Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

U.S. will not release Mideast peace plan before Israeli election

FILE PHOTO: Jason Greenblatt (C), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, arrives to visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will not release the long-delayed political portion of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan before Israel’s elections, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said on Wednesday.

The move, announced in a tweet by Greenblatt, appeared to be aimed at not interfering with September elections in which the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, is at stake.

“We have decided that we will not be releasing the peace vision (or parts of it) prior to the Israeli election,” Greenblatt said on Twitter.

Trump on Monday had said the plan might be revealed before the Israeli election.

Trump’s Middle East team, including senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had wanted to roll out the political plan during the summer but Netanyahu’s failure to put together a governing coalition after April elections prompted a delay.

Netanyahu now faces a fresh vote on Sept. 17 and if successful, will try again to form a coalition.

The White House in June announced the economic piece of the Trump peace plan and sought support for it at a conference of global finance ministers in Bahrain.

It proposes a $50 billion Middle East economic plan that would create a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies, and fund a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

Gulf leaders, however, want to see details of the political plan, which is aimed at resolving some of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, before signing on to the economic plan.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Steve Holland; Editing by Chris Reese)

Turkey’s opposition strikes blow to Erdogan with Istanbul mayoral win

Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), greets supporters at a rally of in Beylikduzu district, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Spicer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s opposition has dealt President Tayyip Erdogan a stinging blow by winning control of Istanbul in a re-run mayoral election, breaking his aura of invincibility and delivering a message from voters unhappy over his ever tighter grip on power.

Ekrem Imamoglu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 54.21% of votes, the head of the High Election Board announced on Monday – a far wider victory margin than his narrow win three months ago.

The previous result was annulled after protests from Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, which said there had been widespread voting irregularities. The decision to re-run the vote was criticized by Western allies and caused uproar among domestic opponents who said Turkey’s democracy was under threat.

On Sunday and in the early hours Monday, tens of thousands of Imamoglu supporters celebrated in the streets of Istanbul after the former businessman triumphed over Erdogan’s handpicked candidate by almost 800,000 votes.

“In this city today, you have fixed democracy. Thank you Istanbul,” Imamoglu told supporters who made heart signs with their hands, in an expression of the inclusive election rhetoric that has been the hallmark of his campaigning.

“We came to embrace everyone,” he said. “We will build democracy in this city, we will build justice. In this beautiful city, I promise, we will build the future.”

Erdogan congratulated him for the victory and Imamoglu’s rival, Binali Yildirim of the ruling AK Party (AKP), wished him luck as mayor barely two hours after polls closed.

WANING SUPPORT

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, becoming the country’s most dominant politician since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, nearly a century ago.

His AKP has strong support among pious and conservative Turks and its stewardship of Turkey’s economy through a decade and a half of construction-fuelled growth helped Erdogan win more than a dozen national and local elections.

But economic recession and a financial crisis have eroded that support and Erdogan’s ever-tighter control over government has alarmed some voters.

Turkey’s lira tumbled after the decision to annul the March vote and is down 8% this year, in part on election jitters.

But assets rallied on Monday as investors welcomed the removal of one source of political uncertainty. The lira firmed 1% against the dollar, shares rose nearly 2% and bond yields fell.

Imamoglu won support even in traditionally pious Istanbul districts, once known as AK Party strongholds, ending the 25-year-long Islamist rule in the country’s largest city.

“This re-run (election) was one to put an end to the dictatorship,” said Gulcan Demirkaya, a 48-year-old housewife in Istanbul’s AKP-leaning Kagithane district. “God willing, I would like to see him as the president in five years’ time. The one-man rule should come to an end.”

FALLOUT IN ANKARA

The results are likely to trigger a new chapter in Turkish politics, now that the country’s top three cities now held by the opposition. Cracks could also emerge within Erdogan’s AKP, bringing the economic troubles more to the fore.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the future of Turkish politics given the margin of victory. It’s alarming sign for the AKP establishment,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and former Turkish diplomat.

Analysts say the loss could set off a Cabinet reshuffle in Ankara and adjustments to foreign policy. The leader of the AKP’s nationalist ally played down the prospect that the loss could even trigger a national election earlier 2023, when the next polls are scheduled.

“The election process should close,” MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli said. “Talking of an early election would be among the worst things that can be done to our country.”

The uncertainty over the fate of Istanbul and potential delays in broader economic reforms have kept financial markets on edge. Threats of sanctions by the United States if Erdogan goes ahead with plans to install Russian missile defenses have also weighed on the markets.

A Council of Europe delegation said its observers were given a “less than friendly reception” in some places and had “too many unnecessarily aggressive and argumentative encounters to ignore,” but that the election was conducted competently.

“The citizens of Istanbul elected a new mayor in a well-organized and transparent vote, albeit in tense circumstances,” delegation head Andrew Dawson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Spicer; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen and Daren Butler; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Boyle)

The Deciders: Meet the voters defining America’s politics

John Lenges, 65, a resident of Pinellas County, who changed parties to vote Republican in 2016, and his sister Jeanne Coffin talk at the conclusion of U.S. President Donald Trump's re-election campaign kick off rally in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 18, 2019. I'd like to give him at least another four years." Before Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics and had never voted for a Republican president. "It was a wakeup call," he said. "Our country needed a turn." Lenges' framed ticket to Trump's inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to NASCAR. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Letitia Stein

(Reuters) – A retiree worried about his granddaughter’s future in Pinellas County, Florida. A factory worker in Racine County, Wisconsin, who doubts politicians will improve her life as a single mother.

A Boy Scout leader willing to cross party lines to revive his blue-collar town in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. A gay, Latino college student in Maricopa County, Arizona, preparing to cast his first presidential ballot.

These voters live in some of the most competitive counties in America’s presidential battleground states, places set to play an outsized role in the 2020 presidential election. All four counties were decided by four percentage points or less in 2016 and ultimately won by Donald Trump.

Trump’s path to a second term will test an electoral map he realigned. He must hold the strong support of the white, working-class voters who helped him capture Florida and Pennsylvania.

He will aim to build on his narrow victory in Wisconsin, which saw a decline in turnout among predominately Democratic black voters. And he is fighting to keep the onetime Republican stronghold of Arizona in his column as population shifts have put the state in play for Democrats.

Reuters will report from four critical counties in these states through the election for a better understanding of the people and places defining the presidential race.

The series starts with the stories of four people whose voting decisions – often driven by personal experiences, they said, rather than by party affiliation – continue to upend politics as usual.

JOHN LENGES IN PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA: “I’D LIKE TO GIVE HIM AT LEAST ANOTHER FOUR YEARS.”

John Lenges held four fingers in the air, cheering as a Florida crowd chanted “four more years” at this month’s opening rally for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Four years earlier, when Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics. He had never voted for a Republican president. Trump was different – a businessman and political outsider.

“It was a wakeup call,” said Lenges, 65, a retired maintenance supervisor. “Our country needed a turn.”

Lenges worries about his granddaughter’s future as he hears daily news reports of violence. He hates seeing the removal of statues honoring Confederate soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War, saying it trashes history.

Trump may not solve every problem, Lenges said, “but I think he’s a start.”

Friends called him crazy when he started waving handmade Trump signs around Pinellas County, where retirees, suburbanites and urban hipsters share sugar-sand beaches, and the electorate swings between the two major political parties in presidential contests.

He collects Trump memorabilia. His framed ticket to Trump’s inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to auto racing.

Lenges joined the Democratic Party when his father’s job as an assistant fire chief in Indiana depended on the party’s patronage. He remained loyal after moving to Florida and throughout his years raising his two sons to appreciate American eagles, motorcycles and the proper technique for skinning hogs.

To support Trump, Lenges became a Republican. He continues to root for the president’s agenda. On a recent vacation to the Grand Canyon, he added a day to visit the U.S.-Mexico border and the wall Trump has vowed to finish.

Posing for a photo, Lenges held a poster that read: “The silent majority stands with Trump.”

STACY BAUGH IN RACINE COUNTY, WISCONSIN: “IT’S GOING TO TAKE A LOT OF THOUGHT AND A LOT OF PERSUASION THIS TIME.”

Stacy Baugh would like a president attuned to the goals she sketched out in a planner in the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her cousin and their six children.

She wants job options. Ones that pay a wage she can live on, not the $13 per hour she has been earning on a hot factory line making air fresheners. She wants better schools for her children. She wants steady employment for their father despite his criminal record.

In 2016, she did not trust Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton to deliver. So the 31-year-old Democrat skipped the presidential contest even as she cast her ballot in other races.

“Either one of them in office, there wouldn’t have been any change,” Baugh said. “So why?”

Baugh was part of an unexpected drop-off in Democratic votes in heavily African-American wards of Racine, the beleaguered Rust Best city where she is raising her four young children.

Black, bisexual and too often broke, she knows the statistics on discrimination that have some experts calling her region one of the nation’s worst for African-Americans. She has nightmares about her two sons ending up in a place like the youth prison built on a shuttered factory site near her home.

Baugh is behind on her rent. She is focused on paying her bills, interviewing for jobs, securing daycare. For now, she says, these priorities leave little time to parse the policy positions of two dozen Democrats vying to oppose Trump.

Looking for a career path, she plans to complete an information technology support program. She attended a jobs training boot camp promising decent pay at the Foxconn technology plant under construction nearby. Those jobs have not materialized, she says, leaving her to question Trump’s plan to revive American manufacturing.

Baugh cannot see herself supporting Trump in next year’s election, calling his language and actions “classless.”

An activist with get-out-the-vote groups that advocate for workers, she had more faith in politics when Barack Obama was elected America’s first black president. He disappointed her by not pardoning more non-violent offenders.

She feared worse from Clinton in 2016 given the harsh criminal sentencing law signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

In 2020, she hopes to go door-to-door rallying votes for a Democrat she can believe in.

“I always go with the candidate who reaches me and touches me the most,” Baugh said. “But then nothing changes.”

KURT ZUHLKE IN NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA: “TRUMP LOOKS LIKE HE’S HOLDING HIS OWN.”

Kurt Zuhlke keeps an open mind about presidential politics.

He gave Obama two chances to make good on his promise to bring hope and change to America. When neither reached Zuhlke’s small town in Pennsylvania, the businessman switched allegiances to Trump.

“I wanted to throw the wrench into the gears and make sure that everybody realized that something is really wrong in this country,” Zuhlke said.

He remains inclined to vote for Trump again, describing the 2020 Democratic candidates as “too old” or “too socialist.”

A Boy Scout leader, Zuhlke, 63, wishes the president would tone down his brash comments. But he gives Trump high marks for his willingness to upset the ways of Washington. He is pleased with Trump’s touch on a national economy seeing unemployment at 50-year lows. And he admires how Trump has executed his pledges to reduce industry regulations.

He wants to see people employed and making things again in Northampton County’s Slate Belt, a swath of white, working-class towns that never recovered from the demise of slate quarries and textile mills.

When Zuhlke moved here three decades ago, local Italian immigrant families welcomed him and his young family at their Sunday spaghetti dinners. “Everybody knew everybody and took care of everybody,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Zuhlke, a Republican, has come to view Washington politicians from both parties as “ambulance chasers” who have lost touch with his community. In 2016, he said, Clinton epitomized that conceit when she called Trump’s supporters an offensive “basket of deplorables.”

Zuhlke respects the value of hard work. At age 13, he started cutting lawns. As a young adult, he washed dishes and sold insurance. He quit college upon learning he made more money than his economics professor.

He built a family-owned company into a global supplier of produce containers. He employs nine people locally, and has no interest in getting too big to keep up his golf game.

A sign with Zuhlke’s name is taped to a bunk bed in the cabin for Boy Scout Troop 36, where he volunteers as a way to guide the next generation. He said he will keep voting for those who offer the strong representation his community needs.

“I can go either way,” Zuhlke said. “I wanted somebody in there that could shake things up.”

ALEXIS RODRIGUEZ IN MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: “I FEEL EMPOWERED.”

When he casts his first presidential ballot next year, Alexis Rodriguez will be thinking about his Mexican mother, who works two custodial shifts a day without a vote in the country she has called home for decades.

Rodriguez was too young to participate in 2016. Now 19, he came of age politically as Trump’s conservative presidency seemed to take aim at his identities as young, gay and Latino.

“It scares me to this day, just knowing that I may be under attack,” he said.

Rodriguez has never known a home beyond Phoenix, the diverse anchor of Maricopa County and population center of historically Republican Arizona. Democratic expectations for the state are rising alongside the new homes and condos remaking its desert landscape.

In 2016, Trump won Maricopa by the smallest margins of any Republican presidential candidate in years. Voters at the same time ousted their longtime sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whose anti-immigration rhetoric became a national platform for Trump.

Rodriguez, then in high school, joined classroom political discussions. He became an intern at Promise Arizona, a local nonprofit, where he helped immigrants apply for citizenship and voting rights.

Last year, he registered to vote as a Democrat, drawn to the party’s inclusive message, and cast his first ballot in the midterm congressional elections.

Emboldened by his “I voted” sticker, Rodriguez came home and rallied his older brothers to the polls, filling the household car with voters who had skipped the 2016 election. Their votes helped narrowly elect Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual woman, as the first Arizona Democrat to win a U.S. Senate contest in three decades.

Rodriguez has now finished his freshman year studying social justice and human rights at Arizona State University, the first in his family to go to college.

On election night, he wants to watch the results arrive at home with his father, a Mexican-American veteran who shares his son’s enthusiasm for voting.

“We’re going to make sure that this country is for us,” he said. “Our voice matters.”

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith, Chris Kahn and Brian Snyder; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Paul Thomasch)

Putin: ready for Trump talks but U.S. elections could complicate ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an annual nationwide televised phone-in show in Moscow, Russia June 20, 2019. Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he was ready to hold talks with Donald Trump if that was what his U.S. counterpart wanted, but added that Trump’s re-election campaign could complicate U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump has said he expects to meet Putin at a G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, next week, though Moscow has so far said it has yet to receive a formal invitation for such talks.

U.S.-Russia ties remain strained by everything from Syria to Ukraine and Venezuela, as well as by allegations of Russian interference in U.S. politics, which Moscow denies.

Putin said this month that relations between Moscow and Washington were getting worse and worse.

“Dialogue is always good, there’s always demand for it,” said Putin during his annual question-and-answer session when quizzed about talks with Trump.

“Sure, if the American side shows interest … we are ready for dialogue.”

The Russian leader said the two countries had a lot to talk about, including strategic nuclear stability. A landmark arms control treaty is coming up for renewal, while both sides have said they are quitting the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, stoking fears of a wider arms race.

Putin said Trump’s drive to win another presidential term might complicate the situation, however.

“We all understand and see what is going on in domestic politics in the United States,” said Putin. “Even if the president wants to take steps toward us, wants to talk about anything, there are a huge number of limitations.

“Even more so now as the current head of state will make all his statements with his election campaign in mind. He has already started the campaign, so everything will not be simple in our relations,” Putin said.

The Russian leader said talks, if they took place, could help re-establish what he called normal relations between Russia and the United States, including on the economy. He also said he wanted the two countries to talks about cyber security.

(Additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya, Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Moscow Bureau; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle)

East Libyan troops close on Tripoli, clashes at airport

Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan troops commanded by Khalifa Haftar said on Friday they had advanced into the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli in a dangerous thrust against the internationally-recognized government.

Fighting was going on near the former international airport.

The moves by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, escalated a power struggle that has splintered the nation since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try and avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

Haftar, 75, who casts himself as an opponent of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres the operation would continue until terrorism was defeated.

The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.

In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This year, he took the south with its oilfields.

As well as visiting Haftar in Benghazi, U.N. boss Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But that plan looked in jeopardy on Thursday as LNA forces took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

From there, Haftar’s forces moved north, first taking the village of Suq al-Khamis, about 40 km from Tripoli, after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Then on Friday, the LNA said it took the areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of the capital, seizing the former Tripoli International Airport, which has been abandoned since a 2014 battle.

SETBACK TO MEDIATION PLAN

There was no independent confirmation of that, but a video posted online purportedly showed LNA fighters inside Qasr ben Ghashir suburb, which includes the airport.

However, the Tripoli interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, later told Ahrar TV his forces had retaken the old airport while there were clashes in the Qasr ben Ghashir area.

The LNA said it had lost five soldiers since Thursday.

While the advance has looked fast, so far Haftar’s force has mainly crossed sparsely-populated areas after taking Gharyan, the last town in the mountains before the road descends to a coastal plain.

In 2014 battles for Tripoli, it took advancing fighters weeks to reach the city center from the old airport as snipers bogged them down.

Forces from Misrata, a city east of Tripoli, sent more reinforcements to defend Serraj, residents said.

Major ministries are still 20 km away.

Despite their gains, Haftar’s forces failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied armed group withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

And in another setback, forces allied to Tripoli took 145 LNA fighters prisoner in Zawiya, west of the capital, a western commander, Mohamed Alhudair, told Reuters.

An LNA source confirmed 128 had been captured.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces.

The offensive is a setback for the United Nations and Western nations trying to mediate between Serraj, 59, who comes from a wealthy business family, and military veteran Haftar.

They met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss power-sharing.

The United Nations wants to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

The UAE, however, joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council due to the military escalation. Russia said it was not helping Haftar’s forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

Tunisia has tightened control on its border with Libya in response to the renewed conflict, the defense ministry said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean and has been a destination for migrants, was very worried, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

“We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating,” Salvini said.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Netanyahu to be charged in corruption cases, pending hearing: Israeli TV

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2019 REUTERS/ Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s attorney-general intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases, Israeli TV said on Thursday, citing the Justice Ministry.

The reported decision, ahead of Israel’s April 9 election, deepens uncertainty over Netanyahu’s prospects in a tight race.

The actual filing of the reported charges, which include bribery, fraud and breach of trust, will depend on the outcome of a required hearing. At that hearing – likely after the election – Netanyahu can try to persuade the attorney-general not to indict him.

Netanyahu, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term, denies any wrongdoing. In the long-running investigations, he is suspected of wrongfully accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensing favors in alleged bids for favorable coverage by a newspaper and a website.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party described the reported charges as “political persecution”. It said the prime minister, who has vowed not to resign over the allegations, was due to deliver a statement at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT).

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Stephen Farrell)

Exclusive: U.S. in direct contact with Venezuelan military, urging defections – source

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s Military Attache at its Washington embassy to the United States, is interviewed by Reuters after announcing that he is defecting from the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Luc Cohen, Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is holding direct communications with members of Venezuela’s military urging them to abandon leader Nicolas Maduro and is also preparing new sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on him, a senior White House official said.

The Trump administration expects further military defections from Maduro’s side, the official told Reuters in an interview, despite only a few senior officers having done so since opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president last month, earning the recognition of the United States and dozens of other countries.

“We believe these to be those first couple pebbles before we start really seeing bigger rocks rolling down the hill,” the official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re still having conversations with members of the former Maduro regime, with military members, although those conversations are very, very limited.”

The official declined to provide details on the discussions or the level at which they are being held, and it was unclear whether such contacts could create cracks in the Venezuelan socialist leader’s support from the military, which is pivotal to his grip on power.

With the Venezuelan military still apparently loyal to Maduro, a source in Washington close to the opposition expressed doubts whether the Trump administration has laid enough groundwork to spur a wider mutiny in the ranks where many officers are suspected of benefiting from corruption and drug trafficking.

Guaido says the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won a second term as president was a sham and on Jan. 23 invoked a constitutional provision to declare himself president, promising free and fair elections.

VENEZUELAN ASSETS

The U.S. government also sees European allies as likely to do more to prevent Maduro from transferring or hiding Venezuela government assets held outside the country, the U.S. official said.

Major European countries have joined the United States in backing Guaido but they have stopped short of the sweeping oil sanctions and financial measures that Washington has imposed.

At the same time, the Trump administration is readying further possible sanctions on Venezuela, the official said.

Previous rounds have targeted dozens of Venezuelan military and government officials, including Maduro himself, and last month finally hit the OPEC member’s vital oil sector. But the administration has stopped short of imposing so-called “secondary” sanctions, which would punish non-U.S. companies for doing business with the Venezuela government or the state oil monopoly PDVSA.

The U.S. official said that Washington had every tool available to apply pressure on Maduro and his associates “to accept a legitimate democratic transition.”

The U.S. government is also weighing possible sanctions on Cuban military and intelligence officials whom it says are helping Maduro remain in power, a second U.S. official and person familiar with the deliberations have told Reuters.

Maduro’s government has accused Guaido, who has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, of attempting to stage a U.S.-directed coup.

General Francisco Yanez of the air force’s high command became the first active Venezuelan general to recognize Guaido, but he is one of about 2,000 generals. Venezuela’s chief military attache to the United States also said he was defecting late last month.

Guaido has actively courted members of the military with promises of amnesty and preferential legal treatment if they disavow Maduro and disobey his orders, and Washington this week raised the prospect of dropping sanctions on senior Venezuelan officers if they recognize Guaido.

Maduro still has the support of the military high command, and now routinely appears in pre-recorded events at military bases where officers stand behind him and chant triumphal slogans such as “Loyal always, traitors never.”

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Luc Cohen and Roberta Rampton; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

U.S. says foreign meddling didn’t affect 2018 election systems

People fill out their ballots during the midterm election at Philomont Fire Station, in Purcellville, Virginia, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. officials said on Tuesday that foreign actors did not have a significant impact on computer systems and other equipment underpinning the November, 2018 congressional elections, despite reports of hacking attempts.

The statement by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contrasted with U.S. officials’ view that the 2016 presidential election was the target of a sophisticated Russian hacking and propaganda campaign to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hilary Clinton.

The two agencies said the U.S. government has found no evidence that foreign governments or agents had an impact last November, when Democrats won control of the House of Representatives.

Neither political campaigns nor electronic voting machines or other infrastructure was significantly affected, they said in a joint statement. They declined to provide further details.

U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether President Donald Trump’s campaign worked with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election. Trump has denied any collusion, and Moscow has also denied involvement.

Security experts have warned for years that U.S. election infrastructure — voting machines, voter registries and other computer systems — could be manipulated to change vote tallies or prevent people from casting ballots.

The 2016 election also illustrated how hackers can compromise candidates by releasing internal emails and other sensitive documents, and by working to sway public opinion through social media.

Ahead of the November 2018 election, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials warned that foreign actors were continuing their manipulation efforts. Prosecutors charged a Russian national with participating in a Kremlin-backed plan to interfere in the election.

Some state and local governments reported attempts to access their networks ahead of the November 2018 election, but U.S. officials said they were able to prevent or limit access.

On the night of the Nov. 6 election, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said there were no signs that voting systems had been breached.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republican candidates, said it was the target of a hacking attempt last year. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, running for re-election in West Virginia, also said his social-media accounts had been hacked.

U.S. intelligence officials warned last week that Russia and China are already targeting the 2020 presidential election.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and David Gregorio)

Israel to hold early election in April: Netanyahu spokesman

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will hold an early general election in April, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, after members of his governing coalition met to discuss differences over legislation.

“The leaders of the coalition decided unanimously to dissolve parliament and go to a new election in early April,” the spokesman wrote on Twitter, quoting from a statement issued by Netanyahu’s political partners.

A coalition crisis over a military conscription bill affecting exemptions from compulsory service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men led to the decision.

Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, has been governing with a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. He heads the right-wing Likud party.

Under Israeli law, a national election had to be held by November 2019. Netanyahu’s government would remain in place until a new one is sworn in, after the April poll.

A series of corruption probes against Netanyahu and pending decisions by Israel’s attorney general on whether to follow police recommendations to indict him had raised speculation he would opt to seek a public show of confidence at the ballot box.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and has given no indication he will step down if charged.

The 69-year-old Israeli leader made no immediate comment after his meeting with the coalition leaders. Recent opinion polls have shown his popularity remains strong among Israelis.

The likelihood of an early election increased in November after Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government, leaving the ruling coalition with its one-seat majority.

No one in Netanyahu’s Likud has made a public challenge against him, and the party is expected to close ranks around him in the coming election.

Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party is second to Likud in opinion polls.

Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz, is seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favor of a center-left bloc, but has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.

On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerges in a weaker position in an election.

Netanyahu first led Israel from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009. His current government has been in power since May 2015.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)