The extremists now committing a wave of attacks in Iraq's Anbar province are better trained, funded and equipped than the al-Qaida-linked groups American soldiers battled there, says Brett McGurk, one of the State Department's top officials for Iraq.
The militants, who have drawn strength amid the war in Syria over the border, have taken over parts of Anbar over the last three months.
McGurk says that between 300 and 500 fighters have set up a defensive perimeter around the city of Fallujah, where American soldiers fought some of the fiercest battles of the war. They are armed with high-velocity sniper rifles.
Speaking last week on the sidelines of a conference in northern Iraq, McGurk says they don't have same iron control over the rest of the province. But still the militants have driven out more than 400,000 people since January. And their operations aren't confined to Anbar province. The group has become increasingly and lethally active again across Iraq.
"A key data point are suicide bombers, because suicide bombers - we know that they consider them their most precious (in a very perverse way) and their most strategic resource — they are now able to deploy about 30 to 40 suicide bombers a month here in Iraq," McGurk says.
That's contributing to a horrifying spike in the number of violent deaths. So what's the plan? McGurk says that the Iraqi government has undertaken to employ 10,000 of the tribesmen of Anbar in the security forces. These Sunni tribes complain of neglect by the Shiite-led government and some have even supported the militants. There's also a police training program.
Will that be enough? Zaid al-Ali, who recently published a book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, says that the problems are broader than that. In Sunni-dominated places like Anbar, they won't be solved by security measures alone. He thinks that chronic unemployment also needs to be addressed, and more importantly, entrenched sectarian practices by the security forces. Detention without charge and torture are far more common in places like Anbar, he says, which feeds hatred of the government.
"It's been a major issue because there is a lot of abuse of detainees in Iraq, and there are a lot of cases - this is not a secret, everyone knows about this - there are a lot of cases of people being detained for no reason, or very long periods of time, without access to attorneys, without access to judges, without access to any type of recourse, and that really needs to change extremely urgently," al-Ali says.
Al-Ali also says that endemic corruption is feeding insecurity. He says that crooked purchasing practices mean that ineffective bomb detectors are widely used, and al-Qaida-linked groups have infiltrated the police and army.
"It's as a result of four, five years incompetence and corruption in the security sector, and it's going to be very hard to overturn at this stage," he says.
All eyes are on Iraqi elections, which are due to happen at the end of April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has built his political legitimacy on his ability to maintain a modicum of security in Iraq. As he pushes for a third term, such security remains in short supply.
This is Hungerford, a large female snowy owl. Last summer she was just a hatchling — a gray ball of fuzz in the middle of the arctic tundra. In the fall, she flew thousands of miles south until she reached an island off the coast of Maryland called Assateague. And this winter, she became an important part of an unprecedented research project.
"Something Huge Is Going On"
Snowy owls are the some of the largest birds in North America, but scientists know very little about their behavior. The owls spend most of their days far from humans, hunting rodents and birds in the flat expanses of the arctic circle. In the winter the owls shift south, but they don't usually reach United States. Most years, only a few are spotted in the northernmost states — an rare treat for birders. But this year was different.
Owls started to appear all over the United States right around Thanksgiving — in Nebraska, in Kentucky — even as far south as Georgia. Dave Brinker, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was shocked when he saw not one but two snowy owls on the dunes of Assateague Island.
"Something huge is going on," Brinker told his colleagues. "We won't see something like this for a long time — probably for the rest of our lifetimes."
This rapid population boom — called an "irruption" by ecologists — is the largest the East Coast has seen in forty or fifty years.
The Trigger (Lemmings!)
So what caused the irruption? This picture tells the story:
It shows a snowy owl's nest that was photographed by biologists last summer in northern Quebec. Those furry lumps are the carcasses of 70 lemmings. Lemmings — small, hamster-like rodents — are the main source of food for snowy owls in the arctic. Thanks to the abundance of lemmings last summer, well-fed mother owls laid more eggs, and huge numbers of owlets grew up fat and strong. Come winter, they spread far to the south.
This irruption has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for owl researchers — the chance to tag and track members of a mysterious species. Brinker says that following the movements of a few snowy owls will give scientists unprecedented information — about they're routes through Canada and around the arctic circle, about their hunting patterns, and about the human-made hazards they face. That understanding, in turn, will help them protect the owls.
So Brinker teamed up with his long-time colleague Scott Weidensaul to launch Project Snowstorm. They quickly cobbled together a nation-wide team of owl fanatics and raised $36 thousand dollars through a crowdfunding website to buy about two dozen custom-built GPS transmitters.
But they still had to catch the owls. The researchers began by visiting places where snowy owls had been regularly spotted — often flat, open areas like beaches and airports that look a bit like arctic tundra. Once they spotted an owl, they set up a trap nearby, and the waiting game began.
Weidensaul and Brinker both use a trap called a bow net. It looks a bit like hockey goal — a large rectangular frame that support a loose netting. The bait is a pigeon. It's outfitted with a sturdy leather jacket to protect it from piercing talons. When an owl swoops in to snatch the pigeon, the net arcs up over it, harmlessly pinning it to the ground.
Hungerford was captured by Steve Huy, a volunteer with Project Snowstorm who has worked with Brinker for years. He's an analyst for Marriott International, but he has special training — and a permit — to trap and handle owls.
Huy and Brinker worked together to measure Hungerford's wingspan, tail length, and fat stores. They carefully placed a metal band around her leg so she can be identified if she is ever recaptured. They took feather and blood samples that will help them learn more about Hungerford's diet, genetics, and exposure to man-made toxins.
Hungerford was still and calm throughout most the process, staring around the small cabin that serves as Assateague's research headquarters. But every once in a while, she let out a high pitched twitter of disapproval and nipped at Huy's hands with her sharp beak.
Finally, the researchers equipped her with a GPS transmitter. It's solar-powered and weighs just 40 grams, less than 3 percent of Hungerford's weight. She wears it like a backpack, with two custom sewn Teflon straps snugly wrapping around her shoulders so they don't interfere with flight.
"At first they're gonna notice it but they get used to it pretty quick," Brinker said.
Before releasing Hungerford back into the wild, Huy tried to feed her a dead mouse. He wanted to make sure she had something in her stomach. Maybe it was the stress of capture or maybe it was too early in the day for her to eat, but she wasn't interested.
Huy released Hungerford on the beach where she was captured, and she glided out into the dunes.
Already, her GPS unit was collecting data: longitude, latitude and altitude, every half hour. And from Minnesota to Rhode Island, the transmitters of the 15 other owls tagged so far do the same. Every three days, they connect to a cell phone network and send all their data back to Project Snowstorm.
"We're all sitting there, 7 o'clock, every third day. It's like...who's checking in?" Brinker says. "They're what's providing our daily excitement now."
Hungerford's first few data points show her spending the rest of the day among Assateague's dunes, but after sunset she flew north. Soon, snowy owls all across the United States will join her, starting the long journey back to their arctic breeding grounds. And a few of them, like Hungerford, will carry a high-tech accessory.
You can follow the journeys of all the tagged owls on the Project Snowstorm website.
Three years after the massive tsunami that ravaged northeastern Japan, the government is building the biggest anti-tsunami barriers ever.
The vast network of supersized sea walls, mocked by some as "the Great Wall of Japan," is already underway and would stretch 230 miles and cost nearly $8 billion dollars.
The wall is designed to protect places like the small port city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture. With its dramatic hills, white fishing boats and seafood market, Kesennuma has the pleasant nautical feel of Seattle.
In a prefab metal building, chefs at the Asahi Sushi restaurant assemble a big takeout order. The original restaurant washed away in the March 11, 2011 tsunami, along with the rest of Kesennuma's historic waterfront.
The city's rebuilding has been slowed down by controversy over the seawall, to be built along the inner harbor. Residents and business owners say the originally planned nearly 17-foot-high seawall, would turn this quaint seaport into a prison.
"We love this scenery and we're worried about the environmental impact of seawall construction, which would affect my livelihood," said tsunami survivor and fisherman Makoto Hatakeyama.
But for planners like Mitsutaka Kodama, of Miyagi's harbor restoration department, fortifying the coast is beyond question. More than 1,000 people died in Kesennuma alone, and Miyagi sustained almost 60 percent of the 18,000 casualties of 2011.
"Residential areas and evacuation routes must be protected by high walls," said Kodama. "We can set back the wall, away from the water to create more shoreline, or make it easy to climb to see the scenery, or cover it with greenery."
Despite the horror his community endured, sushi chef Rikio Murakami thinks a seawalls is a bad idea.
"We've never had a seawall before. We've always coexisted with the sea and we don't like being cut off from it," said Murakami.
On a barricade overlooking what used to be one of the most popular and treasured landmarks in Miyagi prefecture, called Oya Beach.
The beach is very well known for its transparent waters and is a popular place for Miyagi residents to spend the summer. Now the government of Miyagi prefecture wants to build a seawall more than 30-feet high. It would completely obliterate the beach and that upsets some residents.
"Lots of us went to the shore, locals and out-of-towners alike. It was the pride of our community," said Tomoyuki Miura, a local resident. "Kids played there. Older folks strolled on the beach. We even had our own train station right next to it."
Opponents say the walls - although financed by the national government - would saddle struggling local governments with crushing maintenance costs. They say less drastic alternatives, such as moving communities to high ground or developing better evacuation techniques, have not been given enough attention.
Controversy over the wall has reverberated far beyond the disaster zone, in public forums like a recent one at Tokyo's Waseda University.
Nearly half of Japan's coastline has been armored against erosion and storms. Much of it, opponents say, is useless pork barrel spending, like a proposal to build $20-million seawalls on four uninhabited islands with no commercial value.
Satoquo Seino of Kyushu University says the seawall issue in northeastern Japan is already changing national policy.
"This is the first time Japan has seen a concerted movement against building seawalls. Until now it was just a local problem," Seino said.
Despite their opposition, Kesennuma residents have been forced to accept a final compromise with the Miyagi regional government - within the next two years, the town will have a new 14-foot-high seawall.
Virtually any time a major event ripples across Washington, the Justice Department is positioned near the center of it.
From the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner that carried three Americans on board to the fate of voting rights for millions of people, the attorney general has an enormous portfolio. And the stress to match it.
But after an elevated heart rate sent him to the hospital last month, Eric Holder says he's on the mend.
"Got some medication that got me back down to where my heart is supposed to be beating and I'm doing just fine," Holder, 63, told NPR in an interview this week.
Five years into the job, the attorney general says he's determined to use the bully pulpit to talk about things that matter, like an overhaul of the justice system.
On Thursday, he'll testify to the U.S. Sentencing Commission about proposals to reduce prison terms for thousands of people in drug cases, changes that could trim sentences by an average of 11 months per defendant.
"For too long, we have labored under the misapprehension that we have to have these extraordinarily long sentences if we want to keep the American people safe," Holder said.
The whole system needs to be smarter and more flexible, he added, by "putting in the hands of judges what should happen to a particular defendant as opposed to going to a sheet of paper, a computer and spitting some kind of almost mechanical determination of what should happen."
Already one of the longest serving attorneys general in history, Holder says he has no immediate plans or timetable to leave — not while cases to protect the rights of minority voters in Texas and North Carolina are just starting to move through the courts. But those efforts suffered a setback last week when seven Senate Democrats voted to block the Obama administration's nominee for the top civil rights post.
Lawmakers cited Debo Adegbile's work on an appeal for a convicted cop killer as a reason to deny him a job at the Justice Department.
"The political decision — and it was a political decision — not to pay close attention to what his record was or to be misinformed about what his record was and then to use that as a basis to deny him the opportunity to serve here as assistant attorney general is something that to me is extremely disturbing," Holder said.
The attorney general said that vote set a dangerous precedent that could scare lawyers away from representing unpopular clients.
"What he did was something that is in the finest tradition of who we are as lawyers," Holder added. "You take on unpopular clients. And then when you have the opportunity to serve in government, that should not be held against you."
It's such a long tradition for prominent attorneys that among those Holder cited include former President John Adams and current Chief Justice John Roberts — both of whom handled cases of murderers without being blocked from big jobs or facing any punishment in their careers.
And speaking of punishment: the attorney general says he's still open to talking with NSA leaker Edward Snowden about terms of surrender on Espionage Act charges. Holder says what Snowden did was "wrong" and "inappropriate" but promises Snowden will be treated fairly if he decides to face justice.
Yet so far, no deal. And no conversations to date, except with Russian authorities who are giving him shelter.
For now, the reasons behind the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner this week remain a mystery too. Holder says he's offered to help foreign allies — but it's too early to say whether terrorism played a role. He also wants companies to start paying more attention to an international database of suspicious passports after at least two passengers on the missing flight boarded with stolen documents.
"Interpol does a really good job of keeping track of passports that are reported stolen," Holder said. "It's a database that is accessible and it would be my hope that airlines and other appropriate entities would make use of that tool."
As for some of the biggest national security controversies of his long and bumpy tenure, Holder said he's convinced he was right about the wisdom of trying terrorists in ordinary federal courts — and he won't hesitate to send defendants to New York if they've already been indicted and are picked up overseas.
A federal jury in New York is hearing evidence in the conspiracy case against Suleiman Abu Gayth, the son-in-law to Osama bin Laden who was sent to the U.S. last year. Meanwhile, the military commission case against 9-11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is still limping along with no trial in sight, Holder pointed out.
"If that case had been brought in an Article III court, it would be over by now and as I've said previously, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row," Holder said.
Holder said he's generally comfortable with rules President Obama has set out for the killing of Americans overseas with armed drones — as authorities are weighing with at least one American on foreign soil. He said the U.S. national security team properly conducts an after-action analysis to examine whether any civilians died and to minimize the possibility of future collateral damage.
"You know, collateral damage is a phrase I just don't like to use," Holder said. "It is a euphemism. What we are talking about are the lives of human beings and it's something that weighs on the mind of, I know the president, those of us who are on the National Security Council. We want to do this in as surgical a way as we possibly can, minimizing the danger to others."
Last year, in a letter to Congress, the attorney general told lawmakers the U.S. had specifically targeted just one American overseas since Obama took office. The other three U.S. citizens who died, Holder wrote, were collateral damage.
U.S. drone strikes will doubtless be a part of the legacy Holder and his boss, the president, leave. But so will their response to the financial crisis that began nearly six years ago. Most corporate sharks have escaped criminal accountability, but Holder said the Justice Department hasn't put away all its hooks. Every 10 days or so, Holder meets with members of a financial crime task force to monitor big cases in the pipeline, along the lines of last November's $13 billion settlement with JP Morgan Chase over the quality of mortgages the bank sold.
"I guess the latter part of last week," the attorney general said, "we were talking about whether and how we might approach a criminal investigation with regard to a high ranking official in one of these major institutions and the statute of limitations would not be a bar to us moving in that direction — if the evidence warranted it."
One of the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is the appearance of two men on the flight manifest who were apparently traveling with stolen passports.
On U.S.-bound flights there are safeguards aimed at preventing that from happening. Interpol, the international police organization, issued a statement criticizing Malaysia for allowing the passengers to board the flight.
Since 9/11, Interpol has maintained a database of stolen passports containing more than 40 million entries, according to the agency. Airlines and nations are supposed to check passenger lists against that database to prevent people from flying with false identification. But relatively few nations do.
Among those that do is the United States. Former Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker helped institute the policy.
"We said to the carriers, the airliners, 'Before you close the door and take off on your flight to the United States, we already have to have all the airline passengers' names and passport numbers in our hands electronically,' so that we can make a decision to say, 'Don't take off. There's somebody on that plane we don't want coming here," Baker says.
Baker says countries who's citizens don't need visas to enter the U.S. must report stolen passports to Interpol within 24 hours, and the passport numbers of passengers flying here must be sent online to the U.S. in advance of the flight departing.
"We've got redundant checks that ought to make it very difficult to take off on a flight to the U.S. with a properly reported stolen passport, as these evidently were," he says.
The U.S. and Britain are among the few nations that do regularly check for stolen documents. Interpol says passengers were able to board aircraft more than a billion times last year alone without having their passports checked against its databases.
Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, says the system is broken.
"The world passport system is in total disarray, and the conventional wisdom that somehow a passport is going to keep unwanted people out of a country is just a fiction," Greenberger says. "It is far too easy to get into a country with illegal documents."
While the presence of two people with stolen passports on the Malaysia Airlines flight has drawn attention to the issue, Greenberger says the use of stolen or forged passports is rampant and has serious implications:
"This use of fake passports vastly increases organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking," he says.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report says the use of fake passports represented a key gap in the abilities of different countries to prevent terrorist travel overseas.