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Democratic Senators Denounce Plan To Focus Counter-Extremism Program On Islam

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A dozen Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday denounced a Trump administration plan to revamp a government program on countering violent extremism, saying narrowing its focus solely to Islamic threats could jeopardize security and may be illegal.

Restructuring the program to omit white supremacists and other non-Islamist groups “would severely damage our credibility with foreign allies and partners as an honest broker in the fight against violent extremism, and prove divisive in communities across our country,” Senators Cory Booker, Brian Schatz, and 10 others wrote in a letter addressed to cabinet secretaries.

Reuters reported last week that Republican President Donald Trump’s administration wants to rename the “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, program introduced by the previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”

The potential name change reflects a broader goal of Trump’s to exclude groups in the program’s purview such as white supremacist, whose followers have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States, five sources familiar with the matter said.

CVE aimed to address the causes of why some people are drawn to violence or extremism by providing grants and other resources to community groups to develop prevention efforts, including using social media.

Earlier this month, Trump signed an executive order temporarily blocking travel to the United States by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, prompting a global outcry and charges from his critics that he was advancing a white nationalist agenda.

Trump has rejected characterizations of the order as a “Muslim ban” and said it is necessary to protect national security.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials who work on CVE met on Tuesday to continue discussions about the proposed changes, according to two sources who have worked closely with DHS on the program.

Refocusing CVE efforts largely on Islam would “alienate Muslim organizations and individuals in the United States,” the senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and Wade Warren, acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“It will also put U.S. service members, diplomats, development practitioners, and citizens traveling the world at significant risk, and will increase the likelihood of more attacks,” the letter said, and could “violate constitutional protections and the rights of American citizens.”

At least three community organizations have already declined funding collectively totaling nearly $1.4 million awarded under the auspices of the CVE task force, citing concerns about the Trump administration’s posture toward Muslims and the possible changes to the program.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the reported changes last week, but said during a briefing that the program was initially intended to focus on “rooting out radical Islamic terrorism.”

Several former DHS officials told Reuters the CVE program was not conceived with that goal, although it has been criticized by even some supporters as tacitly too focused on Muslims or largely ineffective.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington, additional reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Kristina Cooke; editing by Grant McCool)

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump Steps Up Attack On Judge, Court System Over Controversial Travel Ban

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Sunday ramped up his criticism of a federal judge who blocked a travel ban on seven mainly Muslim nations and said courts were making U.S. border security harder, intensifying the first major legal battle of his presidency.

In a series of tweets that broadened his attack on the country’s judiciary, Trump said Americans should blame U.S. District Judge James Robart and the court system if anything happened.

Trump did not elaborate on what threats the country potentially faced. He added that he had told the Department of Homeland Security to “check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!”

The Republican president labeled Robart a “so-called judge” on Saturday, a day after the Seattle jurist issued a temporary restraining order that prevented enforcement of a 90-day ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and a 120-day bar on all refugees.

A U.S. appeals court later on Saturday denied the government’s request for an immediate stay of the ruling.

Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump even as some Republicans encouraged the businessman-turned-politician to tone down his broadsides against the judicial branch of government.

“The president of the United States has every right to criticize the other two branches of government,” Pence said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

It is unusual for a sitting president to attack a member of the judiciary, which the U.S. Constitution designates as a check on the power of the executive branch and Congress.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Trump seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis.

Some Republicans also expressed discomfort with the situation.

“I think it is best not to single out judges for criticism,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “We all get disappointed from time to time at the outcome in courts on things that we care about. But I think it is best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”

Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a vocal critic of Trump, was less restrained.

“We don’t have so-called judges … we don’t have so-called presidents, we have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution,” he said on the ABC News program This Week.

LEGAL LIMBO

The ruling by Robart, appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush, coupled with the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to deny the government’s request for an immediate stay of the ruling dealt a blow to Trump barely two weeks into his presidency.

It could also be the precursor to months of legal challenges to his push to clamp down on immigration, including through the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, and complicate the confirmation battle of his U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said on Saturday that Gorsuch, a conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado, must meet a higher bar to show his independence from the president.

Trump, who during his presidential campaign called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, has vowed to reinstate his controversial travel ban. He says the measures are needed to protect the United States from Islamist militants. Critics say they are unjustified and discriminatory.

The legal limbo will prevail at least until the federal appeals court rules on the government’s application for an emergency stay of Robart’s ruling. The court was awaiting further submissions from the states of Washington and Minnesota on Sunday, and from the federal government on Monday. The final filing was due at 5 p.m. PST on Monday.

The uncertainty has created what may be a short-lived opportunity for travelers from the seven affected countries as well as refugees to get into the United States.

Sara Yarjani, an Iranian student with a U.S. visa who was attempting to return to Los Angeles to visit her parents, was among those who boarded flights to the United States after learning that Trump’s travel ban had been blocked.

Her visa had been stamped “revoked” and she was sent back to Vienna last week. She was slated to arrive in Los Angeles on Sunday, according to her sister, Sahara Muranovic.

“This is our only window,” Muranovic said. “Maybe they’ll blow it again by Monday.”

FACT AND FICTION

Trump’s Jan. 27 travel restrictions have drawn protests in the United States, provoked criticism from U.S. allies, and created chaos for thousands of people who have, in some cases, spent years seeking asylum.

Reacting to the latest court ruling, Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said: “It is a move in the right direction to solve the problems that it caused.”

In his ruling on Friday, Robart questioned the use of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban, saying no attacks had been carried out on U.S. soil by individuals from the seven affected countries since then.

For Trump’s order to be constitutional, Robart said, it had to be “based in fact, as opposed to fiction”.

The 9/11 attacks were carried out by hijackers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, whose nationals were not affected by the order.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump attacked Hobart’s opinion as ridiculous.

“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” he asked.

Trump told reporters at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida late on Saturday: “We’ll win. For the safety of the country we’ll win.”

The Justice Department’s appeal criticized Robart’s reasoning, saying the ruling violated the separation of powers and stepped on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief. It said the state of Washington lacked standing to challenge Trump’s order and denied it “favors Christians at the expense of Muslims.”The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security said they were complying with Robart’s ruling and many visitors were expected to start arriving on Sunday, while the government said it expected to begin admitting refugees again on Monday.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Leonard Doyle, confirmed on Sunday that about 2,000 refugees were ready to travel to the United States. “We expect a small number of refugees to arrive in the U.S. on Monday, Feb. 6th. They are mainly from Jordan and include people fleeing war and persecution in Syria,” he said in an email.

Iraqi Fuad Sharef, his wife and three children spent two years obtaining U.S. visas. They had packed up to move to America last week, but were turned back to Iraq after a failed attempt to board a U.S.-bound flight from Cairo.

On Sunday, the family checked in for a Turkish Airlines flight to New York from Istanbul.

“Yeah, we are very excited. We are very happy,” Sharef told Reuters TV. “Finally, we have been cleared. We are allowed to enter the United States.”

(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud, Lin Noueihed, David Shepardson, Daina Beth Solomon, Dustin Volz, Chris Francescani and Reuters TV; Writing by Ayesha Rascoe and Dustin Volz; Editing by Paul Simao and Mary Milliken)

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he talks to journalists who are members of the White house travel pool on board Air Force One during his flight to Palm Beach, Florida while over South Carolina, U.S., February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Facebook Will Roll Out New Tools To Tackle Fake News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Thursday it will introduce tools to prevent fake news stories from spreading on its platform, an about-face in response to rising criticism that it did not do enough to combat the problem during the U.S. presidential campaign.

The social network company stressed that the new features are part of an ongoing process to refine and test how it deals with fake news. It has faced complaints this year involving how it monitors and polices content produced by its 1.8 billion users.

Facebook said users will find it easier to flag fake articles on their News Feed as a hoax, and it will work with organizations such as fact-checking website Snopes, ABC News and the Associated Press to check the authenticity of stories.

If such organizations identify a story as fake, Facebook said, it will get flagged as “disputed” and be linked to the corresponding article explaining why.

The company said disputed stories may appear lower in its news feed, adding that once a story is flagged, it cannot be promoted.

A few weeks ago, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “crazy idea” that fake or misleading news on Facebook helped swing the election in favor of Republican Donald Trump. But criticism persisted amid reports that people in the United States and other countries have fabricated sensational hoaxes meant to appeal to conservatives.

Critics said fake news often was more widely read than news reported by major media organizations.

Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, Facebook users saw fake news reports saying Pope Francis endorsed Trump and that a federal agent who had been investigating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was found dead.

The effort by Facebook is intended to focus on the “worst of the worst” of clear hoaxes created by “spammers for their own gain,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president in charge of its News Feed, said in a blog post.

Some far-right conservative writers quickly pounced on the announcement, decrying it as a covert attempt to muzzle their legitimate content.

“Translation: A group of incredibly biased left-wing fake news outlets will bury dissenting opinions,” Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large of the far-right website Infowars, which routinely peddles unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, said on Twitter.

Facebook has struggled throughout the year to mollify conservatives who fear the company may be censoring them. The company fired contractors who managed the site’s trending news sidebar after a report by Gizmodo in May quoted an anonymous employee claiming the site routinely suppressed conservative news.

On Thursday, Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for U.S. public policy, met with President-elect Trump at his Manhattan tower.

(Additonal reporting by Narottam Medhora and Anya George Tharakan in Bengaluru; editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)

IMAGE: Facebook’s logo is seen through a magnifier in front of a displayed PC motherboard, in this illustration taken April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Google And Twitter Employees Vow Not To Surveil Muslims Or Immigrants

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 200 employees of technology companies including Alphabet Inc’s Google, Twitter Inc and Salesforce pledged on Tuesday to not help U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s administration build a data registry to track people based on their religion or assist in mass deportations.

Drawing comparisons to the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the employees signed an open letter at neveragain.tech rebuking ideas floated by Trump during the campaign trail. The protest, which began with about 60 signatures but had more than tripled within hours of publication, comes a day before several technology company executives are due to meet with the real-estate developer in New York City.

“We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies,” reads the letter, signed by a mix of engineers, designers and business executives.

It continues: “We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.”

The letter vows to not participate in creating databases of identifying information for the U.S. government on the basis of race, religion or national origin, to minimize the collection or retention of data that could facilitate such targeting and to oppose any misuse of data at their respective organizations considered illegal or unethical.

Trump clashed with Silicon Valley on several issues during the campaign, including immigration, government surveillance and encryption, and his victory last month alarmed many companies who feared he might follow through on his pledges.

Those concerns have not been assuaged in recent weeks, as Trump has said he intends to nominate individuals to senior posts in his administration who favor expanding surveillance programs.

Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Larry Page, Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook, Facebook Inc Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Amazon.com Inc CEO Jeff Bezos and Oracle Corp CEO Safra Catz are among those expected to attend the summit with Trump’s transition team, according to two technology industry sources.

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment regarding the open letter.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a “Thank You USA” tour rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S. December 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

Senior Democrat: ‘No Doubt’ Russia Behind Hacks On U.S. Election Systems

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior Democratic lawmaker said Sunday he had “no doubt” that Russia was behind recent hacking attempts targeting state election systems, and urged the Obama administration to publicly blame Moscow for trying to undermine confidence in the Nov. 8 presidential contest.

The remarks from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the intelligence committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, come amid heightened concerns among U.S. and state officials about the security of voting machines and databases, and unsubstantiated allegations from Republican candidate Donald Trump that the election could be “rigged.”

“I have no doubt [this is Russia]. And I don’t think the administration has any doubt,” Schiff said during an appearance on ABC’s This Week.

Schiff’s call to name and shame the Kremlin came a week after Trump questioned widely held conclusions made privately by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia is responsible for the hacking activity.

“It could be Russia, but it could also be China,” Trump said during a televised debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

On Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said hackers have probed the voting systems of many U.S. states but there is no sign that they have manipulated any voting data.

Schiff said he doubted hackers could falsify vote tallies in a way to affect the election outcome. Officials and experts have said the decentralized and outdated nature of U.S. voting technology makes such hacks more unlikely.

But cyber attacks on voter registration systems could “sow discord” on election day, Schiff said. He further added that leaks of doctored emails would be difficult to disprove and could “be election altering.”

The National Security Agency, FBI and DHS all concluded weeks ago that Russian intelligence agencies conducted, directed or coordinated all the major cyberattacks on U.S. political organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, and individuals, a U.S. official who is participating in the investigations said on Sunday.

However, the official said, White House officials have resisted naming the Russians publicly because doing so could result in escalating cyberattacks, and because it is considered impossible to offer public, unclassified proof of the allegation.

Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate intelligence committee, said last month they had concluded Russian intelligence agencies were “making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and John Walcott; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Democratic Campaign Group For Congress Confirms Computer Hack

A committee that raises money for Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives confirmed on Friday it had been hacked, a cyber intrusion that may be linked to Russian hackers, like an earlier one targeting another Democratic Party group.

In an incident likely to raise concerns among party donors about their personal information, Reuters first reported on Thursday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing the hack at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC.

The committee said it has hired cyber security firm CrowdStrike to investigate. “We have taken and are continuing to take steps to enhance the security of our network,” the committee said in a statement.

“We are cooperating with federal law enforcement with respect to their ongoing investigation,” it said.

The DCCC hack may be related to an earlier hack against the Democratic National Committee, which raises money and sets strategy for Democratic candidates nationwide. The DNC and DCCC occupy the same office building in Washington.

Potential links to Russian hackers in both incidents were likely to heighten accusations, so far unproven, that Moscow is trying to meddle in the U.S. presidential election campaign to help Republican nominee Donald Trump.

The Kremlin denied involvement in the DNC cyber attack.

The DCCC breach may have been intended to gather information on donors, rather than steal money, sources said on Thursday.

The hack may have begun in June, when a bogus website was registered with a name resembling a DCCC donation site. For some time, donation-related internet traffic that was supposed to go to a donation-processing firm instead went to the bogus site, said the cyber sources who asked not to be identified.

The sources said the numerical Internet address of the spurious site resembled one used by a Russian government-linked hacking group, one of two suspected in the DNC breach.

Cyber experts and U.S. officials said on Monday there was evidence that Russia engineered the DNC hack to release sensitive party emails and influence U.S. politics.

The DNC hack raised concerns among Democrats at the party’s convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton was nominated as the party’s candidate in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The new hack at the DCCC could add pressure on the Obama administration to make a public accusation or retaliate. The Justice Department and other agencies have said it is important for deterrence to “name and shame” cyber adversaries.

“Any efforts on a nation state’s part to interfere with U.S. politics through cyber attacks would appear to cross a line that would demand a response from the U.S. government,” said D.J. Rosenthal, a former Justice Department and National Security Council official.

A former White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any formal accusation would require overwhelmingly certain evidence.

Staffers for the Republican National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said separately that those campaign organizing groups had not been hacked.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: The headquarters of the Democratic National Committee is seen in Washington, U.S. June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/Files

Senate Likely To Pass FBI Spying Bill After Orlando Shooting

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday is likely to pass a Republican-backed proposal to expand the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s secretive surveillance powers after the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub last week.

The spying bill is the Republican response to the massacre after a push for gun-control measures sponsored by both major U.S. parties failed earlier this week.

The legislation would broaden the type of telephone and internet records the FBI could request from companies like Alphabet Inc and Verizon without a warrant. The proposal met opposition from critics who said it threatened civil liberties and did little to improve national security.

The bill, which the Obama administration has sought for years, “will allow the FBI to collect the dots so they can connect the dots, and that’s been the biggest problem that they’ve had in identifying these homegrown, radicalized terrorists,” Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said Tuesday.

The vote also represents a bi-partisan drift away from policy positions that favored digital privacy, which had taken hold in the three years since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the breadth of government surveillance programs.

The post-Snowden moves included the most substantial reforms to the U.S. intelligence community since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and a refusal to heed the FBI’s call for laws that would undermine encryption.

It is unclear if the House would pass the Senate proposal, given its alliance between libertarian-leaning Republicans and tech-friendly Democrats that has blocked past efforts to expand surveillance.

The legislation before the Senate Wednesday, filed as an amendment to a criminal justice funding bill, would widen the FBI’s authority to use so-called National Security Letters, which do not require a warrant and whose very existence is usually a secret.

Such letters can currently compel a company to hand over a user’s phone billing records. Under the Senate’s change they could demand electronic communications transaction records such as time stamps of emails and the emails’ senders and recipients, in addition to some information about websites a person visits.

The legislation would also make permanent a provision of the USA Patriot Act that allows the intelligence community to conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects who do not have confirmed ties to a foreign terrorist group. That provision, which the Justice Department said last year had never been used, is currently set to expire in December 2019.

‘KNEE-JERK SOLUTIONS’

Privacy groups and civil liberties advocates accused Republicans this week of exploiting the Orlando shooting to build support for unrelated legislation.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, criticized Senate Republicans for “pushing fake, knee-jerk solutions that will do nothing to prevent mass shootings or terrorist attacks.”

Though Republicans invoked the Orlando shooting in support of the bill, FBI Director James Comey has said Mateen’s transactional records were fully reviewed by authorities who investigated him twice for possible extremist ties.

Comey said there was “no indication” Mateen belonged to any extremist group and that it was unlikely authorities could have done anything differently to prevent the attack.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Andrew Hay)