administration to insist that Israel significantly change its military operation, make clear that the U.S. “will not provide unbounded support for a war with no limits and no exit strategy” and reject “any future Israeli occupation, annexation or blockade in Gaza.”

It’s a delicate balance for Biden to navigate.

Pushing too hard on Netanyahu, who is already under immense domestic pressure from the families of the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas, may backfire. Already anxious that a long pause will give Hamas time to regroup and reposition its forces, the Israeli war Cabinet is worried that prisoner swaps are boosting Hamas’ popularity in the occupied West Bank.

And as administration officials often underscore, the U.S. is not the one drawing up Israel’s war plans and battlefield decisions.

“We’re providing advice. We’re providing our perspectives,” Kirby said.

Cease-fire challenges

Analysts say a permanent cease-fire would require one of two developments: the dismantling of Hamas’ ability to rule Gaza and the stripping of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, of munitions and infrastructure. Or, that Israel and Hamas forge a long-term agreement that entails fundamental changes.

The prospects of the latter appear dim as Israel and Hamas have fundamentally incompatible goals — each other’s destruction.

“It’s much more likely that Israel will destroy Hamas than vice versa,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “But these are not two groups that could work out a reasonable compromise on strategic long term and states,” he told VOA.

While the Qassam Brigades can be weakened and Hamas’ governance structures can be toppled, rooting out the group that has been in control of Gaza since it won the 2006 election there is a different matter.

“Whatever remains of Hamas politically after the Gaza war is over may be incentivized to join the Palestinian Authority in pursuit of this solution, something that Hamas’ Politburo has endorsed as a favorable option,” Alkhatib said.

Biden and his aides have said that for a permanent cease-fire to succeed, there must be a road map toward a two-state solution. Without it, conditions will be ripe for a similar group to emerge, even if Hamas had been dismantled.

Paradoxically, there will be more pressure on Israel to allow the Palestinian Authority to govern in Gaza if Hamas is sufficiently degraded, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University.

Ideally for Israel and the U.S., it’s a reformed Palestinian Authority that is “less corrupt, more free, better economically,” he told VOA. It’s unclear whether those reforms can be achieved, and whether Israel can provide the support for them under the current right-wing coalition, he added.


Anita Powell contributed to this report.

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Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s Right-Hand Man, Dies at 99

Charlie Munger, who quit a law career to become Warren Buffett’s trusted confidant and longtime second-in-command at Berkshire Hathaway, died Tuesday morning. He was 99. 

Berkshire said Munger died peacefully at a hospital in California, where he lived. No cause was given. Munger would have turned 100 on January 1. 

“Berkshire Hathaway could not have been built to its present status without Charlie’s inspiration, wisdom and participation,” Buffett, Berkshire’s 93-year-old chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. 

Company executive since 1970s

Munger had been a Berkshire vice chairman since 1978, working closely with Buffett on allocating the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate’s capital, and being quick to tell him when he was making a mistake. 

“It’s a shock,” said Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Quinn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and longtime Berkshire shareholder. “It will leave a big void for investors who have modeled their thoughts, words and activities around Munger and his insights.” 

Investors expect Munger’s death to be felt keenly by Buffett and the investing world generally. 

“He was certainly one of the greatest investors, as a team with Buffett,” said Rick Meckler, partner at Cherry Lane Investments in New Jersey. “I’m sure it is an enormous loss for Buffett personally.” 

Believed in compounding and reinvesting

Munger was known for steering Buffett’s purchases. 

“Charlie felt that buying very good businesses at fair prices that could keep compounding and reinvesting cash flow into continued growth was more consistent with how he and Warren were philosophically and liked to invest,” said Paul Lountzis, president of Lountzis Asset Management in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. “They liked to own businesses forever.” 

Thomas Hayes, chairman of Great Hill Capital in New York, said the “big change that Charlie brought to the value investing community was not just looking for what was cheap but looking for what was out of favor but high quality.”  

Investors said Munger’s death was unlikely to have a major impact on Berkshire’s operations. 

Two other vice chairmen, Greg Abel and Ajit Jain, have day-to-day oversight of Berkshire’s non-insurance and insurance businesses, respectively. 

Abel is expected to become chief executive once Buffett, 93, is no longer in charge. 

Berkshire’s businesses include the BNSF railroad, car insurer Geico, and an array of energy, industrial and retail operations, as well as familiar consumer names such as Dairy Queen, Duracell, Fruit of the Loom and See’s Candies. 

It also owns hundreds of billions of dollars of stocks, led by Apple. 

“I wouldn’t think Berkshire will look much different, apart from Buffett no longer being able to share ideas with Munger,” said Russo. “Berkshire may be a little less fun without him.” 

Buffett has never publicly signaled a desire to step down, including after a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2012. 

“At 93, I feel good but fully realize I am playing in extra innings,” Buffett said recently. 

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CIA Director in Doha to Talk Israel-Hamas and Hostages 

U.S. President Joe Biden has dispatched one of his most trusted, and potentially influential, officials to the Middle East in the hopes of turning a tenuous truce between Israel and Hamas into something more.

A U.S. official confirmed to VOA that CIA Director William Burns traveled to Qatar Tuesday for the high-level talks, “including discussions on hostages.”

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive talks. The CIA, which rarely talks about the director’s foreign travel, declined to comment on the trip, first reported by The Washington Post.

Israeli media, as well as other outlets, quoted diplomatic sources as saying that while in Doha Burns met with the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency as well as with Qatari and Egyptian officials.

Top U.S. officials have backed Israel with both words and weapons in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people in Israel, the majority of whom were civilians.

But the White House has also pushed for the release of all of the approximately 240 people taken hostage by Hamas during the attack, praising the now five-day-old truce that has seen more than 70 of the hostages returned to their families in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

“The objective of the administration at the moment, clearly, is to try to extend the truce or cease fire as long as possible and get as many hostages released as much as possible,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer who now teaches at Georgetown University.

And Pillar told VOA that Burns, a former diplomat turned spy chief, is well-positioned to help that happen.

“He is a highly accomplished and very much respected, both at home and abroad, diplomat,” Pillar said, further describing Burns as someone who is “perhaps just one step removed from what had been the main line of the Biden administration policy ever since the events of October 7th, which was, and this is the way it was seen by many, to go all in with Israel.”

Burns’ trip to Doha is his second to the Middle East in the past month.

His first trip, in early November, took him to multiple countries for talks with leaders and intelligence counterparts focused on kick-starting hostage negotiations and on preventing the Israel-Hamas conflict from spreading into a regional crisis, a U.S. official told VOA at the time.

But while an effort to extend the truce and free more hostages may dominate this round of talks; some former officials think the CIA director is also looking ahead.

“When we’re talking about the day after, when this all ends, what does [the] Gaza Strip look like?” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations officer who worked extensively in the Middle East. “What kind of international force would be present? How do we rebuild, collectively, the international community?”

And there may also be some discussion among the United States, Israel, Egypt and others about what comes next for Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group.

“Hamas has gained incredible legitimacy amongst the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank for being able to recover, in their view, Palestinian prisoners,” Polymeropoulos told VOA. “They are actually being treated now almost as a state actor. And I think that’s something that is concerning, not only for Israel, but the United States.”

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Hunter Biden Offers to Testify Publicly Before Congress

Hunter Biden on Tuesday offered to testify publicly before the U.S. Congress in response to a subpoena from Republicans investigating nearly every aspect of his business dealings as they pursue an impeachment inquiry into his father, President Joe Biden.

The Democratic president’s son slammed the inquiry as a “fishing expedition” and refused to give closed-door testimony but said he would “answer any pertinent and relevant question” in front of the House Oversight Committee next month, setting up a potential high-stakes face-off.

Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, subpoenaed Hunter Biden in early November in the inquiry’s most aggressive step yet and one that tests the reach of congressional oversight powers. Comer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

So far, Republicans have failed to uncover evidence directly implicating President Biden in any wrongdoing. But lawmakers insist their evidence paints a troubling picture of “influence peddling” in the Biden family’s business dealings, particularly with clients overseas.

The subpoena demanded Hunter Biden appear before the Oversight Committee for a deposition by mid-December. His uncle James Biden was subpoenaed the same day, as well as former business associate Rob Walker.

Hunter Biden’s attorney Abbe Lowell said in Tuesday’s letter that his client had “misgivings about your motives and purpose” but had previously offered to speak with the committee without a response.

“Your empty investigation has gone on too long wasting too many better-used resources. It should come to an end,” Lowell wrote. “From all the individuals you have requested depositions or interviews, all you will learn is that your accusations are baseless. However, the American people should see that for themselves.”

He offered to appear on December 13, the date named in the subpoena, or another day next month.

The subpoenas were bitterly opposed by Democrats, and the White House called for the subpoenas to be withdrawn. Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, wrote that the subpoenas are “irresponsible” and the product of an overzealous House GOP majority that “weaponized the oversight powers of Congress.”

Congressional Republicans are also probing the Justice Department’s handling of a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings. That long-running case had been expected to end with a plea deal, but it imploded during a July plea hearing.

Hunter Biden is now charged with three firearms felonies related to the 2018 purchase of a gun during a period he has acknowledged being addicted to drugs. No new tax charges have been filed, but prosecutors have indicated they are possible in Washington or California, where he now lives.

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America House Opens in Odesa Despite Ongoing War in Ukraine 

A new America House is celebrating its opening in Odesa, making it the third major cultural and educational center in Ukraine supported and financed by the U.S. Embassy. America House Odesa was supposed to open in early 2022, but Russia’s invasion changed those plans. Anna Kosstutschenko visited the center and found out how the war altered its program. Camera — Pavel Suhodolskiy.

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Is AI About to Steal Your Job?

Almost all U.S. jobs, from truck driver to childcare provider to software developer, include skills that can be done, or at least supplemented, by generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), according to a recent report.

GenAI is artificial intelligence that can generate high-quality content based on the input data used to train it.

“AI is likely to touch every part of every job to some degree,” says Cory Stahle, an economist with, which released the report.

The report finds that almost one in five jobs (19.7%) — like IT operations, mathematics and information design — faces the highest risk of being affected by AI because at least 80% of the job skills those positions require can be done reasonably well by GenAI.

But that doesn’t mean that those jobs will eventually be lost to robots.

“It’s important to recognize that, in general, these technologies don’t affect entire occupations. It actually is very rare that a robot will show up, sit in somebody’s seat to do everything that someone does at their job,” says Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), who researches the impact of technology and innovation on business, the economy and society. researchers analyzed more than 55 million job postings and found that GenAI can perform 50% to almost 80% of the skills required in 45.7% of those job listings. In 34.6% of jobs listed, GenAI can handle less than 50% of the skills.

Jobs that require manual skills or a personal touch, such as nursing and veterinary care, are the least likely to be hard hit by AI, the report says.

In the past, technological advances have mostly affected manual labor. However, GenAI is expected to have the most effect on so-called knowledge workers, generally defined as people who create knowledge or think for a living.

But, for now, AI does not appear poised to steal anyone’s job.

“There are very few jobs that AI can do completely. Even in jobs where AI can do many of the skills, there are still aspects of those jobs that AI cannot do,” Stahle says.

Rather than replace workers, researchers expect GenAI to enhance the work people already do, making them more efficient.

“This is something that, in many ways, we believe is going to unlock human potential and productivity for many workers across many different sectors of the economy,” Stahle says.

“There are a number of things that can happen,” Chui adds. “One is, we simply do more of something we were already doing, and so imagine if you’re a university professor or a teacher, and the grading can be done by machine rather than you. You can take those hours and, instead of grading, you can actually start tutoring your students, spending more time with your students, improving their performance, helping them learn.”

American workers need to begin using the new technology if they hope to remain competitive, according to Chui.

“Workers who are best able to use these technologies will be the most competitive workers in the workforce,” he says. “It was true before, but it’s more true than ever, that we’re all going to have to be lifetime learners.”

A survey developed by Chui finds that almost 80% of workers have experimented with AI tools.

“One of the great powers of these generative AI tools, so far, is they’ve been designed in such a way to make it easy for really anybody to use these types of tools,” Stahle says. “I really believe that people should be looking to embrace these tools and find ways to incorporate them into the work that they’re already interested in doing.”

Ultimately, could one of the unexpected benefits of AI be more efficient employees who work less?

“In general, Americans work a lot,” Chui says. “Maybe we don’t have to work so long. Maybe we have a four-day work week … and so you could give that time back to the worker.”

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Stoltenberg ‘Confident’ of Continued US Support for Ukraine

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday he is confident the United States will continue to provide support for Ukraine amid divisions among U.S. lawmakers about approving more funding for the Ukraine war effort.

Speaking to reporters before the start of two days of talks with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Stoltenberg lauded what he called the unprecedented military support NATO allies have provided to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion.

“The challenge now is that we need to sustain that support,” Stoltenberg said.

He described supporting Ukraine as NATO’s obligation, saying that a Russian victory in Ukraine would be both a “tragedy for Ukrainians” and dangerous to NATO members.

Stoltenberg was due to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken before the start of the ministerial meeting.

A senior U.S. State Department official said ahead of the NATO talks that the United States is joining NATO members in renewing the alliance’s “steadfast commitment” to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. 

Wednesday, Blinken will lead the U.S. delegation to NATO member North Macedonia which is hosting a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or OSCE in its capital Skopje later this week.

The United States is hosting the next NATO summit in Washington from July 9 to 11, 2024.  

Blinken will discuss priorities for the Washington meeting with his counterparts as the alliance celebrates its 75th anniversary next year.  

NATO-Ukraine Council foreign ministers

The chief U.S. diplomat is also set to attend the first foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council as Kyiv aspires to be a NATO member.

“The Council supports Ukraine’s close partnership with NATO,” said Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Jim O’Brien.  “Allies will continue to support Ukraine’s self-defense until Russia stops its war of aggression,” he added.

The NATO-Ukraine Council was inaugurated at the NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 12, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other heads of member governments also in attendance. 

It convened for the second time in late July to discuss Black Sea security following Russia’s withdrawal from a deal overseeing grain exports from Ukrainian ports. 

The third meeting was held in October to discuss substantial assistance to Ukraine and to ensure Ukraine’s forces are fully interoperable with NATO. 

The NATO-Ukraine Council is the joint body where Allies and Ukraine sit as equal participants to advance political dialogue.

Western Balkans 

One of the sessions at this week’s NATO foreign ministers’ meeting is to address security and democracy in the Western Balkans. 

“A stable, prosperous future for the Western Balkans must be based on good governance, rule of law, multi-ethnic democracy, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” O’Brien said.

NATO officials have affirmed the alliance’s commitment to maintaining a safe and secure environment while contributing to broader stability in the Western Balkans. 

The statement came in response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s earlier warning this month, in which he conveyed information suggesting that Russia has a plan for the destabilization of the Balkans.

Speaking on Nov. 21 in Skopje, North Macedonia, during the final stop of a tour of the Western Balkans, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg stated that the alliance closely monitors Russia’s activities in the region.  But he said there is currently no perceived military threat to any NATO member in the area.

North Macedonia, OSCE 

After the government of North Macedonia announced that it would briefly lift a flight ban and permit the plane carrying Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to land in Skopje for the OSCE ministerial, Lavrov said on Monday he would attend the OSCE foreign ministers meeting in North Macedonia if Bulgaria opened its air space to the Russian delegation.

North Macedonia’s sanctions will remain in place against Russia for all other flights. 

Most European countries banned flights from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

O’Brien declined to comment on whether there will be any interaction between Lavrov, should he attend the OSCE ministerial, and the U.S. delegation but told VOA during a phone briefing that U.S. Secretary of State Blinken will “have a good discussion with” OSCE counterparts about U.S. “support for Ukraine.”

Some information for this story came from Reuters.

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Memorial Service to Honor Former US First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter is set to be honored Tuesday at a tribute service in Atlanta.

Her husband, 99-year-old former President Jimmy Carter, who entered hospice care in February, plans to attend Tuesday’s service.

The Carter Center said the list of expected guests included President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.

Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19 at the age of 96.

A funeral is planned for Wednesday in Plains, Georgia, followed by a private interment at the family’s home.

Memorial events began Monday with members of the public given the opportunity to pay their respects at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters


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US Official: AI Threat Demands New Approach to Security Designs

The potential threat posed by the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) means safeguards need to be built into systems from the start rather than tacked on later, a top U.S. official said on Monday.

“We’ve normalized a world where technology products come off the line full of vulnerabilities and then consumers are expected to patch those vulnerabilities. We can’t live in that world with AI,” said Jen Easterly, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

“It is too powerful, it is moving too fast,” she said in a telephone interview after holding talks in Ottawa with Sami Khoury, head of Canada’s Centre for Cyber Security.

Easterly spoke the same day that agencies from 18 countries, including the United States, endorsed new British-developed guidelines on AI cyber security that focus on secure design, development, deployment and maintenance.

“We have to look at security throughout the life cycle of that AI capability,” Khoury said.

Earlier this month, leading AI developers agreed to work with governments to test new frontier models before they are released to help manage the risks of the rapidly developing technology.

“I think we have done as much as we possibly could do at this point in time to help come together with nations around the world, with technology companies, to set out from a technical perspective how to build these capabilities as securely and safely as possible,” said Easterly.

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Hundreds of Volunteers Get White House Ready for Christmas

Every year, thousands of people from across the United States volunteer for a very exclusive holiday experience – the chance to decorate the White House for Christmas. Of all of those applicants, only 300 lucky people are chosen. VOA’s Dora Mekouar reports. Camera: Hakim Shammo

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Trump to Testify Again Next Month in Civil Fraud Trial

After a scorching first turn on the witness stand, former President Donald Trump plans to testify again next month in his civil fraud trial, his lawyers said Monday. 

He is to return December 11, defense attorney Christopher Kise said.

Trump was called to testify last time by his adversaries in the lawsuit, the New York attorney general’s office. This time, the Republican 2024 presidential front-runner’s own lawyers will open the questioning and can ask about a wider range of subjects than they could on cross-examination.

Not that those limitations stopped Trump from lambasting the suit and defending himself and his business against Attorney General Letitia James’ claims. Her lawsuit says he and his company misled lenders and insurers by giving them financial statements that greatly inflated his asset values and overall net worth.

“I’m worth billions of dollars more than the financial statements,” Trump insisted on the stand last time. “This is the opposite of fraud. … The fraud is her.”

Now finishing its second month, the trial is putting a spotlight on the real estate empire that vaulted Trump into public life and eventually politics. He maintains that James, a Democrat, is trying to damage his campaign.

Financial statements

At the heart of the case are Trump’s 2014-21 annual “statements of financial condition,” which were used to help secure loans and other deals.

A Trump Organization executive testified Monday that the company no longer produces such statements.

The company continues to prepare various audits and other financial reports specific to some of its components, but “there is no roll-up financial statement of the company,” said Mark Hawthorn, the chief operating officer of the Trump Organization’s hotel arm.

He wasn’t asked why the comprehensive reports had ceased but said they are “not required by any lender, currently, or any constituency.”

Messages seeking comment on the matter were sent to spokespeople for the Trump Organization.

Hawthorn, a certified public accountant, has worked since 2016 for the company’s Trump Hotels arm. Parent company Executive Vice President Donald Trump Jr. testified earlier that Hawthorn is functioning as the entire Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, calling him “the finance guy within Trump world now” and saying the CPA “has taken on all those decisional responsibilities.”

But Hawthorn said that statement was wrong, that using “the word ‘all’ makes it incorrect.”

Hawthorn was testifying for the defense, which argues that various companies under the Trump Organization’s umbrella have produced reams of financial documents “that no one had a problem with,” as lawyer Clifford Robert put it.

A lawyer for James’ office, Andrew Amer, stressed that the suit is about Trump’s overall statements of financial condition, calling the other documents irrelevant.

Trump asserts that his wealth was understated, not overblown, on his financial statements. He also says the numbers came with disclaimers saying that they weren’t audited and that others might reach different conclusions about his financial position.

Judge Arthur Engoron, who will decide the verdict in the nonjury trial, has already ruled that Trump and other defendants engaged in fraud. The current proceeding is to decide remaining claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.

James wants the judge to impose over $300 million in penalties and to ban Trump from doing business in New York — and that’s on top of Engoron’s pretrial order that a receiver take control of some of Trump’s properties. An appeals court has frozen that order for now.

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Biden Convenes New Council on Supply Chain Resilience 

U.S. President Joe Biden convened the new White House Council on Supply Chain Resilience on Monday, where he announced new actions aimed at strengthening America’s supply chain to lower costs for U.S. families, while warning companies against taking advantage of inflation by price gouging.

“We know that prices are still too high for too many things, that times are still too tough for too many families,” Biden said. “But we’ve made progress.”

Among the new 30 actions, the council invoked the Cold War-era Defense Production Act, to ensure investments in domestic manufacturing of medicines designated as key to American security. Some $35 million has been earmarked to be invested in the production of materials for injectable medicines.

It’s hoped that the initiatives lower overall costs for Americans and ensure timely production and deliveries of goods.

Biden was joined by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who said the U.S. is seeing lower inflation and fewer supply chain issues since problems peaked during recovery from the COVID pandemic in 2021.

“The pandemic had led to the most profound and widespread set of disruptions to our transportation systems since 9/11, including enormous strain on our supply chains,” Buttigieg said. 

Biden also announced a new agreement with “13 countries in the Indo-Pacific” that is aimed at identifying supply chain bottlenecks before they turn into more widespread issues.

The new council will be co-chaired by Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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US Military: Somali Pirates Likely Behind Attempted Tanker Seizure

An attempted hijacking of a commercial vessel in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday appears to have been carried out by armed Somali pirates and not Yemeni Houthis, despite the firing of missiles from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen afterwards, the Pentagon said Monday.

“We’re continuing to assess, but initial indications are that these five individuals are Somali,” said Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder.

“Clearly a piracy-related incident,” Ryder added.

A U.S. Navy warship responded to a distress call on Sunday from the chemical tanker Central Park. The attackers were taken aboard the U.S. warship Mason, the U.S. military said, and the Central Park and its crew were safe.

There have been a series of attacks in Middle Eastern waters since a war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out on October 7.

Central Park is a tanker managed by Zodiac Maritime Ltd, a London-headquartered international ship management company owned by Israel’s Ofer family. The Liberian-flagged vessel was built in 2015 and is owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc, LSEG data showed.

Ryder told reporters that U.S. Navy personnel fired warning shots when the attackers were trying to escape, but there were no injuries.

He added that there were three Chinese military ships in the area but they did not respond. China’s embassy in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment on the assertion.

The U.S. military has said that two ballistic missiles were later fired from Houthi-controlled territory in the general direction of the Mason and Central Park, but they landed about 10 nautical miles away from the ships.

“It’s not clear to us who they were targeting exactly,” Ryder said.

The attempted tanker hijacking followed a seizure of an Israeli-linked cargo ship by Houthis, allies of Iran, in the southern Red Sea last week.

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Obama Portraitist Turns His Brush to African Presidents

Acclaimed American artist Kehinde Wiley — known for portraying former US president Barack Obama and U.S. pop star Michael Jackson — has turned his brush to Africa. His “A Maze of Power” exhibit in Paris, portrays 11 former and current African presidents, exploring power through the lens of historical European portrait painting. Lisa Bryant went to the show and has this report from the French capital

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Tanker in Middle East Safe From Attackers After US Navy Responds

A U.S. Navy warship responded to a distress call from a commercial tanker in the Gulf of Aden that had been seized by armed individuals and is now safe, U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The tanker, which had been carrying a cargo of phosphoric acid, was identified as the Central Park by the vessel’s company. The officials did not identify the attackers.

One of the U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the USS Mason warship had responded to the distress call and the tanker was now free.

The incident is the latest in a series of attacks in Middle Eastern waters since a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out on Oct. 7.

It followed a seizure of an Israeli-linked cargo ship by Yemen Houthis, allies of Iran, in the southern Red Sea last week. The group, which also fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel, vowed to target more Israeli vessels.

Central Park, a small chemical tanker (19,998 metric tons), is managed by Zodiac Maritime Ltd., a London-headquartered international ship management company owned by Israel’s Ofer family. The Liberian-flagged vessel was built in 2015 and is owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc., LSEG data showed.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement Central Park, which is carrying a full cargo of phosphoric acid, was involved in a suspected piracy incident while crossing international waters, approximately 54 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

Phosphoric acid is mostly used for fertilizers.

“Our priority is the safety of our 22 crew onboard. The Turkish captained vessel has a multinational crew consisting of a crew of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian and Filipino nationals,” the statement added.

There was no immediate comment from Houthi officials.

Britain’s Maritime Trade Operations agency (UKMTO) said on Sunday it was aware of a possible attack in southwest Aden and called on other vessels to exercise caution.

The U.S. has blamed Iran for unclaimed attacks on several vessels in the region in the past few years. Tehran has denied involvement.

A container ship managed by an Israeli-controlled company was hit by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean, causing minor damage to the vessel but no injuries, a U.S. defense official said on Saturday.

Hamas fighters rampaged into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 people hostage. Since then, Israel’s all-out offensive on Gaza has killed about 14,000 people, roughly 40% of them children, Palestinian health authorities say.

The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the militants freed 17 more hostages, including 14 Israelis and the first American, in a third exchange under a four-day truce that the U.S. said it hoped would be extended. In turn, Israel released 39 Palestinian prisoners.

A fourth exchange is expected on Monday — the last day of the cease-fire during which a total of 50 hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be freed. Most are women and minors.


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Argentina President-Elect Milei Heads to US on Private Visit

Argentina’s president-elect Javier Milei was traveling Sunday to the United States to meet with U.S. and international lending officials, diplomatic sources told AFP.

The far-right economist will arrive in New York on a private visit Monday before traveling that day to Washington, where he will meet with U.S. diplomat Juan Gonzalez, the sources told AFP, on the condition of anonymity. 

Gonzalez is deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. 

Milei’s agenda through Tuesday also includes conversations with Treasury Department officials, the sources said. 

Milei will arrive with several members of his team, including Luis Caputo, an adviser on financial matters who is seen as a likely cabinet member.  

On Friday, the future president held a first remote chat from Buenos Aires with the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva. 

Buenos Aires has a $44 billion debt to the IMF, negotiated in 2018 by then-President Mauricio Macri, now Milei’s main ally. 

Milei will assume Argentina’s presidency on December 10, succeeding Peronist Alberto Fernandez.

It was announced Sunday that Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been invited to Milei’s inauguration.

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Russia Puts Meta Spokesperson Andy Stone on ‘Wanted List’

Russia has added the spokesperson of U.S. tech giant Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to a wanted list, according to an online database maintained by the country’s interior ministry.

Russian state agency Tass and independent news outlet Mediazona first reported on Andy Stone’s inclusion on the list Sunday, weeks after Russian authorities in October classified Meta as a “terrorist and extremist” organization, opening the way for possible criminal proceedings against Russian residents using its platforms.

The interior ministry’s database does not give details of the case against Stone, stating only that he is wanted on criminal charges.

According to Mediazona, an independent news website that covers Russia’s opposition and prison system, Stone was put on the wanted list in February 2022, but authorities made no related statements at the time and no news media reported on the matter until this week.

In March this year, Russia’s federal Investigative Committee opened a criminal probe of Meta. It alleged that the company’s actions following Moscow’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 amounted to inciting violence against Russians.

After Russian troops moved into Ukraine, Stone announced temporary changes to Meta’s hate speech policy to allow for “forms of political expression that would normally violate (its) rules, like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.'”

In the same statement, Stone added that “credible calls for violence against Russian civilians” will remain banned.

Mediazona claimed Sunday that an unspecified Russian court earlier this month issued an arrest warrant for Stone, on charges of “facilitating terrorism.” The report did not specify the source of this information, which could not be independently verified.

Western social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter) were popular with young Russians before Moscow launched its full-scale war on Ukraine but have since been blocked in the country as part of a broad crackdown on independent media and other forms of critical speech. They are now only accessible via VPN.

In April 2022, Russia also formally barred Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg from entering the country.

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