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July 30, 2014
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European governments have quietly paid al Qaeda between $125 million and $165 million in ransoms for kidnapping victims since 2008, including at least $66 million in the past year alone, according to a New York Times investigation. The money, funneled through intermediaries, is sometimes disguised as development aid. Counterterrorism officials believe the payoffs now overshadow cash from big donors as al Qaeda's main funding source. Read The New York Times' full report here.

This just in
7:49am ET
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Mitt Romney (R) will announce his plans for the 2016 elections on Friday morning, according to multiple reports.

Supporters of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign received an email Thursday inviting them to join a call with Romney on Friday morning for "an update."

Sources have confirmed to Bloomberg that Romney is ready to announce a decision about a potential presidential bid in 2016. "According to people familiar with the thinking of the two-time presidential candidate, Romney has now gathered all the information he needs to reach a conclusion about whether to run a third time," Bloomberg reports.

The news comes as David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who worked on both of Romney's presidential campaigns, has joined Jeb Bush's political action committee as a senior strategist. Kochel advised Romney for more than six years.

Noted
7:12am ET
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On Friday, President Obama will unveil a proposal for a federal biomedical research institute aimed at developing treatments tailored to individual patients' genetics and other characteristics. White House officials tell The New York Times that the "precision medicine initiate" will require an initial investment of $215 million, which will be included in Obama's proposed fiscal 2016 budget. Such personalized treatments are expected to be especially important in fighting cancer. When Obama broached the idea for the institute in his State of the Union address, it was one of the points to receive some bipartisan support.

Mixed Signals
6:32am ET

Birds do it, bees do it, even.... James Carville and Mary Matalin did it. But a surprisingly large number of Americans are solidly against dating (and perhaps falling in love with) someone in the other political party, Jessica Williams said on Thursday night's Daily Show. Williams got some juicy, mind-bending quotes from her panels of inter-party-dating-averse Democrats and Republicans. But what happens when she sends one of the Democrats and one of the Republicans on a date together? "It was a catastrophe," Williams says in a voiceover — just maybe not for the reason you'd expect. —Peter Weber

Life and Death
6:02am ET
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The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said that Death Row Records cofounder Marion "Suge" Knight turned himself in early Friday to face questioning over a deadly incident in which two people were run over by a red pickup on Thursday afternoon. One, a 55-year-old man, died, the other man was injured.

Update: The L.A. Sheriff's Department arrested Knight on Friday morning, on suspicion of murder, and set his bail at $2 million, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Citing witnesses, the Sheriff's Department says that the driver of the truck deliberately ran over the two members of the Straight Outta Compton film crew; Knight's lawyer says that Knight was driving, but accidentally ran over the two men while trying to escape two other assailants.

The Daily Showdown
5:18am ET

Sunday is the Super Bowl, and Jon Stewart took Thursday night's Daily Show to tackle the twin controversies surrounding this year's match-up between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Stewart wasn't overly nonplussed about "Deflategate," or "Ballghazi," but he did mockingly wonder if those were "appropriate nicknames for something this serious." His alternative: "I'm gonna go with the Ballocaust."

Also, Stewart had one good question about who's to blame for New England's under-inflated footballs: "If it's not Belichick or Brady — and it's both — then how did only the Patriots' balls become deflated?" After a too-brief interlude with John Hodgman, Stewart turned to the NFL's forced media appearances of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

Not only did the league threaten to fine Lynch $500,000 for not meeting the press, but they may penalize him for wearing the wrong brand of hat. "You know, it's just classic NFL to be more worried about what's happening on top of the player's head than the damage that's going on inside it," Stewart deadpanned. "It explains their slogan: 'The National Football League, Worrying About the Wrong S#@t Since 1920.'" —Peter Weber

culture of death
4:29am ET

On Thursday night, Robert Ladd was put to death by lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Ladd, convicted of beating Vicki Ann Garner to death with a hammer in 1996, had an IQ of just 67, prompting a legal challenge on the grounds that Ladd was intellectually disabled. The Supreme Court declined to grant a last-minute stay of execution. —Peter Weber

RIP
4:00am ET
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Before Rod McKuen essentially stopped publishing his poems and recording albums in 1981, he was a pop culture juggernaut, a sort of middlebrow Renaissance man, selling more than 60 million of his poetry books and tens of millions of copies of his 200 music and spoken-word albums. At the peak of his career, in the 1960s and '70s, McKuen was "the unofficial poet laureate of America," according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. He died on Thursday in Beverly Hills, after a battle with pneumonia, at age 81.

McKuen collaborated with Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel on a string of well-known songs, including "If You Go Away" and "Seasons in the Sun," and Frank Sinatra commissioned and recorded an album of his songs, A Man Alone (1969). He was nominated for Academy Awards for the title songs to A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and won a Grammy for his spoken-word album Lonesome Cities (1968). He acted in TV shows and movies. As a budding poet in the 1950s, McKuen read his work alongside Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat poets.

His prolific work made him wealthy and famous, but the critics were not particularly kind. As to why he took a long break starting in the '80s, "I was tired," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "I peaked. I left when I was on top." Below, you can watch McKuen sing "Seasons in the Sun," his translation of Brel's "Le Moribond" and a hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. —Peter Weber

if you say so
2:22am ET
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The next time you find yourself enjoying a Frappuccino at Starbucks, be sure to silently thank the icy beverage’s inspiration: Kenny G.

In an interview with Bloomberg, the smooth jazz virtuoso said that as an early investor in Starbucks, he convinced chairman and CEO Howard Schultz to rip off another company's drink. "At the beginning, Starbucks didn’t have anything but coffee, and there was another company, Coffee Bean, that had something called 'blended' that was a sweet drink, and people were lined up around the block," he said. "I would always call Howard and say, 'Howard, there's this thing that they do there that's like a milkshake or whatever.'"

Kenny G admits that he's never been a coffee aficionado, and became interested in Starbucks after talking with his uncle, one of the company's first investors. He was quickly impressed by Schultz, he said, and the rest is caffeinated history.

Deflategate
1:46am ET

Lots of people take responsibility for crimes they didn't commit, Jimmy Kimmel said on Thursday night's Jimmy Kimmel Live, citing the Lindbergh baby kidnapping as an example. The same holds true of (much) lesser crimes, like the Patriots' (alleged) deflating of their game footballs in the AFC championship game. That's the setup for a bunch of Patriots fans (with strong Boston accents) pleading guilty to deflating the balls of their idol, quarterback Tom Brady — without his knowledge, of course. You'll recognize a lot of the personalities (we'll list them below the video). And yes, the Kimmel–Matt Damon feud lives on.

(Along with Damon, watch for Ben Affleck, John Krasinski, Steven Tyler, Chris Evans, Eli Roth, Dicky Barrett, and Bill Simmons.)

Health
1:45am ET
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Put down that glass: A new study released Thursday says that people in their 50s and 60s who drink more than two alcoholic beverages every day have a 34 percent higher risk of stroke compared to those who don't drink as much.

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, also states that consuming more than two drinks daily can increase a middle-aged person's risk of stroke more than usual traits like high blood pressure and diabetes, NBC News reports. Researchers tracked about 11,000 sets of Swedish twins for 43 years, and came to their conclusion after looking at the lifestyle choices and health of the participants.

Dr. Shazam Hussain with the Cleveland Clinic's stroke program was not part of the study, but said along with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, alcohol consumption might become another stroke risk factor to look at. "We are seeing more and more people who are having strokes at younger ages and we don't necessarily appreciate how much alcohol use may be contributing to that," he told NBC News. "We know that the more you drink, the worse off you're going to be. Whether no alcohol versus a little bit of alcohol is any different, that's tough to say."

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