US intel heads list North Korea, not border, as threat to US
By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer
Wednesday, January 30
WASHINGTON (AP) — Directly contradicting President Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, that the Islamic State group remains a threat and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. The chiefs made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border for which Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.
Their analysis stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s almost singular focus on security gaps at the border as the biggest threat facing the United States.
Top security officials including FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. They warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korean nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.
Coats said intelligence information does not support the idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will eliminate his nuclear weapons and the capacity for building more — a notion that is the basis of the U.S. negotiating strategy.
“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” Coats told the committee.
Coats did note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and over the past year has not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.
The “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report on which Coats based his testimony said U.S. intelligence continues to “observe activity inconsistent with” full nuclear disarmament by the North. “In addition, North Korea has for years underscored its commitment to nuclear arms, including through an order in 2018 to mass-produce weapons and an earlier law — and constitutional change — affirming the country’s nuclear status,” it said.
The report said Kim’s support at his June 2018 Singapore summit with Trump for “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is a formulation linked to an end to American military deployments and exercises involving nuclear weapons.
Trump asserted after the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. However, Coats and other intelligence officials made clear they see it differently.
“The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Plans for a follow-up Trump-Kim summit are in the works, but no agenda, venue or date has been announced.
More broadly, the intelligence report on which Coats and the heads of other intelligence agencies based their testimony predicted that security threats to the United States and its allies this year will expand and diversify, driven in part by China and Russia. It says Moscow and Beijing are more aligned than at any other point since the mid-1950s and their global influence is rising even as U.S. relations with traditional allies are in flux.
“Some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perception of changing U.S. policies on security and trade,” the report said, without providing examples or further explanation.
The report also said the Islamic State group “remains a terrorist and insurgent threat” inside Iraq, where the government faces “an increasingly disenchanted public.”
The intelligence assessment, which is provided annually to Congress, made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump has asserted as the basis for his demand that Congress finance a border wall. The report predicted additional U.S.-bound migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with migrants preferring to travel in caravans in hopes of a safer journey.
In Syria, where Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops, the government of Bashar Assad is likely to consolidate control, with Russia and Iran attempting to further entrench themselves in Syria, the report said. Asked for her assessment, Haspel said of the IS group: “They’re still dangerous.” She added that they still command “thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
The intelligence agencies said Iran continues to work with other parties to the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other Western nations. In doing so, they said, it has at least temporarily lessened the nuclear threat. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord, which he called a terrible deal that would not stop Iran from going nuclear.
The intelligence assessment of Afghanistan, more than 17 years into a conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., projected a continued military stalemate. Without mentioning prospects for a peace deal, which appear to have improved only in recent days, the report said, “neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year” if the U.S. maintains its current levels of support. Trump has ordered a partial pullback of U.S. forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.
Coats told the committee that Russia and perhaps other countries are likely to attempt to use social media and other means to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the intelligence report said.
The report specifically warned about Russia’s cyberattack capabilities.
“Moscow is now staging cyberattack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage U.S. civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis,” it said.
US prosecutor calls evidence against El Chapo overwhelming
Wednesday, January 30
NEW YORK (AP) — A prosecutor says there’s overwhelming proof that Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman flooded the United States with ton-after-ton of cocaine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg told a jury in closing arguments Wednesday that the testimony by 14 cooperators, wiretaps and other evidence showed Guzman used corruption and violence to control his drug-trafficking empire.
The prosecutor began her argument by detailing testimony about how the Sinaloa cartel boss once cursed at two kidnap victims before shooting them in the head.
Guzman is facing multiple drug and murder conspiracy charges that could land him in prison for life if he’s convicted. The defense insists the allegations are fabricated.
The government’s closing argument was expected to last most of Wednesday. The defense’s closing is set for Thursday.
GOP leaders signal no taste for renewing shutdown over wall
By ALAN FRAM and ANDREW TAYLOR
Wednesday, January 30
WASHINGTON (AP) — Wary of reigniting a clash that proved damaging to Republicans, congressional GOP leaders signaled Tuesday that they want to de-escalate the battle over President Donald Trump’s border wall and suggested they could be flexible as bargainers seek a bipartisan agreement.
In what seemed a message aimed at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the two confrontational tactics that Trump has threatened to employ if negotiators can’t craft a border security accord to his liking. The president has said he’d trigger a fresh shutdown or declare a national emergency on the Southwest boundary, a disputed move that could let him redirect budget funds to building segments of the wall.
The remarks by McConnell, R-Ky., were noteworthy because the guarded lawmaker seldom volunteers his opinions and reporters had not specifically asked him about a shutdown or a possible emergency declaration. The comments underscored his party’s eagerness to put the 35-day partial federal shutdown behind them and avoid additional jarring clashes, and suggested possible divisions between GOP lawmakers and the White House.
“I’m for whatever works that would prevent the level of dysfunction we’ve seen on full display here the last month and also doesn’t bring about a view on the president’s part that he needs to declare a national emergency,” McConnell said when asked to describe a border security agreement he’d support.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he would not insist that any deal include the word “wall.” The comment signaled the GOP’s latest rhetorical retreat from a battle cry — “Build the wall!” — that Trump made a keystone of his presidential campaign.
The longest shutdown ever was initiated by Trump after Democrats refused his demand for $5.7 billion to build segments of his long-sought border wall. Polls show people chiefly blame Trump and Republicans for the shutdown and widely dislike the wall.
The president surrendered last Friday and agreed to reopen government for three weeks so negotiators can seek a border security deal, but with no commitments for wall funds.
House-Senate bargainers plan their first negotiating session Wednesday.
Some lawmakers have suggested broadening whatever package emerges, perhaps adding protections from deportation for young “Dreamer” immigrants in the U.S. illegally or making it harder for future shutdowns to occur. Disagreements over those issues make their inclusion unlikely, most lawmakers say.
McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that the wording of an agreement “could be barrier. It doesn’t have to be a wall.”
Trump has retreated increasingly from “wall” as it became apparent that he lacked the votes in Congress to win taxpayer financing for the project, which he initially said would be financed by Mexico.
“They can name it ‘Peaches,’” Trump said earlier this month. “I don’t care what they name it. But we need money for that barrier.” He’s also recently tweeted a new mantra, “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!”
McCarthy said wall and barrier mean the same thing to him and Trump.
“Inside the meetings we’ve had, he’s said it could be a barrier, it could be a wall,” said McCarthy. “Because what a barrier does, it’s still the same thing. It’s the 30-foot steel slat, that’s a barrier.”
White House spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp said, “The president has perfectly set this table for the negotiations with Congress. He wants to give Congress one more chance.”
Democrats have repeatedly said they wouldn’t finance the wall, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called “immoral.” In recent weeks, they’ve expressed support for fencing or physical barriers but have left ambiguous exactly what they would back. They’ve said they want to spend money on more border patrol agents and technology like scanning devices and drones.
“There are many kinds of walls, and so I think that we’re going to try to find common ground,” said No. 3 House Democratic leader James Clyburn of South Carolina.
McConnell and many GOP lawmakers have long sought to avoid government shutdowns, aware of the tactic’s long and consistent history of backfiring badly on whoever sparks one. In the one that just ended, 800,000 federal workers went unpaid for five weeks, countless Americans were denied federal services and mushrooming problems included slowed air travel and delayed IRS refunds.
“There certainly would be no education in the third kick of a mule,” said McConnell, adding an additional kick to the homily he frequently cites about how shutdowns don’t work.
Members of both parties have opposed Trump declaring an emergency on the Mexican border. They say it would set a dangerous precedent for future presidents who might use the strategy to push their own agendas that stall in Congress. If he issued the declaration, it would trigger near-immediate lawsuits that might block the money anyway.
“There’s no appetite for government shutdowns and there’s not much appetite for an emergency declaration. For a lot of reasons, our members are very wary of that,” said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota.
Interviews with numerous Republican lawmakers showed little taste for a new shutdown.
“Most members, whatever faction in the Republican caucus, would be opposed to a shutdown and would do everything they can to work some kind of deal,” said Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a member of House GOP leadership.
AP congressional correspondent Lisa Mascaro and reporters Matthew Daly and Jill Colvin contributed.
Trump friend Roger Stone pleads not guilty in Russia probe
By ERIC TUCKER and CHAD DAY
Wednesday, January 30
WASHINGTON (AP) — Roger Stone, a longtime adviser and confidant of President Donald Trump, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony charges in the Russia investigation after a publicity-filled few days spent slamming the probe as politically motivated.
The political operative and self-described dirty trickster faces charges that he lied to lawmakers, engaged in witness tampering and obstructed a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
He was uncharacteristically quiet during Tuesday’s brief court appearance, rising to his feet to say, “Yes, Your Honor,” as U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson asked if he would agree to the conditions of his release, including restricted travel.
Stone attorney Robert Buschel entered the plea on his client’s behalf.
The voluble Stone, 66, held no press conference as he arrived and departed the courthouse amid dueling chants of “Lock Him Up” and “We Love Roger.” He waved and smiled to the small crowd, some holding up glowing photos of him, and he largely ignored a group of protesters carrying signs reading “Dirty traitor.” The Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” blared from speakers outside the courthouse.
Although large crowds surrounded him as he was driven away in a black SUV, Stone was more subdued than during the circus-like atmosphere of his Friday court appearance, when he emerged in a blue polo shirt, flashed a Richard Nixon victory sign, predicted his vindication and vowed that he would not “bear false witness against the president, nor will I make up lies to ease the pressure on myself.”
Stone, who was arrested last week at his Florida home, is the sixth Trump aide charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The indictment does not accuse Stone of coordinating with Russia or with WikiLeaks on the release of hacked Democratic emails. But it does allege that he misled lawmakers about his pursuit of those communications and interest in them. The anti-secrecy website published emails in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election that the U.S. says were stolen from Democrats by Russian operatives.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that the investigation is “close to being completed,” although an exact timetable is unclear.
Mueller continues to be interested in hearing from Stone aide Andrew Miller, who is fighting a grand jury subpoena, indicating the special counsel could be pursuing additional criminal charges against Stone or others related to the release of hacked material during the 2016 election by WikiLeaks, its founder, Julian Assange, and the online persona Guccifer 2.0.
Paul Kamenar, Miller’s attorney, said Mueller’s team notified him of their continued interest late Monday. Miller defied the grand jury subpoena last summer and took his challenge of Mueller’s authority to a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has yet to rule in the case.
Mueller’s team and lawyers with the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia are jointly prosecuting the case against Stone. They did not push for Stone to be jailed or for Robinson to impose a gag order in the case.
He remains free on $250,000 bond.
Stone, who has alleged without evidence that the FBI used “Gestapo tactics” in arresting him, has said he did nothing more than exercise his First Amendment rights to drum up interest with voters about the WikiLeaks disclosures. He has also denied discussing the issue with Trump.
“That’s what I engaged in. It’s called politics and they haven’t criminalized it, at least not yet,” Stone said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“All I did was take publicly available information and try to hype it to get it as much attention as possible, because I had a tip, the information was politically significant and that it would come in October,” he added.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.
Congress’s First Step Act reflects a new criminal justice consensus, but will it reduce mass incarceration?
January 30, 2019
Author: Michelle S Phelps, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Law, University of Minnesota
Disclosure statement: Michelle S Phelps 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.
When Donald Trump was elected president, many people feared his “law and order” campaign rhetoric would mean the end of criminal justice reform.
Trump confirmed this impression by appointing Jeff Sessions, an aggressive supporter of the “wars” on crime and drugs, to lead the Justice Department. Sessions quickly reversed a number of the progressive reforms introduced under President Barack Obama, including reducing penalties for drug offenses, ending private prison contracts, and investigating conduct of local police departments.
Yet by December 2018, Jeff Sessions had resigned and the federal government passed a criminal justice reform bill, the “First Step Act.” The law reduces prison sentences, by changing the sentencing guidelines and facilitating early release, and supports education and treatment programs in prison.
The bill was supported by the White House, Republican and Democratic leaders, and an unlikely set of advocates from progressive non-profits like the Brennan Center and American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Brothers.
The following month, Trump seemingly reversed course again, appointing William Barr – another staunch supporter of the “tough on crime” approach – to replace Sessions.
How do we make sense of these seemingly contradictory developments and alliances?
I have found in my research that criminal justice policies and practices in the United States have often followed complex trajectories. Reforms often receive support from unlikely coalitions. But, by focusing on these strange bedfellows, commentators and advocates sometimes paper over the deeper disagreements in ideas about who, how and how much to punish. Fights over these differences ultimately shape how policies get put into practice – and whether the bill ultimately achieves its intended outcomes.
While the First Step Act’s passage may look like a clear victory for more moderate punishment, its implementation and impact under the Trump administration is likely to be quite limited.
Bipartisan agreement on “reform”
Criminal justice is often described by academics and journalists as a pendulum that swings wildly between harsh punishment focused on retribution, and more lenient treatment focused on redemption or reformation. In this metaphor, some people saw Trump’s election as a swing of the pendulum away from progressive punishment and back toward punitive policies.
In our book Breaking the Pendulum, my colleagues Joshua Page and Philip Goodman and I argue that a better metaphor is the constant, low-level grinding of tectonic plates that continually produce friction and occasionally erupt in earthquakes. This friction manifests in traditional political combat, mass demonstrations, prison rebellions, and academic and policy work. Periodically, major changes in conditions like crime rates and the economy change to provide support and opportunities to one side or another.
These changes often bring together unlikely allies.
People typically associate the “law and order” approach to criminal justice with Republicans. However, new research shows how liberals laid the ground for these policies. It was the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s that first launched the “war on crime” by expanding federal funding to build up the capacity of local law enforcement agencies. In the following decades, the crime rate spiked, due in part to better reporting by police departments, and crime became a hot political issue.
By the 1990s, Republicans and Democrats had all but converged on attitudes toward law enforcement. Not wanting to lose to Republicans by being portrayed as “soft on crime,” Democrats took increasingly “tough” criminal justice stances. President Bill Clinton’s wildly popular 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was the apex of this bipartisan enthusiasm for aggressive policing, prosecution and punishment. The bill made federal sentencing guidelines more severe, increasing both life sentences and the death penalty, and built up funding streams to increase local police forces and state prison capacity.
Despite the rhetoric of the crime bill, the best evidence suggests that it played little role in the explosion of the national prison population – or what scholars term “mass imprisonment.” This is because policies focused on harsh punishment had already peaked by 1994. In addition, it only applied to the federal system, which represents only 10 percent of all people locked up. Finally, even though there was wide support for the crime bill, activists, politicians, judges and others continued to fight against “tough” punishment, eventually building the momentum for the First Step Act.
First Step Act
What does this history tell us about the First Step Act?
First, it’s not surprising that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals came together on the bill. Both camps have moved away from the “tough on crime” mantra. Democrats now talk of “smart on crime” policies while some Republicans support the “right on crime” initiative. Both agree that aggressive policing and heavy criminal penalties for low-level offenses, particularly drug crimes, do more harm than good.
The rise of a new approach to criminal justice can be tied to a number of changes since the 1990s, including historically low crime rates, strained state and federal budgets and a growing awareness of the negative consequences of mass incarceration. Critically, a cadre of conservative leaders spent the past two decades working to change Republican orthodoxy on this issue. They frame mass incarceration as a fiscal and moral failure that wastes tax dollars and violates the Christian principles of “second chances” and redemption.
As a result criminal justice reforms have been spreading to red and blue states alike since the 2000s. After the 2016 election, advocates including Jared Kushner, and a slew of celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, have urged the President to embrace reform. These pressures ultimately succeeded in prompting the White House to support the First Step Act.
However, bipartisan consensus is not as seamless as it is sometimes portrayed. A group of Republican leaders remain aggressively opposed to these criminal justice reforms. And at the last hour, they nearly killed the First Step Act.
That takes us back to Barr – Trump’s recent selection to replace Sessions at the Department of Justice. Barr was President George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General. He is perhaps best known for endorsing a Justice Department memo arguing for “More Incarceration” in 1992. As recently as 2015, he vocally opposed federal sentencing reform.
During his confirmation hearing last week, Barr promised to “diligently implement” the First Step Act, but then backtracked to support Session’s policies at the Justice Department, adding, “we must keep up the pressure on chronic, violent criminals.”
Like the ‘94 bill before it, this indicates that the First Step Act will likely be more bark than bite. The First Step Act might provide relief to several thousand current federal prisoners. But Barr will likely follow Sessions and direct his prosecutors to seek the maximum criminal penalties against current defendants, including for drug offenses, limiting the impact of the First Step Act’s sentencing reform. And the bill will have no practical effect on state prison systems, which in some cases have already embraced much more radical reforms.
While the First Step Act is a move in the direction of more humane and moderate criminal justice practices, I think it will likely be a very small first step indeed.