Migrants Day

Shahrokh Heydai

December 18, International Migrants Day


Russian Threat

Cartoon by Steve Breen

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say

The New York Times: When lawmakers asked YouTube, a unit of Google, to provide information about Russian manipulation efforts, it did not disclose how many people watched the videos on its site that were created by Russian trolls.

Facebook did not release the comments that its users made when they viewed Russian-generated content. And Twitter gave only scattered details about the Russian-controlled accounts that spread propaganda there.

The tech companies’ foot-dragging was described in a pair of reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee published on Monday, in what were the most detailed accounts to date about how Russian agents have wielded social media against Americans in recent years.

In the reports, Google, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram) were described by researchers as having “evaded” and “misrepresented” themselves and the extent of Russian activity on their sites. The companies were also criticized for not turning over complete sets of data about Russian manipulation to the Senate.

The data they did provide “lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture,” said one of the reports, which was written by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research. The report added: “Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress.”

The studies renewed questions about whether social media companies have withheld data on Russian activity and how willing they really are to address the issue. After facing scrutiny over the past two years for distributing inflammatory Russian-made propaganda to Americans, some of the companies — such as Facebook — have pledged more transparency.

Yet Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, said that while cooperation with tech companies had improved over the last three years, there was still much more that the Silicon Valley giants could do to help researchers study Russian interference.

“Everyone wants to qualify the impact of the 2016 presidential election. They want to understand, did it swing the election?” she said. “None of the data sets we were given gives us that answer.”

The reports were especially critical of Google, whose YouTube site hosted 1,100 videos made by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency. The reports said Google had not only provided incomplete information about these videos, but one report accused Kent Walker, the company’s chief legal officer, of giving misleading testimony to Congress this year about whether those videos were targeted at a particular audience.

When compared with Facebook and Twitter, “Google’s data contribution was by far the most limited in context and least comprehensive of the three,” said one of the reports, by researchers at Oxford University and Graphika.

Of the information that the companies did hand over, some came in formats that were difficult to analyze. Researchers said that in many cases, information was provided in duplicate and triplicate, or was incomplete or corrupted. That meant it took months just to catalog and clean up before it could be studied.

In a statement, Nu Wexler, a Google spokesman, said, “We conducted an in-depth investigation across multiple product areas, and provided a detailed and thorough report to investigators.” He added that neither YouTube nor Google allowed people to target an audience by race.

Twitter said it was committed to transparency and had improved its work with researchers. “Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform,” said Katie Rosborough, a spokeswoman.

A spokesman for Facebook, Matt Steinfeld, said it “provided thousands of ads and pieces of content to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for review and shared information with the public about what we found.”

On Monday in Washington, lawmakers lashed out at the tech companies for hiding the ball.

“For many months we urged the social media companies to undertake such a crosscutting analysis without success, even as we made as much of their data as public as possible,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California. He said the companies’ reluctance to look deeply at Russian interference “made our task far more difficult than it should have been.” >>>

Sticky Situation

Cartoon by Tom Toles

Six potential legal problems for Trump

BBC: Investigations into Donald Trump's election-eve hush money payments and any possible ties between his presidential campaign and Russia have been dominating headlines. But there are other legal woes too.

In New York and Washington, the list of inquiries into the Trump world are expanding - any of which could produce serious headaches for the president.

Here's a look at the latest collection of eyeballs scrutinising the president - and what it all could mean.

1. The presidential inauguration cash

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal reported that the committee in charge of Mr Trump's 2017 presidential inauguration has come under federal criminal investigation.

The committee raised in a record $107m (£85m) in donations, including $14m from donors who worked for securities and investment companies and nearly $10m from those with real-estate industry ties.

The total is nearly double the amount of the previous record for inaugural fundraising, set by Barack Obama in 2009.

The probe will look into how that inaugural money was spent and whether contributors sought to gain access to the new administration.

A ProPublica report on Friday detailed concerns by a "top inaugural planner" that the Trump International Hotel in Washington was overcharging the inaugural committee for rooms, meals and facilities, which could be a violation of tax law.

The US attorney's office in Southern Manhattan is handling the inquiry - the same team involved in the various Cohen investigations.

According to the Journal, this new investigation was prompted, in part, by evidence unearthed by federal agents when they raided Cohen's offices in April.

Presidential exposure: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "this doesn't have anything to do with the president or the first lady" when asked about the Wall Street Journal report. That may be the case, but some of the president's closest friends and associates - and his daughter, Ivanka - were deeply involved in the inaugural planning.

2. Foreign influence

The central focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is to uncover any ties between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign, but according to recent reports the inquiry may have expanded to include connections to other countries.

A Daily Beast article reported that "phase two" of the special counsel's investigation will begin early in the next year and include court filings - and possible indictments - outlining connections between the Trump campaign and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

investigation, noting that federal investigators in New York are looking into whether any foreigners illegally made donations to the inaugural committee. Mr Mueller's team is also reportedly scrutinising a pro-Trump group to see if it received contributions from overseas during the 2016 campaign.

Saudi Arabia and UAE were once again mentioned, as was Qatar.

The president has called the entire Mueller investigation a "witch hunt" and is sure to vehemently object to any expansion of the probe.

Presidential exposure: Mr Trump has been more than accommodating toward Saudi Arabia as president - making the nation his first foreign visit, siding with it in a dispute with Qatar and offering a forceful defence of Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi's murder. The special counsel's office could be doing more than just wondering why.

3. Trump hotel

Shortly after being elected president, Mr Trump announced that his businesses would donate all income derived from foreign governments to the US Treasury.

In March the Trump Organization donated $151,470 in profits from foreign governments accrued during 2017 - although it offered no further details.

This procedure was designed to avoid running afoul of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits federal officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign rulers or representatives.

Although the president's lawyers said such donations were not required, Mr Trump pledged to do so "to eliminate any distractions by going beyond what the Constitution requires".

In June, however, attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland sued Mr Trump, alleging that the president is continuing to profit from foreign government spending at his properties - particularly his eponymous hotel just blocks from the White House in Washington, DC.

A similar legal challenge was dismissed, and a third - filed by Democratic lawmakers - is also winding its way through the court system.

So much for no distractions.

Since the Maryland/DC lawsuit was filed, Mr Trump's lawyers have tried to block it from proceeding, setting up what could be the first in a series of legal decisions on the breadth of the Emoluments Clause.

Last week, however, the judge overseeing the case allowed DC and Maryland to issue 30 subpoenas for business records from the Trump organisation and affiliated groups - an evidence gathering process that will continue until August 2019.

Presidential exposure: The case could end up being a ticking political time bomb that reveals embarrassing details about the president's business empire just as his presidential re-election campaign is kicking into gear.

4. Trump Foundation

In addition to the ongoing federal probes of the president and his interests, New York state investigators are conducting a review of the president's charitable foundation.

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has alleged that the Trump Foundation effectively served as means to advance the president's political and business interests in violation of state laws governing the tax-free status of charitable organisations. The president, in response, called the investigation the work of "sleazy New York Democrats" and lauded his charity for giving out more than $19m.

Mr Trump's lawyers attempted to have the case dismissed, but in late November a New York judge ruled that the allegations "sufficiently support a claim that Mr Trump intentionally used foundation assets for his private interests knowing that it may not be in the foundation's best interests".

During the 2016 campaign, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold detailed how Mr Trump used money from his charitable foundation - funded in large part by contributions from friends and associates - to settle business lawsuits and make donations to build support for his presidential bid.

Presidential exposure: New York is seeking nearly $3m in restitution, additional financial penalties, a 10-year ban on Mr Trump serving as the head of any New York non-profit organisations and a one-year ban for his three oldest children, Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr. >>>

What has America come to?

Cartoon by Dario Castillejos

'What has America come to?': Democrats push for inquiry after 7-year-old Guatemalan girl dies in Border Patrol custody

NBC: Democrats called for a swift investigation after federal immigration authorities confirmed on Thursday that a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock hours after being taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol last week.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said on Twitter Thursday evening that he will be demanding "immediate answers to this tragedy" from Department of Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen, who is slated to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next week.

Nadler, who is currently the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to be its chair when the new Congress convenes in January.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the girl and her father were part of a group of 163 people who approached U.S. agents to turn themselves in at the border. They were then taken into custody around 10 p.m. on Dec. 6 in New Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that more than eight hours later, the child began having seizures. Emergency respondents recorded a body temperature of 105.7 degrees and, according to The Washington Post, the girl apparently had not eaten or drunk water for several days.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the story "shocks the conscience" and said he will be "demanding answers."

"This senseless tragic death shocks the conscience. Immediate investigation must shine a spotlight on people & practices responsible," Blumenthal said on Twitter Friday.

"Why did the Commissioner of Customs & Border Protection keep this little girl’s death secret until after he testified before me & Senate Judiciary Committee this week? I will be demanding answers," Blumenthal continued.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who also sits on the House Judiciary Committee, also called for an investigation, and said Congress should cut off funds to agencies where children die in custody.

Nielsen "has this on her hands," Jayapal said on Twitter, adding that if "'border security' means detaining 7 year old children and letting them die in OUR custody, SHAME ON US. No more money without accountability."

The DHS secretary told Fox News on Friday that the migrant girl's death is “a very sad example of the dangers of this journey,” and stressed that the girl's family "chose to cross illegally."

In a statement on Friday, the agency offered condolences to girl's family, but echoed Nielsen's remarks about the hazards of crossing the border.

"Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring. Once again, we are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk attempting to enter illegally. Please present yourselves at a port of entry and seek to enter legally and safely," a spokesperson said.

New Brexit Coin Design

Iranian Bobby Sands

About the death of Iranian political prisoner from hunger strike



Christmas attack

Cartoon by Stephane Peray

French attack suspect had crime record since 13

AP: French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner says that the suspect in the deadly attack on the Christmas market in Strasbourg has had a long criminal record, with his first conviction at the age of 13.

Castaner said that at age 10 the suspect “already had behavior that fell under penal law.”

The minister was addressing parliamentarians on Wednesday, a day after the suspect, identified as Cherif Chekatt, 29, sprayed gunfire around the Christmas market in the eastern city, killing two, leaving a third person brain dead and injuring 12 others.

Chekatt was still on the run, with hundreds of police and soldiers seeking him in a massive manhunt.

Authorities said earlier that Chekatt had more than two dozen convictions, mostly in France but also in Switzerland and Germany. They said that Chekatt had been flagged for extremism and under watch.

British politics

Christmas Ayatollah style

Reza Reesh

Guarding democracy

Cartoon by Adam Zyglis

US Senate urged to guard democracy as Mueller probe nears end

Financial Times: Several dozen former Democratic and Republican senators have urged the Senate to be a “zealous guardian” of US democracy as special counsel Robert Mueller moved towards completing the Russia investigation.

The 44 retired senators — who included Democrats such as Tom Daschle, Max Baucus and John Kerry, and Republicans such as William Cohen and Chuck Hagel — said the US was “entering a dangerous period” as the country faced challenges to the rule of law, its constitution, government institutions and national security.

While the senators did not mention Donald Trump, they urged that “partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest” in a letter that indirectly referred to criticism of the president’s attack on institutions. They said the US was “entering a dangerous period” as Mr Mueller moved towards ending his probe and the House of Representatives, which will revert to Democratic control in January, started investigations into Mr Trump.

“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defence of our democracy. Today is once again such a time,” the senators wrote.

The letter, published in the Washington Post, came just three days after prosecutors in New York made clear they believed that Mr Trump had told Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to make payments to two women — porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — to silence them ahead of the 2016 election. Both women said they had sexual relationships with Mr Trump many years ago when he was married.

Mr Trump on Monday repeated his mantra that the Russia investigation was a “witch-hunt” orchestrated by Democrats. He said Democrats were focusing on a “simple private transaction” and saying it was a campaign contribution because they could not find a smoking gun. “Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced,” he tweeted. “WITCH HUNT!”

The president lashed out after Democrats suggested that he had been complicit in the felony Mr Cohen was charged with committing. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who will chair the House judiciary committee from January, said Mr Trump had committed “impeachable offences”. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who will become chair of the House intelligence committee, said it was conceivable that Mr Trump would go to jail.

“There’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office the justice department may indict him, that he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time,” Mr Schiff told CBS News.

John Thune, the South Dakota senator who will become the number two Republican in the Senate in January, on Monday said he expected that the Southern District of New York and the Mueller team would eventually come out with “a lot more”.

“What they’re implying there, obviously, is something I assume at some point the president will have an opportunity to respond to,” Mr Thune said in reference to the claims that Mr Trump ordered his former lawyer to make hush-money payments to the two women who accused him of affairs.

James Comey, the former FBI director, on Sunday said “all of us should use every breath we have to make sure the lies stop on January 20 2021”. Mr Trump’s decision to fire Mr Comey, who was overseeing the Russia probe, led to the appointment of Mr Mueller as special counsel.

The increased scrutiny of Mr Trump comes as he looks for a new chief of staff following his announcement that John Kelly, a retired general, would leave the position this year. Mr Trump’s top choice for the critical role — Nick Ayers who serves as chief of staff to vice-president Mike Pence — turned down the job.

Mr Trump is considering several candidates who include Mick Mulvaney, the top White House budget official, and Mark Meadows, a North Carolina lawmaker who belongs to the ultra-conservative House freedom caucus.