August 7, 2014
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized control of Iraq's largest hydroelectric dam today, The New York Times reports. If that sounds familiar, that's because on Sunday there were also reports that ISIS had seized this incredibly strategic asset from forces loyal to Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. We'll see if the Kurds can take it back this time, too.

So, why is this dam so critical? It not only generates about 30 percent of Iraq's electricity, it can also be turned into a terrifying weapon. Here's a refresher from our partner Foreign Policy:

[S]cientists say the destruction or failure of the Mosul Dam could unleash up to 50 million gallons of water per second on Mosul, covering more than half of Iraq's second-largest city under 25 meters of water within hours and deluging Baghdad under four meters of water inside of three days. So there's that. It's also a staggeringly easy piece of infrastructure to compromise, thanks to an unstable, water-soluble foundation that needs constant reinforcement to preserve its structural integrity. That shoddy craftsmanship earned it the title of "most dangerous dam in the world," in a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. [Foreign Policy]

If it's true that ISIS has taken the dam this time, then the Corps of Engineers' assessment will have double resonance indeed. Nico Lauricella

9:27 a.m. ET

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that President Trump's personal legal counsel, Michael Cohen, met last month with a colorful Russian-American former Trump business associate, Felix Sater, and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian lawmaker, then delivered a sealed envelope from them to Michael Flynn, Trump's then-national security adviser, with a "peace plan" for Ukraine. The peace deal, proposed by the pro-Moscow Ukrainian lawmaker, Andrii Artemenko, would lead to formalizing Russia's occupation of Crimea as a lease and lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Cohen and Sater confirmed the meeting and the envelope delivery. Then on Monday, Cohen backpedaled, telling The Washington Post and NBC News that "the brief meeting took place," but "emphatically" denying "discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn." He agreed to meet with Sater for coffee, he added, because he's "known Felix for years," and didn't know Sater's friend "would be a guy who wants to run for president of Ukraine." The Times stood by its story, telling The Washington Post that Cohen said "in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn's office at the White House."

The back-channel diplomacy effort is not illegal, though it is unusual and maybe inconvenient amid federal investigations into Trump's business and political ties to Moscow. The reappearance of Sater is interesting, in any case, not least because he has a colorful history that includes arrests for stabbing a man in the face with a broken glass in a bar fight and for a Mafia-linked stock-fixing scheme, and avoiding jail by working for the CIA and FBI.

Sater's long business history with Trump includes working on several Trump-licensed projects, including the Trump SoHo building and — a decade ago and again in 2015 — a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Sater's name has popped up a couple of times in the campaign, but despite evidence of their close ties, Trump has sworn in depositions that he wouldn't even recognize Sater's face, as shown in this December 2015 report from ABC News.

The peace proposal did not meet with a positive response in either Kiev or Moscow; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the plan "absurd," and Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly said that Artemenko "is not entitled to present any alternative peace plans on behalf of Ukraine to any foreign government." Peter Weber

9:00 a.m. ET

It might not be all in your head after all. A small team of biopsychologists from Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, believes they have found evidence proving that whether you are right- or left-hand dominant comes from genetic activity in the spine, not just the brain, Science Alert reports.

Previously, researchers believed that gene activity in the right or left hemisphere of the brain resulted in a person's handedness. Scientists knew that such a preference starts in the eighth week of pregnancy, with unborn children preferring to suck on his or her right or left thumb by week 13.

That's where the new research comes in:

Arm and hand movements are initiated via the motor cortex in the brain. It sends a corresponding signal to the spinal cord, which in turn translates the command into a motion. The motor cortex, however, is not connected to the spinal cord from the beginning. Even before the connection forms, precursors of handedness become apparent. This is why the researchers have assumed that the cause of right respective left preference must be rooted in the spinal cord rather than in the brain. [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]

"These results fundamentally change our understanding of the cause of hemispheric asymmetries," the authors of the study wrote.

And as Science Alert notes, the study is still very small and early to throw out all previous assumptions. That being said, "it's definitely intriguing new evidence that scientists will need to investigate further." Jeva Lange

8:12 a.m. ET

When President Trump, inspired by a Fox News segment, told a crowd this weekend that the nation of Sweden is having "problems like they never thought possible" due to their intake of large numbers of refugees, it left some in Sweden scratching their heads.

One such Swede is Max Karlsson, who is tasked with running the national Twitter account this week. Every week, a new Swede is allowed to run the @Sweden account, and Karlsson used his opportunity to loosen a volley of facts at President Trump:

In addition to the White House's false claim that crime in Sweden is going up (in fact, it has been falling for the past 12 years), Karlsson also took aim at the spread of biased information:

"Let's be clear," Karlsson said. "A lot happened #lastnightinSweden. Things happen all of the time. Just not the things @readDonaldTrump [is] spreading." Read his full thread here. Jeva Lange

7:36 a.m. ET
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By issuing an executive order on Jan. 27 that banned people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, President Trump inadvertently paled the appeal of America to many tourists around the world. The travel industry is already feeling the squeeze: Interest in visiting the U.S. has plummeted since Trump's executive order, The New York Times reports.

Hopper, an airfare prediction app, found that between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1, searches for flights from 122 countries to the U.S. dropped more than a 17 percent after the travel ban, compared with the first three weeks of the month. Another travel site,, saw international searches drop 38 percent from Jan. 27 to 29, compared to the weekend prior. Swedish travel search engine found by analyzing 2.5 million searches that interest in visiting the United States dropped 47 percent compared to the same period the year prior.

"This drop was more than a seasonal swing," said spokeswoman Emily Fisher. "It was most notable in the days right after the ban was enacted."

The consequences, in the long term, are not insignificant. Tourism-related spending in the U.S. was $1.56 trillion in 2015, and the industry created 7.6 million jobs in the U.S. in the same year.

"It doesn't take a lot of uncertainty or adverse sentiment to affect travel decisions," Adam Sacks of Tourism Economics told The New York Times. Jeva Lange

7:15 a.m. ET

On Monday morning at about 6 a.m., 11 passengers walked through a Transportation Security Administration security lane at New York JFK airport's Terminal 5 without being screened by TSA agents, law enforcement officials said. The TSA waited two hours to inform Port Authority police, and in that time, the 11 passengers boarded their planes and flew off. Three of the passengers were apparently not screened even after they set off the metal detector, though the Port Authority police say three of the 11 people were identified through security camera footage and checked when they landed in California. The other eight passengers have not yet been identified.

The TSA said it is reviewing the security lapse, but is "confident" that the breach "presents minimal risk to the aviation transportation system," in part because the passengers' bags were screened and they passed by a K9 team. Other people are less sanguine about 11 people boarding airplanes without being checked for weapons. Those critics include the New York Daily News:

You can learn more about the incident in the NBC Nightly News report below. Peter Weber

6:16 a.m. ET
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, an Israeli military court handed Sgt. Elor Azaria an 18-month prison sentence for fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian knife attacker in Hebron last March, less than the 3-5 years sought by prosecutors. The shooting of the 21-year-old Palestinian man, captured on video, split opinion in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies calling for Azaria to be pardoned and military officials arguing that a soldier shooting a disarmed, immobilized prisoner is contrary to Israeli military values. A three-judge military judicial panel had convicted Azaria of manslaughter in January. Peter Weber

4:22 a.m. ET

Thousands of people celebrated Presidents Day on Monday by gathering in streets nationwide for "Not My Presidents Day" rallies. Stephen Colbert was having none of it. "Sorry, but yeah: your president," he said on Monday's Late Show. "Deal with it. George Washington was not more president than Donald Trump, okay? Abraham Lincoln: exactly the same amount of commander in chief as Donald Trump. So no marching off to your fantasy world — do not leave me alone with this guy!"

America's president, Colbert noted, declared the press the "enemy of the American people" on Friday, and Colbert managed a mockery twofer: "You know who I feel bad for? ISIS. They try so hard. Sorry, ISIS — if you want to get on the list, you've got to publish photos of Trump's inauguration crowd, then he'll be really, really angry at you." He played a clip of Sen. John McCain standing up for the media, saying abolishing a free press is how dictatorships begin. McCain wasn't calling Trump a dictator, Colbert noted, or at least not "a full dictator. He's more bite-sized, okay? He's a dictator-tot."

Colbert had a short riff on Trump's new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — "He chose McMaster, I assume, because he had the strongest-sounding name — 'Is Gen. Thrust McPowerhouse not available? Let's go with McMaster instead'" — and ended with Trump's rally in Florida on Saturday. "Over 9,000 showed up," Colbert said. "It is the biggest crowd Trump has drawn to an airport without detaining anyone." Trump was there to talk to the people, and he called one person he'd seen on TV up to the stage, telling him to just jump the security fence. Colbert let that sink in for a second, finally deadpanning: "Yes, nothing screams secure borders and extreme vetting like 'Hop over the fence!'" Watch below. Peter Weber

See More Speed Reads