Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Trump Administration Unveils Indefinite Travel Ban For 8 Countries



President Trump has issued a new Executive Order imposing a stricter travel ban on citizens of eight nations. The order was issued by the president on Sunday and revises the nations listed in the two Executive Orders that implemented the travel policy earlier this year.

The new Executive Order follows a review initiated by President Trump’s Executive Order of March 6, 2017. The review found that eight countries, Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, had “’inadequate’ identity-management protocols, information-sharing practices, and risk factors” for screening entry into the United States and suspends the entry of most citizens of these countries on an indefinite basis beginning on Oct. 18. Precise guidelines under the new policy vary by country.

The original travel ban was set for 90 days for most citizens and 120 days for refugees. The current policy comes without an expiration date. A senior administration official told the Washington Post that the restrictions were “necessary and conditions-based, not time-based.”

The new list eliminates Sudan from the original travel ban due to its improved cooperation on national security and information sharing. It also adds the nations of Chad, North Korea and Venezuela.

Iraq was also listed in the original travel ban, but was dropped in the March 2017 version. The current Executive Order notes, “The Secretary of Homeland Security also assesses that Iraq did not meet the baseline, but that entry restrictions and limitations under a Presidential proclamation are not warranted,” adding that nationals of Iraq may “be subject to additional scrutiny to determine if they pose risks to the national security or public safety of the United States.”

Unlike Trump’s first travel ban, the new Executive Order contains a number of exceptions. These include legal permanent residents, dual citizens, diplomats, people admitted prior to Oct. 18, and people who have been granted asylum. There is also a provision for waivers to be granted on a case-by-case basis.

Critics of the restrictions on immigration have argued that the policy is an unconstitutional implementation of the “Muslim ban” that Donald Trump proposed during the campaign. The Supreme Court upheld most elements of the prior version of the travel ban in June. The Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments on the previous policy on Oct. 10. At this point, it is uncertain whether the new policy will affect the case currently before the Court.

“The restrictions either previously or now were never, ever, ever based on race, religion or creed,’’ one senior administration official told the Washington Post. “Those governments are simply not compliant with our basic security requirements.”

Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute says that the policy will be expensive and ineffective, noting, “From 1975 through the end of 2015, zero Americans have been killed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil who hail from any of the eight countries on the new executive order.” Nowrasteh adds, “Only nine terrorists from those countries have carried out an attack or actually been convicted of planning an attack on U.S. soil during that time.”

“Due to the high guaranteed cost of Executive Orders like these and the small potential security benefits, the administration should supply an excellent reason for this order along with sufficient evidence to demonstrate their claim,” Nowrasteh says. “It speaks volumes that they have not done so.”


The new Executive Order will undoubtedly face legal challenges, but the previous travel bans have survived judicial scrutiny largely intact. If the Supreme Court keeps its Oct. 10 date to hear the current travel ban case, the new immigration policy could be enacted more swiftly than its predecessors. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Monday, September 25, 2017

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Needs Your Help To Survive

Often a story of little consequence can grab the imagination and attention of the nation while a much bigger story passes by without notice. That’s the case right now as the NFL protests block out almost everything else including the admission by the Trump Administration that 21 states were targeted by hackers during last year’s election, the president’s new expanded travel ban and, most sadly, the devastating effect that Hurricane Maria had on the islands of the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico.

Maybe it’s hurricane fatigue. Maybe it’s the fact that most of us don’t really think of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as a part of the United States. Maybe it’s just that the NFL is right in our living rooms while the people of Puerto Rico are a thousand miles away in the middle of the Caribbean.

Part of the problem may be the difficulty in reporting news from an island where the power grid has been knocked completely offline and may not be operational for six months. Think about that. An island of 3.6 million people, a territory of the United States, has been effectively moved back 100 years in time.

No electrical power in a tropical climate means no air conditioning and no refrigeration for food. Medical care is difficult without lights and power for medical equipment. The category four storm killed 30 people in the Caribbean, but many more may die in the aftermath of the storm from lack of food, water and medical care.

Without electric power, the island’s manufacturing and tourism sectors of the economy will also crash to a standstill. With factories idle and resorts closed, most of the island’s inhabitants will have no way to support themselves and their families.

The bottom line is that Puerto Rico and the other islands damaged by Hurricane Maria are going to need lots of help for a long time. With FEMA funds almost exhausted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the burden is going to fall on private charities funded by donations from companies and individuals like you and me.

If you are uncertain about what to donate or what charities are worthy of your donation, the FEMA website publishes guidelines for donations and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) has an online form that helps to steer your donation to vetted organizations. NBC’s Chuck Todd has also identified several organizations that are top rated for their work in Puerto Rico.  

FEMA recommends that you donate cash rather than supplies. My experience volunteering at a shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey confirms that money is easier to deal with than supplies. Cash can purchase exactly what is needed at the time while donations of supplies may or may not contain what is needed at the time. (I think back to an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in which the station donated 3,000 blonde wigs to Guatemalan earthquake victims.) Supplies must be inventoried, sorted, stockpiled and shipped. That takes manpower, time and money.

Donations of supplies that aren’t needed right away incur costs for storage and take up space. Since the affected areas are islands, virtually everything needed to sustain the people who live there for the next six months will have to be brought in on ships or airplanes. It is much more efficient to purchase large quantities of relief supplies that are ready for shipment than to bundle donations together in a piecemeal fashion.

NVOAD also has a contact form for volunteers who would like to go to one of the areas affected by the hurricanes to help personally. With FEMA and other relief organizations stretched thin by three disasters in quick succession, additional volunteers will be badly needed.

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands will be dependent on outside aid for survival for a very long time. The chain of disasters is taxing the reserves of relief agencies as well as wearing out relief workers. The citizens of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands need your help.


It’s time to come together to help our fellow Americans on the US islands of the Caribbean. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Trump Administration Says 21 States Were Targets of Election Hacking



On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states that they were targets of hacking during the 2016 election. DHS did not identify the states publicly, but several states did confirm that they had been informed of the hacking by the federal government.

The Associated Press contacted every state election office regarding the hacking. States that confirmed that they had been targeted included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

The notifications were a rare confirmation from the Trump Administration that the Russian attempts to interfere with the election were real. The notifications came on Friday, the day of the week typically reserved for announcements the Administration prefers to have overlooked.

Some state election officials and congressmen were critical of the Administration for its slow pace in sharing information about the cyberattacks. “It is completely unacceptable that it has taken DHS over a year to inform our office of Russian scanning of our systems, despite our repeated requests for information,” California’s Democrat Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “The practice of withholding critical information from elections officials is a detriment to the security of our elections and our democracy.”

“We have to do better in the future,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate committee investigating Russia’s actions.

The DHS report did not specify the source of the hacking attempts, saying in a statement, “We are working with them to refine our processes for sharing this information while protecting the integrity of investigations and the confidentiality of system owners.”

Several state election officials did specifically name Russia as the culprit, however. Alaska Elections Division Director Josie Bahnke said that computers in Russia had looked for vulnerabilities in the state’s networks. A statement by the Wisconsin Election Commission referred to “Russian government cyber actors.”

In most cases, the state computer systems were not breached, but Illinois was an exception. A previous report indicated that hackers gained access to the Illinois voter registration computers and tried to alter or delete data.

A secret NSA document leaked to The Intercept by Reality Winner last June showed that the Russians had also targeted private companies that contract with state governments to provide software for electronic voting machines. Voting machines are typically not tied to computer networks, but could be vulnerable through software updates. The document said the GRU, Russian military intelligence, was responsible for the attacks.

So far, there is no evidence that any attempts to alter software or data was successful. “There remains no evidence that the Russians altered one vote or changed one registration,” Judd Choate, president of the U.S. National Association of State Election Directors, told Reuters.

Russia has denied any involvement in the cyberattacks on the US voting infrastructure.


Also on Friday, President Trump referred to the Russian hacking as a “hoax” in a tweet. Since the election, the president has had little to say about the Russian cyberattacks even though there is widespread agreement among intelligence agencies that the Putin government was directly involved.

  
Originally published on The Resurgent 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Trump Stands By 'Big Luther'


At a rally in Huntsville, Ala. last night, President Trump continued to strongly endorse incumbent Republican Senator Luther Strange. Strange, who is linked to a corruption scandal in Alabama, will face challenger Roy Moore in the Republican primary runoff next Tuesday.  

The president kicked off his speech with support for Senator Strange, who he said “will fight for your interests, defend your values and always put America first.” In a rambling speech, Trump said that he liked “Big Luther,” nicknamed for his height, for his loyalty, including a no-strings-attached commitment to vote for the Obamacare reform bill that Trump called the “coolest thing that has happened to me in six months.”

“The last thing I want to is be involved in a primary,” Trump said, adding that he wanted to repay Strange’s loyalty by helping him when he was down in the polls.

“I might have made a mistake,” Trump said of his endorsement. “If Luther doesn’t win, they’re not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time. They’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the [finish] line.’”

Trump said that Strange and challenger Roy Moore were “both good men.” The president said that if Moore won the primary, he would be “campaigning like hell for him,” but expressed doubts that Moore could win the general election.

Politico reports that polling in the race shows Moore with a slight lead in the race. Moore was the top finisher in the first round of polling in August, finishing six points ahead of Strange. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Doug Jones in a general election on December 12.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Friday, September 22, 2017

Drone Collides With Army Helicopter Over New York

It was bound to happen. With hundreds of thousands of drones flying in the United States, many with amateur operators, one of them was bound to hit a manned aircraft sooner or later. New York City’s ABC 7 and Fox 5 are reporting that today was the day.

The local news teams say that a US Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was struck by a drone over Staten Island today. The helicopter, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. was conducting security patrols for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly when it collided with the drone at approximately 500 feet above the ground.

The drone was apparently shattered by the collision. Pieces of the drone damaged two rotor blades and the fuselage of the helicopter. A fragment of the drone was reportedly embedded in the helicopter’s oil cooler.

The Blackhawk pilot was able to safely land the helicopter after the collision. There were no reported injuries.

There have been a number of reported collisions between manned aircraft and drones, but this may be the first in the United States. A Youtube video purporting to show a drone strike the wingtip of a Southwest Airlines 737 in 2015 was revealed to be a hoax.

Under current FAA regulations, “model aircraft” under 55 pounds are exempt from federal registration if they meet certain requirements. These model aircraft are not supposed to be flown higher than 400 feet or in a manner that conflicts with manned aircraft.

The drone collision over New York seems to have inflicted minimal damage on the helicopter, but future incidents might well be worse. Popular Mechanics notes that, unlike the flock of seagulls that sent US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson in 2009, a drone is made of denser materials.

“Birds can disintegrate relatively easily...you get something like a very viscous bulk of fluid on the other side” said Javid Bayandor of the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab at Virginia Tech. “A drone can be like a rock going through the engine.”

As drones get bigger and become more and more common, the danger they pose increases. A large drone that is ingested into an aircraft’s engine – or worse, hits the cockpit at a high closing speed – at low altitude could have disastrous consequences.


Originally published on The Resurgent

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump Decides to Decertify Iran Deal

Donald Trump spent a great deal of time campaigning against Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Nine months into the Trump Administration, the rubber on the Iran deal is about to meet the road. President Trump must decide by Oct. 15 whether to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal. Under US law, the president must certify Iran’s fulfillment of the deal to Congress every 90 days. Trump has made the certification twice, but there are indications that this time may be different.

The president told reporters on Wednesday that he had made up his mind about the deal, but declined to reveal his decision. Trump is keeping his cards close, telling reporters, “I’ll let you know what the decision is,” but without saying when he would do so. Politico reported that the president even declined to share his decision with British Prime Minister Teresa May.

NBC News reports that the president is leaning toward decertifying Iran’s compliance with the deal, citing four unnamed sources within the White House. The sources indicate that the president has resolved to change the “status quo.”

If the president decertifies Iran’s compliance with the deal, it would not necessarily mean that the entire deal would be scrapped. NBC’s sources indicate that the president would use the decertification to attempt to persuade the European partners to renegotiate the deal. At this point, Britain, France and Germany are strongly opposed to ending the deal.

There are other options if the president decertifies the deal as well. If the president decertifies the deal, then Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on Iran. The president could also choose to withdraw from the deal entirely as Ambassador John Bolton has urged.

Trump’s position is awkward. The president has spoken out strongly against the treaty, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday, “Perhaps the technical aspects have (been met), but in the broader context the aspiration has not.” Tillerson said that reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency “continue to confirm that Iran is in technical compliance with the agreement.” A common complaint is the fact that Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, which are not covered under the agreement.

President Trump’s decision will be closely watched by North Korea, where the president is currently engaging Kim Jong Un in a tit-for-tat over the country’s missile tests. How the president handles the agreement with Iran will almost certainly impact the resolution of the North Korean problem.

Whatever direction Trump is leaning now, nothing is certain until a formal announcement is made. Last spring, the president reportedly changed his mind on withdrawing from NAFTA at the last minute. More recently, the president’s commitment to withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty and his hardline immigration policy have been called into question as well.


Time will tell how strong President Trump’s resolve to confront Iran is and which faction of White House advisors have his ear. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Claims Of Obama-Era Domestic Spying Are Overblown

As a conservative, it pains me to be perceived as defending Barack Obama. I was a strong and consistent opponent of Obama during his eight years in the White House and rarely, if ever, agreed with him on anything. Yet at times, the criticism and attacks on Obama went too far and I feel obliged to speak up. Such was the case when conservatives charged, against all evidence, that Obama was actually a native Kenyan and that he planned to declare martial law in Texas. It’s the case now with charges of rampant spying on political opponents by the Obama Administration. Objectively speaking, the evidence to support these claims is simply not there.

Such is the case with the recent op-ed by Sharyl Attkisson in The Hill. As with many on the right, Attkisson assumes recent revelations of the surveillance of Paul Manafort are really an attempt to spy on Donald Trump. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Like the others, Attkisson fails to mention that the surveillance started two years before Trump tapped Manafort to be his campaign manager. Attkisson also overlooks the fact that there were many valid reasons for Manafort to be under scrutiny after he closely worked with the party of Ukrainian dictator and Putin figurehead, Viktor Yanukovych.

If the CNN report on the monitoring of Manafort is to be believed, and Attkisson seems to think it does, Manafort was apparently not under surveillance while he was Trump’s campaign manager. The report states that the two FISA warrants that covered Manafort were active from 2014 through “some point” in 2016 and again through fall of 2016 to early 2017. This seems to exclude the period from March through August 2016 when Manafort worked for the Trump campaign and possibly the entire time that Trump has been president.

Other examples of surveillance of by Attkisson are similarly overblown and misinterpreted. She cites comments by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that “they, too, reviewed communications of political figures, secretly collected under President Obama.” When examined, the testimony in question deals primarily with Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who was fired for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s case falls under incidental surveillance in which the Russian diplomat, not Flynn himself, was the person under surveillance. Spying on foreign diplomats is a legitimate role of the intelligence community.

Likewise, Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on Congress is misleading. The Wall Street Journal article on which her claim is based makes clear that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the surveillance target, not members of Congress. The article makes clear that the NSA did not intentionally monitor the congressmen, saying that the incidental collection of their conversations with the Netanyahu government led to an “Oh-s— moment” and very valid concerns that the Obama Administration was intentionally monitoring the legislative branch.

Attkisson also cites the example of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). In the 2012 article linked by Attkisson on Counterpunch.org, Harman was allegedly the subject of two NSA wiretaps in 2006 and 2009. Obama can obviously not be blamed for the first wiretap since George W. Bush was president in 2006. In any case, once again we see that the target of the surveillance was not Rep. Harman, but a suspected Israeli agent.

Attkisson’s example of Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is another example of a congressman being snared by contact from suspected foreign agents. In Kucinich’s case, the government recorded a call made to his congressional office by Saif el-Islam Qaddafi, at the time a high-ranking official in Libya’s government and a son of the country’s ruler, Moammar Qaddafi.

While the Obama Administration did spy on Fox News journalist, James Rosen, it appears that it did so legally. The Department of Justice obtained a warrant to search Rosen’s emails in connection with an investigation into leaked classified information, says the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Likewise, the cyber spying on the Associated Press was “legal, as far as I can tell,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said at the time. “The administration isn't violating the First Amendment. But they are certainly doing more than has ever been done before in pursuing the private information of journalists. And we'll see if there's any political check on them, because there doesn't appear to be any legal check on what they're doing.”

Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on her is also unverified. The CBS News article describing the breach that Attkisson links to contains a disclaimer: “To be clear, the federal government has not been accused in the intrusion of Attkisson's computer; CBS News is continuing to work to identify the responsible party.”

Attkisson sued the Obama Administration over the hacking in 2015. The suit is ongoing and she says that the Trump Administration is continuing to defend the case in court. She fails to explain why the Trump Administration would defend illegal actions by the Obama Administration, especially if Donald Trump was also a victim of Obama’s illicit surveillance.

In her closing argument, Attkisson cites alarming statistics about the increase in surveillance under Obama. Nevertheless she fails to point out that, per her source, in 2016, when Obama had supposedly increased surveillance at an alarming pace, only 336 US citizens were targeted by FISA warrants. Likewise, the same memo that Attkisson cites as evidence that the “intelligence community secretly expanded its authority in 2011 so it can monitor innocent U.S. citizens like you and me” actually says that the NSA realized that “its compliance and oversight infrastructure… had not kept pace” and “undertook significant steps to address these issues….”

Additionally, the alarmists fail to acknowledge that the first request for a FISA warrant on Trump campaign staffers was rejected in June 2016. This rejection seems to indicate that at least some intelligence officials under Obama took domestic surveillance protections seriously.

Likewise ignored is a statement in The New York Times from April 2017. Citing an unnamed official, the Times reported with respect to surveillance of Carter Page, another Trump campaign official, “The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross.” This may explain the break in surveillance of Paul Manafort as well.

While there is a lack of evidence of systemic abuse of surveillance by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate concerns. For example, how did the recording of Kucinich’s phone conversation find its way into the hands of reporters four years later? The leaks of Michael Flynn’s conversations to the media were illegal, the lies Flynn told about them to Vice President Pence notwithstanding. The leakers have never been publicly identified or punished.

The unmasking of American subjects of incidental surveillance by Obama Administration officials is also problematic. Susan Rice appears to have been cleared of wrongdoing by House investigators, but Samantha Power still needs to explain her actions.

Finally, the revelations that the CIA inappropriately accessed Senate computers in 2014 shows the need for strict third-party oversight. Nevertheless, the fact that the breach was disclosed at all is encouraging. A subsequent review found that the incident was the result of an error and not intelligence officers acting in bad faith. More protections for journalists from surveillance would be an appropriate reform as well.

The claims of rampant Obama-era spying reflect many of the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory. For instance, the dots must be connected between many disparate events and rational explanations have to be ignored. A conspiracy by the Obama Administration to spy on political opponents would mean that virtually everyone in a leadership role in the intelligence community would be complicit, yet few have been fired by President Trump. When he did fire James Comey, illicit spying on Americans was not one of the reasons given.

Originally published on The Resurgent
Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest explanation is most often correct. In the case of Obama’s domestic surveillance, the simplest explanation is that there was probable cause for monitoring in most cases. That includes the cases of Paul Manafort and Carter Page. In other cases, some Americans were caught up in incidental surveillance of legitimate surveillance targets. Michael Flynn fell into this category. Donald Trump may have as well.