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Fate of Supreme Court Nominee Rests With a Divided Senate

The U.S. Senate remains divided over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh has denied an allegation by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Ford and Democrats are seeking an FBI investigation into the alleged assault before she would testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee, while President Donald Trump and Republicans are so far resisting. More on the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination from VOA national correspondent Jim Malone.

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Fate of Supreme Court Nominee Rests With a Divided Senate

The U.S. Senate remains divided over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh has denied an allegation by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Ford and Democrats are seeking an FBI investigation into the alleged assault before she would testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee, while President Donald Trump and Republicans are so far resisting. More on the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination from VOA national correspondent Jim Malone.

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Lawmaker: US Senate, Staff Targeted by State-Backed Hackers

Foreign government hackers continue to target the personal email accounts of U.S. senators and their aides – and the Senate’s security office has refused to defend them, a lawmaker says.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a Wednesday letter to Senate leaders that his office discovered that “at least one major technology company” has warned an unspecified number of senators and aides that their personal email accounts were “targeted by foreign government hackers.” Similar methods were employed by Russian military agents who leaked the contents of private email inboxes to influence the 2016 elections.

Wyden did not specify the timing of the notifications, but a Senate staffer said they occurred “in the last few weeks or months.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

But the senator said the Office of the Sergeant at Arms , which oversees Senate security, informed legislators and staffers that it has no authority to help secure personal, rather than official, accounts. 

“This must change,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “The November election grows ever closer, Russia continues its attacks on our democracy, and the Senate simply does not have the luxury of further delays.” A spokeswoman for the security office said it would have no comment.

Wyden has proposed legislation that would allow the security office to offer digital protection for personal accounts and devices, the same way it does with official ones. His letter did not provide additional details of the attempts to pry into the lawmakers’ digital lives, including whether lawmakers of both parties are still being targeted.

Google and Microsoft, which offer popular private email accounts, declined to comment.

The Wyden letter cites previous Associated Press reporting on the Russian hacking group known as Fancy Bear and how it targeted the personal accounts of congressional aides between 2015 and 2016. The group’s prolific cyberspying targeted the Gmail accounts of current and former Senate staffers, including Robert Zarate, now national security adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Jason Thielman, chief of staff to Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the AP found.

The same group also spent the second half of 2017 laying digital traps intended to look like portals where Senate officials enter their work email credentials, the Tokyo-based cybersecurity firm TrendMicro has reported.

Microsoft seized some of those traps, and in September 2017 apparently thwarted an attempt to steal login credentials of a policy aide to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill , the Daily Beast discovered in July. Last month, Microsoft made news again when it seized several internet domains linked to Fancy Bear , including two apparently aimed at conservative think tanks in Washington.

Such incidents “only scratch the surface” of advanced cyberthreats faced by U.S. officials in the administration and Congress, according to Thomas Rid, a cybersecurity expert at Johns Hopkins University. Rid made the statement in a letter to Wyden last week .

“The personal accounts of senators and their staff are high-value, low-hanging targets,” Rid wrote. “No rules, no regulations, no funding streams, no mandatory training, no systematic security support is available to secure these resources.” 

Attempts to breach such accounts were a major feature of the yearlong AP investigation into Fancy Bear that identified hundreds of senior officials and politicians – including former secretaries of state, top generals and intelligence chiefs – whose Gmail accounts were targeted. 

The Kremlin is by no means the only source of worry, said Matt Tait, a University of Texas cybersecurity fellow and former British intelligence official. 

“There are lots of countries that are interested in what legislators are thinking, what they’re doing, how to influence them, and it’s not just for purposes of dumping their information online,” Tait said.

In an April 12 letter released by Wyden’s office, Adm. Michael Rogers – then director of the National Security Agency – acknowledged that personal accounts of senior government officials “remain prime targets for exploitation” and said that officials at the NSA and Department for Homeland Security were discussing ways to better protect them. The NSA and DHS declined to offer further details.

Guarding personal accounts is a complex, many-layered challenge.

Rid believes tech companies have a sudden responsibility to nudge high-profile political targets into better digital hygiene. He said he did not believe much as been done, although Facebook announced a pilot program Monday to help political campaigns protect their accounts, including monitoring for potential hacking threats for those that sign up.

Boosting protection in the Senate could begin with the distribution of small chip-based security devices such as the YubiKey, which are already used in many secure corporate and government environments, Tait said. Such keys supplement passwords to authenticate legitimate users, potentially frustrating distant hackers.

Cybersecurity experts also recommend them for high-value cyber-espionage targets including human rights workers and journalists. 

“In an ideal world, the Sergeant at Arms could just have a pile of YubiKeys,” said Tait. “When legislators or staff come in they can (get) a quick cybersecurity briefing and pick up a couple of these for their personal accounts and their official accounts.” 

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China’s Alibaba Scraps Plan to Create 1M US Jobs

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma said Wednesday that the Chinese e-commerce giant had canceled plans to create 1 million jobs in the U.S., blaming the ongoing trade war for the decision, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.

“This commitment is based on friendly China-U.S. cooperation and the rational and objective premise of bilateral trade,” Ma told Xinhua. “The current situation has already destroyed the original premise. There is no way to deliver the promise.”

Ma originally pledged to spur job growth by letting American small businesses and farmers sell their goods on Alibaba, which is one of the world’s largest online retailers, when he visited then-President-elect Donald Trump early 2017.

Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports on Monday, threatening to place taxes on an additional $267 billion worth of Chinese imports if China attempts to retaliate.

China placed tariffs on about $60 billion worth of U.S. products the next day as previously planned, though it reduced the size of the tariffs.

At an Alibaba investor conference Tuesday, Ma described the state of economic relations between the two countries as a “mess” with consequences that could last for decades.

Some experts said Ma’s plan to bring 1 million jobs to the U.S. might have been overly ambitious in the first place.

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China’s Alibaba Scraps Plan to Create 1M US Jobs

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma said Wednesday that the Chinese e-commerce giant had canceled plans to create 1 million jobs in the U.S., blaming the ongoing trade war for the decision, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.

“This commitment is based on friendly China-U.S. cooperation and the rational and objective premise of bilateral trade,” Ma told Xinhua. “The current situation has already destroyed the original premise. There is no way to deliver the promise.”

Ma originally pledged to spur job growth by letting American small businesses and farmers sell their goods on Alibaba, which is one of the world’s largest online retailers, when he visited then-President-elect Donald Trump early 2017.

Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports on Monday, threatening to place taxes on an additional $267 billion worth of Chinese imports if China attempts to retaliate.

China placed tariffs on about $60 billion worth of U.S. products the next day as previously planned, though it reduced the size of the tariffs.

At an Alibaba investor conference Tuesday, Ma described the state of economic relations between the two countries as a “mess” with consequences that could last for decades.

Some experts said Ma’s plan to bring 1 million jobs to the U.S. might have been overly ambitious in the first place.

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State Department Meeting With Congress on Refugee Cap

The U.S. State Department says it is scheduling meetings with members of Congress, after the country’s top diplomat this week proposed a record-low cap on refugees coming to the United States in the next year.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday told reporters the “proposed” cap would be 30,000 refugees for Fiscal Year 2019, lawmakers and refugee advocates swiftly criticized the announcement.

What Pompeo did not explain — and it took the State Department a day to clarify in a news conference with the agency’s chief spokesperson Heather Nauert — is that Pompeo’s announcement was a proposal included in an annual report submitted to Congress, not the final number.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA on Wednesday that the agency sent the report, with the proposed refugee ceiling, to Congress on Sept. 17, the same day as Pompeo’s announcement.

“We are working to schedule an in person consultation with Members and a briefing for their staffs as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to VOA.

The report is created by the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of the president.

Every year, the president sets the so-called “ceiling” on refugees — the maximum number that will be allowed in over the 12-month period starting Oct. 1 — by a “presidential determination.” Part of the process is a consultation with Congress before the figure can be finalized.

The president has until the end of the month to make the presidential determination on the refugee ceiling. The full report is expected to be made public in the coming days, the State Department spokesperson added.

If the president sticks to the 30,000-refugee cap for FY2019, it will be the lowest ceiling on record since the U.S. refugee program began in the early 1980s.

The decision will come after a series of Trump administration decisions that have whittled down the program, citing unproven national security concerns.

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State Department Meeting With Congress on Refugee Cap

The U.S. State Department says it is scheduling meetings with members of Congress, after the country’s top diplomat this week proposed a record-low cap on refugees coming to the United States in the next year.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday told reporters the “proposed” cap would be 30,000 refugees for Fiscal Year 2019, lawmakers and refugee advocates swiftly criticized the announcement.

What Pompeo did not explain — and it took the State Department a day to clarify in a news conference with the agency’s chief spokesperson Heather Nauert — is that Pompeo’s announcement was a proposal included in an annual report submitted to Congress, not the final number.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA on Wednesday that the agency sent the report, with the proposed refugee ceiling, to Congress on Sept. 17, the same day as Pompeo’s announcement.

“We are working to schedule an in person consultation with Members and a briefing for their staffs as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to VOA.

The report is created by the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of the president.

Every year, the president sets the so-called “ceiling” on refugees — the maximum number that will be allowed in over the 12-month period starting Oct. 1 — by a “presidential determination.” Part of the process is a consultation with Congress before the figure can be finalized.

The president has until the end of the month to make the presidential determination on the refugee ceiling. The full report is expected to be made public in the coming days, the State Department spokesperson added.

If the president sticks to the 30,000-refugee cap for FY2019, it will be the lowest ceiling on record since the U.S. refugee program began in the early 1980s.

The decision will come after a series of Trump administration decisions that have whittled down the program, citing unproven national security concerns.

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Canada Wants to See Flexibility in NAFTA Talks With US

Canada said on Wednesday that it would need to see movement from the United States if the two sides are to reach a deal on renewing NAFTA, which Washington insists must be finished by the end of the month.

Although the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and its allies are increasing pressure on Canada to make the concessions they say are needed for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear he also wanted to see flexibility.

“We’re interested in what could be a good deal for Canada but we’re going to need to see a certain amount of movement in order to get there and that’s certainly what we’re hoping for,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

Shortly afterwards, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for their fourth set of talks in four weeks with the two sides still disagreeing on major issues.

Trump has already wrapped up a side deal with Mexico and is threatening to exclude Canada if necessary. Canadian officials say they do not believe the U.S. Congress would agree to turn NAFTA into a bilateral treaty.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said it would be extremely complicated, if not impossible, for the administration to pull off a Mexico-only agreement.

“If Canada doesn’t come into the deal there is no deal,” Donohue told a media breakfast in Washington.

Donohue said he believed that if the administration wanted to end the current NAFTA, such a move would be subject to a vote in Congress, which would be difficult to get.

The Chamber, the most influential U.S. business lobby, wants NAFTA to be renegotiated as a tri-lateral agreement, citing how highly integrated the three member nations’ economies have become since the pact came into force in 1994.

Negotiators are arguing over cultural protections, dispute resolution, and a U.S. demand for more access to Canada’s protected dairy market. Sources say Ottawa has made clear it is prepared to make concessions, which would anger the influential dairy lobby.

“For American farmers the Canadian market is a drop in the bucket. For us it’s our livelihood,” Dairy Farmers of Canada vice president David Wiens told reporters in Ottawa. Concessions in past trade deals had already hurt Canadian farmers, he said.

“The dairy sector cannot be negatively impacted again by a new trade agreement,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

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Canada Wants to See Flexibility in NAFTA Talks With US

Canada said on Wednesday that it would need to see movement from the United States if the two sides are to reach a deal on renewing NAFTA, which Washington insists must be finished by the end of the month.

Although the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and its allies are increasing pressure on Canada to make the concessions they say are needed for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear he also wanted to see flexibility.

“We’re interested in what could be a good deal for Canada but we’re going to need to see a certain amount of movement in order to get there and that’s certainly what we’re hoping for,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

Shortly afterwards, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for their fourth set of talks in four weeks with the two sides still disagreeing on major issues.

Trump has already wrapped up a side deal with Mexico and is threatening to exclude Canada if necessary. Canadian officials say they do not believe the U.S. Congress would agree to turn NAFTA into a bilateral treaty.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said it would be extremely complicated, if not impossible, for the administration to pull off a Mexico-only agreement.

“If Canada doesn’t come into the deal there is no deal,” Donohue told a media breakfast in Washington.

Donohue said he believed that if the administration wanted to end the current NAFTA, such a move would be subject to a vote in Congress, which would be difficult to get.

The Chamber, the most influential U.S. business lobby, wants NAFTA to be renegotiated as a tri-lateral agreement, citing how highly integrated the three member nations’ economies have become since the pact came into force in 1994.

Negotiators are arguing over cultural protections, dispute resolution, and a U.S. demand for more access to Canada’s protected dairy market. Sources say Ottawa has made clear it is prepared to make concessions, which would anger the influential dairy lobby.

“For American farmers the Canadian market is a drop in the bucket. For us it’s our livelihood,” Dairy Farmers of Canada vice president David Wiens told reporters in Ottawa. Concessions in past trade deals had already hurt Canadian farmers, he said.

“The dairy sector cannot be negatively impacted again by a new trade agreement,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

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Kenya’s Finance Minister Cuts Spending, Money Transfer Taxes to Rise

Kenya’s Finance Minister Henry Rotich has cut the government’s spending budget by 55.1 billion shillings ($546.90 million), or 1.8 percent, for the fiscal year from July this year, a Treasury document showed on Wednesday.

The government is facing a tough balancing act after a public outcry over a new 16 percent value added tax on all petroleum products forced President Uhuru Kenyatta to suggest to parliament to keep the VAT and cut if by half.

In the document detailing the new spending estimates, Rotich said the budget had to be adjusted because of the amendments to tax measures brought by lawmakers when they first debated it and passed it last month.

The proposed halving of the VAT rate on fuel has left the government with a funding shortfall, hence the cuts in spending.

Parliament will vote on a raft of proposals, including the 1.8 percent cut on spending, in a special sitting on Thursday.

Kenya’s economy is expected to grow by 6 percent this year, recovering from a drought, slowdown in lending and election-related worries that cut growth in 2017, but investors and the IMF have expressed concerns over growing public debt.

While the next election is still four years away, the government’s economic policies are chafing with citizens angered by increasing costs of living. Fuel dealers protested when the VAT on fuel kicked in this month and citizen groups have gone to court to try to block new or higher taxes.

Separate documents sent by Kenyatta to parliament ahead of Thursday’s sitting underscored the debate in government over how to boost revenues without hurting the poor.

His government has to reduce a gaping fiscal deficit while boosting spending on priority areas such as healthcare and affordable housing.

In order to balance the government’s books after the reduction of the fuel tax, he is trying to reinstate several tax measures struck out by parliament, including a 2 percentage hike on excise duty for mobile phone money transfers to 12 percent.

Kenya’s biggest mobile phone operator Safaricom said in June it was opposed to any tax rise on mobile phone-based transfers, arguing that it would mainly hurt the poor, most of whom do not have bank accounts and rely on services such as its M-Pesa platform.

The president also asked parliament to double the excise duty on the fees charged by banks, money transfer services, and other financial institutions to 20 percent.

Parliament in August threw out an earlier version of proposed fees on bank transfers, a so-called “Robin Hood” tax of 0.05 percent on transfers of more than 500,000 shillings.

The president has not yet signed the budget due to the dispute over the planned tax hikes. Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and its allies have a comfortable majority in parliament.

The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry this month said the government should widen the tax base. It also urged the state to cut expenditure, reduce wastage of public funds and deal with corruption, which some studies have found lose the government about a third of its annual budget.

 

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