Justice Department Indicts 4 Chinese Nationals for N. Korea Sanctions Violations

Four Chinese nationals and a Chinese company were indicted Tuesday for conspiring to evade sanctions on North Korea, according to the U.S. Justice Department.”Through the use of more than 20 front companies, the defendants are alleged to have sought to obscure illicit financial dealings on behalf of sanctioned North Korean entities that were involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement.The indictment charges Ma Xiaohong and her company, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, as well as Zhou Jianshu, Hong Jinhua and Luo Chuanxu with conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and to defraud the United States, along with conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. The indictment alleges that Ma, alongside Zhou, Hong and Luo “established front companies in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, the Seychelles, Hong Kong, Wales, England, and Anguilla, and opened Chinese bank accounts held in the names of the front companies at banks in China that maintained correspondent accounts in the United States,” in order to engage in financial activity with North Korea, according to the release.The defendants are each facing decades in prison if found guilty.

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US Negotiator: Don’t Expect Many Surprises When Mideast Peace Plan Rolls Out

It’s been called the Deal of the Century by U.S. President Donald Trump, but it’s still a tightly held secret in Washington.Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner and special negotiator Jason Greenblatt have been working on the Israeli-Palestinian peace project for two years.On Tuesday, Greenblatt addressed the U.N. Security Council, disclosing only that the document is 60 pages long.Afterward, he told a small group of reporters that he is ready for “withering criticism” once the plan is revealed, which he says is likely to be in the next few months.FILE – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.”We are going to air it at a time when we think it has the best chance of success,” Greenblatt said. “I really hope it doesn’t take beyond the Israeli election/government coalition.”Israel is facing new parliamentary elections in mid-September after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government after winning April’s election.Palestinian stanceGreenblatt says he and Kushner have talked to wide swaths of Israeli and Palestinian society in creating their proposal, including political and religious leaders, academics, experts and ordinary citizens. They have also gathered input in regional capitals and in Europe.”I don’t think there will be many surprises in the plan,” Greenblatt said. “We test ideas, we see the reactions … we know where the hot buttons are.”The Palestinian Authority has essentially rejected the plan sight unseen after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and moved the U.S. embassy there last year. The city, holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, has been for decades one of the most sensitive final status issues.FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, left, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveil an inauguration plaque during the opening ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.The U.S. negotiator hopes the Palestinians will soften their stance once the plan is released.”It would be tragic for the Palestinian people themselves if their leadership just chooses to ignore it,” he said.Iran factorBut Greenblatt is betting on there being enough “exciting things” in the political plan to persuade the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, although an effort to get them to Bahrain in June for the roll out of potentially $50 billion in economic incentives was unsuccessful.He adds that while one of the biggest challenges in the plan is Israel’s security, another is a potential spoiler.”Even if I had a great peace plan, if we don’t figure out to make sure that Iran doesn’t spoil it, how much success are we really going to have?” he asked, noting that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is Iran’s “worst nightmare.”Greenblatt and Kushner are scheduled to return to the region next week and will be joined by the administration’s point man on Iran policy, Brian Hook.

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Trump Sues House Panel, NY to Protect State Tax Returns

Opening up another legal front against the Democrats investigating him, President Donald Trump on Tuesday sued the House Ways and Means Committee and New York state officials to prevent his state tax returns from being turned over to the congressional committee.
 
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to block the application of a new New York state law that could allow the Democratic-controlled House and Ways Means Committee to obtain the returns. The lawsuit, filed in Washington, comes amid a furious White House attempt to prevent the president’s tax returns to wind up in Democratic hands.
 
“We have filed a lawsuit today in our ongoing efforts to end presidential harassment,” said Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers. “The targeting of the president by the House Ways and Means Committee, the New York Attorney General, and a New York tax official violates article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. The harassment tactics lack a legitimate legislative purpose. The actions taken by the House and New York officials are nothing more than political retribution.”
 
The state’s attorney general, Letitia James, said the act “will shine a light on the president’s finances and finally offer transparency to millions of Americans yearning to know the truth.”
 
“President Trump has spent his career hiding behind lawsuits,” James said in a statement, “but, as New York’s chief law enforcement officer, I can assure him that no one is above the law — not even the president of the United States.”
 
Trump’s tax returns have been a source of mystery — and contention — ever since the celebrity businessman broke with tradition and did not release his returns during his 2016 presidential campaign.
 
The House Ways and Means Committee sued the Treasury Department and IRS officials this month in an attempt to enforce a law that allows its chairman to obtain any taxpayer’s returns. Its chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., hasn’t indicated whether he would use the New York law, focusing instead on the federal lawsuit.
 
The lawsuit echoes what has become the White House consistent argument: that the committee’s pursuit of the president’s tax returns, as well as most of the Democrats’ investigative efforts, lack a legitimate legislative purpose and thus is outside Congress’s authority.
 
The suit also argues that the committee can’t have a legislative purpose in getting state records because its jurisdiction is limited to federal taxes. However, New York officials have argued that the state returns would contain much of the same information found on the president’s federal returns.
 
Trump has cited repeated IRS audits as a reason not to disclose his returns, but he isn’t legally prevented from releasing returns while under audit.
 
“Ultimately, this issue was litigated in the 2016 election,” the lawsuit said. “Voters heard the criticisms from Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, and they elected President Trump anyway. Democrats in Congress and across the country, however, have only become more eager to disclose the president’s tax returns for political gain.”
 
Democrats have argued that they need to review the returns in their search for potential conflicts of interest or corruption.
 
The administration and the Trump’s business have repeatedly tried to stall Democrats’ investigations by filing lawsuits and not cooperating. The White House has blocked several current and former officials from testifying, has refused to comply with document requests and the president has considered invoking executive privilege to stifle a series of probes.

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‘Havana Syndrome:’ Scans Show Differences in Affected Diplomat’s Brains

Brain scans show “significant neuroimaging differences” in 40 U.S. embassy employees affected by mysterious neurological symptoms in Cuba in late 2016, according to a study released Tuesday.The diplomats had significantly smaller amounts of white brain matter, and markedly lower levels of connectivity between parts of the brain responsible for sight and hearing, said the study, published by the Journal of American Medicine. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania performed the magnetic resonance imaging scans on the personnel between August 2017 and June 2018. They then compared the images to results from 48 controls.Employees at the time reported hearing loud buzzing, “piercing squeals” and “mechanical-sounding” noises, in what the Trump administration termed a “sonic attack.” Diplomats said they suffered persistent ear pain, headaches and problems with memory, concentration, balance, sleeping and more.Many were out of work at least briefly,  with half going on sleep or headache medication and three receiving hearing aids, according to CNN. Weapons or crickets?Some theorized the symptoms’ source were weapons emitting damaging sound or microwaves, though some scientists later argued the strange sounds were simply the loud species of cricket commonly found in Cuba. Another group of researchers found the sounds could be caused by ultrasound signals from everyday devices crossed with signals from a surveillance system.During the uproar, the State Department cut staff at the embassy by more than half.The researchers couldn’t link the results to any specific health impacts, emphasizing that the results weren’t consistent with any known brain disorders.The study’s small sample size and unclear results have prompted skepticism from other scientists.’Half baked’Sergio Della Sala, a cognitive neuroscience professor at the University of Edinburgh, called the study “half-baked,” in an email to Reuters, noting that 12 of the employees had histories of concussions and none of the controls did.According to the study, the employee’s concussion symptoms had faded by 2016, when reports of illness began.Diplomats at the Canadian embassy complained of similar afflictions. Five of them and their families are now suing the Canadian government, saying it “downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoarded and concealed critical health and safety information, and gave false, misleading and incomplete information to diplomatic staff.”In addition to the Penn study, the National Institutes of Health is conducting its own “brain injury research study” involving the Cuba patients with help from the U.S. Energy Department supercomputers and national laboratories capable of processing massive amounts of neurological data. The Defense Department has also been engaged to look into technologies that could have been used to harm the diplomatic staff.

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US Senate Approves Bill to Extend 9/11 Victims Fund

The Senate gave final legislative approval Tuesday to a bill ensuring that a victims’ compensation fund related to the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money.The 97-2 vote sends the bill to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.The vote came after Democratic senators agreed to allow votes on amendments sponsored by two Republican senators who had been blocking the widely popular bill. The Senate easily defeated the amendments proposed by GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Lee and Paul voted against the bill’s final passage.Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks at a news conference on the 9/11 victims fund on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 18, 2019.Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said 9/11 first responders and their families have had “enough of political games” that delayed passage of the bill for months.“Our 9/11 heroes deserve this program as written,” Gillibrand said. “Let our heroes go home and live in peace and finally exhale.” The bill would extend through 2092 a fund created after the 2001 terrorist attacks, essentially making it permanent. The $7.4 billion fund is rapidly being depleted, and administrators recently cut benefit payments by up to 70%.The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House-passed bill would result in about $10.2 billion in additional compensation payments over 10 years, including more than $4 billion for claims already filed.Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the bill guarantees “once and for all that the heroes who rushed to the towers 18 years ago will no longer have to worry about compensation for their families when they’re gone.”First responders “won’t have to return to Congress anymore to fight for the compensation they always should have been given,” Schumer said. “They will be able to go home, attend to their illnesses, their family members, their friends. That’s what they always wanted to do, just take care of themselves and their families.”Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a news conference ahead of the Fourth of July break, June 27, 2019.Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who been the subject of withering attacks from comedian Jon Stewart and other activists, also hailed passage of the bill.The legislations makes “solemn commitments” to firefighters, police officers and other first responders who “rushed selflessly toward the World Trade Center” just moments after the 2001 terrorist attacks began, McConnell said. “Congress can never repay these men, women and families for their sacrifices. But we can do our small part to try and make our heroes whole,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “That’s why the Senate has never failed to attend to the (victims’) fund before. We weren’t about to do so now.”The collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001 sent a cloud of thick dust billowing over Lower Manhattan. Fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.More than 40,000 people have applied to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the attacks. More than $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, had sharply criticized Congress for failing to act. He told lawmakers at an emotional hearing last month that they were showing “disrespect” to first responders now suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses as a result of their recovery work at the “pile” of rubble left by the 2001 attacks.Stewart called the sparse attendance at the June 11 hearing “an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution.” He later targeted McConnell for slow-walking previous versions of the legislation and using it as a political pawn to get other things done.Gillibrand and other lawmakers credited Stewart for raising the profile of the issue, which has lingered on Capitol Hill for years.Lee said he did not object to the bill, but wanted to ensure the fund has proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse. Paul said he was concerned about its effect on the deficit, and said any new spending should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

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Democrats: Trump, Republican Inaction on Election Security Puts US at Risk

Democratic lawmakers accused U.S. President Donald Trump and the Senate’s leading Republican of working to kill legislation designed to protect the upcoming U.S. presidential election from interference by Russia and others.They also warned that because of Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts, time is running out to get improved security measures in place for the 2020 vote.”It appears that the majority leader, at the behest of the White House, has made it his goal to kill any meaningful legislation,” Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters during a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is joined by fellow Democrats during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 23, 2019.”Even this president’s top intelligence, law enforcement officials have all indicated that Russia, which successfully intervened in our election in 2016, will be back in force,” Warner added. “I do not understand when we have common sense, bipartisan legislation, why we can’t bring that to the floor of the Senate and let the Senate vote.”Through aides, McConnell declined to respond directly to the latest allegations. But in remarks earlier this month, he slammed Democrats for using the issue of election security to pursue a partisan agenda.”Many of the proposals labeled by Democrats to be ‘election security’ measures are indeed election reform measures that are part of the left’s wish list,” he said. “They ignore the great work this administration has done and sweep under the rug the necessary measures this chamber has passed.”Mueller testimonyThe allegations by Democratic lawmakers come a day before U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, is set to testify before two House committees.Mueller’s report concluded Russia conducted what investigators described as a concerted campaign using hackers and disinformation to impact the outcome of the 2016 elections.FILE – Special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, May 29, 2019.”There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” Mueller said in a statement he read to reporters in late May.But rather than settle political differences, the report has further polarized Democrats and Republicans, who continue to argue over how to interpret the report’s findings and over what action to take.Last month, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill requiring paper ballots at all polling stations. However, almost all House Republicans opposed the measure, arguing that paper ballots are more susceptible to tampering.Several Republican-controlled Senate committees have also been looking into election security issues, and the Judiciary Committee approved two election security bills in May.But Democrats on Tuesday warned that the decision by McConnell to prevent any of the bills from getting a vote was threatening the country’s democracy.”Hostile foreign actors are going to interfere in the 2020 election in a way that makes what happened in 2016 look like very small potatoes,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It is not just going to be the Russians.”FBI warningEarlier Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray repeated warnings that the country’s upcoming elections would again be targeted.FILE – FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill, May 7, 2019.”The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere,” he told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying efforts to stop Moscow have failed to have much of an impact.”My view is until they stop, they haven’t been deterred enough,” Wray said.This past December, a report by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia, along with China and Iran, targeted the 2018 Congressional elections with influence campaigns.Under an executive order signed by Trump last year, all three countries could have faced sanctions and other punitive measures.But a subsequent report by the Justice Department found “no evidence to date that any identified activities of a foreign government or foreign agent had a material impact on the integrity or security of election infrastructure or political/campaign infrastructure.”Democrats’ billsWarner and other Democrats said Tuesday said they would continue to push for a series of what they described as common sense, bipartisan measures to improve election security.In addition to requiring paper ballots at all polling stations, the bills would require social media companies to provide information on who is paying for political ads and require mandatory sanctions for any country found trying to interfere.A fourth bill would require candidates and campaigns to notify the FBI if any foreign country or entity reaches out to them with “dirt,” or damaging information, on their opponents.”The response ought to not be to say, ‘Thank you,”’ Warner said. “The response ought to be to tell law enforcement.”

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FBI Director: China No. 1 Counter-Intelligence Threat to the US

The FBI has more than 1,000 investigations of U.S. intellectual property theft in all 50 states with nearly all leading back to China, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, calling China the No. 1 counter-intelligence threat to the United States.Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wray described the threat as “more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counter-intelligence threat that I can think of.”The Chinese threat ranges from cyber intrusions to corruption of insiders at U.S. companies small and large, Wray said, citing a series of recent Chinese economic espionage cases investigated by the FBI.  U.S. academia, he added, remains particularly vulnerable to Chinese spying efforts to steal publicly-funded proprietary research .     “It’s an all tools approach by them,” Wray said.  “Therefore, it requires an all tools approach by us.”FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 23, 2019.Asked about the upcoming 2020 U.S. elections, Wray reiterated previous comments that Moscow remains intent on interfering in them, calling Russia the No. 2 counter- intelligence threat to the United States.The testimony comes one day before former special counsel Robert Mueller appears before two Democratic-controlled House panels to testify about his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.Wray declined to directly answer questions about the Russia investigation but reiterated that the bureau is cooperating with a Justice Department inspector general inquiry into the FBI’s use of court-authorized surveillance during the 2016 election.In April, Attorney General William Barr told Congress “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election and later assigned a federal prosecutor to examine the origins of the Russia investigation.In May, however, Wray told lawmakers he did not view court authorized surveillance as spying and that he did not believe the bureau conducted illegal spying on the Trump campaign.Wray, who took over as head of the FBI in 2017 after President Donald Trump fired then bureau director James Comey, said he’s turned virtually the entire leadership of the bureau over the past two years.

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US Senate Confirms Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Army Secretary Mark Esper to be secretary of defense, ending the longest period by far that the Pentagon has been without a permanent top official.As voting continued, the Senate overwhelmingly backed Esper, a former lobbyist for weapons maker Raytheon Co., to be President Donald Trump’s second confirmed leader of the Pentagon.Esper, 55, received strong bipartisan support despite some sharp questioning during his confirmation hearing by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren about his ties to Raytheon and his refusal to extend an ethics commitment he signed in 2017 to avoid decisions involving the company.Warren, a 2020 presidential hopeful, was the only member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to voice opposition to Esper’s confirmation during the hearing.Raytheon is the third-largest U.S. defense contractor.There has been no confirmed defense secretary since Jim Mattis resigned in December over policy differences with Trump.Many members of Congress from both parties have urged the Republican president to act urgently to fill the powerful position.Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on members to support Esper as he opened the Senate on Tuesday morning.”The nominee is beyond qualified. His record of public service is beyond impressive. His commitment to serving our service members if beyond obvious. And the need for a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense is beyond urgent,” McConnell said.An Army veteran, Esper had served as a congressional aide and a Pentagon official under Republican President George W. Bush, before working for Raytheon. He has been Army secretary since November 2017.Trump’s previous pick to be secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from consideration on June 18 after reports emerged of domestic violence in his family. 

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Search Warrants Issued in Puerto Rican Texting Scandal

A judge in Puerto Rico has issued search warrants for the phones of the U.S. territory’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, and 11 of his political allies in connection with a texting scandal.The search warrants were issued for individuals who had not yet given up their phones as part of an investigation, a spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice told the Associated Press.The warrants were issued a day after protestors mobilized for a 10th straight day against embattled Governor Ricardo Rossello. Demonstrations ended late Monday with police using tear gas to disperse demonstrators who had gathered near the governor’s mansion in the capital, San Juan.A massive crowd estimated at 500,000 people, including pop singer Ricky Martin and other Puerto Rican-born entertainers, filled the streets of the earlier Monday demanding Rossello quit.The public fury erupted nearly two weeks ago when the island’s Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of online group chats between Governor Rossello and several top aides and associates that included profane messages laced with contempt for victims of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, as well as misogynistic and homophobic slurs against Rossello’s political opponents.  The publication of the chats unleashed long-simmering anger among Puerto Ricans who were worn down by years of public corruption and mismanagement that left the U.S. territory under the control of a congressionally-mandated oversight board to guide it out of a multi-billion-dollar debt crisis.  Rossello stepped down as leader of the New Progressive Party during a televised address Sunday and said he would not seek re-election in 2020.U.S. President Donald Trump slammed Rossello Monday for his “totally grossly incompetent leadership” of Puerto Rico.  Trump clashed with Rossello and other Puerto Rican officials over the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which killed 3,000 people and left the island without power for months. 

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USDA Rule Could Affect Food Stamp Eligibility for 3 Million

The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed tightening automatic eligibility requirements for the food stamp program, a change that could affect about 3.1 million people.The Agriculture Department said the rule would close “a loophole” that enables people receiving only minimal benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to be eligible automatically for food stamps.“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.Under current law, states may confer eligibility for food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, if they meet income and other requirements for TANF. USDA says 43 states have expanded that to include households that the agency says “barely participate in TANF.USDA said this has resulted in people receiving food stamps who don’t need it and wouldn’t qualify under regular program rules. It estimates that in 2020, 3.1 million food stamp recipients, or 8% of the total could be affected.Under the proposal, to qualify for automatic eligibility, people would have to get at least $50 a month in benefits from TANF for a minimum of six months.Perdue said the change is necessary for “preventing abuse of a critical safety net system.”The rule is open for public comment for 60 days.

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