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Trump Announces Ramped Up Counternarcotics Operations During Coronavirus Briefing

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  • At the top of Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing, President Trump announced plans to double U.S military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to ramp up efforts against drug cartels.
  • The operation is also viewed as part of increased pushes to add strain on Venezuela’s leader Nicolás Maduro, who the U.S does not recognize as the country’s legitimate president. 
  • CNN and MSNBC cut away from the briefing during the announcement after considering it off-topic, with some reporters criticizing Trump for abusing the pandemic briefings for other political measures. 

Announcement 

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. is enhancing its focus on drug cartels and counternarcotics operations in an unusual start to the White House’s daily coronavirus press briefings. 

“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit this situation for their own gain, and we must not let that happen. We will never let that happen,” the President said. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the U.S. was doubling military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to combat the flow of illicit drugs.

“Included in the force package are Navy destroyers and combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft and elements of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade,” Esper added.

President Trump explained that the U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption and seizures of drug shipments, and provide other support for eradication efforts. He also said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations. 

Pressure on Venezuela 

The timing of the announcement came as a bit of a surprise since the coronavirus briefings are usually dedicated to the pandemic response efforts, but officials drew a link between the spreading virus and the new military operation. 

Esper said criminal organizations are trying to capitalize on the fact that governments are distracted by the outbreak. He suggested that deploying the military vessels and ramping up pressure on cartels is also meant to put added strain on Venezuela’s embattled leader Nicolás Maduro. 

The United States and dozens of other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president after considering Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham. Still, Maduro has remained in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, and Cuba.

“Corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power,” Esper said. “The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro’s criminal control over the country.”

But experts say the enhanced mission has been months in the making as the U.S. increases efforts to oust Maduro. Last week, the U.S. indicted him on charges including drug trafficking while offering a $15 million reward for his arrest and conviction. And on Tuesday, the Trump administration even offered to begin lifting sanctions on the country if the opposition and members of Maduro’s Socialist Party form an interim government without him.

After President Trump announced his new anti-drug efforts, Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, said the operation was an attempt to divert attention from the U.S. government’s “erratic handling of the coronavirus crisis.” However, he added, “if it is a serious effort to stop drug trafficking, we are willing to collaborate.” 

Networks Turn Away During Announcement 

According to Deadline, CNN and MSNBC each turned their broadcasts away as Trump made the announcement. It was reported that the networks found it off-topic, especially as Trump began to talk about the construction of the wall along the southern border.  

CNN’s John King seemed annoyed by the timing of the announcement, accusing Trump of abusing the briefings for other measures during a time when American’s are learning that 200,000 could die from the virus.

“When you are an incumbent president, to bring that into a briefing in the middle of a pandemic, the day after the incredibly sobering news the administration rightfully delivered to the American people yesterday, is shameless and it’s political.”

“The president has other opportunities to do this. There are 24 hours in a day. He has all the buildings of the government still at his disposal,” he continued. 

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd shared similar criticism, saying “If President Trump had important coronavirus news to tell us, it must not have trumped this.”

Both networks eventually returned to the briefing once the focus shifted solely to the pandemic, however, each broke away again before it ended. 

Some networks and journalists have been debating in recent weeks whether or not they should be airing the briefings live. They argue that at times, the President has used rhetoric seen in his campaign rallies and often dispells inaccurate information that is impossible to fact check in real-time. 

On the other side, some have said cutting briefings amounts to censorship. The networks have already faced backlash from White House officials and the Republican National Comittee for previous times they have cut away. 

See what others are saying: (Deadline) (Bloomberg) (Reuters)  

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Celebrities, Tech Companies, and Others Draw Attention to National Voter Registration Day

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  • Celebrities including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ryan Reynolds, John Legend, and others took to social media to encourage their fans to register to vote in recognition of National Voter Registration Day.
  • Social media companies themselves have also launched their own efforts to get Americans to register. 
  • Facebook said Monday it has already registered 2.5 million people, but many say Facebook’s efforts do not go far enough and that people should be suspicious of its motives.

National Voter Registration Day

Thousands of businesses, election officials, celebrities, and others joined together Tuesday for National Voter Registration Day, a non-partisan campaign to register Americans to vote.

“National Voter Registration Day seeks to create broad awareness of voter registration opportunities to reach tens of thousands of voters who may not register otherwise,” the official website for National Voter Registration Day states.“Every year millions of Americans find themselves unable to vote because they miss a registration deadline, don’t update their registration, or aren’t sure how to register.”

The annual campaign has been highly successful in the past. According to the website, since the event first started in 2012, “nearly 3 million voters across all 50 states have registered to vote on National Voter Registration Day, including 1.3 million in 2018-2019 alone.”

But there is still a lot of work to be done. Nearly one in every four eligible Americans are currently not registered to vote, and as the campaign pointed out in a statement, “this year, due to COVID-19, voter registration is more important than ever.”

“Because of the closure of DMVs and halting of voter registration field programs amid the pandemic, the number of new and updated voter registrations collected across the country has fallen dramatically since March,” the statement continued.

To combat that, partners and community groups are hosting “both digital voter registration drives and safe, in-person registration events,” in addition to “working to provide accurate information to voters on how to prepare to cast a ballot, either through mail-in voting, early in-person voting, or going to the polls on Election Day.”

Celebrities Promote Campaign

Many partner organizations took to social media to promote the event Tuesday, as well as celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Katy Perry, Kesha, John Legend, and more.

“This National Voter Registration Day, research the voting rights in your state and make a plan to vote,” Legend wrote on Twitter. “By making your voice heard at the polls, you can determine the future of our country’s criminal justice system.” 

Taylor Swift, who, accordiong to vote.org, inspired 65,000 people to register to vote in in 2018, also shared the campaign and emphasized its importance in an Instagram story.

“Hey guys, it’s National Voter Registration Day today. The election is November 3rd. It’s really coming up, and I’ve put together a swipe-up of resources,” the singer said. “You can register if you’re a first-time voter, you can check your registration, you can request an absentee ballot, you can figure out the process of voting early. We need everyone, and it is more important than I can even possibly say.”

Facebook’s Voter Registration Efforts

In addition to celebrities joining in on the campaign on social media, most of the major social media platforms themselves also took part.

Earlier this week, Twitter said it would roll out its biggest push yet to get people to register on Tuesday. Facebook, for its part, already begun its efforts even before National Voter Registration Day.

On Monday, the company said in a statement that estimated it has already helped 2.5 million people register to vote this year through Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger — already more than the 2 million it registered in 2016 and 2018. With just over a month until the election, the platform seems it is well on its way to completing its goal of registering 4 million people by the election. 

As part of its efforts to meet that goal and others, Facebook has implemented a number of initiatives. In August, the company launched a “voting information center” with resources about voting on Facebook and Instagram. 

Last weekend, it held a poll worker recruitment drive and announced it would be giving paid time off its U.S.-based employees who want to work at the polls. Just over this past weekend, Facebook also started providing users with information about how to register to vote at the top of Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. 

The platform has also done a number of things internally to prepare for the election. Earlier this month, it announced several changes it had made to fight against voting misinformation, most notably including not running new political ads the week before the election.

While some say these moves by Facebook are commendable, many have believe they fall short. Others have even said we should be suspect of Facebook’s motives.

“Corporations are political entities, and we should not assume that platform voter registration campaigns are being done with only public good in mind and aren’t also strategic,” Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies social media, told USA Today. 

“Social media companies have a lot at stake right now as they face increasing regulation. Their efforts to register voters could be serving corporate goals, and we need to make sure they are not strategically registering voters in a way that could skew the election.” 

Facebook and the Election

Facebook’s recent voter registration efforts also come as the company is receiving significant public pressure to do more ahead of the election.

Last week, numerous celebrities including Kim Kardashian-West, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lawrence, and others boycotted Instagram and Facebook for 24 hours to demand the company do more to address misinformation and hate speech as part of the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign.

That campaign also led major boycotts against Facebook back in July by persuading huge companies like Mircosoft, Adidas, Ford, Coca-Cola, and more to temporarily halt their spending on the platform.

Despite all the mounting pressure, it is still unclear if Facebook will take any drastic steps.

During an interview with the Financial Times on Tuesday, Facebook’s Head of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said that the company will take serious steps to “restrict the circulation of content” on the platform if the presidential election descends into widespread chaos or violent unrest.

While Clegg did not provide any specifics, he did say the company had plans for a variety of outcomes, including civic unrest or having in-person votes counted faster than mail-in ballots.

While the country prepares for what is widely expected to be an incredibly contentious race, many worry that Facebook is not doing enough to prevent unrest, violence, and the misinformation in the lead up to Nov. 3rd.

As far as if Facebook will heed the demands that it do more before the election, that remains to be unseen.

“As well as fighting a rising tide of misinformation from both foreign and domestic operatives, experts warn that Facebook must prevent the platform from being used to foment violence,” The Times wrote.

“Mr. Clegg said Facebook was carrying out ‘proactive sweeps’ for dangerous groups and incitement, including ‘in areas where we know that their activity is likely to be more pronounced in other parts of the country.’” 

See what others are saying: (USA Today) (The Financial Times) (Billboard)

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Pentagon Redirected Coronavirus Response Funds to Defense Contractors, WaPo Reports

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  • In March, Congress gave the Pentagon $1 billion under the Cares Act to help the country prepare and respond to the coronavirus. 
  • However, according to a Washington Post report, rather than using the money to build up the nation’s supply of medical equipment, the Pentagon funneled the majority of the funds to defense contractors and used it for making things like jet engine parts, body armor, and dress uniforms. It even gave funds to companies that had already received assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program.
  • The report comes as healthcare officials continue to ask for more funding and medical equipment. Congress even criticized the Defense Department for not using the money as intended. 
  • Still, the Pentagon argues that the funds are crucial to niche manufacturers that have been impacted by the pandemic. It’s also asking for an additional $11 billion in the next stimulus package.

The Funds 

The Washington Post released a new report Tuesday highlighting how the Pentagon redirected taxpayer money meant for coronavirus response efforts.

Back in March, Congress gave the Pentagon $1 billion under the Cares Act to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”  The fund was allocated under the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to compel U.S. companies to assist in producing items deemed essential to the national interest. 

After the money was allocated, however, the Department of Defense began reshaping how it would give out the funds in a way that deviated from what Congress had intended. Lawyers for the department concluded that the money could be used for defense production, including projects that had little to do with responding to the pandemic.

So rather than use that money to build up the nation’s supply of medical equipment, the report says the Pentagon funneled the majority of the funds to defense contractors and used it for making things like jet engine parts, body armor, and dress uniforms. 

For example, Firms like Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal received $183 million to “maintain the shipbuilding industry.” Tens of millions of dollars were given for space surveillance, drone and satellite technology.

According to the Post, $80 million was given to a Kansas aircraft parts business that was “suffering from the Boeing 737 Max groundings and the global shutdown of air travel,” and around $2 million was awarded to a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric. 

The newspaper also reported that at least 10 of the 30 companies that received assistance from the Defense Department had also received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. That program allocated billions of dollars in forgivable loans to the small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

This news made critics even more frustrated because it seemed to once again show how bailout funds have been handed out unfairly in certain sectors of the economy. 

For instance, the company Weber Metals received between $5 million and $10 million through the PPP in April to support 412 jobs, then it got an extra boost through a $25 million Department of Defense relief award in June. 

When pressed about this, a Defense Department spokesperson told the paper that the two bailout programs are not “in conflict or duplicative,” because a PPP loan does not make any directive with respect to supporting national defense.

Still, the Post notes that the Trump administration has done little to limit defense firms from accessing multiple bailout funds at once. He’s also not requiring the companies to refrain from layoffs as a condition of receiving the awards.

COVID Relief Money Still Needed 

This news comes as health officials across the U.S. continue to request funding for pandemic response efforts. In his Senate testimony just last week, CDC director Robert Redfield said states desperately need $6 billion to distribute vaccines to Americans early next year. On top of that, reports of severe N95 mask shortages at hospitals around the country have continued to emerge. Both are precisely the types of issues that the money was meant to help address.

The Washington Post notes that the $1 billion is just a fraction of the $3 trillion in emergency spending that Congress approved earlier this year. Still, it shows how in many cases, the money is redirected to firms that weren’t originally targetted for assistance. 

It also shows how hard it is for Congres to track how this money is spent and intervene when changes are made. 

The Pentagon did initially plan to spend the bulk of the fund on medical supplies. In April, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters that three-quarters would go toward medical resources and the rest to defense contractors.

Then in June, she told lawmakers during a congressional hearing that the department realized defense contractors had “critical needs as well.”

According to the report, DOD lawyers approved an arrangement where some $17 billion in Health and Human Services funding would be used for the medical industry instead, freeing up more money for defense contractors. Ultimately, the Pentagon presented a spending plan to Congress in June that set aside $688 million for the defense industry.

So essentially the Defense Department claims that the funds are crucial to niche manufacturers that need production from the economic instability caused by the pandemic. Like companies that make aircraft parts for military and commercial jets, for instance. They’ve been pretty impacted by the slowdown of air travel. 

Lord told the Post that her office had worked closely with Congress to meet the needs of both the medical and defense industries.

“We are thankful the Congress provided authorities and resources that enabled the [executive branch] to invest in domestic production of critical medical resources and protect key defense capabilities from the consequences of COVID,” she added.

“We need to always remember that economic security and national security are very tightly interrelated and our industrial base is really the nexus of the two.”

However, the Democratic-leading House Committee on Appropriations has made it clear that the Defense Department has not distributed the money as intended under the Cares Act.

The committee wrote in its report on the 2021 defense bill, “The Committee’s expectation was that the Department would address the need for PPE industrial capacity rather than execute the funding for the DIB (defense industrial base).”

The Pentagon has countered that it has been fully transparent with Congress about its plans.  Still, the Post notes that the $1 billion in coronavirus funds came at a time when U.S. military spending was already near all-time highs.

According to the report, “the $686 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2019 is comparable to a typical year during the Cold War or the period shortly after 9/11, although it has declined somewhat as a percentage of the economy.”

It also notes that some of the major defense contractors have remained financially healthy despite all the pandemic related disruptions and have continued to pay stock dividends to investors.

Though its already given out millions, the Pentagon is requesting an additional  $11 billion in a potential new stimulus.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (The Hill) 

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Government Documents Reportedly Show Some of the World’s Biggest Banks Moving Illicit Funds

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  • Reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detailed findings from leaked government documents which found that some of the biggest global banks moved money for criminal networks and profited from doing so.
  • The documents they drew from are known as suspicious activity reports. Very few of those reports have ever been publicized, but this leak contained 2,100 of them.
  • According to BuzzFeed, the reports revealed that major lenders like JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank moved than $2 trillion in suspicious transactions between 1999 and 2017. 
  • BuzzFeed alleged that most banks could have stopped the transactions, but they often kept the money moving to collect fees and profit off the illicit funds “while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins.”
  • For the most part, banks cannot legally comment on these reports, but in statements responding to the story, many claimed to have made significant improvements to their abilities to fight financial crimes. 

BuzzFeed News’ SAR Bombshell

Some of the biggest banks in the world have helped suspected terrorists, drug cartels, rogue states, and other criminal networks move trillions of dollars, according to new reports published Sunday by BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The reports detail findings from thousands of leaked government documents called suspicious activity reports (SARs). Those reports, which banks are required to file if they suspect their clients of engaging in money laundering, fraud, or other illegal activity, are sent to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), an agency housed in the Treasury Department that is tasked with combating financial crimes.

FinCEN collects millions of SARs each year and sends them to law enforcement agencies all over the world. Notably, the SARs themselves do not provide evidence of wrongdoing, and the agency does not require banks to stop doing business with clients it flagged in SARs.

The investigative pieces by BuzzFeed and the ICIJ, which have been dubbed the FinCEN Files, provide an incredibly significant look into the secretive banking reports. As BuzzFeed notes, very few SARs had ever been revealed to the public prior to their reporting.

“The FinCEN Files encompass more than 2,100,” the outlet wrote, adding that the FinCEN Files “offer an unprecedented view of global financial corruption, the banks enabling it, and the government agencies that watch as it flourishes.”

According to BuzzFeed, in all, the SARs they reviewed “flagged more than $2 trillion in transactions between 1999 and 2017. Western banks could have blocked almost any of them, but in most cases they kept the money moving and kept collecting their fees.”

“[The] huge trove of secretive government documents eveals for the first time how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions, enriching themselves and their shareholders while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins,” the article said. “And the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

Specific Examples

Regarding the government response, BuzzFeed writes: “In the rare instances when the US government does crack down on banks, it often relies on sweetheart deals called deferred prosecution agreements, which include fines but no high-level arrests.”

“Laws that were meant to stop financial crime have instead allowed it to flourish,” the report continued. “So long as a bank files a notice that it may be facilitating criminal activity, it all but immunizes itself and its executives from criminal prosecution. The suspicious activity alert effectively gives them a free pass to keep moving the money and collecting the fees.”

“Banks often get to the end of their agreement without actually fixing the problems. Then, instead of getting the prosecution that they had been threatened with, they just get another chance. And sometimes another.”

BuzzFeed then goes on to explicitly flag five banks, writing that its investigation “shows that even after they were prosecuted or fined for financial misconduct, banks such as JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of New York Mellon continued to move money for suspected criminals.”

BuzzFeed mentions a number of examples regarding those banks. One of the most outstanding instances concerned Standard Chartered, which BuzzFeed said moved money for a Dubai-based business called Al Zarooni “that was later accused of laundering cash on behalf of the Taliban.” 

During the years that Al Zarooni was a Standard Chartered customer, “Taliban militants staged violent attacks that killed civilians and soldiers.”

The report also says the SARs BuzzFeed accessed showed that HSBC’s Hong Kong branch, “allowed WCM777, a Ponzi scheme, to move more than $15 million even as the business was being barred from operating in three states.”

That scam stole at least $80 million from investors, most of whom were Latino and Asian immigrants. According to authorities, the company’s owner “used the looted funds to buy two golf courses, a 7,000-square-foot mansion, a 39.8-carat diamond, and mining rights in Sierra Leone.”

In addition to those two banks, the outlet also reported that “Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, American Express, and others collectively processed millions of dollars in transactions” for the family of the former mayor of Kazakhstan’s most populous city, who was later convicted of “bribe-taking and defrauding the city through the sale of public property.”

BuzzFeed claimed that those banks continued to process those transactions “even after Interpol issued a Red Notice for his arrest.” 

Separately on Sunday, NBC News, which also viewed the same SARs, published an article claiming the documents showed that “North Korea carried out an elaborate money laundering scheme for years using a string of shell companies and help from Chinese companies, moving money through prominent banks in New York.”

“The suspected laundering by North Korea-linked organizations amounted to more than $174.8 million over several years, with transactions cleared through U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase and the Bank of New York Mellon,” NBC added, noting that this occurred at the same time the U.S. had put strict economic sanctions against the country in place.

Response From Banks & FinCEN

FinCEN has not released any statements since the reports came out, but it does appear they knew the exposé was coming.

In a statement published Sept. 1, the agency said it was “aware that various media outlets intend to publish a series of articles based on unlawfully disclosed (SARs).”

“The unauthorized disclosure of SARs is a crime that can impact the national security of the United States, compromise law enforcement investigations, and threaten the safety and security of the institutions and individuals who file such reports,” it added.

FinCEN also seemed to respond to reports that the SARs would be leaked by doing early damage control. On Sept. 17, just days before media outlets prepared to publish the documents, the agency published another statement announcing plans for a huge overhaul of national anti-money laundering rules.

Many of the banks mentioned by BuzzFeed have also responded to the article in a series of lengthy statements where each lender reiterated the fact that they cannot legally comment on SARs. They also noted that they have made improvements over the years when it comes to fighting financial crimes and money laundering. 

Regarding the release of the SARs themselves, BuzzFeed says it would not publish them because “they contain information about people or companies that are not under suspicion,” and added that some of the documents will be published later with redactions “to support reporting in specific stories.”

Currently, it is unclear if these bombshell reports will move the needle when it comes to reforms and overhauls. 

“If the government wanted to, experts in financial crime say, it could stop the dirty money coursing through the big banks, as well as the vast array of criminal activity it funds,” BuzzFeed wrote. 

Reforms that could be made, according to the outlet, include greater public accountability, arresting and prosecuting executives whose banks break the law, and requiring companies “to disclose their owners to the Treasury Department, rather than allowing people to hide behind a shell company.”

Additionally, while these reports are likely some of the biggest insights into SARs ever made public, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The FinCEN Files represent less than 0.02% of the more than 12 million suspicious activity reports that financial institutions filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017,” ICIJ noted in their version of the publication.

What’s more, in the last two years alone, FinCEN received “more than 2 million SARs” according to BuzzFeed.

“That number has nearly doubled over the past decade, as financial institutions have faced mounting pressure to file and the volume of international transactions has grown,” the outlet added. “Over the same period, FinCEN’s staff has shrunk by more than 10%. Sources there say most SARs are never even read, let alone acted upon.”

With that information in mind, the big question then becomes: will there be pressure from the public?

Even if it does, as The New York Times points out, it is unclear if that pressure would outweigh the sway big banks have on the government. 

“Recently, banks have pushed Congress to relieve them of some of their anti-money-laundering responsibilities,” The Times reported. “They say they are so worried about the legal consequences of failing to report suspicious activities that they err on the side of over-reporting transactions.”

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (The New York Times) (Business Insider)

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