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Crime in Malmö: Inside the Swedish city where gun violence is on the rise

February 24, 2017 - 2:47pm

Donald Trump’s recent comments lamenting a nonexistent terrorist attack in Sweden have put the Scandinavian country’s crime rate into the global spotlight. But while the terrorist incident might not have happened and the crime rate in Sweden has only been rising modestly, one city there does have a real problem with gang violence.

Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, has seen a spike in shootings this year already; and given Sweden’s reputation as a refugee-friendly nation, many commentators have been quick to point a finger. And now, hysteria from both the Left and the Right is overshadowing the facts.

VICE News went to speak to some of those caught up in the violence in Malmö.

Sean Spicer’s anti-marijuana comments just sent weed stocks plunging

February 24, 2017 - 1:42pm

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made it crystal-clear that Americans should expect an anti-marijuana crackdown under the Trump administration, sending Canadian weed stocks into a brief tailspin early Friday.

Responding to a question regarding the state-federal conflict of marijuana regulation at Thursday’s daily news briefing, Spicer said there would be “greater enforcement” of federal laws when it comes to the recreational use of marijuana, a sharp pivot from the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with the illegal consumption of marijuana.

Canadian weed stocks then went into a tizzy, despite their relative strength in the last few months in anticipation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize recreational weed altogether.

Spicer said there would be “greater enforcement” of federal laws when it comes to the recreational use of marijuana.

Canopy Growth Corp., North America’s biggest medical marijuana producer, saw its stock lose 80 cents a share— a 6 percent decline — in the early trading hours of Friday morning, while Aphria Inc., another Ontario-based medical marijuana grower, saw its stock price decline by 2 percent as of 2 p.m. Friday. Canna Royalty, one of North America’s biggest investors in the weed sector also saw its stock decline by about 3 percent.

So why are Canadian weed companies reacting to an American crackdown of the weed sector?

There are currently eight American states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized recreational marijuana — 20 more have legalized weed for medical use. In fact, analysts estimate that the U.S. market for recreational marijuana could potentially be more than twice the size of Canada’s. Any kind of regulation that might reduce the long-term potential of Canadian weed producers to capitalize on the recreational U.S. market has a negative impact on weed stocks.

“Recreational weed dreams of many investors are up in smoke.”

Canadian weed companies also have investments in the U.S. Last October, for instance, Aphria entered into an intellectual property agreement with Arizona-based Copperstate Farms, a high-tech Dutch-style greenhouse facility in Snowflake, Arizona — one of the largest marijuana growing facilities in the West Coast.

CannaRoyalty also has big plays in the U.S. — it owns a portfolio of 18 marijuana companies, 15 of which are south of the border. Right now, CannaRoyalty remains the sole option for Canadian weed investors to have access to the U.S. recreational marijuana market.

“Recreational weed dreams of many investors are up in smoke, in my view. Sessions AG will probably enforce federal prohibition against cannabis,” wrote Chris Damas, of BCMI Research, in a note this morning.

His advice when it comes to investing in weed stocks in the short run?  “Stand aside.”

This week in Trump’s America

February 24, 2017 - 1:37pm

To get “This Week in Trump’s America” delivered to your inbox, sign up here.

Week 5, in one sentence: Donald Trump held a rally in Florida, where he declared the press his enemy— again; alluded to a terror attack in Sweden that never happened, based on a Fox News segment; appointed a new national security adviser after Michael Flynn resigned last week; saw his EPA chief under fire after newly released emails detailed his more-than-cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry; finally condemned a growing surge of anti-Semitism in the U.S.; tweeted that “so-called angry crowds” at Republican town halls were “planned by liberal activists”; revoked Obama-era guidance on protections for transgender students; delayed a new immigration ban until next week; and defended his First Amendment right to bash the press at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC).  

Behind enemy lies

Day 30 — Feb. 18: Trump kicked off his bid for reelection in 2020 with a rally in Melbourne, Florida, where he called the crowd his “friends” and framed the press as his enemy.

“They’re part of the corrupt system,” Trump said. “When the media lies to the people, I will never ever let them get away with it.”

During the same rally, Trump vaguely alluded to a terror attack in Sweden that didn’t happen. “We’ve got to keep our country safe,” Trump said. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.”

Trump’s time in Florida also marked the third trip since inauguration to his luxury resort Mar-a-Lago, where he exposed national security secrets to diners at the private club just last week. Trump’s favoring of Mar-a-Lago over Camp David for government business — in addition to his family’s travel habits, often for business related to the Trump Organization — is costing taxpayers a fortune.

That time when nothing happened in Sweden

Day 31 — Feb. 19: The president tried to clarify his comments about Sweden by tweeting that they were a reference to a Fox News story he’d seen — most likely one featuring a clip from a documentary about alleged violence committed by refugees in the country.

The Department of Homeland Security drafted two new memos that signal increased deportation efforts against undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Fringe conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told the New York Times that he sometimes speaks to Trump on the phone. Jones repeatedly pushes bizarre theories proven to be false, such as calling the 2014 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which killed 26 people, a “false flag” that didn’t happen.

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus also doubled down on Trump’s statement that the news media are the enemy of the American people.

National security adviser: Round 2

Day 32 — Feb. 20: Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his next national security adviser. Michael Flynn resigned from the job last week after admitting he misled Vice President Mike Pence and discussed sanctions with Russia before Trump took office.

*** VICE News’ Coverage

An orphan refugee’s mad scramble into Trump’s America

How Homeland Security plans to execute Trump’s immigration crackdown

24 things Trump does better than anybody (according to Trump)

Trump’s critics, McCain included, are pleased with his national security adviser pick

More than 200 Trump protesters face felony riot charges for Inauguration Day

What women stand to lose if Republicans repeal Obamacare

Minority gun club membership is booming in the wake of the election

ICE manhunt forces passengers to show ID to exit domestic flight

*** Big Oil and Scott Pruitt, sitting in a tree

Day 33 — Feb. 21: The Oklahoma attorney general’s office released more than 7,500 emails and other records that detailed a close relationship between Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the state’s former attorney general, and the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt routinely collaborated with oil and gas companies, even allowing one of them to edit his emails. The Senate confirmed Pruitt as the EPA chief last week despite efforts by Democrats to stall the approval until the emails were released.

Trump finally addressed a growing wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. Eleven Jewish community centers received bomb threats the day before, and a historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was desecrated the previous weekend. Trump called the events “a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

The New York Times also reported Tuesday that the Trump administration’s move to reduce two key advisers’ role on the National Security Council was essentially the result of an editing mistake.

Trump rescinds transgender protections

Day 34 — Feb. 22: Trump’s administration rescinded Obama’s guidance to schools that transgender students’ bathroom choices were protected under Title IX. The decision was immediately met by harsh criticism from lawmakers, educators, and LGBTQ advocates. Trump had pledged to protect American LGBTQ citizens during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July.

The White House said it would briefly postpone issuing a new immigration order meant to replace Trump’s controversial executive order that has been blocked by federal courts. The new executive order is scheduled to drop sometime next week.

Voter anger boiled over at yet another Republican town hall. Constituents booed and interrupted Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, chanting “Do your job!” and “Tax returns!” Many Republicans are skipping town halls this month to avoid made-for-TV confrontations in the Trump era. In a tweet addressing the recent conflicts at Republican town halls, Trump said the “so-called angry crowds” are “planned out by liberal activists.”

Making private prisons great again

Day 35 — Feb. 23: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he intends to undo an Obama-era decision to phase out federal use of private prisons, helping prison stocks continue their meteoric rise since Trumps election.

A number of top Trump administration officials, including Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon, appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and one of the president’s most controversial appointees, made a rare public speaking appearance. At CPAC, he railed against media coverage of Trump.

“It’s going to get worse every day for the media,” Bannon said.

The intelligence war continues

Day 36 — Feb. 24: The president woke up Friday and took a shot at the FBI, tweeting that the intelligence agency is “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government.”

As with many of Trump’s early-morning tweets, it came on the heels of a CNN report he probably didn’t like. The report claimed the FBI had knocked back a White House request to publicly refute reports in the media that the agency was investigating communications that took place between Trump’s associates and Russia during the 2016 election campaign.

Trump also gave a vigorous defense of his First Amendment right to bash the “fake news media” in a speech at to CPAC.

The week in POTUS tweets:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017

Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2017

Very much enjoyed my tour of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture…A great job done by amazing people!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2017

Seven people shot and killed yesterday in Chicago. What is going on there – totally out of control. Chicago needs help!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017

Dispatches from the inside of Quebec’s crumbling jails

February 24, 2017 - 12:54pm

Sister Marguerite Rivard has spent the last 25 years volunteering in Quebec’s notorious prison system, gaining rare access to some of the province’s most secretive establishments.

“If you came in, what would you see? Misery, suffering, people who are at the mercy of the legal system,” she says.

Rivard describes a place where solitary confinement is increasingly relied upon as punishment — and protection — where overcrowding remains a chronic problem and healthcare services are either lacking or mismanaged.

“There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”

“The conditions are only getting worse,” Rivard told VICE. “There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”

Opposition politicians have also been decrying the situation. In November, the Parti québécois’s public security critic Pascal Bérubé delivered a lengthy speech on the province’s detention system, which he described as “bursting at the seams.”

“There’s overcrowding, shortage of staff, maintenance deficits, drone flights, riots and other problems that are only getting worse,” he told the National Assembly.

We wanted to see for ourselves: when the Quebec government announced it would be touring its provincial detention centres last fall, VICE asked to tag along. We were turned down, “for our safety.” Efforts to interview Jean Rousselle, the politician in charge of the file, were also unsuccessful.

But testimony gathered from inmates, staff and volunteers shed light on the dehumanizing conditions inside, an environment many said is more akin to a school of crime than a place of rehabilitation.

Dispatches from Quebec’s prison system.

Rats, pills and suicides

Charles Samson* spent the better part of a year at the overcrowded Rivière-des-Prairies jail, in Montreal. Recently released after being incarcerated for weed trafficking, he recounted how his stint began on the floor of a gym, a makeshift overflow cell he shared with 30 other detainees.

“When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”

Samson was later placed in a single cell with another inmate, which he says was “better,” though a bedbug infestation and poor air quality made it hard to sleep. He says the rumour was the air filters hadn’t been changed since the nineties. “When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”

Inmate François Delorme* —who spent more than a year at the Bordeaux detention centre for drug-related offences— says he is still haunted by the sound of large rats stirring around the trash cans at night. “At night, I had to stuff magazines in the crack below the door, the rodent problem was so bad,” he describes. “Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”  

Delorme says the conditions, especially in the scorching summer heat, brought out the worst in people. He recalls moments of violent tensions between inmates or with staff. “Sometimes we’d all be on deadlock, stuck inside for three to five days because of a fight.”

The menu wasn’t much to look forward to either. “I ate chicken tendons and cartilage,” he says. “It was really just for survival.”

“Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”

The most strident concern, however, was the lack of access to health care.

“If you have a toothache or a cavity, they just pull out your tooth. And if anything hurts, it takes forever to see a doctor,” says Samson. “Some people’s conditions deteriorate so much during that waiting period that they end up in hospital,” adds Delorme.

More than 60 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental health issue, and according to Samson, this aspect is grossly mismanaged. “I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills,” he says, adding the medication is often given without proper follow-up. “Whatever you want, the doctors will just give it to you.”

For Fanny Gingras*, who suffers from anxiety and borderline personality disorder, proper care was hard to come by during her sentence in a provincial prison for sexual assault and sexual exploitation. “I was on medication and needed follow-ups, but I often found myself going for days without my prescription,” she describes. “I’d spend entire nights crying, unable to sleep.” Gingras, who was part of one of the last cohort of inmates at the now-shuttered Tanguay Institute, spent most of her time sleeping on the floor underneath her pregnant cell mate’s bed.

I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills.”

Then there are the suicides: two inmates killed themselves during Gingras’s stay, and those who attempted to do the same were punished rather than treated. “Their way of protecting you is to send you in isolation,” she says. Though she’d personally never been to what is commonly known as “The Hole,” she says cellmates’ anecdotes were alarming. ”There is no toilet paper in there, and you can’t get sanitary napkins. I knew a girl who had her period and just had to bleed on the ground.”

“You want to die so they send you to the worst place possible? I don’t get it.”

According to a 2009 study, an average of 9.4 suicides occur in Quebec’s prisons every year along with about 16 attempts. Comparative figures from other provinces are hard to obtain, but in federal institutions, more than 40 percent of the country’s inmate suicides happen in Quebec penitentiaries.

Also worth noting: the number of Quebec inmates sent into isolation went up 33 percent between 2010 and 2015 and the total number of times isolation was used as a punishment saw a 93 percent increase (meaning some inmates made several trips to “The Hole”).

“You’re not allowed to speak to the guards.”

Gingras says the biggest challenge of her prison experience was being separated from her child. While there are programs that allow parents to spend time with their children, she wasn’t informed of their existence until several months into her sentence. “You’re not allowed to speak to the guards,” she said. “The door is closed and they just watch us through a window.”

“Dehumanizing” is a word that came up in nearly every interview conducted by VICE.

Away from prying eyes

Though all the inmates’ stories paint a similar picture, VICE News was not able to independently verify the allegations. The office of the Ministry of Public Security declined our interview requests and turned down our application to get a tour of any one of the establishments, citing “safety reasons” and to “protect the confidentiality of inmates.”

However, many details are confirmed in publicly available reports. According to the Société québécoise des infrastructures’ annual report, 33 percent of the province’s jails have received a rating of E, a failing grade which qualifies the buildings as being in “very bad” shape. Research obtained by VICE News also shows that one third of the centres is either full and/or well over capacity.

In her 2015-2016 annual report, Quebec Ombudswoman Raymonde Saint-Germain wrote that offenders were often “crammed into the same room where the air quality leaves much to be desired and the heating is inadequate” or bunked so close together in common areas “that it is difficult to navigate the mattresses on the floor.” She was also critical of the available medical care, citing a 2011 report in which she’d found that “health services and social services for detainees with mental disorders were in sorry disarray” and deploring the fact that much had improved since.

In the northern Quebec region of Nunavik, the absence of an official correctional facility has resulted in up to seven people being crammed together in police station holding cells intended for one person. After her 2015 tour of these facilities, Saint-Germain found the conditions so dire she published a standalone special report calling for urgent action.

“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient.”

“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient,” she wrote. “Often unusable, sanitation facilities do not offer any privacy, and access to water is limited.”

The consequences of these deep-seated problems are regularly reflected in the news. In the past few years, Quebec’s correctional system has made headlines for some high-profile suicides, deadly riots and murders. It has also been the scene of some the country’s most outrageous prison breaks: the spectacular helicopter escape of two inmates at Saint-Jérôme back in 2013, a copycat incident at Orsainville jail in 2014, and the time Francis Boucher, the son of Mom Boucher, Quebec’s most notorious biker, managed to very casually walk out by assuming another inmate’s identity.

Mathieu Lavoie, the president of the prison guards’ union, told VICE News many of these situations could have been avoided had the jails been properly funded and staffed.

His workers have now been without a contract for more than a year and a half, and Lavoie says the stalled negotiations are making their jobs unsafe. According to a number of studies partially funded by the union, the detention system’s subpar conditions takes a heavy toll on the men and women who work there, who demonstrate higher than normal rates of absenteeism and burnout.

“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic,” Lavoie says. He adds there aren’t enough guards to properly cater to the population and that staff is often inadequately trained to respond to or cope with the very complex issues the  prisoners present.

“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic.”

The lack of resources has a heavy impact on inmates, who don’t receive adequate rehabilitation plans. The 2016 Auditor’s report of Quebec’s correctional services highlighted that more than 45 per cent of inmate evaluations were not conducted within the required timeframe and that most did not have access to necessary treatment programs.

The auditor called the minister’s efforts to track inmates’ progress “insufficient,” adding that the government didn’t even keep unique files on each individual inmate.

“We don’t like talking about detention centres, it’s a hard sell.” Lavoie says. “Discussing and investing in this system is essentially admitting that we have a societal problem, and we don’t want the population to know that so we sweep these matters under the rug.”

Fixing what’s broken

For Eric Belisle, president of prisoner’s rights group Alter Justice, the province’s current approach of building new jails is just a band-aid solution.

Instead of providing additional space, new jails just end up replacing crumbling buildings, he explains. The real solution to overcrowding, Belisle says, is to send fewer people to prison. But that is an overhaul that needs to come from federal legislators.

“We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”

A 2014 report by Quebec’s minister of public security found that the province’s prison population grew 31.6 percent between 2004 and 2014. The biggest jump occurred in 2012. Part of the reason behind this increase, the analysts theorize, is the Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was passed in March 2012 and imposed mandatory minimum sentences on small offenses. “When you tally up these sentences, 70 percent ended up being falling within the jurisdiction of provincial establishments,” says Belisle.

“Everyone needs to talk, we need to consider alternative sentences for small offences, sanctions outside of the criminal justice system,” Belisle says.

Nearly half of the province’s inmates are still awaiting their trial and/or sentence. Many wait years before their cause ends up in court, and one judge warned these delays would soon cause the existing system to “blow up.”

Recent focus on this summer’s landmark Jordan decision — which ruled that people accused of crimes have the right to a “speedy trial” (that’s 18 to 30 months, depending on the type of charge) — seems to have put the wheels in motion. To ease the pressure of these deadlines, Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée recently proposed a new bill that would inject $175 million into the court system for additional judges and lawyers.

“Especially youth, this is not a good place for them.”

Belisle says this solution is short-sighted.

“It’s one thing to put money in this, I’m not saying it’s not a good thing, but I just think it’s a shame we’re not going further with a broader reflection,” he says. “We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”

*all former and current inmates asked that their names be changed for fear of retaliation or further stigmatization


This shelter in Buffalo has helped thousands of refugees get to Canada

February 24, 2017 - 12:29pm

A very pregnant woman let out a sigh and slumped down on a chair in the registration area of the Vive refugee shelter in Buffalo, New York. Someone set her two young daughters up at a table and they giggled while folding paper airplanes they sent flying around the room.

“I wish to get to Canada and have this baby there,” the mother tells the shelter worker while rubbing her stomach. Entering the ninth month of pregnancy, even small movements make her exhausted and uncomfortable. She tugged on the leopard print headscarf under her beret while the shelter’s legal assistant reviewed her passport and medical records.

Not wanting to have many details or her name publicized, she explained that she came to the U.S. from Nigeria with her children last summer fleeing violence and threats against her husband, who’s now living as a refugee in Canada. The family got separated because it was easier for him to travel to Canada alone, and she and her children had difficulty getting visitor permits.

“I wish to get to Canada and have this baby there.”

So they eventually ended up at Vive with hopes that its staff would help her family reunite, like they have with nearly 100,000 other asylum seekers they say have quietly flowed through their doors over the last 30 years and into Canada just a short drive north. Ever since the election of President Donald Trump, the shelter has been operating beyond its 150-person capacity non-stop, full of people urgently trying to get out of the country over fears of deportation and discrimination in the U.S.

“I need to be there, if only to get some assistance and a better life than this,” said the mother. The legal assistant finished up her paperwork to register them to stay at the shelter until an appointment opens up in a couple weeks with officials at the nearby Canadian border. There, she and her husband will face intense questioning by the border agents who will determine whether they can enter in Canada and begin the refugee claim process. “We’re going to pray,” the woman said before the legal assistant guided her and the girls toward the shelter’s living quarters.

Vive — Spanish for ‘live’ — was opened in 1985 by nuns who wanted to help the influx of refugees from South America resettle in Canada or the U.S. Now, employees at the building that used to be a Catholic elementary school work with refugees from all over the world with the sole purpose of getting them to Canada through one of the loopholes in a 2004 pact that forces asylum seekers to make their refugee claim in either the U.S. or Canada, whichever one they arrive in first. Prior to that agreement, it was easier for asylum seekers to get over the border.

The deal, called the Safe Third Country Agreement, makes it so that if someone arrives on U.S. soil first, for whatever reason, they cannot then travel to Canada to file a refugee claim, and vice versa. This is because both Canada and the U.S. consider each other to be safe enough for refugees, and want to curb the flow of migrants. But because of the agreement, countless refugee claimants get turned away and critics say it pushes people to pursue illegal and dangerous means to get over border.

This has become glaringly obvious in recent months. Provinces such as Quebec and Manitoba have seen huge spikes in the number of people, hundreds including young families, risking their lives in the freezing cold to make it across the border from the U.S., which many believe has become all the more precarious under Trump for undocumented migrants

“I can’t stay here and need to be there, if only to get some assistance and a better life than this.”

The Vive shelter houses those living in the U.S. who are the exceptions to Safe Third Country Agreement. Most are eligible because they have immediate family members in Canada. The three other exceptions are unaccompanied minors crossing the border, people with valid Canadian immigration or travel status, and refugee claimants who have been charged or found guilty of a criminal offence that could result in the death penalty.

Dozens of people fill Vive’s reception area. On a bookshelf in the backroom sits a Time magazine with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon on the cover. It’s chaos as toddlers run in and out while mothers pace back and forth with babies swinging on their backs. There’s free wifi and most people are texting or whispering into their phones. Down the hall, kids gather in a playroom and residents help prepare lunch in the basement. Most people stay here only for a couple weeks, but others with more complicated cases can end up staying much longer. One Ethiopian woman has lived here for three years with three children, hoping to join her husband in Montreal one day.

Another woman, who wished only to be identified as Rose, said she was a police chief in San Salvador but had to flee because of the vicious death threats she was getting from gangsters she helped put in jail. Her children and now ex-husband left for Canada as refugees 10 years ago due to other threats he received, and she hasn’t seen them since. She’s tried to get a visitor visa to Canada, to no avail. After hearing about Vive and fearing for her life more than ever, she decided it would be her last chance to be with her family and start over.

Like everyone else, she waits for the staff to post the daily list of people who have been granted appointments with the Canada Border Services Agency for the following morning. The receptionist prints out the list and pins it to the cork board with a blue sign that states “NO COUSINS,” a reminder that the Safe Third Country Agreement exception only applies to refugee claimants who have immediate family members in Canada, such as a parent, sibling, or spouse.

On this day, there are only eight names on the list for appointments the next day: couples and families from Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Nigeria — Rose hasn’t made it on, yet. Another man checks the list and says he didn’t make it and jokes he’s going to write his name on it himself if he has to.

“I cannot go back home and I can’t stay here.”

“If this doesn’t work, I will be finished,” Rose said. “I cannot go back home and I can’t stay here.”

Canada’s immigration department is not forthcoming with data on how many people have come to Canada through the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement. Spokespeople for the department did not provide numbers requested by VICE News by deadline, and couldn’t clarify whether they even keep such data.

One researcher at York University had to purchase numbers from Statistics Canada that showed there were 2,253 refugee claims processed at the border under one of the exceptions to the agreement in 2013. Nearly all of those cases were for people with family members in Canada. No data is readily available for the other years.

In 2016, Vive alone reports they helped more than 1,540 appointments for people with CBSA, more than 90 percent of whom successfully made it into the country. How many of those people eventually were granted refugee status in Canada in the end is unknown.

Mariah Walker, Vive’s Canadian service manager, said she expects that number to rise to more than 2,000 this year in great part because of the climate of fear created by President Trump and his policies that are hostile toward immigrants and refugees. There’s also only one or two other shelters like Vive in the U.S., but they help only a small number of claimants.

Those 2,000 people this year will likely be made up of people who might have wanted to stay in the U.S. before the election, but have changed their mind with the shift in immigration policies.

Throughout the week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had stepped up mass raids across America and arrested hundreds of undocumented people for deportation proceedings. Walker has more than 300 new voicemails to get to, likely all from those wanting her services.

“Now everyone is saying please help me I can’t stay in the U.S., they are going to deport me,” she explained. “Everyone is so desperate, they are begging for us to find a way to get them to Canada.”

While many refugee lawyers and experts in Canada have been pressuring the government to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement because of these circumstances, Walker said she’s hesitant to go that far, and knows first hand how the four exceptions to the agreement have allowed thousands of refugees to come to Canada.

“Everyone is so desperate, they are begging for us to find a way to get them to Canada.”

“It is scary and the Trump administration is taking actions that if I was an immigrant, I would be extremely terrified of. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that it’s not necessarily a safe country as a whole anymore,” she said, pointing to the city of Buffalo and the state of New York as examples of places in the country that have been welcoming to newcomers. The mayor flies a flag in front of city hall that reads: “refugees welcome” and has repeatedly vowed to assist anyone affected by Trump’s immigration orders.  And it’s because of refugees and immigrants opening businesses, for example, that many parts of the city have seen revitalization in recent years, she explained.

“But I would also like Canada to revisit the agreement because although it’s hard to hear people say that my country is no longer safe, it would be an extreme wakeup call to a lot of Americans that things need to get better,” she said. “It’s a highly political move, and I think it would be totally awesome if they did it.”

As for asylum seekers who don’t qualify for any of the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement, Walker said she understands they might be more motivated than ever to make the illegal trek into Canada. But the staff there discourages anyone to pursue anything besides the legal immigration channels.

“We don’t usually hear about it until after they get over, and it won’t happen around here in Buffalo because of the geography,” she said. “Once in awhile though, we hear about people who try to cross here, and they get caught and thrown into the detention centre.”

Later that afternoon Walker meets with Sam in the registration room. He’s a 58-year-old Syrian citizen who escaped his hometown of Homs in 2012 to Texas to live with his elderly father who held American citizenship. Sam wanted to be referred to by his nickname over concerns that his wife and her family would be killed by government or rebel forces if his location was revealed. Sam was granted a temporary protection visa valid until 2018 to care for his father before he eventually died last fall.

“Once in awhile though, we hear about people who try to cross here, and they get caught and thrown into the detention centre.”

His two adult children left Syria around the same time as him, but took boats from Turkey to Europe and are currently living as refugees in Sweden — but they aren’t allowed to bring their parents there because they are both adults. Once his temporary U.S. status expires, he will have nowhere to go.

“I have no home, I lost my job as a civil engineer, I have no car here, and my family is far away,” he said. “So I looked at the map and saw that Buffalo was close to Niagara Falls and the border with Canada. I took a loan from a friend and caught a plane here. Once I got off, the taxi driver recommended I come to Vive.”

Sam tells Walker that he has no family in Canada, but still wants her to arrange an appointment with him at the border.

“They will send you home, they’ll return you and they’ll detain you,” Walker explained. “You’re already protected in the U.S. for at least another year. I wouldn’t advise you go to Canada. You will also be barred from entering Canada for one year if you’re denied.”

But Sam was adamant. “They welcome Syrians like me,” he said. “I want you to please book the appointment.”

Walker agrees and walks away. “We won’t deny people who ask us to send their names to the border, but we tell them the reality,” she said.

Trump and Putin are both very insecure about the size of their nuclear arsenals

February 24, 2017 - 11:49am

Donald Trump says the United States has fallen behind and must return to the “top of the pack” in nuclear weapons capability. The president on Thursday called a recent report of a missile deployment and arms control violation by Russia a “big deal” that he would raise with Russian President Vladimir Putin if the two meet.

Moscow has a decidedly different view. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Washington has unfairly held back Russian nuclear might through arms control treaties while developing its own new weapons, wrecking the nuclear balance and fear of “mutually assured destruction” that staved off Armageddon during the height of the Cold War.

Trump’s latest attempt at nuclear tough talk comes one month after he suggested cancelling U.S. sanctions on Russia in exchange for a nuclear arms reduction deal. Putin’s spokesman and members of parliament quickly rejected that idea, saying Moscow would not sacrifice nuclear security for sanctions relief. But Trump clearly struck a sore spot in long-simmering U.S.-Russian relations that precede the sanctions, imposed in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea: strategic parity.

“It’s not the missile that is scary but rather the [possibility] that a key agreement is being violated.”

Russia has been pushing back against what it perceives as an imbalance in recent years, and not just through angry rhetoric. U.S. administration officials told the New York Times last week that Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile that violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark deal to limit nuclear weapons. Russian officials have denied even the existence of such a missile, while also claiming that the INF treaty is unfair and that the United States is actually the one violating it.

The report about the new missile has reignited long-standing arguments over nuclear weapons development. After agreeing to make huge cuts in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2011, Washington and Moscow have increasingly reverted to antagonism in this arena. Trump has called New START a “bad deal,” and Putin last year suspended a different U.S.-Russian agreement to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. Both presidents have called for an expansion of their nuclear forces.

Despite Trump’s warm words for Putin, growing complaints from both parties about their nuclear capabilities could put the brakes on any rapprochement, or even spark a renewed arms race.

“It’s not the missile that is scary but rather the [possibility] that a key agreement is being violated,” Dmitry Stefanovich, a nuclear arms control expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told VICE News. “Russia and the United States need to preserve this treaty, because if it’s broken up, the United States will have to put serious offensive systems in Europe, leaving the Kremlin open to attack. [Russia] would have to create a threat to the capitals of U.S. allies in Europe.”

Reports of the deployed cruise missile have emerged as Russia makes an aggressive push to expand and modernize its military, including its strategic nuclear forces, which Putin said late last year need to be strengthened. This week, defense minister Sergei Shoigu said the military had gotten 41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2016, among other upgrades, and that three regiments would receive new ICBMs this year. (Following accusations of Russians hacking the U.S. election last year, he also acknowledged for the first time a unit of information-warfare troops that he said were spreading “intelligent, effective propaganda,” but he didn’t go into greater detail.)

The cruise missile in question is the SSC-8 (9M729 is believed to be the Russian name for it), one of the intermediate-range land-based missiles banned by the treaty. Although the United States has been flagging the missile’s development as a violation since 2013, the Russian design bureau that builds guidance for cruise missiles made a statement in 2015 that the 9M729 had completed state trials, according to the respected blog Arms Control Wonk.

Now U.S. administration officials have said the weapon came online late last year. Russia has two battalions of 9M729 launchers with about two dozen nuclear-tipped missiles each, one at a testing ground and the other at an operational base. These launchers closely resemble those of Russia’s Iskander, a short-range nuclear-tipped missile allowed under the INF treaty, making it hard to verify violations.

The Kremlin unsurprisingly rejected news of the missile’s deployment. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told state news agencies on February 15th that “no one has officially accused Russia of violating the INF treaty,” claiming that Moscow “remains committed to its international obligations.” A foreign ministry spokesman called the accusations “absolutely baseless,” and it put a copy of the article — covered with a red “fake” stamp — on a site it launched this week to counter what it claims is false information in established Western media outlets.

Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for World Arms Trade Analysis and a prominent military affairs pundit, told Argumenty i Fakty newspaper there was no “evidence of the deployment or even existence of this land-based cruise missile.” And retired Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky, who participated in the INF special verification commission in earlier years, told VICE News that the United States had failed to provide “hard evidence” like photographs or flight-test data to prove the missile’s existence.

“They can write anything just to accuse Russia of something and attack Trump and his circle,” he said of the report about the missile’s deployment. “It’s just not serious.”

Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, offered a another possibility. He said the new missile could be an “R&D program that kept going without attracting attention of the political leadership.”

“There are many examples (I witnessed a couple myself) when the defense industry went on with a program coming close to violation (if not violating) agreements just because they do not read treaties,” Sokov said.

The New York Times report quoted only anonymous sources, but publicly available evidence of the missile’s existence is mounting. Since the report, U.S. defense officials have said Russia is in violation of the INF treaty and that the new missile has “moved around” in recent months. The state department said Russia has broken the treaty ban on cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.  

Buzhinsky argued that the United States had itself breached the INF treaty by activating a missile defense shield last year in Romania, touching on a regular Russian refrain. Despite U.S. assertions that the missile shield is directed against the growing threat from rogue states like Iran and won’t protect against Russian missiles, Moscow has long contended its true target is Russia. This fear stems from the fact that the Aegis Ashore anti-ballistic missile system deployed in Romania is similar to a system on U.S. warships that can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. Although there are no Tomahawk missiles in Romania, Buzhinsky said the launchers there could be repurposed to fire them, moving U.S. nukes much closer to Russia than the Kremlin would like to tolerate.

Last year, Putin called the missile shield a “threat” and said Russia was “obliged to take action in response to guarantee our security.” He later said the United States sought to “neutralize the strategic nuclear potential” of Russia. (After a decade of talks, the United States has also broken ground on a second missile shield site in Poland due to come online in 2018.)

A number of other U.S. military developments have, in Moscow’s opinion, also disrupted the nuclear balance: Korotchenko claimed modern U.S. armed drones are in violation of the INF treaty, and Russian arms control experts have also accused the United States of keeping banned intermediate-range missiles for testing purposes.

Moscow’s many complaints stem from a deeper concern with the treaty’s feasibility, since Russia has a host of countries near its borders with nascent or well-developed intermediate-range missile arsenals, including China, India Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. The basic idea is that the treaty allows the United States to push its advantage in sea-based cruise missiles and missile defense while Russia is hindered from developing its most effective weapons.

“The Americans don’t need [intermediate-range missiles] to protect their territory, but Russia borders countries that have these missiles, and yet we don’t have them,” Buzhinsky said.

According to Stefanovich, although Moscow has never officially confirmed the 9M729, it has the know-how to develop it. He said the Kremlin could deploy the missile to try to force Washington to come back to the negotiating table and address its concerns with the INF treaty.

“Such logic seems to fit the pattern of Russian policy in … defense and security domains: raise concerns, double the stakes, get down to negotiations,” he said.

But while negotiations have yet to materialize, the signs of a nascent arms race have. The United States, Russia, China, and India are all reportedly developing hypersonic weapons that can travel at or above Mach 5. These weapons would be able to penetrate missile defenses and greatly reduce the time a country has to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike, which would destabilize the nuclear balance. The United States, Russia, and China have also been opening a new front with space-based weapons. Russia in particular has reportedly tested missiles meant to destroy satellites and may even have kamikaze satellites for the same task.

Nikolai Sokov said Russia’s launch of new Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in Syria last year shows the United States may be losing its monopoly on high-precision long-range conventional weapons.

“This is a reason to start negotiations on these weapons, the same as on missile defense, where Russians are quickly closing the gap, too,” he said. “Otherwise we face an unrestricted arms race in two very dangerous categories.”

Putin declared last year that new Russian weapons would be able to pierce missile defense, perhaps referring to some of these programs. A state television broadcast last year even suggested that Russia was developing an underwater nuclear-armed drone.

Trump, for his part, has reportedly welcomed the challenge. “Let it be an arms race,” he told “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski in December. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

But Stefanovich cautioned that while the current arms competition is worrying, it is nowhere near Cold War levels.

“There is threat, and it’s increasing, but it hasn’t surpassed the critical level,” he said. “It’s not in the interests of Russia, since the United States has significantly bigger potential.”

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, Slate, Time, and others. His Twitter handle is @ASLuhn

Trump invokes the First Amendment to defend his treatment of the press during CPAC address

February 24, 2017 - 11:23am

President Trump gave a vigorous defense of the First Amendment in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday morning and invoked his right to free speech to bash the “fake news media.”

“Nobody loves the First amendment more than me,“ Trump told the crowd at the annual convention, held outside Washington, D.C. “But [the media] never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it,” he added ambiguously.

Trump criticized journalists for using anonymous sources in news stories that caused turmoil in the early days of his administration. Several recent stories quoting anonymous officials forced the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, when they revealed that Flynn had discussed economic sanctions with the Russian ambassador before taking office. Trump has repeatedly accused members of the intelligence community of leaking information to the press, as he did again Friday morning on Twitter.

The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security "leakers" that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even……

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017

find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017

Even if there are real leakers, Trump maintained that journalists “make up sources.” “They have no sources,” he said. If the sources were real, he demanded they be named.

The morning crowd whooped at the president’s attacks on the Fourth Estate, and Trump continued. The president criticized polls from CBS, ABC, NBC, and the “Clinton News Network” (or CNN), which brought more whoops of delight. When Hillary Clinton came up a second time, some of the crowd indulged in a “lock her up” chant.

Red “Make America Great Again” hats dotted the sea of blue and black sport coats filling the ballroom wall to wall. In years past, Trump enjoyed a small, if fervent, fan base at CPAC — but the young, grassroots conservative crowd tended to cheer loudest for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian favorite, or for Sen. Ted Cruz, a champion of conservatives. Skepticism of Trump ran so hot during the presidential campaign that he skipped last year’s CPAC, prompting Cruz and other GOP primary opponents to lambast him for the snub.

But Trump returned to CPAC Friday a happy, boastful warrior. He pledged that he would oversee “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.” He declared that the Republican Party “will now be the party of the American worker,” in seeming contrast to past Republican orthodoxy that highlighted business executives and entrepreneurs.

“America is coming back and it’s roaring and you can hear it,” Trump said. “It’s going to be bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”

How assassins likely killed Kim Jong Un’s half brother with a weapon of mass destruction

February 24, 2017 - 10:00am

Malaysian authorities said Friday that Kim Jong Un’s half brother was assassinated with a nerve agent called VX, which is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

Two women allegedly used the odorless and tasteless nerve agent to attack Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, at Kuala Lumpur airport almost two weeks ago. After results from the first autopsy on Kim Jong Nam proved inconclusive, a second round of testing revealed the presence of the highly-toxic chemical.

The North Korean government has not responded to the latest developments in the case but has previously said it would reject the findings of any autopsy, calling it a violation of the victim’s human rights.

Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s inspector general, told reporters on Friday that the findings came from swabs taken from the victim’s face and eyes. Because VX does not evaporate quickly and can remain toxic for some time, Khalid said the airport would be decontaminated.

Khalid revealed that an investigation is underway into how the nerve agent was brought into the country, but the substance — typically an oily, amber-colored liquid — is lethal at extremely low doses, meaning it could have easily been concealed for smuggling.

What is VX?

VX is the common name for ethyl N-2-Diisopropylaminoethyl Methylphosphonothiolate, a chemical weapon described by the CDC as “the most potent of all nerve agents.” It only takes about 5 milligrams of VX coming into contact with skin to kill an adult weighing 150 pounds (70 kilograms).

According to Malaysian authorities, Kim Jong Nam’s attackers likely doused their hands with the chemical and rubbed it on his face.

So why didn’t the attackers die?

Khalid said that one of the attackers suffered from vomiting and other symptoms associated with the toxin. He added that the VX nerve agent was placed on the hands of the female assassins by a North Korean man, who is also in police custody.

One possibility, according to Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, is that the two attackers could have each had one precursor to the nerve agent on their hands, which would combine to form VX when they touched the victim’s face.

Following the attack, the women were seen holding their hands away from their bodies and quickly going to a bathroom where they washed their hands. There’s also an antidote for VX that is relatively common and easy to obtain.

North Korea’s embassy in Malaysia claims the women are innocent and should be freed. If they really had poison on their hands, an embassy statement said, “then how is it possible that these female suspects could still be alive?”

How does VX work?

As with all nerve agents, VX prevents the proper operation of the acetylcholinesterase enzyme, which acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. “They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function,” the CDC says.

Some of the side effects of exposure to VX include convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and fatal respiratory failure.

Who created VX?

British scientists created VX while researching pesticides in the 1950s. It was eventually mass-produced as a chemical weapon and stockpiled by the U.S. during the Cold War.

Russia is the only other country which has admitted to having VX, but under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, both countries had to destroy their stockpiles.

Countries are now allowed to possess limited samples of VX for research purposes, but North Korea is one of seven nations that has not agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. North Korea is estimated to have up to 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, mostly comprised of VX and the related nerve agent Sarin.

Has VX ever been used before?

There’s only been one other confirmed VX fatality. In 1994, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo — known for the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system — murdered an office worker in Osaka and attempted to murder two other people with VX.

Although there is no conclusive proof, some experts believe Saddam Hussein may have used VX during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The French Defense Ministry claims that VX is among a range of chemical weapons stockpiled by Syria. VX testing by the U.S. Army was also likely the cause of death for more than 6,000 sheep in Utah in 1964.

VX has also made its way into pop culture — the deadly nerve agent featured prominently in the 1996 blockbuster film The Rock starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, where it appeared in the form of gas contained in menacing green orbs. In real life, pure VX is an odorless and colorless liquid, but impurities introduced during the manufacturing process typically gives it an orange or yellow hue.

Man who allegedly shouted ‘Get out of my country’ during shooting charged with first-degree murder

February 24, 2017 - 9:52am

Police charged a 51-year-old white man with first-degree murder after he allegedly shot and killed an Indian man and wounded another Indian man and a white bystander at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, Wednesday night. Federal prosecutors are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.

Witnesses at the Austins Bar and Grill told local media they thought the attack was racially motivated. The suspect, Adam Purinton, reportedly used “racial slurs” before opening fire on two patrons of Indian nationality as they watched a basketball game on television.

One of the victims, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, worked as an engineer for a local aviation technology company. He died at the hospital, police said. His friend, Alok Madasani, 32, also reportedly an engineer, was hospitalized and has since been released. The third victim, Ian Grillot, 24, was wounded as he tried to intervene on behalf of Kuchibhotla and Madasani, police said. He is also reported to be hospitalized in stable condition.

A witness told the Kansas City Star that the suspect shouted, “Get out of my country” before shooting Kuchibhotla and Madasani, and then fled from the bar on foot. Later that night, the newspaper reported, the suspect told a bartender at an Applebee’s in Clinton, Missouri — about 75 miles from the crime scene — that he had just murdered two Middle Eastern men and needed somewhere to hide out.

Indian news media covered the attack extensively, and Indian lawmakers and state officials took to Twitter to convey their shock and sadness. “The vicious racism unleashed in some quarters in the U.S. claims more innocent victims, who happen to be Indian,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, an Indian lawmaker, on Twitter. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj wrote on Twitter that she was “shocked” by the incident. “My heartfelt condolences to bereaved family.”

Madasani Jaganmohan Reddy, father of the wounded victim, told the Hindustan Times that he wants his son to quit his job and return home. “The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over as the U.S. President,” Reddy said. “I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.”

A local man named Brian Ford set up a GoFundMe fund to support the victims. Ford says he lives about 15 minutes away from the bar where the attack took place and has a close friend who worked at Garmin, the company that employed the two Indian victims. As of Friday morning, Ford had raised nearly $45,000 of his $50,000 target, which he said would go to cover medical and funeral expenses for the victims.

Church “street sanctuaries” try to shield immigrants from ICE raids under Trump

February 24, 2017 - 9:17am

Churches have been sheltering people fleeing persecution for hundreds of years, and after President Trump’s moves to crack down on immigration, some congregations in the United States are giving the practice a 21st century update.

Immigration officials have a policy against arresting people inside “sensitive locations,” including churches, and this historically has made the buildings potential sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. But in the Trump era, undocumented immigrants are even more worried than usual, and some activist groups have responded by taking the concept of sanctuary beyond church walls.

Iraqi forces recapture ISIS-held airport and military base in western Mosul

February 24, 2017 - 9:15am

Iraqi forces made significant gains Friday in their mission to retake Mosul, taking back total control of the city’s airport as well as the Ghazlani military camp. Having already captured the eastern part of the city, Iraqi forces are now focusing their efforts on retaking the west, where entrenched Islamic State fighters remain well-armed. The terrorist organization is trying to hold onto its last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

Iraqi forces, backed by coalition forces and U.S. air support, pushed into Mosul’s western Mamun neighborhood on Friday, where they were immediately met with intense gunfire from IS militants. One captain in Iraq’s emergency response division told the BBC inside western Mosul: “We very close to liberating Mosul.”

Exclusive: @BBCNews first inside west Mosul as Iraqi forces breach IS defences

— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervillebbc) February 24, 2017

That is not a view shared by many analysts. They believe the physical layout of the western part of the city — which includes narrow, winding streets — will require a prolonged, brutal battle to banish IS once and for all.

Iraqi forces bust IS defences asunder with armoured mechanical digger… while taking fire

— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervillebbc) February 24, 2017

After significant gains at the airport on Thursday, a spokesman for Joint Military Operation Command said on Friday that the airfield had been fully recaptured. The Ghazlani military camp on the outskirts of southwestern Mosul also was recaptured — Iraqi flags could be seen flying on top of the buildings. The Joint Military Operation Command said there were many IS casualties during the attacks.

Together these two strategic locations will act as a base for Iraqi forces as they continue the latest, and potentially decisive, phase of driving IS out of Mosul. Total victory likely remains months away.

Here’s what you need to know about the battle for Mosul:

  • The effort to retake Mosul from IS began in October 2016. It took more than 100 days for Iraqi and coalition forces to “fully liberate” the eastern half of the city — not without significant casualties. According to General Joseph Votel, the head of the United States Central Command, about 500 Iraqi military personnel died in the offensive and another 3,000 were injured.
  • In the latest push to retake the city, which kicked off on Sunday, Iraqi forces have attacked IS locations in western Mosul on three fronts. The federal police seized the town of Albu Saif, which overlooks the airport. Iraq’s premier fighting force, the counterterrorism service, joined the assault on Thursday and committed all 14 of its fighting battalions to capturing the former Ghazlani military base. An Iraqi Army tank unit is closing in on IS locations to the west of the city.
  • Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State group in June 2014, is split by the Tigris river. Residents typically navigate between the city’s two sides using bridges, but these have now all been destroyed — initially by coalition forces and subsequently by IS fighters — making it more challenging for the Iraqi forces to complete the recapture of the city.
  • The western offensive also will face challenges in the narrow and winding streets that are not conducive to heavy, armored vehicles. Iraqi forces will likely need to engage in close quarter combat, going house-to-house in order to finally push IS fighters out of the city. Officials estimate there are still between 4,000 and 6,000 IS fighters in Mosul.
  • American and French air support has helped the Iraqi forces push into western Mosul. Ahead of the renewed push this week, American bombing raids targeted known IS buildings in the city, including a five-story building in the Al Jumhuri medical complex that intelligence officials believe operated as an IS command center. During the advances on Thursday, the U.S. deployed armed drones as well as Apache attack helicopters to bolster Iraqi forces.
  • The United Nations has warned that as many as 800,000 civilians remain in west Mosul and that food and other supplies are running out. “The situation is distressing. People, right now, are in trouble. We are hearing reports of parents struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said before the latest offensive began. IS has previously threatened to kill any of the estimated 350,000 children still in Mosul if they try to flee the city. 

Police arrest 47 while emptying Standing Rock protest camp

February 23, 2017 - 5:41pm

North Dakota has officially removed all protesters from the main Standing Rock camp after police swept through Thursday and arrested 47 people.

Officers walked into the camp wearing riot gear, driving military vehicles and carrying guns. Nearby a sign in the camp stated “we are unarmed.” After they arrested the remaining protesters, bulldozers began tearing down the last structures. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said the ammunition in the guns was “most likely lethal.”

The arrests mark the end of the main protest camp, Oceti Sakowin, which swelled to an estimated 10,000 people in November, but contained only about 70 people on Thursday.

Since the protest began 11 months ago, the region’s Indigenous people and allies have gathered at the site in North Dakota to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they say has destroyed sacred sites, violated treaty rights and is likely to contaminate drinking water downstream.

The Oceti Sakowin camp has been officially cleared of all protest activity and clean up will resume. #NDResponse #Dapl #NoDapl #YesDapl

— NDResponse (@NDResponse) February 23, 2017

North Dakota’s governor Doug Burgum had originally set a deadline of 2 p.m. Wednesday for all protesters to leave the camps or they would be evicted. The order followed a request in January by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for protesters to pack up and leave the land, partly because Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II had said the tribe’s battle is now in the courts, and because the camps are on a floodplain that is expected to flood in the spring.

Protesters have moved to other camps, including the Sacred Stone camp, which was not evicted and is not on the floodplain.

Officers who swept the camp on Thursday came from North Dakota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Georgia and Alabama, police told VICE News.

Ten people were arrested Wednesday evening on Highway 1806, including one journalist. Charges ranged from “obstruction of a government function” to “resisting arrest.” Also on Wednesday, the protesters, who call themselves water protectors, set fire to several structures in what they called a cleansing ritual.

The North Dakota government estimates it has spent a total of $8.75 million on the total response and will spend $1.2 million to clean it up.

Jeff Sessions just did something the private prison industry will love

February 23, 2017 - 5:22pm

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made clear his intentions on Thursday to reverse an Obama-era decision to phase out the federal use of private prisons.

In a memo addressed to the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, obtained by MSNBC, Sessions said the DOJ’s announcement last August “changed long-standing policy and practice” and “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

The Obama administration’s decision to end the use of private prisons at the federal level, issued last summer by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, came on the heels of a report from the DOJ’s inspector general. The report described a litany of issues, including unchecked violence between inmates and staff, poor security, overcrowded conditions, and overreliance on solitary confinement at facilities operated by three private prison behemoths: Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation.

Sessions’ memo is the latest signal that Trump’s DOJ will take a decidedly different path from the Obama administration, which sought reforms to the criminal justice system during its two terms.

“This means a significant step backwards for criminal justice reform and a sign that the administration wants to cozy up to the private private industry, which gave it a lot of money in terms of campaign contributions,” said Bob Libal, executive director at Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights group that studies and organizes an end to private prisons.

“This is a sign that under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, America may be headed for a new federal prison boom,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “It’s a recipe for abuse and neglect.”

For criminal justice reform advocates like Libal and Takei, the news doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, however. On the campaign trail, Trump spoke favorably of private prisons, and his team received generous donations from private prison companies. Sessions has also long-touted himself as a criminal justice hardliner and repeatedly affirmed his support for private prisons throughout his career. Two former Sessions’ aides even went to work as lobbyists for the GEO Group after the Obama administration’s announcement last year. 

Private prison stocks rose after the news Thursday evening, continuing their surge since the election in November.

Here's what just happened to the stock for CoreCivic (formerly CCA), the nation's largest private prison company:

— Betsy Woodruff (@woodruffbets) February 23, 2017

This story is developing.

Trump’s EPA chief let an oil company edit his emails

February 23, 2017 - 4:58pm

In his new role as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott’s Pruitt’s job is to enforce rules that he’s been fighting — together with the oil and gas industry — for years. Pruitt became famous for fighting federal environmental regulation in Oklahoma when he was the state’s attorney general, and thousands of emails made public this week show he routinely collaborated with oil and gas companies in their efforts to buck the EPA and other agencies.

An earlier New York Times investigation from 2014 had revealed a “secret alliance” between Pruitt’s office and Devon Energy, an oil and gas company. Pruitt sent an official letter to the EPA with language that was nearly copied and pasted from a suggested draft from Devon Energy in 2011 about air pollution.

The more than 7,500 pages of emails released Tuesday show that this was not an isolated incident. Devon Energy and Pruitt’s office were routinely trading drafts of letters to federal agencies with each other and working very closely to fight federal environmental rules.

Why this matters depends on who you ask. The collaboration shows that Devon Energy had huge influence over the Oklahoma AG’s office, which was basically fighting these laws on its behalf. The AG’s office says that it’s part of its job to protect and stand up for Oklahoma industry, but environmental groups say the relationship shouldn’t be quite so cozy.

Pruitt’s ties to Devon extend beyond email exchanges. As Oklahoma Attorney General, he sued the EPA over its methane emissions regulation in 2016 along with American Petroleum Institute, of which Devon Energy is a member. API contributes money to the Republican Attorneys General Association of which Scott Pruitt was an executive committee member in 2014-2015. That lawsuit is still pending, and the EPA methane rule is still in effect.

Jack Lienke, a native Oklahoman and senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity, a regulatory policy think tank at NYU, said the emails did not surprise him. “It’s hard to overstate the presence that the oil and gas industry has on Oklahoma politics and culture. You can see the Devon tower [the Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma City] from anywhere in the city.”

Here are a couple of examples the emails revealed.

Pushing back against fracking rules

In May of 2012, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a revision to the federal rule about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands — its first revision since 1988, when the practice was not nearly as popular. After outcry from oil and gas companies, including Devon Energy, which was then working closely with the Oklahoma AG’s office, the bureau withdrew the proposed rule that same year.

In January 2013, Bill Whitsitt, a spokesman for Devon Energy, emailed Patrick Wyrick, Solicitor General at the Oklahoma AG’s Office, to thank him for his help fighting the rule.

“I just let General Pruitt know that BLM is going to propose a different version of its federal lands hydraulic fracturing rule thanks to input received – thanks for the help on this! We’ll see the new proposal sometime next week I believe and we’ll be back in touch on potential next steps,” the email from Whitsitt reads.

In February 2013, Whitsitt’s office emailed Melissa Houston, chief of staff at the AG’s office, with information about the “appropriate contact for AG Pruitt’s folks to use in requesting a meeting with the head of OMB’s [White House Office of Management and Budget] OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] or designee to visit about the BLM Rule.” The offices coordinated arranging calls and meetings with officials at the White House throughout 2013.

On March 6, 2013, Whitsitt sent Houston and Sarah Lenti, an outside political consultant hired by Pruitt’s office, a draft letter to send to OMB: “The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott [is] comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call.”

Houston responded, “Thanks Bill — we will look at it and start working on a draft.”

One week later, Houston sent another draft back to Whitsitt at Devon Energy asking for suggestions. Whitsitt responded, “Terrific! Thanks Melissa, and please thank General Pruitt …. I’m making sure some key players on the issue see Scott’s letter.”

Their team effort paid off; the final rule the bureau adopted in 2015 was more narrow in scope and gave the agency less oversight of oil and gas companies like Devon.

Editing a letter to the EPA on methane emissions

The offices collaborated on pushback against seven states that announced plans to sue the EPA for lack of methane regulation in 2012.

On May 1, 2013, Clayton Eubanks, Deputy Solicitor General, sent a draft letter for EPA about methane regulation to Whitsitt for his review.

That same day, Whitsitt responded with edits: “Here you go! Please note that you could use the red changes, or both red and blue (the latter being some further improvements from one of our experts) or none. Hope this helps. Thanks for all your work on this!”

In response to a request for comment on the emails, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office pointed to comments it made after the Times’ 2014 investigation: “The A.G.’s office seeks input from the energy industry to determine real-life harm stemming from proposed federal regulations or actions. It is the content of the request not the source of the request that is relevant.” The EPA did not respond for a request for comment.

Habibah Abass and Emmalina Glinskis contributed reporting.

Who owns the revolutionary gene editing technology CRISPR?

February 23, 2017 - 4:27pm

This segment originally aired Feb. 16, 2017 on VICE News Tonight on HBO. 

CRISPR is a new transformative technology that uses part of a bacteria to cut and paste new information into DNA — and it’s the key to editing the human genome.

Patenting the technology has introduced fresh tensions to the already highly competitive field. The Federal Patent Trial and Appeal Board recently ruled that the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is entitled to a CRISPR patent, and that that patent doesn’t interfere with previous patents granted to the University of California at Berkley in 2012. What that means in practice isn’t so clear, however.

To learn more about how the biggest biotech discovery in decades got stuck in legal limbo, watch this.

Canada’s ice roads are melting

February 23, 2017 - 2:57pm

Canada’s ice roads, which provide lifelines for many remote Indigenous communities, are melting. And those close to the problem say it could increase suicide rates for those communities.

Like many other Northern Ontario First Nations, Bearskin Lake is surrounded by lakes and rivers, so they bring in supplies by plane in the summer and by ice road during the colder months.

And for the second winter in a row, the ice road hasn’t frozen properly. People in the community see it as a sign of things to come, but the consequences are already playing out.

Ten kilograms of baking flour usually costs $30 at the local grocery store, but now it’s fetching $50, because it has to be brought in by air and that’s more expensive. Bearskin Lake residents are also dealing with mouldy and overcrowded homes. The plan this winter was to bring in lumber over the ice road for new housing, but that’s on hold because the ice is too thin.

“We’re concerned that northern communities in the future need to have all season roads, because the weather is changing, the climate is changing,” said deputy chief Leonard Brown, who noted that the rocks and ground are already visible on the winter road that is usually covered in snow at this time of year. 

“We’re concerned that northern communities in the future need to have all season roads.”

“We almost ran out of diesel fuel, but we managed to fly it in,” said resident George Kam. “To fly that stuff in is very expensive.”

“With this climate change, I don’t think it’s going to stop, it’ll just keep changing,” he added.

In the past, winter roads were functional 70 to 80 days of the year, according to Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. Now it’s only about 28 days, he said.

“We’ve seen plus double digits in the north in February,” said Day, who is joining fellow chiefs in raising the alarm about how climate change is affecting the north.

“It’s touching on the cost of living in the north, and the cost of fuel,” he told VICE News.

He also expects climate change to increase suicide rates on Northern Ontario reserves that already experience higher rates of depression and suicide. “The fear and uncertainty of climate change is certainly going to have an impact on rising suicide rates,” he said.

“I’m calling on the government to address that right away.”

Without reliable ice roads, it’s harder for people to visit family and friends in other communities, he explains, which deepens the feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

“I’m calling on the government to address that right away,” he said of both the high suicide rates and need for all-weather roads. “They have to get serious about it.”

“To see our people marooned in remote communities and not have access to the type of travel that the rest of Canadians have access to, it’s ludicrous. We need to resolve this by addressing the all-season road systems [needed] in the north immediately.”

ICE manhunt forces passengers to show ID to exit domestic flight

February 23, 2017 - 2:40pm

Passengers on a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York received an unusual greeting when they landed at JFK airport Wednesday night: two Customs and Border Protection agents waiting on the jet bridge to check IDs as people exited the aircraft.

VICE News staffer Anne Garrett was on the flight and documented the incident. It triggered outrage and concern on Twitter, with Edward Snowden and other prominent civil liberties advocates speculating that it could be linked to President Trump’s new hard-line policies on immigration.

My flight from SFO to JFK. We were told we couldn’t disembark without showing our “documents.”

— Anne Garrett (@annediego) February 23, 2017

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) later confirmed the details of the incident. In a statement to VICE News, a spokesperson for the agency said the agents were present because Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) had asked for help locating an individual “ordered removed by an immigration judge.”

“To assist our law enforcement partners, two CBP officers requested identification from those on the flight in order to help identify the individual,” the CBP statement said. “The individual was determined not to be on the flight.”

Garrett, a video editor at VICE News who was traveling for personal reasons, said the incident occurred as passengers disembarked Delta Airlines flight 1583 from San Francisco. According to Garrett, shortly after the plane landed at about 7:45 p.m., a member of the flight crew announced over the plane’s intercom that all passengers would have to show their “documents” to CBP officers in order to exit the aircraft.

“People were like, ‘What does that mean? Do I need to show my ticket?’” Garrett recalled. A few moments later, Garrett said, a flight crew member clarified that passengers would need to show their passport or another form of government-issued identification.

Garrett said two CBP agents in blue uniforms were waiting as she stepped off the plane and onto the jet bridge. She offered her driver’s license and asked for more information but did not receive a response.

“I said, ‘Why do you need to see this?’ He just took it out of my hand,” Garrett said. “It’s a tough situation to be in because everybody wants to get off the flight. You don’t want to be the one holding up the line.”

A Delta spokesperson said the airline had contacted CBP “to get a sense of why their presence was needed,” but offered no additional comment on the incident.

A division of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP has about 60,000 agents stationed at airports and border crossings around the country, and the agency  routinely questions travelers arriving in the U.S. from overseas. It’s unusual, however, for passengers aboard a domestic flight to be scrutinized after landing.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) asks domestic travelers to show ID in order to clear airport security checkpoints, but U.S. citizens are not legally obligated to comply. TSA agents will typically pull such travelers aside for additional screening and ask a series of questions to verify the person’s identity.

“CBP should explain why one of its officers was apparently demanding that passengers on a purely domestic flight show ID,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Security Project. “CBP is not an always-and-everywhere police force, and any attempt to expand its operations beyond its authority would raise serious concerns.”

Handeyside noted that the ACLU is currently putting together a “Know your rights” guide to educate travelers about how to respond if similar incidents occur in the future.

CBP has been on the front line of President Trump’s immigration crackdown. Its agents were tasked with enforcing Trump’s executive order that banned travel to the U.S. by people from seven Muslim-majority countries. That measure was later suspended by a federal judge, but the Trump administration has vowed to issue another similar order soon.

Trump has also issued executive orders that expand Homeland Security’s “enforcement priorities,” allowing ICE and other agencies to indefinitely detain virtually anyone suspected of being in the country without authorization. The orders have led to stepped-up enforcement by ICE in recent weeks, but the incident Wednesday is the first known incident where federal authorities questioned domestic air travelers over an immigration issue.

Cover photo via Getty Images

Critics of Trump’s trans bathroom policy point to bullying and suicide

February 23, 2017 - 1:31pm

Lawmakers and educators from both sides of the aisle have come out strongly against the Trump administration’s decision to revoke the Obama-era policy protecting transgender students under Title IX by allowing them to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. 

The decision, announced Wednesday, was a major blow to trans and civil rights advocates, who viewed the federal guidance issued last May by the Department of Justice and Department of Education as an important step forward in affirming the dignity and humanity of transgender Americans. Trump’s move leaves the issue to the states.

GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida condemned it in a statement. “This lamentable decision can lead to hostile treatment of transgender students, and studies have shown that bullying and harassment can be detrimental to the emotional and physical well-being of students,” wrote Ros-Lehtinen, who has a transgender son and has been an outspoken advocate of trans and LGBTQ rights. “Evidence has shown that acceptance of transgender students lowers their risk of suicide.”

Nearly 25 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide, and 50 percent have seriously considered it, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

John Fluharty, former executive director of the Delaware Republican Party, who is also openly gay, wrote in a statement to VICE News: “Almost a decade of federal court rulings and agency opinions have determined that Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination, along with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, apply to transgendered people. Why we’re even having this discussion is beyond me.”

Press Secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this week that President Trump believed that the matter of trans rights should be a state issue rather than a federal one. U.S. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement released Wednesday night said that the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX with regards to trans students was wrong.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten thinks it’s Trump who’s wrong on this. “The Trump administration is compromising the safety and security of some of our most vulnerable children. Children, not ideology, should be the priority,” Weingarten wrote, adding that LGBTQ kids often endure “a disproportionate amount of bullying and violence at school leading to increased levels of fear, anxiety, or worse.”

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia also commented, saying that Trump’s decision to rescind those protections for trans students was “dangerous, ill-advised, and unnecessary.” “We don’t teach hate, we do not tell people how to pray, we do not discriminate against people based on their religion, gender, or identity. Period,” Eskelsen Garcia wrote.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly voiced concerns about revoking the policy with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, citing the high rates of suicide among trans students, the New York Times reported Wednesday, but she ultimately decided to add her signature after pressure from the president. Her tweet expressing solidarity for the LGBTQ community Thursday morning was widely denounced as hypocritical.

I consider protecting all students, including #LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America.

— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 23, 2017

Some Democratic lawmakers were also vocal in their criticism. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the move a “shameful” and “horrible” decision.

.@POTUS's move to deny protections for transgender students is shameful. A horrible decision.

— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 23, 2017

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey wrote that “no child should be afraid when they go to school,” and vowed to “continue to fight for the safety of all children.”

Transgender children often face relentless bullying; @realDonaldTrump's decision to undo protections for these students is wrong & troubling

— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) February 23, 2017

Officials from some states vowed to continue to protect the rights of transgender students and residents. Eighteen states, including Washington and New York, have laws protecting transgender students from discrimination or harassment in public schools. California passed a law in 2013 explicitly allowing students to use facilities consistent with their gender identities.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Thursday that he would ensure his state’s protections were “enforced fairly and vigorously.” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote that “Every student deserves to be treated equally in our schools. Trump is sending a message that discrimination is acceptable.”

Los Angeles School District Superintendent Michelle King wrote in a statement that trans students under her purview would “remain protected regardless of the new directive by the Trump administration.” Educators in several districts in Chicago echoed that stance.

And in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted a link to an executive order he signed last year requiring all city agencies to ensure employees and the public have access to facilities consistent with their gender identity. “A new president will not change our values,” de Blasio wrote.

Meanwhile, many of those celebrating the decision characterized last May’s “Dear Colleague” letter as an example of federal overreach by the Obama administration that violated privacy expectations.

The Kremlin is literally stamping reports it doesn’t like as “fake news”

February 23, 2017 - 11:53am

Often accused of creating its own elaborate web of “fake news,” the Kremlin is adopting the popular term to take aim at reports it doesn’t like from mainstream media outlets in the West. Armed with a big red stamp that reads “fake” and little more, the Kremlin has begun highlighting stories from established Western media outlets like The New York Times, NBC, and Bloomberg that it believes are part of an “information campaign aimed against Russia.”  

A new page on the Russian foreign ministry website says it is “exposing” Western media outlets for spreading “false information” about the country. At the time of publication Thursday, there were just five reports listed on the site — one each from Bloomberg, the New York Times, NBC, the Daily Telegraph, and the Santa Monica Observer.

Under each story is this Orwellian message: “This article puts forward information that does not correspond to reality.” According to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the ministry will apply the label to stories lacking an official reaction from the Russian government or those citing anonymous and unverified sources.

The new initiative was announced during a weekly televised address by Zakharova. “We will publish examples of propaganda hoaxes from various media outlets and give links to sources,” she said. Yet, she wasn’t specific about the new enterprise’s process for determining what it deems “fake news,” instead relying on a set of crudely cut screenshots to make her point.

At the same time Zakharova announced the Kremlin’s new initiative, her colleague, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, outlined the Russian military’s gains in its ongoing information war. Shoigu said the Russian military’s “information troops” were successful in spreading “intelligent, effective propaganda,” but did not specify which countries the propaganda was targeting.

What does Russia consider to be “fake news”?

  • A Bloomberg story saying Russian hackers had been responsible for hacking the computer of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.
  • A New York Times report saying Russia secretly launched a new cruise missile in violation of an arms control treaty.
  • A Daily Telegraph report quoting British government sources alleging Russia was involved in a plot to kill the Montenegrin prime minister in 2016.
  • An NBC News story suggesting the Kremlin was about to hand over Edward Snowden to the U.S. to “curry favor” with the Trump administration.
  • A Santa Monica Observer story about the “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the death of Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

As BuzzFeed points out, unlike the other publications, the Santa Monica Observer — a free local weekly newspaper in California — has a history of publishing fake news stories, including one which suggested Tiffany Trump was going to sing “I’m like a bird”  at her father’s inauguration.

For some outlets, inclusion on the list should be seen as a positive, according to Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of the Echo of Moscow radio station: “You shouldn’t worry at all,” he told the New York Times. He said media outlets should consider inclusion by the foreign ministry to be an honor, “like a medal.”

The “fake news” craze continues

With its latest venture into “fake news,” the Kremlin appears interested in riding on the recent controversy emanating from the U.S.

Trump has employed the term “fake news” of late to counter mounting, damning reports surrounding his chaotic first month in office. With a few exceptions, most notably Fox News, Trump has ramped up his attack on American media of late, recently calling many traditional media outlets such as New York Times, NBC, and CBS “the enemy of the American people.”

Election meddling

The Kremlin’s attempts to meddle in elections outside its borders came to prominence last year after U.S. intelligence community said the Kremlin had illegally tried to interfere with the presidential election outcome by hacking into the DNC servers and leaking sensitive emails, which were subsequently published by Wikileaks.

Since then, authorities across Europe have been bracing themselves for similar meddling in upcoming, critical elections throughout Europe, including in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Last week France’s foreign minister criticized Russian cyberattacks specifically targeting centrist-left candidate Emmanuel Macron: “This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it.” A report from the East StratCom Task Force earlier this year revealed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who is seeking reelection in September — was “bombarded” with fake news stories emanating from Russia.

The East StratCom task force was established by the European Union in 2015 with a mandate to “address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.”

Amazon says Alexa has First Amendment right to resist giving up data in murder case

February 23, 2017 - 11:14am

Amazon has filed a motion to quash a warrant seeking data from an Amazon Echo device that prosecutors think may provide evidence in an Arkansas murder case.

The move pits the technology company against law enforcement in the case that could help define a thorny and emerging area of the law: whether, and how, our always-on devices can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.

The case centers around events from a night in November 2015 when James Bates, a former Walmart employee, invited friends over to his Bentonville home to watch a football game. The next morning, Bates called 911 to report that one of the guests, a former police officer named Victor Collins, was dead in the hot tub outside.

Bates was subsequently arrested, accused of murdering Collins and seeking to cover up the crime. He denies the charges, and the case will likely go to trial in the coming weeks. During the investigation, and in the absence of any potential witnesses, police focused on the devices in Bates’ home for evidence.

The Echo — in Bates’ case, it was sitting on his kitchen counter — is a kind of connected home assistant that’s voice-activated with the wake words “Hey, Alexa.” Amazon says the device sends audio information back to its headquarters only when it hears its wake words, and that it’s clear when that is happening because a light turns on. But the device also preserves a snippet of audio from before the wake word was spoken, as well as other non-audio user data, raising questions about the precise mechanics of its gathering information from surroundings.

Prosecutors filed a search warrant in December 2015 seeking “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records, or other text records related to communications and transactions” between Bates’ Echo device and Amazon servers.

For more than a year, Amazon delayed. But on Feb. 17, it filed a motion seeking to quash the warrant. “Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials,” the filing reads. In a supporting document, the company argues that it “does not seek to obstruct any lawful investigation but rather seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data from Amazon.”

“Amazon customers have expressed concern about disclosure of their purchase choices and have indicated a reluctance to use Amazon for online purchasing if their privacy is not protected,” it added.

It means that the local prosecutor, Nathan Smith, will likely have to fight Amazon in court. He argues that there simply cannot be zones in life where the police are not allowed to tread, or we risk creating safe havens for criminals. Amazon looks set to argue that the Echo is a First Amendment and privacy issue. The original search warrant, Amazon’s motion to quash it, and its supporting documents, are here for those who would like to decide for themselves.