Niger says detainee is not mastermind of deadly attack: Sources

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Three senior Nigerien officials tell ABC News that they have determined that a man they have in custody is not Doundou Cheffou the ISIS leader whom officials believe masterminded the deadly ambush last October that killed four American soldiers.

ABC News had confirmed through senior Nigerien officials and a western official that Niger was trying to confirm the identity of a man captured several weeks ago along the border region with Mali.

Officials said the man in custody bore a resemblance to Cheffou, the head of ISIS in the Greater Sahara.

Senior Nigerien security officials, however, determined that the man was not the ISIS leader after testing his DNA and comparing it with Cheffou's brother who is in prison.

The New York Times
was first to report on Monday that Nigerien officials were trying to determine if they had detained Cheffou.

Cheffou heads the small militant group known as ISIS in the Greater Sahara.

He is believed to have been responsible for the Oct. 4 ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo that killed four American soldiers.

The soldiers had been part of a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol that had the night before been part of a mission to kill or capture Cheffou, who was known by his code name "Naylor Road".

U.S. Africa Command's investigation into the circumstances of that mission was completed in February.

After a review by General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the investigation was referred to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

After Mattis has completed his review, family members, and Congress will be briefed on the report's conclusions.

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Trump holds off on imposing additional Russia sanctions over Syria chemical attack

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump has decided to put off a decision imposing additional sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Syrian chemical attack, administration officials tell ABC News.

The delay comes after UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said on Sunday that the administration was planning to unveil new sanctions on Monday to punish the Kremlin in the wake of the chemical attack on Syrian civilians, of which the administration has accused Russia of having been complicit.

"You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down," Haley said during an interview on CBS News' "Face the Nation." "[Treasury] Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already. And they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons used."

While the White House says that such sanctions remain under consideration, officials say the president has decided to hold off for now in part to see how Russia reacts to the joint US-UK-French airstrikes launched on Syria over the weekend before deciding whether further punitive actions are necessary.

“We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Trump administration for not following through on the sanctions that Haley teased to, calling it "utterly amazing" that the president is holding back.

"If I were Nikki Haley I would really be embarrassed because she came out very strongly yesterday and said 'we're going to do sanctions' and the president reverses her. There is just no one home in terms of making consistent strong policy when it comes to Russia," Schumer told reporters. "The staff seem to want to go in one direction, the president keeps pulling them back and that is very bad for the country."

Administration officials say that the president remains interested in improved relations with Russia and is still open to sitting down with President Vladimir Putin, potentially even at the White House.

"The president still would like to sit down with him," Sanders said. "Again, he feels like it's better for the world if they have a good relationship. But that's going to depend on the actions of Russia. We've been very clear, in our actions, what we expect. And we hope that they'll have a change in their behavior."

Asked about a report in the Washington Post that the president was frustrated by the scope and severity of the U.S. action to expel 60 Russian intelligence officers in response to the poisoning of an ex-Russia spy and his daughter on British soil, Sanders did not directly refute the report but noted that it was the president who ordered the action that led to the Russian expulsions in the first place.

"The President is the one that gave the directive," Sanders said. "The President has been clear that he's going to be tough on Russia. But at the same time, he'd still like to have a good relationship with them. But that's going to be determined by whether or not Russia decides if they want to be a better actor in this process or not."

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France to strip Syria's Bashar al-Assad of major award after suspected chemical attack

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- France has started the process of revoking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Legion of Honor award, the Elysée Palace told ABC News today.

The Legion of Honor, which is France’s highest distinction, was awarded to Assad by former French president Jacques Chirac in 2001.

This announcement comes a few days after France launched, alongside the United States and United Kingdom, military strikes targeting chemical weapons facilities of the Syrian regime, in response to a suspected deadly gas attack from the Syrian government.

The decision to strip a citizen from the Legion of Honor belongs to the French president, meaning that President Emmanuel Macron took the decision.

It’s not the first time since his election in May 2017 that Macron has decided to revoke the Legion of Honor award. In October 2017, the French president declared that he has started the process of stripping Harvey Weinstein of his Legion of Honor after allegations by women accusing him of sexual harassment and rape, which he has denied.

Former U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong lost his Legion of Honor award in 2014 after admitting that he doped during his seven Tour de France wins between 1999 and 2005.

The Legion of Honor was established May 19, 1802, by Napoléon Bonaparte "to reward the most deserving citizens in all fields of activity,” according to the website of the Legion of Honor. “The honor can be revoked in the event of criminal conviction, or any action that is dishonorable or that may harm the interests of France.”Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Cuba without a Castro: What comes next as the revolutionary dynasty ends?

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For the first time in more than half a century, the leader of Cuba won't be named Castro.

Raul Castro became president in 2008 after his brother Fidel -- the revolutionary and ruler -- resigned. Fidel maintained his position as head of the Communist Party until 2011, at which point Raul also succeeded him there. Fidel died in 2016.

In February 2013, Raul announced he would serve his second five-year term before stepping down as president in 2018, but he intends to remain head of the Communist Party.

"He is adhering to the term limits set in place for senior government and other Communist leadership," said Emily Mendrala, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. "As head of communist party, he will still have a hand in policy making, but I do see it as a gradual stepping away of the reigns of power."

The time in between was marked by a restoration in diplomatic ties with the U.S., a historic meeting with President Barack Obama and an opening of Cuba not seen in decades.

The Cuban General Assembly, the island nation's governing body, was set to meet and vote on Raul Castro's successor in February, but elections were delayed due to the damage from Hurricane Irma and delayed municipal elections. That meeting has been rescheduled for later this month.

What happens next?

It's expected that the Assembly will elect as president Miguel Diaz-Canel, the current, and first, vice president.

"To have someone without the family name or the same aura of revolutionary is a historic shift," Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at the Washington Office of Latin America, told ABC News. "The fact that someone is coming in without the revolutionary legitimacy as the founders of the state, and the heroes of the revolution, isn't just an institutional change."

A trained engineer and the former minister of education, Diaz-Canel rose through the ranks of the Communist Party before being selected as the country's first vice president. In that role, he has kept a low profile and come to be known as a pragmatist.

"He's generally thought of as an effective manager, but a guy inside the system," Thale explained. "He's not there to break the china or disrupt the political system. I wouldn't expect in his first six months we'd see a series of dramatic shifts. But he is going to face serious economic problems and questions of his legitimacy."

Stepping into the role having not participated in the revolution, many expect the 58-year-old to seek legitimacy through economic reforms and a continued slow-opening of its markets, as well as other reforms that began under Raul Castro.

"He certainly is fresh-faced in that he represents a younger generation," Mendrala said. "How he governs and manages the different political pressures within the Cuban system remains to be seen."

Issues facing the country

Diaz-Canel will be taking over during a marked shift in Cuba, Mendrala said.

"Demographic, emerging cultural trends, U.S.-Cuba policy changing is by no means a sidebar issue," she explained. "Other countries around the world are deepening their commitment and diplomatic ties while the U.S. is on the sidelines."

Internet access and the emergence of private-sector businesses have expanded independence and opportunities for the Cuban people.

According to statistics from the Center for Democracy in the Americas, entrepreneurial activity has exploded across the island, now accounting more than half a million jobs, about 12 percent of the workforce. If private farmers, agricultural cooperatives and the informal sector, aka "black market economy," are included, that figure jumps to 40 percent.

More Cuban youth will have opportunities to be economically successful in their homeland, as opposed to migrating in search of similar opportunities, Mendrala added.

That shift will test the new president, whose biggest challenge, Thale said, probably will be the economy.

"The Cuban economy faces very serious challenges," he said. "Growth the past few years has been 1 to 2 percent."

Diaz-Canel may also consider currency reunification, as Cubans currently use two systems developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's a step many economists would recommend, Thale said.

The U.S. factor?

Under president Donald Trump, the U.S. has scaled back outreach and diplomatic efforts related to Cuba, which could impact Diaz-Canel.

"Taking a step back, not having a fully staffed embassy, for example, puts us at a disadvantage," Mendrala said. "Family, cultural, academic ties are suffering with consular services in Havana. If the U.S. is leaving a vacuum in Cuba, other countries are filling it."

The U.S. rolled back consular services on the island and significantly reduced staff after a series of unexplained "incidents" that led to an FBI investigation.

It's unclear if and how Diaz-Canel's assuming power will improve U.S.-Cuba relations, but Thale doesn't expect dramatic changes, at least not immediately.

"A lot of us analysts look and say that Cuba doesn’t have multi-party elections or an entirely free press, but most Cubans see it in reverse," Thale said. "Internally, we want to see a series of reforms move ahead, but we don't want to break the system.

"The real question is going to be: 'Are we seeing change? Are they moving?' Rather than judging them by the standards of what political analysts in the United States believe they should be doing."

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US and UK blame Russia for cyber hacks on internet routers worldwide 

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and British officials announced Monday that Russian state-sponsored actors targeted millions of internet routers in the United States, the United Kingdom and worldwide.

US and UK officials said that they have "high confidence" that cyber actors supported by the Russian government have carried out a coordinated campaign to gain access to these routers.

"It provides basic infrastructure that they can launch from,” one top U.S. official said.

The "purpose of these attacks could be espionage, it could be the theft of intellectual property, and of course, it could be pre-positioning for use in times of tension," said Ciaran Martin, Chief Executive of the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

The operation targeted government and private organizations, including even small businesses and residential homes, and also allowed the Russian-sponsored actors to go after "high-value targets," an official said.

Officials from the U.S. and U.K. said that for nearly a year now they have been investigating the massive cyber hacking of routers found in homes and business across the U.S. and U.K.

"This is a global threat," said top DHS official, Jeanette Manfra. "Once you own the router, you own the traffic."

This type of attack allows hackers to monitor modify and deny traffic; and it allows them to harvest credentials and passwords of unsuspecting users, explained officials.

The operation involved a “sustained targeting of multiple entities” over several months, said Martin.

Specifically, the hackers were exploiting default passwords on users’ routers, and exploiting unsecured devices in homes and business.

One way to protect against this is for Americans and others to change the passwords on their routers, the officials said. The FBI said it is asking the public for help to "remediate" these vulnerabilities, and the Trump administration’s cyber czar, Rob Joyce, said the U.S. government needs the public’s help to "undercut the Russian capability to use this as a tool against the world."

This is the first time that the U.S. and U.K. governments have issued a joint bulletin on this matter.

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In wake of Syria strikes, lawmakers seek updated war authorization

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Monday intended to bring an almost two-decade-old war authorization up to date, a move that some lawmakers have been demanding for years but which has received renewed interest after recent military action in Syria.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Tim Kaine, R-Va., introduced a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which would replace two AUMFs passed shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That AUMF authorized force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and has continued to provide the legal rationale for the current U.S. campaign against ISIS, which the Obama administration argued is a successor of al-Qaeda. But as almost two decades have gone by, and as the Trump administration continues its military campaign against ISIS, there has been a growing call by some members of Congress to pass an updated AUMF that better reflects the U.S. military’s current goals and targets.

In addition to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, this new bill would authorize the president to use force against ISIS and “designated associated forces.” The president would have to report to Congress on all new associated forces not explicitly named and provide the basis for targeting them, as well as update Congress on each new country in which the AUMF is being applied.

The president could also act against a new designated force or country immediately but would have to notify Congress within 48 hours, which would trigger a new debate on whether that force or country is applicable under the AUMF.

The bill would also impose some periodic oversight requirements, including a review every four years after which time a president would submit a proposal to repeal, modify or leave the AUMF in place. If Congress does nothing, the existing authorities would remain in place.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had not yet seen the final bill text but said he was concerned that, based on what he knew about the bill, it might remove too much authority from Congress on the front end when it comes to military action.

“Congress' role under the constitution is to declare war, not to nullify it after it's done,” he said.

Some other Democrats have raised concerns that an AUMF should contain more specific sunset periods. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a cosponsor of the Corker-Kaine AUMF, said this new bill might not be perfect, but it has more time constraints than the current AUMF.

“The current authorization that our current president is using to conduct war in a number of places has virtually no limits and it's time for us to act to provide for those limits,” Coons said.

While a certain bloc of senators has long called for an updated authorization, it is the Trump administration’s recent airstrikes against the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons -- which would not immediately be covered under this new AUMF -- that have arguably been the biggest factor in reigniting this public debate.

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Canadian PM Justin Trudeau announces support for pipeline project

iStock/Thinkstock(TORONTO) -- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his support to expand a pipeline in the western part of the country, saying doing so is of “national interest.”

“Hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work long hours every day to put food on the table and build this country depend on this project to be built,” Trudeau said in a press conference Saturday. “It means people in the oil patch are hurting, have been hurting for years, and we stand with them.”

The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion was “proposed in response to requests from oil companies to help them reach new markets by expanding the capacity of North America’s only pipeline with access to the West Coast,” according to its website.

The project is headed by American infrastructure company, Kinder Morgan.

The original Trans Mountain Pipeline was built in 1953 and still operates today. According to the project’s website, the expansion will install over 600 miles of new pipeline and reactivate over 100 miles of existing pipeline. The estimated cost of the expansion is $5.8 million ($7.4 million Canadian dollars), according to its website.

Trudeau did not confirm if the Canadian government will fund the pipeline, but said, “We have engaged in financial discussions with the pipeline owner, Kinder Morgan.”

Trudeau said these discussions will not be made public.

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Chemical weapons inspectors continue to wait for permission to visit suspected Syria attack site

iStock/Thinkstock(BEIRUT) -- For a second day, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were still in their hotel rooms in Damascus, Syria, awaiting permission to visit the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack outside the nation's capital earlier this month.

The fact-finding team on the ground was held up after Syrian and Russian officials said "there were still pending security issues to be worked out" before the inspectors could visit the area, the director-general of the OPCW in the The Hague, Ahmet Üzümcü, told members of the group's executive committee. This news comes despite assurances from both the Russian and Syrian governments that they would be taking responsibility for the teams' safety.

The Syrian Deputy Prime Minister has met several times with the inspectors since they arrived on Saturday, but the issue remains unresolved.

Earlier in the day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow that the OPCW inspectors had not been able to visit the site of the attack, in an area called Douma, because they lacked approval from the U.N. Department for Safety and Security, Russia media reported. The OPCW had been in "close contact" with that department to ensure the team's safety, Üzümcü said.

Russian military personnel visited the site last week. Syrian authorities declared Douma fully liberated after the last rebel fighters and their families left on Friday.

The Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, have continued to deny that any chemical attack happened. They have accused the rebel forces of faking it in order to bring a Western response. The Russian government called for the deployment of the OPCW to be authorized by a United Nations resolution in an effort to thwart a pending military response from the United States, France, and Great Britain. The measure was vetoed but the inspectors came with the permission of the Syrian government.

The OPCW has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to share information on the victims it collected from its medical partners on the ground. The WHO has previously reported that traces of nerve agents were found in samples that were smuggled out from the scene.

But, crucially, the OPCW wants to reach the area to interview witnesses to events as well as to take scientific samples. The Syrian government has instead offered to bring 22 witnesses to Damascus for the inspectors to interview there, Üzümcü said.

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UK on alert for possible Russian cyberthreat, foreign secretary says

iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Britain faces a looming threat of possible cyber-attack from Russia, the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Sunday.

Johnson warned during a BBC broadcast on Sunday of the possibility that Russia may retaliate against U.K. sanctions following the Salisbury attack and Western-allied strikes on Syria by targeting power networks or national infrastructure in Britain.

"When you look at what Russia has done, not just in this country, in Salisbury -- attacks on TV stations, on the democratic processes, on critical national infrastructure -- of course we have to be very cautious indeed," he said.

Johnson’s warning comes after reports that a Russian-linked campaign to spread disinformation, following the U.S. allied airstrikes on Syria, was growing in intensity.

Over the weekend, the Pentagon announced there had been a significant surge in the number of Russian fake accounts promoting false information.

"The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun," a Pentagon spokesperson said in a press conference. "There has been a 2,000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours."

In the U.K., media reports highlighted the threat that "kompromat," or compromising material, collected through cyber-attacks could be used against British government officials. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or FSB, has been known to use kompromat against foreign officials, although the Russian government often denies the claims officially.

In 2009, the State Department made a formal complaint to Russia over a video apparently featuring a U.S. diplomat and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. The Russian Foreign Ministry at the time declined to make any comment on the footage.

In early 2017, the published Steele dossier included unverified claims about the then President-elect Trump, including salacious allegations involving Russian prostitutes.

After the dossier was published, a spokesman for the Russian President Vladimir Putin told British journalists "the Kremlin does not collect kompromat."

Before the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent in January, the head of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre warned that a major cyber-attack on the U.K. was a matter of "when, not if."

Critical national infrastructure in the U.K. has sustained cyber-attack damage in the past, such as the ransomware attack on the National Health Service in May 2017. Almost 7,000 appointments were cancelled, and almost 20,000 appointments affected as a result of the attack, the BBC reported. The attack was widely attributed to the Lazarus Group, based out of North Korea.

Ransomware is a type of program used for cybercrime that involves the hijacking of operating systems with a ransom demand to the user in order to retrieve their data and access to their computer.

The government is limited in what it can do to mitigate the risk of cyber-attacks on U.K. infrastructure since much of it is privatized, according to Robert Pritchard, the former deputy head of the U.K.'s Cyber Security Operations Centre.

"For certain parts of critical national infrastructure though, [the government] is able to do more to mitigate the risk, and direct action," he told ABC News. "The problem with the NHS is they've been underfunded for years and this makes it hard. It is basically a rambling mansion of I.T. infrastructure and it becomes a matter of making sure any one of a hundred glass windows doesn't get smashed."

But, Pritchard said the government developed a team to monitor cyber security early on and in that respect is one of the most well-prepared to respond when necessary.

"The U.K. is really well-equipped to defend against cyber-attack," he said. "It was the U.K. that set up the first organization to do this back in 1999 with the National Infrastructure Security Co-Ordination Center."

While cybersecurity hasn't politically been a focus until recently, he added, the British government has been working on these defenses for many years.

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How Meghan Markle channels Princess Diana’s ‘glamour’ and ‘humanitarian vision’ 

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images(LONDON) --  Meghan Markle is not yet a member of Britain's royal family but she's already drawing comparisons to the woman who would have been her mother-in-law, the late Princess Diana of Wales.

Markle, 36, will wed Diana's youngest son, Prince Harry, 33, in a fairy-tale wedding at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19.

Diana wed Harry's father, Prince Charles, in what was billed as "the wedding of the century," at St. Paul's Cathedral in July 1981.

Markle was born less than one month after Diana and Charles's wedding. She would never meet Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 at age 36, when Harry was just 12.

Biographer Andrew Morton wrote a biography on Diana, "Diana: Her True Story," that was a New York Times-bestseller when it was first published in 1992.

Morton's new book, "Meghan: A Hollywood Princess," sheds light on Markle's life before she met and fell in love with Harry.

Morton interviewed Markle’s teenage friends who claim Markle was crying as they watched the funeral for Diana in 1997. Another person whom Morton identifies as a childhood friend of Markle’s was also quoted in the book as saying Markle “wants to be Princess Diana 2.0."

"Though much divides Diana and Meghan, much connects them," Morton told "Good Morning America." "They share a humanitarian vision and a mission."

He continued, "Both are glamorous and charismatic. Both realized that they could harness their celebrity to give back."

Morton's extensive research on both Markle and Diana for his two books gives him a unique perspective on the lives of the two women who hold special places in Harry's heart.

Five similarities and differences between Markle and Diana, according to Morton:

1. Both came from broken homes

Diana's parents, John Spencer and Frances Roche, divorced when she was just 6 years old. Diana, one of four children, later spoke publicly about the painful experience of her parents' divorce.

Markle's parents, Doria Ragland and Thomas Markle, divorced when Markle was just 6 years old. Markle's mother still lives in the Los Angeles area, where Markle grew up, while her father lives in Mexico.

"Both felt like outsiders," Morton said. "Diana felt different because divorce was unusual in her community. Meghan felt different because she was biracial."

2. Far different backgrounds

Diana grew up in a stately home on her family's Althorp Estate. She grew up cared for largely by nannies and later attended boarding school.

She also grew up close to royalty, becoming Lady Diana Spencer after her father earned the title of Earl Spencer in 1975.

 Diana was also reportedly a playmate of the royals, including Charles' younger brothers. In Diana's early years, the Spencer family lived at Park House, next door to the Queen's home of Sandringham.

Markle grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a lighting director in Hollywood. She was educated at an all-girls, private Catholic high school in Los Angeles.

Markle's mom, Ragland, is a yoga instructor and social worker.

3. One was shy, one is an actor

While Diana was "painfully shy" as a teenager, Markle was involved in school plays and much more assertive, notes Morton.

 Markle appeared in her first play at 5 years old, according to Morton. She would go on to star in the TV drama "Suits" for seven seasons, ending her run only when she became engaged to Harry in November 2017.

Diana, on the other hand, "only agreed to go on stage if she was able to be at the back in a silent role," said Morton.

"Diana was also a good, all-around athlete, a winner of diving and swimming cups," he said. "By contrast, Meghan was not athletic. She was interested in books and discussion and debate."

4. Concern for the welfare of others

Diana was known as "the people's princess," a named she earned because of her ability to connect with everyday people, particularly for the sick and children who lacked a voice.

Markle, who graduated from Northwestern University, is also a humanitarian who worked with the United Nations on women’s issues and was an ambassador for World Vision prior to meeting Harry.

"Meghan organized protests against the Gulf War at her private school," Morton said. "She complained to corporations about faulty goods and organized letter-writing campaigns."

"She was a politician-in-waiting," Morton said of Markle, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires before launching her acting career.

 Diana also found her calling to help other people during her teenage years, according to Morton.

"She visited Darenth Park, a large mental hospital, where she and other teenage girls danced with physically and mentally-disabled patients," he said. "Many school volunteers were apprehensive but Diana discovered she had a natural aptitude for this work."

He continued, "Cuddling, cradling, getting down on her knees to play with disabled children and adults set the tone for her future behavior."

5. Appealing in different ways

"Diana’s appeal lay as much in her vulnerability as her striving to find herself," said Morton.

"Meghan’s appeal lies in the fact that she is self-possessed, poised, sophisticated but approachable," he said. "[She is] a flag bearer for a new generation of confident, assertive women who want to kick through the glass ceiling."

“Meghan: A Hollywood Princess” will be released in the U.S. on April 17.

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