Trump pushed CIA to find, kill Osama bin Ladens son over higher priority targets

0 0 16 Feb 2020

WASHINGTON — When intelligence officials briefed President Donald Trump on the most worrisome terrorist threats during the first two years of his tenure, they regularly mentioned the names of the senior terror figures the CIA was working hardest to find and kill, including the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Trump would ultimately greenlight successful strikes on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Yemeni al Qaeda chief Qasim al-Rimi — perhaps the most significant names on the CIA list of potential U.S. targets.

But he was more interested in a young and less influential figure much farther down the list, according to two people familiar with the briefings, because he recognized the name.

“He would say, ‘I’ve never heard of any of these people. What about Hamza bin Laden?'” one former official said.

“That was the only name he knew,” a Pentagon official added.

Although Osama bin Laden’s youngest son was not believed to be planning attacks, the U.S. ultimately carried out an airstrike that killed him in 2018, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. At first, officials weren’t sure of his fate, but in July, NBC News was the first to report that U.S. officials believed he was dead.

An examination of the process that led to the strike against Hamza bin Laden puts a spotlight on how Trump has approached what is among the most weighty responsibilities of the U.S. president in the post 9/11 era: deciding which of America’s enemies should be marked for death.

Hamza Bin Laden in a video released by the CIA in 2017.CIA via AP file

Trump’s recent decision to target Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani — in the face of intelligence suggesting that Iran would seek to retaliate for the Quds Force commander’s death by killing Americans — illustrates the high stakes nature of such decisions. Improvements in weaponry and in the technology for finding targets have given this president lethal options his predecessors never had, but the greater freedom of action can make the decisions tougher.

Yet Trump — who doesn’t read or digest detailed intelligence assessments, according to current and former officials — says he operates on instinct. “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” he said in answer to a question about the economy during a November 2018 interview.

“The president’s highest priority is keeping Americans safe,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He and his administration have successfully targeted the most dangerous and deadly terrorists in the world in order to protect the American people, including Hamza bin Laden, al-Baghdadi, Qassem Soleimani, and Qasim al-Rimi. These and countless other measures that have removed dozens of high value targets exemplify this administration’s resolve to defeat terrorism.”

The successful strike on al-Rimi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was announced by the White House on Feb. 7. He and Baghdadi, the ISIS leader killed in a U.S. commando raid that Trump authorized in October 2019, were at or near the top of every intelligence priority list, officials say.

But former CIA official Douglas London, who led an agency unit targeting senior terrorists in 2018, says that what he called Trump’s “obsession” with bin Laden’s son “is one example of the president’s preference for a ‘celebrity’ targeted killing versus prioritizing options that could prove better for U.S. security.”

In a piece for the website, which London says was reviewed and deemed unclassified by the CIA, he wrote, “CIA had not overlooked the value in Hamza’s name recognition, nor his musings posted by al Qaeda’s media cell, but he was young, lacked battlefield experience, and had yet to develop a serious following.”

Few if any counterterrorism experts argue that Hamza bin Laden was not a lawful target. He was urging attacks on Americans on behalf of a terror group with which the U.S. is at war, and he was seen by experts as a possible future al Qaeda leader.

But the CIA assessment at the time was that he was not next in the line of succession, and was not a top threat, according to London and other U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

This image provided by SITE Intelligence Group shows Ayman al-Zawahri as he gives a eulogy for fellow al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a video released on jihadist forums on June 8, 2011.SITE via AFP – Getty Images file

“Despite intelligence assessments showing the greater dangers posed by Zawahiri … and the unlikelihood Hamza was in the immediate line of succession, the president thought differently,” London wrote. “He regularly demanded updates on Hamza and insisted we accelerate our efforts to go after him.”

Trump’s wishes “necessarily influenced the alignment of the Intelligence Community’s focus and resources,” London wrote, in an unusual peek behind the scenes into the secret process of targeting terrorists.

London suggested that politics may have been a factor in Trump’s decision-making.

“It was not lost on us working the issue that the president pressed hardest for results in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections,” he wrote.

The Pentagon, the Department of State and various intelligence agencies had input into the process of nominating Hamza bin Laden for lethal action, according to a former senior U.S. official directly familiar with the matter.

But Hamza bin Laden was not a top priority until Trump’s exhortations influenced the extent to which the CIA devoted scarce manhunting resources to tracking him, according to London’s account.

Exile in Iran

For a long time, Hamza bin Laden was an afterthought.

In the wake of 9/11 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, he was among bin Laden’s family members who made their way to Iran, where he lived for a number of years, some of them in detention, intelligence officials say.

But in August 2015, al-Zawahri appeared in a video and introduced the younger bin Laden, calling him “a lion from the den of al Qaeda.”

Bin Laden didn’t appear in the video but said in an audio-only portion, “What America and its allies fear the most is that we take the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, and to take it to all the American, Jewish and Western interests in the world.”

Protesters hold a photo of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3, 2020.Ali Mohammadi / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

He quickly became a fixture in al Qaeda messages, and counterterrorism officials took notice. The news media began reporting on the possibility that he was being groomed as a future terror leader. After the death of the senior bin Laden at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan, and amid the rise of the Islamic State militant group or ISIS, al Qaeda was struggling for relevance.

By the time of his father’s death, officials believed Hamza bin Laden had relocated to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Still, during the Obama administration, there was little focus on Hamza bin Laden, three former senior officials said. He did not figure in intelligence assessments about the terror threat.

“I don’t remember a single meeting at which we focused on Hamza bin Laden,” said Joshua Geltzer, who was the top counterterrorism official on the National Security Council until early in the Trump administration.

“He had the name but he didn’t have a lot of working relationships with people, and he didn’t have battlefield experience,” a former senior counterterrorism official added.

In November 2017, the CIA released documents seized in the bin Laden operation, including a video of Hamza bin Laden’s wedding to the daughter of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.

Fox News features Hamza

Trump was president by then, and the video prompted a spate of television coverage. Fox News, a favored source of information for the president, devoted significant airtime to the release of the CIA documents and the video of the younger bin Laden.

Inside the U.S. government — and among U.S. allies, according to a senior Western intelligence official — there was heightened concern that Hamza bin Laden could refresh al Qaeda’s ailing brand.

But there was no evidence he was involved in attacks or even inspiring them, experts say.

“It is not clear at all that Hamza presented an actual serious threat of inspiring attacks,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who advises the U.S. government.

But Jones said he believes Hamza bin Laden was a justifiable target.

Nonetheless, he said, “I can’t remember a case where I’ve seen an interrogation of a terrorist who said he was inspired by Hamza bin Laden.”

In March of last year, the U.S. government announced a $1 million reward for information helping to locate Hamza bin Laden. There was a consensus that such a step was warranted, officials said.

Still, the size of the reward was telling. It paled in comparison to the $10 million offered for senior al Qaeda operative Saif al-Adel, or the $25 million the U.S. had once offered for the senior bin Laden.

“Hamza bin Laden is wanted for questioning in connection with his membership in the al Qaeda organization and his public declarations threatening the security of the United States,” the wanted poster said.

But by then, officials now believe, Hamza bin Laden was already dead.

Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahri and his top lieutenants are believed to be very much alive.

Texas man close to exoneration after computer algorithm leads to new suspect

1 0 16 Feb 2020

Nearly a decade into his life sentence for murder, Lydell Grant was escorted out of a Texas prison in November with his hands held high, free on bail, all thanks to DNA re-examined by a software program.

“The last nine years, man, I felt like an animal in a cage,” Grant, embracing his mother and brother, told the crush of reporters awaiting him in Houston. “Especially knowing that I didn’t do it.”

Now, Grant, 42, is on a fast-track to exoneration after a judge recommended in December that Texas’ highest criminal court vacate his conviction. His attorneys are hopeful a ruling is made in the coming weeks.

But for Grant, to get to here hinged on two necessary prongs: the DNA evidence, which was reanalyzed through an emerging software that has also come under scrutiny, and an unprecedented decision to use the findings to conduct an FBI criminal database search that was initiated by a third party not part of the initial investigation. That ultimately led to the discovery of a new suspect, who has been charged after police say he confessed.

The search process used in Grant’s case has enormous potential to solve cold cases or re-evaluate other convictions that could pave the way for more exonerations nationwide, forensic scientists say.

“There’s probably 5,000 or 6,000 innocent people in Texas prisons alone,” said attorney Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which is representing Grant. “How many of them could benefit from such a reanalysis of DNA that was used to convict them? I don’t really know, but this is a historic case that could open the door for those who thought it was shut forever.”

A match in the database

Grant’s ordeal began in December 2010, when Aaron Scheerhoorn was stabbed outside a Houston gay bar. Authorities said Scheerhoorn, who was bleeding from his abdomen, had run to the bar’s entrance seeking help from horrified bar patrons and employees. The witnesses described the killer as a black man, about 25 to 30 years old, and around 6 feet tall. Police told local media it may have been a “crime of passion.”

A tip came in about a car that might belong to the suspect. Five days later, an officer pulled over a vehicle matching its description and Grant, who at the time was driving on a suspended license, was taken in for questioning.

Investigators also interviewed seven witnesses, all but one of whom picked out Grant as the suspect from a photo lineup.

Grant, then 33, had a criminal record going back several years, including for aggravated robbery, marijuana use and theft. But he maintained his innocence in the stabbing, said he never met Scheerhoorn and produced an alibi for his defense.

At Grant’s 2012 trial, prosecutors centered their case around the eyewitness testimony — a practice that the Innocence Project argues plays a major role in defendants being wrongfully accused. In addition, jurors heard about DNA collected from fingernail scrapings from Scheerhoorn’s right hand. The DNA was actually a mixture of two people: the victim and a second male profile.

Houston’s police crime lab at the time was unable to conclude that the other genetic material was Grant’s, and the state’s expert’s testimony suggested to the jury that it “could not be excluded.”

Jurors also heard from Grant’s alibi, who said he was with him on the night Scheerhoorn was murdered, but his testimony failed to sway them, court documents show.

Grant was found guilty of first-degree felony murder. From his jail cell in Harris County, he began writing to anyone he thought could help.

A letter eventually landed on a pile at the Innocence Project of Texas, which receives hundreds of inmate mail each month. In 2018, it was referred to the Texas A&M School of Law, which partners with the Innocence Project of Texas.

“We knew at the very least the prosecutor put on inaccurate testimony at trial,” Ware said. “We didn’t know where the facts were going to lead to.”

The law students got to work, paying particular attention to the DNA report that described the mixture of genetic materials. In 2011, the Houston crime lab had analyzed it using a traditional method in which a forensic scientist studies the genetic makeup of the DNA sample, which is translated into a type of graph that can be reviewed manually, and determines the probability that a particular person’s DNA matches the sample. But when a sample includes a mixture of DNA from more than one person, it is increasingly difficult to separate and interpret the data. Flawed DNA readings by analysts have been known to ensnare innocent people.

After Ware and the students gave a fresh look at the original DNA report, they were convinced Grant’s DNA could not have been a part of the mixture. In March 2019, Ware began working with Angie Ambers, a DNA expert and an associate professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

Ambers was familiar with a type of DNA technology known as “probabilistic genotyping.”

“Years after Lydell Grant was convicted and sent to prison, there was a paradigm shift in how we interpreted DNA mixtures in criminal casework,” she said. “Rather than having a human DNA analyst interpret a mixture of DNA, computer software programs were developed to reduce the subjectivity in interpretation.”

Mike Ware walks out of Bexar County Jail on Nov. 18, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a case in which four women were wrongfully accused of sexual assault and later exonerated.Eric Gay / AP file

Ambers learned of one such software program created by Cybergenetics, a small company in Pittsburgh that had done work analyzing DNA samples from unidentified victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.

It was worth a shot: Ware requested the raw DNA data from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and then it was shared with Cybergenetics and run through its program, TrueAllele. (The name is a play off the word that signifies the different forms that a person’s genes can take.)

The company offered a free preliminary screening, and the software did what a human could not: determine that Grant’s DNA did not match the unknown male profile.

Ambers had a hunch that something was off when she first reviewed the case because of a large number of alleles present in the DNA mixture that were inconsistent with Scheerhoorn’s or Grant’s profiles. But she said that TrueAllele’s discovery alone wouldn’t guarantee Grant would be cleared of a crime.

Armed with this new evidence, the Innocence Project of Texas went a step further, prompting Cybergenetics to work with a partner crime lab in Beaufort County, South Carolina, which has access to a powerful FBI database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

Typically, federal, state and local law enforcement and government crime labs can upload an unknown profile into the database and compare it to one of the more than 14 million convicted criminals and those arrested already in the system for a possible match. The process, for instance, can help authorities link crimes from several scenes to a single person.

The South Carolina crime lab’s search resulted in a hit. The DNA profile belonged to a man in Atlanta named Jermarico Carter, who police say left Houston shortly after Scheerhoorn’s murder. Carter also has a lengthy criminal record, and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement in December that he confessed to the killing.

Acevedo at the time also issued a rare apology to Grant and his family “as they have waited for justice all these years.”

Trusting the source code

Mark Perlin, the CEO of Cybergenetics and developer of TrueAllele, said the use of a probabilistic genotyping software’s findings in CODIS is significant as it’s the first time it was attempted because an independent party, the Innocence Project, requested it and not law enforcement. And most remarkably, it resulted in a match.

He touted his software, which runs DNA data through a statistical algorithm with some 170,000 lines of code, for being able to untangle DNA mixtures.

Those mixtures “have a complex pattern based on how much of each person is there along with distortions,” Perlin said. “A computer can account for that and dig deeper into the data to get far more information.”

But while TrueAllele has been lauded for assisting both prosecutors and defense attorneys get to the bottom of cases, and has been used in crimes labs, including in Baltimore, Cleveland and Bakersfield, California, the technology also has detractors.

Some who favor transparency ask that if the patented program’s source code is only decipherable by the company, how can it be trusted to be accurate every time?

Greg Hampikian, a biology professor at Boise State University who was an expert consultant in the high-profile case of Amanda Knox, credits TrueAllele with helping to free the wrongly convicted in other cases he’s worked on. But he also supports the release of the software’s source code and believes that if prosecutors have the same access to such a program for a trial, then the defense must, too. He acknowledged that there are difficulties to ensuring a defense team can be fully trained to “counter these highly sophisticated mathematical programs without having actually used them.” They can also be cost-prohibitive, running in the tens of thousands of dollars.

If probabilistic genotyping software is being used in trials, defendants should have every opportunity to know how the algorithm came to its conclusion in order to mount a capable defense, said Dan Krane, an expert in DNA and the interim dean of Wright State University’s Lake Campus in Ohio.

“There’s a conflict between a defendant’s constitutional right to confront the witnesses versus an inventor’s right to protect the intellectual property associated with their invention,” Krane said.

Judges in several cases throughout the country have rejected attempts to force private companies to reveal the formulas behind their software.

In 2016, however, a federal judge in New York ordered the release of the source code for a software tool developed by New York City’s crime lab that was the subject of a ProPublica report that found “increased complaints by scientists and lawyers that flaws in the now-discontinued software program may have sent innocent people to prison.”

Perlin has argued in court filings that TrueAllele’s source code is a “trade secret,” and one that must be protected in a “highly competitive commercial environment.” (Its main competitor is the software STRMix, which is being used in more than 50 forensic labs across the country, including the Houston Forensic Science Center, an independent agency that replaced the Houston Police Department’s previous crime lab in 2014 after past scandals.)

For criminal cases, Perlin said, his source code can be provided to defense experts at no cost under a confidentiality agreement.

The issue has caught the attention of Washington lawmakers. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced legislation in September that would require defendants to be provided with access to a source code and standards put in place to ensure the algorithm used was fair. The Justice in Forensic Algorithms Act has been referred to the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology and the House Judiciary Committee.

While some experts are wary of how the technology may be applied in cases, they do see a benefit in using its findings to locate a profile match in CODIS. But the FBI, which has used STRMix for cases, has been reluctant to allow third parties such as the Innocence Project of Texas direct access to the database, instead requiring that they specifically go through law enforcement or crime lab sources to perform the CODIS search.

Supporters of opening the database argue that sometimes law enforcement and crime labs involved in the original case can’t be counted on to do a new search in a timely manner, particularly if the results threaten to undermine the authorities’ already existing investigation.

In response to questions from NBC News, the FBI said that CODIS remains a “tool legislatively authorized for law enforcement use only.” In addition, the agency said it uses STRMix for one of two functions: to “help a human figure out DNA mixtures (and therefore possibly put a better profile into CODIS)” or highlight the likelihood that two profiles are indeed a match.

Perlin sees his DNA technology being at the forefront when it comes to solving more cases, but that will also depend on whether crime labs like the one in South Carolina are willing to partner with third parties that use probabilistic genotyping software.

He said Cybergenetics will continue to help prisoners who may be wrongfully convicted and believes partnerships with crime labs can grow, although “to the extent that the FBI lets them.”

“These labs want to use better science to get better justice for all parties,” Perlin added.

Grant’s case, proponents of the DNA technology say, could prove to be that shining example to get more people on board.

While awaiting the court’s finding that he is officially exonerated, Grant, who remains out on a $100,000 bond, told reporters in December that he isn’t angry with prosecutors and has put his faith in God. And he sees a silver lining for others wrongly convicted.

“I really believe that my story will be able to help someone else’s,” he said.

Buttigieg hits back: I wont take lectures on family values from Rush Limbaugh

2 0 16 Feb 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said Sunday he won’t “take lectures on family values” from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who suggested Americans wouldn’t elect Buttigieg president because he’s been “kissing his husband on stage” after debates.

‘I love my husband. I’m faithful to my husband,” the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor told CNN’s “State of the Union. “On stage, we usually just go for a hug. But I love him very much. And I’m not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.”

Limbaugh on Wednesday said Democrats must be thinking of Buttigieg standing on a debate stage with Trump, “OK, how’s this going to look?”

“Thirty-seven-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, [President] Donald Trump,” Limbaugh said. “What’s going to happen here?”

The comments came a week after Trump awarded Limbaugh, who said he is battling advanced lung cancer, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address.

Buttigieg, who is vying to be the first openly gay U.S. president, addressed the historic nature of his candidacy during an interview on “Meet the Press” last week.

“There was a moment before we went out when Chasten pulled me in and just reminded me what this means for some kid peeking around the closet door wondering if this country has a place for them,” Buttigieg said. “I didn’t set out to be the gay president, but certainly seeing what this means is really meaningful and really powerful.”

In a radio interview with Geraldo Rivera, Trump was asked if he thinks Americans would vote for a gay man to be president.

“I think so,” Trump said, adding, “I think there would be some that wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be among that group, to be honest with you.”

Buttigieg heads into Nevada after claiming victory in the Iowa caucuses and finishing second in the New Hampshire Democratic primary to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Biden, Klobuchar hit Bloombergs record ahead of Nevada debate

4 0 16 Feb 2020

LAS VEGAS — Former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar took aim Sunday at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ahead of this week’s Democratic presidential debate.

Bloomberg hasn’t yet qualified for Wednesday’s NBC News and MSNBC debate in Las Vegas, but has through Tuesday to meet the party’s criteria.

With that potential clash looming, both Biden and Klobuchar criticized Bloomberg in interviews with “Meet the Press” at a time when the former mayor faces increased scrutiny over past comments about race, policing and women at his eponymous company.

“$60 billion can buy you a lot of advertising, but it can’t erase your record. There’s a lot to talk about with Michael Bloomberg,” Biden said, approximating Bloomberg’s net worth.

“You take a look at the stop-and-frisk proposals. You take a look at his ideas on redlining he’s talking about. You take a look at what he’s done relative to the African American community. I’m anxious to debate Michael on the issues relating to, you know, what we’re going to face in Super Tuesday.”

“It’s going to be awful hard to go out and win those — the base support of the Democratic party, the African Americans, Latinos and working class white folks, and put that coalition together. That’s how you win an election. You put that coalition together,” he added.

Bloomberg has spent $308 million on television and radio ads alone this cycle, more than every other Democratic presidential candidate combined, according data from Advertising Analytics. He’s seen a rise in his standing in national polls in recent weeks, particularly as Biden’s standing in those same polls has taken a hit.

But Bloomberg’s record has also come under increased scrutiny.

The former mayor apologized days before his presidential bid for how the New York City Police Department used its controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy during his tenure in office, admitting that the disproportionate stops of black and Latino New Yorkers led to an “erosion of trust” he’s trying to earn back.

And in recent days, he’s had to confront newly-unearthed comments from his past defense of the policy, including from a 2015 speech where, in video not verified by NBC News, Bloomberg appears to say that while people complain that “we put all the cops in minority neighborhoods…that’s where all the crime is.”

In that same speech, he also said that “the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.”

Bloomberg’s campaign has responded to the new comments by reiterating his apology for the effects of “stop-and-frisk” and attacking President Trump for seizing on the reports.

Amid the controversies, Klobuchar told “Meet the Press” that she does not “think he is the best person to lead the ticket” for Democrats. And she said that she’s both looking forward to debating Bloomberg if he is able to qualify for Wednesday’s presidential debate and wants to see Bloomberg answer tough questions from the media.

“He just can’t hide behind the airwaves. He has to answer questions” she said.

“I think he should be on that debate stage, which eventually he will be, because I can’t beat him on the airways, but I can beat him on the debate stage, and I think people of America deserve that to make a decision.”

Coronavirus updates: Americans to be evacuated from cruise ship quarantined in Japan

7 0 16 Feb 2020

• U.S. to evacuate Americans from quarantined cruise ship in Japan

• Death toll from novel coronavirus rises to 1,665

• China’s president said he took early action behind the scenes

• China’s Hubei bans vehicle traffic to curb spread of coronavirus

• American woman from cruise ship tests positive again in Malaysia

Death toll from novel coronavirus rises

Almost 1,700 people have now died from the novel coronavirus as the number of people diagnosed with the respiratory illness rose to 68,500, officals at China’s National Health Commission reported Sunday.

As of Saturday a further 142 people had died, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,665, they said, adding that there were 2,009 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — an infection that the novel coronavirus causes — nationwide.

However, they said that more than 9,400 patients had also been cured and discharged.

Health commission spokesman Mi Feng told a news conference on Sunday that China’s campaign again the virus was beginning to show results.

“The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” he said.

Increased medical support and preventive measures in Hubei, where coronavirus is believed to have originated, had headed off more critical cases and the proportion of critical cases among confirmed cases had fallen, Mi added.

Mild cases were also being treated more quickly, preventing them from becoming critical, he said. — Dawn Liu and Reuters

U.S. to evacuate Americans from quarantined cruise ship in Japan

American passengers quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan are to be evacuated on Sunday, according to a letter sent to them by the U.S. embassy in Tokyo.

The embassy also reiterated that the U.S. government recommends that the 400 or so American citizens disembark from the cruise ship and return to the U.S.

It said the U.S. government had chartered flights that will depart Yokohama, where the ship is docked, to the United States on Sunday.

“These charter flights are the only opportunity for eligible passengers to fly to the United States until March 4, 2020, at the earliest,” the letter added. “This date is 14 days after the remaining passengers are expected to depart the ship on Feb. 19.”

Japanese officials said the quarantine aboard the ship is supposed to end on Feb. 19.

The embassy added that no symptomatic or infected passengers will be allowed to board the chartered flights.

Upon return to the U.S., those who choose to take the chartered flights will be quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California or Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas for 14 days.

Those who choose to stay behind on the ship would face “potential constraints that would impact return to the United States in the next two weeks,” the embassy added.

On Sunday, Japan’s health ministry confirmed 70 additional coronavirus cases on board the ship, bringing the total number of those infected on the Diamond Princess to 355. A total of 1,219 passengers and crew members have been tested so far.

The ship, carrying some 3,700 passengers and crew, has been quarantined in Yokohama since Feb. 3 after a passenger, who disembarked in Hong Kong, was later diagnosed with the virus.

The company that owns the cruise ship said Sunday it was cancelling all other voyages aboard Diamond Princess until April 20 due to “prolonged quarantine period and the anticipated time to prepare the ship to return to service.” — Arata Yamamoto and Yuliya Talmazan

China’s president says he took behind-the-scenes action in the early days of outbreak

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech published Saturday night by state media that he took behind-the-scenes action in the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic.

In the speech, delivered Feb. 3 but detailed for the first time Saturday, Xi said he gave instructions to officials on fighting the outbreak as early as Jan. 7.

The disclosure came after Chinese leadership was criticized for slow and muted reaction to the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Officials only notified the public about its potential to spread in late January.

The coronavirus epidemic has become the biggest challenge yet facing President Xi since he became leader of China in 2012. — Associated Press and Dennis Romero

China’s Hubei bans vehicle traffic to curb spread of coronavirus

The government of Hubei province, where the respiratory illness is believed to have developed, said Sunday that a ban will be imposed on vehicle traffic across the province to curb the spread of the virus.

Police cars, ambulances, vehicles carrying essential goods, or other vehicles related to public service would be exempted, it said on its official website. It added that the province will carry out regular health checks on all residents.

It also stated that companies cannot resume work without first receiving permission from the government. — Alex Shi and Reuters

American woman from cruise ship tests positive again in Malaysia

An American woman who was aboard a cruise ship which was allowed disembark in Cambodia on Friday, has tested positive for coronavirus for second time.

The 83-year-old had been traveling on the MS Westerdam which was refused entry to several countries including Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand, before it was eventually allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

After she traveled the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, she tested positive for the respiratory illness on Friday.

She was the first person on the ship, which was carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, to test positive.

Cruise ship operator Holland America Inc. sought more tests and Cambodian authorities also called on Malaysia to review its test results.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Waz Azizah Wan Ismail said on Sunday a retest was carried out on the American late on Saturday night and she tested positive again.

However, her husband tested negative. — Reuters

A powerful Ukrainian is playing both sides of Giulianis Ukraine project

4 0 16 Feb 2020

KYIV, Ukraine — One of the Ukrainians whose name has surfaced in Rudy Giuliani’s ongoing crusade to tar the Bidens is a powerful politician with a knack for playing all sides to his advantage.

Documents and testimony released by Congress as part of President Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation have revealed how Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov helped Giuliani associate Lev Parnas access Ukraine’s powerful business and political elites as he dug for dirt on the Bidens, exchanging more than 100 messages with Parnas.

But they also show that Avakov warned U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and other U.S. embassy officials about Parnas’ activities on behalf of Giuliani, and about their efforts to oust her from her job. In fact, Avakov is now overseeing the Ukrainian government’s investigation into whether Giuliani associates improperly surveilled Yovanovitch by tracking her phone and computer.

According to testimony from Yovanovitch, on Nov. 15, 2018, Avakov told her that Parnas and Giuliani had reach out to him while he was in the U.S. Avakov said he spoke to Giuliani briefly on the phone, said Yovanovitch, but told her “he didn’t actually want to meet with Mayor Giuliani because of his concerns about what they were doing.”

“He thought it was — so he thought it was very dangerous. That Ukraine, since its independence, has had bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans all these years, and that to start kind of getting into U.S. politics, into U.S. domestic politics, was a dangerous place for Ukraine to be,” Yovanovitch said.

In February 2019, said Yovanovitch, Avakov specifically warned her that Giuliani was working with then Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko “to remove me from my post.”

Yet within months Avakov was communicating extensively with one of Giuliani’s chief operatives in Ukraine, Lev Parnas. Documents released by the House Judiciary Committee show Avakov exchanged at least 110 messages with Parnas between April 15 and May 29, 2019, and transcripts indicate he met with Parnas at least once.

Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov attends a regular Wednesday meeting of the government in Kyiv, Ukraine on Jan. 15, 2020.Hennadii Minchenko / Ukrinform / Barcroft Media via Getty Images file

The messages show Parnas attempting to set up meetings and share information related to Hunter Biden, the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, on whose board Biden once sat, and Hillary Clinton. Parnas even asks Avakov for help with security arrangements, and Avakov appears to provide assistance, although it isn’t clear if that assistance is private security guards or public security personnel linked to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

On May 14, Parnas forwarded Giuliani’s gratitude to Avakov via WhatsApp. “My dear friend,” he wrote. “I would like to thank you for your help and understanding in this difficult situation and for your help personally to me. I reported about this to Respected Rudy, and he today in an exclusive interview with Inter TV Channel [a Ukrainian News Channel], expressed to you personally and separately huge gratitude. Waiting for a meeting tomorrow. Thanks!!!!!”

“The way that Avakov, on the one hand, provided security for and communicated with Parnas, and at the same time informed Yovanovitch about a smear campaign against her is how he always operates,” Tetiana Shevchuk, a lawyer with the Anti-Corruption Action Center (ANTAC), told NBC News. “It’s his style. He is everyone’s man. He communicates with everybody and preserves ties with all sides.”

“Avakov prefers to be behind the scenes,” Oleksandr Lemenov, a Kyiv-based lawyer and activist who focuses on anti-corruption efforts, told NBC News. “He is a puppet-master.”

The rise of Arsen Avakov

Avakov, an Armenian born in Baku in Soviet Azerbaijan in 1964, is a wealthy polymath who has shown a skill for not just survival, but for thriving amid the upheavals of the past 30 years.

As one of Ukraine’s richest men, Avakov made a fortune worth more than $100 million during several decades leveraging political and business connections from his hometown of Kharkiv with his role in the banking industry in the 1980s and 90s.

In the immediate aftermath of Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, which ousted a pro-Russian government, Avakov was appointed minister of internal affairs. It was meant to be a temporary appointment.

However, Avakov “began to construct his own system of power from that day,” according to Oleksiy Grytsenko, an activist who led part of the opposition movement alongside Avakov during the 2014 Revolution.

Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Sept. 20, 2019.Aram Roston / Reuters file

After being installed as interim minister of internal affairs, “Avakov saved practically all high-ranking law enforcement officials from lustration [the purge of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s loyalists after the 2014 revolution] and criminal prosecution,” Shevchuk said. “In return, they swore loyalty to him.”

Avakov didn’t simply survive the transition from post-revolutionary government: he thrived in a post from which he controlled the country’s powerful internal security agencies, including both the National Guard and the National Police.

He has now held this role through three presidents and four prime ministers — one of only two cabinet members asked to continue in their posts from former President Petro Poroshenko’s administration into that of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“At first, it looked like he was actually reforming the Ministry. But soon for us, it became clear he was only creating the appearance of reform,” Grytsenko told NBC News.

Robert F. Hyde with President Donald

Avakov has been a polarizing figure in Ukrainian politics, and numerous controversies have dogged his tenure as minister of internal affairs. These include his son being charged, and then cleared, over corruption related to military procurement; accusations that the Ministry of Internal Affairs mishandled investigations into, and allegations that its personnel were involved in, multiple assaults on opposition figures; or that Avakov has cultivated ties with, and protected, far-right organizations such as the National Corps, which the U.S. State Department calls “nationalist hate groups.”

But despite frequent calls for Avakov to resign or get fired, he remains ensconced in his post.

According to Grytsenko and other observers, having such a powerful political ally, to whom essentially all armed internal security forces report, has not been especially comfortable for Zelenskiy, who has attempted to dilute Avakov’s power without challenging him directly.

“[Zelenskiy] even tried to take control over the National Guard and dismantle it, but the bill was buried in the parliamentary law enforcement committee, controlled by Avakov loyalists,” said Grytsenko.

After impeachment

President Trump has now been impeached by the House for abuse of power for his efforts in Ukraine, and acquitted by the Senate, almost entirely on party lines.

Post-impeachment, Team Trump’s efforts have not just continued, but have buy-in from some Republican members of Congress, who have signaled their openness to Giuliani’s Ukraine research into Joe and Hunter Biden and Burisma.

“The Department of Justice is receiving information coming out of the Ukraine [sic] from Rudy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told “Face the Nation” earlier this month.

Graham said that Attorney General William Barr “told me that they’ve created a process that Rudy could give information and they would see if it’s verified.”

Avakov, meanwhile, finds himself in charge of a Giuliani-related probe of his own.

In the WhatsApp messages released by Congressional investigators, Parnas spoke to GOP activist Robert F. Hyde about apparent surveillance of Amb. Yovanovitch:

Hyde, writing to Parnas, said, “She’s talked to three people. Her phone is off. Computer is off … She’s next to the embassy … Not in the embassy … Private security. Been there since Thursday.”

The information was revealed, in subsequent messages, to have originated with a Belgian named Anthony de Caluwe. De Caluwe, in a public statement, said the information he claimed to have was merely an instance of drunken bravado.

Whether or not she was surveilled, it is clear that President Trump wanted to oust Yovanovitch — a 34-year veteran of the Foreign Service. Trump can be heard calling for her to be “got rid of” in an audio recording released by attorneys for Parnas.

The allegations of surveillance made shockwaves in Ukraine, which acted quickly to quell fears it was being dragged even deeper into the America’s Ukraine’s controversy. On Jan. 16, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs — the ministry Avakov runs — announced it was opening a criminal investigation into the alleged surveillance of a foreign diplomat on its territory.

On Jan. 27, the ministry confirmed that personnel from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service were joining the investigation.

“Creation of this joint group is necessary for the purposes of clarifying the details of this allegation, and to ensure an unbiased investigation of this incident,” a spokesperson for the ministry told NBC News in an e-mailed statement.

Part of the same statement was attributed to Avakov: “We have a common goal: the protection of human rights, the enforcement of Ukrainian law, and the prevention of violations of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”

If Yovanovitch was surveilled, and was surveilled by a private firm, ANTAC’s Shevchuk found it unlikely that any private security firm could have carried out such surveillance inside Ukraine without the knowledge of the government.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs directly or indirectly controls all private security firms that can do that kind of surveillance… You can’t open a private security firm without connections in the ministry.”

A former U.S. law enforcement official who specializes in Ukraine also found it unlikely that any kind of surveillance could have occurred without the knowledge of the ministry.

Shevchuk had a simple explanation for Avakov’s apparent role playing both sides of the affair.

“He talks to everybody, and wants to be useful for everybody.”

The Trump-Fox News revolving door is perfect for Hope Hicks — but terrible for America

7 0 16 Feb 2020

Hope Hicks, President Donald Trump’s longtime confidante and the former White House communications director, is returning to the West Wing after a 16-month stint as a top communications staffer at Fox Corp., Fox News’ parent company. The move puts on full display the president’s dangerous and unprecedented relationship with the network that serves as his personal megaphone.

Trump is a Fox News superfan — I documented him live-tweeting along with the network’s programming more than 650 times in 2019 alone. Like any Fox partisan, he revels in the sycophantic coverage of his administration — and the vicious attacks on his political foes — that the network’s personalities provide.

Trump is a Fox News superfan — I documented him live-tweeting along with the network’s programming more than 650 times in 2019 alone.

But unlike other people who start their weekdays with the “Fox & Friends” gang, end them with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and spend their weekends with Pete Hegseth, Jesse Watters and Jeanine Pirro, Trump is the president. And he turns to the folks from his television set not just for the “news,” but also for advice on how to manage the extraordinary challenges that come with his position. A disturbing fusion between the Trump administration and Fox News has been the result.

The problems here are obvious and plentiful. Fox personalities may be skilled at whipping up hysteria among their audiences, but they certainly shouldn’t be providing advice to the president. Legislative priorities and federal contracts should not be up for grabs based on whose on-air commentary is most flattering.

Hicks has a long history in Trump’s orbit, having worked for his business empire and then his presidential campaign before beginning her first rotation in the White House. But for many of Hicks’ administration colleagues, Fox News appearances served as their initial interview with the president.

At least 19 current and former members of the Trump administration previously worked for Fox. Cabinet secretaries such as Ben Carson and Elaine Chao; top White House communications advisers including Bill Shine and Mercedes Schlapp; national security aides such as John Bolton and K.T. McFarland; and U.S. ambassadors like Richard Grenell all had jobs at the president’s favorite network first. And when Trump needed to assemble a legal team for his Senate impeachment trial, he naturally turned to Fox regulars, hiring four lawyers who had combined at least 365 weekday appearances on the network over the previous year.

When Trump isn’t taking advice from the former Fox guests he’s brought into his administration, he is turning to the star hosts who remain on the network’s payroll. This veritable Fox News Cabinet has unmatched sway. Hannity speaks to the president so regularly that some in the White House have termed him the shadow chief of staff. Carlson’s advice reportedly averted planned U.S. missile strikes last year and shaped the U.S. response to Iran in January. Pirro advised Trump on how to handle the Justice Department in a 2018 Oval Office meeting. Hegseth, a co-host of “Fox & Friends’” weekend edition, convinced the president to offer clemency to several U.S. service members accused or convicted of war crimes. And xenophobic Fox Business host Lou Dobbs has been conferenced in to White House meetings to provide his views on tax policy and trade.

When Trump isn’t taking advice from the former Fox guests he’s brought into his administration, he is turning to the star hosts who remain on the network’s payroll.

And even when its members aren’t advising Trump privately, this Fox News Cabinet and their colleagues are trying to use the network’s platform to influence him. Trump’s Fox obsession is no secret. Because everyone knows that the president is remarkably impressionable and may be watching Fox at any time, the network’s paid personalities and guests regularly attempt to use the platform to pitch the president directly. These efforts are not subtle: People look directly into Fox’s cameras, address him personally and tell him what to do. And they have an impact. When Trump appeared to be waffling on requiring border wall funding as the federal government headed toward a possible shutdown, Fox personalities such as Steve Doocy and Tomi Lahren and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh demanded he force the shutdown. And he did.

Sometimes, the outsize influence of Fox’s talent leads to conflicts with Trump’s official staff — conflicts the Fox employees tend to win. Bolton spent a decade at Fox before becoming Trump’s national security adviser, getting the gig in no small part because he praised the president’s actions on his favorite programs. But after Carlson started denouncing Bolton’s advice on air last year — and reportedly began telling the president he was a leaker — Bolton was ousted. Likewise, Dobbs’ on-air attacks on Trump’s second secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, reportedly played a key role in forcing her April 2019 resignation.

The revolving door between Fox and the Trump administration swings both ways. Several administration hands have joined Hicks in decamping for cozy posts at the right-wing network. For Sarah Sanders, the former White House press secretary turned Fox contributor, the transition was simple: She still spends her time shamelessly pushing Trump’s talking points on Fox, but now her (presumably fatter) paycheck comes from a different source. In fact, Sanders spends more time shilling for Trump on the network than her successor does, even though Stephanie Grisham’s public-facing responsibilities seem to consist of little else. (Sanders has made 33 appearances on Fox News weekday programming since she joined the network in August while Grisham has done 24, according to Media Matters data.)

Again, none of this is good — for Trump’s White House or the American people. And a purported news network should not be allowing its hosts to moonlight as advisers to the very White House it covers. But that’s what happens when the president and his propaganda apparatus merge.

Elizabeth Warren doubles down on a surprisingly risky pitch: Democratic unity

1 0 16 Feb 2020

WASHINGTON — Beto O’Rourke tried it. Kamala Harris tried it. Cory Booker tried it. And one by one, they all flamed out. Now, Elizabeth Warren is pitching herself as the Democratic candidate who can unify the party’s progressive and moderate wings, a play that could lead her down the same bridge to nowhere, unless her message can quickly find some resonance.

The Massachusetts senator has pleaded with voters not to pick a divisive nominee who risks paving the way for President Donald Trump’s re-election, telling a devoted crowd of supporters Tuesday in Manchester, New Hampshire, that she was Democrats’ “best chance” of marshaling “a unified party” to the voting booths come November.

At the same time, Warren’s also feeling pressure from outside allies to return to her old “fighter” persona. After her unity-centric message flopped in Iowa and New Hampshire — where Warren finished in third and fourth place behind left-wing favorite Bernie Sanders and moderate upstart Pete Buttigieg — one operative supportive of Warren told NBC they hoped the results would be a “kick in the ass” for a campaign that’s been reluctant to stray from its “uniter” message.

The early-state struggles put Warren in a strategic conundrum that she is delicately navigating. She wants to demonstrate her combative streak as a “fighter” without appearing divisive, lest she undercut her closing pitch that she’s uniquely suited to unify the party. In recent days she has taken subtle jabs at her main rivals — Sanders and Buttigieg — while reserving her most aggressive attacks for Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire entrepreneur rising in national polls.

The bifurcated message is a gamble that could attract — or alienate — broad swaths of voters.

“The problem that Warren has is all of the Bernie people think she’s a neoliberal shill and all of the centrists think she’s a raging Maoist,” said Sean McElwee, a left-wing organizer and analyst at Data For Progress whose work has been cited by the Warren campaign. “The people who want Medicare for All don’t believe she wants it, and the people who don’t want Medicare for All do believe she wants it.”

The Democratic establishment has a long memory and remembers Warren’s successful battles against President Barack Obama on Wall Street-friendly personnel and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the other end of the spectrum lies a younger left-wing cohort that became aware of Warren in 2016 when she declined to endorse Sanders, and recently grew skeptical when she softened her support for the Medicare for All policy by saying she’d defer that push to her third year in office.

Uniting those factions is Warren’s goal, and she’s learning that it’s easier said than done.

“We can’t have a repeat of 2016. When we roll into the general election with Democrats still mad at Democrats, Democrats still angry, some Democrats staying home — we need to have a party that is united,” Warren said on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, echoing her message to New Hampshire voters on Election Night.

But she has also offered new critiques of her rivals, however subtle. As voters headed to the polls in the Granite State Tuesday, she told reporters in Portsmouth that she was “determined to get things done” after being asked if she was more pragmatic than Sanders. “I’m not gonna criticize Bernie, you know I haven’t. But I’ve tried to make clear: the approach I use overall, I believe we ought to try to get as much good to as many people as quickly as we can,” she said.

In front of an Arlington, Virginia crowd the campaign estimated at 4,000, she lambasted Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, Thursday night for his past comments attributing the 2008 housing crisis on banks ditching the racially discriminatory lending practice known as “redlining.”

O’Rourke, Harris and Booker all tried to follow a playbook that was successful for President Barack Obama — an aspirational message and embrace of progressivism, while steering clear of the most radical ideas on the left in the hope of attracting middle-of-the-road voters. Like Obama, the three endorsed single payer health insurance before backing away from it.

“The other thing that’s happened is the moderates are pretty happy with their choices” between Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar, McElwee said. “And the left is pretty happy with its choice… Everyone’s incentives are to stay in their corner and try to fight it out.”

Warren gained traction last year with her message of “big structural change” and promises to fight a corrupt establishment where money talks and ordinary voters’ voices are drowned out. She became a favorite of many liberals and briefly eclipsed Sanders, surging in polls both nationally and in the early states as the candidate “with a plan for that.” But as Sanders rebounded from a heart attack and consolidated the left, Warren rolled out a message of unity mere weeks before voting began.

“One thing we’ve seen is that above all, voters are looking for authenticity,” said Aleigha Cavalier, who was the communications director for the O’Rourke and Deval Patrick campaigns. “They are very, very wary when you change your message mid-course. It might be the right message and it might be really appealing to voters but they need to believe that you believe it.”

And then there’s the messenger.

“Women are held to a very, very, very different standard when it comes to authenticity,” said Cavalier. “When other candidates in the race do this — and I’m thinking of Pete Buttigieg — he has been given the liberty of changing his message mid-course a number of times in a way that Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren have not.”

Buttigieg, a little-known mayor of South Bend, Indiana when he launched his campaign last April, initially spoke in abstract and aspirational terms that intrigued leftists and establishment Democrats. Later in the year, he re-positioned himself as the moderate alternative to Biden and began actively running against ideas like single payer health care and free public college.

Warren’s struggle is rooted in the fact that the two wings of the party aren’t fond of each other, each believing deeply that one of their own should win. Moderates say a left-wing nominee would alienate swing voters, assure Trump another four years, and cost Democrats the House. Progressives say the moderates’ theory of “electability” has been proven dead wrong by the failed push to elect what they view as milquetoast figures, such as John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But Warren allies argue she can marry those two sides in a way that Booker, Harris and O’Rourke could not: By using the “credentials,” as one Democratic operative put it, that she has on the progressive side, plus the good will she’s built up with the more establishment wing.

Her campaign sees it less as a pitch born of being in the middle of two factions, and more as a demonstration of bona fides that can appeal to voters across the aisle. To them, it requires looking no further than Iowa — where Warren won both in liberal Johnson County and (on final alignment) in Sioux County, the state’s most conservative — to see her across-the-party appeal.

Still, so far that appeal has not necessarily translated into votes.

“Warren is somebody who I have respect for, but I have noticed that she slid on her stance on health care. So I’m a little leery,” said Dan Declan of Londonderry, New Hampshire, ahead of that state’s primary.

Kyle Thurman, another New Hampshire voter, said then that he could imagine himself supporting Warren. “I like her a lot. A lot more than Pete,” he said.

Last week, both of them voted for Sanders.

Changing clocks is bad for your health, but which time to choose?

2 0 16 Feb 2020

Changing over to daylight saving time — a major annoyance for many people — may be on its way out as lawmakers cite public health as a prime reason to ditch the twice-yearly clock-resetting ritual.

The time change, especially in the spring, has been blamed for increases in heart attacks and traffic accidents as people adjust to a temporary sleep deficit. But as legislatures across the country consider bills to end the clock shift, a big question looms ahead of this year’s March 8 change: Which is better, summer hours or standard time?

There are some strong opinions, it turns out. And they are split, with scientists and politicians at odds.

Retailers, chambers of commerce and recreational industries have historically wanted the sunny evenings that allow more time to shop and play.

Researchers on human biological rhythms come down squarely on the side of the standard, wintertime hours referred to as “God’s time” by angry farmers who objected to daylight saving time when it was first widely adopted during World War I.

What’s not in question is that the clock switching is unpopular. Some 71 percent of people want to stop springing forward and falling back, according to a 2019 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Politicians have reacted accordingly. More than 200 state bills have been filed since 2015 to either keep summer hours or go to permanent standard time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The measures getting the most traction right now are for permanent daylight saving time, which makes more sun available for after-work activities. In 2018, Florida passed a bill and California voters backed a ballot measure to do so. Maine, Delaware, Tennessee, Oregon and Washington joined in 2019, passing permanent daylight saving bills. President Donald Trump even joined the conversation last March, tweeting: “Making Daylight Saving Time permanent is O.K. with me!”

But none of those efforts can become reality without the blessing of Congress. States have always been able to opt out of summer hours and adopt standard time permanently, as Arizona and Hawaii have done. But making daylight saving time year-round is another story.

Still, Scott Yates, whose #Lock the Clock website has become a resource for lawmakers pushing for change, believes this year will be another big year. Yates is particularly encouraged by the attitude he saw from state legislators in August when he presented on the issue at the legislators’ annual national summit in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I wasn’t the court jester and it wasn’t entertainment,” he said. “It was like, ‘What are the practical ways we can get this thing passed?’”

Seeking to end ‘spring ahead, fall back’ cycle

Yates, 54, a tech startup CEO based in Denver, has been promoting an end to clock switching for six years. He doesn’t pick a side. It’s the switching itself that he wants to end. At first, it was just about the grogginess and annoyance of being off schedule, he said. But then he began to see scientific studies that showed the changes were doing actual harm.

A German study of autopsies from 2006 to 2015, for instance, showed a significant uptick just after the spring switch in deaths caused by cardiac disease, traffic accidents and suicides. Researchers have also noted a significant increased risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Three measures pending in Congress would allow states to make daylight saving time permanent. But, in the meantime, state lawmakers who want the extra evening sunlight are preparing resolutions and bills, some of which would be triggered by congressional approval and the adoption of daylight time in surrounding states.

The Illinois Senate passed such a bill, and Kansas is considering one after a bill to end daylight saving time died there last year. Utah passed a resolution in support of the congressional bill last year, and state Rep. Ray Ward, a Republican family physician from Bountiful, is steering a recently passed state Senate permanent daylight bill through the House.

“The human clock was not built to jump back and forth. That’s why we get jet lag,” said Ward, who was a co-presenter with Yates at the NCSL summit. “It is very easy to show that if you knock people off an hour of sleep there’s a bump temporarily in bad things that will happen.”

Efforts have been particularly strong in California, where 60 percent of voters passed a ballot issue for permanent daylight time in 2018. A bill is pending in the state Assembly.

Science backs sticking with standard time

All of this alarms scientists who study human biological rhythms.

Researchers in the U.S. and the European Union have taken strong positions about permanent summer hours. The Society for Research on Biological Rhythms posts its opposition prominently at the top of its website.

Messing with the body’s relationship to the sun can negatively affect not only sleep but also cardiac function, weight and cancer risk, the society’s members wrote. According to one often-quoted study on different health outcomes within the same time zones, each 20 minutes of later sunrise corresponded to an increase in certain cancers by 4 percent to 12 percent.

“Believe it or not, having light in the morning actually not only makes you feel more alert but helps you go to bed at the right time at night,” said Dr. Beth Malow, director of the sleep division of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Malow has seen a lot of anecdotal evidence to back that up at the sleep clinic. Parents report their children with autism have a particularly hard time adjusting to the time change, she said.

Jay Pea, a freelance software engineer in San Francisco, was unhappy enough about California’s proposed permanent daylight time that he started the Save Standard Time website to promote the health arguments for keeping it permanent. He said he doesn’t think the scientific community is being heard.

“Essentially it’s like science denial,” he said. “It’s bizarre to me that politicians are not hearing the experts on this.”

Pea, 41 and an amateur astronomer, understands the human need to have the sun directly overhead at noon. “It’s a wonderful connection to natural reality that unfortunately is lost on many people,” he said. Daylight saving time “distances us from the natural world.”

At the very least, lawmakers ought to consider history, he said. Daylight saving time was originally a plan to save energy during the two world wars but wasn’t popular enough to be uniformly embraced after the conflicts were over. In 1974, the federal government decided to make it temporarily year-round as a way to deal with the energy crisis (although energy savings were later found to be underwhelming).

Its popularity fell off a cliff after the first winter, when people discovered the sun didn’t rise until 8 a.m. or later and parents worried for the safety of kids waiting in the dark for school buses.

Pea finds it frustrating that the momentum now is for permanent summer hours — a fact he attributes to the emotional attachment with summer. “It’s a shame that every generation we have to revisit this issue,” he said.

The AP-NORC poll found 40 percent of its respondents support permanent standard time, with 31% opting for permanent daylight saving time.

Ward said people have gotten comfortable with daylight saving time since its duration has been lengthened to eight months by extensions in 1986 and 2007. (Before 1986, daylight saving time lasted six months.)

“So now really most of the year we are on the summer schedule, and people are used to that and they like it,” he said. “That makes them more aggrieved when we change back to the winter schedule.”

In any case, changing the clocks is a rare issue in that it isn’t partisan, Ward said. “If the government can’t respond to people when they want something and it’s not even a partisan issue, that’s just a sad commentary,” he said. “Can’t we please fix something that doesn’t make sense anymore?”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Follow NBC HEALTH on Twitter & Facebook.

6-year-old girl was committed to mental health facility without parent consent

5 0 16 Feb 2020

A 6-year-old Florida girl was committed for two days to a mental health facility without her mother’s consent after allegedly throwing a temper tantrum at school, an attorney for the family said.

The child was allegedly given anti-psychotic medications at the center, also without the permission of her mother, Martina Falk.

The mother is now demanding answers from officials at Love Grove Elementary School in Jacksonville for their handling of the Feb. 4 incident.

Falk’s lawyer, Reganel Reeves, said a mental health counselor was called to the school because Nadia was reportedly having a tantrum and throwing chairs.

The counselor evaluated Nadia, who has ADHD and has been diagnosed with a mood disorder, and determined that she needed to be committed under the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly known as the Baker Act.

The Baker Act gives social workers in Florida the power to initiate involuntary holds on children as young as 2 without the need for parental permission.

According to Reeves, Falk was not called and informed about the incident until after Nadia had been committed to the facility.

Falk, breaking down in tears, said at a news conference Thursday that her daughter is not able to communicate what happened to her because of her disability.

“She can only tell you bits and pieces. ‘Mommy, they locked the door. They wouldn’t let me out. Mommy, they gave me a shot,'” Falk said.

Deputies with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office were called to the school to assist and take Nadia to the facility. Police body-camera footage shows the girl calmly walking out of the school.

“You’re not no bad person,” a deputy says, later adding that Nadia has been “acting very pleasant.”

A police incident report shows that staff at the school said Nadia was “destroying school property, attacking staff, out of control and running out of school.”

Tracy Pierce, with Duval County Public Schools, told NBC News that the decision to have Nadia committed under the Baker Act did not come from school district personnel or police.

A licensed mental health counselor with Child Guidance Center, a mental health service provider contracted by the district, made that decision after evaluating the girl.

“The officers in the video were not present during the events which motivated the school to call Child Guidance. The police officers were also not present when Child Guidance was intervening with the student,” Pierce said. “The student was calm when she left the school, but at that point, child Guidance had already made the decision to Baker Act based on their intervention with the student.”

According to Pierce, the school only calls for assistance from a counselor with Child Guidance Center when a student is displaying behavior deemed either a risk to themselves or others.

She said several steps are followed to try and de-escalate a situation before a counselor is called and the parent of the student is notified immediately when the counselor decides the child should be committed under the Baker Act.

Child Guidance Center did not immediately return a request for comment on Saturday.