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KNOW IT ALL: Thursday's Top 6 Stories at NBC News

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Good morning. Here are some of the stories we’re following today:

1. Cuba releases American contractor held for five years

U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was freed Wednesday in a surprise move that took some major international diplomacy, including a helping hand from Pope Francis. “It’s good to be home,” Gross said upon his return to the United States. He had been working in Cuba for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was detained in 2009 and accused of spying. Gross' wife had been fighting for his release, saying earlier this month that he was "literally wasting away" in confinement. Senior U.S. officials took pains to say that Gross was not being released as part of a direct prisoner swap with the communist island. Separately, three Cubans were being released in exchange for what U.S. officials described as an "intelligence asset." Read more in NEWS.

2. Deal leads U.S. to thaw relations with Cuba

Moments after Gross touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, President Barack Obama announced that he was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said in a televised address. “It’s time for a new approach.” That would presumably include lifting a crippling economic embargo. Several Cuban-American politicians and immigrants questioned smoothing relations with Cuba’s Castro dictatorship, which they accuse of abusing human rights. Read more in LATINO.

3. North Korea had hand in Sony movie hacking: U.S.

U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that the North Korean government ordered the hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that unearthed internal documents and embarrassing emails to the public. The revelation came just after the movie studio said it was pulling the plug on its Seth Rogen and James Franco flick “The Interview.” The comedy, which depicts the fictional assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was supposed to be released Christmas Day. The decision by Sony and national movie theater chains not to show the film upset many in Hollywood. Read more in NEWS.

4. Putin defiant, defensive about country’s troubles

The ruble is plummeting, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is putting on a brave face. As part of his annual televised news conference, Putin said Thursday that Russia was being unfairly criticized for looking after its own interests, referring to the annexation of Crimea. He also insisted the country’s economic downturn would quickly recover, and took not-so-subtle swipes at America’s own policies. "Everyone should obey the Russian constitution. But the reality is usually more complex," he said. "After 9/11 in the U.S.A., they legalized torture." Read more in NEWS.

5. Boston bombing suspect to appear in court

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is making his first public appearance on Thursday morning since his arraignment in July 2013. The 21-year-old will appear during a pre-trial hearing in a Boston courtroom, which is expected to be heavily armed. He has been kept in solitary confinement since he was arrested for allegedly plotting and carrying out the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The public isn’t expected to get an actual look at Tsarnaev since cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Read more in NEWS.

6. Pakistan attackers are dead -- ideology is not

The horrific school massacre in Peshawar on Tuesday has left a nation in mourning for a second day, burying the rest of the 141 victims. The Taliban's attack has left the military-run school a somber set piece. The walls are so riddled with bullets it's hard to work out how they're still standing. Outside the school, protesters held up two signs side by side, "We want peace" and "We want revenge." Read more in NEWS.

And now this …

In order to raise money to build a well, basejumper Nathan Jones soared a few feet above the ground and high-fived a giant hand with his body. It's pretty wild.

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