We can’t trust Facebook to regulate itself

Sandy Parakilas writes: I led Facebook’s efforts to fix privacy problems on its developer platform in advance of its 2012 initial public offering. What I saw from the inside was a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse. As the world contemplates what to do about Facebook in the wake of its role in Russia’s election meddling, it must consider this history. Lawmakers shouldn’t allow Facebook to regulate itself. Because it won’t.

Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.

The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place. [Continue reading…]

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Top Russian official tried to broker ‘backdoor’ meeting between Trump and Putin

The New York Times reports: A senior Russian official who claimed to be acting at the behest of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia tried in May 2016 to arrange a meeting between Mr. Putin and Donald J. Trump, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The news of this reached the Trump campaign in a very circuitous way. An advocate for Christian causes emailed campaign aides saying that Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who has been linked both to Russia’s security services and organized crime, had proposed a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. The subject line of the email, turned over to Senate investigators, read, “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to one person who has seen the message.

The proposal made its way to the senior levels of the Trump campaign before Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top campaign aide, sent a message to top campaign officials rejecting it, according to two people who have seen Mr. Kushner’s message.

Though the meeting never happened, Mr. Torshin’s request is the latest example of how the Russian government intensified its effort to contact and influence the Trump campaign last year as Mr. Trump was closing in on the Republican presidential nomination. It came just weeks after a self-described intermediary for the Russian government told a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, that the Russians had “dirt” on Mr. Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, in the form of “thousands of emails.”

Soon after Mr. Torshin’s outreach fizzled, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, arranged a meeting at Trump Tower after being told that a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin would bring damaging information about Mrs. Clinton to the meeting. [Continue reading…]

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Al Franken should be investigated, and he should be held accountable

Ezra Klein writes: The allegation that Sen. Al Franken kissed and groped a woman with whom he was performing a comedy skit is serious, and should be taken seriously. It has also kicked off an energetic round of but-your-side-does-it-too on Twitter, where conservatives exhausted by the Roy Moore debacle of recent weeks are demanding that Democrats disavow Franken.

There are a couple of things to say about all this, but I want to start with this tweet by FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten:


1) The Democratic Party is full of men who have sexually abused women. The Republican Party is full of men who have sexually abused women. The mass of Americans who belong to neither party is full of men who have sexually abused women. Peer into socialist circles, libertarian circles, tech circles, media circles, the construction trades — you will find men who have sexually abused women. America has allowed a culture of sexual abuse and harassment to flourish, and all of our industries and political parties exist within that culture. This is a systemic rot, not merely a few bad apples. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner got emails about WikiLeaks, Russia in 2016, lawmakers say

Politico reports: Jared Kushner received emails in September 2016 about WikiLeaks and about a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite” and forwarded them to another campaign official, according to a letter to his attorney from the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Kushner failed to turn over the relevant documents when they asked for them last month.

“We appreciate your voluntary cooperation with the Committee’s investigation, but the production appears to have been incomplete,” the pair wrote in a letter dated Thursday to Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell.

Lowell said in a statement that he and Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, had been responsive to the requests.

“We provided the Judiciary Committee with all relevant documents that had to do with Mr. Kushner’s calls, contacts or meetings with Russians during the campaign and transition, which was the request,” Lowell said, adding that he and Kushner had also told the committee they would be open to additional requests for information.

In a section of the letter titled “Missing documents,” Grassley and Feinstein said Kushner had handed over some materials but omitted communications that mentioned some of the people connected to the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“If, as you suggest, Mr. Kushner was unaware of, for example, any attempts at Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, then presumably there would be few communications concerning many of the persons identified,” the lawmakers wrote.

Grassley and Feinstein also alluded to documents they received from other witnesses on which Kushner was copied. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s nuclear authority divides senators alarmed by his ‘volatile’ behavior

The Washington Post reports: Senators trying to prevent President Trump from launching an unprovoked nuclear attack were stymied Tuesday, after a panel of experts warned them against rewriting laws to restrain a commander in chief many worry is impulsive and unpredictable enough to start a devastating international crisis.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has said Trump’s threats to global rivals could put the country “on the path to World War III,” began Tuesday’s session warning of the inherent danger in a system where the president has “sole authority” to give launch orders there are “no way to revoke.”

By the time Corker emerged from the hearing — the first to address the president’s nuclear authority in over four decades — he was at a loss for what to do next. “I do not see a legislative solution today,” Corker told reporters. “That doesn’t mean, over the course of the next several months, one might not develop, but I don’t see it today.”

Trump’s shifting posture on how to address nuclear threats has made lawmakers in both parties uneasy, particularly as the crisis over North Korea’s ambitions escalates. [Continue reading…]

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Sessions again changes his account of what he knew about Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians

The Washington Post reports: Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday again revised his account of what he knew about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians, acknowledging for the first time that he recalled a meeting where a foreign policy adviser mentioned having contacts who could possibly broker a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he now remembered adviser George Papadopoulos saying in March 2016 that he knew people who might be able to help arrange a Trump-Putin meeting.

When Sessions was asked last month whether he thought surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, he said, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”

But at Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions said his memory had been refreshed.

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions told lawmakers. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government, for that matter.” [Continue reading…]

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Sessions insists ‘factual basis’ will determine appointment of counsel, not Trump

The New York Times reports: President Trump did not need to send a memo or telephone his attorney general to make his desires known. He broadcast them for all the world to see on Twitter. The instruction was clear: The Justice Department should investigate his defeated opponent from last year’s campaign.

However they were delivered, Mr. Trump’s demands have ricocheted through the halls of the Justice Department, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now ordered senior prosecutors to evaluate various accusations against Hillary Clinton and report back on whether a special counsel should be appointed.

Mr. Sessions has made no decision, and in soliciting the assessment of department lawyers, he may be seeking a way out of the bind his boss has put him. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, he pushed back against Republicans impatient for a special counsel. But if he or his deputy ultimately does authorize a new investigation of Mrs. Clinton, it would shatter post-Watergate norms intended to prevent presidents from using law enforcement agencies against political rivals.

The request alone was enough to incite a political backlash, as critics of Mr. Trump quickly denounced what they called “banana republic” politics of retribution, akin to autocratic nations where election losers are jailed by winners.

“You can be disappointed, but don’t be surprised,” said Karen Dunn, a former prosecutor and White House lawyer under President Barack Obama who advised Mrs. Clinton during her campaign. “This is exactly what he said he would do: use taxpayer resources to pursue political rivals.” [Continue reading…]

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House declares U.S. military role in Yemen’s civil war unauthorized

Politico reports: In a rare exercise of its war-making role, the House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly passed a resolution explicitly stating that U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen is not authorized under legislation passed by Congress to fight terrorism or invade Iraq.

The nonbinding resolution adopted 366-30, does not call for a halt to the American support but publicly acknowledges the Pentagon has been sharing targeting information and refueling warplanes that Saudi Arabia and other allies are using to attack Houthi rebels in a conflict that is widely considered a proxy war with Iran — and a humanitarian disaster.

It states, in part, that U.S. military operations are authorized to fight only Al Qaeda and other allied terrorist groups in Yemen, not Shiite Muslim rebels.

“To date,” the resolution says, “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorizing the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war that are not otherwise subject to” the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force or the 2003 AUMF in Iraq.

While mostly symbolic, the House vote was seen as a key victory for members of both parties who believe Congress, which is relegated the power to declare war in the Constitution, needs to reauthorize U.S. military operations overseas, which have expanded to many more countries and conflicts than envisioned a decade and half ago when Congress last voted for the use of force. [Continue reading…]

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Trump judicial pick did not disclose he is married to a White House lawyer

The New York Times reports: One of President Trump’s most controversial judicial nominees did not disclose on publicly available congressional documents that he is married to a senior lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office.

The nominee, Brett J. Talley, is awaiting a Senate confirmation vote that could come as early as Monday to become a federal district judge in Alabama. He is married to Ann Donaldson, the chief of staff to the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II.

Mr. Talley was asked on his publicly released Senate questionnaire to identify family members and others who are “likely to present potential conflicts of interest.” He did not mention his wife.

District judges often provide the first ruling when laws are called into question, decisions that can put them at odds with the White House and its lawyers. Last month, for example, judges in Hawaii and Maryland temporarily blocked Mr. Trump’s travel ban.

Mr. Talley also did not mention his wife when he described his frequent contact with White House lawyers during the nomination process.

Democrats have strongly criticized the nomination of Mr. Talley, a 36-year-old who has never tried a case and who received a rare “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. His nomination advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday on a party-line vote. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is rapidly reshaping the judiciary. Here’s how

The New York Times reports: In the weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, lawyers joining his administration gathered at a law firm near the Capitol, where Donald F. McGahn II, the soon-to-be White House counsel, filled a white board with a secret battle plan to fill the federal appeals courts with young and deeply conservative judges.

Mr. McGahn, instructed by Mr. Trump to maximize the opportunity to reshape the judiciary, mapped out potential nominees and a strategy, according to two people familiar with the effort: Start by filling vacancies on appeals courts with multiple openings and where Democratic senators up for re-election next year in states won by Mr. Trump — like Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania — could be pressured not to block his nominees. And to speed them through confirmation, avoid clogging the Senate with too many nominees for the district courts, where legal philosophy is less crucial.

Nearly a year later, that plan is coming to fruition. Mr. Trump has already appointed eight appellate judges, the most this early in a presidency since Richard M. Nixon, and on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send a ninth appellate nominee — Mr. Trump’s deputy White House counsel, Gregory Katsas — to the floor.

Republicans are systematically filling appellate seats they held open during President Barack Obama’s final two years in office with a particularly conservative group of judges with life tenure. Democrats — who in late 2013 abolished the ability of 41 lawmakers to block such nominees with a filibuster, then quickly lost control of the Senate — have scant power to stop them. [Continue reading…]

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America, I apologize for the South’s hypocrisy

Issac Bailey writes: As a native Southerner, I’d like to apologize to the rest of the country. My region repeatedly claims that we place God above all else, but our actions tell a different story, especially when we mix religion, politics and the mistreatment of women and girls. We have politicians who feel no compunction, even, misusing the story of a sacred virgin birth to ignore child molestation.

“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner Thursday, in an attempt to defend Roy Moore, a candidate for the US Senate from Alabama, after a damning story about Moore’s alleged past was published by the Washington Post. “They became parents of Jesus,” Zeigler added.

Such assertions of support are likely why a man like Moore felt comfortable enough to fund-raise just hours later — while boldly proclaiming the name of God.

That’s right. A man in a high-profile political race representing the supposed “family values” party, after being named in an eye-popping report alleging that when he was a 32-year-old man he tried to have a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl, not only did not drop out of the race or hide in shame, he doubled down. Moore denied the allegations and evoked the term “spiritual warfare,” which is well known in Southern Christian churches, black and white, to elicit as much sympathy from the faithful as possible.

“The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me,” Moore pronounced in an email to supporters asking for emergency donations. “Their goal is to frustrate and slow down our campaign’s progress to help the Obama-Clinton Machine silence our conservative message. That’s why I must be able to count on the help of God-fearing conservatives like you to stand with me at this critical moment.”

Moore plans to weather this political storm with help from the same God-fearing conservatives who made sure Donald Trump remained on a path to the presidency after being caught on video bragging about sexually assaulting women. And there’s no reason Moore won’t survive it, for in our region, in the eyes of many conservative Christians, the only evil greater than Satan himself is a Democrat with political power. Increasingly, little else seems to matter. [Continue reading…]

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The Republican Party is now a freak show with Steve Bannon its ringleader

Jennifer Rubin writes: [Republican Senate candidate Roy] Moore, Stephen K. Bannon’s first endorsed candidate, was already thought to be in an unusually competitive race. Now his candidacy seems doomed, and the GOP is left without a viable “R” on the ballot.

This miserable state of affairs, in addition to the personal harm to the victims, would not have come about, of course, had the Republicans primary voters of Alabama rejected someone with overtly racists and extreme views whose contempt for the Constitution led to two dismissals from the bench. He quite simply should never have been the nominee, and Republicans who subsequently backed him were once more placing party over country and Constitution.

Bannon did not create Moore, but he found him and backed him, disregarding (embracing, even) Moore’s views. Bannon’s brand of incendiary politics and nihilism doesn’t believe in qualifications, experience or mental stability; the wackier the better. Perhaps this sordid episode will undercut his plan to run freakish candidates in GOP primaries.

The Republicans Party stumbles now from one crisis to the next, never learning that vetting candidates, demanding qualifications and rejecting bizarre characters is mandatory. The alternative is a trail of humiliating defeats. The impression of untrustworthy amateur is now firmly affixed to Trump’s GOP. [Continue reading…]

Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler was interviewed by the Washington Examiner: “He’s clean as a hound’s tooth,” Ziegler claimed, before relying on Scripture to defend Moore.

“Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist,” Ziegler said choosing his words carefully before invoking Christ. “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

“There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here,” Ziegler concluded. “Maybe just a little bit unusual.” [Continue reading…]

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Criticized for ship holdings, Commerce Secretary Ross owns more than previously known and the deals continue

APM Reports reports: Six years ago, Wilbur Ross thought investing in ships would create valuable financial assets. Today, they’ve become risky political liabilities.

One shipping company is in a partnership with Russia, and another that the U.S. Commerce secretary partially owned is tied to China’s largest sovereign wealth fund. His chief of staff served on both boards. Now U.S. senators are calling for an investigation, and ethics experts demand he divest to prevent his policy decisions from being influenced by his business interests.

Ross won’t say how many ships he owns, and government disclosure laws give him the choice to keep the information secret.

An APM Reports investigation reveals Ross has financial ties to 36 previously undisclosed ships that are spread among at least nine companies. Combined with the Russia-tied company — Navigator Holdings Ltd. — Ross has a financial interest in at least 75 ships, most of which move oil and gas products across the globe. The value of those ships stands to grow as Ross negotiates trade deals on behalf of the U.S. and advises on U.S. infrastructure policy. And one fund linked to Ross was still buying and selling ships after Ross was confirmed as Commerce secretary. [Continue reading…]

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The Saudi royal purge — with Trump’s consent

Robin Wright writes: The Trump Administration supports the sweeping changes that have redefined the kingdom—and the royal family—over the past two years. En route to Asia, just hours before the purge on Saturday, the President spoke with the king from Air Force One to praise him and the Crown Prince for making statements on “the need to build a moderate, peaceful, and tolerant region,” which is “essential to ensuring a hopeful future for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating radical ideology—once and for all—so the world can be safe from its evil,” the White House reported in an unusually detailed statement.

Trump also said that he is personally trying to convince the kingdom to list the first offering of shares in Aramco—one of the world’s most important oil companies—on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. “It will be perhaps the biggest going-public ever,” Trump told the reporters flying with him. “Right now, they’re not looking at it, because of litigation, risk and other risk, which is very sad.”

Trump did not mention the risk involved in listing the shares in the U.S. but they include the prospect that any Saudi assets in the United States could be seized as a result of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) passed by Congress, in 2016. It allowed the families of 9/11 victims to pursue a civil suit against Saudi Arabia—in a lower Manhattan court—for alleged involvement in the plot. If there is a verdict against the kingdom, the law would also allow a judge to freeze the kingdom’s assets in the United States to pay for any penalties that the court awards.

“That means Saudi Arabia would be extremely vulnerable for listings on the New York Stock Exchange,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon, and National Security Council staffer, told me. “And they know that.”

Ironically, Trump supported the JASTA bill—and condemned President Obama for vetoing it. “Obama’s veto of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is shameful and will go down as one of the low points of his Presidency,” Trump said, during the campaign. Congress overturned Obama’s veto—the only time Congress ever overrode him, and in his final months in office. Trump, now, is critical of the bill.

As part of its lobbying efforts against the bill, Saudi Arabia spent more than a quarter of a million dollars at Trump’s new hotel in Washington—for lodging, catering and parking—the Wall Street Journal reported in June. The lobbying included bringing in military veterans to speak on the Hill against the JASTA legislation.

The Trump Administration has heavily courted the House of Saud; Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, made an unannounced trip to the desert kingdom in late October—his third this year. Officially, the focus was the Middle East peace process, but he has developed a close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. (Both are in their thirties.) The royal family’s close ties to the Trump Administration have evidently made the king and his son feel comfortable about taking tough actions against their own people. [Continue reading…]

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After a tax crackdown, Apple found a new shelter for its profits

The New York Times reports: Tim Cook was angry.

It was May 2013, and Mr. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, appeared before a United States Senate investigative subcommittee. After a lengthy inquiry, it found that the company had avoided tens of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting profits into Irish subsidiaries that the panel’s chairman called “ghost companies.”

“We pay all the taxes we owe, every single dollar,” Mr. Cook declared at the hearing. “We don’t depend on tax gimmicks,” he went on. “We don’t stash money on some Caribbean island.”

True enough. The island Apple would soon rely on was in the English Channel.

Five months after Mr. Cook’s testimony, Irish officials began to crack down on the tax structure Apple had exploited. So the iPhone maker went hunting for another place to park its profits, newly leaked records show. With help from law firms that specialize in offshore tax shelters, the company canvassed multiple jurisdictions before settling on the small island of Jersey, which typically does not tax corporate income.

Apple has accumulated more than $128 billion in profits offshore, and probably much more, that is untaxed by the United States and hardly touched by any other country. Nearly all of that was generated over the past decade.

The previously undisclosed story of Apple’s search for a new island tax haven and its use of Jersey is among the revelations emerging from a cache of secret corporate records from Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm that caters to businesses and the wealthy elite. [Continue reading…]

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How Bob Corker left President Trump, and why it may not be over

The Washington Post reports: Sen. Bob Corker was on his way to the Senate chamber for a vote, drinking coffee from a foam cup — and resolutely mum when asked about President Trump’s upcoming trip to Asia, his tax-reform strategy and what the Tennessee Republican meant when he called the White House an “adult day-care center.”

“I have no desire to enter into, you know, 24/7, you know, disagreement,” Corker explained in a brief interview. “When I have strong disagreements, I’m going to express them strongly.”

Corker seized the role of presidential critic in chief last month, when he accused Trump, in a rapid-fire series of conversations with reporters, of “debasing” the country with his “untruths” and “name-calling.” If he could do it all over, he added, he would not have supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon says to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear weapons would require ground war (in which millions would die)

Newsweek reports: A ground invasion by the U.S. military is the only way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In late September, Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Ruben Gallego, both Democrats and veterans of the U.S. military, sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis highlighting their concerns about the prospect of war with North Korea. They requested a detailed report on the potential consequences of such a conflict.

“We’re just trying to get the administration to explain to the American people what a war in North Korea would look like,” Lieu said. “People need to understand if there is military conflict in North Korea we would be going to war against a nuclear power.”

Mattis issued his response via the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was sent to Lieu on October 27 and obtained by Newsweek. “The only way to ‘locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs’ is through a ground invasion,” said the response, written by Rear Adm. Mike Dumont.

This is the first time the U.S. military has made this assertion, according to Lieu, who’s concerned too many are under the false impression the U.S. could easily neutralize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal via a military strike such as the one Trump ordered against the Assad regime in Syria back in April. [Continue reading…]

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