Monday, May 29, 2017

N Korean Missile Launch May Be Testing Rivals, Not Technology

The Associated Press
Monday 29, 2017



Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, answers to a reporter's question about North Korea's missile launch, at his official residence in Tokyo Monday morning, May 29, 2017. North Korea on Monday fired an apparent ballistic missile off its east coast that landed in the waters of Japan's economic zone, South Korean and Japanese officials said, the latest in a string of recent test launches as the North seeks to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland. (Muneyuki Tomari/Kyodo News via AP)



SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea's latest missile test Monday may have less to do with perfecting its weapons technology than with showing U.S. and South Korean forces in the region that it can strike them at will.

South Korean and Japanese officials said the suspected Scud-type short-range missile flew about 450 kilometers (280 miles) on Monday morning before landing in Japan's maritime economic zone, setting off the usual round of condemnation from Washington and the North's neighbors.

It's the latest in a string of test launches by North Korea as it seeks to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland, a drive that puts North Korea high on the list of foreign policy worries for Japan, Washington and Seoul.

North Korea already has an arsenal of reliable short-range missiles. While North Korean scientists could be tweaking them — for instance, developing a new solid-fuel short-range missile — the North tests these shorter-range missiles much less than it does its less dependable, longer-range missiles.

This sets up the possibility that North Korea hopes to use the test to show it can hit U.S. targets near and far and emphasize its defiance of U.S.-led pressure on its missile and nuclear programs, which has included vague threats from President Donald Trump and the arrival in Korean waters of powerful U.S. military hardware. Scuds are capable of striking U.S. troops in South Korea, for instance, and the two newly developed missiles tested earlier this month have potential ranges that include Japan, Guam and even, according to some South Korean analysts, Alaska.

The missile was launched from the coastal town of Wonsan, the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It landed in Japan's exclusive maritime economic zone, which is set about 200 nautical miles off the Japanese coast, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. He said there was no report of damage to planes or vessels in the area.

North Korea is still thought to be several years from its goal of being able to target U.S. mainland cities with nuclear ICBMs. South Korea says North Korea has conducted nine ballistic missile tests this year, including one in which four missiles were launched on the same day.

North Korea's state-controlled media had no immediate comment on Monday's test, but released a statement, without mentioning the launch, that accused Seoul and Washington of "aggravating the situation" on the Korean Peninsula by conducting joint military drills and other "reckless acts."

On Sunday, North Korea also said leader Kim Jong Un had watched a separate, successful test of a new type of anti-aircraft guided weapon system. The report didn't say when the test happened. The official Korean Central News Agency cited Kim as ordering officials to mass-produce and deploy the system all over the country so as to "completely spoil the enemy's wild dream to command the air."

Trump has alternated between bellicosity and flattery in his public statements about North Korea, but his administration is still working to solidify a policy on handling the North's nuclear ambitions.

Monday's launch was North's Korea's third ballistic missile launch since South Korean President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated on May 10. He has signaled an interest in expanding civilian exchanges with North Korea, but it's unclear if he'll be able to push anytime soon for major rapprochement while the North continues to make serious advances in its nuclear and missile programs.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that "North Korea's provocation by ignoring repeated warnings from international society is absolutely unacceptable." Suga, the Japanese Cabinet secretary, said the missile fell about 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of the Oki islands in southwestern Japan and 500 kilometers (310 miles) west of Sado island in central Japan.

Suga said Japanese officials will discuss North Korea with a senior foreign policy adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Yang Jiechi, who was scheduled to visit Japan later Monday. China is North Korea's only major ally.

Besides its regular ballistic missile test-launches, North Korea carried out two of its five nuclear tests last year — in January and September. Outside analysts believe North Korea may be able to arm some of its shorter-range missiles with nuclear warheads, though the exact state of its secretive weapons program is unknown.

AP journalists Mari Yamaguchi and Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Friday, May 26, 2017

US Plans First Test Of ICBM Intercept, With N Korea On Mind

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 26, 2017





Ing a file image of a missile launch conducted by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. With North Korea’s nuclear missile threat in mind, the Pentagon is planning a missile defense test next week that for the first time will target an intercontinental-range missile.




WASHINGTON (AP) — Preparing for North Korea's growing threat, the Pentagon will try to shoot down an intercontinental-range missile for the first time in a test next week. The goal is to more closely simulate a North Korean ICBM aimed at the U.S. homeland, officials said Friday

The American interceptor has a spotty track record, succeeding in nine of 17 attempts since 1999. The most recent test, in June 2014, was a success, but that followed three straight failures. The system has evolved from the multibillion-dollar effort triggered by President Ronald Reagan's 1983 push for a "Star Wars" solution to ballistic missile threats during the Cold War — when the Soviet Union was the only major worry.

North Korea is now the focus of U.S. efforts because its leader, Kim Jong Un, has vowed to field a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching American territory. He has yet to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, but Pentagon officials believe he is speeding in that direction.

Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this week that "left unchecked," Kim will eventually succeed. The Pentagon has a variety of missile defense systems, but the one designed with a potential North Korean ICBM in mind is perhaps the most technologically challenging. Critics say it also is the least reliable.

The basic defensive idea is to fire a rocket into space upon warning of a hostile missile launch. The rocket releases a 5-foot-long device called a "kill vehicle" that uses internal guidance systems to steer into the path of the oncoming missile's warhead, destroying it by force of impact. Officially known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the Pentagon likens it to hitting a bullet with a bullet.

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for developing and testing the system, has scheduled the intercept test for Tuesday. An interceptor is to be launched from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and soar toward the target, which will be fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. If all goes as planned, the "kill vehicle" will slam into the ICBM-like target's mock warhead high over the Pacific Ocean.

The target will be a custom-made missile meant to simulate an ICBM, meaning it will fly faster than missiles used in previous intercept tests, according to Christopher Johnson, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency. The target is not a mock-up of an actual North Korean ICBM.

"We conduct increasingly complex test scenarios as the program matures and advances," Johnson said Friday. "Testing against an ICBM-type threat is the next step in that process." Officials say this is not a make-or-break test.

While it wasn't scheduled with the expectation of an imminent North Korean missile threat, the military will closely watch whether it shows progress toward the stated goal of being able to reliably shoot down a small number of ICBMs targeting the United States. The Pentagon is thirsting for a success story amid growing fears about North Korea's escalating capability.

"I can't imagine what they're going to say if it fails," said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He headed the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001 and has closely studied the missile defense system.

"These tests are scripted for success, and what's been astonishing to me is that so many of them have failed," Coyle said. The interceptor system has been in place since 2004, but it has never been used in combat or fully tested. There currently are 32 interceptors in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg, north of Los Angeles. The Pentagon says it will have eight more, for a total of 44, by the end of this year.

In its 2018 budget presented to Congress this week, the Pentagon proposed spending $7.9 billion on missile defense, including $1.5 billion for the ground-based midcourse defense program. Other elements of that effort include the Patriot designed to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which the U.S. has installed in South Korea as defense against medium-range North Korean missiles.

The Trump administration has yet to announce its intentions on missile defense. President Donald Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to undertake a ballistic missile defense review. Some experts argue the current strategy for shooting down ICBM-range missiles, focused on the silo-based interceptors, is overly expensive and inadequate. They say a more fruitful approach would be to destroy or disable such missiles before they can be launched, possibly by cyberattack.

Trump Travel Ban Blocked; Fight Headed For Supreme Court

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 26, 2017




NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony to unveil artifacts from the World Trade Center and Berlin Wall for the new NATO headquarters, Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Brussels.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's revised travel ban "speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination," a federal appeals court said Thursday in ruling against the executive order targeting six Muslim-majority countries.

Trump's administration vowed to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 10-3 vote, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the ban likely violates the Constitution. And it upheld a lower court ruling that blocks the Republican administration from cutting off visas for people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th Circuit is the first appeals court to rule on the revised travel ban unveiled in March. Trump's administration had hoped it would avoid the legal problems that the first version from January encountered. A second appeals court, the 9th U.S. Circuit based in San Francisco, is also weighing the revised travel ban after a federal judge in Hawaii blocked it.

The Supreme Court almost certainly would step into the case if asked. The justices almost always have the final say when a lower court strikes down a federal law or presidential action. Trump could try to persuade the Supreme Court to allow the policy to take effect, even while the justices weigh whether to hear the case, by arguing that the court orders blocking the ban make the country less safe. If the administration does ask the court to step in, the justices' first vote could signal the court's ultimate decision.

A central question in the case before the 4th Circuit was whether courts should consider Trump's public statements about wanting to bar Muslims from entering the country as evidence that the policy was primarily motivated by the religion.

Trump's administration argued the court should not look beyond the text of the executive order, which doesn't mention religion. The countries were not chosen because they are predominantly Muslim but because they present terrorism risks, the administration said.

But Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that the government's "asserted national security interest ... appears to be a post hoc, secondary justification for an executive action rooted in religious animus and intended to bar Muslims from this country."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the court's ruling blocks Trump's "efforts to strengthen this country's national security." Trump is not required to admit people from "countries that sponsor or shelter terrorism until he determines that they can be properly vetted" and don't pose a security threat, Sessions said.

The three dissenting judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, said the majority was wrong to look beyond the text of the order. Calling the executive order a "modest action," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote that Supreme Court precedent required the court to consider the order "on its face." Looked at that way, the executive order "is entirely without constitutional fault," he wrote.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, said if the Supreme Court follows a partisan divide, the Trump administration may fare better since five of the nine are Republican nominees. Still, he said, it's difficult to make a confident prediction because "Supreme Court justices don't always vote in ideological lockstep."

The first travel ban issued Jan. 27 was aimed at seven countries and triggered chaos and protests across the country as travelers were stopped from boarding international flights and detained at airports for hours. Trump tweaked the order after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the ban.

The new version made it clear the 90-day ban covering those six countries doesn't apply to those who already have valid visas. It got rid of language that would give priority to religious minorities and removed Iraq from the list of banned countries.

Critics said the changes don't erase the legal problems with the ban. The case ruled on by the 4th Circuit was originally brought in Maryland by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center on behalf of organizations as well as people who live in the U.S. and fear the executive order will prevent them from being reunited with family members from the banned countries.

"President Trump's Muslim ban violates the Constitution, as this decision strongly reaffirms," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who argued the case. "The Constitution's prohibition on actions disfavoring or condemning any religion is a fundamental protection for all of us, and we can all be glad that the court today rejected the government's request to set that principle aside."

Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond, Virginia; Mark Sherman and Darlene Superville in Washington and Matt Barakat in McLean, Virginia, contributed to this report.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump Touts Ultimate Peace, But Same Obstacles Remain

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave at the Israel museum in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

JERUSALEM (AP) — President Donald Trump showered his Middle Eastern hosts with praise and declared a breakthrough regional peace within reach. No one contradicted him, but behind the pageantry and politesse a wall of skepticism remains solidly intact.

It's often said that the contours of Israeli-Palestinian peace are well-known. And as Trump professed, much of the Arab world does seem ready to normalize relations with the Jewish state. But the obstacles that bedeviled industrious outside brokers for decades — including Barack Obama and John Kerry — have not been removed.

Trump did not outline his vision for getting around them, or even the process that might enable such a thing. And he asserted he wasn't here to impose and lecture, and that changes must come from the region itself.

It was a detail-free strategy that he has employed with varying success domestically, whether the issue is health care or tax reform. He avoided the key sticking points that scuttled talks in the past, ignoring the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlement construction, borders or refugees — and did not even utter the words "Palestinian state."

Israeli political commentator Raviv Drucker said afterward that Trump's "understanding of the conflict is as deep as cardboard" and dismissed his ambitions as "almost charlatanism." But politicians were attentive nonetheless and at times even gushing. Many in both Riyadh and Jerusalem seemed inclined to view Trump as stronger than Obama, and to welcome a realpolitik devoid of pesky humanitarian concerns.

The subtext seemed to be: reserve judgment and handle with caution. Here's a look at where things stand: Q: What is the current situation on the ground? A: The Palestinian Authority, an autonomy government negotiated in the 1990s, controls pockets where most West Bank Palestinians live but which amount to less than 40 percent of the land. It also has lost control of the seaside Gaza Strip, which since 2005 has been free of Israeli troops and settlers, to Hamas militants.

Gaza is blockaded from the sea and air by Israel and its land borders are sealed and controlled by Israel and Egypt. Israel also controls entry and exit to the West Bank and travel within it, and the Palestinians there cannot vote in Israeli elections although Jewish settlers can.

Q: What are these widely envisioned contours of Israeli-Palestinian peace? A: Peace efforts since 2000 were based on the same foundation: a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank. Israel would keep some West Bank areas which contain most of its settlers and swap these for land in Israel proper. There was to be some sharing of Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees and their descendants could move to Palestine, but generally not to Israel, in order to retain its Jewish majority. It was generally assumed Israel would remove any settlers who live too deep inside the West Bank to be easily incorporated into Israel within a redrawn border — perhaps 100,000 of them.

Q: Why has no final peace deal been achieved? A: Israel's maximal offer never quite touched the Palestinians' minimal demands. For one thing, dividing Jerusalem proved too difficult, considering Israel and Palestine will need a border but everyone wants the city to be open. The Palestinians, despite winks and nods, never formally renounced a refugees' demand to return to long lost properties, a non-starter for Israel. Continued Israeli settlement construction and occasional Palestinian violence further eroded trust.

Q: Where does the Arab world stand? A: Egypt and Jordan have formal peace treaties with Israel and at least on the security front have increasingly tight relations. In recent years quiet cooperation has developed especially on the intelligence front with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states — Sunni Muslim nations who like Israel see a threatening rival in the Shiite theocracy of Iran.

The Arab League recently reaffirmed a 15-year-old offer of regional peace in exchange for a total Israeli pullout from occupied lands. But bringing relations into the open has been contingent on the elusive Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Part of the complication is the deep resonance for Muslims of Jerusalem, home to the religion's holiest sites after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Q: Might there be creative solutions? A: Absent the unlikely prospect of an electrifying Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, they will be needed. One possibility is an interim settlement that gives the Palestinians a state in some of the land they seek. Perhaps a separate deal can be reached with the Arab world on Jerusalem only. Or incremental steps might build confidence: a settlement freeze in exchange for some normalization with the Gulf, or an expansion of the autonomous zones, or a partial removal of the blockade of Gaza. Israeli hardliners favor this "ground up approach," even though they oppose Palestinian independence. In theory, there is also the widely unloved possibility of a combined single state roughly equally divided between Israelis and Palestinians. To avoid that outcome, disastrous to the Zionist cause, perhaps Israel would abandon some lands unilaterally, rewarded by Arabs or Americans but not the Palestinians.

Q: Is there a Trump factor? A: Both Israeli and Arab leaders seemed to respect Trump as a volcanic type of U.S. leader, disinterested in detail yet determined to deal, who should not be openly crossed or unwisely underestimated. That could be useful if the time comes to apply U.S. pressure in a way previous administrations hesitated to do.

This could apply to the Palestinians, if Trump wants to push something other than the classic two-state final peace deal. He might also turn on Israel: Netanyahu, so clearly a friend and close to the Republicans, will have trouble ignoring him the way he did with Obama.

It may not come to that. Part of the problem has been Israel's distrust of Arab intentions. On the other hand, Israelis are traumatized by their ostracization and at being accused of apartheid toward the Palestinians. Deputy Cabinet Minister Michael Oren, ex-Israeli ambassador to Washington, suggested Trump's extraordinary tenderness might actually move the needle: "The Israelis respond to love, not pressure."

Russia-Trump Campaign Contacts A Concern, Ex-CIA Chief Says

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 23, 2017




Then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sits in the front row in the East Room of the White House, in Washington. Attorneys for Flynn say that a daily "escalating public frenzy against him" and the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel has created a legally dangerous environment for him to cooperate with a Senate investigation. That's according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press sent Monday by Flynn's legal team to the Senate Intelligence committee. It lays out the case for Flynn, the former national security adviser, to invoke his right against self-incrimination.



WASHINGTON (AP) — Former CIA Director John Brennan told Congress Tuesday he personally warned Russia last summer against interfering in the U.S. presidential election and was so concerned about Russian contacts with people involved in the Trump campaign that he convened top counterintelligence officials to focus on it.

Brennan's testimony to the House intelligence committee was the clearest public description yet of the significance these contacts play in counterintelligence investigations that continue to hang over the White House.

Brennan, who was President Barack Obama's CIA director, said he couldn't say whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, an issue being investigated by the FBI and congressional committees.

"I don't have sufficient information to make a determination about whether or not such cooperation or complicity or collusion was taking place," Brennan said. "But I know there was a basis to have individuals pull those threads."

President Donald Trump has predicted the investigations won't find collusion, and his efforts to cast doubt and curb the probes have led to the appointment of a special counsel at the Justice Department.

News reports that Trump asked his national intelligence director and National Security Agency chief to state publicly there was no evidence of collusion have heightened criticism. Dan Coats, the current U.S. director of national intelligence, declined to comment Tuesday on a Washington Post report that said the president had asked him to publicly deny any collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign.

Coats told senators at a separate hearing that it would be inappropriate to discuss private conversations with the president. Nevertheless, Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Coats and NSA director Mike Rogers should provide explanations.

The White House said the hearings support the administration's version of events. A day earlier, Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself in response to the Senate committee's request for details about interactions between him and the Russians. Trump associates Paul Manafort and Roger Stone have provided the committee with information, while former campaign adviser Carter Page has not.

"I can only say I have fully complied with their specific request," Stone told The Associated Press in an email Tuesday. He said he told the committee he remains ready to testify without immunity and in public.

Investigators also have questions about contacts between the Russians and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Brennan said he had seen intelligence that "revealed contacts and interactions" between Russian officials and Americans "involved" in the Trump campaign. He said this was cause for concern "because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals, and it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals."

In late July of last year there was so much concern that he convened a group of officials from the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency to focus on it exclusively. "The purpose was to ensure that experts in key agencies had access to information and intelligence relevant to Russian actions so that we could have as full an appreciation as possible on the scope, nature, and intentions of this Russian activity," Brennan said.

He said he personally warned the Russians in August to stop interfering in the U.S. democratic process, telling a senior Russian security official that continued meddling would backfire and prevent any warming of relations after the election.

He said the Russian official denied such interference but also said he would relay the concern to President Vladimir Putin. Trump, currently on a nine-day international trip, has had his own conversations with the Russians questioned in light of reports that he shared extremely classified intelligence with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office on May 10.

Brennan said that while he was CIA director he shared classified information with Russia and other nations about threats related to terrorism. But if reports about what Trump shared with the Russians are true, he said, it would be a violation of protocol. This type of information is typically shared in intelligence channels and not between the U.S. president and foreign diplomats, Brennan said.

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this report.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Report: Over 31 Million People Internally Displaced In 2016

BY EDITH M. LEDERER
ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 22, 2017



UNITED NATIONS — More than 31 million people were displaced in their own countries last year — over 75 percent as a result of natural disasters and weather-related events, and the rest from violence and conflicts with Congo and Syria topping the list, according to a new report released Monday.

East Asia and the Pacific accounted for two-thirds of the displacements related to extreme weather events including storms, floods, wildfires and severe winter conditions in 2016 — almost double the number for 2015.

The center, which is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that in recent years there have been roughly twice as many internally displaced people as refugees who flee to another country, and the gap between the numbers has been growing since 1997.

Yet, the report said, “2016 was a year of stark contrast between the attention given to refugees and migrants and the lack of political concern for the millions of people displaced inside their country by conflict, violence and disasters.”

The center warned that displacement will continue to have a major impact unless its main causes — poverty, environmental change and state fragility — are addressed. It urged new financial and political investments to tackle the causes of the “displacement crises.”


“In 2016, one person every second was forced to flee their home inside their own country,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It is urgent to put internal displacement back on the global agenda.”

According to the center, 31.1 million new cases of internal displacement by conflict, violence and disasters were recorded in 2016, an increase of 3.3 million from 2015. The latest figures on the U.N. refugee agency’s website showed 14.4 million new refugees in 2014.

A majority of the 24.2 million displacements caused by disasters in 2016 occurred in low- and lower middle-income countries as a result of weather-related events including several severe typhoons and hurricanes, the center said.

The countries with the worst displacement were China with 7.4 million people forced to flee their homes and the Philippines with 5.9 million, India with 2.4 million, Indonesia with 1.2 million and the United States with 1.1 million, the center said.

But it said “small island states suffer disproportionately once population size is taken into account.”

Of the 6.9 million new displacements caused by conflict in 2016, the center said sub-Saharan Africa overtook the Middle East as the region with the highest level.

Congo had the highest number of new displacements last year — 922,000 — and overtook Syria, with 824,000, it said. They were followed by Iraq with 659,000 people, Afghanistan with 653,000 and Nigeria with 501,000.


The center said the number of people driven from their homes in Congo was a nearly 50 percent increase from 2015, due to the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces and an increase in clashes in southern and central regions.

Alexandra Bilak, the center’s director, said the upsurge in Congo “highlights how the failure to address the underlying causes of conflict and crisis” result in recurring displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

According to the report, 12 percent of new displacements in 2016 “were associated with criminal, political or communal violence across the world.”

“From gang violence in Central America to post-electoral violence in Burundi, around 850,000 incidents were recorded,” it said.

In El Salvador, the center said 220,000 people were displaced by criminal and gang violence last year, “placing the country second in the ranking of highest new displacements relative to population size.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Biden: It's Time For America To Regain Unity And Purpose

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SUNDAY, MAY 21, 2017




Former Vice President Joe Biden attends the opening ceremony for Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Biden spoke to graduates Sunday, May 21, at Maine's Colby College, urging them to resist the impulse to throw up their hands after an election that played to society's "baser instincts." He told his audience they have a role to play in making things better, and said it's time for Americans to "regain our sense of unity and purpose."



WATERVILLE, Maine (AP) — Former Vice President Joe Biden gave assurances Sunday that the country's current divisiveness brought on by a presidential election that "churned up some of the ugliest realities" of society will be temporary.

Biden told graduating seniors at Colby College to resist the impulse to throw up their hands after an election that played to society's "baser instincts." "It's time for America to get up. It's time to regain our sense of unity and purpose. It's time for us to restart realizing who in God's name we are," he said during a sunny commencement address on the library lawn.

The Democrat who served two terms alongside President Barack Obama expressed his own disbelief in the state of affairs. "This past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric and stoking of our darkest emotions," he said.

But he said the corrosive politics and us-against-them populism won't be permanent. "I assure you it's temporary. I assure you it's transitory. The American people will not sustain this attitude," he said.

He encouraged the 480 graduates from 36 states and 42 countries to resist the temptation to retreat into their own bubbles, engaging in a comfortable lifestyle and surrounding themselves by people with similar viewpoints.

Instead, he encouraged them to get out and take risks, to treat others with dignity, and to build bonds of empathy with others. "Life can't be lived in a self-referential, self-reinforcing, self-righteous echo chamber we build for ourselves online. Living on screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it easy to reduce others to stereotypes, to write another human being off as a bad person," he said.

Biden never mentioned Republican President Donald Trump by name but he came close when he talked about standing up to sexual harassment and sexual violence. He made a reference to so-called sexually charged locker room conversations — referencing Trump's downplaying of lewd remarks as "locker room talk" — before telling the group: "It doesn't go on like someone said it does."

Republicans Already Giving Trump's Budget A Cold Shoulder

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 21, 2017




A GPO worker stacks copies of "Analytical Perspectives Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2018" onto a pallet at the U.S. Government Publishing Office's (GPO) plant in Washington.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's budget hasn't been released yet, but that's not stopping some of Capitol Hill's most important Republicans from giving it a cold shoulder. Trump's blueprint for the 2018 budget year comes out Tuesday, and it's certain to include a wave of cuts to benefit programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, federal employee pensions and farm subsidies.

The fleshed-out proposal follows up on an unpopular partial release in March that targeted the budgets of domestic agencies and foreign aid for cuts averaging 10 percent — and made lawmakers in both parties recoil.

The new cuts are unpopular as well. "We think it's wrongheaded," said Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, when asked about looming cuts to farm programs. "Production agriculture is in the worst slump since the depression — 50 percent drop in the net income for producers. They need this safety net," said Conaway, R-Texas.

Trump's budget plan promises to balance the federal ledger by the end of a 10-year window, even while exempting Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits from cuts. To achieve balance, the plan by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney relies on optimistic estimates of economic growth, and the surge in revenues that would result, while abandoning Trump's promise of a "massive tax cut."

Instead, the Trump tax plan promises an overhaul that would cut tax rates but rely on erasing tax breaks and economic growth to end up as "revenue neutral." Trump is also targeting the Medicaid health program that provides care to the poor and disabled, and nursing home care to millions of older people who could not otherwise afford it.

The House had a bitter debate on health care before a razor-thin 217-213 passage in early May of a GOP health bill that included more than $800 billion in Medicaid cuts over the coming decade. Key Republicans are not interested in another round of cuts to the program.

"I would think that the health care bill is our best policy statement on Medicaid going forward," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the program.

Details on Trump's budget will not be publicly released until Tuesday, but Mulvaney has briefed Republicans about what's coming and his staff has provided targeted leaks to the media. Trump's full budget submission to Congress is months overdue and follows the release two months ago of an outline for the discretionary portion of the budget, covering defense, education, foreign aid, housing, and environmental programs, among others. Their budgets pass each year through annual appropriations bills.

Trump's earlier blueprint proposed a $54 billion, 10 percent increase for the military above an existing cap on Pentagon spending, financed by an equal cut to nondefense programs. Those cuts rang alarm bells for many Republicans, who were particularly upset about proposals to eliminate community development block grants, slash medical research and eviscerate foreign aid.

Trump's GOP allies rejected such cuts when wrapping up long-overdue legislation for the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30. There's little sign they will have a change of heart now, especially with Trump's administration in turmoil and his poll ratings at historic lows.

"The budget's a starting point. We'll go to work from there," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Republicans controlling Congress have delayed action on their companion budget measure, waiting for Trump to go first. This year's budget debate, Republicans hope, would grease the way for a major overhaul of the loophole-cluttered tax system. But House conservatives also want to embark on a round of cuts to benefit programs and are open to Trump's suggestions for cuts to mandatory programs such as federal employee pensions.

Presidential budgets are mere suggestions, and the White House has discretion to assume higher economic growth rates of up to 3 percent or so under Trump's agenda of tax changes, loosened regulations and infrastructure spending.

Tuesday's budget will also include proposals such as paid leave for parents after the birth or adoption of a child, a $200 billion infrastructure plan that Trump officials claim could leverage, along with private investment, up to $1 trillion in construction projects, and funding for Trump's oft-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Report: FBI Probe Moves Into White House

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 20, 2017



Air Force One with President Donald Trump aboard, taxis for takeoff at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, May 19, 2017. Trump is departing for his first overseas trip.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump told Russian diplomats last week his firing of "nut job" James Comey had eased the pressure on him, even as the FBI's Trump-Russia investigation had moved into the White House, according to reports Friday that pursued the president as he began his maiden foreign trip.

White House hopes that Trump could leave scandalous allegations at home were crushed in a one-two punch of revelations that landed shortly after his departure. A Washington Post report, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, said a senior Trump adviser is now considered a "person of interest" in the law enforcement investigation into whether Trump's campaign associates coordinated with Russia in an effort to sway the 2016 election.

And The New York Times reported that the president had told Russian officials he felt the dismissal of his FBI director had relieved "great pressure" on him. The White House has said the firing was unrelated to the FBI's Russia investigation.

Late Friday, the Senate intelligence committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify at an open hearing at an undetermined date after Memorial Day. Comey will certainly be asked about encounters that precipitated his firing, including a January dinner in which, Comey has told associates, Trump asked for his loyalty. In the Oval Office weeks later, Comey told associates, the president asked him to shut down an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey is known to produce memos documenting especially sensitive or unsettling encounters, such as after the February meeting. Comey turned down an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The new headlines were a fresh indication that Trump would not be able to change the subject from what appears to be an intensifying investigation reaching toward the president and his inner circle. The White House repeated its assertion that a "thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity."

It did not deny the Times report that Trump was critical of Comey to the Russians the day after he fired him. The Times reported Trump noted the Russia investigation as he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak of his decision to fire Comey.

"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," the Times reported that Trump said during the May 10 meeting. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the president's rhetoric part of his deal-making.

"By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," Spicer said. "The investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

As for the separate report of a "person of interest" under investigation, the Post said the senior White House adviser "under scrutiny" is someone close to the president but did not name the person. Among Trump's senior White House advisers are several former campaign officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. In March, Kushner volunteered to answer lawmakers' questions about meetings he had with Russian officials during the transition.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would not discuss information provided in classified briefings and said the House Oversight committee had already asked for documents related to Comey's firing.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the federal investigation in an effort to re-establish independence from the White House. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Congress Friday he stands by a memo he wrote bluntly criticizing Comey. But he made clear it was not his intention for Trump or other White House officials to use the document to justify firing Comey, which is what they have done.

In closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Thursday and Friday, Rosenstein said he wrote the memo after Trump told him one day before the May 9 firing that he wanted to dismiss Comey. Rosenstein said that though he was personally fond of Comey, "I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader."

The Justice Department on Friday released the text of Rosenstein's opening remarks for the briefings on Capitol Hill. Trump has said he plans to nominate a new FBI director soon, but there was no announcement Friday.

The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well. But lawmakers at both congressional sessions expressed frustration that Rosenstein would say little in answer to their questions about his actions — or others' — before Comey's firing.

"There was considerable frustration in the room," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee. "This renewed my confidence that we should not have confidence in this administration. I don't think (Rosenstein) did a lot to bolster our confidence in him today."

The White House has struggled since Comey's firing to explain the chain of events that led to it and the Justice Department's involvement in that decision. Trump has insisted at times that the decision was his alone, but he also has pointed to the "very strong" recommendation from Rosenstein.

Rosenstein made it clear to the lawmakers that he drafted his memo only after Trump told him of his plans to dismiss the FBI director. "My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination," he said. But he added, "I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it."

The memo focused on Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, particularly the FBI director's decision to divulge details to the public at various junctures during her presidential campaign against Trump. Rosenstein denounced that decision as "profoundly wrong and unfair."

Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment of a special counsel, a prosecutor with wide authority to investigate Russia's interference and other potential crimes uncovered. However, at a combative news conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.

Asked point-blank if he'd done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no — and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: "I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so."

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Richard Lardner, Stephen Ohlemacher, Andrew Taylor, Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick, Eric Tucker and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

‘Anambra 2017: Ojukwu Left Biafra, APGA For Ndigbo ‘

BY NWABUEZE OKONKWO
VANGUARD, MAY 19, 2017







ONITSHA (VANGUARD) – Col. Joe Achuzia, one of the top Biafran war commanders and a very close, trusted associate of the late Biafra war lord, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, popularly referred to as “Air Raid’’ has revealed that the two major legacies which Ojukwu bequeathed to the entire Igbo race were Biafra and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA.

He said the motive behind the formation of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA by Ojukwu and his allies was so formidable that the survival of the political platform should be a concern to all Ndigbo.

Achuzia who spoke when the Senior Special Assistant to Gov. Willie Obiano on political matters, Hon. Arinzechukwu Awogu attended his 90th Birthday ceremony at his country home in Asaba, Delta state, frowned at the notion which tended to suggest that APGA is a mere political party, while insisting that APGA is the soul of Ndigbo and at the same time the heart of Igbo survival as an identity vehicle to Igbo quest to managing its own affairs politically.

Col. Achuzia recalled that having succeeded in bequeathing Biafra and APGA as two major legacies to Ndigbo, Ojukwu’s soul soul rested, adding that his thought on Biafra was for a final abode where nobody could cross into to harass his people and APGA, as a platform to resist political limitations against Ndigbo in Nigeria.

 He posited that ever since the first republic, Ndigbo were not only denied a shot at the presidency as no political party was willing to give them presidential ticket but were also prevented from having ideological political platform to rally round their own people. 

According to Col. Achuzia who was a British trained Aeronautic engineer and one-time Secretary General of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, “I commend Gov. Willie Obiano for living up to the dreams of APGA’s founding fathers, despite the challenges in human management, adding, I implore Obiano as APGA’s chairman board of trustees, BoT to ensure that APGA produced presidential candidate in 2019 general election if Biafra has not been restored or actualized by then”.

 The fiery war commander revealed that it was Ojukwu’s desire for it to be on record that an Igbo ran for the presidency of Nigeria in every election year and that the Igbo come together under a political unity and nurture same to national mainstream. 

Responding, Awogu, recalled that Col. Achuzia was the first chairman of APGA in Delta state and expressed happiness that the nonagenarian is still conscious of the survival of the party with Igbo identity and assured him that Obiano has worked exceptionally well to merit a second term mandate from the Anambra electorate

 According to Awogu, Obiano’s hard work will in turn energized the party to continue to be making in roads. 

He however used the opportunity to call on Anambra electorate to not only ensure the continuity of APGA rule in Anambra state but to be ready to defend their votes come November 18 at all cost against all forms of manipulations from the opposition parties.

Trump, Dogged By Questions At Home, Makes First Trip Abroad

BY JON LEMIRE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 19, 2017




President Donald Trump accompanied by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, calls on a member of the media during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Washington.




WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's maiden international trip, a five-stop marathon across the Middle East and Europe, has long loomed as crucial first test abroad for the chaos-courting president.

That was before he fired his FBI director — and the chain reaction of scandal that followed. Now, with the eyes of the world upon him, the president will embark on his big trip carrying the baggage of dire troubles at home. As he tries to calm allies worried about his "America First" message, he'll be followed by fallout from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to probe the president's campaign ties with Russia.

"There has never been a president taking his first international trip being dogged by scandal like this," said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "He's already a president viewed skeptically by much of the world. And while the pictures from the trip may be great, the White House can't change the headlines that will follow him wherever he goes."

Trump's trip was always going to be dramatic. U.S. allies have been rattled by his warnings about pulling back from the world. He is tasked with urging a united front against terror by appealing to some of the same corners of the Muslim world he has tried to keep out of the United States with his travel ban. Last week, he added new layers of complication by disclosing classified intelligence to a longtime adversary.

Still, the White House once hoped the trip, wrapped in the pomp and circumstance of diplomatic protocol, could offer a chance at a reset after a tumultuous first four months in office. Trump's advisers saw it as an opportunity for the United States to boldly reassert itself on the world stage and resume a leadership role that the administration believes was abdicated by President Barack Obama. Trump's powerful senior adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, led a West Wing team to craft the agenda, laden with religious symbolism.

Still, Trump hasn't been eager to seize the opportunity. It's been more than a half-century since any president waited as long to take his first foreign trip. The itinerary, which begins Saturday in Saudi Arabia, is a startlingly ambitious excursion for a president who dislikes travel and has displayed a shaky grasp of foreign affairs.

Each stop comes with high stakes. In Saudi Arabia, the president — whose campaign was marked by heated anti-Muslim rhetoric and whose administration has tried to enact a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries — will deliver a speech to the Islamic world meant to be a clear contrast with the vision Obama laid out in his first trip to the region.

In Israel, Trump will meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looking to smooth over fresh tensions. Israel was in an uproar earlier this week after U.S. officials confirmed Trump shared highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State group with senior Russian officials visiting the White House. The information, about an IS threat related to the use of laptops on aircraft, came from Israel and there were concerns a valuable Israeli asset could be in danger, a U.S. official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the sensitive material.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster added to the alarm by refusing to declare the Western Wall a part of Israel. U.S. policy holds that ownership of the holiest site where Jews can pray, as with the rest of Jerusalem, is subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

In Rome, the president will call upon Pope Francis, the popular, liberal-minded pontiff. Trump denounced Francis during the campaign, calling the holiest man in the Catholic faith "disgraceful" for questioning his faith.

In Brussels, Trump will attend a meeting of NATO, the World War II-era alliance which Trump has repeatedly mused about abandoning because member states weren't paying their fair share. He recently has shifted to reassure wary allies that he remains committed to the pact.

And in Sicily, the president will meet with the other leaders of the G7, a gathering of Western economic powers. Key parts of the group are unsettled by Trump's unpredictability and his willingness to cheer on nationalist sentiment.

Trump's itinerary is heavy with religious symbolism. He'll visit the birthplace of Islam, the Jewish homeland and the Vatican. Officials say the message is "unity." "He strongly believes that it is the strength of the faith of people in these religions that will stand up and ultimately be victorious over these forces of terrorism," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

Administration officials believe the unexpected move of going to Saudi Arabia first was meant to underscore the seriousness of the United States' commitment to fighting extremist groups like the Islamic State. Trump, whose denunciations of Iran have been welcomed by the Saudis, wants to frame the conflict not as one between the West and Islam, but simply between good and evil, according to his aides.

While some Middle East leaders will likely greet Trump warmly, he could receive a far cooler reception in Europe. Though Pope Francis has said he'd "never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out," others on the continent have sharply criticized Trump. That includes France's newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, who denounced Trump's musings on abandoning the Paris climate treaty, a likely point of contention in Sicily.

Trump's inauguration sparked thousands of protesters to fill the streets of several European capitals, chaotic scenes that could be repeated during his stops in Rome, Brussels and Sicily. "Welcome to the White House abroad," said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary. "This is a great opportunity for the president to change the subject, to make real news. But the downside is that it could be dominated by domestic-style questions. ... Every first trip is over-scrutinized. The whole world is watching."

Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire

Nigerian Women Are Being Trafficked Into Sicily At A Rapidly Increasing Rate

BY MAGGIE NEIL
MAY 18, 2017



This Nigerian woman, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the shame associated with prostitution, was trafficked into Sicily and has struggled to rebuild her life.




Disheveled, barefoot and bleary-eyed, the Nigerian girls are some of the first to walk off the boats. A dream realized; they arrive in Europe — though the scene is anything but romantic.

Caskets are carried off, carrying those who didn’t survive the two-day journey across the Mediterranean, from Libya to the Sicilian port of Palermo. Babies wail and those sick and burned from the effects of the gasoline mixed with saltwater stumble towards the medical tent.

The Nigerian girls are given a plastic bag containing a liter of water, a piece of fruit and a sandwich. They're ushered to a vinyl tent for “vulnerabili” — the vulnerable ones.

For at least 30 years, Nigerian women have been trafficked into Europe for sex work, but numbers have spiked recently. In 2014, the trickle of a few hundred women a year grew to nearly 1,500. The following year, it increased again to 5,600. In 2016, at least 11,009 Nigerian women and girls arrived on Italian shores.

These women used to arrive on planes with visas. Now, they come the “back way” — the smuggling route that has developed across Africa to bring hundreds of thousands of Africans to Europe.

Women make up a smaller percentage of total African arrivals to Europe, and aid response for them has been slow and misguided. Although the International Organization of Migration estimates that 80 percent of Nigerian females coming to Europe are trafficked, aid workers have no way of telling those seeking opportunity from those forced against their will. They hand out flyers warning against trafficking.

Time is of the essence: If officials can establish trust, girls who have not been trafficked may be less likely to become ensnared in sex work once they are in Europe. And those who were trafficked are more likely to supply details that reveal that they have been trafficked, allowing the IOM to refer them to Italy’s national anti-trafficking network, or local prosecutors, who can help them get international protection.

In the best-case scenario, they are placed in a safe house run by nuns or an NGO, which is supposed to house them for up to three years and try to integrate them into European life with school and job training, with the goal of becoming independent.

That’s the ideal scenario — but it rarely happens. Safe houses are built for a dozen women — there aren’t nearly enough to take in the thousands of women arriving.

Traffickers know this.

Before leaving for Italy, Nigerian traffickers give the girls and women a phone number for a madam, and tell them to call as soon as they arrive. Madams are older Nigerian women, sometimes former prostitutes themselves, who have climbed the organizational ranks. A younger male is also involved, working for the madam by following, watching and accompanying the young women.

After arriving, the Nigerian women are taken with other asylum-seekers to facilities around Italy, built to house them as they await their documents. Teeming with people from Nigeria, The Gambia, Eritrea and elsewhere, many of whom have been there more than a year, they’re allowed to come and go, and use cell phones.

“Madams actually recruit inside the big immigration centers,” explains Tiziana Bianchini, who works for Lotta Contro l’Emarginazione, a Milan-based organization with an anti-trafficking mission. This means that girls who may not have been trafficked run the risk of falling into criminal networks once they are in Italy.

Peace is one teen girl who, in 2013 at the age of 17, migrated by boat to Sicily and was brought to CARA of Mineo, the largest refugee camp in Europe. Located in Sicily’s eastern province of Catania, the center, once an American military base, houses more than 3,000 men and women. It has become notorious for its dubious finances and for giving residents cigarettes instead of the payments they are entitled to under Italian law.

While she still lived in the camp, Peace stopped a Nigerian man on a street nearby, and asked to borrow his phone. She dialed the number she had been told to, and spoke to the Nigerian woman on the other line. Within days she was a sex worker. “Once you make the call, you’re off. You never go back to the camp,” she says.

I met her earlier this year in a small room in Sicily where church services are held, several months after she left the street.

She’s an energetic, fast-talking, smiley young woman, whose youthful stature is nonetheless marked by a distinct confidence. She wears her hair up high, with a long braid hanging down her back, bouncing as she walks and talks in the glaring Sicilian sunlight.

Peace isn't her real name — it's an alias we agreed to use because she still lives in fear of her traffickers, or that she’ll be deported. Or of repercussions for her family because she didn’t finish repaying her debt.

Trafficking officials would call her a typical victim: She grew up in Benin City, in the heart of Nigeria’s poor, rural southwestern Edo State, a major source of trafficked sex workers in Europe. She's the eldest girl from a large family — and older girls are the most likely to be trafficked. Her mother died when Peace was 16, and her father “was not caring.”

She decided to leave, feeling the pressure of needing to help her family financially, and escaping from a situation that was hurting her.

When a woman approached her, telling her she was beautiful and asking if she wanted to go to Europe, Peace agreed. She knew she’d have to work on the street, and she knew she would need to pay the woman 30,000 euros once she arrived in Europe. She completed what Nigerians call the “juju oath,” an animist, spiritual contract in which the girl agrees to be brought to Europe, and binds herself to her debt with bits of her pubic hair and blood.

The ritual is taken extremely seriously — and violation is considered justification for murder of a girl or her family.

“Back then, I just thought, f*** it,” said Peace.

Languishing in the camps

The lax oversight at these migrant centers has led to calls for a different response to migrant arrivals in Italy. The centers, which Italians call “welcome homes” and the people inside call “camps,” were Italy’s stop-gap solution to provide recent arrivals with housing as they awaited their documents or the result of their applications for international protection.

A process that was supposed to take a couple of months now lasts years, while applicants languish in overcrowded centers, often in the middle of nowhere.

“Italy was completely unable to create a national program to deal with the arrivals from Africa,” said Bianchini, explaining that the responsibility lies with understaffed and underfunded local governments, who end up outsourcing the oversight of these camps to private organizations, “making contracts with whoever.”

This means there is little oversight or transparency. Much of the staff operating these centers speak little to no English (nor French nor Arabic for that matter), the centers are overcrowded, and the people inside of them tend to be given little access to information on Italy’s legal system.

When I visited one center, many people asked me if they should try to get to France. Rumor has it that it's increasingly tough to cross the borders out of Italy.

“The Italian system of housing asylum-seekers is completely inadequate for victims of trafficking,” Bianchini added, noting that women in general, but especially victims of trafficking, require specific psychological and educational support that these centers are unable to provide.

Every so often, law enforcement officials in Italy decide it's time for a sweep and deport Nigerian women back to Nigeria, where they run the risk of being re-trafficked.

“Forcibly returning the girls to Nigeria would be another heavy violence against them,” explains Sister Valeria Gandini, a missionary nun who eight years ago founded Palermo’s Street Unity, a group of lay and religious volunteers who visit the women on the street each week. “Sooner or later, they will meet the same people who betrayed them and brought them to Europe the first time around.”

Deportation rumors often spur more women to run away.

Impossible to pay

Another young Nigerian woman who ran away from her camp, only to wind up on the street, is Favor — again, not her real name. When I met her, she had a big, warm smile beneath a fashionable knit cap.

Like Peace, Favor is from Edo State, though from the more rural area, outside of the city. Before she agreed to seal the oath, Favor asked the woman who approached her if she was going to Europe to "do prostitution." It was only once the woman assured her that she would be working in a shop that Favor agreed.

She was told the money would be easy to come by once she was in Europe.

When she first arrived at the madam’s house, Favor was exhausted. She slept for two days. On the third day, the woman said it was time to go to work.

In addition to the 30,000 euros she had to pay off, she would have to pay 80 euros a week for food, 250 euros a month for the rent, as well as the gas and electric bills. Favor was ready: OK, no problem. Just show me the shop, she said.

First, the woman took her shopping. They bought clothes that Favor says she “didn’t understand.” A few days later, the woman said she was ready for work. They took bus after bus, and then they walked. She found herself in the “bush,” standing on the side of the road. She was told to put on different clothes, clothes she had bought earlier with the woman, and that were now tucked inside the bag she had brought.

When it finally dawned on her what she would have to do, Favor cried. She cried all day, and for many days she refused to work. When she went home with nothing, the woman would beat her. After some time, she felt she had no choice, and she gave in.

In Palermo, women and underage girls like Peace and Favor work the streets among the trees lining the busy road of La Favorita, or along the trash- and urine-ridden streets around the port.

They are there six nights, or days, a week, depending on their shifts. As the months get warmer, the clothes get skimpier: see-through tights that reveal a lacy thong, shirts open to reveal naked breasts. They wear wigs directly from Nigeria that cost 20 euros each. Blessing (not her real name), a woman of tiny stature and boundless energy who works on a Palermo street, shows off her fake eyelashes, which can stay on for several weeks

Peace now shares an apartment with an Italian woman whom she helps around the house. In her room, she brushes her hair, smiles often and laughs a lot. She is candid but guarded about her experience working on the street.

“It all depends on the client,” she says. “Sometimes, those clients don’t even want sex so much as they want company, and with them, you try to be jovial, you make them laugh. But then there are the clients who don’t want to pay you, the clients who are aggressive. Those are the bad clients.” Peace can talk about it without showing too much emotion, but she is reluctant to go too deep. She would like to go back to Nigeria eventually, but for now, she feels pressure to make money, either for herself or her family — she wasn’t clear.

Favor's experiences were worse. Once, a client knifed her. Another time, two men who approached her gave her a bad feeling. “Via,” she told them. “I’m not working tonight.” “You must,” they replied, before slapping her and dragging her into a room in a local train station. She cried a lot as she told her story. When she came to, she said she asked the first person she found to bring her to the hospital.

After that, she decided to get out.

Getting out

The Street Unity group in the town where she was working had been asking her for months if she wanted out. Street Unity groups, like that established by Sister Valeria in Palermo, approach the girls offering medical support, and in the case of the religious groups, prayer.

The Nigerian women are extremely religious (there is no one in Nigeria, Peace once said, who can honestly say that they don’t believe in God), and prayer is often a source of bonding. Once the connections have been established, the groups can be a way off of the street — a difficult and uneasy step.

Sicily has a 22-percent unemployment rate, high even by Italian standards. The only jobs available to Nigerian women are in cleaning or taking care of the elderly or children. But these jobs require Italian language skills, and they don't come with guarantees of good payment or treatment.

As Sister Valeria sees it, "the women who are victims of trafficking, who have been forced into sex work for years, who are in the end destroyed, physically and psychologically — what future can they have here?”

Against all odds, Peace one day decided she would leave. It was a scary decision, because of the juju oath she had made back in Nigeria. Article 18 of Italy’s Consolidated Immigration Act provides protection and temporary residence permits to victims of trafficking who denounce their traffickers or madams, or who show visible signs of being in immediate psychological or physical danger.

But Peace, like many of these women, refused to take this route. Denouncing her madam or her trafficker would be the biggest violation of her oath. “I’m protected, in Europe,” she explains, “but I have to think about my family.”

Back in Nigeria, it would be easy for them to be killed or badly hurt. And, there is the fear of going crazy. She talks about her friend, Mary, who convinced a whole group of girls to denounce their madam. Mary has since gone “totally wacko” — a problem, Peace explains, that is not psychological but spiritual, linked directly to the effects of the juju oath.

Peace and Favor are moving on with their lives. Peace attends classes in Italian, sewing and cooking. She sings in her town gospel choir, and helps organize meetings in her church’s community, where she leads discussions about work opportunities and community empowerment.

Favor lives in a safe house in northern Italy. She is also taking Italian classes, and the operators taking care of her are working hard to find her job opportunities so she can be independent one day. Peace says she's thankful for her experiences. She feels she has grown, and says it's for this reason that she does not think of herself as a victim (though she admits that she can say this only because she is no longer on the street).

Favor, for her part, calls herself “a very big victim,” but she is looking forward, too.

Maggie Neil is a writer and researcher based in Italy, focusing on trafficking and migration thanks to a Fulbright research grant. She reported this story with the assistance of The Fuller Project for International Reporting.

Senate Panel Chairman: Flynn Won't Honor Subpoena

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 18, 2017



Michael Flynn, then - President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for National Security Adviser arrives at Trump Tower in New York.



WASHINGTON (AP) — Ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will not honor a subpoena issued by a Senate committee looking into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the panel's chairman said Thursday.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told reporters that Flynn's lawyer has informed the panel he will not abide by a subpoena for private documents. The decision comes as no surprise, legal experts say, given that Flynn would be waiving his constitutional protection against self-incrimination by turning over personal documents to the committee. Flynn, though his lawyer, had earlier asked for immunity from "unfair prosecution" in exchange for agreeing to cooperate with the committee.

"We'll figure out on Gen. Flynn what the next step if any is," Burr said. The Senate committee is one of several on Capitol Hill investigating possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.

Flynn is also the target of other congressional investigations as well as an ongoing FBI counterintelligence probe and a grand jury inquiry. Flynn was fired from his position as Trump's national security adviser in February. At the time, Trump said he fired Flynn because he misled senior administration officials, including the vice president, about his contacts with Russian officials.

Nina Ginsberg, a veteran Washington defense attorney with extensive experience in national security cases, said that without an ironclad immunity deal from the committee, Flynn would have been exposed to questioning from investigators about any personal documents he gave up.

Providing those records to the committee would provide authorities with "a lot more information and the legal basis for questioning him about them," she said. __ Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

US: Immigrant Arrests Soar Under Trump, Fewer Deported

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 18, 2017



Torianto Johnson, a freshman at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, holds a sign supporting immigrants during a rally outside a federal courthouse in Detroit. Protesters rallied in hopes public outcry will again delay the deportation of Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo from the United States to Mexico. U.S. immigration arrests increased nearly 40 percent in early 2017 as newly emboldened agents under President Donald Trump detained more than 40,000 people suspected of being in the country illegally, with a renewed focus on immigrants without criminal convictions.

SANTA ANA, CALIF. (AP) — U.S. immigration arrests increased nearly 40 percent in early 2017 as newly emboldened agents under President Donald Trump detained more than 40,000 people suspected of being in the country illegally — with a renewed focus on immigrants without criminal convictions.

The numbers released by Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan provide a snapshot of how the new president is carrying through on his campaign promises to make immigration enforcement a top priority.

Overall, 41,300 people were arrested for deportation, a 38 percent increase from a comparable period last year. Nearly 11,000 had no criminal convictions, more than double the number of immigrants without criminal convictions arrested during a comparable period last year.

Homan said the increase in arrests stems from stepped up immigration enforcement, adding that morale has improved among agents under Trump because they are "allowed to do their job." "Their job is to enforce the law, and that is exactly what they're doing, he said.

Even so, deportations were down from late January to late April compared with a year ago despite the new president's stepped up immigration enforcement pledge. The increase in arrests of people without criminal convictions has generated outrage across the U.S. from Trump opponents who believe otherwise law-abiding families are being rounded up.

The report was made public as the Trump administration seeks to promote its accomplishments despite a growing scandal over the firing of the FBI director and the sharing of intelligence with Russian officials.

The president "puts this out to distract from the real affairs of our country," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "It is unfortunate that he basically is using the pain and destroying our families as a way by which to give red meat to his base."

Some highlights in the numbers: — 41,300 immigrants were arrested on suspicion of being in the country illegally between Jan. 22 and Apr. 29, up from 30,000 from Jan. 24 to April 30 last year. — 30,500 of those arrested had criminal convictions, compared to 25,800 for the earlier period.

— 10,800 did not have criminal convictions, compared to 4,200 in the previous period. Immigration enforcement operations have generated headlines nationwide since Trump signed an executive orders on immigration on Jan. 25. Many of them targeted violent offenders with felony records on crimes ranging from assault to murder.

But other immigrants have also been caught up in enforcement efforts, including people who received leniency under the Obama administration. Silvia Avelar-Flores, a 31-year-old mother of three from Utah, was picked up by immigration agents enforcing an old deportation order last month while she was shopping with her 8-year-old daughter in a Salt Lake City suburb.

She was released and given three months to plan her return to Mexico, a country she left as a young girl. She plans to take her youngest daughter, age 2, with her and leave her 10-year-old-son and 8-year-old daughter with her husband, who has permanent U.S residency.

"I don't think it's fair," Alves-Flores said in an interview. "I understand that they want to fix everything, you know, but they are going after the wrong people. Trump said he was just going for the criminals, and that's not happening."

Other examples highlighted by advocates include an Indian taxi driver in Southern California recently arrested during a routine check in with immigration authorities and a Mexican man facing deportation after nearly two decades in the U.S. Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo, who was living in Michigan, is being held in a Louisiana detention facility while lawyers try to block his deportation.

Immigration arrests doubled in the Miami and Dallas metro areas. They rose 5 percent in and around Los Angeles and dropped slightly in the San Francisco area. While arrests of immigrants rose, the number of deportations fell 12 percent during the period, Homan said.

He attributed the drop to a decline in arrests on the U.S.-Mexico border where immigrants are usually sent home quickly and a lengthy backlog in U.S. immigration courts that issue deportation orders.

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.

This version corrects that Trump's immigration enforcement orders were signed Jan. 25, not Jan. 22.

Special Counsel Named To Probe Trump-Russia Ties

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAY 18, 2017




Former FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. On May 17, 2017, the Justice Department said is appointing Mueller as special counsel to oversee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.



WASHINGTON (AP) — Besieged from all sides, the Trump administration appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller Wednesday evening as a special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into allegations Russia and Donald Trump's campaign collaborated to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The appointment came as Democrats insisted ever more loudly that someone outside Trump's Justice Department must handle the politically charged investigation. An increasing number of Republicans, too, have joined in calling for Congress to dig deeper, especially after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey who had been leading the bureau's probe.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump complained in a commencement address that "no politician in history" has been treated worse by his foes, even as exasperated fellow Republicans slowly joined the clamor for an significant investigation into whether he tried to quash the FBI's probe.

Three congressional committees, all led by Republicans, confirmed they wanted to hear from Comey, whose notes about a February meeting with the president indicate Trump urged him to drop the bureau's investigation of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Congressional investigators are seeking Comey's memos, as well as documents from the Justice Department related to the firing.

Many Democrats also were calling for an independent special counsel, or prosecutor. The latest political storm, coupled with the still-potent fallout from Trump's recent disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, overshadowed all else in the capital and beyond. Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street as investors worried that the latest turmoil in Washington could hinder Trump's pro-business agenda.

Republicans, frustrated by the president's relentless parade of problems, largely sought to cool the heated climate with assurances they would get to the bottom of scandals. "There's clearly a lot of politics being played," House Speaker Paul Ryan said. "Our job is to get the facts and to be sober about doing that."

Unimpressed, Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on a key House oversight panel, said, "Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero, zero, zero appetite for any investigation of Donald Trump. He accused the Republicans of taking great pains to "do as little as humanly possible, just to claim that they're doing something."

Interest was hardly limited to the U.S. No less a commentator than Russia's Vladimir Putin called the dramatic charges swirling around Trump evidence of "political schizophrenia spreading in the U.S." He offered to furnish a "record" of the Trump-diplomats meeting in the Oval Office if the White House desired it.

There was no word on what that record might entail, a question many were likely to raise in light of Trump's recent warning to Comey that he had "better hope" there were no tapes of a discussion they'd had.

The White House disputed Comey's account of the February conversation concerning Flynn, but did not offer specifics. Several members of Congress said that if Trump did suggest that Comey "let this go" regarding Flynn's Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.

White House aides mostly kept a rare low profile, avoiding going on television. Trump did not offer any commentary on Twitter and did not directly address the controversies during a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, though he delivered a broadside against the forces he sees as working against him.

"No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly," he said. "You can't let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. ... I guess that's why we won. Adversity makes you stronger. Don't give in, don't back down. ... And the more righteous your fight, the more opposition that you will face."

Questions about Trump's conduct have been mounting for weeks, most recently with two explosive revelations — that in February the president pressed Comey to drop a federal investigation into Flynn's contacts with Russia and that he disclosed classified information to the senior Russian officials last week.'

Both allegations came from anonymous sources, and the White House was quick to denounce the leaks and deny any impropriety, insisting the president never tried to squelch the Flynn investigation nor did he make inappropriate disclosures to the Russians.

Putin, watching from afar, said the "evolving political struggle" had gone from something of an amusement to serious cause for concern, and he suggested Trump's critics were stoking anti-Russian sentiment to damage the president.

"These people either don't understand that they are hurting their own country, and in that case they are just dumb," Putin said. "Or they do understand everything, and that means that they are dangerous and unscrupulous."

On Capitol Hill, Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables. — The House oversight committee set a May 24 hearing on whether Trump interfered in the FBI probe, and invited Comey to testify.

—The Senate intelligence committee invited Comey to appear in both open and closed sessions. It also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to give the committee any notes Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia's efforts to influence the election.

—Top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to provide any Comey memos and asked the White House to turn over any audio recordings that might exist of conversations with the now-fired director. They expect to bring in Comey in to testify, as well.

Trump is preparing to leave town Friday on his first foreign trip, and aides have been hopeful the journey will be a chance for the administration to get back on track after weeks of chaos and distractions.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speculated Trump was probably happy to get out of town — "and a lot of us are glad he's leaving for a few days." His advice to the president: "Stay disciplined, stay focused and deliver on the world stage."

Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Eileen Sullivan, Erica Werner, Matthew Daly and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report

Two Dozen MS-13 Gang Suspects Arrested In Early-Morning Sweep

LOS ANGELES TIMES
MAY 17, 2017


Authorities arrested roughly two dozen suspected members of the violent gang MS-13 in Los Angeles County early Wednesday morning. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Roughly two dozen accused members of the violent MS-13 gang were arrested before dawn Wednesday as federal and local investigators forced their way into homes across Los Angeles County in a sweep that came as a result of a two-year racketeering investigation.

Investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and officers with the Los Angeles Police Department raided two dozen locations Wednesday morning.

The suspects are all charged in federal indictments that will be unsealed Wednesday, officials said.

Authorities said they have recently targeted 42 suspected members of the gang, including those arrested Wednesday. The remaining suspects were already in custody, officials said

Shortly after 4 a.m., heavily armed ATF agents — wearing helmets and bulletproof gear and carrying tactical rifles — forced their way into a storefront and a back building near Exposition Boulevard and Western Boulevard in South Los Angeles, Agents approached in an armored vehicle down a narrow alleyway behind the small business.

Once inside, federal agents and police detectives found what they described as gang members involved in human trafficking, as well as possible victims. The storefront, which appeared to be locked from the outside, was full of garbage.

A few of the people detained were handcuffed and lined up facing a metal fence in the alleyway next to the armored vehicle.

The sweep was based on sealed federal indictments orchestrated before President Trump — who has cast MS-13 as a deadly domestic scourge that his administration will wipe out — took office.


Federal prosecutors have repeatedly used charges of racketeering and conspiracy to undercut the growth of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha. This week, authorities used the charges to target the suspected gang members for allegedly trading drugs and weapons across Southern California.

MS-13 was started in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by Salvadoran immigrants — many of them young ex-soldiers — fleeing their country's civil war. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.

It was the first street gang to be designated a transnational criminal organization. That designation, which came in 2012, gave the U.S. Treasury Department the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members and to prohibit financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with members of the group.

The gang has developed a reputation for ruthlessness. Tales of torture, cutting off body parts and killing innocent relatives have made it a feared entity as it has spread across the nation.

In Los Angeles, MS-13 members have been convicted of a long list of crimes including assault, murder, conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, robbery and drug trafficking.

The gang vaulted to national notoriety in 2004 when members used a machete to hack off the hand of a 16-year-old rival gang member. In the run-up to that incident, the gang had been linked to at least five killings in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

A Times investigation in 2007 found that the push to send gang members back to El Salvador had unintended consequences. Deporting MS-13 members to El Salvador allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly-organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.

The gang’s grip on immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and a crackdown by the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies.

Last month, Trump administration officials blamed what they called lax immigration enforcement for the rise of MS-13 and promised a stronger federal response.

Trump tweeted, without evidence, that the Obama administration “allowed” MS-13 to form in America.

“The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!” the president tweeted.