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Ukraine Computer Involved in Tennessee Elections Attack

Investigators found evidence of a “malicious intrusion” into a Tennessee county’s elections website from a computer in Ukraine during a concerted cyberattack, which most likely caused the site to crash just as it was reporting vote totals in this month’s primary.

The firm, hired by Knox County to analyze the so-called denial-of-service cyberattack, said Friday that “a suspiciously large number of foreign countries” accessed the site as votes were being reported on May 1.

That intense activity was among the likely causes of the crash, according to the report by Sword & Shield Enterprise Security.

County officials said no voting data were affected, but the site was down for an hour after the polls closed, causing confusion before technicians fixed the problem. 

The vulnerability identified by Sword & Shield has been fixed and additional safeguards are now in place, said David Ball, the county’s deputy director of information technology.

The election results, to be officially certified this month, left Glenn Jacobs, also known as the pro wrestler Kane, ahead by 17 votes in the Republican primary for Knox County’s mayor.

Origin unknowable

Investigators said it’s impossible to prove just where the denial-of-service attack originated from, since the county can’t store all the “packet data” needed to identify the source.

“The effect was clearly a loss of service, but it is unclear, with the information provided, if the outage was an intended event or a side effect of the events,” the report said.

Ball said “the bottom line is that there was a proven malicious attack from a foreign source occurring simultaneously with an apparent deliberate DOS attack. Nothing was held back from Sword and Shield, and their assessment was well-aligned with our initial assessment on election night.”

Knox County uses Hart InterCivic’s eSlate electronic voting machines, which do not create a paper record of the votes. Ball said Hart’s equipment “is not networked in any way.”

Joyce McCants, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Knoxville, said Knox County has not reached out to the FBI in relation to the website crash.

Election security experts have raised concerns that foreign state actors could use such attacks to erode public confidence in the democratic process. Projects like Defend Digital Democracy at Harvard University have been urging elections officials across the country to prepare for exactly such scenarios.

Richard Moran, the county’s information and technology senior director, has said that while heavy traffic came from overseas servers, it doesn’t mean that the attacker was in a foreign country.

Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University, notes that the internet is a “messy place” with a lot of background traffic, and it would be difficult to find its origin because attackers are very good at hiding their location.

“What attackers will do is, they’ll break into other computers and then launch their attacks from there,” he said.

The report said the website received requests for access from about 100 countries, from all over the world.

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Report: Top Nonproliferation Expert Resigns from State Department

A top U.S. State Department official resigned this week after President Donald Trump announced the United States is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, according to a report in the journal Foreign Policy.

The report says 38-year-old nuclear proliferation expert Richard Johnson resigned his position as acting assistant coordinator in the State Department’s Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, which had been involved in talks with Britain, France, Germany and other nations to salvage the deal that rewarded Iran for giving up much of its nuclear activities in trade for relief from economic sanctions.

Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. would no longer be part of that deal. Johnson’s farewell party was held that night, according to Foreign Policy.

Johnson did not make a statement to the journal for its report, but Foreign Policy reports that his farewell email to colleagues and staff praised the deal, calling it an “extraordinary achievement” and saying it has “clearly been successful in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Johnson’s departure highlights the Trump administration’s loss of high-level career diplomats at the State Department and across the breadth of the federal government. The report notes that the office Johnson headed has gone from a full-time staff of seven to none since Trump’s inauguration.

That development was due in part to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to close the department’s office in charge of coordinating sanctions and move some experts to administrative roles.

Several former government employees contacted for the story, including former U.S. Treasury official Brian O’Toole, told Foreign Policy that they are dismayed at Johnson’s departure. O’Toole called the nonproliferation expert “exactly the kind of person we want to keep in government.”

O’Toole added, “You can’t be powerful without good people in government.”

Contacted for comment on the story, the State Department said in a statement that it does not comment on matters involving individual employees. But it added: “As directed by the President, we will continue to work with nations around the world to create a new coalition to counter Iran’s nuclear and proliferation threats, as well as its support for terrorism, militancy, and asymmetric weapons like ballistic missiles.”

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Trump Says He Still Has Confidence in EPA Chief Pruitt

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said that embattled Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt still has his confidence.

Pruitt has been criticized for a series of potential ethics lapses, including flying first class, excessive spending on security, and the rental of a room in a Washington condominium owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist.

Asked during a meeting of automakers at the White House if he still has confidence in Pruitt, Trump responded: “Yes, I do.”

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Surprise Effort Revives Capitol Hill Immigration Debate

Young undocumented immigrants seeking permanent status in the United States received an unexpected boost Thursday on Capitol Hill as a small group of House Republicans mounted a last-minute effort to bring up an immigration vote in Congress.

The group of eight Republicans — some freed from political considerations by upcoming retirements and others facing tough re-elections races — defied their own party leadership, quickly persuading 10 more Republicans to sign on to a petition that would force debate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

With all 193 Democrats expected to sign on, Republicans will have to persuade just seven more members of their own party to join the petition to trigger a vote on several immigration bills on the House floor.

But Republican leadership said the effort would be wasted if the end result is a presidential veto.

“I think it’s important for us to come up with a solution that the president can support,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Thursday. These types of petitions are rare and seen as a threat to leadership’s ability to direct legislative action.

“It’s better to use the legislative process,” Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday.

But that argument appears to be losing sway with House members who see an opportunity for legislative action in a mid-term election year. The growing group of House Republicans are joining Democratic colleagues who have long criticized Ryan for not bringing immigration bills up for a vote.

“This is about making sure we’re not consolidating power in the White House,” said Representative Mia Love, a Republican from Utah and one of the first lawmakers to sign petition.

The immigration issue had all but died after an effort to pass a DACA fix collapsed in the U.S. Senate earlier this year.

The program has been the focus of fierce negotiations on Capitol Hill since last September, when President Donald Trump announced he was ending the 2012 Obama-era program and called for a legislative fix.

The DACA program has shielded from deportation about 800,000 undocumented people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, mainly from Mexico and Central America. The U.S. Supreme Court gave DACA recipients a reprieve this spring when it declined to hear an appeal of several lower court rulings to maintain the program.

“The pressure point went away after the Supreme Court didn’t act — and I was happy that it gave more time to DACA recipients, but it took the pressure off here,” Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, told VOA.

 “This is a way to bring it back. So this is very unique opportunity,” he said.

The lawmakers are pressing for a vote on a range of Republican, Democratic and bipartisan solutions to the status of DACA recipients, in addition to addressing concerns about border security and visa programs.

If the petition succeeds, the earliest the House could enter into debate on the bills would be in mid-June.

Under the rules of the so-called “Queen of the Hill” process, the bill with the most votes would be sent to the Senate.

“We believe that there’s going to be opportunities for members of all the different caucuses on the left and the right to vote on the bills they think are important — but the important thing is to have a full debate here,” said Representative Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who is leading the effort.

Several states have filed lawsuits against the DACA program. Those cases are expected to work their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. 

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Border Town Residents: No Simple Fix to US Illegal Immigration

A long line of people, winding past a chain-link fence and a turnstile, distinguishes the boundary separating San Luis, in the U.S. state of Arizona, and San Luis Río Colorado in Sonora, Mexico. Otherwise, it would just appear to be desert.

At the U.S. port of entry, temporary farm workers leave their families and queue up daily before dawn to catch a bus to the fields, just outside town. Residents from Arizona join them.

On one nearby date palm farm, men and women wear handkerchiefs to protect themselves from the fine desert sand and temperatures that reach 41 degrees Celsius; but, Mexican farmworker Juán González voices few complaints. The work is steady for 11 months of the year, he says, and the border is calm.“There aren’t many problems,” González said. “There’s crime, but not like in other large cities.”

While others describe a sense of tranquility on either side of the border, there is an underlying tension, too. Drug trafficking is of particular concern, but not everyone wants to talk about it.

​It’s complicated

A mix of workers on temporary visas, permanent residents, and U.S. citizens with Mexican family members, residents of San Luis, Arizona, say it’s normal to have a foot on both sides of the border.

Among the Latino-majority population, residents quietly acknowledge that the deployment of the Arizona National Guard to the area — to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in monitoring illegal activity — isn’t the worst idea but has a caveat: “if it’s for narco-trafficking and trafficking of persons.”

“It’s good to end that because it’s dangerous for anyone here along the border,” said Candelario Vizcarra, a San Luis farmworker who lives in Mexico.

“They don’t go and attack nobody,” added Greg, a U.S. citizen who works in sales. “It’s just to protect the borders, and I agree.”

Others with business ties in San Luis agreed with Greg, who didn’t want to share his last name with VOA. But they were careful not to voice their opinions out of concern they might appear to be anti-immigrant.

María Herrera, a minimum-wage farmworker, mother, and permanent resident in Arizona, agrees that drug trafficking is a problem and that it is affecting the town’s children, some as young as 12.

“They don’t have work, there is no work, there’s nothing,” Herrera said. “And their best option a lot of times is to go the easy route: rob, use drugs, or act as drug mules (carry drugs) across the border.”

Creating more well-paying jobs would be her suggestion. Absent that, Herrera is skeptical of the National Guard troops’ presence. She worries about the effect of a militarized border on the undocumented.

“Like all Latinos, we worry about what happens to other families like our own, because one way or another, many are family or relatives of some friend of ours that we have in common.

“In the worst cases, they’ll deport the father,” Herrera continued, “and the mother and kids remain here — protected by whom?”​

Common ground

In Calexico, California, 127 kilometers northwest of San Luis, across subtropical desert, a section of 9-meter bollard-style replacement fence towers over the palms and brush to its south. Border Patrol sector supervisor Jorge Rivera says he is grateful for the upgrade because of another issue: the safety of his agents.

“Criminal organizations come over and they attack us with rocks; they throw any type of object toward us to avoid us apprehending any type of illegal activity,” Rivera told VOA.

In fiscal 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol in the El Centro Sector of southern California reported 21 assaults against agents and seized more than 200 kilos of cocaine, 690 kilos of methamphetamine and 70,000 grams of heroin.

But unlike San Luis, some residents concerned about illegal immigration in El Centro bring up a line of reasoning more in tune with pro-Trump areas of the country, including the narrative that those crossing the border illegally are an economic burden on society.

“They are leeching our system, and I pay so much (in) taxes every month,” said Steve Andrade, who runs a security management company. “It … (makes me angry) that all my money goes to those people. … I get nothing out of it!”

Ironically, Andrade admits to once being homeless and an undocumented immigrant himself, crossing multiple times from Mexicali until he successfully evaded the U.S. Border Patrol and settled in California in the early 1980s.

He maintains the Mexican border town was different then.

“In my time, there was nothing, no opportunities … to even survive Mexicali,” Andrade said. “There were no shelters to help you or anything.”

Andrade makes his stance on the wall clear — “go for it!” — but others who claim illegal immigration is a danger have other ideas.

Bill DuBois, an El Centro-area resident and owner of a local firearms store, holds firm that “if one illegal crosser gets across, the border is not secure.” But unlike Andrade, the lifelong Californian doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a wall.

“The only way to solve the problem of illegal immigration is to make things better in the other people’s home countries,” DuBois said.

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Trump’s Poll Numbers Rising; North Korea Developments Could Help

It was a made-for-TV moment that all presidents would relish, but it seemed especially significant for the man who turned a reality TV career into a successful bid for the presidency.

Donald Trump triumphantly greeted the three Americans released by North Korea in the early morning darkness at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington early Thursday, an image one can expect to see over and over again come the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign.

“It was a very important thing to all of us to be able to get these three great people out,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac. He then went on to speculate that live television coverage of the arrival “probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”

 
WATCH: Trump greets hostages released by North Korea

​Shifting focus

It was a moment the president gladly seized given that his White House has been buffeted by a chaotic mix of policy and personal drama in recent days. The prospect of a potentially historic breakthrough on North Korea could move a number of other unwelcome distractions to the side, including the ongoing Russia investigation, the growing legal difficulties for Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the soap opera that the Stormy Daniels story has become. Daniels is the adult film actress who claims she once had an affair with Trump. He denies the claim.

Trump also announced Thursday on Twitter that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore. A new CNN poll found that 77 percent of those surveyed support Trump meeting the North Korean leader, and 53 percent approve of his handling of the North Korea issue generally.

Those numbers are in keeping with a general trend of late that has seen the president’s poll ratings improving, perhaps in part because of the strong economy.

The president’s average approval rating at the moment is around 42 percent, up from the 39 to 40 percent ratings he was getting for months. That may not sound like much of an improvement, but given that Trump has been mired in the weakest poll ratings of any first-term president since World War II, it will be seen as good news by his supporters.

Polarized politics

Even with the slight improvement, though, many analysts say Trump remains a polarizing figure.

“I think for both sides, people who like Donald Trump and who don’t like Donald Trump, positions have hardened,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “And it is interesting to see that his approval ratings have not changed dramatically in the last several months even though it seems like a lot has happened.”

That includes this week’s decision by the president to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, fulfilling yet another campaign pledge from 2016. Trump condemned the deal as “defective at its core.”

Many Democrats disagreed with the president’s action, including Maryland Senator Ben Cardin.

“Withdrawing from the nuclear agreement isolates America, and I think it helps Iran and it works against our objectives to control their type of activities,” Cardin told reporters.

Seeking credit

Trump has long complained that he gets little credit for the strong U.S. economy, and he frequently has lashed out at the news media for what he sees as its preoccupation with the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“So we have the best employment numbers we have virtually ever had. And yet, all we hear about is this phony Russia witch hunt. That is all we hear about,” Trump told an enthusiastic audience of National Rifle Association members recently in Dallas, Texas.

In many surveys, Trump retains the support of 80 to 90 percent of Republican voters, a likely dividend of his relentless efforts to cater to his political base and remind them of campaign promises kept.

Trump often reminds voters about the partisan stakes in this November’s midterm elections and warns about the prospect of a Democratic takeover of Congress.

“The more partisan you are, the more likely you are to be loyally behind Trump and the more likely you are to think that the Democratic Party is posing a threat for America, and consequently when you feel that, then virtually any means are necessary to combat that threat,” said Henry Olsen with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Democratic catalyst

But Brookings Institution expert Bill Galston argued that even with the president’s slight improvement in the polls, Trump remains a catalyst for opposition Democrats.

“President Trump’s job approval remains near historic lows for a first-term president and there are signs that Democrats at the grass roots are highly mobilized and record numbers are showing up and presenting themselves as candidates for office.”

Trump hopes to keep the focus on the domestic economy and North Korea, and away from the Russia probe, the legal problems facing his personal attorney Michael Cohen, and the legal battle over his alleged affair with Daniels.

The president is well aware that any good news credit he can accrue between now and November could help Republicans resist what is expected to be a fierce Democratic campaign in the midterm elections in which control of both the House and Senate is very much in doubt.

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US Looks for Allied Support to Pressure Iran

The U.S. says it is looking for allied support to force Iran into new negotiations over its nuclear weapons development and military advances in the Middle East in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international pact restraining Tehran’s nuclear program.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning discussions with allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in an effort to win their support to pressure Iran to open talks, Reuters reported Thursday. A day earlier, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a congressional hearing the U.S. would “continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and will work with others to address the range of Iran’s malign influence.”

The U.S., according to a senior State Department official, already has started discussions with Britain, France and Germany — three other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal that unsuccessfully lobbied Trump to keep the U.S. in the deal — as well as Japan, Iraq and Israel.

“There will be an effort to go out globally and talk to our partners around the world who share our interests,” the official told Reuters. “That is the first stage. The composition of what happens when we sit down with the Iranians is several stages out.”

The official said the focus of the talks is to increase pressure on Iran “in a way that is constructive and conducive to bringing them to the negotiating table.”

Trump has vowed to soon reimpose economic sanctions against Iran that were ended in 2015 when Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program, and stiffen them in hopes of forcing Iran into new talks. The earlier sanctions had hobbled the Iranian economy, and renewed sanctions could pose more problems.

“Iran will come back and say, ‘We don’t want to negotiate,'” Trump said Wednesday. “And of course they’re going to say that. And if I were in their position, I’d say that, too, for the first couple months: ‘We’re not going to negotiate.'”

“But they’ll negotiate, or something will happen,” Trump said. “And hopefully that won’t be the case.”

The U.S. leader said that if Iran restarts work on nuclear weaponry, there would be a “very severe consequence.”

John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said in an opinion piece Wednesday in The Washington Post that the U.S. believes the Iran deal is a failure because Tehran, with sanctions lifted, used the economic windfall to create military chaos in the Middle East rather than improve the plight of its people.

“Rather than focusing on behaving responsibly, Tehran has poured billions of dollars into military adventures abroad, spreading an arc of death and destruction across the Middle East from Yemen to Syria,” Bolton said. “Meanwhile, the Iranian people have suffered at home from a tanking currency, rising inflation, stagnant wages and a spiraling environmental crisis.”

Bolton said Trump “has been willing to take unconventional action to turn momentum to America’s favor. The Iran deal is not an inescapable trap — it’s merely an inadequate deal that couldn’t withstand serious scrutiny.”

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Pence: Mueller Should ‘Wrap Up’ Russia Probe

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday he thinks it’s time for special counsel Robert Mueller to conclude his criminal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.

Pence told NBC News, “In the interests of the country, I think it’s time to wrap it up.”

There is no indication, however, that Mueller is close to ending his year-long probe. His legal team has been negotiating with Trump’s lawyers over whether the president will sit for an interview and under what terms, such as the topics to be discussed, the length of the questioning and whether Trump would testify under oath.

If no agreement is reached, Mueller has suggested that he could subpoena Trump to testify under oath before a grand jury, which could spark a legal dispute that would have to be decided by the Supreme Court over whether a sitting president can be forced to testify.

“It’s been about a year since this investigation began,” Pence told NBC. “Our administration’s provided over a million documents. We’ve fully cooperated in it.”

Pence added, “I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.”

The vice president was asked about news that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, collected more than $2 million after the 2016 election by promoting himself as someone with access to Trump and someone who could provide insight into the new president’s thinking on policy issues.

But Pence called it a “private matter” and “something I don’t have any knowledge about.”

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Cal’s Teacher Pension Fund Won’t Dump Gun Retailers

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) decided not to divest from Walmart and other retailers that sell guns, but said it would use its financial clout to pressure retailers on their gun policies. 

The pension fund said Wednesday it wants to take a high-profile engagement strategy, and said it plans to hire two lobbyists.

CalSTRS’s board said it could reconsider its decision not to divest from Walmart and other retailers that sell guns if its engagement strategy “fails to achieve an acceptable outcome.”  The board did not say what outcome it was seeking. 

The pension fund invests more than $420 million in retailers, but the majority of the money is invested in Walmart. 

Walmart stopped selling assault weapons at its stores in 2015, and recently bump stocks — a device that can allow a gun to fire at speeds that mimic an automatic weapon.

CalSTRS divested from firearms manufacturers following the 2012 mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

Wednesday’s decision follows a similar announcement by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which opted in March not to divest from retailers that sell assault rifles, saying that divesting from such companies would do little to reduce gun violence. 

California’s Treasurer John Chiang, who is running for governor in next month’s Democratic primary, is leading the push for the state’s pension funds to divest from retailers that sell weapons.

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Russian Firm Tied to ‘Putin’s Cook’ Pleads Not Guilty in US

A Russian company accused by U.S. prosecutors of funding a propaganda operation to tilt the 2016 presidential election in President Donald Trump’s favor and stir disharmony in the United States pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court.

Concord Management and Consulting LLC is one of three entities and 13 Russian individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in February in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the U.S. race, boost Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The indictment said Concord is controlled by Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia’s military and political establishment.

The indictment said Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw the activities of the propaganda campaign.

Prigozhin, also personally charged by Mueller, has been dubbed “Putin’s cook” by Russian media because his catering business has organized banquets for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures. He has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. government.

“We plead not guilty. We exercise the right to a speedy trial,” the company’s U.S.-based defense lawyer Eric Dubelier said during the arraignment before Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey, who scheduled a May 16 status hearing.

Another business entity that prosecutors said was controlled by Prigozhin, Concord Catering, was named in the indictment, along with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm.

Dubelier told the court he was not authorized to represent Concord Catering, adding that prosecutors had indicted a “proverbial ham sandwich” because the entity did not exist during the time the alleged misconduct occurred.

Mueller’s indictment said the Russian defendants adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, traveled to the United States to collect intelligence and orchestrated political rallies while posing as Americans. Moscow has denied meddling in the election.

Mueller also is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, calling Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt.”

Russia does not have an extradition agreement with the United States, making it difficult to apprehend the Russian defendants.

As expected, no corporate representatives for Concord or any of the other corporate defendants appeared in court.

“Alas, they are not here,” prosecutor Jeannie Rhee said. “The government would be thrilled if they were here.”

Mueller’s office tried unsuccessfully to win a delay in the arraignment, saying it was unsure if Dubelier and another U.S. lawyer hired by Concord Management and Consulting were authorized to represent the company because the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia declined to accept a court summons.

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