Senate panel plans to issue subpoenas to CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker will issue subpoenas to the chief executives of Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they do not agree to testify at a hearing on Oct. 1.

The hearing will discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that technology companies have when it comes to liability over content posted by users.

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result calls for a reform of tech’s prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but has little chance to be approved by Congress this year

The committee will issue subpoenas if the technology companies do not agree to appear in front of the committee by Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Wicker confirmed to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.

“Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the elections.

The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Singaporean pleads guilty in U.S. to acting as Chinese intelligence agent: Justice Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Singaporean man who set up a fake consulting site to solicit information from U.S. government and military workers has pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal agent of Chinese intelligence, the Justice Department said on Friday.

Sentencing for Jun Wei Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, will be in October, according to the department. The U.S. is cracking down on Chinese spying, with the FBI having interviewed dozens of visa holders about their possible ties to Chinese intelligence.

On Friday a Chinese researcher who took refuge in the San Francisco consulate was expected to appear in court on allegations she lied about her Chinese military service, while the U.S. counterintelligence agency chief warned China and other nations could interfere with November elections.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Grant McCool)

Chinese who took refuge at San Francisco consulate now in U.S. custody: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Chinese researcher who took refuge from U.S. authorities at China’s consulate in San Francisco is now in American custody and is expected to appear in court on Friday, a senior U.S. Justice Department official said.

According to court filings in U.S. District Court in San Francisco this week, Juan Tang, who worked at the University of California, Davis, falsely claimed on her visa application that she had not served in the Chinese military. She was charged with visa fraud on June 26.

The Justice Department official told reporters Tang was detained on Thursday night and did not have diplomatic immunity as she was not declared as a diplomatic official.

“She’ll make her initial appearance in court later today,” he said, alleging that Tang was part of a network of associates who concealed their military affiliation when applying for visas.

The Chinese embassy did respond to a request for comment on the case.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

FBI interviewing Chinese visa holders across U.S. about possible military ties: Justice Department

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has interviewed visa holders it believes to secretly be members of the Chinese military in more than two dozen U.S. cities, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

The department said it has arrested three Chinese nationals for visa fraud, while a fourth remains a fugitive staying at China’s consulate in San Francisco. The United States believes the four were members of China’s military posing as researchers.

“In interviews with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people,” John Brown, executive assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national security branch, said in a statement.

Court filings show that the FBI believed the San Francisco consulate was harboring a fugitive since late June. U.S. law enforcement cannot enter a foreign embassy or consulate unless invited, and certain top officials such as ambassadors have diplomatic immunity.

Trump says sending federal agents to more U.S. cities to fight violent crime

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to more U.S. cities to crack down on violent crime as he emphasizes a “law and order” mantra going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump, joined by Attorney General William Barr, unveiled an expansion of the “Operation Legend” program to include cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a further effort by federal officials to tackle violence.

“Today I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” said Trump.

Trump said “we have no choice but to get involved” with a rising death toll in some major cities.

“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” he said.

The program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the Justice Department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.

A Justice Department official said the initiative is not related to the use of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to quell unrest in Portland, Oregon.

The Republican president has sharply criticized Democratic leaders for presiding over cities and states that are experiencing crime waves, using the issue as part of a “law and order” push he hopes will resonate with his political base. Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement to work alongside local partners. The Justice Department official said “Operation Legend” would provide additional resources to cities suffering from “traditional” violent crime.

Trump has emphasized a robust policing and military approach to the protests across the United States about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The White House has sought to focus on city crime even as Trump’s approval numbers plummet in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Operation Legend” program involves federal agents form the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies, partnering with local law enforcement.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said federal intervention was not required to help with violence in New York City, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also urged Trump not to send unidentified federal agents to her city.

“Operation Legend” is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Department of Justice’s website.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. civil rights groups protest ‘out-of-touch’ Justice Department police commission

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent U.S. civil rights groups are refusing to appear before a Justice Department law enforcement commission set up to recommend ways to increase respect for police and reduce crime, calling it out of touch with public anger over policing.

The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice was established in January, before the latest wave of mass protests over police use of force against Black Americans set off by the May killing of George Floyd.

Its mission statement did not mention racial disparities in criminal justice or address excessive use of force by police, and unlike a similar Obama administration commission, its members represent only federal, state and local law enforcement, with no civil rights advocates, defense attorneys or even big-city police departments taking part.

Civil rights leaders told Reuters they only received invitations to testify after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the commission in April, contending it was violating federal open-meeting laws and lacked diverse viewpoints. That case is pending, and the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to have it dismissed.

“It is so completely out of touch with what is happening,” said Kanya Bennett, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

After the protests over Floyd’s death began, the commission held some hearings about the excessive use of force and community policing, but they were announced with little advanced warning and were closed to the public. President Donald Trump has struck a strict “law-and-order” tone in his response to the protests.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the commission would be addressing the issues outlined in a police reform executive order signed by Trump in June including “accreditation and how to assist law enforcement and communities in their response to homelessness, addiction and mental health.”

The commission is expected to release a report in October offering recommendations for decreasing crime, addressing mental health and homelessness issues, and promoting respect for police officers.

‘SHAM COMMISSION’

U.S. civil rights groups including the ACLU have refused to attend the hearings, submitting only written testimony.

“The ACLU is not going to participate in a sham commission that was formed for the sole purpose of promoting a ‘blue lives matter’ narrative,” Bennett said.

Commission Chairman Phil Keith said at a June meeting that of the nearly 30 civil rights and other advocacy groups invited to testify, only a handful accepted, including the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

Deena Hayes-Greene, a co-founder of the Racial Equity Institute, said she learned other groups had declined invitations at the meeting she attended. Norman Reimer, executive director of the NACDL, said he was cynical about the commission but thought it was important to express his group’s views.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said it had not received an invitation to participate.

The commission “fails to consider … the long and fraught history of police community relations, especially in Black and brown communities and the nexus between unconstitutional policing and the violations of civil rights,” said Sakira Cook, director of the justice reform program with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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)

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. attorney general highlights ‘new threat’ to security from drones

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday issued guidance to Justice Department agencies on the use of protective measures against drones, including the destruction of any that pose a threat to national security.

Congress in 2018 gave the Justice and Homeland Security departments new powers to disable or destroy any threatening drones, which can compete with satellites as modern day spies in the sky, after officials raised concerns about their use as weapons.

The United States ranks among the world leaders in drone warfare after employing the technology widely in countries including Afghanistan.

Barr, in a statement, said the guidelines issued Monday “will ensure that we are positioned for the future to address this new threat, and that we approach our counter-drone efforts responsibly, with full respect for the Constitution, privacy, and the safety of the national airspace.”

The guidance says the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Prisons and other Justice Department agencies can intercept communications from a threatening drone or destroy it without prior consent. It also details how agencies “may seek approval for the use of counter-drone technologies and request designation of facilities or assets for protection.”

Justice Department agencies under certain circumstances may maintain records of communications intercepted from drones for up 180 days, the guidance says.

In a reference to the downing, destruction or disabling of any threatening drones, the guidance says agencies must work with the Federal Aviation Administration and conduct a risk-based assessment to examine the impact of operations on the national airspace. That “includes potential effects on manned and unmanned aircraft, aviation safety, airport operations and infrastructure, and air navigation services.”

Agencies, the guidance adds, “should consider and be sensitive at all times to the potential impact protective measures may have on legitimate activity by unmanned aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems, including systems operated by the press.”

More than 1.5 million drones have been registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and they are flown by more than 160,000 certified remote pilots.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown)

Military landlord, under fire following Reuters reports, issues improvement plan

By M.B. Pell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Military housing landlord Balfour Beatty Communities, the focus of a Justice Department inquiry following Reuters reports it falsified maintenance logs, said it has taken steps to prevent the practice and make its homes safer for service families.

In an improvement action plan filed with the U.S. Air Force in December and approved in February, the landlord detailed a series of steps it said it has taken since coming under federal scrutiny.

Balfour Beatty changed its electronic maintenance system, making it more difficult for employees to falsify logs. It hired additional staff and outside health experts and began more aggressively resolving housing safety hazards. And, it restructured management.

“We have undertaken a comprehensive review of our military housing operations and saw clearly that our leadership structure – at the project, regional and corporate levels – was not adequately serving residents or the business,” said the company’s action report, obtained by Reuters via a Freedom of Information Request.

The company has already achieved a number of the objectives and is committed to meeting the rest, a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Balfour Beatty Communities, a unit of British infrastructure conglomerate Balfour Beatty plc, has also briefed the Army, Navy and members of Congress about its action plan.

The report says that, after a Reuters-CBS News story last June revealed how company employees falsified work orders at the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma, the Department of Justice opened an investigation. Later, the DOJ issued Balfour a Civil Investigative Demand, a pre-litigation tool used by the government to gather information related to an investigation under the False Claims Act.

“The company voluntarily brought the matter to the attention of the Department of Justice and has been actively cooperating with the investigation,” Balfour Beatty said in a statement.

Reuters described how Balfour Beatty falsified maintenance documents at Air Force bases to qualify for bonus payments worth millions of dollars, citing five former employees who said they falsified records, internal company emails, company documents and internal Air Force communications.

The company maintains the practice was not widespread and that it never sanctioned doctoring of records. Its improvement plan would make such practices more difficult.

The company now restricts when a maintenance work order can be cancelled, and such cancellations require approval from a company vice president. Before, base managers said the company often cancelled tenants’ work order requests when they could not be completed on time, so the delay wouldn’t count against potential incentive payments.

Similarly, Balfour Beatty now prohibits base staff from editing work orders after they are closed. Former staff said they sometimes changed work order completion dates to make it appear as if they were finished on time, helping the company receive bonuses.

Balfour Beatty said its outside counsel, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, and auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers are examining its bonus payments.

“If it is determined that we did not properly earn incentive fees paid to us, we will refund those amounts,” the report said. “If the investigation determines wrong-doing by any member for our staff, we will take appropriate action.”

At the Tinker Air Force base, residents say the company still has much work to do. Jana Driver, who lived in a moldy, leaky home at Tinker and now advocates for military families, said she is skeptical Balfour Beatty’s plan will improve housing.

“They all have important names and important titles and it sounds significant, but nothing is changing,” Driver said.

(Reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)