Facebook shuts hundreds of Russia-linked pages, accounts
By KELVIN CHAN
AP Business Writer
Thursday, January 17
LONDON (AP) — Facebook said Thursday it removed hundreds of Russia-linked pages, groups and accounts that it says were part of two big disinformation operations, in its latest effort to fight fake news.
The social media company said it took action after finding two networks “that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior” on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.
Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post that one network operated in countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Central Asia and the Caucasus. The other focused on Ukraine.
The people running the accounts represented themselves as independent news sources and posted on topics like anti-NATO sentiment and protest movements.
“We didn’t find any links between these operations, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” Gleicher said.
Gleicher said one network of 364 pages and accounts was linked to employees of Sputnik, a Russian state-run English-language news site. About 790,000 accounts followed one or more of the network’s pages. The operation spent about $135,000 over six years for Facebook advertisements, which it paid for in euros, rubles and dollars. The most recent ad ran in January.
Sputnik criticized Facebook’s takedown.
“The decision is clearly political. This is tantamount to censorship,” it said in a statement to the AP, adding that Facebook blocked the accounts of seven of its bureaus in former Soviet republics. “Sputnik editorial offices deal with news and they do it well. If this blocking is Facebook’s only reaction to the quality of the media’s work, then we have no questions, everything is clear here. But there is still hope that common sense will prevail.”
Acting on a tip from U.S. law enforcement, Facebook shut another 148 pages, groups and accounts, including 41 on Instagram, that were part of a second network that spent $25,000 on ads in 2018, paid for in rubles. Gleicher said Facebook “identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the U.S. midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency activity.”
The Internet Research Agency is a Russian troll farm indicted by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller for its actions aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The disclosure is the latest in a series of fake account purges in recent months. Facebook has been stepping up its scrutiny after being criticized for its slow response to foreign attempts to influence the 2016 vote.
In another measure aimed at increasing transparency, Facebook last year started requiring all political ads taken out in the U.S., Britain and Brazil to disclose who paid for them.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia
By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
Thursday, January 17
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Amid a lavish welcome, Vladimir Putin arrived in Serbia on Thursday in a show of the Russian president’s support for the Balkan country’s populist leader and his pro-Moscow policies.
Putin landed at Belgrade airport after his presidential plane was escorted over Serbian airspace by MiG-29 fighter jets he recently donated to Serbia. Church bells tolled, guns saluted and supporters waved Russian and Serbian flags on his route through the Serbian capital.
Putin and his host, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, praised the relationship between the two countries in brief televised statements. Vucic thanked Russia for its support for Serbia’s integrity and added that, “however small,” Serbia has been a “reliable partner” for Russia.
Putin thanked Serbia for the warm welcome and praised Vucic for his personal contribution to “brotherly” ties between the two states.
Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia despite formally seeking European Union membership. Belgrade has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has pledged to stay out of NATO.
The relations were further boosted recently after Putin stepped up efforts to restore Moscow’s influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Putin’s visit comes as thousands have held weekly demonstrations against Vucic because of what they see as his autocratic rule.
Thousands of Vucic’s right-wing party supporters have been bused into the capital to gather in front of the St. Sava Orthodox church, which the two presidents plan to visit. Vucic’s critics say the gathering has been staged to suggest that the Serbian leader has many more supporters than opponents, who have been marching the same route since December to demand free elections and media.
Several liberal Serbian rights groups issued a statement on Thursday protesting “glorification of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.”
It said that Putin’s visit “indicates that the Serbian rulers are ready to sacrifice human rights and better living standards of citizens because of their patronizing stands toward Putin’s regime.”
Ahead of his Belgrade visit, Putin accused the U.S. and the West of pressuring Balkan countries to join NATO.
Putin told two Serbian pro-government newspapers that “the policy of the United States and certain Western countries aimed at fostering their dominance in the region constitutes a major destabilizing factor.”
Russia’s interest in Serbia relates to its strategic position between East and West. Of Serbia’s eight neighbors, five are NATO members and two more are seeking membership; and four are in the EU and two more are working toward accession. Serbia remains Moscow’s only ally in the region.
Unlike NATO, Putin formally does not oppose Serbia’s EU path and analysts believe that this is because he wants a staunch ally — or perhaps a Trojan horse — within the 28-nation bloc.
Putin’s popularity in Serbia is mostly because the Kremlin is supporting Serbia in its rejection of independence for the former Serbian province of Kosovo. In contrast, most Western countries have recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.
AP writer Jovana Gec contributed.
Trump’s interpreters for Putin meetings face ethical dilemma
January 17, 2019
Author: Laura Burian, Dean, Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education, Middlebury
Disclosure statement: Laura Burian does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Middlebury College provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
President Donald Trump met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin while no other American was privy to the communication except for a State Department interpreter.
In July 2018, Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee had proposed to subpoena the interpreter and her notes to find out what was said in the meeting, but the motion was rejected by Republican committee members.
Now, reports allege that President Trump took possession of the interpreter’s notes at the end of at least one private meeting with Putin and instructed the linguist not to discuss the content of the meeting with anyone, including other administration officials.
Democrats, now in control of the U.S. House, are reconsidering a subpoena to the interpreter to learn what was said.
I teach M.A. students of translation and interpretation and work as a conference interpreter. Here’s a brief overview of the role of interpreters and the ethics of the profession regarding confidentiality.
The role of an interpreter is to facilitate communication between parties who use different languages.
Interpreters are not responsible for the content of what is said by either party. They are responsible for ensuring that everything that is said is conveyed accurately in the other language.
The code of ethics for professional conference interpreters states that they “shall be bound by the strictest secrecy, which must be observed towards all persons and with regard to all information disclosed in the course of the practice of the profession at any gathering not open to the public.”
Diplomatic interpreters are a subset of these professionals who must pass security clearances, and be mindful of diplomatic protocol and national interests. However, the ethics of confidentiality remains the same in diplomatic settings. Officials must be able to fully trust that interpreters will not reveal confidential information.
Diplomatic tradition has therefore respected the norm that interpreters should not be obliged to give testimony. I am not aware of any precedent to compel a diplomatic interpreter to testify about the substance of a meeting in which he or she was interpreted.
There are also practical considerations that could limit what anyone could learn from an interpreter’s notes.
Interpreter notes are systematic but vary greatly from person to person. They are designed to trigger the interpreter’s short-term memory, and provide an incomplete roadmap of what was said.
In some cases, the interpreter may take no notes at all for some portions of the dialogue. Or, the interpreter may be familiar enough with the subject matter that he or she only writes down items that are particularly taxing on the memory – like numbers or proper nouns. In other cases, the notes are a collection of arrows, squiggles, words and symbols that only the interpreter could decipher, and only when the echo of what was just said is reverberating in the interpreter’s short-term memory.
In other words, context matters.
Beyond this, the high focus and concentration required to faithfully convey the speaker’s message while juggling two different languages is such that recalling exactly what was said may be challenging even a few hours after a meeting is over, not to mention months later.
Given these ethical and practical challenges, compelling an interpreter to testify or provide interpretation notes may face ethical challenges and may not, in the end, prove useful.
‘I never said there was no collusion,’ Trump lawyer says
By ERIC TUCKER
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani says he has “never said there was no collusion” between Russia and members of Trump’s 2016 White House campaign.
Giuliani’s comments Wednesday night on CNN directly contradict the position of his own client, who has repeatedly insisted there was no collusion during his successful White House run. Giuliani himself has described the idea of Russian collusion as “total fake news.”
It was not clear whether Giuliani was reflecting a new position or talking point from the Trump legal team or was making a strategic attempt to get ahead of potentially damaging findings from special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller has been investigating potential coordination between Russia and the president’s campaign.
Giuliani said that even if some on the campaign did something wrong, the president was not part of any collusion.
“There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC,” Giuliani said, referring to the Democratic National Committee.
The comments on collusion came after Giuliani was reminded of prosecutors’ allegations that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had lied about sharing campaign polling data with an associate U.S. authorities have tied to Russian intelligence.
So far, Mueller has charged 33 people, including five Trump associates and 32 Russians accused of interfering in the election either through hacking or through a hidden social media campaign aimed at swaying American public opinion.
Giuliani also said the Trump legal team had told Mueller that the president would not answer any additional questions from prosecutors. Trump has so far answered only a limited number of questions in writing. Trump’s lawyers have balked at the idea of a face-to-face interview with Mueller’s office or having Trump questioned about potential obstruction of justice or other actions he took as president.
William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that he wouldn’t interfere with a Mueller request to subpoena the president to compel his testimony “if there was a factual basis for doing it.”
After Americans killed, Trump’s Syria plan prompts questions
By LOLITA C. BALDOR and BASSEM MROUE
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — A suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State militants killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians, in northern Syria on Wednesday, just a month after President Donald Trump declared that IS had been defeated and he was pulling out U.S. forces.
The attack in the strategic northeastern town of Manbij highlighted the threat posed by the Islamic State group despite Trump’s claims. It could also complicate what had already become a messy withdrawal plan, with the president’s senior advisers disagreeing with the decision and then offering an evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops.
The attack, which also wounded three U.S. troops, was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
The dead included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought alongside the Americans against the Islamic State group, according to officials and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
According to a U.S. official, one of the U.S. civilians killed was an intelligence specialist working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The other was an interpreter, who was a contractor.
The attack prompted new complaints about the withdrawal and underscored Pentagon assertions that IS is still a threat and capable of deadly attacks.
In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump said, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” He said the troops would begin coming home “now.” That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders, including the resignation of the defense secretary.
Over the past month, however, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will likely take several months to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.
Not long after the attack Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated claims of the Islamic State group’s defeat. Speaking at the State Department, Pence said the “caliphate has crumbled” and the militant network “has been defeated.” Later in the day he released a statement condemning the attack but affirming the withdrawal plan.
“As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to re-establish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever,” he said.
Others, however, immediately pointed to the attack as a reason to reverse or adjust the withdrawal plan.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer and prominent voice on foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, said during a committee hearing Wednesday he is concerned that Trump’s withdrawal announcement had emboldened Islamic State militants and created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.
“I know people are frustrated, but we’re never going to be safe here unless we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical ideology,” he said.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said the attack demonstrates the lethal capability of IS and “the fact that it happened in Manbij, probably the single most complicated area of Syria, demonstrates that the president clearly doesn’t understand the complexity of the problem.”
Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from IS in 2016 with help from the U.S.-led coalition.
But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main U.S. Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil.
The town has been at the center of tensions in northern Syria, with the militaries of two NATO members, the U.S. and Turkey, on opposing sides. The two sides began joint patrols around Manbij in November as part of an agreement aimed at easing tensions.
Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and other international issues, said it’s time for Trump to amend or change his withdrawal order to “something more consistent with the threat” in Syria.
Others suggested the attack could trigger change.
“Certainly the Islamic State follows the news closely, and observing the recent controversy over a potential withdrawal would incentivize them to try for a spectacular attack to sway both public and presidential opinion,” said Jim Stravidis, a retired Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander.
Trump, meanwhile, reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a conference call that the president remained “steadfast” in his decision not to stay in Syria – or Afghanistan – “forever.” But the senator did not disclose the latest thinking on withdrawal timeline.
Paul, who has been one of the few voices in the GOP encouraging the president’s noninterventionist streak, said Trump told the group, “We’re not going to continue the way we’ve done it.”
Video of Wednesday’s attack released by local activists and news agencies showed a restaurant that suffered extensive damage and a street covered with debris and blood. Several cars were also damaged. Another video showed a helicopter flying over the area.
A security camera showed a busy street, and then a ball of fire engulfing people and others running for cover as the blast went off.
The names of the American victims are being withheld until their families can be notified.
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
Michigan State says Engler resignation effective immediately
By DAVID EGGERT and COREY WILLIAMS
Thursday, January 17
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees said Thursday that interim president John Engler’s resignation is effective immediately.
The board acted a day after Engler said he’d step down next week amid fallout from remarks he made about some victims of former sports doctor and convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar. When the board chairwoman announced during a special meeting that the resignation would be immediate, the crowd broke into loud applause.
“A wrong has been righted today. I’m sorry it took so long,” said Trustee Kelly Tebay, who joined the board this month. Another trustee, Nancy Schlichting, added: “Values matter. Behavior matters.”
Engler, a former Michigan governor, was brought in to help the university recover from the Nassar sexual abuse scandal and had resisted calls to step down in the past. But the final straw came last week when he told The Detroit News that Nassar’s victims had been in the “spotlight” and were “still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition.”
Hundreds of women and girls, most of them gymnasts, accused Nassar of molesting them when they sought treatment during his time working for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. The victims included Olympic gymnasts.
Engler submitted an 11-page letter on Wednesday to Dianne Byrum, chairwoman of Board of Trustees. The letter made no mention of recent criticism of his recent remarks and instead listed what he considered to be his accomplishments in nearly a year of service. He wrote that the university was a “dramatically better, stronger institution.”
“It has been an honor to serve my beloved university,” wrote Engler, who was in Texas attending a burial service for his late father-in-law.
The board appointed Satish Udpa as the new interim president. He currently serves as the school’s executive vice president for administration and is a distinguished professor.
Engler joins a long list of people — including his predecessor as president — who have been fired, forced out of their jobs or charged with crimes amid fallout from the school’s handling of the once-renowned sports physician stretching back decades.
Nassar is now serving decades-long prison sentences for sexually assaulting patients and possessing child pornography.
The Associated Press left messages Wednesday seeking comment from Engler, who was hired last February following the resignation of president Lou Anna Simon.
Byrum, who became chairwoman of the trustees board last week, stopped short of confirming Wednesday that she asked Engler to resign. But she told the AP he had “a decision to make” because the board was poised to name a new interim leader at the meeting. Both Byrum and Mosallam are Democrats, and Engler is a Republican.
Engler’s comments, Byrum said, make “it very difficult for the MSU community to make the changes necessary and rebuild both trust and credibility, and frankly for the survivors to heal.”
Brian Mosallam, a long-time Engler critic, said on Twitter on Wednesday that “JOHN ENGLER’S REIGN OF TERROR IS OVER.” He told the AP the board had enough votes to force Engler out during Thursday’s special meeting at the school in East Lansing.
After Engler was hired, Michigan State agreed to a $500 million settlement with 332 women and girls who said they were sexually assaulted by Nassar. Of that, $75 million will cover future claims.
In April, Engler told another university official in emails that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with accusations about Nassar, was probably getting a “kickback” from her attorney.
Denhollander told the AP on Wednesday that her hope is the board “is signaling at least the beginning of a true change in direction and tone. And in order to do that, they have to deal with the person they put in place.”
She said who Engler was and how he operated “was no secret in Michigan.” The former board — five members remain and three are gone — picked Engler “for a reason,” Denhollander said, and it “needs to take responsibility for what they did.”
Her biggest concern with Engler’s tenure has been what he’s “communicated about abuse,” Denhollander said. “What he has communicated is that survivors who speak up will be attacked and blamed and shamed, that those who push for change are going to be accused of enjoying the spotlight, that they will be lied about.”
The elected board has five Democrats, two Republicans and an appointee who was named last month by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. The board’s makeup became more Democratic this month following the November election. Engler, a Michigan State alum, served as governor from 1991 through 2002.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, also an MSU graduate, said in a statement: “The MSU Board of Trustees now has an opportunity to build a new foundation that will provide this university with a clean slate and a brighter future. The new president should be someone who will begin the healing process and restore trust between survivors, students, alumni and the administration.”
The board is due to announce a permanent president in June.
The university fired Nassar in 2016, two years after he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation. He also worked with the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.
A special prosecutor in December accused Michigan State of stonewalling his investigation into the school’s handling of the scandal. Bill Forsyth released a report that said the school fought the release of certain relevant documents and released others that were heavily redacted or irrelevant. It said such actions hampered the investigation.
“Their biggest concern was the reputation of the university,” Forsyth said at the time.
Williams reported from Detroit.
For more stories on Larry Nassar and the fallout from his years of sexual abuse of young women and girls: https://www.apnews.com/LarryNassar