Don’t underestimate Cupid – he’s not the chubby cherub you associate with Valentine’s Day

4 months ago

Toxic Gases Connected to Ohio Train Derailment Cause Concern

4 months ago

A big fireball and billowing smoke rose into the sky when officials released and burned toxic chemicals from the wreckage of a derailed train in an Ohio village where residents had been ordered to evacuate because of health risks from the fumes. AP explains the risks behind the substance that was burned, the resulting air quality concerns and how it's being monitored. Days after crews released and burned toxic chemicals transported by a wrecked train in Ohio, residents remain in the dark about what toxic substances could be lingering in their evacuated neighborhoods. About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Friday night in East Palestine, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine earlier ordered evacuations in the area of the derailment that has been smoldering since Friday night. Some Pennsylvania residents living nearby also weren't being allowed in their homes. Vinyl chloride was slowly released into the air Monday from five of the 10 derailed cars before crews ignited it to get rid of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals in a controlled environment, creating a dark plume of smoke. The impact of burning vinyl chloride is a concern. What is vinyl chloride? The gas is used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in plastic products. It is found in products such as credit cards, furniture and car parts, but is most notably used in PVC plastic piping, a common material for plumbing. Is it dangerous? Vinyl chloride is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government's National Cancer Institute. The effect was studied in PVC pipe makers, who breathed in vinyl chloride and developed rare liver cancers, said Ruth Lunn, who studies carcinogens at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "If you worked longer, you had a higher risk, and if your exposure levels were high, you had a higher risk," Lunn said. Vinyl chloride is dozens of times less toxic per molecule than the U.S.-banned insecticide DDT but more dangerous per part than ammonia and natural gas, according to federal regulations that dictate acceptable levels in the air. What happens when it burns? Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic, colorless gas with a strong odor that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I. Phosgene is considered safe at 0.1 parts per million during an eight-hour exposure, or 0.2 ppm for a 15-minute exposure. The eight-hour exposure threshold would have to be even lower when measuring inside people's homes, where residents often spend more than eight consecutive hours. Hydrogen chloride is a colorless to yellowish gas with a strong odor and its primarily effect on humans is skin, eye, nose and throat irritation. It is considered safe at 5 ppm for an eight-hour exposure. What is being monitored? James Justice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said a network of air station monitors inside and outside the evacuation zone was collecting samples and that none of their readings found anything to be concerned about. "We want to make sure that's not going to change," he said. Justice said the agency is still working with experts to determine safe levels for various gases before reopening the evacuation zone. The incident response team did not specify what substances they are monitoring. The gases that experts suspect are in the area are heavier than air, which means they could be sitting in low-lying areas if not completely dissipated. National Guard members wearing protective gear are taking readings inside homes, basements and businesses, Major General John Harris Jr. said. The EPA also sampled nearby rivers to determine whether there has been any water contamination and is awaiting results. When will the risk be over? Whatever chemicals are in the air, gases largely dissipate fairly rapidly when out in the open, said George Gray, a public health professor at George Washington University. "Sunlight can change that, the movement of air can change that, temperature can change that." Residents are concerned about long-term effects of low grade exposure. "There's all that smoke and all those chemicals in there," said Mason Shields, who lives in East Palestine and visited an aid center outside the evacuation zone. "I'm wondering if it's even going to be safe for people to return within the next week or month or however long."

Farmers Drive Tractors Through Paris in Protest at Pesticide Bans

4 months ago

French farmers drove hundreds of tractors into Paris on Wednesday to protest against pesticide restrictions and other environmental regulations they say are threatening farm production in the European Union's largest agricultural power. The action follows an EU court ruling last month that overturned a French policy allowing sugar beet growers to use an insecticide banned by the EU, raising concern of a further decline in beet plantings and of sugar factory closures. The sugar beet decision has sharpened discontent among farmers over what they see as excessive pesticide curbs that go against government calls to boost food security in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine. "Our means of production keep being undermined by prohibitions without solutions," Jerome Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA, France's main farming union, told Reuters. "Enough is enough" The FNSEA and other groups organizing the protest were expecting 500 tractors and 2,000 farmers from the Paris region to participate. A long procession of tractors, bearing banners saying "Macron is liquidating agriculture" - in reference to French President Emmanuel Macron - or "Save your farmer," rolled through central Paris to join a gathering at the Invalides monument, near France's agriculture ministry. Environmental activists say pesticide residues damage soils and wildlife and they have welcomed the EU ruling against the use of sugar beet seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides that can harm bees. "Biodiversity, indispensable for life on earth and farming, must not be sacrificed," anti-pesticide group Generations Futures said in a statement supporting the neonicotinoid ban. Farmers argue that sugar beet plants do not attract bees and that the ban leaves them exposed to crop disease virus yellows, raising the prospect of lower production and more imports from countries that allow neonicotinoids. French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau will present a plan to representatives of the sugar beet sector on Thursday, the agriculture ministry said in a statement after Fesneau met farm unions on Wednesday morning. Sugar beet growers group CGB said the minister had agreed that sugar beet growers would be compensated fully for yield losses this year if there was a severe attack of virus yellows. "We can't be satisfied but for now this should let farmers plant and allow other solutions to be found for 2024 and 2025," Franck Sander, the CGB's president, told Reuters at the protest. 

Higher mortality rate for pregnancy with sickle cell remains

by Maura Kinney-Johns Hopkins, 4 months ago

The mortality rate for pregnant people with sickle cell disease is 26 times higher than the national average, research finds.

Reports: US Intelligence Community Says Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Run by Chinese Military

4 months ago

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the suspected Chinese spy balloon that recently traveled across the continental United States is part of an extensive surveillance program operated by the Chinese military. The link of the balloon to the People’s Liberation Army, the formal name of China’s military, was first reported Tuesday by The Washington Post and later confirmed by the U.S.-based cable news network, CNN. The balloon is part of a fleet of unmanned airships that has been partly operated out of Hainan province on China’s southern coast. The Post quoted several unnamed U.S. officials who say the program has conducted surveillance missions in countries and areas of emerging strategic interest, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman briefed about 150 foreign diplomats across 40 embassies about the program. A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon Saturday as it traveled over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. Officials in the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said the balloon was a surveillance aircraft and called its flight over America an “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” by China. Beijing has insisted that the balloon was a civilian scientific aircraft that had blown into U.S. airspace by mistake. CNN is reporting the downed balloon is being examined by an elite team of technicians and engineers at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia. The discovery of the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a much-anticipated visit to Beijing designed to improve relations between the two economic giants that have soured in recent years. A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday China has rejected a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, since the balloon’s downing. Some information for this report came from Reuters.

Pakistan Kills 12 ‘Terrorists’ Tied to Afghanistan-Based Group

4 months ago

Authorities in Pakistan said Wednesday a pre-dawn counterterrorism military operation in a turbulent northwestern district had killed 12 insurgents linked to an extremist banned group, which allegedly operates out of Afghan sanctuaries.    The military identified the slain men as “terrorists” from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot and ally of Afghanistan’s ruling Islamist Taliban.    The army statement noted its “intelligence tentacles” had enabled security forces to intercept and eliminate the TTP insurgents in Lakki Marwat, a violence-hit district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa border province.     “Weapons, ammunition, and Afghan currency were also recovered from the terrorists during the operation,” the statement said.     The anti-terror military action comes amid a spate of TTP attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks that has killed hundreds of people, including security forces, and strained Islamabad’s otherwise friendly ties with the Taliban regime in Kabul.  The central spokesman for the Afghan Taliban has again rejected allegations that cross-border terrorism in Pakistan is emanating from his country.    “The Islamic Emirate is making all possible efforts to counter activities on Afghan soil that could be detrimental to others,” Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA by phone, using the official title for the Taliban administration in Kabul.    However, Mujahid urged Pakistani authorities to desist from “swiftly” pointing fingers at his country for domestic acts of terrorism even before thoroughly investigating such incidents.    “We seek peace and security in both countries. We have seen the destruction wars caused in Afghanistan and we don’t want anyone, including Pakistan, to suffer from it,” he said.  “Pakistan is a close neighbor, a friendly and brotherly country. It is an important relationship for us, and we would never want to spoil it.”  Mujahid added his administration would welcome Pakistani officials if they intended to visit Afghanistan for counterterrorism discussions and cooperation.  Last week, a powerful bomb blast at a mosque in the highly secured police headquarters in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killed nearly 100 people and injured many more. The victims were mostly security forces.  TTP denied its involvement in the bombing, but Pakistani officials blamed the group and renewed calls for Kabul to rein in the insurgents, further straining bilateral relations.  The Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021 as the United States and NATO allies withdrew from the country after two decades of war with the then-insurgent Taliban. The hardline group has since imposed harsh Islamic laws based on its own interpretation of Islam to govern the country, barring women from work and education.  The Pakistani Taliban, designated as a global terrorist organization by the United States, has long been waging terrorism in Pakistan. The violence has killed thousands of people, including civilians and security forces.  TTP seeks to establish a Taliban-style Islamic Shariah-compliant state in Pakistan through violence. Pakistani officials and religious scholars reject the campaign as anti-Islam and an illegitimate armed struggle against the country.  Recent United Nations assessments have suggested the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul emboldened the Pakistani Taliban.   There are some 4,000 TTP fighters based in Afghan areas bordering Pakistan, and they make up the largest group of foreign fighters in the conflict-torn country, according to the U.N.  “The Pakistan Taliban has been scaling up its attacks over the last few years, mostly targeting security forces in rural areas near the border,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington told VOA.   Kugelman said the growing terror threat was not good news for Pakistani leaders’ efforts to tackle a severe economic crisis and a lingering political turmoil in the country  The violence, Kugelman said, “will deepen pressure on the state to launch a new counterterrorism offensive that has been resisted so far due to economic stress and a preference for talks with the militants,” he said earlier this week in a written response, commenting on the wake of rising TTP attacks. “Even if those talks are essentially dead in the water,” he said. 

Zelenskyy to Visit Britain

4 months ago

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is due to travel Wednesday to Britain to meet with officials there in what would be his second confirmed trip outside of Ukraine since Russia launched an invasion of the country nearly one year ago.  British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office announced the visit in a statement, saying Zelenskyy would address Britain’s parliament and visit Ukrainian troops that are training with British forces. Sunak also announced that Britain would train Ukrainian pilots on “NATO-standard fighter jets.” He also said Britain would accelerate its contributions of military equipment to Ukraine.  “I am proud that today we will expand that training from soldiers to marines and fighter jet pilots, ensuring Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests well into the future," Sunak said. "It also underlines our commitment to not just provide military equipment for the short term, but a long-term pledge to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine for years to come.”  Britain has already been training Ukrainian troops, including on the use of British Challenger 2 tanks that Britain is providing in response to Ukraine’s calls for heavier equipment to counter Russian forces.  Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands said Tuesday they are planning to send at least 100 older, refurbished Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine.  The Leopard 1 tanks were manufactured from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s and, once made battle-ready again, won't reach Kyiv's fighters until the summer months. But the defense ministers of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands said in a statement that the additional weaponry would "significantly enhance Ukraine's military potential for the restoration of their violated territorial integrity."   The German Defense Ministry said Berlin authorities have approved the export of up to 178 Leopard 1 A5 tanks to Ukraine, but said the actual number sent would depend on the refurbishments required. Germany hasn't used the tanks since 2003.   The new weapons deployment is in addition to Germany's recent announcement that it would dispatch 14 newer Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine's fighters. The United States said it would supply 30 of its front-line Abrams tanks.   Ukrainian officials have been saying for days they expect Russian forces to make new attacks in eastern and southern Ukraine to coincide with the first anniversary of their invasion on February 24, although Western analysts have expressed skepticism about Russia's ability to carry out a large new offensive.   Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

Uganda Says It Will Not Renew Mandate of UN Human Rights Office

4 months ago

Uganda has said it will not renew the mandate of the United Nations' human rights office in the East African country, citing the development of its own sufficient capacity to monitor rights compliance.  In a letter by Uganda's Foreign Affairs Ministry sent to Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on February 3 and seen by Reuters on Wednesday, the ministry noted progress Uganda had made in developing a domestic capacity to monitor rights as the main reason for its decision.  "The ministry wishes to convey the government's decision not to renew the mandate of the OHCHR Country office in Uganda beyond the current term," said the letter, which the ministry confirmed to Reuters as authentic.  OHCHR Uganda country office spokesperson Bernard Amwine told Reuters he had no comment.  President Yoweri Museveni's government has over the years been criticized by the opposition, human rights activists and Western countries for various rights violations including torture, illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings of opponents and critics.  Officials have denied almost all of the accusations and said all security forces implicated in rights abuses have been duly punished.  Museveni, 78, who came to power after a five-year guerrilla war, has ruled Uganda since 1986 and the opposition and critics have accused him of grooming his son, a general in the country's military, to take over from him. Museveni has repeatedly denied doing so.  The OHCHR Uganda office was established in 2006 and was initially allowed to focus only on human rights issues in conflict-plagued areas in Uganda's north and northeast, according to the Uganda government. It was later allowed to cover the rest of the country.  In the letter, the ministry said the government had since gained enough commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and that there was "peace throughout the country, coupled with strong national human rights institutions and a vibrant civil society."  Uganda's next election is in 2026 and Museveni is widely expected to seek another term, although he has not indicated if he will stand. 

Rescue Crews Search for Earthquake Survivors in Turkey, Syria as Death Toll Tops 8,700

4 months ago

Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria raced against the cold Wednesday to find survivors buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by powerful earthquakes that struck the region Monday and left more than 8,700 people dead.        The rescue effort in Turkey involved 79,000 personnel, the country’s emergency management agency said Wednesday.     Officials in Turkey said at least 6,234 people were killed and more than 37,000 others were injured. In Syria, there were at least 2,470 deaths, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue groups.     The epicenter of Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake was near Gaziantep, close to the Turkey-Syria border.     Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning and a three-month state of emergency in 10 provinces directly affected by the quake.        Erdogan described the earthquake as “unique in the world,” and he thanked Qatar for offering 10,000 container homes for people left homeless.   Search teams and emergency aid from throughout the world poured into Turkey and Syria as rescue workers dug through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors. Some voices that had been crying out for help fell silent.       "We could hear their voices, they were calling for help," said Ali Silo, whose two relatives could not be saved in the Turkish town of Nurdagi.      More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey alone, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels. They huddled in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside wrapped in blankets gathering around fires.      Awale Ahmed Darfa, a Somali student in Gaziantep at the epicenter, described his first sensation of the earthquake in an interview with VOA Somali.    “The situation turned critical very quickly,” he said. “We heard screams, cries and people running. The buildings were shaking as if they were shaken by jinn [evil spirits]. Everyone ran to wherever they felt they would be safe.”                 “We are now outside since we left our homes around 4 a.m.,” he added. “There is a problem being outside — it is rainy, cold, windy, and we are not wearing protective clothing. Outside, everyone is wearing what they were wearing [while] asleep. Some people do not have shoes. They told us we could not go back to the buildings because of the fear [of aftershocks]. That is the disaster here.”             The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.           The opposition-held regions in Syria are packed with about 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already damaged from past bombardments.    The opposition emergency organization, the White Helmets, has experience pulling people from buildings collapsed by airstrikes. But with calls for help coming from more than 700 places, Mounir al-Mostafa, deputy head of the White Helmets, said they are overwhelmed. They can realistically help in 30 places.    Residents in Turkey’s western city of Izmir organized a clothing donation campaign to help the victims.             Emre Demirpolat told VOA’s Turkish Service, “We brought blankets and heaters. We need to be united. … In such bad times, we must support each other. While we can’t stay outside for 10 minutes in this cold, people there shudder to think about the loss of their homes and when they will get to go to a warm place.”              In other parts of Turkey, residents struggled to find transportation to travel to the earthquake-stricken area to see their relatives and loved ones.                Serdar Özdemir, an Ankara resident, told VOA’s Turkish service he was finally able to get a bus ticket to go to the city of Malatya, after not being able to find a car rental.                “I can’t rent a car. There’s no way to go. I have been looking for a car here for hours.”                  Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.         In 1999, more than 17,000 people were killed when a 7.4 magnitude earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce, in the northwest of the country.                    Last October, a magnitude 7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and injuring more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir.          VOA’s Turkish and Somali services contributed to this report.                Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.   

LeBron James Becomes US Pro-Basketball’s All-Time Scoring Leader

4 months ago

U.S. basketball star LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers became the National Basketball Association's all-time leading scorer Tuesday.  James hit a two-point basket late in the third quarter in the game against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder to surpass the 38,387 career points held by Lakers’ legend and Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar, who was in Arena to watch the historic moment, had held the record since April 5,1984.   James entered Tuesday’s game needing just 36 points to break the record. He finished the game with 38 points, giving him 38,390 points for his career to date. But the Thunder won the game 133-130.  The record adds to James’s already illustrious 20-year NBA career, which began as an 18-year-old rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has since won four NBA championships, four season Most Valuable Player awards and four NBA Finals MVP awards.  Following James and Abdul-Jabbar on the NBA’s all-time scoring list are Karl Malone, the late Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, universally considered to be the greatest NBA player of all time. Another Lakers’ legend, the late Wilt Chamberlain, is in seventh-place with 31,419 points.  When asked in a post-game interview with retired great Shaquille O’Neal, who won three NBA titles with the Lakers, if he was now the greatest player in NBA history, James said he always feels like “I’m the best to ever play this game” but said he was happy to be mentioned with the league's other great players.   Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

Kim Jong Un Hails His Military as 'Strongest in the World'

4 months ago

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his wife and daughter Ju-ae, visited soldiers at their barracks ahead of a quinquennial army anniversary, the nation's main broadsheet Rodong Sinmun said on Wednesday. Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean People's Army or the KPA. A large-scale military parade is anticipated, but not yet reported. In a commemorative banquet on Tuesday, Kim Jong Un praised the state's military tradition that — despite the odds — persisted through the decades to achieve a "great and absolute power," in an apparent reference to North Korea's nuclear weapon capability. Kim also hailed the Korean People's Army as the "strongest in the world," according to Rodong Sinmun, that "radiates an extraordinary sense of responsibility and an unbreakable superhuman willpower." He lauded the soldiers as the height of the North Korean people's dignity who defend their bright days ahead, as he called for "redoubled efforts" toward the development of the armed forces and the socialist cause. There were no remarks directed at the United States, Japan, or South Korea at the anniversary banquet. Kim's Daughter Attends Images carried by state media showed Kim's daughter flanked by beaming military men in the company of her father. Ju Ae, believed to be the second of three children between Kim and wife Ri Sol Ju, was referred to by state media not by name but as "the respected offspring." Her appearance at the banquet marks at least the fourth occasion that the young daughter, presumed to turn ten years old this month, attended a high-profile military event with her father. She was last seen on state television on New Year's Day, inspecting missiles and other weaponry inside a warehouse. The girl first came to the public's eye in November of last year, present at a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile test launch. State media then described her as Kim's "most beloved child." Some analysts consider whether the 39-year-old autocrat is grooming Ju Ae to be his successor in North Korea's hereditary dictatorship system. Others say the choreographed decision to include the daughter in Pyongyang's messaging underlines that North Korea's nuclear program is intended to be passed on to future generations. Prelude to Possible Military Parade A large-scale military parade is anticipated to be broadcast on North Korean state television, which analysts will be combing for hints of progress in the reclusive state's ambitious military modernization program. Satellite imagery since late last year through recent days suggest North Korea has been running practice drills for the 75th-anniversary parade, which in recent years have been staged at night for dramatic effect. During an expanded meeting of the party's Central Military Commission Monday, Kim Jong Un ordered "matchless military strength" for "ever-victorious feats" by the KPA, to "perfect" war preparedness in line with the "prevailing situation." At the start of the year, North Korea publicized its intention to mass produce tactical nuclear weapons. It also indicated its continued work toward realizing a new intercontinental ballistic missile with a "quick nuclear counterstrike" capability, in likely reference to a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, which in theory can be launched faster than their liquid-fueled counterparts.

Biden Tells Congress 'It's Never a Good Bet to Bet Against America' > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, 4 months ago

During his State of the Union speech, President Joe Biden highlighted U.S. economic progress, but also touched on the challenges posed by Russia's war on Ukraine and China's attempts to bend the world to its will.

Biden Vows to Protect US Sovereignty from China Threats

4 months ago

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is in "the strongest position in decades to compete with China" both economically and militarily.  Biden said during the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress Tuesday that the United States is now "investing in industries that will define the future" that Beijing is "intent on dominating," as well as modernizing the U.S. military "to safeguard stability and deter aggression."  He told lawmakers he has made it clear to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that the United States seeks "competition, not conflict" with China, and will work with Beijing "where it can" on issues that will benefit the world.  But Biden said if China threatens U.S. sovereignty, "we will act to protect our country, …and we did" — a reference to the unmanned Chinese spy balloon that flew over the continental United States for several days before it was shot down last Saturday by a fighter jet over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.  Earlier Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said China has rejected a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with his Chinese counterpart since the balloon's downing.   

Biden Cites US Resolve in Facing Aggression from Russia and China

4 months ago

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.  In outlining his foreign policy accomplishments and challenges in his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday evening, the president struck an optimistic and defiant tone, focusing his remarks on China's Communist Party and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.  Days after a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American airspace, leading to the cancellation of a high-profile trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, President Biden outlined where he sees the relationship with Beijing now.  The president said he remains open to working with China, "where it can advance American interests and benefit the world."  "But make no mistake about it," he said. "As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."  Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country. They may still be looking for Biden to publicly take a tougher stance on China, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center told VOA.         "So, he was not taking a forceful, hawkish position. He was leaving open some space for conciliation, and I really don't think those members of Congress that wanted a more hard-line stance would have been satisfied with what he said tonight."     Biden argued that his administration had changed the narrative about how "the People's Republic of China is increasing its power and America was failing in the world."  "Not anymore. We made clear and I made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict."   The president highlighted how his economic policies are aimed at investing in American industry and technologies of the future, the same ones that China's government he said, "is intent on dominating."  Biden also promoted his administration's policies that are increasing trade restrictions on some high-tech equipment, saying those policies are aimed at ensuring advanced technologies "are not used against us."  Russian Invasion of Ukraine Was 'Test'  Referencing his State of the Union speech a year ago, which occurred days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.  "Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.  Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.          "I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'we are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.     "This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.     Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including Speaker McCarthy, opposed.   President Biden did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration's policies for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.     

Biden: US Will Support Ukraine 'As Long as It Takes'

4 months ago

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday the United States is united in support for Ukraine as it opposes a Russian invasion, and that the U.S. will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."  Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said government united NATO, built a global coalition and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.  Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.  "Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked.   Putin has criticized Western aid to Ukraine as being a threat against Russia, while saying Russia will prevail in Ukraine. 

Americans love the Super Bowl

by ShareAmerica, 4 months ago

This year's Super Bowl pits two dynamic quarterbacks against each other. But Americans' devotion to the game is about much more than football.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: Feb. 8

4 months ago

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. All times EST. 12:01 a.m.:   

Sanders: Biden Administration 'Hijacked by the Radical Left'

4 months ago

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders drew a contrast between Republicans and what she called a failure of the Biden administration and Democrats as she gave the Republican response Tuesday night to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address.  "The dividing line is no longer between right or left," Sanders said.  "The choice is between normal or crazy."  She said Democrats want to rule Americans with more government control and called for a commitment to the "timeless American idea that government exists not to rule the people but to serve the people."  Sanders, who previously served as White House press secretary during the administration of former President Donald Trump, said the current administration "has been completely hijacked by the radical left."  She further accused Biden of not doing enough to secure the country's border and said Biden's "refusal to stand up to China is dangerous and unacceptable."  Biden said in his speech that he would work with China in ways that advance American and world interests, and that if China threatens U.S. sovereignty, "we will act to protect our country."  

Arkansas Gov. Sanders Slams Biden for 'Woke Fantasies'

4 months ago

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, once a White House press secretary for President Donald Trump, is returning to the national stage Tuesday night with a rebuttal to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address that accuses the president of focusing on "woke fantasies." Sanders, 40, is giving the speech Tuesday night less than a month after being sworn in as the first female governor of Arkansas. The daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, she is also the first Arkansan to deliver the response to a president's State of the Union since Bill Clinton as governor in 1985. Sanders is using the speech to lean heavily into conservatives' fights on culture war issues, including how race is taught in public schools. "In the radical left's America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country," Sanders said in excerpts of remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday night. Sanders' speech is a stark contrast to Biden's address, which is expected to offer a reassuring assessment of the nation's condition. "And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day," Sanders planned to say. "Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn't start and never wanted to fight." Sanders is also embracing the criticism of technology companies that has become a rallying cry for Republicans after Trump was banned from social media sites following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Trump has since been reinstated on Twitter and Meta last month said the former president's Facebook and Instagram accounts will be restored. In her speech, Sanders complains that "big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech." "That's not normal. It's crazy, and it's wrong," she says. With her speech, GOP leaders are giving a platform to a figure linked closely to Trump, who remains influential within the party even as Republicans question how much of a hindrance his quest to return to the White House has become. The star turn for Sanders also puts the spotlight on the nation's youngest governor at a time when recent polling suggests that even many Democrats view the 80-year-old Biden's age as a liability. "I am excited for the nation to hear from Governor Sanders on Tuesday and witness a sharp contrast with this exhausted and failing administration," Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement announcing Sanders' selection last week. Republicans have also tapped newly elected Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., to deliver a Spanish-language rebuttal to the president's speech. And the progressive Working Families of Party will have another newcomer, Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., providing its response in both English and Spanish. Sanders, who served roughly two years as White House press secretary, focused heavily on her criticism of Biden during her successful bid for governor last year. She frequently railed against the Democratic president's COVID-19 pandemic response, immigration policies and other stances. But since the election, Sanders has mostly avoided weighing in on Trump, who endorsed her bid for governor and was featured in her campaign materials. Sanders hasn't said whether she plans to endorse Trump, who's making a third bid for president, and she didn't mention the former president during her victory speech on election night. Sanders has focused her attention on some of the former president's favorite targets, signing several executive orders within hours of taking office that were cheered by conservatives. They included an order prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and another banning TikTok from state devices. Sanders has said her priority is getting her state's majority-Republican Legislature to approve education legislation that she's said will include teacher raises and some form of school choice allowing public money to be used to pay for private schools. She's also called for phasing out the state's income tax. The speech is a reintroduction for Sanders, already well known from her time as press secretary and one of Trump's closest aides. During her time as Trump's chief spokesperson, she scaled back daily televised briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her.

Biden Strikes Optimistic, Determined Tone in State of the Union

4 months ago

U.S. President Joe Biden struck an optimistic, determined tone in his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, lauding his legislative and policy achievements, reiterating his stances on contesting China and supporting Ukraine, and proclaiming that "though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken."  "Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the union is strong," Biden said. "I'm not new to this place. I stand here tonight — and I've served as long as about any one of you have ever served — I have never been more optimistic about the future of America. We just have to remember who we are. We are the United States of America and there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity if we do it together."    Biden's words were delivered to a Congress whose leader, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has vowed to use his slim majority in the House of Representatives to oppose many of Biden's priorities. For much of the speech, McCarthy sat stone-faced behind him in the chamber, sternly shaking his head when Biden criticized Republicans' economic policies.   Biden also used his platform to appeal to Republicans, who jeered when Biden criticized cost-cutting positions advocated by some of them, which he said will target entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.   "Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere," he said. "That's always been my vision of our country, and I know it's many of yours: to restore the soul of this nation, to rebuild the backbone of America."  The bread and the butter  Biden spoke at length and in detail about the issue that Americans reliably say is crucial to them, saying, "We're building an economy where no one's left behind. Jobs are coming back. Pride is coming back."   And he argued that Congress should raise the debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay its bills. The U.S. hit its debt limit of $31.4 trillion in January. Congress now has until midyear to decide to raise the limit before the U.S. defaults. McCarthy has said Republicans will continue to oppose what they see as excessive spending.       "Let us commit here, tonight, that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned," Biden said.   Biden also outlined his views on gun policy, calling for a renewed assault weapons ban. He called on Congress to enact his immigration reform plan — or, failing that, to at least approve a plan to add equipment and resources to secure the border.   On one contentious and divisive topic, however, he was concise: "Make no mistake;" he said. "If Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it."  Special guests  As is custom in this pomp-filled evening, the president honored special guests who symbolized some of the issues.  For the second year in a row, Biden welcomed Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. to the address, repeating his vow that the U.S. will support Ukraine against Russia's invasion for "as long as it takes."   Also present were the parents of slain Memphis resident Tyre Nichols, 29, who was killed by five police officers in January. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have used the tragedy to urge Congress to revisit the stalled police reform act that Democrats proposed after the 2020 killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.      "I know most cops are good, decent people," Biden said, as Nichols' parents stood several times while the chamber repeatedly applauded them. "They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better."  And one guest who drew a standing ovation was not even present in the chamber. In promoting his Cancer Moonshot program, which aims to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years, Biden said he had invited 3-year-old Ava, who suffered from a rare kidney cancer, to watch the address from the nation's most famous home.    Ava's parents, who attended the speech, "just found out that Ava's beating the odds and is on her way to being cancer free," Biden said. "And she's watching from the White House tonight — if she's not asleep already." The takeaways   In a rebuttal speech from the Republican Party, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders criticized Biden's policies on immigration and the economy; slammed his gun and police reform proposals; described his foreign policy as weak, and questioned his fitness for office.   "Being a mom to three young children taught me not to believe every story I hear," she said, "so forgive me for not believing much of anything I heard tonight from President Biden. From out-of-control inflation and violent crime to the dangerous border crisis and threat from China, Biden and the Democrats have failed you."  This sets up a political and legislative challenge for Biden as he embarks on his next two years in office with the Republican party holding the reins of Congress' lower house.  And, she said, perhaps previewing Republicans' 2024 strategy, she drew a firm line under Republicans' fiscally and socially conservative views.   "His administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left," she said. "The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy. It's time for a new generation of Republican leadership."  Ahead of the speech, analysts said Biden needed to use the platform to convince the public of his vigor, something his detractors have questioned as he appears poised to announce another run for office, in 2024. His critics question whether, at 80, he is too old to serve another term.   The address was "perhaps his best speech as president," said Jeremi Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and "a strong statement of his record and he made his agenda sound reasonable, moderate and personal (especially for seniors). He emphasized protection for seniors, help for the vulnerable, tax fairness and defense of democracy. He made his detractors and hecklers look extreme, unreasonable."  Jonathan McCollum, a political strategist and lobbyist, told VOA that Biden used the address to sketch out his party's plan for 2024.     "In both substance and delivery, President Biden used this opportunity to highlight the significant legislative accomplishments of his administration, while also demonstrating he has the energy to serve as president for another term," McCollum said. "This was the first glimpse into how Democrats plan to market their party and their candidates heading into the next election cycle." 

State of the Union: What experts have said about Biden's proposed reforms on policing, guns and taxes – 8 essential reads

4 months ago

State of the Union address is Biden's chance to shine – and a speechwriter's burden to get voters to listen

4 months ago

Transcript: President Biden's 2023 State of the Union Address

4 months ago

The White House released this transcript of President Biden's 2023 State of the Union Address, as prepared for delivery. Mr. Speaker. Madam Vice President. Our First Lady and Second Gentleman. Members of Congress and the Cabinet. Leaders of our military. Mr. Chief Justice, Associate Justices, and retired Justices of the Supreme Court. And you, my fellow Americans. I start tonight by congratulating the members of the 118th Congress and the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. Mr. Speaker, I look forward to working together. I also want to congratulate the new leader of the House Democrats and the first Black House Minority Leader in history, Hakeem Jeffries. Congratulations to the longest serving Senate Leader in history, Mitch McConnell. And congratulations to Chuck Schumer for another term as Senate Majority Leader, this time with an even bigger majority. And I want to give special recognition to someone who I think will be considered the greatest Speaker in the history of this country, Nancy Pelosi. The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never giving up. A story that is unique among all nations. We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again. Two years ago, our economy was reeling. As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years. Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken. As we gather here tonight, we are writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience. When world leaders ask me to define America, I define our country in one word: Possibilities. You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong. Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone. But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together. Came together to defend a stronger and safer Europe. Came together to pass a once-in-a-generation infrastructure law, building bridges to connect our nation and people. Came together to pass one of the most significant laws ever, helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. In fact, I signed over 300 bipartisan laws since becoming President. From reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, to the Electoral Count Reform Act, to the Respect for Marriage Act that protects the right to marry the person you love. To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress. The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere. And that’s always been my vision for our country. To restore the soul of the nation. To rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class. To unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job. For decades, the middle class was hollowed out. Too many good-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Factories at home closed down. Once-thriving cities and towns became shadows of what they used to be. And along the way, something else was lost. Pride. That sense of self-worth. I ran for President to fundamentally change things, to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do. To build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. Because when the middle class does well, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy still do very well. We all do well. As my Dad used to say, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about being able to look your kid in the eye and say, “Honey –it’s going to be OK,” and mean it. So, let’s look at the results. Unemployment rate at 3.4%, a 50-year low. Near record low unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers. We’ve already created 800,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, the fastest growth in 40 years. Where is it written that America can’t lead the world in manufacturing again? For too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs. Now, thanks to all we’ve done, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs. Inflation has been a global problem because of the pandemic that disrupted supply chains and Putin’s war that disrupted energy and food supplies. But we’re better positioned than any country on Earth. We have more to do, but here at home, inflation is coming down. Here at home, gas prices are down $1.50 a gallon since their peak. Food inflation is coming down. Inflation has fallen every month for the last six months while take home pay has gone up. Additionally, over the last two years, a record 10 million Americans applied to start a new small business. Every time somebody starts a small business, it’s an act of hope. And the Vice President will continue her work to ensure more small businesses can access capital and the historic laws we enacted. Standing here last year, I shared with you a story of American genius and possibility. Semiconductors, the small computer chips the size of your fingertip that power everything from cellphones to automobiles, and so much more. These chips were invented right here in America. America used to make nearly 40% of the world’s chips. But in the last few decades, we lost our edge and we’re down to producing only 10%. We all saw what happened during the pandemic when chip factories overseas shut down. Today’s automobiles need up to 3,000 chips each, but American automakers couldn’t make enough cars because there weren’t enough chips. Car prices went up. So did everything from refrigerators to cellphones. We can never let that happen again. That’s why we came together to pass the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America. We’ve already created 800,000 manufacturing jobs even without this law. With this new law, we will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country. That’s going to come from companies that have announced more than $300 billion in investments in American manufacturing in the last two years. Outside of Columbus, Ohio, Intel is building semiconductor factories on a thousand acres – a literal field of dreams. That’ll create 10,000 jobs. 7,000 construction jobs. 3,000 jobs once the factories are finished. Jobs paying $130,000 a year, and many don’t require a college degree. Jobs where people don’t have to leave home in search of opportunity. And it’s just getting started. Think about the new homes, new small businesses, and so much more that will come to life. Talk to mayors and Governors, Democrats and Republicans, and they’ll tell you what this means to their communities. We’re seeing these fields of dreams transform the heartland. But to maintain the strongest economy in the world, we also need the best infrastructure in the world. We used to be #1 in the world in infrastructure, then we fell to #13th. Now we’re coming back because we came together to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the largest investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Already, we’ve funded over 20,000 projects, including at major airports from Boston to Atlanta to Portland. These projects will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports and airports, clean water, and high-speed internet across America. Urban. Suburban. Rural. Tribal. And we’re just getting started. I sincerely thank my Republican friends who voted for the law. And to my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking. This law will help further unite all of America. Major projects like the Brent Spence bridge between Kentucky and Ohio over the Ohio River. Built 60 years ago. Badly in need of repairs. One of the nation’s most congested freight routes carrying $2 billion worth of freight every day. Folks have been talking about fixing it for decades, but we’re finally going to get it done. I went there last month with Democrats and Republicans from both states to deliver $1.6 billion for this project. While I was there, I met an ironworker named Sara, who is here tonight. For 30 years, she’s been a proud member of Ironworkers Local 44, known as the “cowboys of the sky” who built the Cincinnati skyline. Sara said she can’t wait to be ten stories above the Ohio River building that new bridge. That’s pride. That’s what we’re also building – Pride. We’re also replacing poisonous lead pipes that go into 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and childcare centers, so every child in America can drink clean water. We’re making sure that every community has access to affordable, high-speed internet. No parent should have to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot so their kid can do their homework online. And when we do these projects, we’re going to Buy American. Buy American has been the law of the land since 1933. But for too long, past administrations have found ways to get around it. Not anymore. Tonight, I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America. American-made lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cables. And on my watch, American roads, American bridges, and American highways will be made with American products. My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it. That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives. For example, too many of you lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling, wondering what will happen if your spouse gets cancer, your child gets sick, or if something happens to you. Will you have the money to pay your medical bills? Will you have to sell the house? I get it. With the Inflation Reduction Act that I signed into law, we’re taking on powerful interests to bring your health care costs down so you can sleep better at night. You know, we pay more for prescription drugs than any major country on Earth. For example, one in ten Americans has diabetes. Every day, millions need insulin to control their diabetes so they can stay alive. Insulin has been around for 100 years. It costs drug companies just $10 a vial to make. But, Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars – and making record profits. Not anymore. We capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare. But there are millions of other Americans who are not on Medicare, including 200,000 young people with Type I diabetes who need insulin to save their lives. Let’s finish the job this time. Let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month for every American who needs it. This law also caps out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors on Medicare at a maximum $2,000 per year when there are in fact many drugs, like expensive cancer drugs, that can cost up to $10,000, $12,000, and $14,000 a year. If drug prices rise faster than inflation, drug companies will have to pay Medicare back the difference. And we’re finally giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices. Bringing down prescription drug costs doesn’t just save seniors money. It will cut the federal deficit, saving tax payers hundreds of billions of dollars on the prescription drugs the government buys for Medicare. Why wouldn’t we want to do that? Now, some members here are threatening to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. Make no mistake, if you try to do anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it. I’m pleased to say that more Americans have health insurance now than ever in history. A record 16 million people are enrolled under the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to the law I signed last year, millions are saving $800 a year on their premiums. But the way that law was written, that benefit expires after 2025. Let’s finish the job, make those savings permanent, and expand coverage to those left off Medicaid. Look, the Inflation Reduction Act is also the most significant investment ever to tackle the climate crisis. Lowering utility bills, creating American jobs, and leading the world to a clean energy future. I’ve visited the devastating aftermaths of record floods and droughts, storms and wildfires. In addition to emergency recovery from Puerto Rico to Florida to Idaho, we are rebuilding for the long term. New electric grids able to weather the next major storm. Roads and water systems to withstand the next big flood. Clean energy to cut pollution and create jobs in communities too often left behind. We’re building 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations installed across the country by tens of thousands of IBEW workers. And helping families save more than $1,000 a year with tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and energy-efficient appliances. Historic conservation efforts to be responsible stewards of our lands. Let’s face reality. The climate crisis doesn’t care if your state is red or blue. It is an existential threat. We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. I’m proud of how America is at last stepping up to the challenge. But there’s so much more to do. We will finish the job. And we pay for these investments in our future by finally making the wealthiest and the biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share. I’m a capitalist. But just pay your fair share. And I think a lot of you at home agree with me that our present tax system is simply unfair. The idea that in 2020, 55 of the biggest companies in America made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal income taxes? That’s simply not fair. But now, because of the law I signed, billion-dollar companies have to pay a minimum of 15%. Just 15%. That’s less than a nurse pays. Let me be clear. Under my plan, nobody earning less than $400,000 a year will pay an additional penny in taxes. Nobody. Not one penny. But there’s more to do. Let’s finish the job. Reward work, not just wealth. Pass my proposal for a billionaire minimum tax. Because no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter. You may have noticed that Big Oil just reported record profits. Last year, they made $200 billion in the midst of a global energy crisis. It’s outrageous. They invested too little of that profit to increase domestic production and keep gas prices down. Instead, they used those record profits to buy back their own stock, rewarding their CEOs and shareholders. Corporations ought to do the right thing. That’s why I propose that we quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks to encourage long term investments instead. They will still make a considerable profit. Let’s finish the job and close the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to avoid paying their taxes. Instead of cutting the number of audits of wealthy tax payers, I signed a law that will reduce the deficit by $114 billion by cracking down on wealthy tax cheats. That’s being fiscally responsible. In the last two years, my administration cut the deficit by more than $1.7 trillion – the largest deficit reduction in American history. Under the previous administration, America’s deficit went up four years in a row. Because of those record deficits, no president added more to the national debt in any four years than my predecessor. Nearly 25% of the entire national debt, a debt that took 200 years to accumulate, was added by that administration alone. How did Congress respond to all that debt? They lifted the debt ceiling three times without preconditions or crisis. They paid America’s bills to prevent economic disaster for our country. Tonight, I’m asking this Congress to follow suit. Let us commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned. Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I agree to their economic plans. All of you at home should know what their plans are. Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years. That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away. Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they’ll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history. I won’t let that happen. Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors. Americans have been paying into them with every single paycheck since they started working. So tonight, let’s all agree to stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare. Those benefits belong to the American people. They earned them. If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them. I will not allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. Next month when I offer my fiscal plan, I ask my Republican friends to offer their plan. We can sit down together and discuss both plans together. My plan will lower the deficit by $2 trillion. I won’t cut a single Social Security or Medicare benefit. In fact, I will extend the Medicare Trust Fund by at least two decades. I will not raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year. And I will pay for the ideas I’ve talked about tonight by making the wealthy and big corporations begin to pay their fair share. Look, here’s the deal. Big corporations aren’t just taking advantage of the tax code. They’re taking advantage of you, the American consumer. Here’s my message to all of you out there: I have your back. We’re already preventing insurance companies from sending surprise medical bills, stopping 1 million surprise bills a month. We’re protecting seniors’ lives and life savings by cracking down on nursing homes that commit fraud, endanger patient safety, or prescribe drugs they don’t need. Millions of Americans can now save thousands of dollars because they can finally get hearing aids over-the-counter without a prescription. Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It is exploitation. Last year I cracked down on foreign shipping companies that were making you pay higher prices for everyday goods coming into our country. I signed a bipartisan bill that cut shipping costs by 90%, helping American farmers, businesses, and consumers. Let’s finish the job. Pass bipartisan legislation to strengthen antitrust enforcement and prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage. My administration is also taking on “junk” fees, those hidden surcharges too many businesses use to make you pay more. For example, we’re making airlines show you the full ticket price upfront and refund your money if your flight is cancelled or delayed. We’ve reduced exorbitant bank overdraft fees, saving consumers more than $1 billion a year. We’re cutting credit card late fees by 75%, from $30 to $8. Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in. They add up to hundreds of dollars a month. They make it harder for you to pay the bills or afford that family trip. I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it. Not anymore. We’ve written a bill to stop all that. It’s called the Junk Fee Prevention Act. We’ll ban surprise “resort fees” that hotels tack on to your bill. These fees can cost you up to $90 a night at hotels that aren’t even resorts. We’ll make cable internet and cellphone companies stop charging you up to $200 or more when you decide to switch to another provider. We’ll cap service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events and make companies disclose all fees upfront. And we’ll prohibit airlines from charging up to $50 roundtrip for families just to sit together. Baggage fees are bad enough – they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage. Americans are tired of being played for suckers. Pass the Junk Fee Prevention Act so companies stop ripping us off. For too long, workers have been getting stiffed. Not anymore. We’re beginning to restore the dignity of work. For example, 30 million workers had to sign non-compete agreements when they took a job. So a cashier at a burger place can’t cross the street to take the same job at another burger place to make a couple bucks more. Not anymore. We’re banning those agreements so companies have to compete for workers and pay them what they’re worth. I’m so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing. Pass the PRO Act because workers have a right to form a union. And let’s guarantee all workers a living wage. Let’s also make sure working parents can afford to raise a family with sick days, paid family and medical leave, and affordable child care that will enable millions more people to go to work. Let’s also restore the full Child Tax Credit, which gave tens of millions of parents some breathing room and cut child poverty in half, to the lowest level in history. And by the way, when we do all of these things, we increase productivity. We increase economic growth. Let’s also finish the job and get more families access to affordable and quality housing. Let’s get seniors who want to stay in their homes the care they need to do so. And give a little more breathing room to millions of family caregivers looking after their loved ones. Pass my plan so we get seniors and people with disabilities the home care services they need and support the workers who are doing God’s work. These plans are fully paid for and we can afford to do them. Restoring the dignity of work also means making education an affordable ticket to the middle class. When we made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated, best-prepared nation in the world. But the world has caught up. Jill, who teaches full-time, has an expression: “Any nation that out-educates us will out-compete us.” Folks, you all know 12 years is not enough to win the economic competition for the 21st Century. If you want America to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds. Studies show that children who go to pre-school are nearly 50% more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a 2- or 4-year degree, no matter their background. Let’s give public school teachers a raise. And we’re making progress by reducing student debt and increasing Pell Grants for working- and middle-class families. Let’s finish the job, connect students to career opportunities starting in high school and provide two years of community college, some of the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree. Let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not. And folks, in the midst of the COVID crisis when schools were closed, let’s also recognize how far we’ve come in the fight against the pandemic itself. While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people, we have broken COVID’s grip on us. COVID deaths are down nearly 90%. We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency. But we will remember the toll and pain that will never go away for so many. More than 1 million Americans have lost their lives to COVID. Families grieving. Children orphaned. Empty chairs at the dining room table. We remember them, and we remain vigilant. We still need to monitor dozens of variants and support new vaccines and treatments. So Congress needs to fund these efforts and keep America safe. And as we emerge from this crisis stronger, I’m also doubling down on prosecuting criminals who stole relief money meant to keep workers and small businesses afloat during the pandemic. Before I came to office many inspector generals who protect taxpayer dollars were sidelined. Fraud was rampant. Last year, I told you the watchdogs are back. Since then, we’ve recovered billions of taxpayer dollars. Now, let’s triple our anti-fraud strike forces going after these criminals, double the statute of limitations on these crimes, and crack down on identity fraud by criminal syndicates stealing billions of dollars from the American people. For every dollar we put into fighting fraud, taxpayers get back at least ten times as much. COVID left other scars, like the spike in violent crime in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. We have an obligation to make sure all our people are safe. Public safety depends on public trust. But too often that trust is violated. Joining us tonight are the parents of Tyre Nichols, who had to bury him just last week. There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child. But imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law. Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car. I’ve never had to have the talk with my children – Beau, Hunter, and Ashley – that so many Black and Brown families have had with their children. If a police officer pulls you over, turn on your interior lights. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Imagine having to worry like that every day in America. Here’s what Tyre’s mom shared with me when I asked her how she finds the courage to carry on and speak out. With faith in God, she said her son “was a beautiful soul and something good will come from this.” Imagine how much courage and character that takes. It’s up to us. It’s up to all of us. We all want the same thing. Neighborhoods free of violence. Law enforcement who earn the community’s trust. Our children to come home safely. Equal protection under the law; that’s the covenant we have with each other in America. And we know police officers put their lives on the line every day, and we ask them to do too much. To be counselors, social workers, psychologists; responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises, and more. We ask too much of them. I know most cops are good, decent people. They risk their lives every time they put on that shield. But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better. Give law enforcement the training they need, hold them to higher standards, and help them succeed in keeping everyone safe. We also need more first responders and other professionals to address growing mental health and substance abuse challenges. More resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime; more community intervention programs; more investments in housing, education, and job training. All this can help prevent violence in the first place. And when police officers or departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable. With the support of families of victims, civil rights groups, and law enforcement, I signed an executive order for all federal officers banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, and other key elements of the George Floyd Act. Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this. All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment. We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform. Do something. That was the same plea of parents who lost their children in Uvalde: Do something on gun violence. Thank God we did, passing the most sweeping gun safety law in three decades. That includes things that the majority of responsible gun owners support, like enhanced background checks for 18 to 21-year-olds and red flag laws keeping guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves and others. But we know our work is not done. Joining us tonight is Brandon Tsay, a 26-year-old hero. Brandon put off his college dreams to stay by his mom’s side as she was dying from cancer. He now works at a dance studio started by his grandparents. Two weeks ago, during Lunar New Year celebrations, he heard the studio’s front door close and saw a man pointing a gun at him. He thought he was going to die, but then he thought about the people inside. In that instant, he found the courage to act and wrestled the semi-automatic pistol away from a gunman who had already killed 11 people at another dance studio. He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well. Ban assault weapons once and for all. We did it before. I led the fight to ban them in 1994. In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled. Let’s finish the job and ban assault weapons again. And let’s also come together on immigration and make it a bipartisan issue like it was before. We now have a record number of personnel working to secure the border, arresting 8,000 human smugglers and seizing over 23,000 pounds of fentanyl in just the last several months. Since we launched our new border plan last month, unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has come down 97%. But America’s border problems won’t be fixed until Congress acts. If you won’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border. And a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers, and essential workers. Here in the people’s House, it’s our duty to protect all the people’s rights and freedoms. Congress must restore the right the Supreme Court took away last year and codify Roe v. Wade to protect every woman’s constitutional right to choose. The Vice President and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient privacy. But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans. Make no mistake; if Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it. Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity. Our strength is not just the example of our power, but the power of our example. Let’s remember the world is watching. I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal war against Ukraine. A murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II. Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world. Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy? For such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity. One year later, we know the answer. Yes, we would. And yes, we did. Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united NATO and built a global coalition. We stood against Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people. Tonight, we are once again joined by Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States. She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people. Ambassador, America is united in our support for your country. We will stand with you as long as it takes. Our nation is working for more freedom, more dignity, and more peace, not just in Europe, but everywhere. Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was falling in the world. Not anymore. I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict. I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating. Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies so they’re not used against us. Modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression. Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did. And let’s be clear: winning the competition with China should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger. America is rallying the world again to meet those challenges, from climate and global health, to food insecurity, to terrorism and territorial aggression. Allies are stepping up, spending more and doing more. And bridges are forming between partners in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic. And those who bet against America are learning just how wrong they are. It’s never a good bet to bet against America. When I came to office, most everyone assumed bipartisanship was impossible. But I never believed it. That’s why a year ago, I offered a Unity Agenda for the nation. We’ve made real progress. Together, we passed a law making it easier for doctors to prescribe effective treatments for opioid addiction. Passed a gun safety law making historic investments in mental health. Launched ARPA-H to drive breakthroughs in the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and so much more. We passed the Heath Robinson PACT Act, named for the late Iraq war veteran whose story about exposure to toxic burn pits I shared here last year. But there is so much more to do. And we can do it together. Joining us tonight is a father named Doug from Newton, New Hampshire. He wrote Jill and me a letter about his daughter Courtney. Contagious laugh. Her sister’s best friend. He shared a story all too familiar to millions of Americans. Courtney discovered pills in high school. It spiraled into addiction and eventually her death from a fentanyl overdose. She was 20 years old. Describing the last eight years without her, Doug said, “There is no worse pain.” Yet their family has turned pain into purpose, working to end stigma and change laws. He told us he wants to “start the journey towards America’s recovery.” Doug, we’re with you. Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year. Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border. Working with couriers like Fed Ex to inspect more packages for drugs. Strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking. Second, let’s do more on mental health, especially for our children. When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them greater access to mental health care at school. We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit. And it’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us. Third, let’s do more to keep our nation’s one truly sacred obligation: to equip those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they come home. Job training and job placement for veterans and their spouses as they return to civilian life. Helping veterans afford their rent because no one should be homeless in this country, especially not those who served it. And we cannot go on losing 17 veterans a day to the silent scourge of suicide. The VA is doing everything it can, including expanding mental health screenings and a proven program that recruits veterans to help other veterans understand what they’re going through and get the help they need. And fourth, last year Jill and I re-ignited the Cancer Moonshot that President Obama asked me to lead in our Administration. Our goal is to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years. Turn more cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases. And provide more support for patients and families. It’s personal for so many of us. Joining us are Maurice and Kandice, an Irishman and a daughter of immigrants from Panama. They met and fell in love in New York City and got married in the same chapel as Jill and I did. Kindred spirits. He wrote us a letter about their little daughter Ava. She was just a year old when she was diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer. 26 blood transfusions. 11 rounds of radiation. 8 rounds of chemo. 1 kidney removed. A 5% survival rate. He wrote how in the darkest moments he thought, “if she goes, I can’t stay.” Jill and I understand, like so many of you. They read how Jill described our family’s cancer journey and how we tried to steal moments of joy where you can. For them, that glimmer of joy was a half-smile from their baby girl. It meant everything. They never gave up hope. Ava never gave up hope. She turns four next month. They just found out that Ava beat the odds and is on her way to being cancer free, and she’s watching from the White House tonight. For the lives we can save and for the lives we have lost, let this be a truly American moment that rallies the country and the world together and proves that we can do big things. Twenty years ago, under the leadership of President Bush and countless advocates and champions, we undertook a bipartisan effort through PEPFAR to transform the global fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s been a huge success. I believe we can do the same with cancer. Let’s end cancer as we know it and cure some cancers once and for all. There’s one reason why we’re able to do all of these things: our democracy itself. It’s the most fundamental thing of all. With democracy, everything is possible. Without it, nothing is. For the last few years our democracy has been threatened, attacked, and put at risk. Put to the test here, in this very room, on January 6th. And then, just a few months ago, unhinged by the Big Lie, an assailant unleashed political violence in the home of the then-Speaker of this House of Representatives. Using the very same language that insurrectionists who stalked these halls chanted on January 6th. Here tonight in this chamber is the man who bears the scars of that brutal attack, but is as tough and strong and as resilient as they get. My friend, Paul Pelosi. But such a heinous act never should have happened. We must all speak out. There is no place for political violence in America. In America, we must protect the right to vote, not suppress that fundamental right. We honor the results of our elections, not subvert the will of the people. We must uphold the rule of the law and restore trust in our institutions of democracy. And we must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbor. Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It must be an American issue. Every generation of Americans has faced a moment where they have been called on to protect our democracy, to defend it, to stand up for it. And this is our moment. My fellow Americans, we meet tonight at an inflection point. One of those moments that only a few generations ever face, where the decisions we make now will decide the course of this nation and of the world for decades to come. We are not bystanders to history. We are not powerless before the forces that confront us. It is within our power, of We the People. We are facing the test of our time and the time for choosing is at hand. We must be the nation we have always been at our best. Optimistic. Hopeful. Forward-looking. A nation that embraces, light over darkness, hope over fear, unity over division. Stability over chaos. We must see each other not as enemies, but as fellow Americans. We are a good people, the only nation in the world built on an idea. That all of us, every one of us, is created equal in the image of God. A nation that stands as a beacon to the world. A nation in a new age of possibilities. So I have come here to fulfil my constitutional duty to report on the state of the union. And here is my report. Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong. As I stand here tonight, I have never been more optimistic about the future of America. We just have to remember who we are. We are the United States of America and there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity if we do it together. May God bless you all. May God protect our troops.

Biden Focuses on Economy, Touts Accomplishments in 2nd State of the Union

4 months ago

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday the “story of America is a story of progress and resilience” as he gave his second State of the Union address with a focus on his domestic economic policy, including an appeal to his Republican opponents to work together.     “Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools and robbed us of so much,” Biden told a joint session of Congress.     “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives,” he said.   “And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken,” he added.   Highlights consensus   Facing a Congress in which Republicans now have a majority in the House of Representatives, Biden cited legislation that Republican and Democratic lawmakers came together to pass, including a massive infrastructure bill, aid for Ukraine and protecting same-sex marriage rights.  “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus in this new Congress as well,” Biden said.  Biden was also expected to again argue to raise the debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay its bills. The U.S. hit its debt limit of $31.4 trillion in January. Congress now has until midyear to raise the limit before the U.S. defaults on its loans.    Kevin McCarthy, the newly elected speaker of the House of Representatives, has said the Republican Party will continue to oppose what they see as excessive spending.    "Biden's challenge in the State of the Union is to make the global case while also presenting himself as a leader who understands and is prepared to meet the day-to-day economic challenges facing Americans here at home," political scientist Andrew Seligsohn said in a note to VOA.    Biden also was expected to discuss a range of foreign policy issues, administration officials said.     Relations with China, the nation Biden sees as the biggest competitor for the U.S., hit a new low last week when the U.S. shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the country for a week, including over key military installations.        Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, told Lin Feng of VOA’s Mandarin Service that Biden needs to show he “is forging ahead with policies that strengthen the security of America and its allies. His words about China should highlight Beijing’s deeds, not words, but without adjectives. Let facts speak for themselves."       Gun policy, immigration, health care, police reform and more were also likely to feature in the address.    Invited guests include Tyre Nichols' parents As is custom, the event hosted guests who symbolize some of the issues. The Congressional Black Caucus invited the parents of slain Memphis resident Tyre Nichols to the address.       Nichols, 29, was killed by five Black police officers in January. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have used the tragedy to urge Congress to revisit the stalled police reform act that Democrats proposed after the 2020 killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.    And Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, also noted that Biden will use the speech to rally support. Biden has not officially announced whether he will run for reelection in 2024. His critics say at 80, he is too old for another term.    “He will depict Republicans as ideologues, while he is a pragmatist for the American people,” he told VOA. 

Highlighting History: How "Tet" Began the End of Vietnam > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

by Katie Lange, 4 months ago

The Tet Offensive was a big deal because it marked the peak of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

US Indicts Another Associate of Sanctioned Russian Oligarch Vekselberg

4 months ago

The Justice Department is putting associates of Russian oligarchs on notice. In the latest indictment of its kind, an associate of sanctioned Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg has been charged with violating sanctions and laundering money in connection with helping to maintain Vekselberg’s U.S. properties, according to a four-count indictment unsealed on Tuesday. Vladimir Voronchenko, a Russian citizen and U.S. permanent resident who fled to Russia last May, is accused of arranging for more than $4 million in payments to maintain four properties owned by Vekselberg in New York, Southampton and Florida. Prosecutors estimate the properties’ value at about $75 million. Voronchenko allegedly tried to sell the New York and Southampton properties after Vekselberg was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2018, according to the indictment. Another indicted in connection to $90 million yacht This is the second indictment of a Vekselberg associate in recent weeks. Last month, the Justice Department charged two businessmen — one British and one Russian — in connection with the operation of a $90 million, 255-foot luxury yacht owned by Vekselberg. The yacht was previously seized by Spanish authorities at the request of the United States. The Justice Department’s Task Force Kleptocapture, created in March 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has been leading the fight against corrupt Russian oligarchs. In recent months, the task force has increasingly focused on targeting the oligarchs’ enablers. “Shell companies, strawmen, and professional money launderers did not shield Voronchenko or the illicit transactions charged today from the investigative persistence of [Homeland Security Investigations], FBI, and the attorneys of the Southern District of New York,” Andrew Adams, director of the task force, said in a statement. “Today’s indictment is yet another reminder of the priority that the Department of Justice places on uncovering the proceeds of kleptocracy and sanctions evasion and on prosecuting those who would take a paycheck in exchange for facilitating money laundering and sanctions evasion.” Charges include contempt of court for fleeing Voronchenko is charged with one count of sanctions violation, two counts of money laundering, and one count of contempt of court for fleeing the United States just seven days after being served with a subpoena to produce documents and appear before a grand jury, according to the Justice Department. The indictment includes a notice of U.S. intent to forfeit Vekselberg’s U.S. properties. Vekselberg was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018 and again last March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to court documents, the billionaire used a series of shell companies to buy the four properties between 2008 and 2017. Voronchenko, who lived in New York City; Southampton, New York; Fisher Island, Florida; and Russia, “held himself out” as a successful businessman, art collector, and art dealer, and as a close friend and business associate of Vekselberg. Voronchenko allegedly retained a New York lawyer to help purchase the properties and later manage their finances, using the “interest on lawyer’s trust account,” or IOLTA. The American Bar Association describes IOLTA as “a method of raising money for charitable purposes, primarily the provision of civil legal services to indigent persons.” According to court documents, between 2009 and 2018, shell companies owned by Vekselberg allegedly sent about 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to the IOLTA account. The lawyer in turn used the funds to make payments to maintain and service the properties, prosecutors allege. After the Treasury Department sanctioned Vekselberg, the lawyer’s account began receiving funds from a different account in the name of a shell company controlled by Vekselberg as well as an account controlled by a family member of Voronchenko, according to the indictment. Prosecutors estimate that between June 2018 and March 2022, approximately 25 wire transfers totaling approximately $4 million were sent to the IOLTA account. “Although the source of the payments changed, the management of the payments remained the same as before: Voronchenko and his family member directed the Attorney to use these funds to make various U.S. dollar payments to maintain and service the Properties,” the Justice Department said.

No New Variants Since China Ended Zero-COVID, Study Finds

4 months ago

No new variants of COVID-19 emerged in Beijing in the weeks after China ended its zero-COVID policy late last year, a new study said on Wednesday. China saw an explosion of infections after it started to lift its strict pandemic measures in early December, sparking fears the world's most populous country could become a fertile breeding ground for new, more transmissible or severe strains. More than a dozen countries promptly imposed fresh restrictions on travelers from China, also citing a lack of transparency about the scale of the outbreak, sparking Beijing's ire. But the new study by Chinese researchers, which analyzed 413 samples from Beijing sequenced between November 14 and December 20, said "there is no evidence that novel variants emerged" during that time. Instead, more than 90% of the cases were BF.7 and BA5.2, omicron subvariants that were already present in China and have been overtaken by more transmissible subvariants in Western nations. BF.7 accounted for three-quarters of the samples, while more than 15% were BA5.2, according to the study published in The Lancet journal. "Our analysis suggests two known omicron sub-variants — rather than any new variants — have chiefly been responsible for the current surge in Beijing, and likely China as a whole," lead study author George Gao, a virologist at the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement. Wolfgang Preiser and Tongai Maponga, virologists at South Africa's Stellenbosch University not involved in the research, cautioned that it only covered a few weeks after China lifted its zero-COVID measures. "If new lineages were to emerge in the course of the surge, the study was probably too early to find them," they said in a Lancet comment piece. China has also dramatically cut back on its testing, potentially affecting the results, which also only cover Beijing and not the whole nation, they added. However, the virologists welcomed the "much-needed data from China." "Although the fairly mild travel-related measures imposed by some countries for travelers from China once again might be viewed as punitive, one can but hope that this paper heralds more openness and prompt exchange of data going forward," they said.

Nigerians Vote Soon to Choose Next President, Lawmakers

4 months ago

Nigerians will vote on February 25 to choose their next president along with lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers. With 18 candidates vying for the job, experts at a panel discussion on Tuesday weighed in on the electoral dynamics and their implications for security, the economy and Nigeria’s foreign policy. Among the main contenders are Bola Tinubu from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP). But something is different this time, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Africa Security Initiative who convened Tuesday’s panel discussion. Besides representatives of the APC and the PDP, candidates include Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra state who is representing the Labor Party and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, former governor of Kanu and former federal minister of defense of the New Nigeria People’s Party. "This election is more competitive than has been the case certainly generating a lot of excitement just in terms of the electoral dynamics," Felbab-Brown said. Each candidate has a vision for Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation. Tinubu, 70, said he will create wealth for the country. "We will turn Nigeria and it will be our El Dorado," he said when he accepted the party nomination, Reuters reported. Abubakar, 76, who lost to President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 elections, has a message of inclusion. Buhari is stepping down after two terms. "Every part of this country will be given a sense of belonging, no part will be sidelined, no part will be marginalized," he said. For Obi, 61, it’s time to build a new Nigeria that’s more attractive to its people. "Those who left … even the young people who are today leaving, they will come back, we want to bring them back," he said. "Nigerians are prepared to come back if they can find that they have a country to go back to." Obi has generated buzz among young Nigerians, panelists said. Matthew Page, associate fellow at Chatham House and author of the book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, said the election is a test of strength for the country’s kleptocratic ruling class. "I think we are all watching in light of Peter Obi’s candidacy to see if the country’s powerful ruling elites who, regardless of their party, maintain their grip on the political system in Nigeria now since 1999," Page said. "Will they retrench decisively and maintain their hold on the system, or will they face a strong challenge from candidate that are enjoying the support of younger Nigerians?" According to the electoral commission, 93 million people have registered to vote, and voters age 18-34 make up about 40% of that total, said Cynthia Mbamalu, director of programs for Yiaga Africa. Page said on the economy, Nigeria must pursue economic and fiscal policies that unleash the country’s human and economic potential. "Nigeria is pretty much trapped in a problematic cycle of high inflation, currency devaluation and manipulation, wasteful spending and irresponsible borrowing," he said. "Now Nigeria’s debt to GDP ratio remains relatively low, at the same time its debt servicing costs are incredibly high. So, for example, in its 2023 budget, debt servicing costs would account for 30% of the government’s budget." Other issues Nigeria faces, the panelists said, include crime, corruption, climate change and the need for good governance. Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

US State Court System, US, EU Universities Hit by Ransomware Outbreak

4 months ago

A global ransomware outbreak has scrambled servers belonging to the U.S. state of Florida's Supreme Court and several universities in the United States and Central Europe, according to a Reuters analysis of ransom notes posted online to stricken servers. Those organizations are among more than 3,800 victims of a fast-spreading digital extortion campaign that locked up thousands of servers in Europe over the weekend, according to figures tallied by Ransomwhere, a crowdsourced platform that tracks digital extortion attempts and online ransom payments and whose figures are drawn from internet scans. Ransomware is among the internet's most potent scourges. Although this extortion campaign was not sophisticated, it drew warnings from national cyber watchdogs in part because of the speed of its spread. Ransomwhere did not name individual victims, but Reuters was able to identify some by looking up internet protocol address data tied to the affected servers via widely used internet scanning tools such as Shodan. The extent of the disruption to the affected organizations, if any, was not clear. Florida Supreme Court spokesperson Paul Flemming told Reuters that the affected infrastructure had been used to administer other elements of the Florida state court system, and that it was segregated from the Supreme Court's main network. "Florida Supreme Court's network and data are secure," he said, adding that the rest of the state court system's integrity also was not affected. A dozen universities contacted by Reuters, including the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Rice University in Houston, and institutions of higher learning in Hungary and Slovakia, did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Reuters also contacted the hackers via an account advertised on their ransom notes but only received a payment demand in return. They did not respond to additional questions. Ransomwhere said the cybercriminals appear to have extorted only $88,000, a modest haul by the standard of multimillion-dollar ransoms regularly demanded by some hacking gangs. One cybersecurity expert said the outbreak, thought to have exploited a 2-year-old vulnerability in VMWare software, was typical of automated attacks on servers and databases that have been carried out by hackers for years. VMWare has urged customers to upgrade to the latest versions of its software. "This is nothing unusual," said Patrice Auffret, founder of French internet scanning company Onyphe. "The difference is the scale." Also uncommon is the highly visible nature of the outbreak, which began earlier this month. Because internet-facing servers were affected, researchers and tracking services like Ransomwhere or Onyphe could easily follow the criminals' trail. Digital safety officials in Italy said Monday that there was no evidence pointing to "aggression by a state or hostile state-like entity." Samuli Kononen, an information security specialist at the Finnish National Cyber Security Centre, said the attack was likely carried out by a criminal gang, although he added that it was not particularly sophisticated as many victims had managed to salvage their data without paying a ransom. "More experienced ransomware groups usually don't make that kind of mistake," he said.

Iran Unveils Underground Base for Fighter Jets

4 months ago

Iran's army on Tuesday unveiled its first underground base for fighter jets designed to withstand possible strikes by U.S. bunker-busting bombs, state media reported. The base, named Oghab 44 (Persian for eagle), can accommodate "all types of fighter jets and bombers, in addition to drones," the official news agency IRNA said, releasing images and videos from inside the base. The exact location of the base was not revealed, but state media said it was "at the depth of hundreds of meters under the mountains," and capable of withstanding "bombs by strategic U.S. bombers." In May last year, Iran's army revealed an air force base for drones under the Zagros Mountains in the western part of the country. The latest unveiling comes the day before Iran marks Air Force Day, part of the buildup to the 44th anniversary on Saturday of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. State media on Tuesday showed Iran's armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri and the army's commander-in-chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi at the new base. Oghab 44 is "one of numerous tactical underground air bases for the army's air force built in different areas of the country in recent years," IRNA reported. It can prepare fighter jets to "counter possible offensives" such as those practiced by the U.S. and Israel in their recent military drill, according to state media. Iran has mostly Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets that date back to the Soviet era, as well as some Chinese aircraft, including the F-7. Some American F-4 and F-5 fighter jets dating back to before the revolution are also part of its fleet.

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