Border Crossings: Ron Bultongez

Singer-songwriter Ron Bultongez is living the American Dream from growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo to being named the “Hometown Hero” of Plano, TX to becoming a Top 24 Finalist on American Idol 2018, where he left Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan in awe of his voice. Ron’s dreams have taken him far. His journey, depth, and spirit are evident in his smooth yet raspy vocals and his bluesy, soulful songwriting.

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Puerto Rico Governor Chooses Possible Successor

Puerto Rico’s governor says he’s chosen former Congress representative Pedro Pierluisi as the U.S. territory’s secretary of state. That post would put Pierluisi in line to be governor when Rossello steps down this week – but he’s unlikely to be approved by legislators.

Ricardo Rossello made the announcement Wednesday via Twitter and said he would hold a special session on Thursday so legislators can vote on his nomination.

Rossello has said he’ll resign on Friday following massive protests in which Puerto Ricans demanded he step down.
Top legislators have already said they will reject Pierluisi’s nomination because he works for a law firm that represents the federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and say that’s a conflict of interest.
Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009-2017.


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US, China Agree to Hold Next Round of Trade Talks in September

The latest round of trade talks between U.S. and Chinese negotiators ended in Shanghai Wednesday with an agreement to meet again in September in the U.S.

Although neither side immediately commented on the talks, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the talks were “frank, highly efficient and constructive.”

The news agency also reported negotiators discussed “the issue of China increasing its purchases of U.S. agricultural products, according to its domestic needs.”

U.S. and Chinese representatives held talks at a working dinner on Tuesday and less than a half day of negotiations on Wednesday before the U.S. delegation headed straight to the airport.

Shortly after U.S. negotiators arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned China against negotiating a deal after the 2020 U.S. presidential election  — declaring a delayed agreement would be less attractive than a deal reached in the near term.

“The problem with them waiting … is that if & when I win, the deal that they get will be much tougher than what we are negotiating now … or no deal at all,” Trump said in a post on Twitter.

…to ripoff the USA, even bigger and better than ever before. The problem with them waiting, however, is that if & when I win, the deal that they get will be much tougher than what we are negotiating now…or no deal at all. We have all the cards, our past leaders never got it!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2019

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to Trump’s tweet on Wednesday, telling reporters at a daily news briefing in Beijing “it doesn’t make any sense for the U.S. to exercise its campiagn of maximum pressure at this time.”

Hua also said “It’s pointless to tell others to take medication when you’re the one who sick.”

U.S. and Chinese officials gathered in Shanghai in an attempt to revive talks, with both sides trying to temper expectations for a breakthrough.

The world’s two largest economies are engaged in an intense trade war that has dragged on for more than a year, having imposed punitive tariffs on each other totaling more than $360 billion in two-way trade.

The Shanghai negotiations came after Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at June’s G-20 summit to resurrect efforts to end the costly trade war over China’s technology ambitions and trade surplus.

China is resisting U.S. demands to abolish government-led plans for industrial leaders to enhance robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies.

The U.S. has complained China’s plans depend on the acquisition of foreign technology through theft or coercion.

Days prior to the Shanghai meeting, Trump threatened to withdraw recognition of China’s developing nation’s status at the World Trade Organization. China responded by saying the threat is indicative of the “arrogance and selfishness” of the U.S.

The U.S. delegation in Shanghai was represented by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. They met with a Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Liu He, who serves as the country’s economic czar.



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Loophole Allows Families to Get Aid Meant for Needy Students

The U.S. Education Department is being urged to close a loophole that has allowed some wealthy families to get federal, state and university funding that’s meant to help needy students.

Federal authorities were notified last year that some parents in Illinois were transferring custody of their children to friends or relatives to make it appear they came from poorer backgrounds. In doing so, they became eligible for scholarships and federal grants that are typically reserved for low-income students.

Disclosure of the practice comes at a time of intense debate over the fairness of college admissions. Earlier this year, federal authorities say they uncovered a sweeping scheme in which wealthy parents paid bribes to get their children into elite universities across the nation.

The latest case was uncovered at the University of Illinois after guidance counselors at nearby high schools caught wind of the scheme and notified the school’s admissions office. University officials soon noticed a pattern of students coming from certain Chicago suburbs with recent guardianship transfers and similar language in their applications. In total, the school says it has identified 14 cases over the last year.

Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions, said that while the strategy appears to be legal, it’s ethically questionable. By tapping into funding for needy students, he said, wealthy families deprive students who legitimately need help. Some of the families were able to obtain state grants that are first-come, first-served, while thousands of other students were turned away.

“Financial aid is not infinite,” he said. “There are students who are eligible for need-based aid who are not receiving their awards because the state runs out.”

The Education Department’s inspector general said it’s aware of the issue and is urging the agency to add new language to its rules to close the loophole. Under the proposed update, changes of guardianship would not be recognized “if a student enters into a legal guardianship but continues to receive medical and financial support from their parents.”

A statement from the department said it’s weighing how to respond.

“Those who break the rules should be held accountable, and the department is committed to assessing what changes can be made — either independently or in concert with Congress — to protect taxpayers from those who seek to game the system for their own financial gain,” according to the statement.

The scheme, which was first reported Monday by Pro Publica and The Wall Street Journal, has been traced to clusters of parents in Chicago suburbs. It’s unclear how widespread the scheme reaches, but Pro Publica reported that students involved have been accepted to schools including the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University. Those schools said they’re looking into the issue.

A statement from the University of Wisconsin said it will review all cases of legal guardianship to verify “genuine financial need.” Indiana University said it will contact any involved students and request documentation to verify financial aid eligibility. The University of Missouri said it has a “very small number” of suspected cases but will pull institutional aid from any students who misrepresented their financial status.

News of the scheme is likely to trigger a wave of similar investigations at colleges across the country as officials try to determine the scope, according to admissions and financial aid groups.

“I can guarantee that they are going to start doing some digging on their own campuses to see if they see any patterns,” said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Some parents told Pro Public and The Journal that they transferred custody of their children on the advice of a college consulting firm called Destination College, based in Lincolnshire, Illinois. The company’s website promises to help parents pay for college “in the most efficient and inexpensive way.” The firm did not respond to a request seeking comment.

After having their custody transferred, students can claim they are independent of their families and apply for financial aid using their own earnings rather than their families’. That would typically qualify them for federal Pell Grants, which are capped at about $6,000 a year, and an Illinois state program that provides about $5,000 a year. It could also make them eligible for university scholarships that range as high as the full cost of tuition.

Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, says both the guardianship scheme and the bribery scandal are symptoms of the spiraling cost of college tuition. Still, he denounced the scheme and said it unfairly robs students who need the most help.

“Guardianship laws are designed for when parents are unable or should not be responsible for a child’s well-being,” he said. “It isn’t something that is meant to be traded away in order to beat the system.”

To help spot the scheme, the University of Illinois added new questions for applicants who indicate they’ve had changes in guardianship. They’re now asked who pays their cellphone bills, for example, and their health care costs. But school officials and financial aid experts are wary of making the process overly complicated for students who have undergone legitimate custody transfers.

“We don’t want to see them having to jump through additional hoops,” said Desjean, of the financial aid association. “It could place an extra burden the most vulnerable students who really are in legal guardianship.”

Among the most immediate questions for the University of Illinois is whether to continue providing university aid to students who used the scheme. Officials said they’re still deciding. But when it comes to federal and state aid, the school is legally required to keep that money flowing to eligible families, said Borst, the admissions director.

“We’ve addressed it as much as we are able to legally,” he said. “But we’re still stuck with having to provide federal and state aid to families who are manipulating the financial aid process.”

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Boston Gang Database Made Up Mostly of Young Black, Latino Men

Boston police are tracking nearly 5,000 people — almost all of them young black and Latino men — through a secretive gang database, newly released data from the department shows.

A summary provided by the department shows that 66% of those in its database are black, 24% are Latino and 2% are white. Black people comprise about 25% of all Boston residents, Latinos about 20% and white people more than 50%.

The racial disparity is “stark and troublesome,” said Adriana Lafaille, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which, along with other civil rights groups, sued the department in state court in November to shed light into who is listed on the database and how the information is used.

Central American youths are being wrongly listed as active gang members “based on nothing more than the clothing they are seen in and the classmates they are seen with,” and that’s led some to be deported, the organizations say in their lawsuit, citing the cases of three Central American youths facing deportation based largely on their status on the gang database.

”This has consequences,” Lafaille said. “People are being deported back to the countries that they fled, in many cases, to escape gangs.”

Boston police haven’t provided comment after multiple requests, but Commissioner William Gross has previously defended the database as a tool in combating MS-13 and other gangs.

One 24-year-old native of El Salvador nearly deported last year over his alleged gang involvement said he was a victim of harassment and bullying by Bloods members as a youth and was never an MS-13 member, as police claim.

The man spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from gang members.

He said he never knew he’d made the list while in high school until he was picked up years later in a 2017 immigration sweep.

The gang database listed him as a “verified” member of MS-13 because he was seen associating with known MS-13 members, had feuded with members of the rival Bloods street gang, and was even charged with assault and battery following a fight at school, according to records provided by his lawyer, Alex Mooradian.

Mooradian said he noted in immigration court that the man, who was granted special immigrant juvenile status in 2014, reported at least one altercation with Bloods members to police and cooperated with the investigation. Witnesses also testified about the man’s good character and work ethic as a longtime dishwasher at a restaurant.

”Bottom line, this was a person by all metrics who was doing everything right,” said Mooradian. “He had legal status. He went to school. He worked full time. He called police when he was in trouble. And it still landed him in jail.”

Boston is merely the latest city to run into opposition with a gang database. An advocacy group filed a lawsuit this month in Providence, Rhode Island, arguing the city’s database violates constitutional rights. Portland, Oregon, discontinued its database in 2017 after it was revealed more than 80% of people listed on it were minorities.

In Chicago, police this year proposed changes after an audit found their database’s roughly 134,000 entries were riddled with outdated and unverified information. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also cut off U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement access ahead of planned immigration raids this month.

California’s Department of Justice has been issuing annual reports on the state’s database since a 2017 law began requiring it. And in New York City, records requests and lawsuits have prompted the department to disclose more information about its database.

In Boston, where Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed strengthening the city’s sanctuary policy, the ACLU suggests specifically banning police from contributing to any database to which ICE has access, or at least requiring police to provide annual reports on the database. Walsh’s office deferred questions about the gang database to police.

Like others, Boston’s gang database follows a points-based system. A person who accrues at least six points is classified as a “gang associate.” Ten or more points means they’re considered a full-fledged gang member.

The points range from having a known gang tattoo (eight points) to wearing gang paraphernalia (four points) or interacting with a known gang member or associate (two points per interaction).

The summary provided by Boston police provides a snapshot of the database as of January.

Of the 4,728 people listed at the time, a little more than half were considered “active” gang associates, meaning they had contact with or participated in some form of gang activity in the past five years. The rest were classified as “inactive,” the summary states.

Men account for more than 90% of the suspected gang members, and people between ages 25 and 40 comprise nearly 75% of the listing.

The department last week provided the summary along with the department’s policy for placing people on the database after the AP filed a records request in June.

The ACLU was also provided the same documents in response to its lawsuit as well as a trove of other related policy memos and heavily redacted reports for each of the 4,728 people listed on the database as of January, according to documents provided by the ACLU and first reported Friday by WBUR.

The ACLU has asked the city for less-redacted reports, Lafaille said. It’s also still waiting for information about how often ICE accesses the database and how police gather gang intelligence in schools.

”After all this time, we still don’t have an understanding about who can access this information and how it’s shared,” she said. “That’s something the public has a right to know.”

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UN Criticizes US Resumption of Federal Executions

The U.N. human rights office criticized the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate federal executions after a 16-year hiatus, saying it bucks the national and international trend to abolish the death penalty. 

The U.N. human rights office says Washington’s decision to resume executions of federal inmates on death row flies in the face of the most basic human right, that of the right to life.  It says it also is a blow to progress toward universal abolition of capital punishment.

The United Nations reports around 170 of 194 U.N. member sates either have abolished the death penalty altogether in law or in practice.

Human rights spokesman Rupert Colville says executing people is wrong on many levels.  He says a major concern is the risk of putting to death people who are innocent of the crime for which they are charged.  He says reports in the United States based on DNA evidence have shown that some states have put innocent people to death.

“There is also really an absence of any proof that the death penalty actually serves as a deterrent, which is often given as a reason for using it,” Colville said. “And, there also, of course, are considerable concerns, especially in the United States that it is being applied arbitrarily and often in a discriminatory fashion, particularly… affects people from poor backgrounds and from minorities.”  

Last week, U.S. Attorney General, William Barr reinstated federal executions.  He says the first executions of five inmates on death row are to begin in December with additional executions to be scheduled at a later date.

Sixty inmates are currently on the federal death row in the U.S.  A recent poll finds 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, a considerable drop from 80 percent in the mid-1990s.

Colville says Attorney General Barr’s decision is counter to U.S. and international trends.  He notes 21 states have completely abolished the death penalty and four others have issued moratoriums, creating a 50-50 split in the country between states that favor capital punishment and those that do not.

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Trump Doubles Down on Attacks on Baltimore, Congressman Cummings

Steve Herman contributed to this report.

President Donald Trump defended again Tuesday what critics are characterizing as racist rhetoric, focused on the majority African American city of Baltimore and one of its prominent representatives in Congress, Elijah Cummings, whose powerful committee is trying to obtain communications of White House officials, including the president’s family members.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump defended his recent inflammatory remarks, saying “I think I’m helping myself because I’m pointing out the tremendous corruption that’s taken place in Baltimore and other Democratic-run cities.”

Trump said “Those people are living in hell in Baltimore” and that “largely African American” city residents have let him know “they really appreciated what I’m doing.”  He also said he is the “least racist person in the world”

Trump doubled down on his criticism of Cummings, claiming “all that money that’s been spent (in Baltimore) over 20 years has been stolen and wasted by people like Elijah Cummings.”

On Monday, Trump falsely stated Baltimore has nation’s worst crime statistics under Cummings’ leadership.

While Baltimore has a high crime rate, several other cities — including St. Louis, Detroit and Memphis — are ranked more dangerous, according to recent crime statistics

A critical series of tweets targeting Cummings began Saturday and has continued, with Trump referring to the congressman’s district as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Government statistics show, however, that Cummings’s district, which includes impoverished parts of Baltimore and well-off suburban enclaves adjoining the city, has higher per capita income and higher median home values than the national average.

The focus on the Baltimore area and its congressman comes amid Trump battling over the past week on social media with others he has singled out for criticism, including two friendly nations: France and Sweden.
Trump also recently has been assailing four first-term Democratic lawmakers, all women of color, saying they should “go back” to their home countries, even though all four are American citizens, three of them by birth and the fourth, a Somali refugee, through naturalization.

US President Donald Trump waves after signing HR 1327, an act to permanently authorize the September 11th victim compensation fund, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, July 29, 2019.

As Trump unleashed his attacks, Cummings has defended himself.

“Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
In recent congressional hearings, Cummings, as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, berated Kevin McAleenan, the acting Homeland Security chief, for the condition of the country’s detention facilities at the border and the government’s lax records on tracking the whereabouts of migrant parents it had separated from children at the border.
Cummings’s committee is also investigating Trump’s presidency, but he is not among the more than 100 Democrats calling for impeachment proceedings. 
The committee, voting along party lines last Thursday, authorized subpoenas for personal emails and texts used for official business by top White House aides, including Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Cummings said lawmakers had obtained “direct evidence” that the president’s daughter, Kushner and others were using personal accounts for government business in violation of federal law and White House policy.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney rejects the notion that Trump’s attacks on Cummings are racially motivated.
“The president is attacking Cummings for saying things that are not true,” Mulvaney told the Fox News Sunday interview show. “It has absolutely zero to do with race.”

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Puerto Ricans Anxious for New Leader Amid Political Crisis

The unprecedented resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after days of massive island-wide protests has thrown the U.S. territory into a full-blown political crisis.

Less than four days before Gov. Ricardo Rossello steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.

Rossello’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rossello has said nothing about his plans, time is running out and some on the island are even talking about the need for more federal control over a territory whose finances are already overseen from Washington.

FILE – Demonstrators march on Las Americas highway demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 22, 2019.

Rossello resigned following nearly two weeks of daily protests in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, mounted horses and jet skis, organized a twerkathon and came up with other creative ways to demand his ouster. On Monday, protesters were to gather once again, but this time to demand that Vazquez not assume the governorship. Under normal circumstances, Rossello’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marin resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.

Next in line

Vazquez, a 59-year-old prosecutor who worked as a district attorney and was later director of the Office for Women’s Rights, does not have widespread support among Puerto Ricans. Many have criticized her for not being aggressive enough in investigating cases involving members of the party that she and Rossello belong to, and of not prioritizing gender violence as justice secretary. She also has been accused of not pursuing the alleged mismanagement of supplies for victims of Hurricane Maria.

Facing a new wave of protests, Vazquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rossello.

FILE – Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez answers reporters’ questions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jan. 16, 2018.

“I have no interest in the governor’s office,” she wrote. “I hope the governor nominates a secretary of state before Aug. 2.”

If a secretary of state is not nominated before Rossello resigns, Vazquez would automatically become the new governor. She would then have the power to nominate a secretary of state, or she could also reject being governor, in which case the constitution states the treasury secretary would be next in line. However, Treasury Secretary Francisco Pares is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernandez, who replaced the former education secretary, Julia Keleher, who resigned in April and was arrested on July 10 on federal corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

But Hernandez has not been clear on whether he would accept becoming governor.

“At this time, this public servant is focused solely and exclusively on the work of the Department of Education,” he told Radio Isla 1320 AM on Monday. A spokesman for Hernandez did not return a message seeking comment.

‘Uncertainties are dangerous’

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are growing anxious about what the lack of leadership could mean for the island’s political and economic future.

“It’s very important that the government have a certain degree of stability,” said Luis Rodriguez, a 36-year-old accountant, adding that all political parties should be paying attention to what’s happening. “We’re tired of the various political parties that always climb to power and have let us down a bit and have taken the island to the point where it finds itself right now.”

Hector Luis Acevedo, a university professor and former secretary of state, said both the governor’s party and the main opposition party that he supports, the Popular Democratic Party, have weakened in recent years. He added that new leadership needs to be found soon.

“These uncertainties are dangerous in a democracy because they tend to strengthen the extremes,” he said. “This vacuum is greatly harming the island.”

Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rossello and more than a dozen other officials had resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women and the victims of Hurricane Maria, among others, in 889 pages leaked on July 13. But now, many are concerned that the government is not moving quickly enough to restore order and leadership to an island mired in a 13-year recession as it struggles to recover from the Category 4 storm and tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

FILE – A demonstrator bangs on a pot that has a cartoon drawing of Governor Ricardo Rossello and text the reads in Spanish “Quit Ricky” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 19, 2019.

Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo, a member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vazquez has said she is not interested in the position.

“I hope that whoever is nominated is someone who respects people, who can give the people of Puerto Rico hope and has the capacity to rule,” he said. “We cannot rush into this. There must be sanity and restraint in this process.”

‘Rethink the constitution’

Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. Last week, she urged U.S. President Donald Trump to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee hurricane reconstruction and ensure the proper use of federal funds in the U.S. territory, a suggestion rejected by many on an island already under the direction of a federal control board overseeing its finances and debt restructuring process.

As legislators wait for Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, they have started debating whether to amend the constitution to allow for a vice president or lieutenant governor, among other things.

The constitution currently does not allow the government to hold early elections, noted Yanira Reyes Gil, a university professor and constitutional attorney.

“We have to rethink the constitution,” she said, adding that there are holes in the current one, including that people are not allowed to participate in choosing a new governor if the previous one resigns.

Reyes also said people are worried that the House and Senate might rush to approve a new secretary of state without sufficient vetting.

“Given the short amount of time, people have doubts that the person will undergo a strict evaluation,” she said. “We’re in a situation where the people have lost faith in the government agencies, they have lost faith in their leaders.”

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Trump Administration Further Tightens Asylum Eligibility Requirements

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has tightened the eligibly requirements for seeking asylum in the United States, making it more difficult for those persecuted because of family ties to be granted protection.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr ruled Monday that that those who seek asylum because of a threat against another family member usually do not have enough of a reason to be granted asylum in the United States.

Barr, as head of the Department of Justice, has the ability to set standards for all U.S. immigration judges and to overturn immigration court rulings. 

U.S. law states that people can seek asylum in the United States if they can prove a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group. Until now the term “social group” was often interpreted by immigration judges to include families.

In his ruling Monday, Barr argued that virtually all asylum-seekers are members of a family and said “there is no evidence that Congress intended the term ‘particular social group’ to cast so wide a net.”

His decision was in regards to a case involving a Mexican man who sought asylum because his family was targeted after his father refused to let a drug cartel use the family store.

The Trump administration has taken a series of measures to restrict asylum claims, including denying asylum requests to victims of gang violence or domestic abuse. The administration has argued that the asylum system is often abused by immigrants who use fraudulent claims to try to enter the United States.

Immigration activists say the administration’s latest decision reverses years of precedent and could affect thousands of people.



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Two Americans Killed in Apparent Insider Attack in Afghanistan

Two U.S. service members have been killed in action in Afghanistan in what appears to be an insider attack.

The NATO-led Resolute Support Mission said Monday that two Americans are dead, withholding additional information pending notification of their families. A U.S. official later confirmed the deaths were the result of a so-called “green on blue” attack, during which an Afghan service member or an attacker wearing an Afghan uniform, fires on U.S. or allied forces. 

The initial U.S. assessment followed claims by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter that the Americans died when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them in a military camp in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province.

امروز در داخل کمپ (بیس) تناوچه ولسوالی شاولیکوت ولایت قندهار یک عسکر با احساس افغان بر عساکر امریکایی از نزدیکی آتش کشود.
۴ عسکر اشغالگر امریکایی به هلاکت رسیدند، ۲ تن زخم برداشتند.
در فیرهای متقابل عسکر با احساس نیز زخمی گردید.

— Zabihullah (..ذبـــــیح الله م ) (@Zabehulah_M33) July 29, 2019

The Taliban also claimed at least one other soldier was killed and that several others were wounded, though those claims could not be confirmed.

With the two confirmed deaths, at least 14 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to a tally by the website Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan in 2018.

Talks with Taliban

The latest deaths also come as the U.S. has been engaging the Taliban in talks, seeking a peaceful resolution to the 18-year war in Afghanistan. 

FILE – The Twitter page of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid is pictured on a computer monitor in the newsroom at Maiwand TV station in Kabul, Feb. 6, 2019.

Taliban negotiators have insisted any peace deal include the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and those of U.S. allies, from Afghanistan. The Taliban have also refused to hold direct talks with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, saying such talks can only take place once the U.S. leaves.

For its part, Washington is seeking assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan will never again be used as a base to launch terror attacks against the U.S.

Yet despite the talks, attacks by either the Taliban or the Islamic State terror group have continued to plague much of Afghanistan.

An attack Sunday in Kabul that targeted the office of Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s choice for vice president in elections set for September, killed at least 20 people and wounded another 50, officials said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

FILE – Afghan security personnel stand guard after the offices of Amrullah Saleh was targeted in a deadly attack, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 28, 2019.

In comments in Washington Monday, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), raised concerns that despite Washington’s efforts, Afghan security forces may not be capable of sustaining peace, even if a deal with the Taliban can be reached.

“Afghan security forces cannot survive without external donor support, both financial and technical,” Sopko said.

“Problems don’t miraculously disappear. We, and other oversight bodies, have identified problems that affected reconstruction. And some of these problems could affect lasting peace,” he said.

U.S., NATO efforts

SIGAR estimates the U.S. alone has spent about $18 billion to equip Afghanistan’s security forces, buying more than 600,000 weapons, 70,000 vehicles and more than 200 aircraft.

But its audits have found that U.S. and NATO efforts have often been unorganized, with Afghan forces suffering as a result.

Specifically, SIGAR blamed an eight-year lag in shifting Afghan forces to the latest standardized NATO weaponry for an ammunition shortage that left them unable to repel a Taliban attack in Ghazni province in 2018.

FILE – A member of the Afghan security forces prepares to fire an RPG during a battle with insurgents in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2018.

Sopko called a lack of armored ambulances for Afghan security forces — there are just 38 — another “absurd example” of missed opportunities to better support Afghan forces.

SIGAR officials also warned the performance of Afghan forces has tended to rise and fall in sync with the U.S. presence in the country.

“”It’s like a shark tooth,” James Cunningham, SIGAR’s security sector project lead, said Monday. “The shark tooth is really based on our [U.S. military] deployment cycle.”

Despite such concerns, both U.S. President Donald Trump and other top officials have said the U.S. intended to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan.

“We want to reduce what is, for us, tens of billions of dollars a year in expenditures and enormous risk to your kids and your grandkids who are fighting for America,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience Monday in Washington, adding he expects more U.S. troops to come home before the next U.S. presidential election in November 2020.

“That’s my directive from the president,” Pompeo said.

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Trump’s Pick for Intelligence Chief is Longtime Loyalist

U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice for the next director of national intelligence is an ardent supporter of the president who was harshly critical of former special counsel Robert Mueller during his congressional hearing last week.

John Ratcliffe, a third-term congressman from Texas, wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply grateful” to the president for the nomination to replace Dan Coats, adding, “President Trump’s call to serve in this role was not one I could ignore.” 

I am deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to lead our Nation’s intelligence community and work on behalf of all the public servants who are tirelessly devoted to defending the security and safety of the United States.

— John Ratcliffe (@RepRatcliffe) July 29, 2019

Ratcliffe was first elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 2014 and holds important posts on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees. He’s backed Trump on everything from Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court to the president’s hardline immigration policies, and has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood.

Since Trump took office, Ratcliffe has voted in alignment with the president nearly 92% of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. His district is the seventh-most Republican one in the U.S., according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, and went for Trump by 75% in the 2016 election.

Ratcliffe previously worked as a U.S. attorney and federal terrorism prosecutor and as mayor of the city of Heath, Texas. While at the U.S. Justice Department, his office was involved in numerous successful immigration raids in Texas and Ratcliffe himself had a role in the federal government’s case against a nonprofit that had been giving money to terrorist group Hamas. 

Last week, when former special counsel Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about his Russia probe, Ratcliffe said he agreed with Mueller’s conclusions that Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election were “sweeping and systematic.”

But he excoriated Mueller for writing explicitly that Trump was not exonerated on the issue of obstruction of justice.

“You wrote 180 pages, 180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” he told Mueller at a hearing. “And respectfully, respectfully, by doing that you managed to violate every principle in the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra-prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren’t charged.”

Ratcliffe went on to allege that the second half of Mueller’s report on his investigation wasn’t “authorized under law to be written.”

Critics say that Ratcliffe has markedly less intelligence experience than his predecessors. Since the position was established in 2004, the directors have typically had decades of experience in the military or foreign service and had prior roles in the intelligence community.

Director of National Security James Clapper testifies before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 2, 2012.

James R. Clapper, an Obama pick, had previously directed two different U.S. intelligence agencies prior to his unanimous Senate confirmation in 2010. James McConnell, a Bush nomination, had already headed the National Security Agency, while John Negroponte, the first director, had 15 years as an ambassador and two as deputy National Security Adviser under his belt.

Even Dan Coats, the outgoing director, had two years in the military, eight on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and four as an ambassador.

If confirmed as director, Ratcliffe would oversee the 17 intelligence agencies that make up the National Intelligence Program, and advise Trump and two agencies under the executive branch. Directors of National Intelligence do not have authority to issue orders, instead coordinating the country’s intelligence apparatus.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will process Ratcliffe’s nomination normally when it’s received, rather than expedite it, said Chairman Richard Burr in a statement Monday. 

Coats, the previous director, resigned Sunday, effective August 15. In his two years on the job, Coats had publicly broken with the president on issues ranging from North Korea, Iran and Syria.

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Poverty in Philippines, High for Asia, Falls as Economy Strengthens

Poverty in the Philippines, a chronic development issue that makes the country an outlier in Asia, is declining because of economic strength followed by job creation.

The archipelago’s official poverty rate dropped to 21% in the first half of last year from 27.6% in the first half of 2015, President Rodrigo Duterte said in his July 22 State of the Nation Address.

Economic growth of 6% plus since 2012 has helped to create jobs, especially in Philippine cities such as the capital Manila, economists who follow the country say.

“Twenty-seven percent is actually pretty high by kind of Asian standards, so I think that progress is attributable to the rapid economic growth that’s happened in the Philippines since 2012,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit.

Asian outlier

Poverty around Asia had declined from 47.3% in 1990 to 16.1% in 2013, according to World Bank data. Factory jobs, often driven by domestic export manufacturing industries, have fueled much of the boom, especially in China.

Poverty lingered in the Philippines largely for lack of rural jobs, economists believe. Rudimentary farming and fishing anchor the way of life on many of the country’s 7,100 islands. Foreign manufacturers often bypass the Philippines because of its remote location, compared to continental Asia, and relative lack of infrastructure that factory operators need to ship goods.

But the country hit a fast-growth stride in 2012 with a pickup in manufacturing and services. After growing just 3.7% in 2011, the GDP that now stands at $331 billion has expanded at between 6.1% and 7.1% per year.

More jobs

Urban jobs are getting easier to find as multinationals locate call centers in the Philippines, taking advantage of cheap labor and English-language proficiency.

A $169 billion, 5-year program to renew public infrastructure is creating construction jobs while giving factory investors new reason to consider siting in the country. Most new jobs now are in construction, with some in manufacturing, said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group in Singapore.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his 4th State of the Nation Address at the 18th Congress at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, metropolitan Manila, Philippines July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Underemployment, he added, has “improved quite a bit,” de Guzman said.

“Jobs are being created (and in) the jobs that do exist, I think there’s more work to do, so to speak,” de Guzman said. “I guess less underemployment if you will, and again this is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.”

Philippine unemployment edged down just 0.1 percentage point to 5.2% in January 2019 compared to a year earlier, but underemployment fell from 18% to 15.6% over that period, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Tax reform

Duterte is also advancing tax reforms that he expects to lower poverty to 14% of the 105 million population by 2022. 

Tax revenue collected under these reforms will allow the government to spend more on health, education and other social services aimed at making people more prosperous, the Department of Finance said in a statement last year.

The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), which Duterte signed into law in 2017, spells out changes in the tax code.

“Actually, one of the key elements there is the first tax laws that was passed, we call it the TRAIN one,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director or the advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila.

Rural income

Longer-term poverty relief will come down to creation of rural jobs such as “specialized” or “advanced” agriculture, Biswas said. The 21% poverty rate is “still high,” he said. Government agencies and private firms over the past few years have already introduced hybrid seeds and new technology to make farming more self-sufficient, domestic news outlet BusinessWorld reported last year.

Natural disasters such as seasonal typhoons and a 50-year conflict between Muslims and the military in the south further hobble poverty relief, some analysts believe. Local government corruption also stops aid from reaching some of the poor, they suggest.

“Both growth and, in turn, poverty reduction seem to be hindered by several factors, including unequal wealth distribution both in terms of social groups and geographic distribution…corruption as well as natural disasters and ongoing conflicts, with the latter triggering a series of negative collateral effects,” said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies.

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PM Johnson Makes First Scotland Trip in Bid to Boost Union

New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make his first official visit to Scotland on Monday in an attempt to bolster the union in the face of warnings over a no-deal Brexit. 

Johnson will visit a military base to announce new funding for local communities, saying that Britain is a “global brand and together we are safer, stronger and more prosperous”, according to a statement released by his Downing Street Office.

It will be the first stop on a tour of the countries that make up the United Kingdom, as he attempts to win support for his Brexit plans and head off talk of a break-up of the union.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, needed an “alternative option” to Johnson’s Brexit strategy.

He has promised that Britain will leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

Sturgeon, who leads the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP), told Johnson that the devolved Scottish Parliament would consider legislation in the coming months for another vote on seceding from the United Kingdom.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has also said that a no-deal Brexit would make more people in Northern Ireland “come to question the union” with Britain.

Johnson, who decided that he will take the symbolic title of Minister for the Union alongside that of prime minister, will announce £300 million (£370 million, 332 million euros) of new investment for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during Monday’s visit.

“Important projects like the government’s growth deals… will open up opportunities across our union so people in every corner of the United Kingdom can realize their potential,” he was to say.

“As we prepare for our bright future after Brexit, it’s vital we renew the ties that bind our United Kingdom.

“I look forward to visiting Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that every decision I make as prime minister promotes and strengthens our union,” he will add.

Johnson plans to visit local farmers in Wales and discuss the ongoing talks to restore the devolved government when he visits Northern Ireland.

The investment boost comes after the prime minister announced a £3.6 billion fund supporting 100 towns in England, raising suggestions that he is already in campaign mode for an election. 

Many MPs are opposed to leaving the EU without a deal, and could try and topple the government in an attempt to prevent it, potentially triggering a vote.

Johnson has made a busy start to his premiership as he attempts win over public opinion for his Brexit plans and put pressure on those who could bring him down.

But the EU has already said his demands to renegotiate the deal struck by his predecessor Theresa May, but which was three times rejected by parliament, are  “unacceptable.”

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US China Move Trade Talks to Shanghai Amid Deal Pessimism

U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators shift to Shanghai this week for their first in-person talks since a G20 truce last month, a change of scenery for two sides struggling to resolve deep differences on how to end a year-long trade war.

Expectations for progress during the two-day Shanghai meeting are low, so officials and businesses are hoping Washington and Beijing can at least detail commitments for “goodwill” gestures and clear the path for future negotiations.

These include Chinese purchases of U.S. farm commodities and the United States allowing firms to resume some sales to China’s tech giant Huawei Technologies.

President Donald Trump said on Friday that he thinks China may not want to sign a trade deal until after the 2020 election in the hope that they could then negotiate more favorable terms with a different U.S. president.

“I think probably China will say “Let’s wait,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Let’s wait and see if one of these people who gives the United States away, let’s see if one of them could get elected.”

For more than a year, the world’s two largest economies have slapped billions of dollars of tariffs on each other’s imports, disrupting global supply chains and shaking financial markets in their dispute over China’s “state capitalism” mode of doing business with the world. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at last month’s G20 summit in Osaka, Japan to restart trade talks that stalled in May, after Washington accused Beijing of reneging on major portions of a draft agreement — a collapse in the talks that prompted a steep U.S. tariff hike on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

Trump said after the Osaka meeting that he would not impose new tariffs on a final $300 billion of Chinese imports and would ease some U.S. restrictions on Huawei if China agreed to make purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

Chips and commodities

Since then, China has signaled that it would allow Chinese firms to make some tariff-free purchases of U.S. farm goods. Washington has encouraged companies to apply for waivers to a national security ban on sales to Huawei, and said it would respond to them in the next few weeks. 

But going into next week’s talks, neither side has implemented the measures that were intended to show their goodwill. That bodes ill for their chances of resolving core issues in the trade dispute, such as U.S. complaints about Chinese state subsidies, forced technology transfers and intellectual property violations.

U.S. officials have stressed that relief on U.S. sales to Huawei would apply only to products with no implications for national security, and industry watchers expect those waivers will only allow the Chinese technology giant to buy the most commoditized U.S. components.

Reuters reported last week that despite the carrot of a potential exemption from import tariffs, Chinese soybean crushers are unlikely to buy in bulk from the United States any time soon as they grapple with poor margins and longer-term doubts about Sino-U.S. trade relations. Soybeans are the largest U.S. agricultural export to China.

“They are doing this little dance with Huawei and Ag purchases,” said one source recently briefed by senior Chinese negotiators.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Friday said he “wouldn’t expect any grand deal,” at the meeting and negotiators would try to “reset the stage” to bring the talks back to where they were before the May blow-up. “We anticipate, we strongly expect the Chinese to follow through (on) goodwill and just helping the trade balance with large-scale purchases of U.S. agriculture products and services.” Kudlow said on CNBC television.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will meet with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for two days of talks in Shanghai starting on Tuesday, both sides said.

“Less politics, more business,” Tu Xinquan, a trade expert at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, who closely follows the trade talks, said of the possible reason Shanghai was chosen as the site for talks. “Each side can take a small step first to build some trust, followed by more actions,” Tu said of the potential goodwill gestures.

‘Do the Deal’

A delegation of U.S. company executives traveled to Beijing last week to stress to Chinese officials the urgency of a trade deal, according to three sources who asked to not be named. They cautioned Chinese negotiators in meetings that if a deal is not reached in the coming months the political calendar in China and the impending U.S. presidential election will make reaching an agreement extremely difficult.

“Do the deal. It’s going to be a slog, but if this goes past Dec. 31, it’s not going to happen,” one American executive told Reuters, citing the U.S. 2020 election campaign. Others said the timeline was even shorter.

Two sources briefed by senior-level Chinese negotiators ahead of next week’s talks said China was still demanding that all U.S. tariffs be removed as one of the conditions for a deal. Beijing is opposed to a phased withdrawal of duties, while U.S. trade officials see tariff removal — and the threat of reinstating them — as leverage for enforcing any agreement. China also is adamant that any purchase agreement for U.S. goods be at a reasonable level, and that the deal is balanced and respects Chinese legal sovereignty.

U.S. negotiators have demanded that China make changes to its laws as assurances for safeguarding U.S. companies’ know-how, an insistence that Beijing has vehemently rejected. If U.S. negotiators want progress in this area, they might be satisfied with directives issued by China’s State Council instead, one of the sources said.

One U.S.-based industry source said expectations for any kind of breakthrough during the Shanghai talks were low, and that the main objective was for each side to get clarity on the “goodwill” measures associated with the Osaka summit.

There is little clarity on which negotiating text the two sides will rely on, with Washington wanting to adhere to the pre-May draft, and China wanting to start anew with the copy it sent back to U.S. officials with numerous edits and redactions, precipitating the collapse in talks in May.

Zhang Huanbo, senior researcher at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), said he could not verify U.S. officials’ complaints that 90 percent of the deal had been agreed before the May breakdown. “We can only say there may be an initial draft. There is only zero and 100% – deal or no deal,” Zhang said.

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Three Dead in California Garlic Festival Shooting

Story updated on July 29, at 2:45 am.

Authorities in the western U.S. state of California say a shooter killed at least three people Sunday afternoon at a garlic festival.

The attack happened in the city of Gilroy, where police say the shooter was armed with a rifle.  Another 15 people were injured, but it was not clear whether they were shot.

There were officers present at the festival, and Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said they quickly engaged the suspect and shot him dead.

Smithee told reporters at a late night briefing that witnesses reported a potential second suspect, but that police did not know yet whether there was in fact a second person involved, and if so, how they were involved with the attack.

People attending the festival were required to go through a security screening with metal detectors and bag checks. Smithee said the suspected shooter appears to have entered the festival grounds by cutting through a fence.

Investigators were working through the night to figure out exactly what happened.  So far they do not have a motive for the shooting.

Smithee said the festival relies on thousands of volunteers each year and raises money for various organizations in the community.

“I think that the number of people that are willing to give their time for the betterment of other people is a wonderful thing.  It is just incredibly sad and disheartening that an event that does so much good for our community has to suffer from a tragedy like this,” he said.

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Trump Renews Twitter Attacks Against Maryland Lawmaker, District

In a series of tweets over the weekend, U.S. President Trump lashed out against one of his most vocal Democratic critics, attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings and calling the Maryland lawmaker’s district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comments sparked backlash from critics calling the language racist and unacceptable. VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff has more.

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Moscow’s ‘Disproportionate’ Use of Force Condemned After 1,300 Detained

Police in Moscow detained more than 1,300 people in a day of protests against alleged irregularities in the run-up to local elections, according to an independent group that monitors crackdowns on demonstrations.

Officers clad in riot gear used batons against demonstrators who had gathered outside Moscow City Hall on July 27 and roughly detained people.

The crackdown continued after the protesters moved to other locations in the Russian capital, chanting slogans such as “Russia without [President Vladimir] Putin!”

The United States, the European Union, and human rights groups denounced what they called the “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” use of force against the demonstrators, who were protesting against the refusal of election officials to register several opposition figures as candidates in municipal polls in September.

Opposition leaders said the ban was an attempt to deny them the chance to challenge pro-government candidates.

Police officers detain a man during an unsanctioned rally in the center of Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2019.

Police said 1,074 arrests were made at the unsanctioned rally, while the OVD-Info independent organization reported 1,373 detentions.

A number of those held were released by the evening.

Several opposition figures and would-be candidates were among those detained by police, including Ivan Zhdanov, Ilya Yashin, and Dmitry Gudkov.

Some protest leaders were detained on their way to the rally in central Moscow.

Aleksandra Parushina, a Moscow City Duma deputy from the opposition A Just Russia party, told RFE/RL’s Current Time — a project led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA — that she was struck in the head by riot police from Russia’s OMON force, who “brutally” dispersed a crowd that was attempting to form near the Moscow mayor’s office on Tverskaya Street, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares.

“Detention of over 1000 peaceful protestors in Russia and use of disproportionate police force undermine rights of citizens to participate in the democratic process,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan tweeted.

In a statement, EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the “disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters” undermined “the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”

Amnesty International also condemned what it called the “indiscriminate use of force by police, who beat protesters with batons and knocked them to the ground.”

The director of the London-based human rights watchdog’s office in Russia, Natalya Zvyagina, said Russian authorities “hit a new low by imposing military lawlike security measures on the unsanctioned rally, blocking access to major Moscow streets and shutting down businesses in advance,” despite the absence of credible reports of potential violence.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, had warned beforehand that “order in the city will be ensured.”

It is unclear how many people turned up for the rally because authorities prevented a mass crowd from gathering together in any one location.

According to police, about 3,500 people gathered near the mayor’s office, including 700 registered journalists and bloggers.

However, opposition activists said the number was much higher.

The decision to bar opposition candidates from the September 8 City Duma election over what Moscow election officials described as insufficient signatures on nominating petitions has sparked several days of demonstrations this month.

A July 20 opposition rally in Moscow drew an estimated crowd of 20,000.

Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist who is currently serving a 30-day jail sentence for calling the latest protest, has said demonstrations would continue until the rejected candidates are allowed to run.

The 45 members of the Moscow City Duma hold powerful posts — retaining the ability to propose legislation as well as inspect how the city’s $43 billion budget is spent.

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Putin Leads Russian Naval Parade after Crackdown in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin led Russia’s first major naval parade in years on Sunday, the day after a violent police crackdown on anti-government protesters in Moscow.

Putin on Sunday morning went aboard one of the vessels in the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. The parade, the biggest in years, included 43 ships and submarines and 4,000 troops.

Putin was spending the weekend away from Moscow, the Russian capital, where nearly 1,400 people were detained Saturday in a violent police crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. A Russian group that monitors police arrests gave the figure Sunday, saying it was the largest number of detentions at a rally in the Russian capital this decade.

Police wielded batons and wrestled with protesters around the Moscow City Hall after thousands thronged nearby streets, rallying against a move by election authorities to bar opposition candidates from the Sept. 8 ballot for the Moscow city council.


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Afghan Presidential Campaign Kicks Off Amid Doubts Whether Polls Will Go Ahead

The campaign to elect Afghanistan’s new president started Sunday amid fear of foul play, insecurity and doubts whether the vote — set for September 28 —  will actually take place.

Eighteen candidates, including incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his governing partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, have embarked on a two-month campaign.  

Key rival candidates, including Abdullah, have accused the president of using government resources for the electoral campaign. Several contenders have also expressed lack of confidence in the election process,

Election officials, however, have vowed to ensure a transparent and safe election, even though half of the Afghan territory is controlled or hotly contested by the Taliban insurgency.

The September presidential ballot is the fourth held in since the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Ghani and Abdullah were among the candidates who addressed their campaign rallies Sunday, with both promising to put the country on the path of stability and economic development.

Both the leaders, however, have faced sever criticism for failing to deliver on commitments under the current coalition government mainly due to simmering internal political rifts between the two over governance-related matters.

Ghani said in his speech Sunday he will push his peace efforts with the Taliban if he won another five-year term to end the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

“Peace is around the corner and negotiations will begin. Those negotiations will be serious and legitimate,” Ghani insisted.

But the Taliban insurgency refuses to engage in any reconciliation process with Ghani and his administration, denouncing them as illegitimate and “American puppets.”

US-Taliban peace talks

The lingering election-related uncertainty stems from peace negotiations the United States is holding with the Taliban in a bid to end the 18-year-old Afghan war between the two adversaries and prepare the way for intra-Afghan peace talks. 

American and Taliban negotiators are said to be on the verge of announcing a final agreement after nearly a year-long dialogue. Such an eventually, it is widely perceived, would mean the election will be overseen by transitional government in Kabul, where the Taliban will also have a say.

Some presidential candidates have supported a deadline to allow the peace process take root. But in his speech Sunday, President Ghani rejected any compromise on the elections, saying they will go ahead as planned.

The election campaign started a day after the Afghan government announced direct talks with the Taliban will begin in the next two weeks. But the insurgent group swiftly rejected the claims, raising questions about the motives of Ghani’s administration as some critics said Saturday’s official announcement was aimed at subverting the U.S.-led peace process.

A spokesman for the Taliban’s negotiating team, Suhail Shaheen, while talking to VOA, stressed again that only if an agreement is reached with Washington on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the insurgent group would negotiate peace with Afghans, where Kabul would have its representation but not as a government.

FILE – Afghan delegates inside the conference hall included Lotfullah Najafizada (2nd-R), the head of Afghan TV channel Tolo News, in Doha, Qatar, July 7, 2019. U.S special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is seen center rear, with red tie. (A. Tanzeem/VOA)

U.S. chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, also issued a clarification late Saturday, backing the insurgent assertions, saying direct Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations will happen after a U.S.-Taliban agreement is concluded.

“They [intra-Afghan negotiations] will take place between the Taliban and an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” Khalilzad tweeted.  

The Afghan-born American envoy’s statement just before the election campaign was to be launched, critics said, dealt a political blow to Ghani.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month Washington hopes an Afghan peace deal would be reached by September 1.


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Israel, US Test Missile Defense in Alaska

U.S. and Israeli officials say tests in Alaska of a jointly developed missile defense system have been successful.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday the Arrow-3 shield tests give his country the ability to act against ballistic missiles fired from Iran and from any other location.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency called the Arrow 3’s interception abilities a “major milestone.”

“The performance was perfect – every hit a bull’s eye,” Netanyahu said.  “All our foes should know that we can best them, both defensively and offensively.”

Israel developed the Arrow 3, its most advanced system for intercepting long-range missiles, with U.S. aircraft maker Boeing and first deployed it in 2017. Arrow-3 interceptors are designed to hit long-range missiles in space at an altitude that would safely destroy any nuclear warheads.

Israel has conducted a series of Arrow 3 tests over its Mediterranean coastal waters since last year.

Israeli and U.S. missile defense agencies had planned to conduct a first Arrow 3 test over Alaska in the middle of 2018, but postponed it, saying they needed to improve the system’s readiness.

In 2017, then-U.S. Missile Defense Agency director Navy Vice Admiral James Syring told a congressional hearing that due to significant range constraints in the Mediterranean, “one of the better places to test [Arrow 3] is in Alaska, from Kodiak (Island).” Launching an Arrow 3 interceptor from Kodiak would enable it to fly over the more expansive waters of the Pacific.

In recent years, Iran has repeatedly conducted tests of long-range missiles that Israel and the United States say are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and reaching Israeli territory. Iran insists its missiles are defensive and its nuclear program is peaceful.

Israel also has expressed concern about what it says are long-running Iranian deliveries of rockets and other weapons to militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, both sworn to Israel’s destruction.
Arrow 3 is part of a multi-tiered Israeli missile defense network that also includes Iron Dome for intercepting short-range rockets and David’s Sling for hitting medium-range missiles.


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Little Free Pantry: A Source of Food And Hope

Canned soup, canned tuna, and pasta, among other things — everything you’ll find in an average American pantry, yet these little pantries are not in someone’s home but in the streets, open and accessible to anyone who needs them. Free Little Pantry is behind this initiative, a grassroots organization that was founded Arkansas two years ago, but has spread across the country. For VOA, Nataliya Leonova visited a few of these little pantries in the Washington area. Anna Rice narrates her story. 

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Minister: France Aims for US Digital Tax Deal by Late August

France wants to reach a deal with the U.S. on taxing tech giants by a Group of 7 meeting in late August, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Saturday.

He was responding to U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Friday vowed “substantial” retaliation against France for a law passed this month on taxing digital companies even if their headquarters are elsewhere.

The law would affect U.S.-based global giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, among others.

Trump denounced French President Emmanuel Macron’s “foolishness,” though they discussed the issue by phone Friday, according to the White House.

Macron confirmed that he had a long conversation with Trump, stressing the pair would “continue to work together in view of the G-7.”

“We will discuss international taxation, trade and collective security,” he said Saturday.

FILE – French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with US President Donald Trump at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, June 28, 2019. On Friday, Trump Macron of “foolishness” over a move to tax global tech giants, promising substantial retaliation.

US companies not the target

His office earlier said Macron had told Trump that the tax on the tech giants was not just in France’s interest but was something they both had a stake in.

Neither side revealed if they had also discussed Trump’s threat to tax French wines in retaliation.

Le Maire took the same line at a news conference Saturday: “We wish to work closely with our American friends on a universal tax on digital activities. We hope between now and the end of August — the G-7 heads of state meeting in Biarritz — to reach an agreement.”

Leaders of the Group of Seven highly industrialized countries are to meet in the southwestern French city Aug. 24-26.

Le Maire emphasized, “There is no desire to specifically target American companies,” since the 3% tax would be levied on revenues generated from services to French consumers by all of the world’s largest tech firms, including Chinese and European ones.

US trade investigation

But Deputy White House spokesman Judd Deere noted earlier that France’s digital services tax was already the subject of an investigation at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, potentially opening the door to economic sanctions.

“The Trump administration has consistently stated that it will not sit idly by and tolerate discrimination against U.S.-based firms,” Deere said in a statement.

The French law aims to plug a taxation gap that has seen some internet heavyweights paying next to nothing in European countries where they make huge profits, because their legal base is in smaller EU states.

France has said it would withdraw the tax if an international agreement was reached, and Paris hopes to include all OECD countries by the end of 2020.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is a Paris-based forum that advises the world’s advanced economies.

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Mueller’s Words Twisted by Trump and More

President Donald Trump listened to Robert Mueller testify to Congress this past week, then misrepresented what the former special counsel said. Some partisans on both sides did much the same, whether to defend or condemn the president.

Trump seized on Mueller’s testimony to claim anew that he was exonerated by the Russia investigation, which the president wasn’t. He capped the week by wishing aloud that President Barack Obama had received some of the congressional scrutiny he’s endured, ignoring the boatload of investigations, subpoenas and insults visited on the Democrat and his team.

Highlights from a week in review:


TRUMP on Democrats: “All they want to do is impede, they want to investigate. They want to go fishing. … We want to find out what happened with the last Democrat president. Let’s look into Obama the way they’ve looked at me. Let’s subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation and everything else. Could do that all day long. Frankly, the Republicans were gentlemen and women when we had the majority in the House. They didn’t do subpoenas all day long. They didn’t do what these people are doing. What they’ve done is a disgrace.” — Oval Office remarks Friday.

THE FACTS: He’s distorting recent history. Republicans made aggressive use of their investigative powers when they controlled one chamber or the other during the Obama years. Moreover, matters involving Hillary Clinton, her use of email as secretary of state, her conduct of foreign policy and the Clinton Foundation were very much part of their scrutiny. And they weren’t notably polite about it.

Over a few months in 2016, House Republicans unleashed a barrage of subpoenas in what minority Democrats called a “desperate onslaught of frivolous attacks” against Clinton. In addition, Clinton was investigated by the FBI.

Earlier, a half-dozen GOP-led House committees conducted protracted investigations of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. Republican-led investigations of the 2009-2011 Operation Fast and Furious episode — a botched initiative against drug cartels that ended up putting guns in the hands of violent criminals — lasted into the Trump administration.

On the notion that Obama was treated with courtesy by GOP “gentlemen and women,” Trump ignored an episode at Obama’s 2013 speech to Congress that was shocking at the time.

“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina hollered at Obama. His outburst came when Obama attempted to assure lawmakers that his health care initiative would not provide coverage to people in the U.S. illegally.

Obama also faced persistent innuendo over the country of his birth. Trump himself was a leading voice raising baseless suspicions that Obama was born outside the U.S.


TRUMP: “We’re getting the remains back.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

THE FACTS: No remains of U.S. service members have been returned since last summer and the U.S. suspended efforts in May to get negotiations on the remains back on track in time to have more repatriated this year. It hopes more remains may be brought home next year.

The Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which is responsible for recovering U.S. war remains and returning them to families, “has not received any new information from (North Korean) officials regarding the turn over or recovery of remains,” spokesman Charles Prichard said this month.

He said his agency is “still working to communicate” with the North Korean army “as it is our intent to find common ground on resuming recovery missions” in 2020.

Last summer, in line with the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that June, the North turned over 55 boxes of what it said were the remains of an undetermined number of U.S. service members killed in the North during the 1950-53 war. So far, six Americans have been identified from the 55 boxes.

U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.

The Pentagon estimates that 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.


TRUMP to his critics, in a fundraising letter from his 2020 campaign: “How many times do I have to be exonerated before they stop?” — during Mueller’s testimony Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Trump has not been exonerated by Mueller at all. “No,” Mueller said when asked during his Capitol Hill questioning whether he had cleared the president of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation that looked into the 2016 Trump campaign’s relations with Russians and Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

In his report, Mueller said his team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge Trump, partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted.

As a result, his detailed report factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it up to Congress to take up the matter.

As well, Mueller looked into a potential criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and said the investigation did not collect sufficient evidence to establish criminal charges on that front.

Following Mueller’s testimony, Trump abruptly took a different stance on the special counsel’s report. After months of claiming exoneration, and only hours after stating as much in the fundraising letter while the hearing unfolded, Trump incongruously flipped, saying “He didn’t have the right to exonerate.”

TRUMP, on why Mueller did not recommend charges: “He made his decision based on the facts, not based on some rule.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday after the hearings.

THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that.

The special counsel said his team never reached a determination on charging Trump. At no point has he suggested that he made that decision because the facts themselves did not support charges.

The rule Trump refers to is the Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents are immune from indictment — and that guidance did restrain the investigators, though it was not the only factor in play.

JOE BIDEN, Democratic presidential contender: “Mueller said there was enough evidence to bring charges against the president after he is president of the United States, when he is a private citizen … that’s a pretty compelling thing.” — speaking to reporters in Dearborn, Michigan.

THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that, either. He deliberately drew no conclusions about whether he collected sufficient evidence to charge Trump with a crime.

Mueller said that if prosecutors want to charge Trump once he is out of office, they would have that ability because obstacles to indicting a sitting president would be gone.

Even that came with a caveat, though. Mueller did not answer whether the statute of limitations might put Trump off limits to an indictment should he win re-election.

Biden spoke after being briefed on the hearings and prefaced his remark with a request to “correct me if I’m wrong.”

Rep. JOHN RATCLIFFE, R-Texas, to Mueller: “You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says, write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that weren’t reached. You wrote 180 pages — 180 pages — about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided. …This report was not authorized under the law to be written.” — hearing Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Mueller’s report is lawful. Nothing in Justice Department regulations governing special counsels prevents Mueller from saying what he did in the report.

It is true that the regulations provide for the special counsel to submit a “confidential report” to the attorney general explaining his decisions to recommend for or against a prosecution. But it was Attorney General William Barr who made the decision to make the report public, which is his right.

Special counsels have wide latitude, and are not directed to avoid writing about “potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” as Ratcliffe put it.

Mueller felt constrained from bringing charges because of the apparent restriction on indicting sitting presidents. But his report left open the possibility that Congress could use the information in an impeachment proceeding or that Trump could be charged after he leaves office.

The factual investigation was conducted “in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available,” the report said.

In a tweet, Neal Katyal, who drafted the Justice Department regulations, wrote: “Ratcliffe dead wrong about the Special Counsel regs. I drafted them in 1999. They absolutely don’t forbid the Mueller Report. And they recognize the need for a Report ‘both for historical purposes and to enhance accountability.’”

Rep. MIKE JOHNSON, R-La., addressing Mueller: “Millions of Americans today maintain genuine concerns about your work in large part because of the infamous and widely publicized bias of your investigating team members, which we now know included 14 Democrats and zero Republicans.” — hearing Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Johnson echoes a widely repeated false claim by Trump that the Mueller probe was biased because the investigators were all a bunch of “angry Democrats.” In fact, Mueller himself is a Republican.

Some have given money to Democratic candidates over the years. But Mueller could not have barred them from serving on that basis because regulations prohibit the consideration of political affiliation for personnel actions involving career attorneys. Mueller reported to Barr, and before him, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who were both Trump appointees.


TRUMP, on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York: “She called our country and our people garbage. She said garbage. That’s worse than deplorable. Remember deplorable?” — remarks Tuesday at gathering of conservative youth.

THE FACTS: Ocasio-Cortez did not label people “garbage.” She did use that term, somewhat indirectly, to describe the state of the country.

Arguing for a liberal agenda at a South by Southwest event in March, she said the U.S. shouldn’t settle for centrist policies because they would produce only marginal improvement — “10% better” than the “garbage” of where the country is now.

Trump has been assailing Ocasio-Cortez and three other liberal Democratic women of color in the House for more than a week, ever since he posted tweets saying they should “go back” to their countries, though all are U.S. citizens and all but one was born in the U.S.


TRUMP: “And when they’re saying all of this stuff, and then those illegals get out and vote — because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself, those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. You got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back, they put a new hat on. They come back, they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Trump has produced no evidence of widespread voting fraud by people in the country illegally or by any group of people.

He tried, but the commission he appointed on voting fraud collapsed from infighting and from the refusal of states to cooperate when tapped for reams of personal voter data, like names, partial Social Security numbers and voting histories. Studies have found only isolated cases of voter fraud in recent U.S. elections and no evidence that election results were affected. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 cases of impersonation fraud, for example, in about 1 billion votes cast in elections from 2000 to 2014.

Trump has falsely claimed that 1 million fraudulent votes were cast in California and cited a Texas state government report that suggested 58,000 people in the country illegally may have cast a ballot at least once since 1996. But state elections officials subsequently acknowledged serious problems with the report, as tens of thousands on the list were actually U.S. citizens.


TRUMP: “We have the best stock market numbers we’ve ever had … Blue-collar workers went up proportionately more than anybody.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

THE FACTS: Wealthier Americans have largely benefited from the stock market gains, not blue-collar workers.

The problem with Trump claiming the stock market has helped working-class Americans is that the richest 10% of the country controls 84% of stock market value, according to a Federal Reserve survey. Because they hold more stocks, wealthier Americans have inherently benefited more from the 19% gain in the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks so far this year. Only about half of U.S. families hold stocks, so plenty of people are getting little to no benefit from the stock market gains.

What Trump may be claiming with regard to the stock market is that working Americans are disproportionately benefiting in their 401(k) retirement savings.

Trump has said that 401(k) plans are up more than 50%. His data source is vague. But 401(k) balances have increased in large part due to routine contributions by workers and employers, not just stock market gains.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute shows that only one group of Americans has gotten an average annual 401(k) gain in excess of 50% during Trump’s presidency. These are workers age 25 to 34 who have fewer than five years at their current employer. At that age, the gains largely came from the regular contributions instead of the stock market. And the percentage gains look large because the account levels are relatively small.

TRUMP: “We have the best economy we’ve ever had.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

TRUMP: “We have the best economy in history.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: No matter how often he repeats this claim, which is a lot, the economy is nowhere near the best in the country’s history.

In fact, in the late 1990s, growth topped 4% for four straight years, a level it has not reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984. The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.

The economy is now in its 121st month of growth, making it the longest expansion in history. Most of that took place under Obama.

TRUMP: “Most people working within U.S. ever!” — tweet Thursday.

TRUMP: “The most people working, almost 160 million, in the history of our country.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Yes, but that’s only because of population growth.

A more relevant measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still far below record highs.

According to Labor Department data, 60.6% of people in the United States 16 years and older were working in June. That’s below the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, though higher than the 59.9% when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.

TRUMP: “The best employment numbers in history.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: They are not the best ever.

The 3.7% unemployment rate in the latest report is not a record low. It’s the lowest in 50 years. The rate was 3.5% in 1969 and 3.4% in 1968.

The U.S. also had lower rates than now in the early 1950s. And during three years of World War II, the annual rate was under 2%.


TRUMP, on his efforts to help veterans: “I got Choice.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: He is not the president who “got” the Veterans Choice program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at government expense.

Obama got it. Congress approved the program in 2014, and Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.


TRUMP: “We’re paying close to 100% on NATO.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: The U.S. isn’t “paying close to 100%” of the price of protecting Europe.

NATO has a shared budget to which each member makes contributions based on the size of its economy. The United States, with the biggest economy, pays the biggest share, about 22%.

Four European members — Germany, France, Britain and Italy — combined pay nearly 44% of the total. The money, about $3 billion, runs NATO’s headquarters and covers certain other civilian and military costs.

Defending Europe involves far more than that fund. The primary cost of doing so would come from each member country’s military budget, as the alliance operates under a mutual defense treaty.

The U.S. is the largest military spender, but others in the alliance have armed forces, too. The notion that almost all costs would fall to the U.S. is false. In fact, NATO’s Article 5, calling for allies to act if one is attacked, has only been invoked once, and it was on behalf of the U.S., after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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US Marshals to Sell Seized North Korean Cargo Ship 

The U.S. Marshals Service, which has custody of the North Korean-owned ship Wise Honest, is reviewing how to sell the seized vessel as ordered by a federal court that has yet to decide officially if the Otto Warmbier family will receive the sale proceeds.

“The Marshals are in the process of developing a disposal plan, taking into consideration things such as age, condition, and location of the vessel,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) earlier this week. The USMS oversees managing and selling assets seized by the U.S. through the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Program.

The U.S. federal court in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) authorized the sale of the seized North Korean cargo vessel last week, following a claim filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died shortly after returning to the U.S. from detention in North Korea.

The North Korean cargo ship, Wise Honest, middle, was towed into the Port of Pago Pago, May 11, 2019, in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Warmbiers file claim, lawsuit

On July 3, Frederick and Cynthia Warmbier filed a claim in the SDNY against the North Korean flagged vessel. The U.S. seized the ship in May for ship-to-ship transfers of banned North Korean coal, an apparent violation of U.S. and U.N. sanctions. 

The claim was their attempt to obtain the North Korean government asset as a way to pay part of the $500 million judgment the federal court in the District of Columbia ordered against North Korea in December.

In April 2018, the Wise Honest left the North Korean port of Nampo, carrying 26,500 metric tons of North Korean coal and transferred the coal to another ship off the coast of Indonesia. Indonesian authorities detained the Wise Honest until the U.S. Justice Department authorized a seizure in May. The ship was then hauled to Pago Pago, America Samoa where it remains docked.

Also in April 2018, the Warmbiers filed a lawsuit against North Korea, holding the country liable for the torture, hostage-taking, and extrajudicial killing of their son.

FILE – American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.

Wrongful death

Otto Warmbier, an Ohio native, was a student at the University of Virginia. He visited North Korea on a guided tour in January 2016. North Korea accused him of attempting to steal a propaganda poster, and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. He died shortly after returning to the U.S. in a vegetative state in June 2017.

In the wrongful death suit filed by the Warmbiers, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of Washington, D.C., ordered in December that North Korea pay them more than $500 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

Because North Korea never defended itself against the lawsuit or responded to compensatory negotiations, the Warmbiers themselves must track down North Korean assets to collect money to pay the half billion-dollar award.

Sale of ship authorized

Last week, Judge Kevin Castel at the federal court in SDNY authorized an interlocutory sale order in agreement with the Warmbiers and permitted the USMS to sell the ship.

Usually, a court needs to issue a final order of forfeiture before the USMS can sell properties seized by the U.S. that are in its custody. A forfeiture order permits the ownership exchange of a seized property to take place.

The interlocutory sale order issued last week, however, allows the USMS to sell the Wise Honest before issuance of a final order of forfeiture to reduce the cost of maintaining the ship, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in SDNY.

“The proceeds of the sales are then treated as a substitute for the boat,” said the spokesperson.

Sorting out the money 

The USMS holds the money from the sale of any seized property in a Seized Asset Deposit Fund until the court orders a final forfeiture. Once that is issued, the money can be distributed to the claimants.

However, because the interlocutory sale order does not specify the Warmbiers are automatically entitled to the proceeds, the court must make an official determination as to who gets the money from the sale of the Wise Honest.

The spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in SDNY said, “No determination has been made regarding … who gets the sale proceeds.”

According to Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Act in 2016, several steps need to be taken before the court officially decides whether the Warmbiers will get the money.

“The [Washington] D.C. district is the district that entered the judgment against the government of North Korea,” Stanton said. “And the court in [the Southern District of] New York is going to have to determine that the ship is the property of the government of North Korea” to satisfy the $500 million judgment the district court in Washington ordered against North Korea. “So, it’s not a done deal.” 

How to sell a ship

The USMS, in the meantime, must determine the best way to sell the Wise Honest, which may be selling at auction.

“Sales methods are driven by the asset type, value, and the pool of knowledgeable, willing buyers available for the specific asset type,” the spokesperson said.

The service sells small personal seized items through online auctions. It sells seized cars at live auctions. USMS usually sells seized real estate properties through real estate companies.

That’s how the service dealt with the seized real estate properties of Bernie Madoff, the spokesperson said. Madoff stole billions of dollars from his clients by turning his wealth management company into the world’s largest Ponzi scheme and was sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009.

As for the Wise Honest, “We don’t have an estimate yet for when we will sell the ship,” said the USMS spokesperson, adding it remains uncertain how the vessel will be valued and sold.

The 17,061-ton cargo ship is estimated to be worth between $1.5 million and $3 million.

An American Society of Appraisers certified U.S. marine appraiser who asked not to be identified by name said a $3 million price tag “sounds about right.”

The appraiser said, “If the vessel Wise Honest is going to be sold at an auction or a Marshal sale, it probably would not fetch fair market value.”

North Korea notified

According to the court order issued last week, North Korean shipping and trading companies that used the Wise Honest were offered a chance to claim the ownership of the Wise Honest.

As required by the general rules of civil forfeiture proceedings, the U.S. sent written letters of notice on May 14 to Korea Songi Shipping Company and Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, the parties that could have potential interests in claiming the ownership of the ship.

The Wise Honest was used by Korea Songi Shipping Company, an affiliate of Korean Songi General Trading Corporation, in exporting coal from North Korea. Songi Trading Corporation, sanctioned by the U.S. in 2017, is operated by the Korean People’s Army.

Although North Korea had 60 days to reply, it failed to respond, missed the deadline, and by default, lost the chance to claim the ship.

“North Korea not only lost the $500 million lawsuit, but now it has lost the chance to claim an interest in its second largest bulk cargo carrier,” Stanton said.

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How Big a Threat is an Electromagnetic Attack?

When much of Venezuela was plunged into darkness after a massive blackout this week, President Nicolás Maduro blamed the power outage on an “electromagnetic attack” carried out by the U.S.

The claim was met with skepticism. Blackouts are a regrettably frequent part of life in Venezuela, where the electric grid has fallen into serious disrepair. And Maduro’s administration provided no evidence of an electromagnetic attack.

“In Venezuela, it’s a lot easier for him to say we did something to him than he did it to himself,” said Sharon Burke, senior adviser at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, and former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy at the Department of Defense. “Their grid, it’s decrepit. It’s been in very poor shape. They’ve been starving their infrastructure for years.”

Nevertheless, Maduro’s claim has raised questions over what exactly is an electromagnetic attack, how likely is it to occur and what impact could it have.


The phrase “electromagnetic attack” can refer to different things, but in this context most likely refers to a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse generated when a nuclear weapon is detonated in space, about 30 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Once the weapon is detonated, an electromagnetic pulse can travel to the Earth’s surface and disrupt a wide variety of technology systems from appliances to a nation’s electric grid. Some characteristics of an electromagnetic pulse are similar to disturbances caused by solar flares.

There are also smaller electromagnetic pulse weapons that are being developed, but they would be unlikely to cause a power outage as large as the one Venezuela experienced, experts said.

The term electromagnetic attack also can refer cryptography, or an attack where the perpetrator is seeking secret keys or passwords, but that’s more likely to be directed at portable electronic devices, not electric grids, said Shucheng Yu, an associate professor of electrical & computer engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology.


In the 1962, during the Cold War, the U.S. detonated a nuclear weapon above the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, and the experiment — known as Starfish Prime — knocked out power to traffic lights and telecommunications in parts of Honolulu, illuminating the sky and even leading hotels to host viewing parties, according to news reports.

Russia conducted a series of “high-altitude nuclear bursts” in 1961 and 1962 to test electromagnetic pulse impacts over Kazakhstan and destroyed that country’s electrical grid, according to testimony to Congress from the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.


While several countries have capabilities to detonate a nuclear weapon and cause an electromagnetic pulse, it’s unlikely that such a maneuver would escape the world’s attention.

“If he’s suggesting that the U.S. detonated a nuclear weapon above the atmosphere, you think that would happen without anyone noticing? I don’t think so,” Burke said of Maduro’s claim. “You can’t secretly detonate a nuclear weapon.”

A senior U.S. administration official said Maduro is to blame for the latest blackout because his government has mismanaged the economy and is responsible for the destruction of his country’s infrastructure. The official was not authorized to respond to questions about the blackout and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Unlike a cyberattack, which can be carried out by a hacker in a basement, generating an electromagnetic pulse requires a state-sponsored weapon.

“It’s hard to imagine that actor being incentivized to pull off and conduct such an attack. It would be pretty aggressive to do that,” said David Weinstein, chief security officer at Claroty, a security company that specializes in protecting infrastructure. “Also, the power fails easily in Venezuela anyway, so it’s almost like a waste of the capability.”


It depends on who you ask. While the technology to launch an electromagnetic attack exists, and the impacts could cause widespread damage to electronics, some security experts believe the likelihood of such an attack is low and the threat is overstated.

“If they want to knock out the grid, I was trying to think of 12 ways to do it, this wouldn’t be high on the list,” said Bill Hogan, professor of global energy policy at Harvard University. “The (U.S.) system is run very conservatively, there’s a lot of redundancy, and you’d have to be pretty sophisticated to knock out a lot of it.”

Others are convinced that an electromagnetic attack could wipe out vast swaths of the U.S. power grid for prolonged periods, potentially killing most Americans.

The Electric Power Research Institute, a think tank funded primarily by utilities, found in an April study that an electromagnetic pulse could trigger regional service interruptions but would not likely trigger a nationwide grid failure in the U.S.

But the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, which has been sounding the alarm on the possibility of this type of attack for years, said in 2017 Congressional testimony that a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack would inflict massive widespread damage to the electric grid. An attack on the U.S., it warned, would inevitably lead to a widespread protracted blackout and thousands of electronic systems could be destroyed, risking millions of lives.

President Donald Trump called on the Secretary of Defense to conduct research to understand the effects of EMPs in an executive order in March, and called on the Secretary of State to work with allies to boost resilience to potential impacts to EMPs.

“I think it’s a good thing that awareness has grown, and the potential risks and consequences have captured people’s attention, but at the same time, the much more practical and frankly the threat that we’re facing on a day-to-day basis is the cyber threat,” Weinstein said.

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