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Pentagon Denies Paying Con Man for Bowe Bergdahl Info

U.S. Army via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon is denying a suggestion that money was paid for information about Bowe Bergdahl's whereabouts while he was detained by the Taliban or that they were taken in by a con man charging an unspecified large amount of money for intelligence information.

The allegation was raised in a Nov. 5 letter from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

In the letter, Hunter wrote, "It has been brought to my attention that a payment was made to an Afghan intermediary who 'disappeared' with the money and failed to facilitate Bergdahl’s release in return. The payment was made in January-February 2014, according to sources, through Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This is supported by the fact that JSOC did pursue at last two lines of effort for Bergdahl: a kinetic rescue operation if necessary, and; a payment to the Haqqani Network to gain Bergdahl’s release.”

The Haqqani Network is a Taliban group believed to have held Bergdahl for five years after he left his unit's base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009.

Bergdahl was released in May after the Obama administration secured his release in exchange for the release of five high-level Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo.

“Given the significance of this matter, as well as the fact that Pentagon officials have denied that a payment was even considered, and you also said you were unaware of any such attempt, I ask you to immediately inquire with JSOC to determine the specific order of events,” Hunter wrote. “I also ask that you confirm whether a payment of any kind was considered and/or paid.”

The Washington Times reported Thursday that a con man had posed as an intermediary and made away with an unspecified large amount of money paid by the U.S. as part of a failed bid to secure Bergdahl's release.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Thursday that no money was paid as ransom or in any other context.

“There was no ransom paid. There was no money exchanged at all to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, nor was there an attempt to do so that failed,” said Kirby “There was no attempt to pay a ransom to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.”

When pressed that the allegation was not about a ransom payment, but a payment for intelligence collection, Kirby denied that was the case, either.

“I’m not aware of any money that changed hands with respect to securing the release of Bowe Bergdahl."

However, he acknowledged, "that on occasion, to obtain information, sometimes, in the field, there are such exchanges. That’s a fact. But I have nothing here today to indicate validity in this particular case.”

Kirby denied there was a hold-up in the Army’s ongoing review of the final investigation into his 2009 disappearance which was completed in late September.

"I have heard nothing and I’ve seen no indication that there’s been any deliberate holdup of it.”

Kirby said the Pentagon would soon respond to Hunter’s letter with the same information he released at Thursday's news briefing.

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Kerry to Join Iran Nuke Talks in Vienna

State Dept photo(VIENNA) -- Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Vienna on Thursday, where he'll join the nuclear talks with Iran.

In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry is coming to the Austrian city to "check in" on the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Psaki added that Kerry's departure date is "not yet determined," leaving open the possibility that he may leave before Monday's deadline.

If Kerry goes home, it may be a sign that a deal is dead. If he travels elsewhere, he might be continuing the sidelines negotiations he's done from London and Paris.

Officials, meanwhile, are working hard to lower expectations of a deal this week, and some are now openly debating whether an extension is necessary.

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Pope Francis Takes on Capitalism at UN Conference on Hunger

FAO via Getty Images(ROME) -- Speaking to a United Nations conference on hunger in Rome Thursday, Pope Francis once again took on capitalism.

The pope called it painful to witness how the "primacy of profit" and speculation obstruct the fight against hunger and malnutrition around the world.

In the past 12 years, hunger has fallen by about 20 percent. But millions in the West overeat to the point of obesity, while 800 million continue to go hungry, with malnutrition being linked to almost half of the deaths of young children around the world.

Pope Francis added that no form of political or economic pressure that exploits the availability of foodstuffs can be considered acceptable.

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How Russian Website Is Spying on Thousands of Private Moments

Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- A baby is seen sleeping in a crib in Orange, California. A woman is watched as she sits at her kitchen table reading the newspaper in Burlington, New Jersey. An office in Plano, Texas, is shown just as the work day begins.

They're all scenes from the 4,591 webcams in the United States that are being broadcast on a Russian website. The cameras haven't been hacked. They're simply unsecured, making them easy targets for the Moscow-based website, which ABC News has visited but will not name out of concern for users' privacy.

Footage from more than 100 countries, showing living rooms, home exteriors and closed circuit cameras in businesses, among other locations, is easily viewable. The website even takes it further by providing the exact coordinates of each web cam.

A message on the website's homepage said it "has been designed in order to show the importance of the security settings."

"To remove your public camera from this site and make it private the only thing you need to do is to change your camera default password," the message reads.

While it was not immediately clear what could be done to shut down the website, it has caught the attention of watchdogs in the United Kingdom who said they were joining agencies in the United States, Australia and Canada, among others, to issue a warning to consumers.

Robert Siciliano, a McAfee identity theft expert, told ABC News users with webcams need to be vigilant about changing the username and password once they're installed.

"The users of these devices often use the default user name and password that comes with the device," Siciliano said. "Criminals know this and scan the web for these networks and cameras and then they get full access to it."

Aside from choosing a secure password, Siciliano said he encourages people to make sure their software is always up to date so hackers can not exploit any potential flaws and make sure their home and office Wi-Fi is encrypted.

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NASA Probes Unusual Source of Light in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- In a galaxy far, far away, a mysterious light source is intriguing an international team of astronomers.

Known as SDSS1133, the cosmic light appears as a bright spot on astronomical surveys, where it has been captured without explanation for six decades.

After analyzing the light source, which is estimated to be more than 90 million light years away, astronomers said they've narrowed it down to two likely possibilities.

It could be a supermassive black hole that merged with another and was kicked out of its native galaxy or a remnant of a supernova explosion.

"With the data we have in hand, we can't yet distinguish between these two scenarios," said Michael Koss, an astronomer and lead researcher with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, according to NASA.

Koss added that the brightness of the light "has changed little in optical or ultraviolet light for a decade, which is not something typically seen in a young supernova remnant."

The enigmatic light source is located in the dwarf galaxy Markarian 177 and is located inside the bowl of the Big Dipper. Supermassive black holes are usually found at the center of a galaxy, however, this light source is 2,600 light years from the core, according to NASA.

A paper by Koss and his team is being published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday, according to NASA.

Whatever the light source is astronomers are closer than ever to solving another one of the mysteries of space.

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Santa Has Lost 30 Pounds in 20 Years, Review Finds

iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Is Santa Claus on a diet? Christmas card alterations in the past 20 years show Santa has lost more than 30 pounds, according to a review of cards by U.K. retailer Clintons.

“As a nation, we are more mindful than in the olden days of being healthy and getting fit,” Tim Fairs, marketing and e-commerce director for the greeting card and gift products company, told ABC News of the shrinking Santa, adding that his company is “driven by what customers want.”

While Christmas is, for many, about tradition, the change has been subtle and does not appear to have generated any complaints from customers, Fair said.

The first-ever Christmas card was designed by Englishman John Callcott Horsley in 1843.

Recent changes to Santa’s image also include more rosy cheeks and lighter red clothes, according the company's review of Christmas cards from 25 different publishers in the U.K. and around the world. Overall, depictions of Father Christmas are down slightly (5.6 percent) but his influence remains strong, with 12.7 percent more characters on cards wearing his trademark red hat than 20 years ago, Clintons said.

The image of a big and jolly Santa was popularized by Coca-Cola ads. Before 1931, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf, according to the Coca-Cola Co.

Other significant changes in festive season cards include robins and snowmen. The robin redbreast now appears on 23.4 percent fewer cards than before, and there are 17.1 percent more snowmen. In addition, glitter now appears on 34.7 percent more cards than it did two decades ago.

“New technology has cheapened the way we communicate,” Fair said, adding that he believes Christmas cards are unique at a time when people want to share how they feel.

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New Homes, Worker Ban Heighten Tension in Middle East

iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) -- At a time when tensions in Jerusalem are already sky-high, Israel on Wednesday approved plans to build 78 new homes in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders and domestic critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are furious. The U.S. State Department has also criticized the move.

But it's not the only incident that has exacerbated tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Another announcement to bar Arab Israeli workers has set off a national uproar.

Citing security concerns after Tuesday's synagogue attack, the mayor of the southern city of Asheklon on Thursday banned Arab Israeli construction workers at pre-schools.

The decision has been publicly condemned not just by Arab Israeli leaders but by Netanyahu, the defense minister and the justice minister.

Arab Israeli lawmaker Achmed Tibi called the move, "racist" while Israeli leaders say discrimination against Arab Israelis is not just unacceptable, it's illegal.

Israel's attorney general and rights groups are expected to fight the mayor's move.

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CIA Praise, of Sorts, for Glenn Greenwald’s Book on Edward Snowden

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — A CIA reviewer has halting praise for journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Edward Snowden affair, calling it the book “the most complete, though far from the most objective account” of the leaker who exposed the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance programs.

The review, written by a veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology and Directorate of Operations, was posted recently on the CIA’s website, in a regularly-updated section called the “Intelligent Officer’s Bookshelf.” The Agency veteran and others often review espionage-related popular nonfiction and fiction books for the site.

The reviewer describes Greenwald’s account in No Place to Hide of being contacted by Snowden and eventually meeting him in Hong Kong, before taking issue with what he called Greenwald’s “core arguments” presented later.

“Greenwald is appalled at the concept implied in the [third] chapter’s title ["Collect It All"] and analyzes it with the presumption of illegality while dismissing without comment the intelligence issues that led to its adoption,” the reviewer says. “Greenwald also ignores other interpretations regarding the legality of the NSA’s collection programs…”

Greenwald’s book is reviewed along with two others that cover the Snowden affair, and the reviewer concludes that Greenwald’s “sums up the common themes of these three books: Snowden’s acts were justified because he chose to seek ‘reform of the surveillance state.’”

A disclaimer at the bottom of the website notes that the opinions “expressed in this journal are those of the authors” and shouldn’t be “construed as asserting or implying U.S. government endorsement…”

In January, America’s top intelligence officials, including CIA Director John Brennan, testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the purported severe damage Snowden’s disclosures had done to U.S. national security.

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Two US Naval Supply Ships Collide in Arabian Sea

File photo. U.S. Navy / Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jacob I. Allison(MANAMA, Bahrain) — Two U.S. Naval supply ships collided in the Gulf of Aden, according to Navy officials. 

The USNS Amelia Earhart and USNS Walter S. Diehl collided in the gulf between Yemen and Somalia early Thursday morning as they began a replenishment operation.

Both ships appeared to have only minor damage and will continue their assigned missions, the Navy said.

The Navy plans to conduct an investigation to determine the collision’s cause.

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Deadly Car Bombing in Kurdish Capital of Erbil

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images(ERBIL, Iraq) -- The Kurdish capital of Erbil was rocked by a suicide car bombing Wednesday that killed at least four people and wounded 29 others.

The attack outside the governor’s compound marked the first terrorist assault in the city since Kurdish fighters began repelling the advance of Islamic State militants, who had taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq. There are also American consular personnel in Erbil along with military staff protecting them.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing that occurred when the driver of the car detonated his explosives after being stopped by guards at a checkpoint.

Although the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has avoided much of the violence caused by ISIS and its allies, leaders there are pleading for more help from the West.

Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that while U.S. and coalition air strikes have hurt ISIS' ability to advance in Iraq, he said the Kurds still need armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.

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Missing Honduran Beauty Queen and Sister Found Murdered

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A massive search for Miss Honduras, María José Alvarado, and her sister, who have been missing since last week, ended tragically Wednesday when their bodies were discovered buried by a river in the northern part of the Central American country.

Police are charging the sister's boyfriend with the women's murders. They have also arrested another man with possible accomplices still at-large.

According to authorities, they have the gun Plutarco Ruíz allegedly used to kill Alvarado, 19, and her sister, Sofía, a 23-year-old school teacher. Police also say Ruíz led them to the place where he allegedly buried the women.

Both Alvarado and her sister attended a party for Ruíz in a spa close to the city of Santa Bárbara last Thursday. Local media reports that the suspect shot his girlfriend for dancing with another man and also struck Alvarado.

Police say that Ruíz had first planned to bring the women to the hospital but when they died, he half-buried them in order to hasten their bodies' decomposition.

Crowned Miss Honduras earlier this year, Alvarado had planned to leave for London Thursday to prepare for the Miss World pageant in December.

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Obama, Kerry Hold Secret Talks Amid Iran Negotiations

Alex Wong/Getty Images(VIENNA) -- Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue on Wednesday, but there is plenty of diplomacy and secret meetings going on elsewhere.

In London, Secretary of State John Kerry held a secret meeting with Oman's foreign minister, who has emerged as a go-between with Iran.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., President Obama held an unannounced meeting with a Saudi prince.

On Thursday, Kerry travels to Paris to meet his French and Saudi counterparts, who are nervous about a deal.

The United Kingdom's top diplomat fears an agreement can't be reached by Monday's deadline. But most officials here are tight-lipped, which is often a sign of progress.

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Tuscany, Giglio Sue Costa Cruises Following Costa Concordia Crash

Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images(ROME) -- The Italian region of Tuscany is demanding almost $40 million from the owners of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that crashed off the Italian coast almost three years ago.

The Costa Concordia struck a rock off the Tuscan island of Giglio in January 2012, killing 32 people.

Along with Tuscany's demand for almost $40 million, Giglio is suing Costa Cruises for $240 million. Giglio, once a flourishing resort island, claims it lost 45,000 visitors due to the wreck, which sat marooned beside its port for more than two years.

Both the region and the island say the cruise ship disaster tarnished their image.

A lawyer for Costa Cruises calls the compensation claim wildly exaggerated and without justification.

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Los Angeles-Based 'Dating Guru' Banned from UK

iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- A self-styled "dating guru" who has stirred up controversy in a number of countries with what many feel are offensive tactics to approach women has been banned from entering the United Kingdom.

Julien Blanc holds seminars claiming to teach men how to attract women, but his methods have been widely criticized as sexually abusive. Blanc is the Swiss-born American "executive coach for the Los Angeles based 'Real Social Dynamics,'" according to his Twitter account. He describes himself as "an international leader in dating advice."

A petition in Britain to deny him a visa attracted more than 150,000 signatures ahead of his U.K. tour, which was scheduled to start in February. Twitter users have used the hashtag #ChokingGirlsAroundTheWorld to share pictures apparently showing Blanc with his hand around the throats of women. In one recorded seminar, Blanc is seen approaching girls and forcing their heads towards his crotch. Another hashtag that has stirred up the Twitterverse is #takedownjulienblanc.

Blanc has apologized, telling CNN earlier this month that his intention was "a horrible attempt at humor" taken out of context.

Blanc has already had to cut short a recent tour of Australia because his visa was cancelled following protests there.

On its website, his company Real Social Dynamics calls itself "the world's largest dating coaching company," and promises customers the chance to "witness dating coaches attract beautiful women in live demonstrations." But critics say videos and pictures of Blanc in action show that he encourages men to harass women with the aim of having sex with them.

Blanc and Real Social Dynamics did not respond to requests for comment by ABC News.

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Security Beefed Up in Israel Following Synagogue Attack

Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(JERUSALEM) -- Security has been beefed up in and around Jerusalem following Tuesday's brutal synagogue attack that left five Israelis dead, including three American Rabbis.  

Extra police and border security forces have been deployed near large synagogues, schools, public institutions, squares and transportation centers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reinstating the controversial policy of demolishing homes of Palestinians who carry out terrorist attacks. It's a policy Israel largely abandoned almost a decade ago over questions of its effectiveness as a deterrent and its legality.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday night, Israeli forces destroyed the East Jerusalem home of the Palestinian who drove his car into a train stop on Oct. 22, killing two people, including an Israeli American baby girl.

Officials say the homes of the two synagogue attackers, who also lived in East Jerusalem, will be demolished in the near future.

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