All posts by MPolitics

First Charges Reportedly Approved in Russia Probe; Details Still Unclear

A U.S. federal grand jury has approved the first charges in an investigation of Russian influence on U.S. elections, according to several major news outlets.

The grand jury’s action, resulting from the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, was first reported by CNN on Friday evening. It quoted sources as saying anyone who was charged could be taken into custody as soon as Monday. The exact charges were unclear.

Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News subsequently issued similar reports. All the reports were attributed to unnamed sources.

President Donald Trump on Saturday visited his Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia. He sent three tweets but they did not refer to the reports.

On Friday evening, the president did post a social media message linking to a New York Post story headlined: How Team Hillary played the press for fools on Russia.

White House officials have not commented on the president’s activities Saturday, but he was seen by VOA News exiting the north portico of the residence, clad in slacks, a windbreaker, what appeared to be white golf shoes and a baseball cap before entering a black vehicle for the 40-minute ride in the presidential motorcade to his private club along the Potomac River.

CNN said lawyers working on Mueller’s team were seen entering the federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where the grand jury meets to hear testimony.

Mueller has kept a tight lid on information about the probe, and a spokesman for Mueller’s office declined requests for comment on the media reports about the indictment.

Working since May

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May, shortly after the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, to look into allegations that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia to win the election. He is also examining the possibility that the president may have tried to interfere with the Russia investigation.

The probe also is examining possible financial ties between Russian businesses and members of the Trump campaign, and foreign lobbying conducted by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In addition to Mueller’s probe, three congressional committees are conducting their own investigations into possible Russian influence on the election.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday told reporters it was “a pretty big waste” for the news media to investigate connections between Trump associates and Russia. Her comment was made in response to a question about Trump’s tweeting earlier in the day that it was “commonly agreed” there had been no collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

“It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!” the president tweeted.

HC is a reference to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Democratic nominee whom Trump defeated in last November’s presidential election.

VOA’s Marissa Melton contributed to this report.

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At US Border, Dramatic Spike in Searches of Phones, Electronic Devices

U.S. border agents are searching nearly four times as many international travelers’ smartphones and other electronic devices as they did two years ago, expanding the use of a little-known search-and-seizure authority that has sparked fresh legal challenges from digital rights advocates and defendants in several criminal cases.

The content searches of electronic devices, conducted without a warrant or any individualized suspicion, spiked during the final year of the Obama administration but have continued to surge this year as the Trump administration has adopted extreme vetting of travelers entering the country.

In the first six months of fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents searched the electronic devices of 14,993 arriving international travelers, according to the most recent CBP data.

CBP has not released data for all of 2017, but unofficial estimates put the number of searched devices at 30,000. That compares with 19,000 in 2016 and 8,500 in 2015.

​‘Border search exception’

The searches are conducted under the so called “border search exception” to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The amendment protects Americans’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. But the U.S. border is a legal gray zone, where customs agents have long enjoyed legal authority to stop and search “any vehicle, beast or person” without a warrant.

Since the 2000s, the Department of Homeland Security has interpreted the border exception authority to include examinations of a host of electronic devices: cellphones, tablets, laptops, cameras and digital media players.

A 2009 CBP directive authorizes agents to examine electronic devices and to “review and analyze” their information “with or without suspicion.”

All travelers, whether U.S. citizens or foreign nationals, are subject to these searches. The CBP directive says privileged and other sensitive material, including legal communications, are not “necessarily exempt from a border search.”

Refusal to unlock and hand over a device may result in its “detention.”

Agents look at text messages, emails, photo albums and other personal data for evidence of terrorism links or criminal activity, such as child pornography.

CBP agents are allowed to seize devices and copy their content for on-site or off-site forensic tests, which can take weeks and sometimes months and yield personal data, sometimes in large quantities. In one case, a forensic test performed on a cellphone generated enough information to “fill 896 printed pages.”

Former Acting CBP Commissioner Jay Ahern, who signed the directive, called it “the broadest search authority anywhere in the world without a warrant.” He spoke at a Cato Institute criminal justice conference in Washington last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents operate under similar guidelines.

Numbers

CBP and ICE officials defend the practice, noting that the searches affect less than 1 in 10,000 international travelers and an even smaller number of U.S. citizens.

Last year, CBP processed more than 390 million international travelers at the country’s 238 ports of entry.

“It’s something we use in a very measured fashion when there is an indicator of concern,” Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who is President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Search triggers range from a previous violation of a customs law to having a name that matches a person of interest in a U.S. national security database, according to the CBP form that agents hand to travelers whose devices are detained. Travelers may also be stopped at random.

McAleenan said the searches of electronic devices have yielded “very serious and significant information,” including “everything from national security concerns to child pornography to evidence of crimes to determinations of people’s admissibility status.”

​Court challenges

But as border agents look at a larger number of people’s electronic devices for evidence of terrorism or other national security matters, privacy rights groups say the once-narrow border search authority is being too broadly interpreted for the digital age. The advocates are now challenging the government’s authority in court.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) sued the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and ICE on behalf of 11 travelers whose devices were searched and, in some instances, seized over the past year.

The complaint alleges that the “warrantless and suspicionless searches” violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment on free expression and assembly and the Fourth Amendment on privacy.

The 11 plaintiffs include 10 U.S. citizens and one U.S. permanent resident. Among them are three journalists, a filmmaker, an artist, a NASA engineer and a former Air Force captain. Six are Muslims, one is a Haitian national and four are white Americans.

Examples of search and seizure

Their combined experiences shed light on an otherwise opaque system and show just how far border agents would go to scrutinize electronic devices.

In July, Nadia Alasaad was stopped at the Canadian border and forced to unlock her phone and hand it over to a customs agent even after she protested that she had photos of herself without a headscarf that she did not want any male agents to view.

Akram Shibly, a New York-based filmmaker, said his phone was searched in December 2016 and January 2017 as he crossed the U.S.-Canadian border.

During the first stop, he alleges, agents ordered him to fill out a form disclosing his mobile phone password and social media identifiers. The agents used the information to view his “cloud-based apps and content.” (CBP says agents are not allowed to view data that only resides in the cloud). During the second border encounter, Shibly claims, CBP agents used force to seize his phone after he refused to hand it over.

Jeremy Dupin, the Haitian journalist who is a U.S. permanent resident, was stopped twice in December 2016, once during a layover at the Miami International Airport, and a second time as he and his daughter tried to enter the U.S. from Canada.

According to the complaint, his phone contained “reporting notes and images, source contact and identifying information, and communications with editors.”

The complaint calls the examinations “an unprecedented invasion of personal privacy” and “a threat to freedom of speech and association.” It also cites a 2014 Supreme Court decision that declared warrantless searches of cellphones of arrested suspects unconstitutional.

Supreme Court

In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s claim that searching a suspect’s cellphone was indistinguishable from searching his or her other belongings.

“We think that rationale holds just as true for the border context, where the privacy interests are so great that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant,” ACLU lawyer Esha Bhandari said.

Unlike legal challenges raised against the government’s border search authority in criminal cases, none of the 11 plaintiffs named in the ACLU/EFF lawsuit is accused of any wrongdoing, noted EFF lawyer Aaron Mackey.

“This is one case where we’re trying to change the law, where we’re trying to get the courts to recognize that the practice that the CBP has been operating under and the previous decisions (in border exception cases) … were incorrect,” Mackey said.

Spokespeople for DHS, CBP and ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Laura Donohue, director of Georgetown’s center on national security and the law, said electronic device searches run afoul of other constitutional guarantees as well, including the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

While courts have consistently upheld the government’s border exception authority, Donohue said, “The laws that we have focus on luggage and not digitalization.”

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Trump Administration Shifts Persecuted Minority Aid Away From United Nations

The Trump administration announced a shift Wednesday in foreign aid funding for persecuted minorities. Vice President Pence told a global assembly of Christians the U.S. would instruct the State Department to stop funding United Nations programs for persecuted minorities, instead providing funding through USAID and other faith-based NGOs. VOA’s Katherine Gypson reports from Washington on the consequences of the administration’s decision.

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White House: Women Accusing Trump of Sexual Harassment are Lying

A White House spokeswoman said Friday that all of the women who have accused President Donald Trump of sexual harassment are lying, echoing the president’s statement last week that the accusations are “fake news.”

Sarah Sanders took a question during the White House briefing from a television reporter asking about the White House’s official position on charges by at least 16 women that the president has engaged in inappropriate behavior.

“Is it the official White House position that all of these women are lying?” asked Jacqueline Alemany of CBS News.

“Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning, and the president’s spoken on it,” Sanders answered.

The reporter asked the question after alluding to a number of other prominent men in the media who have lately been accused of harassment, such as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, television host Bill O’Reilly, and journalist Mark Halperin, all of whom have lost jobs over the matter.

Last week Trump was queried over the accusations, in particular a subpoena issued by lawyers for a former contestant on his television show, Summer Zervos, who accused him of groping and kissing her during the taping of the show.

The president replied, “All I can say is, it’s totally fake news. It’s just fake. It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff, and it’s disgraceful, what happens, but … that happens in the world of politics.”

A year ago at a campaign rally, then-candidate Trump responded to accusations of sexual harassment by calling himself “a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country.”

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Report: US Grand Jury Approves First Charges in Russia Investigation

A U.S. federal grand jury has approved the first charges in an investigation of Russian influence on U.S. elections, a probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

A report late Friday from CNN quoted sources as saying anyone who is charged could be taken into custody as soon as Monday. The exact charges are unclear.

A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined CNN’s request for comment.

CNN said lawyers working on Mueller’s team were seen entering the federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where the grand jury meets to hear testimony.

Mueller has kept a tight lid on information about the probe.

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May, shortly after the firing of then-FBI director James Comey, to look into allegations that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia to win the election. He is also examining the possibility that the president may have tried to interfere with the Russia investigation.

The probe is also examining possible financial ties between Russian businesses and members of the Trump campaign, and foreign lobbying conducted by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In addition to Mueller’s probe, three congressional committees are conducting their own investigations into possible Russian influence on the election.

 

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Botulism Pills, the CIA, the Mob and the JFK Assassination

Botulism pills. Conspiracy theories. What the government might have known and still won’t say about Lee Harvey Oswald.

The release of thousands of records relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy hasn’t settled the best-known, real-life whodunit in American history. But the record offered riveting details of the way intelligence services operated at the time and are striving to keep some particulars a secret even now.

“The Kennedy records really are an emblem of the fight of secrecy against transparency,” said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the private National Security Archive research group in Washington.  “The ‘secureaucrats’ managed to withhold key documents and keep this long saga of secrecy going.”

The 2,800 records released on Thursday night include some that had dribbled out over the years but are getting renewed attention from being in this big batch.

Some highlights:

HOOVER, WORRIED

Just a few hours after Lee Harvey Oswald was killed in Dallas, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dictated a memo saying the government needed to issue something “so we can convince the public” that Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy.

The memo was in the latest trove of Kennedy assassination files released late Thursday. The FBI director composed the memo on Nov. 24, 1963 — two days after Kennedy was killed and just hours after nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station.

Hoover said that the FBI had an agent at the hospital in hopes of getting a confession from Oswald, but Oswald died before that could happen. Hoover said he and a deputy were concerned about “having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”

 

Hoover laments how Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, was considering appointing a presidential commission to investigate the assassination. Hoover said he suggested that the FBI give an investigative report to the attorney general complete with photographs, laboratory work and other evidence. That report, he thought, could be given to Johnson and he could decide whether to make it public.

“I felt this was better because there are several aspects which would complicate our foreign relations,” Hoover wrote. He said Oswald wrote a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, which the FBI intercepted, read and resealed. Hoover said the letter had been addressed to the Soviet Embassy official “in charge of assassinations and similar activities on the part of the Soviet government. To have that drawn into a public hearing would muddy the waters internationally,” Hoover wrote.

Besides, Hoover said, the letter was unrelated proof that Oswald committed the murder.

LBJ’s THEORY

Everyone has their theories, including even President Lyndon B. Johnson. According to one document released on Thursday, Johnson believed Kennedy was behind the assassination of the South Vietnamese president weeks before his death and that Kennedy’s murder was payback, the newly released documents say.

U.S. Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms said in a 1975 deposition that Johnson “used to go around saying that the reason (Kennedy) was assassinated was that he had assassinated President (Ngo Dinh) Diem and this was just justice.”

“Where he got this idea from I don’t know,” U.S. Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms said in a 1975 deposition.

Diem and his brother were killed on Nov. 2, 1963 after a coup by South Vietnamese generals.

This isn’t the first time Johnson’s theory has been aired. He was also quoted in Max Holland’s book, The Kennedy Assassination Tapes, as saying that Kenney died because of “divine retribution.”

“He murdered Diem and then he got it himself,” Johnson reportedly said.

Kennedy’s position on Diem’s assassination is still debated, said Ken Hughes, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

A month before Diem’s assassination, the south Vietnamese generals planning the coup told the CIA that they would overthrow the government if they could be assured that American aid would continue and Kennedy told them it would, Hughes said.

But a dispute remains over whether Kennedy insisted that Diem go unharmed or whether the president left it up to the South Vietnamese generals to decide what to do, said Hughes, who is writing a book on the subject.

One of the files that could shed light on that question is a CIA report on the U.S. government’s involvement in the Diem coup. The record was supposed to be released Thursday but was among the hundreds that Trump blocked from becoming public.

CASTRO, THE CIA AND A MOBSTER’S MISTRESS

A 1975 document described the CIA’s $150,000 offer to have Cuban leader Fidel Castro assassinated — but the mob insisted on taking the job for free.

The underworld murder-for-hire contract was detailed in a summary of a May 1962 CIA briefing for then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. By then, the Kennedy White House had launched its unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and several assassination attempts against Castro had failed.

At least two efforts to kill Castro were made with CIA-supplied lethal pills and organized crime-made muscle in early 1961, according to the document. The CIA’s mob contacts included John Rosselli, a top lieutenant to Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, who weren’t told but guessed the CIA was behind the offer. The pair, later victims of mob hits, said they want no part of any payment — but still, $11,000 in payments were made for expenses.

The mobsters came to the attention of the CIA a year earlier when Giancana asked a CIA intermediary to arrange for putting a listening device in the Las Vegas room of an entertainer he suspected of having an affair with Giancana’s mistress. The task was handed off to a private investigator named Arthur Balletti, who put the listening device in a phone in the hotel room. “The CIA reportedly did not know of the specific proposed wiretap.”

Told later about “everything,” Kennedy was “unhappy, because at that time he felt he was making a very strong drive to try to get after the Mafia.

“So his comment was to us that if we were going to get involved with the Mafia, in the future at any time, to ‘make sure you see me first.’”

The document was made public in 1997 and contained in an Associated Press report at that time.

STRANGE CALL

A British newspaper received an anonymous phone call about “big news” in the United States 25 minutes before President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, one file says.

A batch of 2,800 declassified documents includes a Nov. 26, 1963 memo from the CIA to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover about a call received by the Cambridge News on Nov. 22, the day Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas.

The memo from deputy CIA director James Angleton says the caller said “the Cambridge News reporter should call the American Embassy in London for some big news, and then hung up.” Anna Savva, a current Cambridge News reporter, said Friday there’s no record of the call. “We have nobody here who knows the name of the person who took the call,” she said.

The memo was released by the U.S. National Archives in July.

The phone call to the Cambridge News was first reported decades ago by Kennedy conspiracy theorist Michael Eddowes. In the 1980s, Eddowes, a British lawyer, claimed to have a CIA document mentioning the call. Eddowes, who died in 1992, wrote a book alleging that Kennedy’s assassin was not Lee Harvey Oswald but a Soviet impostor who took his identity. As a result of his efforts, the killer’s body was exhumed in 1981. An autopsy confirmed that it was Oswald.

 

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‘All Options on the Table’ for US Congress to Address Rohingya Muslim Crisis

The US Congress is considering a range of options to pressure Myanmar, also known as Burma, to stop the deadly attacks that have forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes. Lawmakers are considering a stand-alone sanctions bill, but activists lobbying for the Rohingyas say a White House Executive Order could have the most immediate impact. VOA’s Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.

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Senate Republicans Seek Unity after Flake, Corker Announce Retirements

At a time when Republican unity is more critical than ever to salvage President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda, the party is splintering on the issue of Trump’s governance and his fitness for office. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Senate Republicans are attempting to regroup after two members announced their retirement while making blistering critiques of the president. Even so, many fellow Republicans are standing with Trump.

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Tea Party Groups Settle Lawsuits Over IRS Mistreatment

The Trump administration has settled lawsuits with tea party groups that received extra, often burdensome scrutiny when applying for tax-exempt status, ending another chapter in a political scandal that dogged the Obama administration and remains a source of outrage for Republicans.

The Internal Revenue Service is apologizing to the groups as part of the proposed settlement agreements outlined in court filings Wednesday. The groups and the Justice Department are asking a judge to declare it illegal for the tax agency to discriminate based on political views, according to the agreements, which still must be approved by a judge.

Republicans erupted in 2013 after the IRS apologized for submitting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to intensive scrutiny, in part by zeroing in on groups with words like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. Many had their applications delayed for months and years. Some were asked improper questions about their donors and even their religious practices, an inspector general’s report found.

Hundreds of organizations joined lawsuits, alleging their constitutional rights were violated.

Much of the agency’s leadership, including top official Lois Lerner, resigned or retired over the scandal. One of the proposed settlement agreements calls senior management “delinquent” in providing control and direction over the process. And it faults Lerner for failing to tell upper-level management of the long delays in processing applications from tea party and other conservative groups.

Still, the Obama Justice Department announced in 2015 that no one at the IRS would be prosecuted in the scandal, saying investigators had found mismanagement but no evidence that it had targeted a political group based on its viewpoints or obstructed justice.

Republicans had hoped the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions would reopen its case against Lerner. But officials told members of Congress last month they would not charge Lerner, saying “reopening the criminal investigation would not be appropriate based on the available evidence.”

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