Senate Confirms Nielsen to Head US Homeland Security

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Deputy White House chief of staff Kirstjen Nielsen as President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

 

Senators approved Nielsen’s nomination, 62-37, on Tuesday. Nielsen, 45, is a former DHS official who is considered a protege of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former DHS secretary.

Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Nielsen a qualified candidate with the talent and experience to succeed. As a former DHS chief of staff, Nielsen understands the department’s daily operations and is ready to lead on her first day, McConnell said.

Democrats have concerns

Democrats complained that Nielsen lacks the experience needed to run a major agency with 240,000 employees. They also cited concerns about possible White House interference in a recent DHS decision to send home thousands of Nicaraguans and Haitians long granted U.S. protection.

Homeland Security oversees the nation’s borders, cybersecurity and response to natural disasters, among other areas.

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Nielsen brings valuable, practical experience to DHS. He called her an expert in risk management, with a focus on cybersecurity, emergency management and critical infrastructure.

Nielsen “is ready to answer this call to duty,” Johnson said. “She has been working in and around the Department of Homeland Security since its creation.”

Questionable decisions

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Nielsen has played a role in several questionable Trump administration decisions, including a travel ban to restrict entry from six mostly Muslim countries, termination of a program for young immigrants and what Harris called a “feeble response to Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey.”

Harris also said she was troubled by Nielsen’s failure to acknowledge at her confirmation hearing how human behavior contributes to climate change.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, which promotes immigrants’ rights, said Trump has worked to punish immigrants and refugees, from his call to build a wall along the Mexican border to the partial travel ban to raids against immigrants.

‘Architect’ in Trump’s policies

As a key Kelly aide, Nielsen is “one of the architects” of Trump’s immigration policies, Sharry said. He called Nielsen “a willing accomplice, helping to shape and implement this profoundly disturbing and un-American vision of our country.”

Nielsen said at her confirmation hearing last month that climate change is a crucial issue and said the Trump administration is revising its climate models to better respond to rising sea levels.

“I can’t unequivocally state it’s caused by humans,” she said. “There are many contributions to it.”

Cybersecurity a top priority

On other topics, Nielsen said she agreed with Kelly that a U.S.-Mexico border wall is unlikely to be a physical barrier from “sea to shining sea.”

She also condemned white nationalism, rejected Islamophobia and promised to make cybersecurity a top priority.

Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign that he would build the wall and that Mexico would pay for it, but the administration is seeking billions in taxpayer dollars to finance the project.

Homeland Security has been leading the charge on implementing Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda, and Nielsen pledged to continue that work.

 

White House Denies Reports Trump Financial Records Subpoenaed

The White House on Tuesday strongly denied that the special prosecutor looking into alleged Russian interference in last year’s election has asked a German bank for records relating to accounts held by Donald Trump and his family members.

“We’ve confirmed this with the bank and other sources” that it is not true, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during the daily briefing. “I think this is another example of the media going too far, too fast and we don’t see it going in that direction.”

A member of the president’s legal team, Jay Sekulow, issued a statement that “no subpoena has been issued or received.”

Deutsche Bank

However, Deutsche Bank appears to be acknowledging there has been a related request, saying it “takes its legal obligations seriously and remains committed to cooperating with authorized investigations into this matter.”

The bank received a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller several weeks ago to provide information on certain transactions and key documents have already been handed over, according to the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt.

Similar details also were reported Tuesday by the Bloomberg and Reuters news agencies, as well as the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Financial Times newspaper Deutsche Bank has begun sending information about its dealings with Trump to U.S investigators.

A person with direct knowledge of the German bank’s actions told the newspaper this began several weeks ago.

“Deutsche could not hand over client information without a subpoena,” said a second person with direct knowledge of the subpoena, according to the newspaper. “It’s helpful to be ordered to do so.”

The subpoenas concern “people or entities affiliated with President Donald Trump, according to a person briefed on the matter,” the Wall Street Journal reported in an update to its story.

“I would think it’s something more than a fishing expedition,” says Edwin Truman, a former U.S. Treasury Department assistant secretary for international affairs.

“At a minimum, they know there’s some fish in this pond and they want to know whether they’re nice fish or bad fish,” Truman, a nonresident fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Affairs, tells VOA.

If the reports are true, “this is a significant development in that it makes clear that Mueller is now investigating President Trump’s finances, something that the president has always said would be a red line for him,” says William Pomeranz of the Wilson Center, who teaches Russian law at Georgetown University.

“The substance of any potential charges remains unclear, but Deutsche Bank already has paid significant penalties in a Russian money laundering case, and I am sure that it does not welcome further investigations into its Russia operations,” says Pomeranz, who as a lawyer advised clients on investment in Russia and anti-money laundering requirements.

Relationship with family

The bank has a longstanding relationship with the Trump family, previously loaning the Trump organization hundreds of millions of dollars for real estate ventures.

Trump had liabilities of at least $130 million to a unit of the German bank, according to a federal financial disclosure form released in June by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

“Special counsel Mueller’s subpoena of Deutsche Bank would be a very significant development,” says Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “If Russia laundered money through the Trump Organization, it would be far more compromising than any salacious video and could be used as leverage against Donald Trump and his associates and family.”

Congressional Democrats, in June, asked the bank to hand over records regarding Trump’s loans, but lawmakers say their request was rebuffed, with the financial institution citing client privacy concerns.  

 

A U.S. official with knowledge of Mueller’s probe, according to Reuters, said one reason for the subpoenas was to find out whether the bank may have sold some of Trump’s mortgage or other loans to Russian state development bank VEB or other Russian banks that now are under U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Deutsche Bank, in January, agreed to pay $630 million in fines for allegedly organizing $10 billion in sham trades that could have been used to launder money out of Russia.

Red line

Trump earlier this year, when asked if examining his and his family’s finances unrelated to the Russia probe would cross a red line, replied, “I would say yeah. I would say yes.”

 

Trump, unlike previous U.S. presidents dating back four decades, has refused to make public his U.S. tax returns that would show his year-to-year income. Trump, a billionaire, is the richest U.S. president ever, although some analysts have questioned whether Trump’s assets total $10 billion as he claims.

Before he became president last January, Trump, who still owns an array of companies, turned over the day-to-day operation of the Trump Organization to his adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and a longtime executive at the firm.

‘Smart Bags’ May Not Fly If Battery Cannot Be Removed

“Smart suitcases” may be able to charge mobile phones or be easily found if misplaced, but unless their battery can be removed they risk being sent packing by the world’s airlines.

Global airlines body IATA said it could issue industry-wide standards on the new luggage soon, after some U.S. airlines issued their own restrictions on smart bags, whose manufacturers include companies such as BlueSmart, Raden or Away.

These contain GPS tracking and can charge devices, weigh themselves or be locked remotely using mobile phones, but they are powered by lithium ion batteries, which the aviation industry regards as a fire risk, especially in the cargo hold.

“We expect guidance to be issued potentially this week,” Nick Careen, IATA senior vice president of airport, passenger, cargo and security, told a media briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, when asked about restrictions placed by some airlines.

U.S.-based carriers American Airlines, Delta and Alaska Airlines all said last week that as of Jan. 15, 2018, they would require the battery to be removed before allowing the bags on board.

Careen gave no details of any potential industry-wide standards, but said he expected others could quickly follow the example of the U.S. carriers.

Away and Raden say on their websites that batteries in their bags can be easily removed.

Concerns over the risk of a lithium ion battery fire were highlighted during the electronics ban temporarily imposed earlier this year on some flights to the United States.

YouTube Says Over 10,000 Workers Will Help Curb Shady Videos

YouTube says it’s hiring more people to help curb videos that violate its policies.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki says “some bad actors are exploiting” the Google-owned service to “mislead, manipulate, harass or even harm.”

She says Google will have more than 10,000 workers address the problem by next year, though her blog post Monday doesn’t say how many the company already has.

Wojcicki says YouTube will also use technology to flag “problematic” videos or comments that show hate speech or harm to children. It’s already used to remove violent extremist videos.

YouTube is also taking steps to try to reassure advertisers that their ads won’t run next to gross videos.

There have been reports of creepy videos aimed at children and pedophiles posting comments on children’s videos in recent weeks.

International Police Operation Shuts Down ‘Andromeda’ Malware System

A joint operation involving Germany, the United States and Belarus has taken down a malware system known as “Andromeda” or “Gamarue” that infected more than 2 million computers globally, Europol said on Tuesday.

Andromeda is best described as a “botnet,” or group of computers that have been infected with a virus that allows hackers to control them remotely without the knowledge of their owners.

The police operation, which involved help from Microsoft, was significant both for the number of infected computers and because Andromeda had been used over a number of years to distribute new viruses, said Europol spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth.

“Andromeda was one of the oldest malwares on the market,” added the spokesman for Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.

Authorities in Belarus said they had arrested a man on suspicion of selling malicious software and also providing technical support services. It did not identify the suspect.

Officers had seized equipment from his offices in Gomel, the second city in Berlaus, and he was cooperating with the investigation, the country’s Investigative Committee said.

Op Gen Oorth said the individual is suspected of being “a ringleader” of a criminal network surrounding Andromeda.

German authorities, working with Microsoft, had taken control of the bulk of the network, so that information sent from infected computers was rerouted to safe police servers instead, a process known as “sinkholing.”

Information was sent to the sinkhole from more than 2 million unique internet addresses in the first 48 hours after the operation began on November 29, Europol said.

Owners of infected computers are unlikely to even know or take action. More than 55 percent of computers found to be infected in a previous operation a year ago are still infected, Europol said.

Information about the operation has been gradually released by Europol, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Belarus’s Investigative Committee over the past two days.

Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Keith Weir.

Trump Delays Announcement on Whether US Embassy to Be Moved to Jerusalem

President Donald Trump will not announce a decision on Monday on whether he will again delay moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a White House spokesman said, despite Monday’s deadline for doing so.

An announcement on the decision will be made “in coming days,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters aboard Air Force One as Trump was returning from a trip to Utah.

Temporary order expected

Trump had been due to decide whether to sign a waiver that would hold off relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv for another six months, as every U.S. president has done since Congress passed a law on the issue in 1995.

Senior U.S. officials have said that Trump is expected to issue a temporary order, the second since he took office, to delay moving the embassy despite his campaign pledge to go ahead with the controversial action.

No final decision yet  

But the officials have said Trump is likely to give a speech on Wednesday unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a step that would break with decades of U.S. policy and could fuel violence in the Middle East. They have said, however, that no final decisions have been made.

“The president has been clear on this issue from the get-go; that it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” Gidley said.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the international community does not recognize Israel’s claim on all of the city, home to sites holy to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions.

 

Immigrants Become Illegal While Waiting to Serve in US Military

They have raised their right hands, and sworn an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. They have college degrees, and have enlisted in the U.S. Army.

They have also fallen out of their immigration status, exposing them to deportation.

“I did everything I could to stay with valid status,” A.M., an Army reservist, told VOA.

A.M., 35 years old, who asked not to be identified because she is afraid of deportation, enlisted in the Army in March 2015 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI.

MAVNI was launched in 2009 to bring immigrants with medical or language skills into the armed services.

The program also allowed foreign-born military recruits to earn a fast-track path to American citizenship.

But nearly two years after enlisting, A.M. is still waiting to ship out to basic training and her student visa has expired.

The reason: The Pentagon, citing national security concerns, ordered intensive background checks on MAVNI service members and recruits.

In September 2016, the U.S. government retroactively required background checks on anyone who enlisted in the military through the MAVNI program, including anyone who was currently serving or waiting to be shipped to basic training. The government also stopped recruiting legal aliens.

October 2016 was when A.M. was scheduled to leave for basic training.

A.M. was told she had to maintain her visa status until a shipping date. She did. But her first shipping date was canceled. Her second shipping date, April 2017, has come and gone — and she has fallen out of status.

Without basic training, A.M.’s expedited naturalization process does not move forward. 

“Ever since I raised my hand, I go to every single drill,” A.M. said.

VOA spoke to seven people who have enlisted as active and reserve Army members and have also fallen out of status. All have signed enlistment contracts, have gone through the necessary background checks and have been waiting for more than two years to ship out.

Backlog on background checks

Everyone who wants to serve in the military has to go through background checks.

“They check to make sure you are not a criminal or a terrorist. They check your credit records. They run your fingerprints. They ask you a whole bunch of questions. That’s required before you can sign an enlistment contract,” Margaret Stock, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who created the MAVNI program back in 2008, told VOA.

With the MAVNI’S, she said, the government expanded the background check.

“I should tell you they already were doing a lot more background checking on the MAVNIs anyway. They are the most checked group of people that entered the U.S. military,” Stock said.

The MAVNIs, in addition to the regular screening, were being individually approved by the Department of Homeland Security.

“DHS was approving every single one of the enlistments individually. After checking all their immigration documents. … They were also doing something on the MAVNIs called a single scope background investigation, which is not done on most U.S. citizens who join the military,” Stock said.

This is an investigation normally done on someone getting top-secret clearance with the U.S. government.

These additional checks were being done before September 2016, when the Pentagon decided to run counterintelligence screening on each MAVNI.

“Basically, this caused the system to collapse. Because the government doesn’t have enough resources to do all these types of background checks on 10,000 people [the number accepted to MAVN],” Stock said.

The Department of Defense estimates it has a clearance backlog of 700,000, a figure that also includes civilians and contractors.

The backlog is causing “extreme” delays in shipping people to basic training. MAVNIs are not allowed to go to training until they have gone through these checks.

“But they didn’t have the resources to do them. So it caused two years, three years delays in people being shipped to training. And as of today, they still haven’t completed the background checks on everybody,” Stock said.

Without completed background checks, MAVNIs cannot ship to basic training. Without basic training, they do not qualify for expedited U.S. naturalization.

Changes in expedited citizenship

In mid-October, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters that an assessment of MAVNI found the program had problems.

“We are taking the steps, obviously, to save the program if it can be saved, and I believe it can,” he said.

Within days, the U.S. Department of Defense toughened the requirements for expedited naturalization, requiring enlistees to serve at “least 180 consecutive days of active-duty service, or at least one year of satisfactory service in the selected reserve.”

This is a change from the current practice, where a service member would qualify for “expedited naturalization” after one day of service.

Stock says there are legal reasons why the one-day policy was the original choice.

“They deploy overseas a lot. Sometimes they might go to their own original country and, if they’re not American citizens, they would be subjected to that country’s laws,” she said.

And naturalization could always be taken away. “If you don’t serve honorably for five years, you can lose your citizenship. … That’s a trade-off. They can let you have it right away, but you can lose it,” Stock said.

Staying legal

A.M. moved to the U.S. in 2005 with a J-1 visa to work as an au pair. After that, she got a sponsor, attended college and changed to an F-1 student visa.

“I saw as an opportunity to start a life here, to study, and from there maybe other doors would open for me to stay here,” A.M. said.

In Brazil, her home country, A.M. had a bachelor’s degree in translation. In the U.S., she earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education.

“Once I graduated, I started to teach. … I had my own classroom. The kids, they were wonderful, and working with parents, it was a great job,” she said.

She was eligible to work in the U.S. under Optional Practical Training, temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study.

During that time, she worked on getting a sponsor for a longer-term work visa.

“I taught [for] about 10 months because I was trying to get a work visa, but the school I was working did not want to sponsor anybody,” she said.

A.M. heard about MAVNI in 2015.

“After I enlisted, I had to keep my student visa so I went back to school once again,” she said.

A.M says all together, she spent about $50,000 in American schools to keep her student visa valid.

There were times, she said, things were “so difficult that I was eating food from the dollar store, so that I could pay for college and could stay here.

“I am so close, though. But at the same time, I am so tired because my life is on hold,” she said. “At this point I was supposed to be a citizen already. I never thought it would take this long, and all the stress we’re going through.”

A.M.’s biggest worry is her enlistment contract being terminated since she has yet to go to basic training. The Washington Post reported in September that U.S. Army recruiters had “abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreign-born military recruits.”

A.M. fears deportation.

“I’m a very independent person here,” she said. “I see so much violence in my home country, so much injustice. … My life is here.”

VOA reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense, but the department did not respond to a request for comment.

Mattis Urges Pakistan to Redouble Efforts Against Terrorists

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Monday insisted his country is “committed” to the war against terrorism. The comment came during a meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Outwardly, there were no signs of tension between the two men. However, it’s a different story behind the scenes, reports VOA’s Bill Gallo, who is traveling with the Pentagon chief.

Lawmaker: Support for Brazil’s Pension Reform More Organized

The government of Brazil’s President Michel Temer is far from assembling the coalition needed to pass a landmark pension reform, but potential supporters of the measure are now more organized, a key legislator said on Monday.

“We’re still enormously far (from having the needed votes), but we have a party leader committed, a party president committed, one party that’s set to commit,” Brazil’s lower house speaker, Rodrigo Maia, told journalists after an event in Rio de Janeiro.

Pension reform is the cornerstone policy in President Temer’s efforts to bring Brazil’s deficit under control. But the measure is widely unpopular with Brazilians, who are accustomed to a relatively expansive welfare net.

In order to curry support from Congress, Temer and his allies watered down their original proposal in November, requiring fewer years of contributions by private sector workers to receive a pension.

According to several government sources, Temer’s allies have grown more optimistic in the last week about the reform’s chances.

However, speed is essential for the bill’s passage. A congressional recess begins on Dec. 22, and lawmaking thereafter will be hampered by politics, as lawmakers ramp up their campaigns for 2018 elections.