U.S. appeals court orders dismissal of criminal case against Michael Flynn

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday directed a federal judge to drop a criminal case against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI, handing a victory to the Justice Department and effectively ending the politically charged case.

In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of Flynn and the Trump administration in preventing U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan from exercising his discretion on whether to grant the department’s motion to clear Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty.

The ruling prevents Sullivan from hearing arguments at a July 16 hearing from retired judge John Gleeson, whom he appointed as a “friend of the court” to argue against dropping the case.

“In this case, the district court’s actions will result in

specific harms to the exercise of the executive branch’s

exclusive prosecutorial power,” wrote Judge Neomi Rao, who was appointed by Trump.

“The contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” she added.

Judge Robert Wilkins, an Obama administration appointee, dissented.

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was one of several former Trump aides charged under former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

He switched lawyers to pursue a new scorched-earth tactic that accused the FBI of entrapping him, and asked the judge to dismiss the charge.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

U.S. Department of Justice says probe into George Floyd’s death ‘top priority’

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday it had made its investigation into police involvement in the death of George Floyd a “top priority,” after a second day of protests in Minneapolis over the unarmed black man’s death.

Experienced prosecutors and investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been assigned as part of a “robust” probe into whether the police officers involved had violated federal laws, the department said in a statement.

The statement followed a second day of protests in Minneapolis triggered by rage over the death of Floyd, a black man who was seen in a widely circulated video gasping for breath as a white officer knelt on his neck.

Floyd, 46, died on Monday. The investigation will be carried out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office.

The widely circulated video of Floyd’s fatal encounter on Monday night with the police, taken by a bystander, showed him lying face down and handcuffed, groaning for help and repeatedly saying, “please, I can’t breathe,” before becoming motionless.

The second day of demonstrations, accompanied by looting and vandalism, began on Wednesday hours after Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey urged prosecutors to file criminal charges against the white policeman shown pinning Floyd to the street.

The victim’s brother Philonise Floyd told CNN on Thursday that he was “tired of seeing black men die” and understood people’s anger but urged protesters to be peaceful.

“To the police, I want them to get everything right, start doing your job the right way because I haven’t been seeing it,” Floyd said.

“I want justice, I just want justice,” he added, struggling to fight back tears.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Gareth Jones and Bernadette Baum)

FBI finds evidence linking al Qaeda to 2019 Saudi shooter at Florida naval base: U.S. source

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has found cellphone evidence linking al Qaeda to the Royal Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three American sailors and wounded eight people in a December shooting spree at a U.S. naval base in Florida, a federal law enforcement source said on Monday.

The shooter, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, was killed by law enforcement during the Dec. 6, 2019 attack.

He was on the base as part of a U.S. Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies.

Since then, the Justice Department has been working to try and unlock the encryption on the shooter’s phone to get a better sense of his motives and whether he had connections to known terrorist groups.

In February, an audio recording purporting to be from the Islamist militant group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the fatal attack, but it provided no evidence.

Prior to the shooting spree, the shooter also posted criticism of U.S. wars and quoted slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on social media.

The Justice Department has also previously said that Alshamrani visited the New York City memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States – carried out by Saudi hijackers for the Islamist militant group al Qaeda – and posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media, including two hours before the attack.

The FBI’s newly discovered evidence on Alshamrani’s phone signals the end of a spat between Attorney General William Barr and Apple Inc.

Earlier this year, he accused Apple of failing to help the FBI to get Alshamrani’s two cellphones unlocked, an allegation Apple staunchly denied.

Barr has said the Saudi government did not have any advanced warnings of the shooting.

However, in January, Saudi Arabia withdrew its remaining 21 cadets from the U.S. military training program and brought them back to Saudi Arabia, after the Justice Department’s investigation revealed that some of them had accessed child pornography or had social media accounts containing Islamic extremist or anti-American content.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. accuses China-linked hackers of stealing coronavirus research

By Raphael Satter

(Reuters) – China-linked hackers are breaking into American organizations carrying out research into COVID-19, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, warning both scientists and public health officials to be on the lookout for cyber theft.

In a joint statement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security said the FBI was investigating digital break-ins at U.S. organizations by China-linked “cyber actors” that it had monitored “attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.”

The statement offered no further details on the identities of the targets or the hackers.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China routinely denies longstanding American allegations of cyberespionage.

Coronavirus-related research and data have emerged as a key intelligence priority for hackers of all stripes. Last week Reuters reported that Iran-linked cyberspies had targeted staff at U.S. drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc., whose antiviral drug remdesivir is the only treatment so far proven to help COVID-19 patients.

In March and April, Reuters reported on advanced hackers’ attempts to break into the World Health Organization as the pandemic spread across the globe.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Howard Goller)

North Korea hacking threatens U.S., other countries, international financial system: U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. government officials warned on Wednesday about the threat of North Korean hackers, calling particular attention to banking and other finance.

The reason for the advisory – which was jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – was unclear. North Korean hackers have long been accused of targeting financial institutions, and the content of the warning appeared to draw on material already in the public domain.

Requests for comment sent to the U.S. agencies were not immediately returned. The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

North Korea is alleged to be behind an ambitious, years-long campaign of digital theft, including siphoning tens of millions of dollars in cash from ATMs, carrying out gigantic thefts at major banks, extorting computer users worldwide, and hijacking digital currency exchanges. The global money-grab has been a topic of increasing international concern.

Last year, for example, a U.N. report said that North Korea had generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” hacking efforts.

In Wednesday’s advisory, U.S. officials said North Korea’s online activities “threaten the United States and countries around the world and, in particular, pose a significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Tim Ahmann, and Raphael Satter in Washington. Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York. Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

FBI needs to do more to fight domestic extremist threats, watchdog says

By Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has not done enough to fight homegrown extremist threats and has yet to figure out how to determine whether people it investigates who have mental health issues pose an actual threat to national security, the U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Wednesday.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz also found that the FBI did not follow up on some cases that had been flagged as potential threats.

The report found shortcomings in the FBI’s efforts to prevent mass attacks by U.S. residents who have been inspired by international militant groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda, which the agency says its highest counterterrorism priority.

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

So-called homegrown violent extremists have carried out more than 20 attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001 – some perpetrated by people the FBI had already investigated.

Horowitz found that the FBI conducted reviews after those attacks to find out what it had missed, but didn’t make sure that agents followed through with its proposed improvements.

The FBI concluded in 2017 that it should have conducted about 6 percent of its counterterrorism assessments more thoroughly. But the agency did not re-examine nearly half of those cases for 18 months, Horowitz wrote.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

FBI points to China as biggest U.S. law-enforcement threat

By Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI on Thursday identified China as the biggest law enforcement threat to the United States, and its director said Beijing was seeking to steal American technology by “any means necessary.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a conference the bureau currently had about 1,000 investigations open into Chinese technology theft across its 56 regional offices.

FBI counterintelligence chief John Brown said the bureau arrested 24 people in 2019 in China-related cases and had already arrested 19 people in 2020.

He told the conference at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that the FBI believed “no country poses a greater threat than Communist China.”

Wray said the threat needed to be dealt with through action across the whole of the U.S. government.

“As I stand here talking with you today, the FBI has about 1,000 investigations involving China’s attempted theft of U.S.-based technology in all 56 of our field offices and spanning just about every industry sector,” he said.

Wray added that China was aggressively exploiting U.S. academic openness to steal technology, using “campus proxies” and establishing “institutes on our campuses.”

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the conference China was placing particular priority on stealing U.S. aircraft and electric vehicle technology.In advance of Thursday’s event, Evanina estimated the theft of American trade secrets by China costs the United States “anywhere from $300 to $600 billion” a year.

The FBI data shows an aggressively stepped-up campaign by U.S. authorities to root out Chinese espionage operations pursuing American secrets. This has snared a growing group of Chinese government officials, business people, and academics.

In 2019 alone, public records show U.S. authorities arrested and expelled two Chinese diplomats who allegedly drove onto a military base in Virginia. They also caught and jailed former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officials on espionage charges linked to China.

China’s efforts to steal unclassified American technology, ranging from military secrets to medical research, have long been thought to be extensive and aggressive, but U.S. officials only launched a broad effort to stop alleged Chinese espionage in the United States in 2018.

CHINA SAYS CHARGES ‘ENTIRELY BASELESS’

The Chinese embassy in Washington rejected the U.S. allegations as “entirely baseless.”

“The people-to-people exchange between China and the US is conducive to stronger understanding between the two peoples and serves the fundamental interests of our two countries,” it said in an emailed statement.

According to CSIS, of 137 publicly reported instances of Chinese-linked espionage against the United States since 2000, 73% took place in the last decade,

The CSIS data, which excludes cases of intellectual property litigation and attempts to smuggle munitions or controlled technologies, shows that military and commercial technologies are the most common targets for theft.

In the area of medical research, of 180 investigations into misuse of National Institutes of Health funds, diversion of research intellectual property and inappropriate sharing of confidential information, more than 90% of the cases have links to China, according to an NIH spokeswoman.

One main reason Chinese espionage, including extensive hacking in cyberspace, has expanded is that “China depends on Western technology and as licit avenues are closed, they turn to espionage to get access,” said CSIS expert James Lewis.

In late January alone, federal prosecutors in Boston announced three new criminal cases involving industrial spying or stealing, including charges against a Harvard department chair.

Prosecutors said Harvard’s Charles Lieber lied to the Pentagon and the NIH about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan: a Chinese government program that offers mainly Chinese scientists working overseas lavish financial incentives to bring their expertise and knowledge back to China. They said he also lied about his affiliation with China’s Wuhan University of Technology.

During at least part of the time he was signed up with the Chinese university, Lieber was also a “principal investigator” working on at least six research projects funded by U.S. Defense Department agencies, court documents show.

A lawyer for Lieber did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chris Sanders, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

FBI investigating New Jersey kosher grocery rampage as domestic terrorism

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A fatal gun rampage at a kosher grocery store in northern New Jersey this week is now being treated as an act of domestic terrorism and the FBI will oversee the investigation, federal and state law enforcement officials said on Thursday.

Six people, including the man and woman who carried out the attack, three civilians and a police officer died in a series of events that ended in a police shootout on Tuesday in Jersey City, New Jersey, located across the Hudson River from New York City.

“The evidence points toward acts of hate,” state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told a news conference. “We are investigating this matter as potential acts of domestic terror, fueled both by anti-Semitism and anti-law enforcement beliefs.”

The U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, told the news conference that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would lead the probe.

The four-hour gun battle at the JC Kosher Supermarket erupted after two assailants shot the police officer at a nearby cemetery and then fled in a white van. It ended after police crashed an armored vehicle through the wall of the market. Authorities on Wednesday said that the pair had targeted the kosher grocery store, heading there deliberately after leaving the cemetery.

On Thursday, authorities said they were examining social media posts and other evidence to learn more about the motives of the attackers, who they said had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group unaffiliated with mainstream Judaism and some of whose offshoots the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as hate groups. Authorities have not established an official link between the shooters and the group, Grewal said.

The attackers appear to have acted alone, officials said.

Authorities on Wednesday identified the shooters as David Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50. The three civilian victims inside the market were co-owner Mindy Ferencz, 31, Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, and Moshe Deutsch, 24, they said.

A fourth person who was in the market escaped after the shooters entered. Officials declined to identify that person.

The slain police officer was identified as Joseph Seals, a 15-year veteran of the force and father of five.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop labeled the incident a hate crime just hours after the attack.

“I think as more info comes out it will be more and more clear not only that this was a hate crime but that the perpetrators had hoped to kill many more people than 4,” Fulop said on Twitter earlier.

Law enforcement recovered five guns linked to the two suspects, Grewal said. Four of them were recovered inside the kosher supermarket and one was recovered inside the van.

Officials said Anderson fired an AR-15-style weapon and Graham was armed with a 12-gauge shotgun as they entered the store. A 9mm Glock and 9mm semi-automatic firearm were recovered inside the market, and a .22-caliber gun equipped with a homemade silencer was found inside the U-Haul.

Authorities also said they were working to determine if Anderson and Graham were linked to the killing of an Uber driver in Bayonne, New Jersey, over the weekend.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

Mistakes, but no political bias in FBI probe of Trump campaign: watchdog

By Sarah N. Lynch, Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Monday that it found numerous errors but no evidence of political bias by the FBI when it opened an investigation into contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.

The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz gave ammunition to both Trump’s supporters and his Democratic critics in the debate about the legitimacy of an investigation that clouded the first two years of his presidency.

It will not be the last word on the subject.

Federal prosecutor John Durham, who is running a separate criminal investigation on the origins of the Russia probe, said he did not agree with some of the report’s conclusions.

Horowitz found that the FBI had a legal “authorized purpose” to ask for court approval to begin surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

But he also found a total of 17 “basic and fundamental” errors and omissions in its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) that made the case appear stronger than it was.

For example, the FBI continued to rely on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele in its warrant applications even after one of Steele’s sources told the agency that his statements had been mischaracterized or exaggerated.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said that effectively turned the investigation into a “criminal enterprise” to defraud the court and violate Page’s rights.

“I don’t fault anybody for looking into allegations like this. I do fault them for lying and misrepresenting to the court,” said Graham, who will hold a hearing on Wednesday examining the report’s findings.

The report also singled out an FBI lawyer for altering an email in a renewal of the warrant application to claim that Page was not a source for another U.S. government agency, when in fact he did work from 2008 to 2013 with another agency that was not identified in the report. The lawyer, identified by Republicans as Kevin Clinesmith, did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats said the report showed that there was no basis for Trump’s repeated charges that the FBI was trying to undermine his chances of winning the White House.

“This report conclusively debunks the baseless conspiracy that the investigations into Mr. Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference.

Trump called the investigation a witch hunt and assailed FBI leaders and career staffers who worked on it.

“This was an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

The FBI investigation was taken over in May 2017 by former FBI chief Robert Mueller after Trump fired James Comey as the agency’s director.

“Those who attacked the FBI for two years should admit they were wrong,” Comey said in a Washington Post op-ed.

Mueller’s 22-month special counsel investigation detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States and help Trump defeat Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Mueller documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Moscow but found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.

Attorney General William Barr, who ordered the Durham investigation, said the report showed that the FBI launched its investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said he had ordered dozens of revisions to fix problems highlighted in the report, such as changes to warrant applications and methods for dealing with informants. The FBI would review the conduct of employees mentioned in the report, he said.

Horowitz said his office on Monday began a new review to further scrutinize the FBI’s compliance with its own fact-checking policies used to get applications to surveil U.S. persons in counterterrorism investigations, as well as counterintelligence probes.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Brad Heath and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

Attorney General Barr launches effort to prevent more mass shootings

Attorney General Barr launches effort to prevent more mass shootings
By Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday announced an initiative to prevent mass shootings by intervening to provide mental-health treatment and other forms of counseling to potentially violent individuals.

The new effort, announced in a memo to federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials, follows dozens of deadly mass shootings in the United States this year, including a massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and another just one day later in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed.

Barr said a training conference at FBI headquarters in December will present “proven models for engaging extremely challenging individuals” and consider new ideas to face such threats.

In one successful case, Barr said, the FBI worked with parents and social-service workers to get court-ordered supervision and mental-health treatment for a young person who was the subject of a threat investigation.

Lawmakers are considering whether they need new laws to help the FBI investigate domestic terrorism instigated by U.S. residents who are motivated by white supremacy, anti-Semitism or other ideologies that are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech guarantees.

The FBI in the past has come under criticism for how it documents and follows up on investigative leads about possible shooters.

In the wake of the Feb. 18 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the FBI’s No. 2 official David Bowdich told Congress the bureau should have done more after it received warnings about the gunman, Nikolas Cruz.

Earlier this year, the FBI requested bids for a contractor who could help it try to detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)