Category: Opinion

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US-SKorea war games start Monday as Pyongyang warns of 'catastrophe'…


Are tensions cooling in the Korean Peninsula? The United States and South Korea will find out Monday, when the two allies are scheduled to start joint military exercises that are known to anger North Korea, sometimes triggering a show of force.

This year’s war games come at a particularly delicate moment. There have been exchanges of war rhetoric between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has further complicated the situation, by stating in an interview there’s “no military option” in North Korea while floating a possible deal with Pyongyang that would leave Seoul hanging.

Amid all this back and forth, the U.S. and South Korean military will simulate warfare with North Korea from Aug. 21 to 31, well aware that North Korea could respond with another missile test.

“Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations who previously was the Asia Foundation’s representative in Seoul. “This is always a sensitive issue, but it is more hair-trigger as the North Koreans are very sensitive to the like additional nuclear-capable aircraft flyovers.”

The United States says biannual exercises are defensive in nature, but North Korea and China have long criticized them as a provocation and an affront to regional security.

“There certainly will be some reaction,” said J.D. Williams, a retired Marine colonel and defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in California. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea conducted some kind of missile launch — not a test but a defiant demonstration of might.

North Korea last week threatened to fire four missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory, a rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks of Aug. 8. North Korea’s Kim later backed off that threat, saying he’d watch “the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before deciding on the launch, a decision that Trump quickly tweeted was “very wise and well reasoned.”

The exchange suggested that cooler heads were prevailing in the latest U.S. standoff with North Korea. But next week’s war games could rekindle hostilities. On Thursday, North Korean state media declared that the military exercises will “further drive the situation on the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophe.”

Held every fall in South Korea, the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games are the world’s largest computerized command and control exercise. Some 30,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 50,000 South Korean troops usually take part, along with hundreds of thousands of first responders and civilians, some practicing for a potential chemical weapons attack.

The exercise, along with one in March, often triggers anti-war protests in South Korea and condemnation from China. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has been noticeably cool toward Kim Jong Un, and has been critical of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, China has long wanted the United States to shrink its military footprint in Asia, including some 12 bases in South Korea and Japan.

Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate

Scott A. Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations

In an editorial Monday, China’s Global Times newspaper, an arm of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, lambasted the decision by the United States and South Korea to go ahead with Monday’s exercises.

“The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response,” the newspaper said. “If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean Peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise.”

North Korea has been known to react strongly during the biannual war games. In 2014, the north fired off scud missiles during the March exercises held by the U.S.-South Korean command, called Foul Eagle.

During the 2015 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery and rocket fire over their border. That exchange came after two South Korean soldiers were maimed stepping on land mines in the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea accused North Korean soldiers of sneaking across the border and planting the land mines.

China and Russia have been urging the United States to consider a “freeze for freeze” agreement to reduce tensions. In such a deal, Pyongyang would agree to suspend its tests of missiles and nuclear weapons, and Washington and Seoul would agree to suspend large-scale military exercises.

U.S. military experts say such a deal would give a lopsided advantage to North Korea, which could continue its military training even as the U.S.-South Korea exercises were suspended. “It is hard to imagine why the United States would accept that, because of the vulnerability it would create,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at RAND.

In a media briefing on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States will continue to hold joint exercises with South Korea.

The next day, the administration’s Korea plans were rocked by quotes attributed to Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist. In an interview with the American Prospect, Bannon said he might consider a deal in which North Korea suspended its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula.

The comments come as many in South Korea are uncertain about Washington’s commitment to the 64-year old U.S.-South Korean alliance. As McClatchy reported last month, numerous South Korean lawmakers support their country developing its own nuclear weapons program, to counter the threat from the north.

South Korea has two major concerns with the Trump administration. One is a question about commitment. The other is the potential for Trump to launch a preemptive military strike on North Korea without consulting Seoul, which would bear the brunt of Pyongyang’s response.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae In sent a blunt warning to the White House. “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement,” Moon said in a televised speech.

On Thursday, after meeting with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Moon said he’d been assured South Korea would be consulted before any military action is taken.



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Cabbie Dead in Front Seat on Busy NYC Street for 18 Hours…


The discovery was made by his wife and brother, who had been worried about Mr. Bokrezion and traced his GPS device with the help of his garage. His wife started crying, screaming, pounding on the window.

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Mehari Bokrezion, in the center of the back row wearing a hat, with fellow drivers. He died behind the wheel of his taxi and sat there for 18 hours before he was discovered.

Cabs always parked in a neat line along the west side of the street, one of 38 taxi stands in Manhattan where drivers are allowed to rest for a short time without risking a ticket. Drivers always took power naps. Sure, the sign — “Taxi 1 Hour Limit Relief Stand” —indicated that rules were supposed to be followed, but on this part of Thompson Street, which makes an abrupt turn into Avenue of the Americas instead of heading straight into Canal Street, no one seems to have paid attention to the taxi that stayed a little longer.

Yet in some ways, Mr. Bokrezion’s long wait to be found was just another example of how in this city of almost 8.6 million, the most crowded in the country, minding one’s own business is an art form.

Despite the crowds, New York can sometimes feel like the most isolating place in the world, a city where a man spent as long as five hours riding the No. 1 subway line in 1999 before anyone realized that he, too, had died.

Mr. Bokrezion’s family members could not be reached for this article. At some point, his family moved from Eritrea to America. He joined the taxi company — Susan Maintenance Corp. — in Manhattan shortly after getting his taxi driver’s license in 1991. As an independent contractor, he could drive as little or as much as he wanted. Mr. Bokrezion chose to never work weekends. He picked up a taxi in the morning, and almost always turned it in before 10 p.m.

Other taxi drivers said Mr. Bokrezion was the kind of friend who called when they were on vacation, just to check in. When he spotted a fellow driver walking through Pennsylvania Station, he sneaked up and joked that he needed a ride to Brooklyn. (It’s taxi-driver humor; civilians might not understand.)

Mr. Bokrezion, who lived in the West Village, often showed up hours before his shift, to chat with friends at the two yellow picnic tables inside the Susan taxi garage, which had moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, from Manhattan. It was a mini-United Nations, with drivers and dispatchers from countries like Senegal, Morocco and Haiti. Most frequently, the drivers talked about how tough it was to earn a living, with Uber looming over their livelihoods. August was also a slow month. Mr. Bokrezion said it was hard to find a fare.

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The taxi stand on Thompson Street in SoHo, where Mr. Bokrezion parked.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

On Tuesday, he took the subway to work like always. He checked with the company’s insurance coordinator, Tony Hou, on whether a friend’s driving violation had been cleared. Mr. Bokrezion then called the friend, who was on vacation overseas.

After getting a taxi, about 10 a.m., he drove to where he liked to start the day: La Guardia Airport in Queens, where he often waited for a customer for an hour. Mr. Bokrezion dropped his fare in TriBeCa, in Manhattan, just down the street from the Tribeca Grill.

Then Mr. Bokrezion drove less than a mile, to a neighborhood he knew well: The taxi stand on Thompson Street near the former home of Susan taxis.

The biggest buildings nearby were the two boutique hotels, the Soho Grand and the James, but the hotels’ main entrances were on other sides. Down the street, a karaoke lounge advertised “a peaceful corner” on its brown awning.

Mr. Bokrezion parked carefully. His doors were locked. His windows were rolled up, almost all the way, but it was a pleasant day, in the mid-70s with scattered clouds. Mr. Bokrezion was sitting up. To anyone walking by, he seemed to be sleeping.

His cause of death would later be ruled natural, due to cardiovascular disease.

Throughout the day, people walked past Mr. Bokrezion’s body, those with hair appointments at Haute Air, those with acupuncture appointments at Yupo Wellness, those just with someplace to be. Other taxi drivers parked. They talked to one another on the sidewalk; they walked down the block for a snack and a bathroom break at Soho’s Finest Market. After a time, they drove off.

Photo

Susan Maintenance Corp., in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Mehari Bokrezion drove a cab for more than 20 years.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

Once the sun set, people showed up for Jimmy’s, but it was a slow night, so there wasn’t a line. Down the street, karaoke fans smoked cigarettes.

The night shift left; the day shift arrived. Mr. Ahmed walked by about 3:30 a.m. to set up his food cart for the morning rush. He saw Mr. Bokrezion, but thought nothing of it.

Franklin Lambert, 71, a taxi dispatcher, showed up at Susan taxis about 5 a.m. At some point in the next hour, Mr. Bokrezion’s wife called Mr. Lambert and said her husband never came home. Mr. Lambert checked the taxi’s GPS unit and saw that the car had not moved for almost a day. And he told Mr. Bokrezion’s wife where the cab was parked.

She lived about a half-mile away.

At around the same time, at 6:30 a.m., a passer-by noticed Mr. Bokrezion hadn’t moved and called 911. Mr. Bokrezion’s wife and brother arrived, finding Mr. Bokrezion. His wife broke down. Two others called 911. Workers with the city’s Emergency Medical Services showed up and broke the car’s window and unlocked the door. The police arrived.

Mr. Lambert drove over from Brooklyn. “Even myself, seeing her, seeing her around the cab, it was so painful,” he said. “Such a painful thing to witness.”

The authorities covered Mr. Bokrezion’s body and hung yellow caution tape around the taxi stand. People gathered on the sidewalk, the hotel workers, the commuters.

But soon enough, the tape was pulled down. The taxis returned. All that remained of Mr. Bokrezion’s time was a small pile of broken glass. People walking by just figured that the glass was left from a petty crime, from something stolen inside a car.

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Tillerson Chills: Calm, cautious voice in spinning world…




Tillerson Chills: Calm, cautious voice in spinning world...

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Prayer Candles, Action Figures, Coloring Books…


Prayer candles. Action figures. Temporary tattoos. Coloring books.

Elizabeth Warren isn’t just a progressive icon, she’s a merchandising industry unto herself.

Story Continued Below

The Massachusetts senator and presidential prospect is at the center of a sprawling business built around her appeal to liberals across the country — a reminder of the unabashed devotion she inspires on the left and the footprint she’ll cast in the 2020 Democratic primary.

“Elizabeth Warren is an increasingly popular brand that people want to associate with,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “She’s the Apple of politics.”

It’s impossible to know the true size of the Warren merchandising-industrial complex. The bulk of it exists beyond the Democratic senator’s control on sites like online marketplace Etsy. And her campaign, which hosts its own online store, declined to disclose the exact amount of money it raises from merchandise sales.

But it’s safe to say no other senator has anything like it.

Warren’s campaign store has expanded beyond traditional political fare such as buttons, bumper stickers, tote bags and T-shirts to offer a line of products that capitalize on the “Nevertheless, she persisted” meme spawned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s much-publicized admonishment of Warren on the Senate floor earlier this year.

Several items are sold out at the moment — among them the $9.99 temporary tattoos. According to the Warren campaign, the tattoos were inspired by attendees to Warren’s home-state town halls this spring who showed up with permanent ink bearing the McConnell quote. The senator gave her blessing for the temporary tat, which uses her handwriting to spell out the quote in dark blue ink.

Her campaign team was quick to recognize the opportunity presented by the dust-up with McConnell. Less than 24 hours elapsed before designers were at work with Warren’s campaign staff trying to translate the viral political meme into product.

They settled on a T-shirt featuring the quote and a boxing glove motif, a theme associated with Warren since her 2012 campaign.

“We wanted to capture the energy of the ‘she persisted’ moment, but also incorporate themes that have been familiar to Sen. Warren’s brand for years,” said Frank Chi, a Democratic media strategist who has worked on designing the Warren logo, digital videos, graphics and Web properties. “It’s incredibly exciting to see the energy from ‘she persisted’ continue to this day. But we also want to make sure folks know there’s official merch they can buy that will help her win reelection.”

The campaign says it has sold 20,000 of the T-shirts alone — and, at $24.99 a pop, that comes out to almost a half-million dollars. It has already sold out of temporary tattoos and pink hats with white “Nevertheless, she persisted,” stitching, also priced at $24.99 and marketed specifically for Mother’s Day.

Warren’s campaign wouldn’t disclose the specific amount of tattoos and hats produced but said that together, it was a “couple thousand.”

The widest range of Warren-inspired swag, however, is sold by private vendors. A quick Web search for “she persisted” yields roughly 5,400 results on Etsy and 33,000 on Amazon, with items for sale including bracelets, bodysuits, coffee mugs, laptop decals, signs, portraits, cross-stitch patterns, phone cases, coasters and wine glasses, among other things.

Mike Espejo, a member of a San Diego-based team behind a Warren prayer candle on Etsy — there are multiple Warren prayer candle vendors — says they’ve sold “a couple dozen” candles with the senator depicted in a coat of armor in front of the U.S. Capitol at $12 a pop.

“People really seem to love it,” Espejo said in an email. “We feel that Ms. Warren is a champion of women’s causes, as well as standing up for the ‘little guy,’ so we thought that a prayer candle honoring her was a worthy endeavor and would also help to give her more exposure.”

Christine Molla, a 29-year-old resident physician from Ohio, has sold around 200 “nevertheless, she persisted” aluminum bracelets and donates 10 percent of her proceeds from each purchase to Planned Parenthood.

“I do follow her, I support her, and I own a book she has written,” Molla said of Warren in an email. “Truthfully, I hope to see her on the 2020 ticket and would volunteer to help elect her.”

As much as anything else, the thriving business surrounding Warren is a sign of the heightened engagement and commitment by her fans — some of whom tote Warren-related cross-stitches or hand-painted portraits of the senator to her Massachusetts town halls.

FCTRY, a Brooklyn-based product design company, discovered that when it marketed a Warren action figure earlier this year. “Right now, she is the most popular product on our online store, FCTRY.com, and we expect that popularity to hold strong for the rest of the year,” said spokeswoman Erica Chon.

Thomas Phillips, director of e-commerce for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, says embracing a political meme like “Nevertheless, she persisted” helps build Warren’s brand on both a local and national level, in addition to serving as a campaign revenue source.

“What Sen. Warren is experiencing with DIY merch, we saw a lot of that on the campaign with Hillary, where people are mimicking something we’d already done or a new idea. While merch has a function of fundraising, certainly when you see that stuff out in the field, the good far outweighs the bad in terms of revenue.”

Creative merchandise-based branding — like temporary tattoos and pink hats — also offers a way to appeal to potential voters with a softer, tongue-in-cheek touch, Phillips said.

“If some people are turned off to the political process but see something humorous and poignant, it’s a way to connect that you don’t always get through traditional ads,” Phillips said.

At home, Massachusetts Republicans scoff at Warren’s merchandising appeal, chalking it up to what they view as a cult of personality surrounding her.

“Perhaps Warren should focus less on selling silly slogans and more on delivering results for Massachusetts — otherwise, it would make more sense for her to sell ‘inaction figures,’” said state GOP Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes.

Phillips insists that even when there’s not a direct financial benefit, the message sent by a myriad of products can be extremely powerful. “Anytime you see people going through an effort to show their support,” he said, “it’ll have an impact.”

Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this report.



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CHALLENGER MARTIN SCHULZ CONFIDENT…


BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel’s main challenger in the country’s upcoming general election said Sunday he remains confident he can unseat the chancellor despite her wide lead in the polls.

Martin Schulz, who was president of the European Parliament until January, said on Germany’s ZDF television’s “Berlin Direkt” program that there are still six weeks of campaigning to go before the Sept. 24 vote.

“I think that I still have a good chance to lead the next government,” he said.

Still, with Germany enjoying record-low unemployment, a balanced budget and a strong economy, the 61-year-old Schulz faces an uphill battle to defeat Merkel and was challenged in the 15-minute interview to say why people should vote for his party over her Christian Democrats.

“Germany is doing well… but the statement that Germany is doing well doesn’t mean that all Germans are doing well,” he said. “We must be much better in many areas.”

Schulz also noted that his Social Democrats are currently Merkel’s junior coalition partner in government, and that credit for successes should not be hers alone. He said he’d be happy to form another so-called grand coalition after the election, but “under my leadership.”

Schulz said there needs to be more investment in digital infrastructure, training programs, and help for lower-income families struggling to make ends meet.

Asked why a voter should “take a risk” to vote Merkel out, he said: “it’s the opposite; we are taking a risk if we do nothing.”

The latest poll, by the Emnid agency for Bild newspaper on Sunday, showed Schulz’s Social Democrats gaining a percentage point to 24 percent support, compared to a steady 38 percent support for Merkel’s conservative bloc. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Schulz struggled at times during the interview to differentiate his positions from those of Merkel, saying, for example, that he would not argue with the chancellor’s call for a de-escalation of rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea and ruling out of a military solution.

He said it was his principle that the government needed to stand together in times of such a crisis.

“You have to simply live with the fact that I’m one of those politicians who has principles,” he said.

He also echoed Merkel’s criticism from Saturday of Germany’s auto industry in the wake of a diesel emissions cheating scandal, saying that wealthy “managers at VW, at Daimler, have missed the future” by not investing in alternative technologies earlier.

Now, he said, there seems to be the thought that the diesel drivers, like commuters, delivery services and craftspeople, “should pay the bill.”

“I’m strongly against that,” he said.

“The irresponsible managers of the automobile industry should take responsibility.”



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Usain Bolt's Final Race Ends in Cry of Pain and Whimper…


The night began with a disappointment for the hosts, as the British distance star Mo Farah’s 10-final winning streak at global championships ended in the 5,000 meters. Competing in what he said was his last track event before a switch to road racing, Farah could not produce his traditional devastating kick. He finished second behind Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris, and the American Paul Kipkemoi Chelimo won the bronze.

But the men’s relay turned the night around for Britain, and Mitchell-Blake celebrated by sprinting down the track again, this time with the baton between his teeth.

Meanwhile, Bolt’s teammates rushed to help him as he lay on the track in the same stadium where he and his countrymen set the world record in this event, 36.84 seconds, at the 2012 Olympics.

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Bolt’s Jamaican relay teammates rushed to check on him after he dropped to the track.

Credit
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Kevin Jones, a doctor with the Jamaican team, said his preliminary diagnosis was that Bolt had suffered an acute muscle cramp in his left hamstring, although Jones could not rule out the possibility of a muscle tear.

“I think a lot of the pain was from disappointment,” Jones said, tapping his heart, “from not being able to finish the race. That was the main thing.”

He said that a slight delay at the start of the race — because of the length of two medal ceremonies preceding it — might have contributed to Bolt’s situation.

The Jamaican sprinters said they had been kept too long in the “call room,” the holding area that serves as a way station between the warm-up track and the main stadium.

“Usain was really cold,” Blake said afterward. “In fact, Usain said to me, ‘Yohan, I think this is crazy, 40 minutes and two medal presentations before our run.’”

Omar McLeod, who ran the first leg for the Jamaican team, also criticized the delay.

“We were really trying our hardest to stay warm and keep upbeat, but it was ridiculous,” he said.

Still, none of the sprinters from the teams that did win medals had a problem similar to Bolt’s, not even Justin Gatlin, the 35-year-old American who had upset Bolt in the 100-meter sprint here (and who was booed again by some members of the sellout crowd during introductions).

“I personally think we were held underneath the stadium a little too long without our clothes on,” Gatlin said, referring to the athletes’ warm-up suits. “It was pretty drafty, and I lost all my sweat and body heat. I think a lot of us were jostling around trying to stay warm a little longer than usual.”

Bolt won three gold medals at the London Games, confirming his status as one of the greatest Olympians in history. He added three more golds at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but this season proved to be one too far for Bolt, who will turn 31 this month. At these championships, he had to settle for a bronze medal in the 100-meter race. And then came the relay.

No morning person, he made an exception this time and took part in the early heats, running the anchor leg and helping Jamaica win its heat to qualify for the final. Bolt put on a good show before the final, too, joking with the mascot in the corridor leading to the track and playing to the crowd once he emerged from the tunnel.

But there would be no grins or laps of honor after this relay was run, and if this was indeed his final official race, it was hardly a reflection of the mood and victories that preceded it.

Bolt looked anything but invulnerable as he hopped to a halt, shouting an epithet while his rivals continued to accelerate. He looked anything but superhuman as he fell to earth, although he did manage a somersault on the way down.

Though he was eventually able to rise to his feet, eschewing the wheelchair that had been brought for him, and hobble across the finish line long after the race ended, with his Jamaican teammates walking slowly and grimly beside him, he soon dropped to the track again and grimaced.

He later rose again and limped away without speaking to reporters. He received treatment from his longtime massage therapist before returning to the team hotel.

“I think that no one wants to see Usain go out like that,” Gatlin said at the medalists’ news conference. “I think all of us have been inspired by him in some form and some way in his career. He’s done so much from 2008 on to now, so I think we can look past everything that has happened in these championships and congratulate him on his legendary career.”

If this was truly the end, Bolt finished with 14 career medals in the world championships, 11 of them gold, and with eight Olympic gold medals.

But there was no final flourish for a man who has been not only one of global sport’s great athletes, but one of its great entertainers as well.

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MS-13 gang member on FBI's Ten Most Wanted list arrested…


An MS-13 gang member on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list has been captured in Virginia after a four-year manhunt, authorities announced Saturday.

Walter Yovany Gomez, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, was arrested without incident Friday in Woodbridge, 20 miles south of Washington, as a result of a well-coordinated investigation and tips from the public, the FBI said.

“The apprehension of Walter Yovany Gomez is a prime example of the close coordination between the vigilant public and the hard working men and women of law enforcement,” Timothy Gallagher, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Newark Office, said. “Gomez will now stand trial for his alleged involvement in a brutal murder which took a young man from his family.”

He faces extradition to New Jersey where he was indicted on a charge of committing a violent crime in aid of racketeering. The FBI added his name to its Ten Most Wanted list in April.

Gomez, who goes by the nickname “Cholo,” is accused of killing a fellow MS-13 gang member Julio Matute in Plainfield in 2011.

Prosecutors say that after a night of partying Gomez and an accomplice beat Matute with a baseball bat, stabbed him 17 times with a knife and then slit his throat with a screwdriver.

MS-13’S MOST WANTED: THE VIOLENT GANGSTERS THE FEDS WANT BEHIND BARS

Matute was killed on suspicion that he and members of a rival gang were getting too close.

When police tried to arrest Gomez he jumped out a second-story window and escaped.

Gomez’ cohort, who was also an MS-13 member, was caught and convicted.

Gomez was featured in an Aug. 1 FoxNews.com story on the most violent MS-13 gang members being sought by the feds.

President Trump condemned MS-13 in an appearance in July on Long Island where 17 murders have been attributed to the gang since Jan. 1, 2016.

“They kidnap. They extort. They rape and they rob,” Trump said. “They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs, they slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They’re animals.”

  



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Veterans group sues Pentagon for not protecting private military records of millions of troops…


A veterans organization is suing the Pentagon for exposing private details about troops’ military service on “a truly massive scale” due to lax security on one of its websites.

The lawsuit filed by Vietnam Veterans of America charges that that a Defense Department website “is currently exposing private details about the military service of millions of veterans to anybody at all, anonymously, for any purpose.”

The shoddy security measures allow virtually anyone to access sensitive data about veterans’ records by typing in a name and date of birth, which are easily available on the internet. This gives “easy access to information about essentially all veterans or service members in the system” and thus violates the Federal Privacy Act, alleges the suit, which was filed last week in federal court in New York.

Defendants are…depriving veterans their ability to control who learns sensitive details about their military service.

Vietnam Veterans of America v. Department of Defense

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act website, which according to the Pentagon receives more than 2.3 billion searches a year, is mean to be used by authorized institutions like banks to confirm the active duty status that entitles service members to certain protections.

Instead, the information is available to con artists and scammers who can use it to impersonate government or other officials and gain veterans’ trust by discussing details of their service that only authorized organizations would have.

Thomas Barden, a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years, found that out firsthand.

The plaintiff in the suit received a call from someone supposedly affiliated with Microsoft in March 2016. Since the caller knew all kinds of personal details about Barden’s military service, Barden thought he was authorized by the government. The scammer convinced him his computer was at risk, and sold him firewall software to protect it. Nine months later, the scammer gained remote access to the computer, locked him out, and threatened to hold his files for ransom unless he paid up.

Worried about data theft, Barden broke the hard drive into pieces and was so concerned about his privacy that he threw them into different trash cans over several days. Since then, he has continued to receive harassing phone calls from the same scammers, causing him “significant anxiety and stress,” according to the lawsuit.

Impostor fraud and identity theft aside, the group says that Vietnam veterans in particular want to keep details of their military record private, having “experienced the sting of rejection and public scorn on account of their service.”

Since they draw a steady, guaranteed income from the government, veterans are an attractive target for scammers. The numbers have increased in recent years, from 58,175 complaints by veterans in 2014 to 69,801 in 2016, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network.

“Veterans are disproportionately targeted by scammers and identity thieves,” Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan said in a statement.

The Pentagon “is fueling the problem by leaving veterans’ private information easily accessible on the internet (and) has refused to properly secure veterans’ information,” he said. “We are asking a court to order them to do so.”

The Defense Department has refused to make any changes since being alerted about the problems with the site, the suit says. It points out that the Defense Department could implement a strict user registration or online verification system, which are used by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

The challenges of protecting the massive databases containing military records are not new. The Department of Veterans Affairs in particular has struggled with privacy issues.

In 2014, a joint Pentagon-VA benefits site had recurring issues with private information about veterans being disclosed to random visitors. The VA was also sued over a serious privacy breach in 2006, after an employee’s laptop was stolen that contained the private data of 26 million soldiers and veterans. The VA settled for $20 million for failing to protect their sensitive data.

In other cases, veterans expecting to receive their own healthcare records opened their mail only to receive hundreds of pages of someone else’s private data.

“I got 256 pages of another person’s extremely confidential, extremely explicit mental health records,” Anthony McCann, a veteran in Tennessee, told a VA town hall in 2014.

The VA is the health provider with the most privacy complaints in the country, racking up 220 complaints between 2011 and 2014 according to a ProPublica analysis. In one case, an employee accessed her husband’s medical records more than 260 times. Another employee shared a veteran’s private health information with his parole officer. In yet another case, a VA employee posted details of a patient’s health records on Facebook after opening them 61 times, according to documents posted by ProPublica.



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Federal regs slow to crawl…


Just halfway through his first year in office, President Trump is delivering on a key campaign promise to cut red tape, according to a new study. 

The six-month review of Trump’s regulatory agenda by the American Action Forum shows the federal government practically slamming the brakes on regulation. The number of new rules is now at a record low, according to the study, in sharp contrast to the start of the Obama administration. 

“If you look at what’s happening in the first six months for President Trump compared to President Obama, it’s staggering,” group president Douglas Holtz-Eakin told “Fox & Friends” on Friday.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump promised that “for every new regulation, we’re going to cut two,” and to “get rid of all the unnecessary regulations.”

The data from AAF, a conservative-leaning think tank, shows a total of 27 rules have been withdrawn so far this year, which is slightly lower than the 41 rules that were approved.

But the study shows the regulatory push at the beginning of the Obama administration was roughly 20 times more costly to the U.S. economy than at the start of the current administration. 

TRUMP SIGNS EXECUTIVE ORDER ROLLING BACK OBAMA-ERA ENERGY REGS

The Obama administration’s first six months of regulations imposed $24.4 billion in total costs, compared with the $1.2 billion for the Trump administration. And the 41 rules approved represents a fraction of the number approved at the start of previous administrations. 

“The business community really feels like the beatings have stopped, Washington is not trying to put them in the bullseye, and they can go about running their businesses and not worrying about the regulations,” Holz-Eakin, who ran the Congressional Budget Office under then-President George W. Bush, said.

ROLLING BACK ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS WILL SHORE UP ECONOMY, EXPERTS SAY

A Fox News review of Trump’s first 100 days in office in April also showed the president following through on vows to roll back red tape. Thirteen of the 28 bills signed at the time were done under the Congressional Review Act to roll back Obama-era regulations.

According to AAF, those measures overturned a series of Obama-era rules that produced annual cost savings of $1.1 billion–or $3.7 billion in lifetime cost savings. 

“No longer can we allow these rules and regulations to tie down our economy, chain up our prosperity, and sap our great American spirit,” Trump said in June at the Department of Transportation. 

TRUMP’S REGULATORY CZAR COULD HAVE A MAJOR IMPACT ON HOW AMERICANS WORK AND LIVE IN THE FUTURE

The rollback has affected a range of sectors. 

In March, he signed an executive order to review the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants. 

In April, Trump ordered the Agriculture Department to eliminate unncessary regulations that “hurt farmers and ruraly communities,” and just this summer, Trump moved to scrap an Obama-era rule that withdrew hundreds of millions of acres of federally owned land from energy exploration, and another that expanded the number of waterways covered by the federal Clean Water Act.

EPA MOVES TO NIX OBAMA’S ‘WATERS OF THE US’ REGULATION

But the rollback of Obama-era energy and environment regulations drew considerable pushback from Democrats. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted the administration for a “spitefaul assault” on the Clean Power Plan.  

Fox News’ Kevin Corke and Sam Chamberlain contributed to this report. 

Brooke Singman is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter at @brookefoxnews.



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Pence's real power move…


The vice president’s office hasn’t been one of the competing power centers in President Donald Trump’s faction-riven White House — but the recent arrival of Nick Ayers, the veteran campaign operative now serving as Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is starting to change that.

Ayers’ hire, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials, was less about a secret campaign to challenge Trump in 2020 and more about helping the vice president — who, at just 58, has a political future ahead of him in the post-Trump era — preserve his future political options, whatever they may be.

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A veteran political operative, Ayers had for months been quietly warning the vice president that Trump’s troubles could cause collateral damage and that he needed to take a more aggressive posture on a range of issues to ensure he enters the post-Trump era on solid ground, according to two White House officials.

Ayers arrived in the West Wing as Reince Priebus, one of the few White House aides with Washington experience, was replaced as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff by retired Marine Gen. John Kelly. Ayers, a 34-year-old Georgia native, replaced Josh Pitcock, the long-serving Pence aide distinguished by his quiet and inoffensive manner.

Among the reasons Ayers didn’t join the White House in January was a long-running feud with Priebus, who reportedly blocked Ayers’ ascension to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in December and, according to one White House aide, worked to keep him out of the administration. Priebus has said the decision was not personal — that he considers Ayers a friend and wanted him in Washington — but that he wanted his successor to be a member of the RNC.

Last week’s passing of the baton from Priebus to Kelly and from Pitcock to Ayers has heralded broader changes in the White House — reining in presidential aides and prompting more assertiveness from the vice president’s allies.

With the exception of political director Bill Stepien, a former Chris Christie aide, the political operation is now staffed almost entirely by Pence World operatives — from Ayers himself to congressional liaison Marc Short, who moonlights as a surrogate to top-dollar donors, to former Pence aide Marty Obst, who is leading the super PAC charged with supporting the administration and hammering its enemies.

It wasn’t just Pence who wanted Ayers back in the West Wing. Among those encouraging him to join the White House staff were Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as the president’s son, Don Jr., with all of whom he worked closely during the campaign, where he served as the chief conduit between Pence World and Trump Tower. “Nick previously served as a key asset contributing to the success of the campaign and is a great addition to the team,” Kushner told POLITICO in a statement.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added: “The vice president is committed and dedicated to helping the president and assisting him in helping his agenda and committed to his reelection in 2020.”

Ayers is a schmoozer whose crisis-management skills the vice president has come to rely on. Given their close relationship, several administration officials said that his hiring was unsurprising. Nobody was more frustrated than Ayers, for example, at the sluggish response to reports that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had deceived Pence about his meetings with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak — including the vice president himself, according to a person familiar with the situation — and Ayers has consistently pushed Pence to get off his hind legs and show some attitude.

During the campaign, Ayers served at Bannon’s behest as the chief conduit between Pence World and the president’s core team, working with them on the vice presidential vetting process, for example — and spent the last two weeks of the race traveling with the president. “He’s a Trump guy,” Bannon said.

But some members of the administration felt that the synergy between the two worlds that developed on the campaign trail evaporated with Ayers’ absence from the White House, even though he’s been spending two days a week in Washington since November.

Ayers declined to comment for this piece, as did a spokesman for Pence.

Though they have grown close over the past three years, some who know the vice president well say that Ayers is a departure from the sort of aides with whom the vice president typically surrounds himself. “Throughout his career, he has consciously surrounded himself with people who are not super political,” according to Ryan Streeter, who served as deputy chief of staff for Pence during his time as Indiana governor, when he would scold aides he overheard strategizing in the office for “playing politics.”

“He has always trusted his own political instincts,” Streeter said.

On the campaign trail and for much of his time in the White House, Pence has gone out of his way to be a loyal lieutenant — serving as the first line of defense for the president on a range of crises, often at the expense of his own credibility, and keeping his head down during internal policy battles. He stayed quiet even on issues close to his heart, like the executive order on religious liberty that Trump signed in May, according to a senior White House aide.

Pitcock, who is reserved by nature, did little to check those impulses. Though he had spent a dozen years by Pence’s side, the vice president — who harbors ambition for a political future beyond the Trump administration — found himself pining for Ayers’ sharp elbows amid the daily turmoil of the administration and called him frequently for advice and counsel.

White House aides say the vice president does seem to have gotten a jolt of energy. He has for the first time taken substantive positions on some of the most controversial debates within the administration. In response to entreaties from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, he has become a key voice in favor of increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, helping to build consensus within the administration and to make the case to the president. An aide to the vice president disputed that characterization, saying that Pence is serving as an honest broker between the various factions and is not advocating for any particular outcome.

“For the first six months of the administration, Pence was sort of afraid to take any sort of substantive position on anything, in any deliberations,” said a senior White House aide. Sanders disputed that characterization, telling POLITICO she had seen the vice president weigh in on internal policy debates, though she declined to name any.

Pence has also been quietly ramping up his political activity, cultivating Republican donors at small private dinners and headlining an event alongside Ivanka Trump that raised more than a million dollars for Republican candidates. His outreach to the party’s wealthiest donors doesn’t require much political calculation: It’s an area that Trump, who has little interest in glad-handing deep-pocketed donors, has left wide open for him.

Pence, for example, has longstanding ties to the Koch brothers’ political network, which was a strong supporter of his governorship but stayed on the sidelines of the 2016 election due to widespread opposition among donors to Trump’s candidacy. Short, whose adorns his office with Pence paraphernalia, is a former president of the group that oversees the Koch brothers’ political activism, which has declined over the past 18 months.

Few believe there’s a conceivable chance that Pence — whose loyalty to Trump has at times bordered on obsequiousness — would launch a primary campaign against him in 2020. He denied a New York Times report over the weekend that he was eyeing a presidential campaign, which he called not only “categorically false” but “disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” — though Ayers’ aggressiveness was evident in the vigor of his response.

“The guy’s not stupid, he’s smart, and he’s proven pretty well that he’s loyal to Trump,” said Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota billionaire and longtime Republican donor. “I think it’s ridiculous to think that he’d be so foolish.”

But there’s little doubt the 58-year-old vice president harbors ambitions for a political future after Trump. A former radio talk-show host, Pence has spent most of his professional life in politics — a dozen years in Congress and four in the governor’s mansion, where he fielded entreaties to run for president from leaders of the tea party movement as well as from some of the party’s leading intellectuals — first in in 2012 and again in 2016.

Ayers is around to ensure that if Trump is out of the picture for one reason or another his man will be ready. He is elbowing his way into meetings at which the vice president was previously unrepresented and, while Pitcock would limit himself to delivering brief updates on Pence’s upcoming events, Ayers freely shares his views on the White House’s messaging and political strategy. He is making himself a ubiquitous figure, pacing the hallways, talking on his cellphone.

“He walks around like he owns the place,” said a senior White House aide.



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