Looking back at the stories to remember from the past week:
1. TARGET SECURITY BREACH AFFECTS UP TO 40 MILLION SHOPPERS
A security breach at Target infuriated customers and threatened to drive off holiday shoppers during the company's busiest time of year. The nation's second-largest discounter acknowledged Thursday that data connected to about 40 million credit- and debit-card accounts was stolen as part of a breach that began over the Thanksgiving weekend. The theft is the second-largest credit-card breach in U.S. history.
2. IMPROVING US ECONOMY LEADS FED TO EASE STIMULUS
The Federal Reserve sent its strongest signal of confidence in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession, deciding Wednesday that the nation's economic prospects are finally bright enough to withstand a slight pullback in stimulus spending. The Fed says it will trim its $85 billion a month in bond purchases by $10 billion starting in January. But it also strengthened its commitment to record-low short-term interest rates, saying that it plans to hold its key short-term rate near zero "well past" the time when unemployment falls below 6.5 percent. Investors seemed elated by the news, sending the Dow Jones industrial average soaring.
3. NSA'S BULK COLLECTION OF PHONE RECORDS LIKELY VIOLATES CONSTITUTION, JUDGE RULES
In a ruling with potentially far-reaching consequences, a federal judge declared Monday that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of millions of Americans' telephone records likely violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable search. The ruling, filled with blistering criticism of the Obama administration's arguments, is the first of its kind. Still, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon put his decision to grant an injunction against the NSA on hold, pending a near-certain government appeal, which may well end up at the Supreme Court.
4. CONGRESS PASSES BIPARTISAN BUDGET AGREEMENT
Congress sent President Obama legislation on Wednesday scaling back across-the-board cuts on programs ranging from the Pentagon to the national park system, adding a late dusting of bipartisanship to a year more likely to be remembered for a partial government shutdown and near-perpetual gridlock. The legislation passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a vote of 64-36, six days after clearing the Republican-run House by a similarly bipartisan margin of 332-94.
5. FDA SAYS IT HAS NO EVIDENCE ANTI-BACTERIAL SOAPS CURB THE SPREAD OF BACTERIA
After more than 40 years of study, the government said Monday that it has found no evidence that common anti-bacterial soaps prevent the spread of germs. Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration are revisiting the safety of triclosan and other sanitizing agents found in soap in countless kitchens and bathrooms after recent studies suggest they can interfere with hormone levels in lab animals and spur the growth of drug-resistant bacteria.
6. RUSSIAN OLIGARCH MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY A FREE MAN
After spending 10 years in Russian jails for what many in the West believe were trumped-up offenses, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky left prison a free man Friday and immediately flew to Germany. His departure came less than 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would pardon his long-time rival.
7. GEORGIA WOMAN HAS 1 OF 2 WINNING TICKETS IN $636 MILLION MEGA MILLIONS JACKPOT
A Georgia woman who bought just one ticket and used family birthdays and lucky No. 7 to choose her numbers was one of two winners of the $636 million Mega Millions jackpot, the second largest in U.S. history. Ira Curry came forward Wednesday to collect her half of the prize. The holder of the second winning ticket, sold in San Jose, Calif., remains a mystery.
8. ARREST OF INDIAN DIPLOMAT IN NEW YORK SPARKS DIPLOMATIC STORM
India's information minister lashed out at the United States Friday and demanded an apology for the treatment of a diplomat who was arrested in New York, capping a week of protest over the Dec. 13 arrest and strip-search of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York. U.S. prosecutors say Khobragade lied on a visa form about how much she paid her housekeeper. The diplomat has pleaded not guilty.
9. OBAMA PUTS A ROSY SPIN ON ROUGH PRESIDENTIAL YEAR
In his annual year-end news conference Friday, President Obama acknowledged frustrating "ups and downs" but exulted that the improving economy is creating new jobs and claimed crucial progress for his troubled health care overhaul. He predicted 2014 would be "a breakthrough year for America."
10. SYRIAN AIR RAIDS EXACT HIGH TOLL ON ALEPPO
In a withering air assault this week with so-called barrel bombs, the Syrian government pummeled opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo, leveling apartment buildings, flooding hospitals with casualties and killing nearly 200 people. The air campaign's timing — five weeks ahead of an international peace conference — also suggests that Syrian President Bashar Assad could be trying to strengthen his position on the ground while exposing the opposition's weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.