Armed US Drones to Start Flying Over Niger

The United States and Niger have reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terror groups in the African nation, a U.S. official told VOA.

The agreement, finalized this week, is a major expansion of U.S. military’s efforts to counter terrorism in Africa. It is unclear whether the drones will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Until now, the U.S. has only been conducting airstrikes against terrorists on the continent operating inside Libya and Somalia. Officials say that arming drones based in Niger would expand the military’s ability to go after extremists in West Africa, where Nigeria-based Boko Haram, Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State fighters operate.

Pentagon spokeswoman Army Major Audricia Harris would not comment on the new permissions.

“The government of Niger and the U.S. stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven. For operational security reasons, I will not comment on specific military authorities,” Harris told VOA.

The Pentagon has been trying to get the permission from the Nigerien government to arm drones long before a militant attack near the village of Tongo Tongo on October 4 killed four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter.

A formal investigation into the deadly ambush in Niger is not expected to be completed until January, according to the U.S. military.

The military’s investigation team, led by Army Major Gen. Roger Cloutier, will travel to the U.S., Africa and Europe to collect information needed to determine what happened during the October 4 attack.

A group of 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations Task Force accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission from the capital, Niamey, to an area near Tongo Tongo.

Members of the team had just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, U.S. officials told VOA.

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Photo Exhibit Recaptures Bhutanese-Nepali Lost History

As refugees resettle in a new country, their identities are often lost in the transition. A photo exhibit in the U.S. Midwestern city of Columbus, Ohio, offers a small window into one local refugee community. VOA’s June Soh explored the exhibit that sheds light on the refugees’ brave journeys from Bhutan through refugee camps in Nepal before finally settling in central Ohio.

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House Panel Offers Overhaul to NSA Spy Program

The U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said it had introduced a bill Wednesday to overhaul a National Security Agency surveillance program to better protect Americans’ privacy.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the NSA to collect vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside the United States. The program incidentally gathers communications with Americans and the government can search them without a warrant.

Section 702

U.S. intelligence officials consider Section 702 among the most vital of tools at their disposal to thwart national security threats.

“This bill updates the rules on Section 702 and other collection by strengthening privacy protections and transparency without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data and keep us safe,” the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, said in a statement introducing the bill.

The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Adam Schiff, said earlier Wednesday he had proposed a compromise that would let intelligence agencies query a database of information on Americans in national security cases without a warrant, but would require a warrant to use the information in other cases, such as those involving serious violent crime.

“This would prevent law enforcement from simply using the database as a vehicle to go fishing, but at the same time it would preserve the operational capabilities of the program,” Schiff told reporters.

Classified details of the program were exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Congress must renew Section 702 in some form by Dec. 31 or the program will expire.

Deep divides

Schiff said he believed the compromise would be acceptable to many lawmakers, as well as the intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is similar to legislation backed by the House Judiciary Committee.

However, there are still deep divides in both the Senate and the House over what to do about Section 702, as lawmakers balance demands for privacy protections with spy agencies’ desire to preserve what they see as a valuable tool. There are different renewal proposals in the House and Senate.

It was unclear whether lawmakers will vote on a standalone 702 bill or whether it would be part of a broader bill, such as a spending measure Congress must pass next month to keep the government open.

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Wall of Love Urges Breaking Down Barriers

A “Wall of Love” composed of hundreds of handmade flower bouquets was outside the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. Floral gifting service Teleflora, which placed the wall, invited people to take and share the bouquets with family, friends or strangers. Once all the flowers are removed, the wall — which symbolizes barriers — will “disappear,” leaving behind the message: LOVE OUT LOUD. The company says the wall serves as a call to action for all Americans to forge meaningful connections while tearing down the walls that stand between us.

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Chicago Congressman Hints He’ll Run for President

U.S. Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez, who has announced he will not seek re-election to Congress in 2018, said Wednesday he wanted to concentrate his energies “on the national level” and indicated he might be interested in a presidential run in 2020.

Fox News reported earlier Wednesday that Gutierrez was weighing such a bid. When asked by Reuters if he planned to run, Gutierrez, who has represented Chicago in the U.S. House of Representatives for the past quarter century, said he wanted to spend the first six months of 2018 touring the country “talking with as many people as possible.”

“Does it mean going to Iowa? I certainly hope so,” Gutierrez said in an interview.

Iowa traditionally holds the first Democratic and Republican party nominating contests for president. Candidates weighing presidential candidacies typically pay visits to the state well before they formally enter the race.

“But it also means going to California and visiting farm workers there and visiting with farm workers in Florida … and in Oregon and in Washington (state) and visiting with immigrant communities,” Gutierrez said.

“I’m not retiring. I want to change my focus. I want to take my energy on a national level,” he said. “I can tell you that very, very clearly.”

Republican President Donald Trump has expressed his intention to seek re-election in 2020. While incumbent presidents often are favored to win, Democrats see Trump as particularly vulnerable given his low approval ratings in opinion polls. That has spurred speculation that many candidates could weigh challenging him.

Former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, for example, has signaled he may run.

Gutierrez, a 63-year-old lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent, has made immigration reform a signature issue. In August, he was arrested outside the White House while taking part in a protest against Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Gutierrez has sharply criticized the Trump administration’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

‘Not talking to DNC’

Gutierrez said he would explore possible campaign fundraising efforts. Although he would run as a Democrat, he would not seek the blessing of the Democratic Party establishment.

“I’m not talking to DNC (Democratic National Committee) officials. I’m not going to talk to anybody within the Democratic Party structures because what I want to do is create a party structure independent of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Regardless of whether he seeks the White House, Gutierrez said he wanted to play a big role in 2020 helping to encourage voting and political activism among Hispanics, a growing demographic group that leans strongly Democratic.

When it became known that he was retiring from Congress, there was speculation Gutierrez might be planning a run for governor of Puerto Rico.

On Wednesday, Gutierrez rejected the idea. 

“If it was president of the Republic of Puerto Rico, it would certainly be different,” said Gutierrez, who favors independence for the U.S. territory.

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France’s Macron to Give Saudi Arabia Extremist List

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he would draw up a list of extremist organizations to convey to Saudi Arabia after its crown prince pledged to cut their funding.

Saudi Arabia finances groups overseen by the Mecca-based Muslim World League, which for decades was charged with spreading the strict Wahhabi school of Islam around the world.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to modernize the kingdom and cleave to a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam.

“He never did it publicly, but when I went to Riyadh (this  month), he made a commitment, such that we could give him a list and he would cut the financing,” Macron said during an interview with France 24 television.

“I believe him, but I will follow up. Trust is built on results,” Macron added.

The crown prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive next year.

The head of the Muslim World League told Reuters last week that his focus now was aimed at annihilating extremist ideology.

“We must wipe out this extremist thinking through the work we do. We need to annihilate religious severity and extremism which is the entry point to terrorism,” Mohammed al-Issa said in an interview.

Macron, speaking from Abidjan, said he had also sought commitments to cut financing of extremist groups from Qatar, Iran and Turkey.

The French leader will make a quick trip to Doha on Dec. 7, where he will discuss regional ties and could sign military and transport deals, including the sale of 12 more Rafale fighter jets.

Qatar has improved its ties with Iran since Saudi Arabia and other Arab states boycotted it over alleged ties to Islamist groups and its relations with Tehran.

Macron said he still intended to travel to Iran next year, but wanted to ensure there was a discussion and strategic accord over its ballistic missile program and its destabilization activities in several regional countries.

 

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