Demonstrators Rally in Florida for Tougher Gun-Control Laws 

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Saturday outside the U.S. Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to rally for more stringent gun-control laws, days after the third most deadly school shooting in American history.

Amid chants of “End gun violence,” group leaders, local legislators and other public figures addressed what they felt was an urgent need for tougher laws governing the ownership of guns.

“I have called out Congress and told them … their job is to work for the people,” one young woman told the throng of demonstrators. “And they’re not working for the people. The country wants gun reform and they refuse to talk about it. They talk about mental health. They talk about bullying. They say it’s not the time. Now is the time! There is no other time!” she said to loud cheers and applause.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who was expected to attend the rally, posted on Twitter that the deadly shooting might have sparked enough outrage to force legislative action on gun control:

The demonstrators gathered one day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of how the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation respond to warnings about potential mass killers. 

That action followed an admission Friday by the FBI that it had ignored a tip about the gunman who killed 17 people and wounded 14 others at a school in Florida on Wednesday.

The agency acknowledged that it had not followed “established protocols” after receiving information about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, on its national tip line. The FBI said someone with a close relationship to Cruz left information on January 5 about the teenager’s desire to kill people and other disturbing details.

Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Miami, said the office did not receive the tip. “We truly regret any additional pain that this has caused,” he told reporters.

‘Relentlessly committed’ to improvement

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement Friday that he was devoted to “getting to the bottom” of the matter and that FBI employees were “relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”

In a statement, Florida Governor Rick Scott called for Wray’s ouster, saying his agents’ “failure to take action against this killer is unacceptable. The FBI has admitted that they were contacted last month by a person who called to inform them of Cruz’s ‘desire to kill people,’ and ‘the potential of him conducting a school shooting.’ ”

“Seventeen innocent people are dead and acknowledging a mistake isn’t going to cut it,” the governor’s statement said. “An apology will never bring these 17 Floridians back to life or comfort the families who are in pain. The families will spend a lifetime wondering how this could happen, and an apology will never give them the answers they desperately need.”

Scott noted that “we constantly promote ‘see something, say something,’ and a courageous person did just that to the FBI. And the FBI failed to act.” Therefore, he said, “the FBI director needs to resign.”

President Donald Trump made no comment to reporters on Friday as he left the White House for Florida.

Arriving in the state a few hours later, he and first lady Melania Trump drove to a hospital in Pompano Beach, meeting with some victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland.

Walking with Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, Trump praised the medical staff who treated the victims, saying, “The job they’ve done is incredible.” He also praised the speed with which first responders arrived at the school.

When asked by reporters whether the nation’s gun laws needed to be changed, Trump did not respond as he walked into a room.

Later, Trump traveled to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, meeting with several law enforcement officers. “Thank you all very much. Fantastic job. Thank you,” he told the officers.

Trump also met with Officer Mike Leonard, who said he was the one to locate and apprehend Cruz.

Speaking to Leonard, Trump said, “That was so modest. I would have told it much differently. I would have said, ‘Without me, they never would have found him,’ ” prompting laughter in the room.

Trump is to spend the long Presidents Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Parkland.

17 murder counts

Cruz, who was being held at the Broward County Jail without bond, has admitted carrying out the shootings with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, according to the county sheriff’s office. Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons last year from the school, faces 17 counts of premeditated murder.

Some members of Congress from Florida, including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ted Deutsch (who represents the district where the killings took place), called for congressional investigations into how the FBI fumbled the tip about Cruz.

VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this story.

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US Man Pleads Guilty in Fraud Case Connected to Russia Election Probe

A California man has pleaded guilty to inadvertently selling bank accounts to Russians who were indicted Friday by a federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians, according to a February 12 court filing.  

The special counsel investigating Russian meddling on Friday announced charges against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities for interfering in the election.  

The indictment alleges that the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based social media company with Kremlin ties, 12 of its employees, and its financial backer orchestrated an effort to influence the 2016 election campaign in favor of President Donald Trump. 

 

Prosecutors charged Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with funding the operation through companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering and a number of subsidiaries.  

 

Prigozhin and his businesses allegedly provided “significant funds” for the Internet Research Agency’s operations to disrupt the U.S. election, according to the indictment. 

 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that the Russian conspirators sought to “promote social discord in the United State and undermine public confidence in democracy.”

 

“We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein said at a news conference in Washington. 

 

The conspiracy was part of a larger operation code-named Project Lakhta, Rosenstein said. 

 

“Project Lakhta included multiple components – some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in multiple countries,” Rosenstein said. 

 

Mueller, who has made no public statements about the Russia investigation since his appointment last May, did not speak at the news conference. 

 

Charges against Russian nationals

 

The indictment charges all the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Three defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and five individuals with aggravated identity theft.

 

None of the defendants charged in the indictment are in custody, according to a spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office. 

 

The U.S. and Russia don’t have an extradition treaty and it’s unlikely that any of the defendants will stand trial in the U.S.

 

The 37-page charging document alleges that the Russian conspirators sought to coordinate their effort with Trump campaign associates, but it does not accuse anyone on the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians.

 

Trump took to Twitter after the indictment was announced to again deny his campaign worked with the Russians.

 

“Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president,” Trump tweeted. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

 

The indictment marks the first time Mueller’s office has brought charges against Russians and Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 election.  

 

Mueller’s sprawling investigation has led to the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates.Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russian officials.

 

Details of indictment

 

The indictment says the Russian campaign to “interfere in the U.S. political system” started as early as 2014 and accelerated as the 2016 election campaign got underway. 

 

During the 2016 campaign, the Russian operatives posted “derogatory information” about a number of presidential candidates.  But by early to mid-2016, the operation included “supporting” Trump’s presidential campaign and “disparaging” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

                          

Taking on fake American identities, the Russian operatives communicated with “unwitting” Trump campaign associates and with other political activists “to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment says.

 

The indictment describes how Russian operatives used subterfuge, stolen identities and other methods to stage political rallies, buy ads on social media platforms, and pay gullible Americans to “promote or disparage candidates.”

 

To avoid detection by U.S. law enforcement agencies, the Russian operatives used computer networks based in the United States, according to the indictment.

“These groups and pages, which addressed the divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by defendants,” the indictment reads.

 

A number of the operatives are alleged to have traveled to the United States under “false pretenses to collect intelligence to inform the influence operations.”

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US Commerce Department Urges Curbs on Steel, Aluminum Imports

The Commerce Department is urging President Donald Trump to impose tariffs or quotas on aluminum and steel imports from China and other countries.

Unveiling the recommendations Friday, Secretary Wilbur Ross said in the case of both industries “the imports threaten to impair our national security.”

As an example, Ross said only one U.S. company now produces a high-quality aluminum alloy needed for military aircraft.

Raise US capacity

The measures are intended to raise U.S. production of aluminum and steel to 80 percent of industrial capacity. Currently U.S. steel plants are running at 73 percent of capacity and aluminum plants at 48 percent.

Ross emphasized that the president would have the final say, including on whether to exclude certain countries, such as NATO allies, from any actions.

China’s Commerce Ministry said Saturday that the report was baseless and did not accord with the facts, and that China would take necessary steps to protect its interests if affected by the final decision.

Last year, Trump authorized the probe into whether aluminum and steel imports posed a threat to national defense under a 1962 trade law that has not been invoked since 2001. He has to make a decision by mid-April.

Three options

Ross is offering the president three options:

To impose tariffs of 24 percent on all steel and 7.7 percent on aluminum imports from all countries.

To impose tariffs of 53 percent on steel imports from 12 countries, including Brazil, China and Russia, and tariffs of 23.6 percent on aluminum imports from China, Hong Kong, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam. Under this option, the U.S. would also impose a quota limiting all other countries to the amount of aluminum and steel they exported to U.S. last year.

To impose a quota on steel and aluminum imports from all sources, limiting each country 63 percent of the steel and 86.7 percent of the aluminum they shipped to the U.S. last year.

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Robot Drives Itself to Deliver Packages

Delivery robots could one day be part of the landscape of cities around the world. Among the latest to be developed is an Italian-made model that drives itself around town to drop off packages. Since the machine runs on electricity, its developers say it is an environmentally friendly alternative to fuel powered delivery vehicles that cause pollution. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.

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Robot Drives Itself to Deliver Packages

Delivery robots could one day be part of the landscape of cities around the world. Among the latest to be developed is an Italian-made model that drives itself around town to drop off packages. Since the machine runs on electricity, its developers say it is an environmentally friendly alternative to fuel powered delivery vehicles that cause pollution. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.

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Facebook Forges Ahead With Kids App Despite Expert Criticism

Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook’s financial support of some advisers who approved of the app.

Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn’t be on such apps at all — although they often are.

“It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,” the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week.

Lukeward reception

Messenger Kids launched on iOS to lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched.

But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn’t hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn’t publicized them, either.

Facebook’s donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name for the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has a Facebook executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast and Google.

“We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind.

Common Sense a late addition

But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn’t invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn’t include Common Sense earlier in the process. 

“Because they know we opposed their position,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group’s stance is that Facebook never should have released a product aimed at kids. “They know very well our positon with Messenger Kids.”

A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app , which it has not done. The company says it is “committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.”

Wired article unfair?

One of Facebook’s experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook’s pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article “unfairly” accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars. 

But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids.

Bernstein, who doesn’t see technology as “inherently dangerous,” suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated air time for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors are Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV.

But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a “misrepresentation” that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments “from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV” that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current “Truth About Tech” effort, which it’s launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology.

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Facebook Forges Ahead With Kids App Despite Expert Criticism

Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook’s financial support of some advisers who approved of the app.

Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn’t be on such apps at all — although they often are.

“It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,” the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week.

Lukeward reception

Messenger Kids launched on iOS to lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched.

But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn’t hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn’t publicized them, either.

Facebook’s donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name for the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has a Facebook executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast and Google.

“We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind.

Common Sense a late addition

But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn’t invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn’t include Common Sense earlier in the process. 

“Because they know we opposed their position,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group’s stance is that Facebook never should have released a product aimed at kids. “They know very well our positon with Messenger Kids.”

A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app , which it has not done. The company says it is “committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.”

Wired article unfair?

One of Facebook’s experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook’s pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article “unfairly” accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars. 

But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids.

Bernstein, who doesn’t see technology as “inherently dangerous,” suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated air time for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors are Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV.

But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a “misrepresentation” that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments “from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV” that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current “Truth About Tech” effort, which it’s launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology.

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