Russian Hackers Targeting European Think Tanks ahead of EU Elections in May - That’s in the news Wednesday February 20, 2019



Moscow said it will match any U.S. move to deploy new nuclear missiles closer to Russia by stationing its own missiles closer to the United States or by deploying faster missiles or both. President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday Russia was not seeking confrontation and would not take the first step to deploy missiles in response to Washington’s decision this month to quit a landmark Cold War-era arms control treaty. Russian nuclear missiles already target the United States and vice versa. The Russian land-based missiles that currently target the United States are based on Russian territory and therefore the flight time to major U.S. population centers would be longer than for U.S. missiles deployed in Europe. Putin did not confirm how, technically, Russia would deploy missiles with a shorter strike time. Possible options include deploying them on the soil of an ally near U.S. territory, deploying faster missiles on submarines, or using one of the hypersonic weapons Moscow says it has under development. Washington dismissed the comments by Putin as propaganda designed to divert attention from alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The United States on Feb. 1 said it will withdraw from the INF in six months unless Moscow ends its alleged violations of the 1987 arms control pact.




Microsoft warned Wednesday that the same group of Russian hackers who stole emails from the Democrats two years ago are now targeting European think tanks ahead of European Union elections in May. Tom Burt, Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, wrote in a blog post that the software giant found spear-phishing attempts connected to the hacking group Strontium, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. Burt added that the group tried to engage employees at the German Council on Foreign Relations, The Aspen Institutes in Europe and The German Marshall Fund. Spear-phishing is an attack in which a specific organization or individual is targeted, often to acquire sensitive information. The warning came about three months before European Parliament elections, scheduled to start May 23.




Islamic State looked close to defeat in its last enclave in eastern Syria on Wednesday as civilians poured out and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the remaining jihadists wanted to fight to the death. More than 2,000 civilians left the village of Baghouz in a convoy of dozens of trucks. Coalition warplanes could be seen overhead and the sounds of intermittent gunbattles could be heard from the area, which is completely surrounded by the SDF. The U.S.-led coalition said “the most hardened ISIS fighters remain in Baghouz”. The village at the Iraqi border is the last scrap of ground left to Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final major stronghold in Iraq and Syria after a series of catastrophic defeats in 2017. Taking it will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with President Donald Trump having pledged to withdraw American troops, leaving a security vacuum that other powers would seek to fill. The enclave's fall marks a big moment in the group’s trajectory, from winning control over vast territories in 2014 and proclaiming the creation of a caliphate to rule over Muslims, to its stubborn demise under concerted military assault. The SDF on Monday called for 1,000-1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to ensure that Islamic State’s territorial defeat is lasting.




U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Texas confiscated $12.7 million worth of methamphetamine at the Pharr International Bridge. The agents stopped a commercial tractor-trailer with frozen strawberries arriving from Mexico and was pulled over for additional inspection. A statement from Customs and Border Protection said agents using "available tools and resources" found 350 packages of alleged methamphetamine concealed within the trailer, weighing 906 pounds. A 42-year-old Mexican national with the shipment was arrested and turned over into the custody of Homeland Security Investigations. The seizure marked the third large bust worth millions along the Mexican border this year. In January, U.S. and Australian authorities have nabbed nearly two tons of methamphetamine in Los Angeles being prepared to ship to Australia hidden in packages labeled loudspeakers, called the largest drug bust in U.S. history. Authorities also found 56 pounds of cocaine and 11 pounds of heroin in the bust. In another January bust along the Arizona border, agents seized more than 250 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine at the Nogales Port of Entry, which authorities said was the third largest meth seizure at an Arizona border crossing.




A 24-page report released by the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday says several current and former members of President Trump's administration, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, pushed for the sale of nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia despite objections from the National Security Council and other White House officials. The report indicates that the sales were discussed in the early days of the Trump presidency but "efforts may be ongoing." The export of American nuclear technology that could be used to create weapons is controlled under 1954's Atomic Energy Act and must be approved by Congress.




The Treasury Department said it would cancel $929 million in funding for California's high-speed rail project and said the state should repay $2.5 billion already spent. The announcement came after Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his first State of the State address last week that he was scaling back the project after cost increases and delays. Newsom said that instead of linking Los Angeles to San Francisco the state would focus on building 171 miles of track in central California. President Trump, who has clashed with Newsom, said the state should return the federal funding in that case. Newsom called the move "clear political retribution" by Trump. "This is California's money," he said, "and we are going to fight for it."




French authorities Wednesday fined UBS, a leading European bank based in Switzerland, roughly $5.1 billion after accusing the financial institution of helping rich French clients hide money in undeclared Swiss accounts. A Paris criminal court ruled UBS provided French customers the means to cloak assets from the country's tax authorities. UBS, which has denied wrongdoing, accepted fines in the millions connected to similar cases in the United States in 2009 and Germany in 2014, BBC News reported. The bank said it will appeal the decision in France. France's fine against UBS is almost twice as much as the next-highest banking penalty. Credit Suisse was ordered to pay $2.8 billion in consumer relief in 2017.




As many as 15 British government ministers may vote to stop the United Kingdom leaving the European Union on March 29 in the event that no Brexit deal has been agreed. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that the ministers opposing a no-deal Brexit are considering challenging British Prime Minister Theresa May to fire them if they vote against her in parliament next week. They want a delay to Brexit if there is no agreement in place, according to Bloomberg. Britain is due to leave EU on March 29.




South Korean and Chinese officials are to meet next week to address the pressing issue of air pollution. Environmental ministers from Seoul and Beijing are to discuss particulate matter from China at the Chinese capital, the first talks on the topic since the South Korean government ordered new policy to address pollution. South Korean government sources have said Seoul made the case for discussion by raising the "difficulties" that have emerged with harmful pollution, and the Chinese government is cooperating because of its official position to mitigate air problems. Topics to be discussed include countermeasures against air pollution, which includes the "yellow dust" that comes from the Chinese side of the Gobi Desert and fine particulate matter that originates from industrial sites. Pollution from China has been a problem for South Korea's environment for more than a decade.




A powerful jet stream propelled a commercial airline flight to record speeds of more than 800 mph - faster than the speed of sound. Virgin Atlantic Flight 8 from Los Angeles to London reached a top speed of 801 mph - equivalent to just over Mach 1 - as it traveled through the high-altitude air current while flying about 35 thousand feet above Pennsylvania on Monday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. The Washington Post reports the flight's record speed took place in the midst of a jet stream that was recorded at more than 230 mph over Long Island. The measurement of the jet stream's speed came from the 250 millibar pressure level, indicating it was at a height above 75 percent of the atmosphere's mass. It also set a record for the fastest 250 millibar wind speed ever recorded over New York. In January 2018, a Norwegian Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner -- the same model of plane used in Monday's flight -- reached a speed of 776 mph while riding jet-stream winds up to 202 mph, breaking the record for the fastest transatlantic flight in a conventional passenger aircraft. The Dreamliner can travel at a maximum cruising speed of 561 mph, with a maximum propulsion of 587 mph, with additional speed being provided solely by powerful jet streams. Although the Virgin Dreamliner didn't travel in the jet stream for long, it still landed at its destination 45 minutes early.

North Korean Defector Says Kim Jong Un Has No Intention of Giving Up His Nukes - That’s in the news Tuesday February 19, 2019



Catholic religious orders from around the world apologized Tuesday for having failed to respond when their priests raped children, acknowledging that their family-like communities blinded them to sexual abuse and led to misplaced loyalties, denial and cover-ups. The two umbrella organizations representing the world’s religious orders issued a joint statement ahead of Pope Francis’ sex abuse prevention summit, which opens Thursday. They vowed to implement accountability measures going forward to ensure that cover-ups by religious superiors end and that children are always safe in the presence of clergy. With a few exceptions, religious orders have largely flown under the radar in the decades-long scandal, since the focus has been on how diocesan bishops protected their priests and moved them from parish to parish where they were free to abuse again. In the statement, the groups said they were ashamed at how they had failed the most vulnerable they were meant to serve and blamed “the strong sense of family” that their communities fostered for having blinded them to the warning signs.




A former North Korean diplomat says leader Kim Jong Un has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons and sees his upcoming second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump as a chance to cement his country's status as a nuclear weapons state. Thae Yong Ho, who defected to South Korea in 2016, said in a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday that next week's meeting in Vietnam will be a failure if Trump can't get Kim to declare he will abandon all of his nuclear facilities and weapons and return North Korea to the nuclear non-proliferation agreement. Thae worked as a minster at the North Korean Embassy in London before fleeing to South Korea. He is the highest-level North Korean diplomat to defect to the South.




More than 8,000 people have been infected with measles this year in the Philippines. Less than a week after the Southeast Asian country declared a measles outbreak in the capital of Manila and other parts of the nation, the Department of Health has counted 8,443 measles cases between Jan. 1 and 9 a.m. Feb. 16. The number of cases is a 253 percent increase from the same period last year. A total 136 people have died from the disease in that same time period, 40 percent of whom were under the age of four. The Department of Health said the number of dead is a 491 percent increase from the 23 people who died during the same period last year. To combat the rising number of measles cases, the Department of Health has enlisted one of its most famous citizens Sen. Manny Pacquiao to convince people to vaccinate their children. In a new infomercial titled "Knock out measles," released Monday, the award-winning boxer encourages the public to be vigilant against the disease.




Rescuers are searching for a number of people following an avalanche in a popular ski resort in the Swiss Alps. Officials have confirmed that the avalanche was reported at Crans-Montana at about 3:15 pm local time Tuesday. Images on social media suggest a marked slope was affected, but police have not yet confirmed the exact location of rescue operations. Reports in local media suggest as many as 12 people may have been buried. Search dogs and at least two rescue helicopters are reportedly at the site. According to Reuters, weather in the area has warmed in recent days and caused some snow to melt. However, the avalanche risk in the region was set at only two out of five on Tuesday. Ski resorts in Switzerland are expected to be busier than usual this week because of half-term school breaks. The president of the resort's ski lift company, told Reuters that members of the army were among dozens at the scene. The Swiss resort is set to host two women's World Cup races this weekend.




The European Union on Tuesday reached a tentative agreement on the first specific EU standards for trucks, seeking to get polluting CO2 levels down. The agreement among negotiators from the European Parliament and member nations says such emissions for new trucks will have to be 30 percent lower by 2030 compared with today’s levels. Heavy trucks carry more than two-thirds of freight across the 28-nation bloc. A spokesperson for the EU said the standards “will help tackle emissions, as well as bring fuel savings to transport operators and cleaner air for all Europeans.” The rules will still need to be formally endorsed but are not expected to pose any political problems after Tuesday’s deal. Under the tentative deal, emissions from new trucks will have to be 15 percent lower by 2025 moving to 30 percent five years later. Fines would apply to producers who failed to comply. The EU also has such standards for cars and light vans. The move is also part of the EU’s plan to cut emissions of greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050 in an attempt to avoid catastrophic global warming. The EU is the first major economy to set its sights on achieving climate neutrality in the next three decades.




A prominent Chinese businesswoman dubbed the “Ivory Queen” was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Tanzanian court on Tuesday for smuggling the tusks of more than 350 elephants, weighing nearly 2 tons, to Asia. Yang Feng Glan was charged in October 2015 along with two Tanzanian men with smuggling 860 pieces of ivory between 2000 and 2004 worth $5.6 million. All three denied the charges. Police sources said Yang, who is 69, had lived in Tanzania since the 1970s and was secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council. The judge sentenced Yang, and her co-defendants to 15 years each, after they were convicted of leading an organized criminal gang. The judge also ordered them to either pay twice the market value of the elephant tusks or face another two years in prison. In court documents, prosecutors said Yang “intentionally did organize, manage and finance a criminal racket by collecting, transporting or exporting and selling government trophies.”




Payless ShoeSource has officially declared bankruptcy and said it will close all 2,500 of its North American stores by the end of May. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late Monday. The move files reports last week that signaled the retailer was heading in that direction. Liquidation sales started last weekend with plans to shutter some stores by the end of March. This marks the second time Payless has filed for bankruptcy in the last two years -- but this time, the company will not survive. The Kansas based company held out hope a buyer would bail out the company but that didn't happen. The company has debts and assets between $500 million to $1 billion. Several Chinese shoe companies are among its unsecured creditors. Like many old brick and mortar retailers, Payless has struggled to compete with the convenience of online shopping or the scale of Walmart. Payless locations outside North America will remain open, including 420 company-owned stores and 370 international franchises.




Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back on the Supreme Court bench, eight weeks after surgery for lung cancer. The 85-year-old justice walked unassisted to her seat beside Chief Justice John Roberts when the court began its public session Tuesday. Ginsburg wore her customary black robe and ornamental collar. She had returned to the Supreme Court building on Friday for the first time since her surgery in December, but that was for the justices’ private conference. She also was seen on camera on Monday by the TMZ website walking through a Washington airport. Ginsburg missed the court’s arguments in January as she recovered from the surgery. But the court said she participated in the court’s work during her absence.




President Trump is moving closer toward his goal of creating a Space Force, but it won’t begin as a separate military branch as he envisioned. The Space Force instead initially will be created as part of the Air Force, but could be spun into a separate military department in the future. That’s according to senior administration officials who briefed journalists on a directive Trump is scheduled to sign Tuesday to establish the Space Force. Trump says the force is needed to ensure U.S. dominance in space. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the need and the potential cost. Details about cost will be part of the 2020 budget proposal Trump releases next month.




Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s iconic designer, who dominated high fashion for the past 50 years, died Tuesday in Paris. Although he spent virtually his entire career at luxury labels catering to the very wealthy — including 20 years at Chloe — Lagerfeld’s designs quickly trickled down to low-end retailers, giving him global influence. He was known to be very kind to his staff at Chanel and was famous for giving journalists long interviews after each fashion show. The 85 year old also shared his unmarried life in his Parisian mansion with a Siamese cat called Choupette. Tributes from fellow designers, Hollywood celebrities, models and politicians quickly poured in. Donatella Versace thanked Lagerfeld for the way he inspired her and her late brother Gianni Versace. Former supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who credits Lagerfeld as her mentor, called him her “magic dust.” Schiffer said, “What (Andy) Warhol was to art, he was to fashion; he is irreplaceable."

UK Report Accuses Facebook and Other Tech Firms of Acting Like “Digital Gangsters” - That’s in the news on Monday February 18, 2019



British lawmakers issued a scathing report Monday that calls for tougher rules to keep Facebook and other tech firms from acting like “digital gangsters” and intentionally violating data privacy and competition laws. The report on fake news and disinformation on social media sites followed an 18-month investigation by Parliament’s influential media committee. The committee recommended that social media sites should have to follow a mandatory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator to better control harmful or illegal content. The report called out Facebook in particular, saying that the site’s structure seems to be designed to “conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions.” U.K. parliamentary committee reports are intended to influence government policy, but are not binding. The committee said it hoped its conclusions would be considered when the government reviews its competition powers in April. Facebook said it shared “the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity” and was open to “meaningful regulation.” Facebook and other internet companies have been facing increased scrutiny over how they handle user data and have come under fire for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections.




Iranian and Chinese hackers appear to have resumed attacks on U.S. businesses and government agencies, according to The New York Times. The recent targets of Chinese spies included Boeing, General Electric Aviation, and T-Mobile, according to an intelligence briefing summary read to the Times. Security experts believe that the hackers stepped up their efforts after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal last year, and as trade tensions escalated with China. Iran's recent attacks have been broader than previously reported, targeting U.S. banks, businesses, and government agencies and prompting the Department of Homeland Security to declare an emergency order during last month's government shutdown.




The commander of U.S.-backed forces in Syria called on Monday for about 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout. The remarks by Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, followed talks with senior U.S. generals at an airbase in northeast Syria and offered perhaps the most comprehensive view to date of his requests for an enduring military assistance from the U.S.-led coalition. “We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us,” Kobani told a small group of reporters who traveled with the U.S. military to an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria. With U.S. help, the Kurdish-led fighters are poised to seize Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. At the height of its power four years ago, Islamic State held about a third of both Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed Caliphate.




President Donald Trump is prepared to issue a veto if Congress votes against his declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border. White House senior adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News, "The president is going to protect his national emergency declaration." Asked if that meant Trump would veto a resolution of disapproval, Miller said: "He's going to protect his national emergency declaration, guaranteed." Democrats, who say Trump is exceeding his authority by going around Congress to fund his border wall, are planning to introduce a resolution of disapproval. Several Republican senators already have indicated they would support it. Public Citizen, a progressive advocacy group, has filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of overstepping his constitutional authority. California also plans to sue to block the order.




Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he would not confront the country’s Catholic Church over sexual abuse allegations and that it would fall to the prosecutor’s office to investigate such claims. Mexico’s Archbishop for Monterrey said earlier this month at least 152 Catholic priests in Mexico have been suspended over the past nine years for sexual abuse against minors, and some of those priests have been jailed over those offences. The Catholic Church has reeled from sexual abuse scandals in the United States, Chile, Australia, Germany and a number of other countries in recent years. Mexico is home to the world’s second-largest Catholic community after Brazil. At a regular news conference when asked about the role his administration would take in investigating sexual abuse allegations, Lopez Obrador said, “If there’s a legal process, we can’t hide it, we’re not going to be accomplices. But we’re not going to stoke the fire.” Pope Francis will receive bishops at the Vatican this week to discuss worldwide revelations of sexual abuse in the Church, which have hurt the institution’s credibility. Although he has repeatedly promised zero tolerance for priests who abuse children, critics demand further action by the pope.




Former Congressman Anthony Weiner has been released from prison and sent to a re-entry program in New York, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons records.
Weiner, who is now 54, was transferred to a residential re-entry center in Brooklyn to serve the remainder of his 21-month prison sentence for sending sexually explicit text messages to a 15-year-old girl. Weiner, a former Democratic House representative from New York City, was sentenced to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty in September of 2017 to one count of transferring obscene material to a minor. As part of his plea agreement, Weiner was also ordered to register as a sex offender, pay a $10 thousand fine and be under three years of supervised release. Prior to being sentenced to prison, Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after it was revealed he'd exchanged lewd photos with women other than his wife and it happened again in 2013 when Weiner was running for New York mayor.




Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would investigate former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and other top Justice Department officials to determine if they plotted an "attempted bureaucratic coup" against President Trump. Graham made the statement on CBS' Face the Nation in response to McCabe's comments in a CBS 60 Minutes interview that Justice Department officials had discussed the possibility of asking Cabinet officials whether they would support using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. McCabe corroborated reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had suggested wearing a wire in a meeting with Trump. Graham said, "We will have a hearing about who's telling the truth."




Police in Chicago said their investigation of the alleged assault against Empire actor Jussie Smollett has changed focus following the interview of two brothers linked to the case. Police issued a statement that said, "We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has in fact shifted the trajectory of the investigation." Investigators said they have reached out to the Empire cast member's attorney to request a follow-up interview. An unnamed police source told NBC News the new information suggests Smollett hired two men to stage the attack. Smollett's lawyers vehemently denied that report.




Chinese stocks soared on Monday ahead of a new round of high-level trade talks between the U.S. and China in Washington. The Shanghai composite index surged by 2.7 percent, while the Shenzhen composite rose by 3.7 percent. Both countries said last week's talks in Beijing had resulted in significant progress. President Trump said the world's two biggest economies were closer than ever to "having a real trade deal," adding that he would be "honored" to remove new tariffs if the "very complicated" talks yielded an agreement. He also reiterated that he would consider extending an early March deadline and further delaying tariff hikes on Chinese goods if a deal is near. U.S. markets are closed Monday for Presidents Day.




The sailor who was immortalized in a photo showing him kissing a woman in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II died Sunday. George Mendonsa was 95.
Mendonsa was shown kissing Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant in a nurse’s uniform, on Aug. 14, 1945. Known as V-J Day, it was the day Japan surrendered to the United States. People spilled into the New York City streets to celebrate the news. Mendonsa planted a kiss on Friedman, whom he had never met. The photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt was first published in Life magazine and is called “V-J Day in Times Square,” but is known to most as “The Kiss.” It became one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, and is a popular image used on posters. Several people later claimed to be the kissing couple. It was years before Mendonsa and Friedman were confirmed to be the couple. Friedman fled Austria during the war as a 15-year-old girl. She died in 2016 at the age of 92 in Richmond, Virginia. Mendonsa served on a destroyer during the war and was on leave when the end of the war was announced. Mendonsa died two days before his 96th birthday.

Sorry - no podcast for today. Voice is out of action due to a cold.



Unfortunately I have a cold and my voice is too hoarse to complete the podcasts for the rest of the week.

I hope to have my voice back by Monday.

Sorry - no podcast for today. Voice is out of action due to a cold.



Unfortunately I have a cold and my voice is too hoarse to complete the podcasts for the rest of the week.

I hope to have my voice back by Monday.

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