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Syria has used chemical weapons, White House says

WASHINGTON — The White House said Thursday that it believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in its civil war, an assessment that could test President Barack Obama’s repeated warnings that such an attack could precipitate U.S. intervention in Syria.

The White House, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale. But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they have voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which official said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who have been wounded.

U.S. officials said the attacks, which occurred last month in a village near Aleppo and in the outskirts of Damascus, had not been definitively connected to Assad. The White House said the “chain of custody” of the weapons was not clear, raising questions about whether the attacks were deliberate or accidental.

—Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times

Senators quietly seek newpath on gun control

WASHINGTON — Talks to revive gun control legislation are quietly underway on Capitol Hill as a bipartisan group of senators seeks a way to bridge the differences that led to last week’s collapse of the most serious effort to overhaul the country’s gun laws in 20 years.

Drawing on the lessons from battles in the 1980s and ‘90s over the Brady Bill, which failed in Congress several times before ultimately passing, gun control supporters believe they can prevail by working on a two-pronged strategy. First, they are identifying senators who might be willing to change their votes and support a background check system with fewer loopholes.

Second, they are looking to build a national campaign that would better harness overwhelming public support for universal background checks — which many national polls put at near 90 percent approval — to pressure lawmakers.

Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., have been talking in recent days about how they could persuade more senators to support their bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, which drew backing from only four Republicans last week.

“We’re going to work it hard,” Manchin said Thursday, adding that he was looking at tweaking the language of his bill in a way that he felt would satisfy the concerns of senators who, for example, felt that background checks on person-to-person gun sales would be too onerous for people who live in rural areas far from a sporting goods store.

Those concerns were an issue for Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.

Meanwhile, a separate piece of gun legislation, an anti-trafficking bill, is the subject of talks between two Republican senators who voted no on the background check bill and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The two, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, are discussing ways they might support the bill, which would criminalize the shipping or transfer of guns to someone who is barred from possessing a firearm.

—Jeremy W. Peters, The New York Times

New law makes suing for libel harder in England and Wales

A law enacted Thursday strengthens the position of people sued for libel here and puts an end to most cases of so-called libel tourism, the practice by which powerful foreigners — Russian oligarchs, Arab oil magnates and large corporations, among others — have brought libel cases against authors, journalists, academics, scientists and bloggers, often based on the most tenuous of connections to England.

Under the new law, claimants wanting to sue defendants who do not live in Europe will have to prove that England is the most appropriate place for the case. This is designed to stop foreigners from suing other foreigners in English courts over, for instance, books or magazines that have sold just a handful of copies here, or websites that have been viewed few or even no times at all.

The new law applies only to England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems.

—Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

Free college for those who will roll up their sleeves

When the trustees of New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art voted this week to start charging for an undergraduate degree, it ended the institution’s lengthy reign as the most famous tuition-free private college in America.

It was never the only such place, though. While most colleges grapple with the growing burden of student debt, a few outliers across the country offer a college education for the one price that looks good in any economy: nothing.

To qualify for Cooper Union’s largess, applicants had to prove themselves on the highest tier of the highest tier of academic or artistic achievement. That might strike some as easy compared with the requirements at some of the other free colleges. One requires students to work on a ranch, milking cows and harvesting alfalfa. Another requires them to build a container ship. And the national service academies, of course, require years of service in support of a robust national defense.

—Ariel Kaminer, The New York Times