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As states halt reopening of bars and indoor dining, public health experts urge more caution

20 0 30 Jun 2020

New Jersey became the latest state Monday to halt or reverse the reopening of indoor dining at restaurants and bars because of surging coronavirus cases, with Gov. Phil Murphy announcing on Twitter that scenes of overcrowding from across the state “CANNOT CONTINUE.”

“We had planned to loosen restrictions this week,” he said. “However, after #COVID19 spikes in other states driven by, in part, the return of indoor dining, we have decided to postpone indoor dining indefinitely,” he said.

The blunt message followed a flurry of similar announcements in Florida, Texas and California, where officials have ordered bars shuttered amid record-setting case numbers in recent days. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that he would decide in two days if indoor dining could resume in the country’s most populous city.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Restaurant Association have offered guidelines to newly opened restaurants and bars, but in interviews Monday, epidemiologists cautioned that they don’t think drinking establishments should serve patrons anytime soon.

People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas on June 26, 2020.Sergio Flores / AFP – Getty Images

“I’m delighted they’re closing some of them,” said John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley. “I’m disappointed they’re not closing more. The reason I’m delighted is because the highest risk for people is being in an enclosed area for a prolonged period of time. Bars are a perfect set up for that.”

It can be difficult to remain socially distant, he said. It’s also hard to drink wearing a mask, and the more you drink, the worse your judgment becomes.

“They’re setting themselves up to harm themselves or harm others if they get infected,” he said.

In states where case numbers are rising, Swartzberg said that reopening shouldn’t just be frozen but reversed. “The whole process is going to be jerky — two steps forward, one step back,” he said. The process should stay that way until things get safer again — or until medication or a vaccine dramatically changes the virus’ trajectory, he said.

The recent surge in cases has affected younger adults at higher rates, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In testimony to Congress last week, Fauci attributed this to a “pent-up urge” to go out after months of being homebound.

Just how significant bars have been in driving up case numbers in states like Florida isn’t clear though, said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. But public health officials were clearly interpreting them as a contributor, he said. In California, he added, that data aren’t clear.

John Bodnovich, executive director of American Beverage Licensees, a national trade group for bars, said there was no consensus among owners over whether the closures were warranted.

“Some have closed voluntarily out of concern for their employees and their customers, whereas others have decided to stay open while taking increased measures to protect staff and guests,” he said. “Much is dependent on local circumstances.”

Bodnovich urged bar owners to follow local rules, though. In Texas and Florida, he said, authorities had enforced shutdown measures.

At a pub that reopened in Los Angeles earlier this month, no enforcement was necessary before it was shuttered last week. The pub, Casey’s, said in a Facebook post on Friday that it had tried to reopen safely and responsibly. But after an employee tested positive for the virus, a specialized crew was hired for a “medical-grade deep clean.” The entire staff will be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and Casey’s will remain closed until further notice, the statement said.

The risk of eating at a restaurant isn’t too different from drinking at a bar if they’re both indoors, said Art Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley. He pointed to a recent study from China that traced a cluster of positive cases to a restaurant in Guangzhou, a city more than 600 miles south of Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began.

The researchers, from the Guangzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 10 people from three families who sat at different tables at the same time on Jan. 24 had likely become infected by a person seated with one of the families. The person showed no symptoms at the time, but the family had recently been in Wuhan. The researchers concluded that the virus was likely transmitted by air conditioning.

“To prevent the spread of the virus in restaurants, we recommend increasing the distance between tables and improving ventilation,” they said.

The National Restaurant Association, which represents half a million businesses in the United States, said in a statement that it is encouraging restaurants to follow its reopening guidance, a 10-page booklet available on its website, along with federal, state and local guidelines that urge social distancing and other measures.

Irwin Redlener, director of the Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said that if restaurants do reopen, kitchen staff, servers and other employees need to be tested daily. “We need strict rules on outdoor dining, too,” he said. “Servers should wear masks and gloves.”

But Redlener said that he didn’t think it would be “feasible” for bars or restaurants to reopen until next year.

In New Jersey, Marilou Halvorsen, president of the state’s Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said that restaurant owners had spent thousands of dollars ordering food, rehiring employees and working on safety practices in anticipation of being able to reopen Thursday. The freeze imposed by the governor, she said, “will cause even more restaurants to fail.”

“We shouldn’t sentence an entire industry because of unprepared states and the bad acts of some bar operators,” she said.

Broadway will remain dark until 2021; Cirque du Soleil files for bankruptcy

25 0 30 Jun 2020

Cirque du Soleil, best known for its mesmerizing shows that fuse acrobatics with performance art, filed for bankruptcy Monday as the coronavirus continues to ravage the entertainment and theater industries.

“For the past 36 years, Cirque du Soleil has been a highly successful and profitable organization,” Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, said in a news release. “However, with zero revenues since the forced closure of all of our shows due to COVID-19, management had to act decisively to protect the Company’s future.”

Cirque du Soleil, established in Canada, is seeking Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection in the United States to facilitate a “stalking horse” purchase agreement negotiated with its existing shareholders in an attempt to draw in more investment.

The company will also create a $15 million employee fund to provide financial assistance for the almost 3,500 employees who have been laid off.

Like live production companies across the country, Cirque du Soleil’s revenue flow ground to a halt as states issued stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The company suspended many of its worldwide shows in March before announcing the temporary suspension of its resident shows in Las Vegas.

Cirque du Soleil’s bankruptcy announcement comes on the heels of New York City’s Broadway shutting down through January 3, 2021 as hope fades for a rapid end to the spread of the virus.

“The Broadway experience can be deeply personal but it is also, crucially, communal,” said Thomas Schumacher, board chairman of The Broadway League, in a press release. “The alchemy of 1,000 strangers bonding into a single audience fueling each performer on stage and behind the scenes will be possible again when Broadway theaters can safely host full houses.”

Broadway theaters are now offering refunds and exchanges for tickets purchased for all performances through Jan. 3, 2021. The organization said it is exploring how it can safely reopen theaters including introducing screening and testing of employees and guests, cleaning and sanitizing, markers inside theaters to promote social distancing, and backstage protocols.

The loss of economic activity with Broadway productions closed could be devastating for New York City. Broadway contributes $14.7 billion on top of ticket sales and supports 96,900 local jobs, according to 2019 statistics from The Broadway League.

Broadway attendance in the 2018-2019 season reached more than 14 million and grossed $1.83 billion, it reported.

Both Las Vegas and New York City’s entertainment economies depend on travel. Roughly 16 million people traveled through Las Vegas McCarran International Airport between January and April of last year, according to airport statistics. Only about 10 million people have traveled through the airport during the same period this year. Airport international and domestic traffic in New York was down by about 40 percent in April, according to the most recent statistics.

“We are determined to bring back the people who rely on this industry for their livelihood, and to welcome back all those who love this vital part of New York City, as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League.

Broadway productions are expected to return over a series of rolling dates in early 2021. Tickets for performances for next winter and spring season are expected to go on sale in the coming weeks, according to The Broadway League.

7 Best decanters and aerators for drinking wine at home in 2020

26 0 30 Jun 2020

“When I’m not in the mood to get into pouring out bottles [into] a glass decanter, I also have an aerator that fits over the top of the bottle,” says Adrienne Capps, the general manager of Parallel Napa Valley. “These obviously won’t help with removing sediment and generally are not as good for aeration because you are only getting a little extra air being introduced through the aerator (as opposed to pouring the entire bottle into a decanter and aerating), but they do help.”

So if you want to get into the habit of elevating your wines — whether they’re young or old, affordable or fancy — read on for some expertly selected decanters and aerators, along with a few other tools, tips and tricks to help optimize your quarantine wine drinking experience.

Best wine decanters to shop in 2020

1. Vino Hand-Blown Glass Wine Decanter

This workhorse decanter is a personal recommendation from Capps, given its wide base for swirling and its surface area. Its slanted spout is also ideal for easy pouring and minimizing drip in the process.

Alejandro Iglesias, the executive sommelier of vinomanos.com, has a few tips for decanting robust, full-bodied reds, specifically Argentine Malbecs: “After removing the cork, let the wine rest in a decanter to help the aromas grow clearer and take on greater depth: The red fruits, spices and mountain herbs will establish a better balance with the oaky notes that arise during the aging process.”

2. Lead-Free Premium Crystal Glass Wine Decanter

You’ll find this 1.2-liter lead-free crystal decanter in Capps’ hand in the tasting room at Parallel — it’s lead-free for safe drinking, offers plenty of room for a standard size bottle of wine, is easy to grip and use, and the fact that it looks beautiful is always a bonus. As a rule of thumb, Capps always makes sure she’ll have enough space to do her thing. “I choose one that allows me to also aerate in the decanter, [meaning] there is enough room to swirl a full bottle of wine around without the risk of it jumping out of the top!”

3. Zalto Denk’Art Axium Decanter

If you’re looking to invest in a great decanter from a trusted name in glassware, go for the popular Zalto Axium model from the brand’s Denk’Art collection, which was “influenced by the earth in accordance to the tilt angles of the Earth.” This decanter is ideal for medium-bodied reds and full-bodied white wines, and is as functional as it is striking. “My favorite decanters (and glassware in general) are from Zalto,” says Anna Frizzell, marketing director at Wine Hooligans. “They’re an investment, but I think they are so lightweight and elegant.”

Zisovski has a few tips for pouring a wine into any decanter: “You should decant in a slow stream [so as not to] cause bubbles — this ensures you don’t mix the sediment in the bottle, and decanting a bottle slowly through light helps you rack off as much wine as possible from the sediment. Also, decanting too fast can also shock the wine.”

Rabbit’s RBT decanter combines the best of both worlds, featuring a simple yet elegantly-designed decanter and an aerating funnel that also uses a filter to capture sediment as the wine is poured through it. This highly functional option is also easy on the eyes (it comes with an acacia wood base, to boot). Funnels in general can be useful in transferring a wine into a decanter, especially if you’re planning on pouring it back into the bottle afterward, which is known as a “double decant.”

Frizzell offers a few tips for this technique: “Usually, I’ll do this for a nice bottle presentation, or to put the cork back in and keep the wine for another day. But you need to make sure you have a stable funnel, or an extremely steady hand when pouring the wine back in the bottle (I’ve definitely had some spills).”

Best aerators, pourers and other decanting tools of 2020

5. Vinturi Wine Aerator

“At home, I tend to aerate a glass of wine with an aerator, rather than decanting (unless it’s for a special bottle or fortified wine),” says Frizzell, whose aerator of choice is this model by Vinturi, which LaZarre also recommends. Using a patented technology, these gadgets aerate a wine in seconds, are equipped with a filter screen to catch sediment and cork and they come with a no-drip stand for easy storage. “I find it to be a handy and effective tool, if for no other reason than it keeps the wine from flying all over the counter and my shirt. Plus, I love the ‘wooshing’ sound the wine makes as it runs through the device,” LaZarre adds.

Fresh Express bagged salads recalled after more than 200 illnesses reported

31 0 30 Jun 2020

Fresh Express issued a voluntary recall of branded and private-label salad products because of possible contamination with Cyclospora, an intestinal parasite that can cause diarrhea. More than 200 illnesses in 30 states and Washington, D.C., have been linked to the bagged salads, which contain iceberg lettuce, red cabbage and carrot ingredients.

The recalled products are marked with the letter “Z” at the beginning of the product code, which is on the upper right corner of the front of the package. Those products containing iceberg lettuce, red cabbage and/or carrots and displaying the product code Z178 or a lower “Z” number are recalled.

A complete list of the recalled salads can be found at the Food and Drug Administration website.

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Common symptoms of Cyclospora infection include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, body aches and fatigue. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, and most people recover quickly with treatment.

Anyone who may have a recalled salad at home should discard it immediately and not eat it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are several Cyclospora outbreaks every summer. In 2018, a Cyclospora outbreak linked to McDonald’s salad sickened more than 500 people.

Woman, 72, gored by bison at Yellowstone after getting too close for photos, park says

19 0 30 Jun 2020

A 72-year-old California woman trying to take photos of a bison was gored by the animal at Yellowstone National Park, park officials said Monday.

The woman, who was not identified by the park, “sustained multiple goring wounds” and was flown to an Idaho hospital Thursday, the National Park Service said. Requests for more details on the woman’s condition were not immediately returned Monday night.

She “approached within 10 feet of a bison multiple times to take its photo,” the park service said in a statement.

The bison most likely felt threatened after being repeatedly approached, Yellowstone Senior Bison Biologist Chris Geremia said in the statement.

The park urges people to stay away from wildlife and to keep at a minimum of 25 yards away from animals like bison and elk. For bears or wolves, visitors are told to stay at least 100 yards away.

A bison grazes in Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner, Mont., on March 9, 2016.Matthew Brown / AP file

“Bison are wild animals that respond to threats by displaying aggressive behaviors like pawing the ground, snorting, bobbing their head, bellowing and raising their tail,” Geremia said in the statement. “If that doesn’t make the threat (in this instance it was a person) move away, a threatened bison may charge.”

The incident happened at the woman’s campsite at Bridge Bay Campground, on the northwestern side of Yellowstone Lake.

Bison attacks on humans have occurred in Yellowstone before, including just last month. They are massive animals, and bull bisons can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. A bison can run at speeds up to 35 mph, the park says.

In May, a visitor was knocked to the ground by a bison after getting too close in the Old Faithful Upper Geyser Basin, the park said at the time. The visitor refused transportation to a medical facility.

That incident occurred as Yellowstone was conducting a phased reopening after being closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In July 2019, a 9-year-old girl was tossed into the air by a bull bison at the park when the animal charged a group of people who had gotten within 5 to 10 feet of the animal. She was treated at a clinic and released.

Yellowstone, an estimated 3,472 square miles in three states— although most of it is in Wyoming, has long been known for its wildlife, and the park says that it preserves the most important bison herd in the United States. More than 4,800 of the animals were counted there in August, according to the park.

Last week, a 37-year-old woman suffered a minor injury after being knocked down by a female grizzly bear in Yellowstone, the park said.

The woman was hiking alone on the Fairy Falls Trail near Old Faithful on the morning of June 22, when she encountered two bears “at close range, the park said.” The woman tried to use bear spray.

Yellowstone park said the bear appeared to be protecting its cub, and no action against the bear would be taken. Park officials recommend hiking in groups of three or more and making noise to avoid surprise encounters.

Last year, Yellowstone was the sixth most-visited “national park,” with around 4 million recreational visits in that year, according to the park service. The National Park System has other parks and monuments, including places like the Lincoln Memorial, and not all are designated national parks.

Yellowstone is the first to be designated as a national park, and that designation occurred in 1872.

Beijing passes new Hong Kong security law

23 0 30 Jun 2020

HONG KONG — Beijing formally enacted security laws for Hong Kong on Tuesday, according to media reports, paving the way for one of the most profound changes to the governing of the territory in decades.

China stunned the world in May when it announced that it would side-step Hong Kong’s own legislature and pass national security laws direct from Beijing.

According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, the law was approved unanimously by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) and is expected to carry a maximum penalty of life in jail and will likely come into effect from Wednesday.

The law, passed on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, will allow Beijing to set up special police and prosecution units in Hong Kong to punish crimes considered threatening to China.

The move is seen as a threat to the “one country, two systems” policy agreed by Britain and China in 1997, which allowed Hong Kong to adopt a political system separate to mainland China.

State media is expected to publish details of the law — which comes in response to last year’s sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces — later on Tuesday.

Amid fears the legislation will crush the global financial hub’s rights and freedoms, and reports that the heaviest penalty would be life imprisonment, prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said he was quitting Demosisto, the pro-democracy group he formed.

“The will of Hong Kong will not be frozen by National Security laws or any evil law,” Wong said in a written statement when reports of the new law emerged. “I will continue to stay in my home, Hong Kong, until they silence me.”

The move follows widespread pro-democracy protests that swept through Hong Kong much of last year.

The security law sparked global condemnation when proposed in May, during China’s National People’s Congress — a huge annual political gathering where Communist Party cadres and leaders meet to decide policy.

The meeting approved the framework of the law by 2,878 votes to 1, but the details were only furnished this month by senior party officials.

The final enactment of the law came Tuesday after a round of three-day meetings of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress — the top decision-making body of China’s parliament.

The United States has heavily criticized the law and said it will withdraw some of the preferential trade conditions it extends toward Hong Kong, stating that the territory can no longer be regarded as sufficiently autonomous from the mainland.

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was taking action to “punish” China for “eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms” by announcing U.S. visa restrictions for “current and former” Communist Party officials.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s threats to retaliate by restricting visas for U.S. citizens exposes once again how Beijing refuses to take responsibility for its own choices,” Pompeo said in a statement late Monday.” If China wants to regain the trust of Hong Kongers and the international community, it should honor the promises it made to the Hong Kong people and to the United Kingdom in the U.N.-registered 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate also approved a bill that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that back efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Reuters and Ed Flanagan contributed.

Millennials had barely recovered from the Great Recession. Then came the pandemic.

24 0 30 Jun 2020

A generation of young adults who came of age during the Great Recession — in what was then the worst economy and job market since the Depression — are now finding that their wobbly recession-era start is compounding the financial woes the pandemic is inflicting.

Credit counselors say there has been a perfect storm of stagnant wages, soaring student debt and — because of those hindrances — a lack of wealth-building through home equity and stock market investment that previous generations were able to achieve.

“The combination of two recessions and a student loan crisis make it really hard to make ends meet in America,” said Rohan Pavuluri, who in 2016 co-founded Upsolve, a nonprofit, app-based platform that helps people who can’t afford the legal fees file for bankruptcy.

Since mid-March, Pavuluri said that 40 percent of the people citing job loss as the reason for a bankruptcy filing say the pandemic was the tipping point — and the average age of his users is 39. “All the millennials we help have less than $10,000 in assets,” Pavuluri said. For the most part, “They’re renting their homes, and they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

The fractured nature of the economy into which younger adults entered the workforce has had a multiplier effect on their inability to gain financial traction. “If they’ve been in the gig economy and have been working in the gig economy, it can be much harder,” said Gigi Hyland, executive director of the National Credit Union Foundation.

“A lot of those folks aren’t in high-earning jobs. They’re leaving school with a ton of debt, and they’re in a job where they’re not making a lot of money.”

A lack of benefits like health insurance and retirement savings compound the often-erratic earnings that make it incredibly difficult to build up an emergency fund. “The gig economy lacks a social safety net,” Pavuluri said.

Farita Toney, a property manager in Oakland, California, is one of these Americans. Her part-time gig doing online back-end office management — a side hustle she has been nurturing for six years now — has dwindled as businesses have gone into financial lockdown.

“I had at least one client say she had to cease services,” Toney said, and she worries about the fallout if more see her services as an expendable expense. “I’ve been able to float above water but if someone says, ‘Hey, I can’t do this anymore,’ or if I were to lose my job, I don’t know what I’d do.”

This setback is a frustrating reminder of the hardships Toney faced a decade ago. “No one anticipated this. If anything, it’s been more stressful trying to figure out how to rise above this and not get discouraged,” she said.

Toney was in school pursuing a bachelor’s degree when she was laid off in 2010. “I really needed that job. It was my first real job, to begin with. First, they cut my hours from full to part-time, then I just remember being told that they couldn’t keep my position open,” she said.

Toney, now 35, said she underestimated how hard it would be to bounce back.

“I had a very low point where my car had gotten repossessed. That was a wake-up call for me. I never want to experience this feeling again,” she said. “I realized I had to get focused.” She credits enrollment in a financial education conference for young women with introducing her to San Francisco-area Patelco Credit Union.

There, Toney learned how to build her credit and keep track of her money by creating a budget, but it wasn’t always easy. “I ended up getting a security job and I had to work seven days a week… and I was like, I have to get out of this,” she said.

At the time, credit cards were a lifeline — but they quickly became a trap. “I had good intentions when I started using it but I had no knowledge about how they really worked. I had no knowledge about percentages,” she said, admitting that she wasn’t sure what she was paying in interest. “It was probably something crazy.”

As of 2018, the Pew Research Center (which defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996) found that members of this age cohort were slower to strike out on their own. The recession delayed household-formation milestones such as buying a home, getting married and having kids — and consumer credit experts say they see echoes of that failure to launch reflected in the struggles millennials now face today.

“All those decisions could be delayed by virtue of the debt carried from what happened in 2008 and 2009,” Hyland said. “There’s sort of this ripple effect that can potentially be seen today in the struggle to save and build assets, and put money in assets that can weather the ups and downs,” such as stocks, mutual funds or real estate.

James Gray, a financial services specialist at credit counseling agency Apprisen, said what he sees in his line of work makes it clear that many millennials, like Toney, never recovered from the early disadvantages they faced — leaving them uniquely vulnerable today. “Because they weren’t able to ramp up, they don’t have those resources in place to weather the storm the way you hope they would,” he said. “You find that the clients are in a crisis point more quickly.”

Pew also found that millennials were better educated, with nearly 40 percent earning bachelors’ degrees, but that educational attainment proved to be a double-edged sword when many young adults found themselves graduating into a recession-weakened economy with an unprecedented level of student loan debt — and eroded income growth potential.

“A lot of those folks I see aren’t in high-earning jobs. They’re leaving school with a ton of debt, but they’re in a job where they’re not making a lot of money,” Gray said. “In terms of real wages, there’s been such a stagnation of that for the middle class and lower over the past decade.”

Toney has experienced this frustration firsthand: She graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree and, according to her estimate, around $50,000 in student loans — debt she admits she doesn’t know if she’ll ever repay entirely.

Four out of five millennials worry that Social Security will no longer be available when they retire.

“Honestly, it’s really like an idea. I don’t know how long it’s really going to take to pay that off. I’m making payments on it, but the financial constraints have had a toll,” she said. At one point, she had to take a sharp pay cut when she switched jobs and put the loans in forbearance — a period during which interest continued to accrue, chipping away at the progress she had made paying that debt down.

For millennials, saving for the future is both a pressing concern and a distant goal — and unlike their parents, many aren’t relying on Social Security. According to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, four out of five millennials worry that it will no longer be available when they retire.

Unfortunately, their skepticism that this flagship safety net program might not be there for them isn’t entirely unfounded: A new study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that the huge economic blow dealt by the pandemic will shave four years off the date by which the Social Security trust fund is projected to be depleted, dropping that date from 2036 to 2032.

Toney said she is proud of the progress she has made: She is down to a single credit card with just a few hundred dollars of outstanding debt remaining. But sometimes, she said, it seems like she’s right back where she started. “What’s similar back then and now is I still have the debt. I’ve grown wiser in my thinking, but my financial circumstances have not been able to surpass a certain level,” she said.

One main goal is to save enough money to buy a home or a condo, but with rising property values in the San Francisco Bay Area, she isn’t sure when, or if, that day will ever come. “I’m not giving up on my capabilities despite any financial hardship,” she said. “What I’ve been telling myself is to focus on what I can control.”

Russia bounty intelligence may have been in Trump brief but wasnt deemed actionable, senior Republican says

22 0 30 Jun 2020

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration told Republican members of Congress on Monday that intelligence about potential Russian bounties may have been included at some point in the President’s Daily Brief but not conveyed to President Donald Trump in a formal threat briefing because it wasn’t yet “actionable,” the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said.

“I believe it may have been” in the written President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in an interview.

Referring to the president, McCaul said: “I think the way the process works is that he gets briefed about three times a week on sort of actionable, credible items. And the decision was made that this was not at that point in time a credible, actionable piece of intelligence. And if at any point it did, it would be raised to his attention.”

McCaul was one of eight House Republicans briefed in the Situation Room of the White House on Monday by the White House chief of staff, national security adviser and national intelligence director. A group of eight House Democrats was set to receive a similar briefing Tuesday morning.

The White House has insisted that Trump never received a “briefing” about intelligence indicating that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops. But both the White House and the national intelligence director’s office have declined to say whether the information was in the PDB, the highly classified document produced for the president and other top officials, prompting speculation that Trump may simply have not read his briefing materials.

McCaul, who said he emerged from the briefing with deep concerns that the intelligence may be correct, said lawmakers were told that no U.S. service members had died as a result of Russia’s paying Afghan militants to kill them.

“Their answer was no,” McCaul said. “The intelligence had come out in January. It’s right around the time of peace talks” in which the U.S. was negotiating with the Taliban for a temporary reduction in violence as a precursor to a broader political settlement.

The remarks add to deepening confusion about whether a Russian bounty offer was ever acted upon and when the U.S. learned about it. An official familiar with the intelligence said it showed that U.S. troops and Afghan civilians did die as a result, although other officials have indicated that that hasn’t been corroborated. The Associated Press reported late Monday that the White House learned of the intelligence in early 2019, a year earlier than other reports have indicated.

Since the allegations erupted in the media, Trump has asserted that the intelligence community didn’t find it credible. But in another indication that the national security community apparently took the intelligence seriously, McCaul said the Trump administration officials disclosed that changes had been made in protocols to protect U.S. service members operating in the region, known as “force protection,” in response.

“They did stress that fact that they did everything possible to protect our forces over there,” McCaul said. “And the record, according to them, the fact no one had been killed, you know, I think speaks to that.”

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Still, McCaul and other Republicans left the hearing calling for swift action to respond if the intelligence is corroborated. McCaul said that if the allegations prove true, the U.S. should impose heavy sanctions on the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit implicated by the intelligence.

McCaul also said any discussion about allowing Russia back into the Group of 7 nations “should be off the table.” Trump has repeatedly advocated for allowing President Vladimir Putin back into the club of nations, from which he was expelled in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The House Republicans were told that the National Security Council was vetting the intelligence after various intelligence agencies disagreed about its veracity, McCaul said, with one intelligence agency, which he didn’t identify, having filed a “dissenting view.”

Still, several months have passed since the intelligence first came in, and McCaul acknowledged that it was unclear whether the NSC had been actively validating or seeking more information before the allegations became public in a New York Times article, triggering massive public pressure for answers.

“That’s a very good question. What they told me that was that they had been in the process of vetting through the NSC,” McCaul said. He added that CIA Director Gina Haspel and John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, were embarking on a “scrub of all the intelligence data out there to check for the veracity and credibility.”

Ken Dilanian, Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube and Kristen Welker contributed.

Google removes ads with misleading voter registration info

26 0 30 Jun 2020

Google says it has removed ads for companies that charge exorbitant fees or that mined the personal data of people who used the search engine to learn how to vote.

A study by the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog for the tech industry, searched on Google for information such as “register to vote” and “where is my polling place.” Nearly a third of the more than 600 ads from those searches either charged users to register to vote, mined their data for a third-party voter registration service, signed them up for marketing emails, or misleadingly took them to a site unrelated to voting.

One such site, hosted by a company called PrivacyWall, charges users $129 for “same-day processing” to register to vote. Eligible American voters can register to vote directly with their state or territory for free, and most states offer online registration.

PrivacyWall didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Like other major U.S. tech companies, Google says it is trying to stem the spread of election misinformation, and has taken a number of steps to steer Americans to correct information about how to vote. In February, the company announced “policies that prohibit deceptive practices and abuse such as voter suppression and misrepresentation in our products,” including Google Ads.

A Google spokesperson said the company investigated and removed the offending registration ads Monday after being informed of the study, saying they violated company policies.

“We are committed to protecting users from abuse on our platforms, especially when it comes to information about elections. We have strict policies in place to protect users from false information about voting procedures, and when we find ads that violate our policies and present harm to users, we remove them and block advertisers from running similar ads in the future,” the spokesperson said.

Golden State Killer suspect pleads guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder

21 0 30 Jun 2020

The man accused of being the Golden State Killer pleaded guilty in Sacramento on Monday to 13 counts of first-degree murder in a deal that will spare him the death penalty.

In front of victims and their families, Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday announced that the man, Joseph DeAngelo, 74, a former police officer, had agreed to plead guilty to committing a multitude of crimes across California in the 1970s and ’80s.

The hearing was livestreamed from a ballroom at California State University, Sacramento, that can hold up to 2,018 people when set up for receptions. Court officials and prosecutors sought a space to accommodate in-person attendance while maintaining social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Holliday said DeAngelo also admitted guilt in a number of crimes for which he was not charged, some of which are past the statute of limitations. He was dressed in orange jail clothing and wore a clear face shield.

As part of the plea agreement, he is required to register as a sex offender and pay restitution to the victims or their families, as well as any fees or fines.

DeAngelo had eluded authorities for four decades before he was arrested in April 2018 in a Sacramento suburb. It is believed to be the first high-profile case to have been cracked with genetic genealogy. Authorities said they used “discarded DNA” to confirm that DeAngelo was their man.

Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho said the scope of DeAngelo’s crime spree is “simply staggering, encompassing 13 known murders and almost 50 rapes between 1975 and 1986.”

“His monikers reflect the sweeping geographical impact of his crime,” Ho said at Monday’s hearing. “Each time, he escaped, slipping away silently into the night, leaving communities terrified for years.”

A documentary about the case, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” aired Sunday night on HBO.

DeAngelo will be sentenced later to life without the possibility of parole. He is expected to be confronted before his sentencing by surviving victims and the relatives of those who were killed, prosecutors have said.

In a joint statement issued two weeks ago, the district attorneys who are involved in the case said, “It was not until the advent of Investigative Genetic Genealogy that we were able to successfully identify DeAngelo as the suspect in a series of rapes, burglaries and murders that spanned 11 counties over more than a decade.”

The district attorneys hinted at the possibility of a plea deal in their June 15 statement.

“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider any offer from the defense, given the massive scope of the case, the advanced age of many of the victims and witnesses, and our inherent obligations to the victims,” the statement said.

The prosecutors’ decision to take a plea deal was influenced by the coronavirus pandemic, Holliday said.

The preliminary hearing was originally scheduled for May, she said, but “it had to be postponed because of court closures and the dangers of bringing elderly or high-risk individuals into the courtroom in a public setting.”

Holliday said the pandemic has also limited the availability of courtrooms and jurors because of social distancing requirements.

The ages of victims, witnesses and law enforcement personnel, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, also played a role, she said.

“During the time we have waited for the identity of this person who committed these crimes to be discovered, many of the victims, witnesses and law enforcement personnel involved have passed away,” Holliday said. “Many of these people deeply affected by these crimes may not be with us at the time of jury trial.”