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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Tech Companies Ready to Face Congress Over Foreign Interference in US Election

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election nearly a year ago, there has been increasing scrutiny of how Russian-backed operatives used accounts on Facebook, Google and Twitter to try to influence its outcome.

Executives from those companies appear before at least three congressional hearings starting Tuesday, facing questions from lawmakers about what happened and how they plan to respond.

What happened on the internet companies’ services during the 2016 election “was the undermining of our political process,” said Ann Ravel, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley’s law school and a former chair at the Federal Election Commission, the federal agency that enforces campaign finance law.

The congressional spotlight on the internet marks a shift in how lawmakers and the public think of the global communications network, observers say. 

View of the internet

For years, the internet was viewed as “an egalitarian force, basically giving voice to the voiceless,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor.

The 2016 election, with Russian-backed operatives reportedly placing political ads on social networks or posing as Americans talking about hot-button issues, changed that utopian view of the internet.

“We realized that once you allow anyone to speak to as many people as they want no matter when they want, that enables certain types of speakers who hold undemocratic speech,” Persily said.

On the streets of San Francisco, people interviewed echoed frustrations heard around the country that little is known yet about how and why Russian-backed actors used internet firms.

But some say tech companies should take responsibility for what happens on their services and play more of a monitoring role than they have done.

“Social media is accessible to everyone,” peer counselor Moinnette Harris said. “People can engage in it or put whatever they want on there, whether it’s true or false.”

Lia McLoughlin, a stay-at-home parent, said, “I think Facebook has a responsibility. … If you know that there’s something that is affecting our democracy, and if you have any idea that it might be fake, there is a reason to stand in there. It’s our democracy.”

Facebook and other companies share responsibility if their services were used by foreign agents, said Christian Simonetti, an administrative assistant. But any new rules or penalties the internet companies face should be done “without infringing on people’s democratic rights to express themselves,” he said.

Proposed legislation

Law lecturer Ravel said that congressional leaders and regulators should require that internet companies be transparent about who is using their services for political ads, something that billboards, TV stations and newspapers have to do.

In recent weeks, some of the companies have vowed to make changes in reaction to the scrutiny. Twitter and Facebook have said they will do more to make political advertisements more transparent.

Twitter also banned RT and Sputnik, two Russian-backed media companies, from advertising on its site.

But almost everyone agrees it would be harder to regulate — for the government and internet firms — so-called “issue-based ads,” which are about hot topics such as gun rights and gay marriage. Those ads may not be tied to a specific candidate or ballot measure.

Even harder would be fake Facebook or Twitter accounts created overseas but purporting to have been created by people living in a targeted community.

“There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads,” Twitter said in a blog post.

How the U.S. navigates these issues will matter to the rest of the world, Ravel said.

“It’s important for the United States to be a leader to balance innovation we want from the internet for people to speak openly on the internet,” Ravel said, “yet to do something to prevent the intervention in the election.”

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US Economy Expands at 3 Percent Rate in Third Quarter

The U.S. economy expanded at a three percent annual pace in July, August and September, about the same pace as the prior quarter.

Friday’s Commerce Department data surprised economists, who thought damage from two hurricanes would cut growth to a lower level. The data show the world’s largest economy is now about 2.3 percent larger than it was at this time last year.

Stuart Hoffman of PNC bank says the “solid” growth data is likely to help corporate profits and reinforce the U.S. central bank’s determination to raise interest rates in December. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute says the figures “overstate” growth, and he notes inflation is still below the Fed’s two percent target, making an interest rate hike unnecessary at this time.

Officials raise rates to fend off high inflation by cooling economic activity. Rates were slashed during the recession to bolster growth and employment. 

Federal Reserve leaders gather Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington to debate interest rate policy. Most economists predict they will not raise rates until their next meeting in mid-December.

Next Friday, government experts will publish unemployment data for October. September’s rate was a low 4.2 percent.

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Who Will Be the Next Fed Chief?

President Trump says he is “very close” to picking a person for the most important economic post in the country: the head of the US Federal Reserve. Current Chair Janet Yellen, whose term expires early next year, is one of at least five candidates under consideration. Regardless of the president’s choice, most analysts who spoke with VOA don’t expect big changes in US monetary policy. But as Mil Arcega reports, others say, sooner or later the next Fed Chief could face a slowing economy.

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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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