U.S. says Iran to blame for deadly drone attack on oil ship

U.S. says Iran to blame for deadly drone attack on oil ship

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a news conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP) more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Biden administration is joining its allies in putting the blame on Iran for an apparent drone attack last week that killed two crewmembers aboard a petroleum tanker operated by an Israeli shipping magnate in the tense Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement Sunday afternoon condemned the attack and said the evidence the U.S. has so far points strongly to Tehran as the culprit.

“We join our partners and allies in our strong condemnation of the attack against the Mercer Street, a commercial ship that was peacefully transiting through the north Arabian Sea in international waters,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement. “Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack, which killed two innocent people, using one-way explosive [drones], a lethal capability it is increasingly employing throughout the region.”

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Mr. Blinken said the U.S. is consulting with allies on how to respond. The attack comes even as the Biden administration is struggling to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Trump repudiated in 2018.

Israel and Britain have already fingered Iran for the Mercer Street strike, which is operated by a London-based company controlled by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer.

Two crew members, one from the U.K. and one from Romania, were killed in last week’s attack, the company said.

Iran has strongly denied any role in the incident, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran on Sunday blaming the “childish allegations” on the “Zionist lobby” and its supporters in Washington.

North Korea warns U.S.-South Korea military drills will damage ties

North Korea warns U.S.-South Korea military drills will damage ties

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FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2018, file photo, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, wait for the start of the preliminary round of … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Sunday, August 1, 2021

North Korea warned Sunday that “hostile” U.S.-South Korean military drills planned for later this month could seriously damage the recent push to improve relations between the two Koreas.

Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a powerful figure in the regime’s leadership, told the state-controlled news service KCNA that the planned drills “will become an unpleasant prelude to seriously hurting the will of the leaders of the North and South seeking to take the step toward rebuilding trust again and further clouding the path lying ahead for inter-Korean relations.”

Although U.S.-North Korean talks about the country’s secretive nuclear and ballistic missile programs have been at a standstill since President Biden took office, Seoul and Pyongyang revealed last week that they had agreed to restore a long-inactive hot line designed to minimize tensions on the heavily armed, divided peninsula.

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It also was learned that Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a longtime supporter of engagement with the North, had exchanged letters since the spring on possible ways to improve ties.

“Our government and military will closely watch whether South Korea will carry out their hostile war exercise once again or make a bold decision,” Ms. Kim added, according to a report in the South Korean Yonhap news service. “Hope or despair? The decision is not upon us.”

The annual U.S.-South Korean military drills became a major political football during the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump suspended them as he used unprecedented personal diplomacy in pursuit of an elusive personal denuclearization deal with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Trump called the drills provocative and expensive, though U.S. military leaders warned that the lack of training could hurt readiness for the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to defend against an attack from the North.

North Korea has long condemned the annual drills, insisting they were in face a rehearsal for a potential invasion of the North.

The Pentagon and South Korean military officials have been gauging how large the military exercises should be this year. A high-ranking official in the government’s Ministry of Unification suggested Friday the U.S. military exercises should be postponed, partly due to rising COVID-19 concerns but also as a means to prevent a bigger blow-up with the North.

“We think this is the right time to fully engage with North Korea through cooperation between South Korea and the United States,” the unnamed official told the Korea Times.

But conservatives who have long been critical of Mr. Moon’s accommodationist approach to the North were putting pressure on the government to proceed, warning South Korea’s defenses are beginning to suffer from the lack of real-life training.

“The [South Korea]-U.S. joint exercises have already been conducted with just command post training using simulations without the actual mobilization of troops, and even this was not conducted properly in the first half of last year,” said Rep. Hwangbo Seung-hee, a spokeswoman of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), told the Korea Times Sunday.

“With such a cancellation of military exercises, it has become difficult for the troops to maintain actual combat capability while the verification of the South Korean military’s capabilities to lead joint operations has also become difficult,” Ms. Hwangbo said.

North Korea‘s warning on the exercises also comes amid growing signs of hardship within the Communist regime. The official North Korea daily Rodong Sinmun reported last week that Mr. Kim warned in a speech to a group of military veterans that the country is facing a “crisis similar to a war” due to the health and economic strains brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We are faced with difficulties and hardship caused by the unprecedented global health crisis and prolonged lockdown no less challenging than how it was during the war,” he said.

Canada fines U.S. travelers for providing false COVID-19 vaccination status documentation

Canada hits U.S. travelers with hefty fines over purportedly false COVID-19 vaccine documents

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A man wears a masks following the outbreak of a new virus as people arrive from the International terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Canada announced Friday it fined two travelers from the U.S. nearly $20,000 each for violating a series of coronavirus-related travel requirements.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said each traveler was fined $19,720, or about $15,800 in U.S. dollars, for not complying with a number of entry requirements upon recently arriving in Toronto, Ontario.

Each traveler provided false information related to proof of vaccination credentials and pre-departure tests, the Public Health Agency of Canada stated in a news release.

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Each also failed to comply with a rule that requires travelers to stay at government-authorized accommodations and another that requires they promptly be tested for COVID-19 upon entering, the agency said.

Canada has imposed several travel rules and restrictions since last year meant to limit the spread within its borders of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In addition to closing off Canada to foreigners except for ones doing essential business, many of those eligible to enter have been required to test repeatedly for COVID-19 and quarantine upon arrival.

Canada recently lifted some of those rules for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and has said that fully vaccinated Americans may enter for “discretionary,” or non-essential, travel starting Aug. 9.

In the meantime, fully vaccinated travelers eligible to enter Canada are required to first electronically submit proof of their vaccination status to Ottawa using a special phone app called “ArriveCAN.”

“Providing false information and/or documents to a Government of Canada official upon entry to Canada or making false statements or presenting fraudulent documents, such as vaccination credentials, is a serious offense and may result in fines and/or criminal charges,” the Public Health Agency said in the news release.

“For all travelers coming to Canada, it is important to be informed and to plan in advance. It is the traveler’s responsibility to ensure they are eligible to enter Canada and that they meet all of the mandatory requirements,” the agency added. “The Government of Canada will continue to investigate incidents reported and will not hesitate to take enforcement action where it is warranted to protect the health of Canadians from the further spread of COVID-19 and its variants of concern.”

French police clash with anti-virus pass protesters in Paris

Anti-virus pass protesters, police clash in Paris: ‘We mustn’t be told what to do’

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A protestor holds up a banner which reads "freedom" as she stands between police during a demonstration in Paris, France, Saturday, July 31, 2021. Demonstrators gathered in several cities in France on Saturday to protest against the COVID-19 pass, which … more >

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By BOUBKAR BENZABAT and ELAINE GANLEY

Associated Press

Saturday, July 31, 2021

PARIS (AP) – Thousands of people protested France‘s special virus pass by marching through Paris and other French cities on Saturday. Most demonstrations were peaceful but some in Paris clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas.

Some 3,000 security forces deployed around the French capital for a third weekend of protests against the pass that will be needed soon to enter restaurants and other places. Police took up posts along Paris’ Champs-Elysees to guard against an invasion of the famed avenue.

With virus infections spiking and hospitalizations rising, French lawmakers have passed a bill requiring the pass in most places as of Aug. 9. Polls show a majority of French support the pass, but some are adamantly opposed. The pass requires a vaccination or a quick negative test or proof of a recent recovery from COVID-19 and mandates vaccine shots for all health care workers by mid-September.

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For anti-pass demonstrators, “liberty” was the slogan of the day.

Hager Ameur, a 37-year-old nurse, said she resigned from her job, accusing the government of using a form of “blackmail.”

“I think that we mustn’t be told what to do,” she told The Associated Press, adding that French medical workers during the first wave of COVID-19 were quite mistreated. “And now, suddenly we are told that if we don’t get vaccinated it is our fault that people are contaminated. I think it is sickening.”

Tensions flared in front of the famed Moulin Rouge nightclub in northern Paris during what appeared to be the largest demonstration. Lines of police faced down protesters in up-close confrontations during the march. Police used their fists on several occasions.

As marchers headed eastward and some pelted police with objects, police fired tear gas into the crowds, plumes of smoke filling the sky. A male protester was seen with a bleeding head and a police officer was carried away by colleagues. Three officers were injured, the French press quoted police as saying. Police, again responding to rowdy crowds, also turned a water cannon on protesters as the march ended at the Bastille.

A calmer march was led by the former top lieutenant of far-right leader Marine Le Pen who left to form his own small anti-EU party. But Florian Philippot’s new cause, against the virus pass, seems far more popular. His contingent of hundreds marched Saturday to the Health Ministry.

Among those not present this week was Francois Asselineau, leader of another tiny anti-EU party, the Popular Republican Union, and an ardent campaigner against the health pass, who came down with COVID-19. In a video on his party’s website, Asselineau, who was not hospitalized, called on people to denounce the “absurd, unjust and totally liberty-killing” health pass.

French authorities are implementing the health pass because the highly contagious delta variant is making strong inroads. More than 24,000 new daily cases were confirmed Friday night – compared to just a few thousand cases a day at the start of the month.

The government announcement that the health pass would take effect on Aug. 9 has driven many unvaccinated French to sign up for inoculations so their social lives won’t get shut down during the summer holiday season. Vaccinations are now available at a wide variety of places, including some beaches. More than 52% of the French population has been vaccinated.

About 112,000 people have died of the virus in France since the start of the pandemic.

___

Patrick Hermansen and Michel Euler in Paris contributed.

___

Follow all AP stories on the global pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

Bill Maher likens cancel culture to Stalinist purge, ‘an insanity that is swallowing up the world’

Bill Maher compares cancel culture to Stalinism: ‘an insanity that is swallowing up the world’

'My politics have not changed, but I am reacting to politics that have,' says liberal comedian

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In a photo provided by HBO, Bill Maher speaks during the monologue of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday, June 23, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Janet Van Ham/HBO via AP) **FILE** more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Saturday, July 31, 2021

HBO host Bill Maher railed against cancel culture during his weekly cable program late Friday, earning rare praise from several conservatives who found themselves agreeing with the liberal comedian.

The host of “Real Time with Bill Maher” ended the latest episode of the series with a segment in which he reacted to several recent examples involving the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics currently occurring.

In one instance, Mr. Maher noted, the director of the opening ceremony, a fellow comedian, was fired days before the event last month after organizers learned that he made light of the Holocaust in 1998.

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Mr. Maher also cited a case where another person involved with the opening ceremony, a 52-year-old composer, resigned after it emerged that he bragged decades earlier about bullying classmates as a kid.

“This is called a purge. It’s a mentality that belongs in Stalin’s Russia. How bad does this atmosphere we are living in have to get before people who say cancel culture is overblown admit that it is, in fact, an insanity that is swallowing up the world,” said Mr. Maher.

“That is not a conservative position, my friends. My politics have not changed, but I am reacting to politics that have,” Mr. Maher added.

Some prominent Republicans and conservatives suggested otherwise, however.

Jenna Ellis, a lawyer for former President Trump’s failed 2020 campaign, said that Mr. Maher is “getting pretty dang close to outright advocating to conserve America’s principles from the woke mob.”

“Good stuff,” Ms. Ellis reacted on Twitter.

“This is great,” agreed Candace Owens, another popular conservative social media user. “Woke people are cancer cells to progress.”

Robby Starbuck, a GOP congressional hopeful running to represent Tennesseans in the House, predicted from his Twitter account that Mr. Maher, 65, may “turn entirely on the Democratic Party” eventually.

He knows deep down that the party from 20 years ago just simply doesn’t exist anymore,” Mr. Starbuck tweeted. “It’s time to stop pretending they do Bill. Times have changed, leave them to save America.”

Governors press Biden administration over Canadian border restrictions, ask for explanation

Bipartisan group of governors presses Biden administration over Canada border restrictions

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This Feb. 12, 2021, file photo shows the border crossing into the United States in Lacolle, Quebec. The United States Government on Wednesday, July 21, 2021, extended the closure of the land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travelers … more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Governors of nine states bordering Canada asked the Biden administration Friday to explain why the U.S. intends to keep the northern border closed to nonessential travel for at least a few more weeks.

The bipartisan group of governors wrote the secretaries of state and homeland security requesting a briefing about ongoing COVID-19-related travel restrictions impacting the U.S.-Canadian border.

Canada recently announced it will allow U.S. citizens who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to enter the country for non-essential travel effective Aug. 9.

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However, the Biden administration subsequently announced several days later the U.S. will continue to temporarily limit the travel of individuals from Canada into the country through at least Aug. 21.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s recent announcement that it will extend restrictions on nonessential travel at land and ferry crossings with Canada conflicts with Canada‘s move to open the border to vaccinated Americans and is deepening the already significant economic impacts of the pandemic on northern border communities and states,” the group of governors wrote in the letter.

“This in turn is causing our constituents – many the owners and employees of small, family businesses desperate to resume operations – to ask us how and when cross-border economic activity will resume in a safe and sustainable manner,” wrote the governors of Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Washington – nine of 13 states that neighbor Canada.

DHS and the Department of State did not immediately respond to inquiries about the letter.

The land border between the U.S. and Canada is over 5,550 miles in length, making it the longest in the world. It has been closed to non-essential travel since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020.

In their letter, the group of governors – 6 Republicans, 3 Democrats – said they wanted officials to brief them about their justification for keeping the border closed and what it would take to reopen it.

“At this point in the nation’s work to get the economy back on track, it is imperative that the federal government work more closely and transparently with us and our Canadian provincial counterparts to quickly define and implement a reopening plan,” the governors wrote. “We have no doubt such a plan can ensure the safety and welfare of American citizens during this ever-changing pandemic landscape.”

More than 55% of Canada is fully vaccinated, according to the government there. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 49.5% of the American population is fully vaccinated.

7 Kurds slain in Turkey; officials deny ethnic motive

7 Kurds slain in Turkey; officials deny ethnic motive

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By

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Saturday, July 31, 2021

ISTANBUL (AP) — Authorities said Saturday that 10 suspects have been detained over the killing of seven people from an ethnic Kurdish family in Turkey‘s central Konya province. Family members say the attack was ethnically motivated, while authorities blame a long-running feud between two families.

Seven people from the Dedeoglu family were killed in a brutal gun attack on Friday. A statement from the Konya prosecutor’s office said initial evidence pointed to an ongoing fight between two families who lived in the same area.

But the family’s lawyer and the pro-Kurdish opposition party say the murders were ethnically motivated. After an attack in May, one member of the family – who was among Friday’s victims – told media that they were being harassed and attacked for being Kurdish.

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Lawyer Abdurrahman Karabulut said family members had been worried they will be attacked again. Officials said they had not yet apprehended the gunman.

The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that enmity between the two families dates back to 2010. Two fights in 2021 led to investigations, in which two people remain in custody but other suspects were released. The statement rejected the claim of a racially motivated attack.

There were few details about those arrested, but media reports said the other family was not Kurdish.

The co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP, said the ethnic Kurdish family members were murdered because of hate speech and linked it to a rise in “racist attacks.” Mithat Sancar accused the government of targeting the HDP and Kurds in general.

Media reports said the family’s house was set on fire after the attack.

Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency since 1984 and the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including civilians targeted by car bombs in 2016 and 2017 that were blamed on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK. The decades-long conflict has also included discriminatory state policies and an ethnically charged atmosphere. Kurds are Turkey’s second largest ethnic group.

Interior minister Suleyman Soylu said allegations that the murders were ethnically motivated were a “provocation” against the country’s unity.

Russians hacked federal prosecutors, Justice Department says

Russians hacked federal prosecutors, Justice Department says

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This May 4, 2021 file photo shows a sign outside the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building in Washington. The Russian hackers behind the massive SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign broke into the email accounts some of the most prominent federal … more >

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By Alan Suderman and Eric Tucker

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

WASHINGTON — The Russian hackers behind the massive SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign broke into the email accounts of some of the most prominent federal prosecutors’ offices around the country last year, the Justice Department said Friday.

The department said 80% of Microsoft email accounts used by employees in the four U.S. attorney offices in New York were breached. All told, the Justice Department said 27 U.S. Attorney offices had at least one employee’s email account compromised during the hacking campaign.

The Justice Department said in a statement that it believes the accounts were compromised from May 7 to Dec. 27, 2020. Such a timeframe is notable because the SolarWinds campaign, which infiltrated dozens of private-sector companies and think tanks as well as at least nine U.S. government agencies, was first discovered and publicized in mid-December.

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The Biden administration in April announced sanctions, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats, in response to the SolarWinds hack and Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Russia has denied wrongdoing.

Jennifer Rodgers, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, said office emails frequently contained all sorts of sensitive information, including case strategy discussions and names of confidential informants, when she was a federal prosecutor in New York.

“I don’t remember ever having someone bring me a document instead of emailing it to me because of security concerns,” she said, noting exceptions for classified materials.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts confirmed in January that it was also breached, giving the SolarWinds hackers another entry point to steal confidential information like trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants.

The list of affected offices include several large and high-profile ones like those in Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, where large numbers of staff were hit, handle some of the most prominent prosecutors in the country.

“New York is the financial center of the world and those districts are particularly well known for investigating and prosecuting white-collar crimes and other cases, including investigating people close to the former president,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham Law School and a former prosecutor in the Southern District.

The department said all victims had been notified and it is working to mitigate “operational, security and privacy risks” caused by the hack. The Justice Department said in January that it had no indication that any classified systems were impacted.

The Justice Department did not provide additional detail about what kind of information was taken and what impact such a hack may have on ongoing cases. Members of Congress have expressed frustration with the Biden administration for not sharing more information about the impact of the SolarWinds campaign.

The Associated Press previously reported that SolarWinds hackers had gained access to email accounts belonging to the then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and members of the department’s cybersecurity staff whose jobs included hunting threats from foreign countries.

• Suderman reported from Richmond, Va.

Popular protests, violent crackdown put Biden Iran policy to the test

Popular protests, violent crackdown put Biden Iran policy to the test

U.S. pressed to condemn regime as hard-liner prepares to take power

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In this Friday, June 18, 2021, photo, Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential elections waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran. The Biden administration is lashing out at Iran for accusing … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

It started two weeks ago as a small-scale demonstration over water shortages in a remote province, but like other Iranian protests in recent years, the outburst has now spread to several major cities and begun featuring large crowds calling for the downfall of the Iranian regime and chants of “Death to the Dictator!”

What has been unfolding since mid-July looks increasingly like a repeat of what occurred in 2017, in 2018 and again in 2019, when protests over economic hardship and high fuel prices ultimately exploded into wide-scale uprisings against the country’s authoritarian and theocratic regime before being violently suppressed. With new hard-line President-elect Ebrahim Raisi set to formally take office in days, the bigger question is whether the latest jolt of domestic popular anger will be enough to shake the foundations of the increasingly stressed Islamic system.

“The regime has to worry at this point, because this is a confirmation of an ongoing trend in which seemingly non-political issues very quickly serve as an opportunity for people to express distinctly political grievances, including outright anti-regime sentiment,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow who focuses on Iran.

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Demonstrations last week featured slogans of outright frustration with the regime’s failure to meet the needs of common Iranians while continuing to pump billions of dollars into an adventurist foreign policy that includes funding and providing weapons for militant proxies in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen.

It’s a gripe that echoes Washington‘s own complaints about the regime — complaints the former Trump administration sought to put on the front-burner by pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal on grounds it dangerously ignored Iran‘s growing non-nuclear military arsenal and its backing of anti-U.S. allies in the region.

The Biden administration has generally agreed with that argument, but has argued engaging with the regime — while keeping the nuclear programs in check — is a better road to regional stability. Now, in an apparent bid to avoid confrontation with Iran‘s rulers as negotiations on reviving the nuclear accord are at the most delicate stage, Biden administration officials have largely remained silent about the wave of protests currently gripping Iran.

But critics say Washington is missing a key chance to stand up for freedom and democracy in the Middle East by showing the Iranian people that America supports their struggle, laying down a marker for the new president as he takes office in Tehran.

Targeting Iran‘s foreign policy

Videos of demonstrations last week in Tehran and other Iranian cities showed protesters voicing slogans not only against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also chanting things like, “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my soul for Iran,” an apparent reference to the regime’s active policy of backing the militant operations of Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas against Israel.

Al-Monitor, a neutral publication known for its analysis of Mideast affairs, noted in an article on Thursday that the slogan has resurfaced in almost all anti-government protests in Iran since the 2009 Green Revolution, a series of popular protests following a disputed election that nearly toppled the regime. The message, according to Al-Monitor, has “served as sharp criticism against the Islamic Republic’s regional policies.”

Analysts say its reappearance now comes with a sobering twist, since the current round of protests are occurring ahead of the August 5 inauguration of Mr. Raisi, who is widely expected to push for a dramatic expansion — not a pulling back — of Iran‘s adventurist foreign policy.

The 60-year-old cleric and protege of Supreme Leader Khamenei has used confrontational rhetoric toward the West and the United States since being elected in June against a severely stripped-down field of “acceptable” candidates. He also has a history of supporting violent suppression of dissent in Iran, and critics repeatedly cite his role in the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in the country while rising through the regime’s ranks early in his career.

When it comes to Iran‘s foreign policy, Mr. Raisi “brings the same policies of supporting bad guys abroad rather than spending money on infrastructure at home,” said Norman Roule, a retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the spy agency.

As a result, the tensions between the Iranian public and the Iranian regime are expected to grow once Mr. Raisi takes office.

“His diversion of Iranian resources to external proxies, as well as his reliance on a foreign policy that results in sanctions on Iran and the isolation of Iran from international economies means that the conditions that produced the demonstrations that have been taking place are almost certainly likely to continue to increase,” Mr. Roule, now a non-resident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, told The Washington Times.

“This is going to be a defining moment early in Raisi’s administration, because how he handles these events will tell you a lot about how he will satisfy legitimate grievances of the Iranian people,” Mr. Roule said. “Right now, there is no evidence that the regime is going to shift policies to address these grievances. Instead, they’re likely to double down on the policies that produced them.”

What’s more, Mr. Roule added, the Iranian regime “knows that a spark could create a blaze of unrest and therefore, it will devote considerable resources to containing these protests and identifying and neutralizing their leadership.”

Shooting at protesters

Iranian leaders last week were accused of openly firing on protesters in southwest Khuzestan province. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on July 22 noting reports of three protesters being killed and asserting that “Iranian authorities appear to have used excessive force against demonstrators in southwestern Iran protesting lack of access to water.”

Iranian authorities have sharply denied the reports, but an umbrella group of Iranian exile dissident groups charged the protests are more extensive and violent than the regime has admitted.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, citing its sources inside the country, claimed protests had broken out in the capital and dozens of Iranian cities, with at least 12 demonstrators killed by police and scores of arrests in Khuzestan and elsewhere.

The Associated Press reported that dozens of Iranians had marched in Tehran on July 26 and cited online videos showing protesters marching down Jomhuri Islami Avenue — “Islamic Republic Avenue” in Farsi — and calling on police to support them. While the protests were peaceful, the news agency reported that several demonstrators shouted: “Death to the Dictator!”

Reports of a violent crackdown, as well as reports that the regime has begun cutting internet access across Iran spurred the Biden administration to speak out finally on the developments.

The State Department issued a statement Wednesday citing “disturbing reports that security forces fired on protesters, resulting in multiple deaths.”

“We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in the statement, which stopped short of specifically blaming the Iranian regime for shooting at demonstrators. U.S. officials “urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the internet,” Mr. Price said.

The Iranian people “are now putting a spotlight not only on their unmet needs, but also their unfulfilled aspirations for respect for human rights — rights to which individuals the world over are entitled.”

Biden’s ‘missed opportunity’

The domestic unrest comes as the Biden administration pursues “indirect” talks with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump repudiated in 2018. Iran is demanding the U.S. drop harsh economic sanctions Mr. Trump reimposed in quitting the deal.

Months of talks toward such a restoration have yet to produce a deal. Iran‘s supreme leader has called Washington “stubborn” for seeking to raise the issue of Tehran‘s missiles and regional influence during talks with other nations that were party to the nuclear deal.

Mr. Biden campaigned on reviving the deal he helped negotiate during the Obama administration, but critics say his national security team is whiffing on a chance to stand up for the protests in Iran.

“Not standing up for the protests and aiding them, and just waiting so long to talk about the situation and being lackluster when you do talk about it amounts to a missed opportunity to to align America’s national security strategy with American ideals in a place where those two things can and should be aligned,” according to Mr. Ben Taleblu.

“Iranian protesters are literally grabbing the third rail with both hands and putting the regime in their [sights], and it is happening not only as a new hardline government is coming to power in Tehran, but also at a moment when Washington has been relatively silent about the protests,” he said. “Washington is barely noticing the growing chasm between state and society in Iran.”

Mr. Ben Taleblu added that the Biden administration‘s approach remains “nuclear-centric,” essentially ignoring the popular protests by “over-focusing on the nuclear issue in a way that could trade away U.S. leverage through sanctions relief for this regime.”

He argued that the Biden administration should come forward with a “targeted sanctions campaign” in response to the current crackdown in Iran — a campaign that reaches beyond regime top leadership to level sanctions “against political, judicial or security forces in specific Iranian cities where violent crackdowns are occurring.”

“This would show solidarity with the Iranian people,” Mr. Ben Taleblu said, adding that the Biden administration should also “establish some sort of public-private group to make sure Iranians have the communications technology they need to communicate with each other, as well as to share information about the uprising with audiences abroad.”

“In my reading of it, the Biden administration has expressed outrage over the internet being cut by the Iranian regime, but it’s unclear what the administration is doing about it,” he said.

Mr. Roule generally agreed, but said that the onus right now is on the Iranian regime more than anyone else and that Tehran‘s recent actions only serve to confirm the Trump administration‘s narrative that the regime was only interested in confrontation with the U.S. and its regional allies.

“The storyline you’re watching is that the Iranian people have legitimate grievances and are rejecting their government’s regional adventurism, but the Iranian government is making no changes,” he said.

President Biden touched by Kosovo medal for late son Beau

President Biden touched by Kosovo medal for late son Beau

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In this Aug. 25, 2008, photo, then-Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (right) is seen with his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (Associated Press) **FILE** more >

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By Sylejman Killokoqi and Llazar Semini

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) – U.S. President Joe Biden says he is touched by Kosovo’s awarding of a medal to his late son Beau, who was in the Balkan country 20 years ago to help establish the rule of law there as it became independent from Yugoslavia.

In a pre-recorded speech published Friday on Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani’s Facebook page, Biden said: “The nation of Kosovo is in the hearts of the entire Biden family.”

Osmani will host a ceremony Sunday to award a posthumous Presidential Medal on the Rule of Law to Beau Biden.

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Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a brutal 1998-1999 war between separatist ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces. The war ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serb troops out and a peacekeeping force moved in.

President Biden described the medal as “incredible” and “a great honor to recognize the legacy of our son.”

Beau Biden worked in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war with the military forces and also with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

He died in 2015 of brain cancer at age 46.

Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not. Tensions over Kosovo remain a source of volatility in the Balkans.

Lawmakers move to rein in Interpol ‘abuse’ by autocratic regimes

Lawmakers move to rein in Interpol ‘abuse’ by autocratic regimes

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This photo made available by Safeguard Defenders shows Yidiresi Aishan in Istanbul in 2019. Moroccan authorities have arrested the Uyghur activist in exile based on a Chinese terrorism warrant distributed by Interpol, according to information from Moroccan police and a … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

It’s become far too easy for repressive regimes around the world to abuse Interpol and use international law enforcement to target dissidents and political opponents, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said Friday as they rolled out legislation to limit how governments can enlist the group.

The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act would set new rules on American involvement at Interpol, including requirements that the  Department of Justice keep detailed records of alleged instances in which governments seek to abuse  Interpol for their own purposes. The legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, and Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Supporters cite what they say are numerous instances in which Russia, Turkey, and other nations have issued requests for INTERPOL to detain or arrest dissidents and critics when they travel. Governments use so-called “red notices” to formally request that foreign law enforcement locate and “provisionally arrest” an alleged fugitive traveling abroad.

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But critics say that the system is out of control, with some leaders issuing notices targeting not criminals but their political opponents.

Some governments also try to use  Interpol to target prominent Americans. 

Iran, for example, has issued multiple requests for  Interpol to arrest President Trump and dozens of other U.S. officials in connection with the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

The international group denied those requests, but U.S. lawmakers say much more must be done.

“Using the legal system and INTERPOL to harass political opponents is becoming far too common,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement Friday. “Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey frequently issue meritless Interpol  requests that violate key provisions of  Interpol’s constitution, subjecting international travelers to unnecessary inconvenience.”

Mr. Wilson said the U.S. must “fight back” against  Interpol abuse, which he called “one of the worst forms of this transnational repression” in the world today.

— 

US readies new Cuba sanctions as Biden meets Cuban-Americans

US readies new Cuba sanctions as Biden meets Cuban-Americans

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By Aamer Madhani and E. Eduardo Castillo

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is expected to impose new sanctions on Cuba on Friday as President Joe Biden meets with Cuban-American leaders at the White House to discuss a U.S. response to recent social protests on the island.

Officials say new moves against the communist government are likely to be announced shortly after Biden’s afternoon meeting, which will cover a range of options the administration is considering in response to the protests, including providing internet access to Cubans. The officials were not authorized to preview the actions and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The White House meeting comes almost three weeks after unusual July 11 protests in which thousands of Cubans took to the streets in Havana and other cities to protest shortages, power outages and government policies. They were the first such protests since the 1990s.

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Details of the new measures, expected to be announced jointly by the White House, Treasury and State Department, were not immediately clear.

Among the people who will meet with Biden is Yotuel Romero, one of the authors of the song “Patria y vida!” which has become a kind of anthem for the protests, said the official, who was bit authorized to discuss the plans in public and spoke on condition on anonymity.

Also present will be L. Felice Gorordo, CEO of the company eMerge Americas; Ana Sofía Peláez, founder of the Miami Freedom Project, and Miami’s former mayor, Manny Díaz, among others.

The White House did not provide more details, only saying that new sanctions will be discussed as well as ways to establish internet access for the Cuban people.

Internet access is a sensitive issue in Cuba. In the days before the recent protests, there were calls on social media for anti-government demonstrations. Cuba‘s government said anti-Castro groups in the United States have used social media, particularly Twitter, to campaign against it and blamed Twitter for doing nothing to stop it.

Internet service was cut off at one point during the July 11 protest, though Cuban authorities have not explicitly acknowledged that they did it.

Some U.S. leaders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have said the White House should do something to maintain internet service in Cuba, including using balloons as Wi-Fi access points for the population.

José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s director for the Americas, said protecting internet access in Cuba must be one of the top priorities of the Biden administration.

“The growing access to the internet on the island has been a true revolution that has allowed the population to communicate, organize protests and report abuses almost immediately – something that would have been impossible a few years ago,” he stold The Associated Press.

Regarding the sanctions, Vivanco said their value is “mostly symbolic,” because it is not realistic to think that they alone will change the situation on the island. He said one way to stop human rights violations in Cuba is a “multilateral and coordinated condemnation,” along with moving toward a policy that puts an end to the current embargo.

In addition to the internet, the Biden administration is considering proposals put forward by U.S. advocates of trade with Cuba that would restore ways for Cuban-Americans to send money to relatives on the island.

Biden and others have rejected the outright restoration of remittances because of a percentage fee of the transaction paid to the government. But under one proposal being considered, the transfer agents would waive that fee until the end of the year, according to proponents.

The proposal would have to be cleared by the Cuban government, however, and it is not at all clear it would agree.

Last week, the U.S. government announced sanctions against the minister of the Cuban armed forces, Álvaro López Miera, and the Special Brigade of the Ministry of the Interior – known as the “black berets” – for having participated in the arrest of protesters.

International organizations have harshly criticized the Cuban government, which has said that while people affected by the country’s crisis participated in the protests there were also “criminals” who took advantage of the situation to create disturbances. At times, the protests turned into vandalism with looting, robbery and confrontations with the police.

Government sympathizers also took to the streets to defend the authorities and the revolution.

So far it is unclear how many people were detained, although the judicial authorities have said there have been 19 trials involving 59 people.

Kamala Harris to visit Vietnam, Singapore in August: security, COVID-19, climate change top agenda

VP Harris to visit Vietnam, Singapore in August: security, COVID-19, climate change top agenda

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Vice President Kamala Harris talks to the media, Friday, June 25, 2021, after her tour of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Central Processing Center in El Paso, Texas. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) ** FILE ** more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Vietnam and Singapore in August to strengthen U.S. relationships and expand economic cooperation, her office said Friday.

She‘ll be the first vice president to visit Vietnam and the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit Asia.

Senior adviser Symone Sanders said the vice president will “engage the leaders of both governments on issues of mutual interest, including regional security, the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and our joint efforts to promote a rules-based international order.”

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It will be Ms. Harris‘ second trip abroad as vice president, following her mission to Mexico and Guatemala in June that was aimed at addressing the “root causes” of illegal migration from Central America.

Russian commandos hold major drills along Afghan border

Russian commandos hold major drills along Afghan border

Regional power vacuum looms as U.S., allied troops depart

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This handout photo taken from a video released on Friday, April 23, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian military trucks are readied for loading after drills in Crimea. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday ordered troops … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

Russian commandos on Friday kicked off a series of military drills along the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, fueling questions about a regional power vacuum left by the unfolding U.S. and allied military withdrawal from Afghanistan that Russia and other players will seek to fill.

Russia’s Central Military District said in a statement Friday that about 1,500 Russian and Uzbek forces are taking part in the exercises, which will last through Aug. 10.

“The units of a peacekeeping formation and a special operations brigade of the Central Military District have completed their redeployment to the Termez training ground for joint drills with the armed forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” the Russian military said in a statement. “In the course of joint practical measures, the troops will accomplish the combat training tasks of ensuring the state’s territorial integrity.”

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The drills come as insurgent Taliban fighters have seized a number of key border crossings in Afghanistan, leading to uncertainty across the region and questions about whether the fighting could spill beyond the nation’s borders. Earlier this month, a major Taliban offensive forced Afghan security forces to flee across the border with Tajikistan, which activated thousands of its own military reserves in response.

Days later, a Taliban delegation visited Moscow amid growing fears that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and growing Taliban offensive could spark chaos in the ex-Soviet countries in the region.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Taliban vowed that would not be the case.

“We received assurances from the Taliban that they wouldn’t violate the borders of Central Asian countries and also their guarantees of security for foreign diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement earlier this week.

Russia’s influence over the former Soviet states bordering Afghanistan also is likely to hinder U.S. counterterrorism operations moving forward. With nearly all U.S. and NATO combat forces now gone from Afghanistan, the Pentagon is working to secure “over-the-horizon” capabilities that will allow it to strike terrorist fighters who could find safe haven in Afghanistan. The U.S. also recently launched a series of airstrikes to beat back Taliban advances toward major Afghan population centers.

But Moscow’s influence stands in the way of U.S. efforts to establish semi-permanent military bases or staging areas in former Soviet republics, making the American counterterrorism effort more challenging.

President Biden in April ordered the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war. That withdrawal is more than 95% completed, the Pentagon said recently, with just a few hundred Marines staying behind to protect the U.S. Embassy and the international airport in Kabul.

DOD chief Lloyd Austin hails arrival of first evacuation flight of Afghans who helped U.S. forces

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In this Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, file photo, U.S. Marine Sgt. Isaac Tate, left, and Cpl. Aleksander Aleksandrov, center, interview a local Afghan man with the help of a translator from the 2nd MEB, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion on … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday welcomed the arrival in the U.S. of the first contingent of Afghan nationals who aided the 20-year U.S. combat mission in their country and now face potential revenge attacks from insurgent Taliban forces.

More than 200 Afghan nationals, including family members of those who worked with the U.S., arrived on a flight to Virginia to be housed for now at Fort Lee. About 10 times that number, including interpreters, contractors and their families, are still in the security screening process and expected to come in the near future.

“These brave men and women, at great risk to themselves and their families, served alongside U.S. and coalition forces and diplomats to support our operations and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism that threatens our homeland,” Mr. Austin said in a statement. “We have spoken many times about the moral obligation we have to help those who have helped us, and we are fully committed to working closely with our interagency partners to meet that obligation.”

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The Biden administration has faced bipartisan pressure from Congress to provide refuge to Afghan interpreters and other allies as U.S. forces near the completion of their withdrawal from the country.

Many fear they will be targeted by the Taliban, who have been on attack and seizing territory as U.S. troops and their allies withdraw.

The State Department is overseeing the resettlement program, and Mr. Austin said 300 U.S. service members are preparing Fort Lee and providing logistical support for the first new arrivals.

The refugees will spend about a week at the Virginia fort and be given a medical check-up before being relocated to sites around the country, according to administration officials.

There remains a much larger backlog of about 18,000 Afghan interpreters, contractors and others still hoping to secure a so-called “special immigrant visa” allowing them to resettle with their families in the U.S.

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

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In this Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, file photo, U.S. Marine Sgt. Isaac Tate, left, and Cpl. Aleksander Aleksandrov, center, interview a local Afghan man with the help of a translator from the 2nd MEB, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion on … more >

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By Ellen Knickmeyer and Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The first flight evacuating Afghans who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan brought more than 200 people, including scores of children and babies in arms, to new lives in the United States on Friday, and President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home.

The launch of the evacuation flights, bringing out former interpreters and others who fear retaliation from Afghanistan’s Taliban for having worked with American troops and civilians, highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after the last U.S. combat forces leave that country in the coming weeks.

Family members are accompanying the interpreters, translators and others on the flights out. The first evacuation flight, an airliner, carried 221 Afghans under the special visa program, including 57 children and 15 infants, according to an internal U.S. government document obtained by The Associated Press.

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It touched down in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., after midnight, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

Friday’s flight was “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” Biden said. He said he wanted to honor the military veterans, diplomats and others in the U.S. who have advocated for the Afghans.

“Most of all,” Biden said in a statement, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.’”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lauded the Afghans for their work alongside Americans and said their arrival demonstrates the U.S. government’s commitment to them.

Friday’s flight was all about “keeping promises,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq war veteran and an advocate on veteran’s issues.

But a refugee agency said the Biden administration appeared to be still scrambling to work out the resettlement of thousands more of the Afghans, and it urged Biden to bring them quickly to the U.S. or a U.S. territory, such as Guam.

“To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement agency, said of the Afghan interpreters.

“We cannot in good conscience put them at risk in third countries with unreliable human rights records, or where the Taliban may be able to reach them,” the resettlement official said.

The Biden administration calls the effort Operation Allies Refuge. The operation has broad backing from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from veterans groups. Supporters cite repeated instances of Taliban forces targeting Afghans who worked with Americans or with the Afghan government.

Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa program.

The United States has been talking with Qatar and Kuwait about temporarily hosting thousands of other Afghan interpreters who are much further along in their visa application process than Friday’s arrivals.

But U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said Friday that no deal had been closed with those two countries. Concerns about housing Afghans who have not completed their security screenings and uncertainty on the American side about finding funding for the massive relocation effort have remained obstacles, the U.S. officials said.

Biden announced earlier this year the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, honoring a withdrawal agreement struck by former President Donald Trump. He later said the U.S. military operation would end on Aug. 31, calling it “overdue.” Some administration officials have expressed surprise at the extent and speed of Taliban gains of territory in the countryside since then.

Biden said that although U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, the U.S. will keep supporting Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces and humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.

The newly arrived Afghan people will join 70,000 others who have resettled in the United States since 2008 under the special visa program.

Subsequent flights are due to bring more of the roughly 700 applicants who are furthest along in the process of getting visas, having already won approval and cleared security screening.

The first arrivals were screened for the coronavirus and received vaccines if they wanted them, said Tracey Jacobson, the U.S. diplomat running the effort. They were expected to stay at a hotel on a base in Fort Lee, Virginia, for about seven days, completing medical exams and other final steps, Jacobson said. Resettlement organizations will help them as they travel to communities around the United States, with some bound for family members already here, she said.

First Afghan evacuees arriving as U.S. seeks more landing sites; interpreters threatened by Taliban

First Afghan evacuees arriving as U.S. seeks more landing sites; interpreters threatened by Taliban

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In this Friday, April 30, 2021, photo, Ayazudin Hilal, 40, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. shows his picture with U.S. Army soldiers during an interview to The Associated Press after a protest against the U.S. government and NATO … more >

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By Joseph Clark

The Washington Times

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Biden administration has begun evacuating to the U.S. the first interpreters and other Afghan nationals who face possible retaliation from the Taliban insurgency for helping American troops, senior administration officials announced Thursday.

The first flight from Kabul took off this week with just over 200 individuals on board. After arriving in the U.S. early Friday morning, the group will complete the final steps of their visa application process at Fort Lee in Virginia, before resettling within the U.S. 

“I am immensely proud to announce our first group of Afghan special immigrants to be relocated under Operation Allies Refuge is now on their way to America,” said Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser. “This flight represents the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans’ brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan, in turn helping to keep our country safe.”

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Separately, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Kuwait on Thursday appealing to U.S. allies to agree to take some of the Afghans who want to leave, whom supporters say risked their lives to assist the 20-year U.S. military and reconstruction effort in the country that President Biden is ending.

Mr. Blinken told reporters that finding new homes for the Afghan nationals had been discussed, but did not announce any firm commitments. ABC News reported Thursday that possible hosts include Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and a number of central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“We’re talking to a number of countries about the possibility of temporarily relocating” Afghans, Mr. Blinken said. “That’s one of the issues that came up in our conversations today, but we are very much focused on making good on our obligations.”

Under bipartisan pressure from Congress, Mr. Biden announced Operation Allies Refuge earlier this month, designed to relocate those who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), a program for foreign nationals who assist the U.S. military and government, to countries outside of Afghanistan to await final approval to immigrate to the U.S. 

Mr. Travers said he expects approximately 2,500 Afghans to be relocated as part of Operation Allies Refuge over the weeks to come, including 700 principal SIV applicants and their families. 

The effort is coordinated by the State Department, with representatives from the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security also involved. 

State Department lead Tracey Jacobson said all Afghans slated to be relocated have received extensive background screening and COVID-19 testing. The first arrivals will receive medical screenings required by the Department of Homeland Security at Fort Lee before being granted immigrant status. They will also be given the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Ms. Jacobson expects the group to be at Fort Lee for approximately seven days.

The White House had faced pressure from lawmakers to provide a haven for the Afghan allies since announcing the troop withdrawal in April. 

The State Department visa process has been ensnared in a backlog of close to 18,000 applicants from Afghanistan, which was estimated to take until next year to process. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argued that the quickly deteriorating security situation in the country would spell grave peril for those who are still waiting on their visa approval. 

Ms. Jacobson said the initial group being relocated are those that are at the final stages of the process but are considering relocating who are not as far along in the process to other countries besides the U.S. to complete their processing. 

The House has recently passed legislation aimed at streamlining the SIV application process and adding 8,000 visas to the program. Earlier this week the White House told lawmakers it would need approximately $1 billion in emergency funding for the relocation effort.

The evacuations come as the outlook for Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal appears increasingly dire, with the insurgent Taliban seizing sizable chunks of territory from the U.S.-backed Kabul government even as the final American and allied combat troops are packing to go. 

In a quarterly report to Congress this week, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko described the situation in Afghanistan as “bleak,” and noted that the Taliban now controls about half of the country.

“The overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed,” he said.

Hong Kong protester given 9-year term in 1st security case

Hong Kong protester given 9-year term in 1st security case

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A prison van arrives as a police officer stands guard for Tong Ying-kit’s arrival at the Hong Kong High Court in Hong Kong Friday, July 30, 2021. Tong was convicted Tuesday of inciting secession and terrorism for driving his motorcycle … more >

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By Katie Tam and Janice Lo

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

HONG KONG (AP) — A pro-democracy protester was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison in the closely watched first prosecution under Hong Kong’s national security law as the ruling Communist Party tightens control over the territory.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, was convicted of inciting secession and terrorism for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers at a July 1, 2020, rally. He carried a flag bearing the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

President Xi Jinping’s government imposed the security law on the former British colony last year following protests that erupted in mid-2019. Beijing has tried to crush a pro-democracy movement by jailing leading activists and has reduced the public’s role in picking Hong Kong’s government.

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Tong‘s sentence, announced by Judge Esther Toh for a three-judge panel in the Hong Kong High Court, was longer than the three years requested by the prosecution. Defense lawyers appealed for no more than 10. He faced a possible maximum of life in prison.

Critics accuse Beijing of violating the autonomy and Western-style civil liberties promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 and hurting its status as a business center. Human rights activists say the security law is being abused to attack legitimate dissent.

Tong‘s sentencing is a “hammer blow to free speech” and shows the law is “a tool to instill terror” in government critics, said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra, in a statement.

The law “lacks any exemption for legitimate expression or protest,” Mishra said. “The judgment at no point considered Tong’s rights to freedom of expression and protest.”

Officials reject the criticism and say Beijing is restoring order and instituting security protections like those of other countries. More than 100 people have been arrested under the security law.

Defense lawyers said Tong’s penalty should be light because the court hadn’t found the attack was deliberate, no one was injured and the secession-related offense qualified as minor under the law.

After the sentence was announced, Tong nodded slightly but said nothing. He was dressed in a black shirt and tie with a blue blazer as he was throughout his trial.

As he was led out of the courtroom, spectators yelled, “We will wait for you!”

After court was adjourned, a spectator yelled to his lead defense lawyer, Clive Grossman, “Mr. Grossman, appeal!”

The judges ruled Tuesday that Tong’s actions were an act of violence aimed at coercing the Hong Kong and mainland governments and intimidating the public. It said carrying the flag was an act of incitement to secession, rejecting defense arguments that Tong could be proven to be inciting secession just by using the slogan.

Tong’s trial was conducted without a jury under rules that allow an exception to Hong Kong’s British-style common law system if state secrets need to be protected or foreign forces are involved. The judges were picked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The crackdown followed protests that began over an extradition law proposed by Lam’s government and expanded to include other grievances and demands for more democracy. At their height, thousands of people held marches and rallies every weekend.

The last pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, shut down last month after journalists and executives were arrested. Its owner, Jimmy Lai, is serving a 20-month prison term and faces more charges of colluding with foreigners to endanger national security.

Also last year, Hong Kong’s legislature was rearranged to guarantee a majority to Beijing-allied figures. Rules for elected officials were tightened to require them to be deemed patriotic.

Philippine leader retains pact allowing U.S. war exercises

Philippine leader retains pact allowing U.S. war exercises

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United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana shake hands after a bilateral meeting at Camp Aguinaldo military camp in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines Friday, July 30, 2021. Austin is visiting Manila to hold … more >

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By Jim Gomez

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines will keep having large-scale combat exercises with the United States after President Rodrigo Duterte retracted his decision to terminate a key defense pact in a move that may antagonize an increasingly belligerent China.

Duterte’s decision was announced Friday by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a joint news conference with visiting U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin in Manila. It was a step back from the Philippine leader’s stunning vow early in his term to distance himself from Washington as he tried to rebuild frayed ties with China over years of territorial rifts in the South China Sea.

“The president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA,” Lorenzana told reporters after an hour-long meeting with Austin, referring to the Visiting Forces Agreement. “There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track.”

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Austin thanked Duterte for the decision, which he said would further bolster the two nations’ 70-year treaty alliance.

“Our countries face a range of challenges, from the climate crises to the pandemic and, as we do, a strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together.”

Terminating the pact would have been a major blow to America’s oldest alliance in Asia, as Washington squares with Beijing on a range of issues, including trade, human rights and China’s behavior in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.

The U.S. military presence in the region is seen as a counterbalance to China, which has used force to assert claims to vast areas of the disputed South China Sea, including the construction of artificial islands equipped with airstrips and military installations. China has ignored and continues to defy a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its historic basis.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have been locked in the territorial standoff for decades. The U.S. doesn’t lay any claim to the busy waterway and has sailed Navy warships close to Chinese-claimed islands on so-called freedom of navigation operations in a challenge to Beijing.

Beijing has warned Washington to stay away from what it describes as a purely Asian dispute.

In a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said that Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and “treads on the sovereignty of states in the region.” He said the U.S. supports the region’s coastal states in upholding their rights under international law, and is committed to its defense treaty obligations with Japan and the Philippines.

Duterte notified the U.S. government in February last year that the Philippines intended to abrogate the 1998 agreement, which allows large numbers of American forces to join combat training with Philippine troops and sets legal terms for their temporary stay.

The pact’s termination would have taken effect after 180 days, but Duterte has repeatedly delayed the decision. While it was pending, the U.S. and Philippine militaries proceeded with plans for combat and disaster-response exercises but canceled larger drills last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. and Philippine forces engage in about 300 activities each year, including the Balikatan, or shoulder-to-shoulder, exercises, which involve thousands of troops in land, sea and air drills that often included live fire. They’ve sparked Chinese protests when they were held on the periphery of the sea Beijing claims as its own.

The Balikatan exercises resumed last April but were considerably scaled down due to continuing COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns.

A Philippine military official told The Associated Press that the U.S. continued to provide intelligence and satellite and aircraft surveillance photos of Chinese activities in the South China Sea despite Duterte’s earlier threat to abrogate the VFA. The U.S. images have helped the Philippines to become aware of encroachments and lodge diplomatic protests, said the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to speak publicly.

Lorenzana said he was unaware of the reason behind Duterte’s change of heart. The brash-talking president, who has been under intense pressure to contain one of Southeast Asia’s worst outbreaks, warned in December that he would proceed to abrogate the VFA if the U.S. did not provide at least 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“No vaccine, no stay here,” Duterte said then in blunt remarks that one Filipino senator said “may have given the impression that the Philippines is a nation of extortionists.”

The Philippines recently received at least 3.2 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine from the U.S. through the COVAX global vaccine-sharing program, and has been assured of more American aid. President Joe Biden has said America’s vaccines were being donated to poorer countries to save lives and “don’t include pressure for favors or potential concessions.”

Japan expands coronavirus emergency after record spikes amid Olympics

Japan expands coronavirus emergency after record spikes amid Olympics

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People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk across a shopping alley near Ueno Station in Tokyo Friday, July 30, 2021. Japan is set to expand the coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo to neighboring … more >

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By Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press

Friday, July 30, 2021

TOKYO (AP) — Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency to four more areas in addition to Tokyo on Friday following record spikes in infections as the capital hosts the Olympics.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared an emergency in Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba, near Tokyo, as well as in the western city of Osaka, effective Monday until Aug. 31. Emergency measures already in place in Tokyo and the southern island of Okinawa will be extended until the end of August, after the Olympics and well into the Paralympics which start Aug. 24.

The upsurge in cases in Tokyo despite more than two weeks of emergency measures is raising doubts that they can effectively slow infections.

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Five other areas, including Hokkaido, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka, will be placed under less-stringent emergency restrictions.

Tokyo has reported a record increase in cases for three days in a row, including 3,865 on Thursday, before logging another 3,300 on Friday. The cases have doubled since last week, although officials say the surge is unrelated to the Olympics.

“Infections are expanding in the Tokyo and western metropolitan areas at an enormous speed that we have never experienced before,” Suga said as he declared the expansion of the state of emergency. If the spike continues at the current pace with the spread of the more contagious delta variant, Japan’s medical system could collapse, he said.

Japan has kept its cases and deaths lower than many other countries, but its seven-day rolling average is growing and now stands at 28 per 100,000 people nationwide and 88 per 100,000 in Tokyo, according to the Health Ministry. This compares to 18.5 in the United States, 48 in Britain and 2.8 in India, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Officials said 2,995 are hospitalized in Tokyo, about half the current capacity of 6,000 beds, with some hospitals already full. More than 10,000 others are isolating at home or in designated hotels, with nearly 5,600 waiting at home while health centers decide where they will be treated. Tokyo is also setting up a facility for those requiring oxygen while waiting for hospital beds.

Nationwide, Japan reported 10,687 cases Thursday, exceeding 10,000 for the first time. It has recorded 15,166 fatalities from COVID-19, including 2,288 in Tokyo, since the pandemic began.

The emergency measures focus on an alcohol ban at eateries and karaoke bars and their shortened hours, but have become less effective because people are only requested to remain and work at home. Many have been defying the measures as they become tired of restrictive life.

Suga said his key strategy will be largely unchanged – to target dining. He said subsidies will be paid faster to business owners who cooperate, and local authorities will patrol “to increase the effectiveness of the measures.”

Earlier Friday, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike noted that people in their 30s or younger account for many recent cases and urged them to “share the sense of crisis” and follow basic measures such as mask wearing and avoiding having parties.

As of Thursday, 27% of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated. The percentage of the elderly who are fully vaccinated is 71.5%.

Russian court sentences Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years in jail

Russian court sentences Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years in jail

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From left, Jehovah’s Witnesses members Vilen Avanesov, Alkesandr Parkov, and Vilen’s son Arsen Avanesov attend a hearing involving their case in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. On July 29, a court sentenced the men to terms ranging from six years to six and … more >

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By Mark A. Kellner

The Washington Times

Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Russian court sentenced three Jehovah’s Witnesses to as much as six and a half years in prison Thursday for “extremism,” a spokesman for the religious group said.

Vilen Avanesov, 68, was sentenced to six years in prison, the spokesman said. His son, Arsen, 37, and a third defendant, Aleksandr Parkov, 53, were each sentenced to six and a half years, the group reported.

Advocates say their convictions are an injustice, especially after more than two years in pretrial detention. Six other Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in pretrial detention in the Rostov region, the group reported.

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The Witnesses were outlawed in Russia in 2017 when the nation’s supreme court declared the movement “extremist,” in the same category as the Islamic State terrorist organization. The religious group is apolitical and is noted for its pacifism and refusal of military service.

The three were “wrongly convicted and harshly sentenced to lengthy prison terms,” said Jarrod Lopes, a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman.

“Russian officials have not been inconspicuous about persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Mr. Lopes added. “Arrogantly and barbarically, Russian officers record themselves raiding the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forcibly arresting them. The footage is all over the internet and social media.”

Mr. Lopes said some Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have been “severely beaten” during arrests or under interrogation.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses want nothing more than to freely worship in their home country as their fellow believers do in over 200 other lands,” Mr. Lopes said. He put the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia at about 170,000.

According to statistics compiled by the Witnesses, there have been 246 criminal cases filed against their members in Russia and Crimea, involving 517 believers. So far, 51 have been sent to prison, while 34 are under house arrest. More than 1,500 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been raided since the 2017 supreme court ruling, which also liquidated the group’s legal entities.

“These men should never, ever have had to spend a minute in prison, and yet they’ve been locked up for two years,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “It is never too late for Russian authorities to stop these arrests, release Jehovah’s Witnesses who are behind bars, stop these criminal proceedings, and quash the convictions that have already taken place.”

Sir Andrew Wood, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, said in a statement, “Two years plus in pretrial detention before a verdict on extremism for three Jehovah’s Witnesses is already an injustice. ‘Extremism’ in Russia is an indictment delivered by diktat labeling a number of organizations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has no credible definition. … Its purpose is repression, not the exercise of justice.”

Cyber researchers discover likely successor to ransomware gangs disrupting critical infrastructure

Cyber researchers discover likely successor to ransomware gangs disrupting critical infrastructure

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This Feb 23, 2019, file photo shows the inside of a computer in Jersey City, N.J. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File) **FILE** more >

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By Ryan Lovelace

The Washington Times

Thursday, July 29, 2021

A new cybercriminal group, BlackMatter, has formed as a potential successor to the ransomware gangs responsible for major attacks hitting U.S. critical infrastructure, according to cyber intelligence professionals.

The cyber intelligence company Recorded Future said the BlackMatter group has incorporated features from ransomware gangs REvil and DarkSide.

The REvil group went dark earlier this month after hitting software company Kaseya and its customers, while the DarkSide gang appeared to dissipate after its hit on major U.S. fuel supplier Colonial Pipeline in May. 

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BlackMatter has pledged not to hit certain industries, including critical infrastructure, defense, healthcare, oil and gas, and governments among others, according to Recorded Future. But BlackMatter is targeting companies and entities with revenues of $100 million or more.

“BlackMatter, a member of the top-tier forum Exploit and likely an operator of BlackMatter ransomware, is currently advertising the purchase of access to corporate networks in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K.,” Recorded Future’s Insikt Group wrote on the company’s website

The risk intelligence firm Flashpoint also has labeled BlackMatter as a “possible rebranding” of REvil and DarkSide but was more cautious in asserting BlackMatter’s connection to the other ransomware gangs. 

About a week after REvil looked to be shutting down, Flashpoint said it observed BlackMatter registering on Russian-language illicit websites and putting six-figure dollars sums of cryptocurrency into an escrow account. Flashpoint also noted that REvil’s spokesperson and BlackMatter appear to share a common understanding of acceptable targets.

“While the information may not be a smoking gun, it may indicate that REvil has not gone totally offline, but merely took a small hiatus following some high-profile breaches,” Flashpoint wrote on its website. “It is also important to note that two posts and a large escrow account do not make a ransomware group. It is possible that copycats are intentionally mimicking the behavior of REvil to gain immediate credibility for allegedly being the reincarnation of REvil.”

BlackMatter is not the only cybercriminal entity with links to REvil and DarkSide that have emerged after those gangs’ digital presence faded. Last month, cybersecurity firm FireEye said it detected a DarkSide affiliate targeting closed-circuit television software users. 

Tracking cyberattackers and ransomware gangs is complicated, and the FBI previously told The Washington Times that it is tracking about a hundred different variants of ransomware responsible for dozens to hundreds of attacks. 

Bryan Vorndran, assistant director in the FBI’s cyber division, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that the federal government has built an algorithm that tracks the worst ransomware attackers. 

“We have an entire interagency algorithm that essentially prioritizes from one to 101 the level of impact that each variant has had on the United States, its economy, and its other various equities,” Mr. Vorndran said. “The largest one that we know of, we would estimate that their revenue from attacks exceeds 200 million dollars to give you some type of scope on the value proposition.”

Air Force report: China ‘weaponizing’ economic clout to coerce U.S. allies

Air Force report: China ‘weaponizing’ economic clout to coerce U.S. allies

South Korea, Australia, the Philippines all pressed by Beijing

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In this file photo, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is displayed on screen during a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on Monday, June 28, 2021. The communists have … more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, July 29, 2021

China’s communist government is engaged in a strategy of economic coercion that threatens to undermine the rules-based international order, according to a U.S. Air Force analysis.

The report, “The War of the Yuan: Weaponizing the World’s Second Largest Economy,” outlines what the authors say is a Chinese economic pressure campaign targeting South Korea, Philippines and Australia, designed “to send a message to U.S. partners refusing to fold to its demands.”

“Now established as a major player in the global economy, the [People’s Republic of China] has weaponized its market share through economic statecraft designed to coerce and punish nations that stand up to malign Chinese influence,” states a report by the Pacific Air Force’s Strategic Competition Team.

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“As the PRC continues to employ its economic might in harmful ways, it is vitally important that the United States maintain a unified front with its allies and partners, provide a viable alternative to the PRC’s debt-trap diplomacy, and continue to champion adherence to established and agreed-upon international rules and norms,” the report concludes

China boasts a $14 trillion gross domestic product (GDP) after its economy was first opened in 1978 and is the only major world economy to grow during the pandemic in 2020, the report said.

Against South Korea in 2016, the report said Beijing launched a campaign of economic intimidation that cost Seoul an estimated $7.5 billion – a loss of .05% of the country’s GDP. The economic attack came in response to South Korea’s decision to host the Pentagon’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.

In retaliation, the Chinese government stopped group tours to South Korea, refused to give licenses for Korean video games in China, halted K-pop concerts and shut down Chinese locations of the South Korea Lotte supermarket chain.

China’s government also used its economic clout against the Philippines in 2012, in the midst of a standoff over Beijing’s claims to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Chinese authorities refused to permit Filipino produce to be sold in Chinese markets, leaving produce to be destroyed or left to rot, severely impacting Manila’s agriculture industry.

China again used its economic power to punish Australia for its call for an international investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic that began in Wuhan, China.

“The PRC is angered by this quest for truth, as well as the banning of controversial Chinese telecom giant Huawei from building the Australian 5G network,” the report said. “The PRC once again employed its economic weapons, taking advantage of its place as Australia’s biggest trading partner to sanction goods such as wine and beef, and causing Chinese investment in Australia to plummet by 61% in 2020.”

The report warned that “China’s reach continues to grow in an increasingly globalized economy, weakened by a global pandemic. Even countries outside the Indo-Pacific region, like Germany and Norway, are feeling the effects of the PRC’s predatory economic statecraft.”
The report is included in the May edition of the monthly “State of the Game” newsletter and published by the Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, a think tank at the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

Dismantled oil giant Yukos wins $5 billion judgment against Russia

Dismantled oil giant Yukos wins $5 billion judgment against Russia

Putin feud with Yukos founder Khodorkovsky helped define regime

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Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos Oil Company, speaks during an interview by The Associated Press in London, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Khodorkovsky’s London-based investigative unit, the Dossier Center, is compiling profiles of Russians it … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Thursday, July 29, 2021

An international tribunal has ruled that the Russian government owes onetime energy giant Yukos Oil $5 billion in compensation for illegally expropriating its assets and denying it justice in Russian courts.

The Yukos Foundation revealed Thursday in a statement the company had been awarded a $5 billion judgment against the Russian state by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. It’s the latest setback for Russia in a series of claims from Yukos and its shareholders over the state-ordered dismantling of the company.

“The tribunal found that Russia illegally expropriated Yukos Capital’s loans to its former parent company Yukos Oil and denied it justice in the Russian courts,” the foundation statement said of the ruling handed down July 23.

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The power struggle between President Vladimir Putin and Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the mid-2000s was one of the defining events in cementing Mr. Putin’s near-total control of the Russian government.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, once considered Russia’s richest man, became a critic of the Kremlin and served nearly a decade in jail on what critics said were trumped-up charges of fraud and embezzlement.

Mr. Khodorkovsky now lives in exile, and Mr. Putin has never been challenged politically since by the country’s powerful business “oligarchs.”

Yukos Capital first applied for compensation in 2013, demanding $13 billion from the Russian Federation, part of what legal experts say is a “second wave” of lawsuits targeting the Kremlin. Yukos Oil was broken up and its assets redistributed by the Kremlin shortly after Mr. Khodorkovsky’s October 2003 arrest. It declared bankruptcy three years later.

The TASS news service reported Thursday that Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office has vowed to fight the latest award, noting divisions in the judges’ ruling and denying the tribunal had the jurisdiction to decide the case or levy the fine.

“The final arbitral decision cannot be considered to be legal and grounded,” a government legal source told the news service. “The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office will, without fail, appeal this decision.”

Russian lab module docks with space station after 8-day trip

Russian lab module docks with space station after 8-day trip

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In this photo provided by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service, the Nauka module is seen prior to docking with the International Space Station on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Russia’s long-delayed lab module successfully docked with the International Space Station on … more >

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By

Associated Press

Thursday, July 29, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s long-delayed lab module successfully docked with the International Space Station on Thursday, eight days after it was launched from the Russian space launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The 20-metric-ton (22-ton) Nauka module, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, docked with the orbiting outpost in an automatic mode after a long journey and a series of maneuvers.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, confirmed the module’s contact with the International Space Station at 13:29 GMT.

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The launch of Nauka, which is intended to provide more room for scientific experiments and space for the crew, had been repeatedly delayed because of technical problems. It was initially scheduled to go up in 2007.

In 2013, experts found contamination in its fuel system, resulting in a long and costly replacement. Other Nauka systems also underwent modernization or repairs.

Nauka became the first new module in the Russian segment of the station since 2010. After docking, it will require many maneuvers, including up to 11 spacewalks beginning in early September, to prepare it for operation.

China battling COVID-19 cluster around Nanjing

China battling COVID-19 cluster around Nanjing

Beijing reports first cases in months

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In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, people line up for COVID-19 tests at a testing station in Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Roadblocks were set up to check drivers and a disease-control … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Thursday, July 29, 2021

China is battling one of its worst COVID-19 outbreaks in months, with officials canceling flights and conducting mass testing after an outbreak in the eastern city of Nanjing.

More than 170 cases have been linked to the cluster that began at the Nanjing airport and spilled into multiple provinces.

Beijing reported two infections in a husband and wife who had traveled outside the city and were impacted by the cluster, according to CNN. They are the first cases reported in the capital in six months.

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Authorities say the new outbreak is fueled by the coronavirus’s delta variant that is bedeviling the U.S. and countries around the world.

The virus that upended the world started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019.

Scientists and politicians are debating whether the virus was purely natural in origin or leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan that focuses on coronaviruses in bats.

China‘s communist government says it managed to put a lid on most outbreaks through draconian lockdowns and mass testing surveillance, though some doubt the accuracy of their cases and mortality statistics.

China reportedly has administered 1.6 billion doses of vaccines to its mammoth population and donated many more to other countries.

However, scientists have expressed doubts about their efficacy compared to the messenger-RNA vaccines being used in the U.S. and many western countries.

China woos Taliban as U.S. military departs Afghanistan

China woos Taliban as U.S. military departs Afghanistan

Beijing places its bets as Blinken vows U.S. will stay involved

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan (JNB) in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP) **FILE** more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

China‘s foreign minister hosted a high-level Taliban delegation on Wednesday, signaling an uptick in Beijing‘s bid for influence in Afghanistan at a moment when U.S. and other foreign troops are leaving and the Islamist militants are seizing large swaths of territory from the U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed not to abandon Afghanistan. He was visiting India on Wednesday as part of the Biden administration’s effort to rally the massive South Asian democracy as an ally against communist China‘s expanding geopolitical clout in the region.

“Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan and NATO and others withdraw their forces, we remain very much engaged in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken told reporters in New Delhi, a key stop on his tour of Asian and Middle Eastern capitals. “We have not only a strong embassy there, but also important programs that continue to support Afghanistan economically, through development assistance, through security assistance.”

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The comments offered a sharp contrast from what was unfolding a few thousand miles away in China‘s northern city of Tianjin, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi feted a group of nine Taliban representatives.

China said in a statement after the meeting that Mr. Wang assured the group that Beijing believes the Taliban will “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.” The Taliban waged a nearly two-decade insurgency against the government after being ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a noteworthy twist, Mr. Wang expressed hope that the Taliban would crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). He called the group a “direct threat to China‘s national security,” according to Reuters.

Beijing characterizes ETIM as a Muslim extremist and separatist group active in China‘s Xinjiang region, a far corner of which shares a short border with the finger-shaped geographic enclave of northeastern Afghanistan.

Mr. Wang’s reference to the ETIM in a meeting with the Taliban — itself an Islamist militant organization — raised eyebrows in Washington.

The Biden administration has accused Beijing of heavy-handed repression of Muslim groups in Xinjiang and engaging in a “genocide” of ethnic minorities there. In a move that outraged Chinese officials last year, the Trump administration removed ETIM from State Department terrorism lists.

Chinese propaganda on Wednesday was more broadly focused. It criticized U.S. policy in Afghanistan as a “failure” and asserted that China is poised to step in and successfully mediate between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. China also eyes major economic gains in Afghanistan, which could serve as a key overland link to President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road development program.

Chinese analysts see the U.S. military pullback in Afghanistan as a clear strategic defeat on par with the Soviet Union’s retreat in the late 1980s, which set the stage for the first Taliban regime.

“The hasty withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan marked the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and it is an opportunity for the Afghan people to stabilize and develop their country,” said an article published by Global Times, a newspaper closely tied to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.

China could play the role as a better mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban for its smooth and high-level communication with both sides, whose peace talks may be stuck in a stalemate for a long time,” said the article, which emphasized that the Taliban delegation in China reiterated “a previous promise of never allowing any force to use the Afghan territory to endanger China.”

The stepped-up Chinese diplomacy comes in the wake of President Biden’s decision to proceed with a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The move set into motion a geopolitical scramble among regional powers, including China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and Turkey — all of which are poised to try to benefit from the strategic vacuum.

Afghanistan was the central prize in the 19th century “Great Game” battle of empires. Some say it looks like it will reprise that role in the coming years.

China has been making the most nuanced moves. It signed a 25-year strategic partnership in June with Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west, and has pushed billions of dollars in infrastructure loans over the past decade to Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the south and the east.

“No one’s paid any attention to what China’s plans are for Afghanistan,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute, recently told The Washington Times.

“Chinese mining companies have been hovering around Kabul for mining contracts for a while now,” Mr. Haqqani said.

The extent to which a Taliban surge to power in Kabul would enhance Beijing‘s ambitions remains to be seen.

The Taliban leadership appears to be weighing its options. Delegates also have visited Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan in the past month while the militant group has expanded its hold on strategic territory inside Afghanistan.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp., said the U.S. troop withdrawal is removing “the most formidable obstacle to total Taliban takeover of the country.”

Concerns are soaring about a possible refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster. “The prospect of renewed Taliban rule has sparked major anxiety among the region’s powers,” Mr. Grossman wrote in a recent commentary published by Foreign Policy.

In early July, he said, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar “visited Moscow and Tehran while Taliban representatives were in each city, raising questions about whether back-channel negotiations are ongoing.”

Mr. Jaishankar met with Mr. Blinken in India on Wednesday and repeated to reporters India‘s long-standing position that “Afghanistan must neither be home to terrorism nor a source of refugees.

“It is essential that peace negotiations are taken seriously by all parties,” the Indian minister said. “Unilateral imposition of will by any party will obviously not be democratic and can never lead to stability, nor indeed can such efforts ever acquire legitimacy.”

Mr. Jaishankar said “the gains to Afghan civil society, especially on the rights of women, minorities and on social freedoms over the last two decades, are self-evident.”

“We must collectively work to preserve them,” he said.

U.S. breaks silence, condemns reports of demonstrators shot by Iranian security forces

U.S. breaks silence, condemns reports of demonstrators shot by Iranian security forces

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In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 23, 2021. Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday said he understands protesters’ … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The State Department on Wednesday condemned the use of violence to crush ongoing protests in Iran, breaking the Biden administration’s silence over a widening uprising against the Tehran government that has been unfolding this week in several cities across the country.

“The Iranian people have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable, but we have seen disturbing reports that security forces fired on protesters, resulting in multiple deaths,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protestors.”

The statement came after multiple news reports that security forces had fired on protesters engaged in a demonstration last week over severe water shortages in southwest Khuzestan province.

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Human Rights Watch issued a statement on July 22 noting reports of three protesters being killed and asserting that “Iranian authorities appear to have used excessive force against demonstrators in southwestern Iran protesting lack of access to water.”

Iranian authorities have sharply denied the reports, but an umbrella group of Iranian exile dissident groups charged the protests are more extensive and violent than the regime has admitted.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, citing its sources inside the country, claimed protests had broken out in the capital and dozens of Iranian cities, with at least 12 demonstrators killed by police and scores of arrests in Khuzestan and elsewhere.

The State Department stopped short Wednesday of specifically blaming the Iranian regime for shooting at demonstrators. But Mr. Price said U.S. officials “urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the internet.”

Protests in Iran began with a water shortage — owing to drought and what critics say was official mismanagement — in the Khuzestan province and have now spread to numerous cities including Tehran, Karaj and Tabriz.

The Associated Press reported that dozens of Iranians had marched down a major street in Tehran on Monday. The news agency cited online videos of the demonstration, showing protesters marching down Jomhuri Islami Avenue — or “Islamic Republic Avenue” in Farsi — and calling on police to support them.

The demonstrators later dispersed peacefully. Security forces have maintained a heavier-than-normal presence recently in Tehran.

The Iranian regime’s semi-official Fars News Agency later reported the demonstrations, but blamed them on a power outage at a nearby shopping center.

Mr. Price’s statement on Wednesday said the “Iranian people are now putting a spotlight not only on their unmet needs, but also their unfulfilled aspirations for respect for human rights — rights to which individuals the world over are entitled.”

The developments come as the Biden administration pursues “indirect” talks with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump repudiated in 2018. Iran is demanding the U.S. drop harsh economic sanctions Mr. Trump reimposed in quitting the deal.

Months of talks toward such a restoration have yet to produce a deal, even as hard-liner President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is due to be sworn in as president in Tehran next week. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday called Washington “stubborn” for seeking to raise the issue of Tehran’s missiles and regional influence during talks with other nations that were party to the nuclear deal.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

Daniel Hale, former Air Force analyst, sentenced to 45 month over drone leaks

Former Air Force analyst sentenced for leaking classified drone information

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In this undated file photo provided by the Nashville Police Department is Daniel Everette Hale, who is charged in federal court in Alexandria, Va., under the World War I-era Espionage Act. Hale, a former Air Force intelligence analyst said his … more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Former Air Force analyst Daniel Everette Hale was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Tuesday for admittedly leaking classified information to the press about the Pentagon’s drone program.

Senior U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, sentenced Hale to 45 months in prison, or about half the nine years behind bars sought by the Biden administration.

Hale, 33, faced charges of theft and four violations of the U.S. Espionage Act before pleading guilty in March to a single count of breaking the law by retaining and sharing national defense information.

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In a letter filed in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Hale said he leaked the material after becoming traumatized by witnessing and participating in U.S. drone strikes that killed innocent civilians.

“I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe,” wrote Hale, who served in the Air Force during the Obama presidency from 2009 to 2013.

“I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience,” Hale added in the 11-page letter he wrote from jail ahead of his sentencing hearing.

Federal prosecutors first charged Hale during the Trump administration in March 2019, accusing him of leaking more than a dozen classified documents he obtained while employed by a U.S. defense contractor.

Court documents filed in the case describe the leaked material as documents classified at the “secret” and “top secret” levels about sensitive counterterrorism operations and military campaigns.

While not identified by name in charging documents, the recipients of the material are understood to be The Intercept online news site and, more specifically, its co-founder, reporter Jeremy Scahill.

Several of the documents were published online by The Intercept and in a book attributed to its staff and Mr. Scahill, who did not respond to a message seeking his reaction to the sentence.

“These documents revealed the truth about the U.S. government’s secretive, murderous drone war, including that the killing of civilians was far more widespread than previously acknowledged,” said Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor in chief. “The Intercept will not comment on our sources. But whoever brought the documents in question to light undoubtedly served a noble public purpose.”

Hale accessed the documents while employed for a contractor serving the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a component of the Department of Defense, where he worked from December 2013 to August 2014.

In a statement of facts entered in court with his guilty plea, Hale said he first met the reporter several months before starting the contracting job and that he later shared with him the secrets.

“I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know,” Hale explained in his letter from jail.

Among those agreeing with Hale on the importance of the material are the American Civil Liberties Union and Edward J. Snowden, one of the most well-known intelligence leakers in modern history.

“Leaks to press in the public interest shouldn’t be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Period,” the ACLU said on Twitter. “Daniel Hale helped the public learn about a lethal program that never should have been kept secret. He should be thanked, not sentenced as a spy.”

His crime was telling this truth: 90% of those killed by U.S. drones are bystanders, not the intended targets. He should have been given a medal,” added Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked highly classified documents to the press in 2013.

The sentencing judge said Hale could have spoken up without breaking the law.

“You’re not facing prison for speaking out about the drone program injuring and killing innocent persons,” he said, Politico reported. “You could have been a whistleblower and garnered all this attention without leaking any of these documents, frankly.”

The Intercept launched in early 2014, several months after Mr. Snowden provided its founding editors, including Mr. Scahill, with access to classified material he obtained while contracting for the NSA.

Mr. Snowden, 38, has been charged with theft and violating the U.S. Espionage Act. He fled to Russia two days after the Justice Department unsealed the charges and now lives there.

Hale is not the only leaker sentenced for violating the Espionage Act for giving classified information to The Intercept. Reality Winner, another former NSA contractor, was recently freed from prison after serving roughly four years for leaking a classified report to the website about Russian hackers targeting U.S. voting infrastructure leading up to 2016 presidential election.

Inside the Ring: Austin calls for ‘responsible’ space operations

Austin calls for ‘responsible’ space operations

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In this image from video provided by IISS, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin delivers a speech during the 40th IISS Fullerton Lecture Tuesday, July 27, 2021 in Singapore. Austin decried the actions of Myanmar’s military rulers as unacceptable on … more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Updated: 5:01 p.m. on
Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this month outlined key elements of “responsible behavior in space” in a memorandum to senior Pentagon and military leaders.

“As more actors come to space, the domain is changing, with an increased risk of collisions, as well as of miscalculations or misunderstandings,” Mr. Austin said in the July 7 memo. “It is incumbent on the department to continue space leadership through demonstrating and acknowledging responsible behavior in space.”

The memo directed all Pentagon and military agencies to conduct space operations in line with “tenets of responsible behavior.”

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Space forces will operate in, from, to and through space with “regard for others” along with “a professional manner.” Activities also will limit producing orbiting trash that is long-lived. Space assets also must avoid the “creation of harmful interference, and maintain safe separation and safe trajectories for satellites and spacecraft.”

Communications and notifications also need to be carried out in ways that enhance the stability and safety of space.

The head of the new U.S. Space Command “will collaborate with DoD stakeholders to develop and coordinate guidance regarding these tenets and associated specific behaviors for DoD operations in the space area of responsibility, and recommend them to the secretary of defense for approval,” Mr. Austin stated.

Newly installed Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl will head up space behavior tenets throughout government and internationally, the memo states.

The new policy appears to be an attempt by the Biden administration to promote international norms for space activities, said Michael Listner, a space expert. Mr. Listner said that while the directive is meant to be internal guidance, the tenets could create positive geopolitical optics and push back against pressure for new and restrictive treaties for space.

“Caution needs to be taken, considering ‘norms’ is usually a feint for customary international law, which [nongovernmental organizations] will latch on to in an attempt to drive the conversation,” said Mr. Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a think tank.

The Austin memo also appears to be adopting the soft-deterrence approach contained in the 2011 National Security Space Strategy, one that seeks to encourage China and Russia not to use anti-satellite weapons.

“But the memo apparently takes into consideration lawfare tactics in its ‘all bets are off’ contingency in the event an adversary decides to ignore the rules or launch a preemptive ASAT strike,” Mr. Listner said.

The 2011 space strategy, signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, states that defense policy aims to promote the responsible, peaceful and safe use of space. However, the strategy also acknowledges that war in space is possible.

“Our military and intelligence capabilities must be prepared to ‘fight through’ a degraded environment and defeat attacks targeted at our space systems and supporting infrastructure,” the report states. “We must deny and defeat an adversary’s ability to achieve its objectives.”

China was criticized for the irresponsible use of space warfare capabilities in conducting a 2006 anti-satellite missile test in space that left tens of thousands of pieces of debris orbiting Earth and threatening manned and unmanned spacecraft for decades. The test involved a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile that blew up a Chinese weather satellite.

The Austin memorandum was signed around the same time that Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, Space Command’s director of strategy, plans and policy, warned that China is engaged in a large-scale, rapid buildup of space warfare capabilities. Adm. Bernacchi said the speed of the deployment of anti-satellite missiles, electronic jammers and robot satellite killers is scary.

“The thing that scares me the most: If you go back six years ago, China had almost nothing,” he said. “Now you look at them, and the ability for China to exponentially grow their counter-space capability is scary. I mean, I don’t know how else to put it.”

U.S. military satellites are viewed by adversaries as the Achilles’ heel of American joint warfare capabilities.

Military forces are heavily reliant on satellites for communications, navigation and weapons targeting. Knocking out even a few satellites could cripple operations.

SENATORS SEEK DEEPER COVID ORIGIN PROBE

A bipartisan group of senators this week urged President Biden to order U.S. intelligence agencies to more vigorously pursue the investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The threat to international health and security posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive and opaque governance of the People’s Republic of China has become glaringly apparent over the past eighteen months, particularly given the PRC’s efforts to conceal the severity and scope of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 -19 pandemic,” the senators stated in a July 27 letter to the president.

“The PRC’ s refusal to cooperate with the World Health Organization investigation into COVID-19 origins, the gag order it imposed on Chinese scientists and medical personnel, and its ongoing obfuscation and disinformation campaign regarding the pandemic have caused severe hardship worldwide.”

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark R. Warner, chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively, and Sens. James E. Risch and Marco Rubio, vice chairman and ranking Republican members of those panels. The senators noted the May directive by the White House ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to seek a “definitive conclusion” regarding the pandemic origin.

To prevent another deadly and damaging pandemic, the senators asked Mr. Biden to ensure that spy agencies zero in on where the virus originated and how it first spread.

“If the 90-day effort you have announced does not yield conclusions in which the United States has a high degree of confidence, we urge you to direct the intelligence community to continue prioritizing this inquiry until such conclusions are possible,” they stated.

Intelligence agencies also need to examine virus research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where the coronavirus may have escaped, as well as the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

“This investigation must evaluate evidence regarding WIV researchers who fell ill in the fall of 2019,” the senators stated. “It should identify other details of any researchers at the WIV who were working on coronavirus projects, and attempts by the PRC government to silence or disappear them; details of any WIV gain-of-function research specific to coronaviruses or other potential human pathogens; laboratory safety standards and practices for such research; and details of any research in synthetic biology and biotechnology connected to the ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ strategy, and other military work or funding at the WIV.”

Investigation of the spread of the virus from animals to humans also is needed, including specific zoonotic transmission chains, and the most likely timing, location and contributing factors related to any animal-to-human spillover events.

China’s efforts to block an international investigation into the virus origin and other actions taken by Beijing to obscure the nature of the virus and its transmission also should be part of the intelligence inquiry. The inquiry should include whether China’s government violated international agreements related to the handling of the virus outbreak and, if there are indications of a cover-up, the agencies should “analyze its motivations for doing so.”

Additionally, the senators want the U.S. government to lead an international forensic investigation inside China.

“In light of the PRC’s continued stonewalling of WHO efforts, the U.S. government should work with our allies and partners to use all available resources and tools to pressure Beijing to permit a serious investigation,” they stated.

American government funding of gain-of-function virus research in China also should be part of the intelligence probe.

“U.S. taxpayer funding should not support any collaboration with PRC entities that pose health, economic or security risks for the United States,” the senators said. “The PRC has demonstrated lax biosecurity standards, violated [international health regulations], attempted to steal intellectual property related to COVID-19 vaccines, and may be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.”

The formal review should determine whether there were direct or indirect taxpayer funds in China and the WIV, and whether the research was used by the Chinese military.

A State Department fact sheet put out by the Trump administration on the WIV said the Chinese military had been conducting research at the institute, including experiments, since at least 2017.

WIV officials have denied conducting any military-related research or that there was any possibility the coronavirus escaped from the lab.

GAYL UNDER INVESTIGATION

A Marine Corps civilian who wrote an article for the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet Global Times is under investigation by the Pentagon, according to a military officer.

Franz Gayl, a science adviser for the Marine Corps, also had his security clearance suspended pending the outcome of the counterintelligence probe, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Gayl, in a Global Times article published April 27, warned that the United States would lose a war with China over Taiwan. Pentagon officials said the article was published without authorization.

A Marine captain familiar with details of the case said after an initial review that the Gayl investigation was extended for 90 days. The probe is expected to be completed by Sept. 30.

As reported in this space in May, two Republican House members wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking how the retired Marine Corps major and now civilian adviser was allowed to write for Beijing’s most ardent anti-U.S. propaganda outlet.

“The fact that an administration official would so openly, brazenly and repeatedly promote [Chinese Communist Party] propaganda without repercussion is outrageous,” wrote Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican. “The fact that he remains employed is frankly, mind-boggling.”

Mr. Gayl did not return an email seeking comment. However, the military officer said he remains employed by the Marines.

Mr. Gayl told The Washington Post that on June 1 he was informed he was the target of a counterintelligence investigation related to two articles he wrote for Global Times.

“I knew the things I was saying weren’t going to get approval, but … we are running out of time as a country,” Mr. Gayl said, adding that he plans to retire.

• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.