Nation & World briefing

Published Dec 13, 2013 at 12:01AM

Syrian chemical attacks — Chemical weapons were used repeatedly in the Syrian conflict this year, not only in the well-documented Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, which killed hundreds of civilians, including children, but also in four other instances, including in two subsequent attacks that targeted government soldiers, U.N. experts concluded in a report released Thursday. Prepared by chemical weapons specialists and doctors who traveled to Syria to conduct interviews and collect samples amid fighting, the report details facts and allegations surrounding the use of chemical weapons during the conflict between the forces of President Bashar Assad and the insurgents seeking to topple him.

Student data — Public schools around the country are adopting Web-based services that collect and analyze personal details about students without adequately safeguarding the information from potential misuse, according to new research. The study, which is expected to be released today by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School in New York, found weaknesses in the contracts that school districts sign when outsourcing Web-based tasks to service companies. Many contracts, the study found, failed to list the type of information collected while others did not prohibit vendors from selling personal details or using that information for marketing purposes.

NSA spying — A presidential advisory committee charged with examining the operations of the National Security Agency has concluded that its program to collect data on every phone call made in the United States should continue although under restraints intended to increase privacy protections, according to officials with knowledge of the committee’s report. They said the report also argues in favor of codifying and publicly announcing steps the United States will take to protect the privacy of foreigners whose telephone records, Internet communications or movements are collected by the NSA.

Iran sanctions — Under pressure from Congress to demonstrate continuing sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and nuclear and missile programs, the Obama administration on Thursday announced an expanded list of Iranian companies and individuals whose trading activities around the world would be blocked. Among the newly penalized are two companies based in Singapore, a nation with a strong reputation for a carefully regulated shipping industry and banking system.

Fake sign language — The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial says he suffers from schizophrenia and hallucinated and saw angels while gesturing incoherently just 3 feet away from President Barack Obama and other world leaders, outraging deaf people worldwide who said his signs amounted to gibberish. South African officials scrambled Thursday to explain how they came to hire the man and said they were investigating what vetting process, if any, he underwent for his security clearance. “In the process, and in the speed of the event, a mistake happened,” deputy Cabinet minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said.

Nomination fight — An all-out procedural war broke out in the Senate on Thursday, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid has vowed to continue calling round-the-clock confirmation votes through the weekend if Republicans continue to delay the process. A long list of nominees for lower courts and executive branch positions are awaiting confirmation, and Reid plans to call each of them on a continuous basis, no matter the hour. As they headed into their second late-night session of confirmation votes Thursday evening, the Democrats’ way of retaliating for Republican delay tactics, senators were chugging Red Bull, sleeping in their offices and angrily assigning blame.

Cross display — A federal judge ruled Thursday that a concrete cross on federal land in San Diego violated the First Amendment ban on a government endorsement of religion and ordered it removed. But the quarter-century fight over the 29-foot cross atop Mount Soledad, which has wound through the courts since the 1980s, may not be over. The judge said he would stay the order if there were an appeal. Supporters of the cross argue that it remains a war memorial, not a religious symbol.