Saturday, December 30, 2017

State Department Releases Emails From Clinton Aide Huma Abedin

Huma Abedin. Image: Mark Lennihan/AP

WASHINGTON (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — The State Department has released emails from Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, that were found by the FBI on her husband's laptop.

Some of the emails found on former Rep. Anthony Weiner's laptop were marked classified. It was unclear whether they were deemed classified at the time they were sent or when the State Department was preparing them for release.

The emails were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.

The State Department said it “carefully reviews the content of records requested through FOIA to determine whether any information is sensitive or classified,” and some of the documents released Friday have “classified information that has been redacted.”

The FBI found thousands of emails exchanged between Clinton and Abedin while searching Weiner's laptop as part of a criminal investigation into his sexting with a high school student. The discovery led then-FBI Director James Comey to announce in late October 2016, as Clinton's run for the White House was in its final stage, that he was reopening the probe of her use of a private computer server.

Then two days before Election Day, the FBI declared there was nothing new in the emails. Clinton has called Comey's intervention “the determining factor” in her defeat.

The FBI has since said that only a small number of the emails found on the laptop had been forwarded while most had simply been backed up from electronic devices, including most of the email chains containing classified information. Comey said the FBI had concluded that neither Weiner nor Abedin had committed a crime in their handling of the email.

New California Laws Cover Immigration, Marijuana, Education


In this April 14, 2017, file photo, protesters hold up signs outside a courthouse where a federal judge was to hear arguments in the first lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump's executive order to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with immigration authorities in San Francisco. California state lawmakers passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed nearly 900 new laws in 2017, most of which take effect Jan. 1, 2018. Among them is one making California a sanctuary state in response to the Trump administration's immigration crackdown. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File) The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (AP) — California state lawmakers in 2017 passed nearly 900 bills that Gov. Jerry Brown then signed into law. Most of them take effect Monday. The new laws cover topics ranging from the Trump administration's immigration crackdown, to the state's new recreational cannabis market, to the price of a college education.
Here are some of the laws taking effect with the new year:
Police will no longer be able to ask people about their immigration status or participate in federal immigration enforcement actions under a law making California a sanctuary state. The law also allows jail officials to transfer inmates to federal immigration authorities only if they have been convicted of certain crimes
It was among numerous bills designed to thwart the policies of President Donald Trump's administration.
Also starting Monday, immigration officials will need a warrant to access workplaces or employee records and landlords will be barred from disclosing tenants' citizenship. Another new law will prohibit university officials from cooperating with immigration officers.
An additional bill will bar law enforcement officials from detaining a crime victim or witness only because of an actual or suspected immigration violation, or turning them over to immigration authorities without a warrant.
Sales of recreational marijuana will be legal under a 2016 voter initiative that created the nation's biggest legal drug market.
But it will be illegal to take and drive a under bill taking effect Jan. 1 that outlaws smoking and ingesting marijuana, just as it's already unlawful for drivers or passengers to drink alcohol while driving. A separate law that took effect in June bars the possession of open containers of cannabis while driving.
The state minimum wage will increase to $10.50 per hour for businesses with 25 or fewer employees and to $11 per hour for those with 26 or more employees.
Small businesses with between 20 and 49 people will have to offer 12 weeks of unpaid maternity and paternity leave to employees.
Employers can't ask job applicants about their past salaries, a measure designed to narrow the pay gap between men and women.
California will become the 10th state to require both public- and private-sector employers of five or more employees to delay background checks and inquiries about job applicants' conviction records until they have made a conditional job offer, a measure known as "ban the box."
Those arrested but not convicted of a crime may ask a judge to seal their records, a move advocates say will help them get hired.
Pharmaceutical companies must give advance notice before big price increases, although a drugmakers' trade group is suing to block the measure.
It will be illegal to deny admission to long-term care facilities based on gender identity or sexual orientation or to repeatedly fail to use a resident's preferred name or pronoun.
Old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs will start disappearing from shelves because they can no longer meet energy efficiency standards under a 2007 federal law. That leaves compact fluorescent lights or light-emitting diode bulbs under the regulations, which take effect nationwide in 2020. The federal law let California impose the higher standards two years early. Although the industry is fighting the change in court, a federal judge is letting the restriction take effect while the case continues.
The first year of community college may be free for full-time, in-state students under a law that waives the $46 per unit fee for one academic year for first-time students. Lawmakers still must provide the money in the next budget. California follows Tennessee in creating the program, though California previously offered free tuition until 1984.
Public schools must test yearly for lead in their water supplies under a law passed in response to problems in San Ysidro schools.
Students in grades 7-12 must be taught about sexual abuse and human trafficking prevention.
Schools will be prohibited from "lunch shaming," or publicly denying lunch to students or providing a snack instead because their parents haven't paid meal fees.
Public schools serving low-income students in grades 6 to 12 must provide free tampons and menstrual products in half of restrooms.
Ammunition purchased in another state, online or through a catalog can't be brought into California except through a licensed ammunition dealer under Proposition 63, approved by voters in 2016. The initiative also sets a new process and deadlines for gun owners to give up their weapons if they are convicted of a felony or certain violent misdemeanors.
Superintendents can no longer allow people with permits to carry concealed guns on school grounds under a separate new law. Only about five school districts previously had such policies.
Repeat drug offenders will no longer automatically get an additional three years added to their sentences.
Criminals who videotape or stream their crimes on social media could face longer sentences under a law that allows judges to consider the recordings as aggravating factors in sentences for certain violent crimes.
Officials must consider paroling inmates who are age 60 or older and have served at least 25 years under a law that largely mirrors a 2014 federal court order designed to help reduce prison overcrowding.
Intentionally transmitting the AIDS-causing virus HIV is being reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, the same punishment as transmitting other communicable diseases.
California inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles will get the chance to leave prison after 25 years, making state law conform to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Another bill expands California's youthful parole program to age 25. State law already required that inmates who were under 23 when they committed their crimes be considered for parole after serving at least 15 years.
Families of youths in the juvenile justice system won't be charged fees that advocates say many can't afford to pay under a separate law. Another will require offenders age 15 or younger to consult with attorneys before waiving their rights.
One more bill will require that records be sealed for dismissed juvenile court petitions or after a juvenile completes a diversion program, while another will let a judge seal juvenile records even for serious or violent offenses after the offender has completed the sentence.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

How The Russia Inquiry Began: A Campaign Aide, Drinks And Talk Of Political Dirt


George Papadopoulos was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign named him a foreign policy adviser in early March 2016. Image: Getty/AFP/NYT

WASHINGTON (NEW YORK TIMES) — During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired.

If Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and is now a cooperating witness, was the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration, his saga is also a tale of the Trump campaign in miniature. He was brash, boastful and underqualified, yet he exceeded expectations. And, like the campaign itself, he proved to be a tantalizing target for a Russian influence operation.

While some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have derided him an insignificant campaign volunteer or a “coffee boy,” interviews and new documents show that he stayed influential throughout the campaign. Two months before the election, for instance, he helped arrange a New York meeting between Mr. Trump and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

The information that Mr. Papadopoulos gave to the Australians answers one of the lingering mysteries of the past year: What so alarmed American officials to provoke the F.B.I. to open a counterintelligence investigationinto the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?

It was not, as Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies.

Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama and reveal a Russian operation that was more aggressive and widespread than previously known. They add to an emerging portrait, gradually filled in over the past year in revelations by federal investigators, journalists and lawmakers, of Russians with government contacts trying to establish secret channels at various levels of the Trump campaign.

The F.B.I. investigation, which was taken over seven months ago by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s first year in office — even as he and his aides repeatedly played down the Russian efforts and falsely denied campaign contacts with Russians.

They have also insisted that Mr. Papadopoulos was a low-level figure. But spies frequently target peripheral players as a way to gain insight and leverage.

F.B.I. officials disagreed in 2016 about how aggressively and publicly to pursue the Russia inquiry before the election. But there was little debate about what seemed to be afoot. John O. Brennan, who retired this year after four years as C.I.A. director, told Congress in May that he had been concerned about multiple contacts between Russian officials and Trump advisers.

Russia, he said, had tried to “suborn” members of the Trump campaign.
‘The Signal to Meet’

Mr. Papadopoulos, then an ambitious 28-year-old from Chicago, was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign, desperate to create a foreign policy team, named him as an adviser in early March 2016. His political experience was limited to two months on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign before it collapsed.

Mr. Papadopoulos had no experience on Russia issues. But during his job interview with Sam Clovis, a top early campaign aide, he saw an opening. He was told that improving relations with Russia was one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign policy goals, according to court papers, an account Mr. Clovis has denied.

Traveling in Italy that March, Mr. Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor at a now-defunct London academy who had valuable contacts with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Mifsud showed little interest in Mr. Papadopoulos at first.

But when he found out he was a Trump campaign adviser, he latched onto him, according to court records and emails obtained by The New York Times. Their joint goal was to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow, or between their respective aides.

In response to questions, Mr. Papadopoulos’s lawyers declined to provide a statement.

Before the end of the month, Mr. Mifsud had arranged a meeting at a London cafe between Mr. Papadopoulos and Olga Polonskaya, a young woman from St. Petersburg whom he falsely described as Mr. Putin’s niece. Although Ms. Polonskaya told The Times in a text message that her English skills are poor, her emails to Mr. Papadopoulos were largely fluent. “We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Ms. Polonskaya wrote in one message.

More important, Mr. Mifsud connected Mr. Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, a program director for the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club, a gathering of academics that meets annually with Mr. Putin. The two men corresponded for months about how to connect the Russian government and the campaign. Records suggest that Mr. Timofeev, who has been described by Mr. Mueller’s team as an intermediary for the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussed the matter with the ministry’s former leader, Igor S. Ivanov, who is widely viewed in the United States as one of Russia’s elder statesmen.

When Mr. Trump’s foreign policy team gathered for the first time at the end of March in Washington, Mr. Papadopoulos said he had the contacts to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump listened intently but apparently deferred to Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama and head of the campaign’s foreign policy team, according to participants in the meeting.

Mr. Sessions, now the attorney general, initially did not reveal that discussion to Congress, because, he has said, he did not recall it. More recently, he said he pushed back against Mr. Papadopoulos’s proposal, at least partly because he did not want someone so unqualified to represent the campaign on such a sensitive matter.

If the campaign wanted Mr. Papadopoulos to stand down, previously undisclosed emails obtained by The Times show that he either did not get the message or failed to heed it. He continued for months to try to arrange some kind of meeting with Russian representatives, keeping senior campaign advisers abreast of his efforts. Mr. Clovis ultimately encouraged him and another foreign policy adviser to travel to Moscow, but neither went because the campaign would not cover the cost.

Mr. Papadopoulos was trusted enough to edit the outline of Mr. Trump’s first major foreign policy speech on April 27, an address in which the candidate said it was possible to improve relations with Russia. Mr. Papadopoulos flagged the speech to his newfound Russia contacts, telling Mr. Timofeev that it should be taken as “the signal to meet.”

“That is a statesman speech,” Mr. Mifsud agreed. Ms. Polonskaya wrote that she was pleased that Mr. Trump’s “position toward Russia is much softer” than that of other candidates.

Stephen Miller, then a senior policy adviser to the campaign and now a top White House aide, was eager for Mr. Papadopoulos to serve as a surrogate, someone who could publicize Mr. Trump’s foreign policy views without officially speaking for the campaign. But Mr. Papadopoulos’s first public attempt to do so was a disaster.

In a May 4, 2016, interview with The Times of London, Mr. Papadopoulos called on Prime Minister David Cameron to apologize to Mr. Trump for criticizing his remarks on Muslims as “stupid” and divisive. “Say sorry to Trump or risk special relationship, Cameron told,” the headline read. Mr. Clovis, the national campaign co-chairman, severely reprimanded Mr. Papadopoulos for failing to clear his explosive comments with the campaign in advance.

From then on, Mr. Papadopoulos was more careful with the press — though he never regained the full trust of Mr. Clovis or several other campaign officials.

Mr. Mifsud proposed to Mr. Papadopoulos that he, too, serve as a campaign surrogate. He could write op-eds under the guise of a “neutral” observer, he wrote in a previously undisclosed email, and follow Mr. Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.

In late April, at a London hotel, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents. Although Russian hackers had been mining data from the Democratic National Committee’s computers for months, that information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know.

Whether Mr. Papadopoulos shared that information with anyone else in the campaign is one of many unanswered questions. He was mostly in contact with the campaign over emails. The day after Mr. Mifsud’s revelation about the hacked emails, he told Mr. Miller in an email only that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow” about a possible trip. The emails obtained by The Times show no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign.

Not long after, however, he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians. It is unclear whether Mr. Downer was fishing for that information that night in May 2016. The meeting at the bar came about because of a series of connections, beginning with an Israeli Embassy official who introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to another Australian diplomat in London.

It is also not clear why, after getting the information in May, the Australian government waited two months to pass it to the F.B.I. In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Washington declined to provide details about the meeting or confirm that it occurred.

“As a matter of principle and practice, the Australian government does not comment on matters relevant to active investigations,” the statement said. The F.B.I. declined to comment.
A Secretive Investigation

Once the information Mr. Papadopoulos had disclosed to the Australian diplomat reached the F.B.I., the bureau opened an investigation that became one of its most closely guarded secrets. Senior agents did not discuss it at the daily morning briefing, a classified setting where officials normally speak freely about highly sensitive operations.

Besides the information from the Australians, the investigation was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.

With so many strands coming in — about Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Page, the hackers and more — F.B.I. agents debated how aggressively to investigate the campaign’s Russia ties, according to current and former officials familiar with the debate. Issuing subpoenas or questioning people, for example, could cause the investigation to burst into public view in the final months of a presidential campaign.

It could also tip off the Russian government, which might try to cover its tracks. Some officials argued against taking such disruptive steps, especially since the F.B.I. would not be able to unravel the case before the election.

Others believed that the possibility of a compromised presidential campaign was so serious that it warranted the most thorough, aggressive tactics. Even if the odds against a Trump presidency were long, these agents argued, it was prudent to take every precaution.

That included questioning Christopher Steele, the former British spy who was compiling the dossier alleging a far-ranging Russian conspiracy to elect Mr. Trump. A team of F.B.I. agents traveled to Europe to interview Mr. Steele in early October 2016. Mr. Steele had shown some of his findings to an F.B.I. agent in Rome three months earlier, but that information was not part of the justification to start an counterintelligence inquiry, American officials said.

Ultimately, the F.B.I. and Justice Department decided to keep the investigation quiet, a decision that Democrats in particular have criticized. And agents did not interview Mr. Papadopoulos until late January.
Opening Doors, to the Top

He was hardly central to the daily running of the Trump campaign, yet Mr. Papadopoulos continuously found ways to make himself useful to senior Trump advisers. In September 2016, with the United Nations General Assembly approaching and stories circulating that Mrs. Clinton was going to meet with Mr. Sisi, the Egyptian president, Mr. Papadopoulos sent a message to Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive, offering to broker a similar meeting for Mr. Trump.

After days of scheduling discussions, the meeting was set and Mr. Papadopoulos sent a list of talking points to Mr. Bannon, according to people familiar with those interactions. Asked about his contacts with Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Bannon declined to comment.

Mr. Trump’s improbable victory raised Mr. Papadopoulos’s hopes that he might ascend to a top White House job. The election win also prompted a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized American citizen born in Belarus. After he had contacted Mr. Papadopoulos out of the blue over LinkedIn during the summer of 2016, the two met repeatedly in Manhattan.

Mr. Millian has bragged of his ties to Mr. Trump — boasts that the president’s advisers have said are overstated. He headed an obscure organization called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, some of whose board members and clients are difficult to confirm. Congress is investigating where he fits into the swirl of contacts with the Trump campaign, although he has said he is unfairly being scrutinized only because of his support for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Millian proposed that he and Mr. Papadopoulos form an energy-related business that would be financed by Russian billionaires “who are not under sanctions” and would “open all doors for us” at “any level all the way to the top.”

One billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. “I know the president will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he wrote.

Nothing came of his proposals, partly because Mr. Papadopoulos was hoping that Michael T. Flynn, then Mr. Trump’s pick to be national security adviser, might give him the energy portfolio at the National Security Council.

The pair exchanged New Year’s greetings in the final hours of 2016. “Happy New Year, sir,” Mr. Papadopoulos wrote.

“Thank you and same to you, George. Happy New Year!” Mr. Flynn responded, ahead of a year that seemed to hold great promise.

But 2017 did not unfold that way. Within months, Mr. Flynn was fired, and both men were charged with lying to the F.B.I. And both became important witnesses in the investigation Mr. Papadopoulos had played a critical role in starting.

Police Arrest Alleged 'Nigerian Prince' Email Scammer In Louisiana


Michael Neu was arrested on wire fraud and money laundering charges.

SLIDELL, LOUISIANA (USA TODAY) -- A Louisiana man was arrested in connection with the "Nigerian prince" scheme that has scammed people out of thousands of dollars, police announced on Thursday.

Michael Neu, 67, faces 269 counts of wire fraud and money laundering after being taken into custody following an 18-month investigation, according to the Slidell Police Department. Police said Neu is suspected of being the scam's "middle man" who obtained money and "subsequently wired" funds to his co-conspirators in Nigeria.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the phishing scam begins with an email purporting to be from a high-ranking Nigerian official who seeks financial assistance or personal information to retrieve an alleged inheritance.

Though the scheme is often the butt of late-night TV jokes, people have fallen victim to the scam, officials say.

"Most people laugh at the thought of falling for such a fraud, but law enforcement officials report annual losses of millions of dollars to these schemes," the Slidell police said in a statement.

Authorities warn to be cautious when receiving suspicious emails or phone calls from unknown individuals and urge people not to disclose personal or financial information. Slidell Police Chief Randy Fandal said he hopes Neu's arrest serves as a warning to the public.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Slidell Police Chief Randy Fandal said in a statement. "Never give out personal information over the phone, through e-mail, cash checks for other individuals, or wire large amounts of money to someone you don’t know. 99.9 percent of the time, it’s a scam.”

Motive Sought In California Law Firm Shooting With 2 Dead

Police officers gather in front of law offices where a deadly shooting took place in Long Beach, Calif., Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. Long Beach police on Friday called the shooting "workplace violence." They said on Twitter that it has become a murder investigation, and that the suspect is also dead at the scene. (Robert Casillas/Los Angeles Daily News via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Police are trying to learn what motivated a man to walk into a law firm where he worked and shoot two of his colleagues before turning the gun on himself. Police arrived at the office building in Long Beach on Friday to find the gunman and one victim dead and learned that the second victim had driven himself to a hospital, police Sgt. Brad Johnson said at a news conference.

The injured man was in stable condition. Police didn't fire any shots, Johnson said. A SWAT team searched the rest of the building and no other victims were found. The gunman's motive had not yet been determined, but authorities emphasized it was not a case of an active shooter targeting as many people as possible.

"This incident was workplace violence," Johnson said. Video showed people running from a two-story office building shouting about a shooting inside. The building is in the well-to-do neighborhood of Bixby Knolls and sits across from a Trader Joe's market.

Three different law firms are listed among the occupants, but police did not reveal the office where the shooting occurred. The office is about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles in Long Beach, a city of about 460,000 people.

— Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this story.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Officials: Deadly NYC Fire Lit By Child Playing With Stove

Firefighters respond to a building fire Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in the Bronx borough of New York. The Fire Department of New York says a blaze raging in the Bronx apartment building has seriously injured more than a dozen of people.

NEW YORK (AP) — A preschooler toying with the burners on his mother's stove accidentally lit New York City's deadliest fire in decades, turning an apartment building into an inferno that killed a dozen people as smoke and flames swept up the stairwell in minutes and blocked the main route to safety, the fire commissioner said Friday.

The 3 ½ year-old-boy, his mother and another child were able to flee their first-floor apartment. But they left the door open behind them, and it acted like a chimney that carried Thursday's fire out of the apartment and through the five-story building, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. At least 20 of their neighbors scrambled out via fire escapes on a bitterly cold night, but others could not.

"People had very little time to react," Nigro said. Although firefighters arrived in just over three minutes, "bravely entered the building and did everything they could — we did save a number of residents — this loss is unprecedented."

Twelve people died, including girls ages 1, 2 and 7 and a boy whose age was not given, officials said. Four other people were fighting for their lives. Fernando Batiz said his sister, Maria Batiz, 56, and her 8-month-old granddaughter, were among the dead, though the baby's mother survived.

"They couldn't escape ... The smoke, I guess, overcame her — everything happened so quick," said Batiz, 54. He said his sister, a home care attendant, was a selfless person who had helped him when he was homeless.

"I don't know what to think. I'm still in shock," her shaken brother said Friday. Excluding 9/11, it was the deadliest blaze in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club fire in the same Bronx neighborhood in 1990. A fire in a home in another part of the Bronx killed 10 people, including nine children, in 2007.

Thursday's fire broke out just before 7 p.m. in a century-old building near the Bronx Zoo. Its roughly 20 apartments are home to people from countries ranging from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic to Guinea.

About 170 firefighters worked in 15-degree weather to rescue dozens of people. Residents described opening their front doors to see smoke too thick to walk through and clambering down icy fire escapes with children in hand. Some escaped barefoot or in their nightclothes.

Huddled in a deli on the block with her family, Crisbel Martinez, 10, cried Friday as she recalled her escape from her fifth-floor apartment with her three older brothers. One brother's girlfriend was coming into the building when she saw smoke, called him and called police. With their mother at work, the siblings checked and saw the smoke.

"Then we got changed and went through the fire escape," Crisbel said. She had spent the night at an aunt's house. Twum Bredu still didn't know Friday afternoon what had become of his brother, Emmanuel Mensah, 28. He was staying with a family that had escaped the fire safely, but no one could find Mensah, despite checking four hospitals. Still, his family kept looking, and hoping for word of him.

"That's my prayer," said Bredu, 61. Four families sought emergency housing Thursday night from the Red Cross, but the organization expected to get more requests in the coming days, spokesman Michael de Vulpillieres said.

Catastrophic fires at the turn of the 20th century ushered in an era of tougher enforcement of fire codes. But the building was not new enough that it was required to have modern-day fireproofing, like sprinkler systems and interior steel construction.

Building owner Annal Management Co. declined to comment Friday. The boy who accidentally started the fire had played with stove burners before, Nigro said. He noted that it's not rare for children to start fires. The Fire Department gets 75 or more referrals a year to a program that aims to educate children fascinated with fire about its dangers.

Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Russian Military Celebrates Syria 'Victory' Over West


Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu after a state awards ceremony for military personnel who served in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 28, 201. Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters/Pool

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (NEWSWEEK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top generals held an awards ceremony Thursday to honor military personnel returning from Syria, where Moscow claimed to have scored a decisive victory not only against militant groups, but against U.S. and Western interests.

Putin reportedly welcomed more than 600 soldiers and officers in the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, thanking them for their service in Syria, where Russia recently declared victory over the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Russia's 2015 entrance into the war came a year after the U.S. had already begun to scale down efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Moscow facing a rebel and jihadi uprising, and had formed its own coalition to bomb ISIS. Russian officials and military leaders, however, have credited their aerial campaign with outpacing U.S.-led efforts to defeat the militants and thwarting Western plots to oust Assad.

"On seeing our Western coalition partners in the air, we always tailed them, as pilots say, which means a victory in real combat," Major Maxim Makolkin said at the event, indicating that the Russian air force had outperformed and outmaneuvered the aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition.

While Russia and the U.S.-led coalition both launched airstrikes against ISIS and affiliates of Al-Qaeda, they backed separate factions on the ground. Shortly after the rebellion against Assad first began in 2011, insurgents received support from the U.S., Turkey and Gulf Arab states. As ISIS spread from Iraq into Syria and jihadi influence fractured rebel ranks, the U.S. increasingly focused on the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish coalition of Arabs and ethnic minorities formed in 2015 by the Pentagon and tasked with beating ISIS. That same year, Russia intervened at the request of an embattled Assad, allowing his forces to retake most of the country in the years since.

Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. was staunchly opposed to Assad, but the current administration has offered conflicting stances toward the Syrian leader, who the U.S. and its allies have long accused of human rights abuses. Before taking office, President Donald Trump was mostly opposed to Obama's assistance to rebel groups, some of which ended up in ISIS hands, and even considered entering into a military partnership with Russia. He later switched his views and went as far as to attack the Syrian military after accusing Assad of a chemical weapons attack in April.

The State Department said earlier this month that, although the U.S. wanted Assad out, this was "up to the Syrian people and the Syrian voters to decide," similar to the Russian stance. Russia joined pro-Assad Iran and pro-opposition Turkey for new peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana and committed to Western talks in Geneva; however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in an opinion piece published Wednesday by The New York Times that "we are confident that the fulfillment of these talks will produce a Syria that is free of Bashar al-Assad and his family."

In addition to calling the U.S.-led coalition inefficient, Russia also has frequently joined its Syrian and Iranian allies in accusing the West and its allies of actively helping ISIS and other groups Moscow considered to be terrorist organizations. The U.S. has routinely denied and criticized such allegations, but has admitted its local Syrian partners entered into deals with the jihadis and said Thursday it would not target ISIS fighters fleeing the last of their crumbling self-styled caliphate toward Syrian military frontlines. Even after ISIS's defeat, the Pentagon said it would stay in Syria as long as it needs to.

Putin announced earlier this month that he would begin withdrawing his country's forces from Syria, but said Russia would maintain a long-term presence in two military bases near the Syrian coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus. Putin said Thursday that more than 58,000 Russians had participated in the campaign and thanked them, especially female personnel, for being "true defenders of Russia" who had stopped a "terrorist army" from establishing a pseudo-state in which the jihadis could launch attacks against other countries, including Russia.

Despite the group's territorial losses, recent ISIS-inspired attacks in New York City and yet unclaimed explosion that injured several people in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg have highlighted the residual threat of militant groups and the lone wolves they aspire around the globe.

Judge Won't Tolerate 'Game-Playing' By Neo-Nazi Site Founder

Tanya Gersh poses for a photo. Gersh, a Montana real estate agent, sued the founder of a neo-Nazi website Andrew Anglin, accusing him of orchestrating an anti-Semitic internet trolling campaign that terrorized her family amid her dispute with the mother of a leading white nationalist. Anglin has dubiously claimed he lives in Nigeria. A federal judge in Montana has warned Anglin's attorneys that he won't tolerate any "game-playing" and expects him to disclose where he has been residing, according to a court transcript obtained by The Associated Press. (Dan Chung/Southern Poverty Law Center via AP)

MONTANA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) -- Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website notorious for its racist internet trolling campaigns, has dubiously claimed he lives in Nigeria. A process server swears he recently spotted The Daily Stormer's publisher at a grocery store in his native Ohio.

Anglin's whereabouts — a key issue in a pair of lawsuits he faces — may not remain a mystery much longer. A federal judge in Montana has warned Anglin's attorneys that he won't tolerate any "game-playing" and expects him to disclose where he has been residing, according to a court transcript obtained by The Associated Press.

Marc Randazza, one of Anglin's lawyers, told U.S. Magistrate Jeremiah Lynch during a Dec. 14 pretrial conference that he didn't know where his client is. Anglin's site takes its name from Der Stürmer, a newspaper that published Nazi propaganda. It has struggled to stay online since Anglin published a post mocking a woman killed in a deadly car attack at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

"I can represent that he is outside of the United States," Randazza said, according to the transcript. "I had asked him where he is situated, and he changes locations regularly, and I don't know his whereabouts."

Montana real estate agent Tanya Gersh sued Anglin in April, accusing him of orchestrating an anti-Semitic internet trolling campaign that terrorized her family amid her dispute with the mother of a leading white nationalist. Months passed before Anglin's lawyers formally responded to the suit, arguing the First Amendment protects his posts calling for a "troll storm" against Gersh.

Anglin's attorneys have argued the court doesn't have jurisdiction over the case — and therefore must dismiss it — because Anglin is "not a citizen of any state." In a Nov. 30 court filing, they cited a CNN report that included Anglin's oft-repeated claim that he is living in Lagos, Nigeria.

The judge told Randazza he should "emphasize to Mr. Anglin there's not going to be any game-playing here." "I don't want to be perceived as being an advocate, but he's going to have to detail what his travels have been, what his changes in location have been, because as you know, ultimately, again, I have an independent obligation to determine whether there's jurisdiction here. The ultimate question is his domicile," the judge said.

Gersh's lawyers accuse Anglin of playing a "childish game of hide-and-seek" and cite evidence he is living in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Jeffrey Cremeans, a process server hired by Tanya Gersh's attorneys from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a sworn affidavit that he was shopping at a grocery store in a Columbus suburb on Dec. 10 when he saw a man who strongly resembles Anglin at a self-checkout register.

"He appeared very paranoid, looking over his shoulder," Cremeans' affidavit says. Cremeans said he asked the man if his name is Andrew. "The man replied 'Nope' and then quickly fled the store," he said. Cremeans said he was "absolutely certain" it was Anglin, but couldn't serve him with the suit because he was on a personal errand and didn't have the paperwork.

Anglin later mocked the process server's claim in social media posts. "There are 2 million people in Columbus metro area. A process server happens by coincidence to run into me in a checkout line," he wrote on his Gab account. "No one (expletive) believes this. It is statistically impossible."

Gersh says her family received a barrage of threatening and harassing emails, phone calls and other messages after Anglin published their personal information, including her 12-year-old son's Twitter handle and photo. In a string of posts that began last December, Anglin accused Gersh and other Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, of engaging in an "extortion racket" against the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Gersh's lawsuit said she agreed to help Spencer's mother sell commercial property she owns in Whitefish amid talk of a protest outside the building. Sherry Spencer, however, later accused Gersh of threatening and harassing her into agreeing to sell the property.

During the Dec. 14 discussion, one of Gersh's lawyers said they will be exploring whether others — including Richard Spencer — "may have participated in the decision-making process to start the troll storm" and therefore "might bear liability for the actions at issue here."

Anglin faces a separate federal lawsuit filed in Ohio by Muslim-American radio host Dean Obeidallah, who says Anglin falsely labeled him as the "mastermind" behind a deadly bombing at a concert in England. Anglin hasn't responded to that suit.

Fuel Crisis Intensifies In Nigeria

ABUJA, NIGERIA (OIL PRICE) -- Again, Nigeria’s government has failed its citizens, thanks to an acute shortage of fuel—despite the country’s status as the chief oil-producing country on the African continent.

Year in and year out, governments in power have woefully neglected to stem the reoccurring hard bite of fuel scarcity, especially during festive seasons—and this one is turning out to be one of the worst.

Over the years, a combination of well-known (and definitely not unforeseen) factors—ranging from inadequate supply to pipeline vandalism to unending issues with independent marketers—have floored whatsoever effort, if any, by the government to ensure adequate fuel supply, particularly during holidays.

Shortly before Christmas, Anietie Akpan, a Lagos-based entrepreneur whose business is suffering from pangs of the distressed economy, said that “the fuel crisis is getting worse; I bought from the black market the other day at 200 Nigerian naira per liter and can’t even get it at that price now,” echoing an expression of frustration that cuts through the entire nation.

For the 2017 end-of-year fuel crisis, economic watchers point to the gap in the volume of products between supply and demand and lack of government incisive action—even when they saw it coming, as in past years.

Oil industry analyst Bassey Udo points out that, “the primary reason for the current crisis is that the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), is the only importer of petroleum products. It also gives preference to the major marketers—Mobil, Conoil, Total, Forte Oil—in its allocation, rather than independent marketers who have the largest number of retail outlets across the country, to better serve the people.”

Udo, the Business/Economy Editor of Premium Times, Nigeria’s leading online investigative publication, added that, “to assert their importance, members of the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN), threatened to go on strike from December 10, 2017 if government does not supply them products at the same ex-depot price of N137 per liter like major marketers, to enable them to sell at N145 per liter for profit margin.”

Findings show that government initially took the strike threat with levity, and by the time the government “acceded to their demand, it was on the same day the strike was billed to begin, during which panic buying and hoarding for the Christmas season were already in top gear,” Udo said.

None of the reoccurring causes of the perennial fuel scarcity takes anyone by surprise; rather, government functionaries are used to either ignoring the issues or reacting belatedly to them.

A case in point is how Nigeria’s Minister of Petroleum Resources, Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, waited until early December (only a few days before the holiday rush) to roll out emergency plans—a typical firefighting approach that has failed to forestall the current petrol scarcity.

When announcing emergency plans, Kachikwu stated that fuel shortages “were occasioned by a gap in the volume of products available in the country,” caused by reluctance of oil marketers to import petrol. The petroleum minister attributed the shortfall to rising price of crude oil, which he indicated forced oil marketers to defer imports.

Oil marketers have often been the scapegoat for all fuel scarcity, with the government typically using them as the excuse for their continuous failures to get it right in the highest oil-producing country in Africa, currently put at 2.53 million barrels per day.

The oil marketers have been embroiled in a never-ending fight with the government in subsidizing cost of fuel per liter. With the government opting to subsidize the difference between the landing cost of imported petroleum product and retail price above N86 per liter, it means huge amounts must be paid as subsidies to petroleum products at filling stations.

Presently, the government is said to have inherited a backlog of over ?600 billion in subsidy bills due to marketers, and payment is an issue. This outstanding subsidy amount and the occurring bank interest in U.S. dollars is a source of disincentive for the oil marketers to import, especially the Independent Petroleum Marketers. This causes a supply drop, hence fuel shortages and the attendant crisis—more so when nobody knows the approximate quantity the country needs at any point in time.

A top industry executive disclosed to Financial Times in May 2015 that during the fuel crisis of that year, NNPC had only about two days of fuel in stock.

“How do you replenish the stock when nobody knows exactly what the country’s demand is?” said Udo. “From the NNPC through the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA), no one can say categorically what the daily national fuel consumption figure is.”

According to Udo, the statistics for daily consumption are as varied as the purpose for which each agency is issuing them. When calculating subsidy claims for products, marketers, the NNPC and PPPRA put the figure at between 45 and 60 million liters against conservative industry figures of between 30 and 35 million liters.

But the intractable fuel scarcity, especially during holidays, goes far beyond supply and demand and the unending battle with marketers. There are also the activities of the larger-than-life trade unions in the industry, notably, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN).

In the December 2017 excruciating scarcity, the body was at the center of it all. Like with other crises, the union, citing what it called unfair labor practices by some oil companies and subsequent termination of appointment of its members by Neconde Energy Limited, called on the government to direct the company to recall sacked members or face workers strike action by December 18, 2017.

In the interim, PENGASSAN’s General Secretary Lumumba Okugbawa said, “PENGASSAN appeals to all Nigerians to show understanding and to use this window to stockpile adequate quantity of premium motor spirit (PMS) and other petroleum products that will last them during the festive period, as this strike will be indefinite.”

Predictably, there was an immediate reaction to the strike threat. Oil prices climbed more than one percent the next day, as traders covered shorts after sharp losses the previous day brought on by an unexpectedly large rise in U.S. stocks of refined fuels.

“Short covering in the market, together with the threat of a strike by Nigeria’s key oil union, provided some influence on oil prices in today’s session,” said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy’s Global Gas Analytics in London.

As if that’s not enough, besides the labor union muscle flexing, Nigeria’s oil sector is the epitome of not only corruption, but high-level inefficiency and mismanagement. It’s generally seen as a national cake, where those with access help themselves to whatever can be gotten hold of. Every government of the day makes sure their kindred is in charge of daily activities to ensure good hold on the largesse.

The outcome of this unfortunate scenario is the ever-present motion without movement, where nothing gets done, because every step is interpreted with tribal and economic sentiments. Take the very recent public power play between the petroleum minister and the NNPC chief executive officer, giving credence to the old rhetorical question: Is Nigeria’s oil wealth a curse or a blessing?

In their 2006 Journal of Research in National Development paper, “Crude Oil Resource: A Blessing or Curse to Nigeria,” writers S. Tamuno and J.M. Felix, address this issue, concluding with a call to the federal government to “put in place appropriate measures to stem further mismanagement and looting… of revenue from crude oil.” Unfortunately, more than a decade later, the end to the fuel crisis as we know it is not in sight anytime soon.

In Udo’s “13 Reasons Fuel Crisis Persists in Nigeria,” report in Premium Times, he blames inadequate supply, dysfunctional refineries, no new refineries, pipeline vandalism, fuel importation constraints, the drop in global oil prices, poor import planning schedules, corruption-diversion-smuggling, foreign exchange crisis, fuel crisis as good business time for some, payback by marketers, NNPC internal politics, and absence of deregulation.

But what about Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari? Even as a former minister of petroleum, Buhari has done nothing significant to alleviate the horrible state of affairs. He only has about a year to go before his four-year tenure ends.

Announcing government ad-hoc plans to end the current fuel scarcity, Kachikwu hinted that the technical committee has been benchmarking costs and streamlining bidding firms, and will submit its report for presidential approval before end of 2017 and that “work aimed at bringing the four refineries operated by NNPC in Kaduna, Warri, and Port Harcourt back to their nameplate production capacities… would eventually start in January 2018,” said Solomon Elusoji and Chineme Okafor in a This Day article.

Ordinarily, this would have been good news, but as the administration approaches its end, it’s not much to cheer about—instead serving as yet another reminder of the system’s lax inefficiency, even for problems considered national emergencies.

By Williams Ekanem for

China: US Should Curb Demand For Opioids, Not Blame China

Chinese police gather during a press conference on held in Beijing, China, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. Yu Haibin of the China National Narcotics Control Commissionsaid Thursday there was little evidence showing China was the source of much of the chemicals used in the production of the powerful opioid fentanyl.

BEIJING (AP) — The United States should look within to cut down demand for opioids which are fueling its deadly drug crisis rather than stressing unsubstantiated claims that China is the major source of these chemicals, a top Chinese drug enforcement official said Thursday.

China and the U.S. have worked to build a close working relationship to fight global flows of illicit synthetic drugs, but their collaboration remains fraught. Yu Haibin of the China National Narcotics Control Commission told reporters there was little evidence showing China was the source of much of the chemicals used in the production of the powerful opioid fentanyl. President Donald Trump in November blamed a "flood of cheap and deadly" fentanyl made in China for the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.

"China doesn't deny that shipments to the U.S. happen, but there isn't the proof to show how much — whether it's 20 percent or 80 percent," said Yu, adding that U.S. authorities have only sent him information about six shipments from China in the past year.

In October 2016, the AP identified 12 Chinese companies willing to export carfentanil around the world for a few thousand dollars a kilogram (2.2. pounds), no questions asked. Carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and is legally used as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals.

Yu urged the U.S. to share more data and police intelligence with Chinese authorities and said rampant over-prescription of pain medication and lax cultural attitudes toward drugs had fueled massive demand for opioids in the U.S.

Insufficient drug education and the trend in some states of legalizing marijuana have hurt drug enforcement efforts, he said. "As many states decriminalize marijuana, the public's attitudes and trends of thinking toward drugs will also have a bad effect" on the fight against hard drugs, Yu said.

Chinese officials have been eager to tout their collaboration with American counterparts on drug enforcement as a bright spot in the occasionally rocky relationship. Though Beijing has said U.S. assertions that China is the top source of fentanyls lack evidence, the two countries have deepened cooperation as the U.S. opioid epidemic intensifies. Beijing already regulates fentanyl and a number of related compounds, even though they are not widely abused domestically.

Since 2016, China has arrested dozens of synthetic drug exporters, destroyed several illegal labs and seized tons of new psychoactive substances, according to the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee.

Officials in Beijing said Thursday they busted a fentanyl factory in November and seized 4.7 kilograms (10.36 pounds) of the substance thanks to a tip-off from U.S. Immigration and Customs about a major online purveyor named "Diana" that turned out to be a front for a 19-person drug ring scattered across China.

China wanted to work more closely with U.S. law enforcement, as well as authorities in Mexico, a transshipment point, Yu said. China has backed a successful U.S. proposal this year to add several fentanyl precursors to a U.N. list of controlled substances. China has listed the two chemicals, NPP and 44-ANPP, under domestic drug laws, officials said.

More than 66,000 people in America died of drug overdoses in the year ending May 2017, a jump of 17.4 percent from the year before, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports most cases of fentanyl overdose are linked to illicitly produced batches of the substance.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Trump, GOP Congressional Leaders To Plot Agenda In January


President Donald Trump congratulates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., while House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., looks on during a ceremony at the White House after the final passage of tax overhaul legislation. President Trump plans to open the new year by meeting with Republican congressional leaders at the rustic Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland to map out the 2018 legislative agenda.

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. (AP) — Eager for more legislative achievements before Washington's focus shifts to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump plans to start the new year by meeting with Republican congressional leaders to plot the 2018 legislative agenda, the White House said.

After returning to Washington from Florida, where he is spending the holidays, Trump will host House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the rustic Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland during the weekend of Jan. 6-7.

Spokesmen for Ryan and McConnell have confirmed they will attend. The powwow will follow the recent enactment of legislation to cut taxes, beginning next year, for corporations and individuals at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion added to the national debt over 10 years.

The bill marked the first big legislative achievement for Trump and congressional Republicans, who made cutting taxes a must-do this year after the Senate failed to close the deal on another top GOP promise: to repeal and replace the Obama health care law.

While the tax bill ends the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, it leaves intact other features of the health care law. No Democrats voted for the tax bill, which Trump signed during a hastily arranged White House ceremony, without any lawmakers present, before he flew to Florida last Friday.

The agenda for next year is already lengthy, and 2018 is still a few days away. Trump predicted in a tweet earlier this week that Democrats and Republicans will "eventually come together" to develop a new health care plan. The president is also forecasting unity between the parties on spending to upgrade aging roads, bridges and other transportation. The White House has said Trump will unveil his long-awaited infrastructure plan in January.

Ryan, meanwhile, has talked about overhauling Medicaid and Medicare and other welfare programs, but McConnell has signaled an unwillingness to go that route unless there's Democratic support for any changes. Trump has also said he wants to pursue "welfare reform" next year because "people are taking advantage of the system."

Congress, meanwhile, will open the year facing a backlog from 2017. The list includes agreeing by Jan. 19 on a government funding bill to avert a partial government shutdown and to boost Pentagon spending. Lawmakers also must agree on billions in additional aid to help hurricane victims, lifting the debt ceiling so the United States can pay its bills, extending a children's health insurance program and drafting protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Trump tweeted earlier in the year that he was ending the program for the immigrants. He gave lawmakers until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution, or the individuals will begin to face the risk of being deported.

Much of the work will need to be done before Republicans shift their focus to retaining their House and Senate majorities in midterm elections taking place in November 2018. The GOP's already slim Senate majority will get even slimmer come January, when Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is sworn in, leaving Republicans with a 51-49 edge in the chamber.

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As California Legalizes Pot, Laws Collide At US Checkpoints

A sign warns of the upcoming California Pine Valley checkpoint, on the main route from Arizona to San Diego. California legalizes marijuana for recreational use Jan. 1 but that won't stop federal agents from seizing small amounts on busy freeways and backcountry highways. Possession will still be prohibited at eight Border Patrol checkpoints in California, a daily demonstration of state and federal law colliding.

PINE VALLEY, CALIF. (AP) — California legalizes marijuana for recreational use Monday, but that won't stop federal agents from seizing the drug — even in tiny amounts — on busy freeways and back-country highways.

Marijuana possession still will be prohibited at eight Border Patrol checkpoints in California, a reminder that state and federal laws collide when it comes to pot. The U.S. government classifies marijuana as a controlled substance, like heroin and LSD.

"Prior to Jan. 1, it's going to be the same after Jan. 1, because nothing changed on our end," said Ryan Yamasaki, an assistant chief of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector. "If you're a federal law enforcement agency, you uphold federal laws."

The checkpoints, located up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Mexico, are considered a final line of defense against immigrants who elude agents at the border. They also have been a trap for U.S. citizens carrying drugs, even tiny bags of marijuana.

About 40 percent of pot seizures at Border Patrol checkpoints from fiscal years 2013 to 2016 were an ounce (28 grams) or less from U.S. citizens, according to a Government Accountability Office report last month. California's new law allows anyone 21 and over to carry up to an ounce.

The Border Patrol operates 34 permanent checkpoints along the Mexican border and an additional 103 "tactical" stops, typically cones and signs that appear for brief periods. Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of parent agency Customs and Border Protection, called drug seizures an "ancillary effect" of enforcing immigration laws. Motorists typically are released after being photographed and fingerprinted. They generally aren't charged with a crime because prosecutors consider them low priority.

The clash between state and federal marijuana laws played out on a smaller scale near the Canadian border in Washington after that state legalized marijuana in 2014. California is a far busier route for illegal crossings with many more agents.

State and federal marijuana laws have conflicted since California became the first to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996. Next week, California will be among seven states and Washington, D.C., with legal recreational pot.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of legalization, said last month that he was taking a close look at federal enforcement, suggesting a tougher stance than President Barack Obama's administration.

At highway checkpoints, Border Patrol agents look for signs of nervous drivers, like clutching steering wheels and avoiding eye contact and interrupting when passengers are asked to state citizenship. Some panicked drivers make a U-turn when they spot the checkpoint, a dead giveaway.

One recent morning on westbound Interstate 8 about 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of San Diego, an agent standing outside a booth under a large white canopy stopped drivers for a few seconds to ask their citizenship or waved them through after peering inside.

In about an hour, three raised enough suspicion to be ordered aside for a thorough vehicle search. A dog discovered a marijuana stash about the size of a thumbprint inside the pickup truck of a man with Arizona license plates who was taking his elderly uncle to a hospital appointment. It would have taken up to an hour to process the arrest, so agents released him after seizing the pot and warning it was illegal.

"I didn't know that, sorry," the driver said, walking to his truck after waiting on a bench a few minutes while the dog searched. The animal sniffed something in another car but found nothing in the seats or trunk. The apologetic driver said she smoked marijuana a week earlier, implying the odor lingered.

The Pine Valley checkpoint, amid oak- and chaparral-covered mountains on the main route from Arizona to San Diego, gets busy with drivers returning from weekend getaways but is less traveled than others.

Agents say a checkpoint on Interstate 5 between San Diego and Los Angeles can cause a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) backup in 90 seconds during peak hours. The government faces pushback over checkpoints. Some residents complain about delays and trespassers trying to circumvent checkpoints — some even dying from heat and exhaustion. Motorists who consider them a privacy invasion steadfastly refuse to answer questions and post their test encounters on YouTube.

Border Patrol officials insist they are effective. Without them, Vitiello said, smugglers would have open passage to cities like Phoenix and Albuquerque, New Mexico, once past the border. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that agents can question people at checkpoints even without reason to believe anyone in the vehicle is in the country illegally and don't need a search warrant.

Michael Chernis, an attorney who represents people charged with marijuana crimes, believes checkpoint seizures are a waste of resources but acknowledged the government is empowered. "The bottom line is, there's absolutely no protection against federal interaction when it comes to adult use," he said.

Cameroon Frees US Professor Held For Criticizing Government

Professor Patrice Nganang. A judge ordered the release of Nganang held in the Central African nation of Cameroon since early December 2017. Patrice Nganang's lawyer says the dual U.S. and Cameroonian citizen was released early Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. Emmanuel Simh says his Cameroonian passport was taken and that he will be expelled to an unknown destination. (Stony Brook University via AP, File)

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON (AP) — A New York literature professor held in the Central African nation of Cameroon since early this month for writing an article that criticized the government was released Wednesday, his lawyer said.

Stony Brook University Professor Patrice Nganang was expelled from Cameroon and has been told not to return to the country where he was born, lawyer Emmanuel Simh said. Nganang, 37, who has dual citizenship in Cameroon and the United States, had faced a Jan. 19 hearing after being detained Dec. 7. The court in Yaounde early Wednesday announced he would be let go and that all charges against him were dropped.

The charges included issuing a death threat; insulting constitutional bodies, specifically the military; and inciting violence in a Facebook post, according to the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists and other supporters.

Nganang, an essayist and novelist, wrote an article for weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique that was critical of how Cameroon's government has handled a sometimes violent secessionist movement in some English-speaking areas of the country.

The English-speaking minority in Cameroon has complained about discrimination by French speakers. Human rights groups, which have accused Cameroon authorities of trying to silence opposition voices, had urged Nganang's release.

"We can only be very happy, when we have an unlawfully and arbitrarily detained client, to see him released," Simh said. Nganang's wife, Nyasha Bakare, told The Associated Press by email Wednesday that her husband had begun his trip back to the United States and would arrive in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

"We are so very happy that this 21-day ordeal is over," Bakare wrote from Zimbabwe's capital of Harare, where she was with the couple's 8-year-old daughter. Bakare has said Nganang was on his way to join them in Zimbabwe for the holidays when he was detained at the airport in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. The family will reunite in New Jersey on Friday, she said. "As I write this from Zimbabwe, where I recently witnessed firsthand the fall of a dictator, Robert Mugabe, who was only 2 years longer in office than Cameroon's Paul Biya has been, I have to continue to hope that tyrannies in Africa will soon come to an end," Bakare wrote.

Robert Harvey, a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University who helped lead a campaign to get Nganang released, said his colleague's supporters were overjoyed by the news. "It's just wonderful, we're all ecstatic," Harvey said. He described Nganang as a professor "who believes profoundly in the power of literature to improve us as human beings."

Nganang has been teaching in the United States since 2000 and at Stony Brook University on eastern Long Island since 2007, according to Harvey. He is scheduled to work as a visiting professor at Princeton University in the spring. He has published scholarly essays, novels and books of poetry.

Last week, a military appeals court in Cameroon acquitted and freed Ahmed Abba, a correspondent for Radio France International's Hausa service, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for not denouncing acts of terrorism and laundering proceeds of terrorist acts.

Cameroon had also faced international pressure over his conviction.

AP reporter Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tunisia Tries To Defuse Tension With UAE Amid Airline Spat

Tunisian women stage a protest near the United Arab Emirates' embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, Monday Dec. 25, 2017. Tunisia has suspended all flights by Emirates to and from Tunis after the Dubai-based airline barred Tunisian women from boarding its flights last week.

TUNIS, TUNISIA (AP) — Tunisia tried to smooth out emerging tensions with the United Arab Emirates on Monday after Emirates airline barred Tunisian women from boarding its flights and the North African country responded by suspending the Dubai-based carrier's operations in the air and on the ground.

The spokeswoman for the Tunisian presidency dismissed any notion of a "diplomatic crisis" between the two countries, expressing Tunisia's "understanding" of a decision made by the UAE's government to "protect its territory and its airlines."

After the Emirates' decision caused an outcry in Tunisia, the presidential spokeswoman had to speak publicly on a radio station to explain that the ban targeting Tunisian women followed alleged serious threats of attacks.

The spokeswoman, Saïda Garrach, said the UAE's authorities explained that they made the decision following "serious security information" about alleged plans for attacks by Tunisian women, or women with Tunisian passports, from "tense hotbeds" in Syria and Iraq.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that the ban was temporary and due to security reasons. In a later written statement, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi "called for overcoming these problems as soon as possible to preserve the relations of brotherhood and cooperation between the two peoples of Tunisia and UAE."

But Caid Essebsi said Tunisia will maintain the suspension of all flights by Emirates to and from Tunis until the UAE's government reconsiders its ban. He stressed the need to preserve the dignity of all Tunisian citizens in the country and abroad and to protect the rights of Tunisian women in all circumstances.

Tunisia summoned UAE's ambassador on Friday following Emirates' ban. Speaking on Shems FM radio, Garrach, the Tunisian presidential spokeswoman, said the UAE decided on the targeted ban "swiftly, without notifying the Tunisian authorities and even their own ambassador in Tunis," given the "seriousness" of the information they held. While "understanding" the Emirati move, she said the way the UAE proceeded was "unacceptable" and required a "quick reaction" from Tunis.

In an apparent attempt to ease Tunisians' discontent, Gargash, the Emirati minister of state, tweeted that the UAE values Tunisian women and their "exemplary empowerment." The barring of Tunisian women has caused anger among rights groups and political parties in Tunisia. In a joint statement, three rights groups described the UAE's move as "a violation of the basic rights of Tunisian women and agreements on the free movement of people."

A small protest was held outside the UAE Embassy in Tunis in the afternoon. Protesters called the decision "discriminatory" and "a humiliation to Tunisian women." Since Friday, several Tunisian women have been barred from boarding Emirates flights in Tunis, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.