Associated Press, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 219

Associated Press

GOP pushes 2 top Cabinet picks through to full Senate

Republicans jammed two of President Donald Trump‘s top Cabinet picks through the Senate Finance Committee with no Democrats in the room Wednesday after suspending a rule that would have otherwise barred them from taking the vote. The tactic seemed a warning shot that they might deploy brute political muscle in the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court vacancy.

With a near-toxic vapor of divisiveness between the two parties across Capitol Hill, nasty showdowns broke out elsewhere as well. One Senate panel signed off on Trump’s choice for attorney general only after senators exchanged heated words, and another committee postponed a vote on the would-be chief of the Environmental Protection Agency after Democrats refused to show up.

Busting through a Democratic boycott of the Finance panel, all 14 Republicans took advantage of Democrats’ absence to temporarily disable a committee rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for votes.

They then used two 14-0 roll calls to approve financier Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be health secretary, ignoring Democrats’ demands that the two nominees provide more information about their financial backgrounds.

All the nominations will need full Senate approval.

Underscoring Congress’ foul mood, Finance panel Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democrats should be “ashamed” for staying away from his committee’s meeting.

“I don’t feel a bit sorry for them,” he told reporters, adding later, “I don’t care what they want at this point.”

Trump won one major victory, as the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. The mostly party-line 56-43 vote came with Democrats critical of Tillerson’s close ties to Russia as former Exxon Mobil CEO.

But the prospects that GOP donor Betsy DeVos would win approval as education secretary were jarred when two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, said they opposed her. Both challenged her support for public education, and their defections meant Vice President Mike Pence might need to break a tie in a Senate that Republicans control 52-48.

Congress’ day was dominated by confrontation, even as lawmakers braced for an even more ferocious battle over Trump’s nomination of conservative federal judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

Democrats were already furious over Republicans’ refusal to even consider last year President Barack Obama‘s pick for the slot, Judge Merrick Garland. Trump fueled the fire by urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to “go nuclear” — shorthand for a unilateral change in the chamber’s rules so Democrats can’t block Gorsuch with a filibuster.

Without a rules change, Republicans will need at least eight Democrats to reach the 60-votes necessary to halt filibusters, or endless procedural delays.

Democrats boycotted Wednesday’s abruptly called Finance Committee meeting, as they’d done for a session a day earlier. They say Price and Mnuchin have lied about their financial backgrounds and must answer more questions.

“It’s deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the Finance Committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees’ serious ethical problems,” said the panel’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Democrats say Price had special access to low-priced shares in an Australian biomed firm, even though he testified the offer was available to all investors. They say Mnuchin ran a bank that processed home foreclosures with a process critics say invites fraud.

The two men have denied wrongdoing and have solid Republican backing.

The Senate Judiciary Committee used a party-line 11-9 vote to sign off on Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., for attorney general. That came after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had misrepresented remarks he’d made about Sessions weeks ago.

Cruz wasn’t present as Franken spoke. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, interrupted Franken twice, calling it “untoward and inappropriate” to disparage the absent Cruz.

Franken said Cruz “personally went after me, he personally impugned my integrity.” Angrily pointing at Cornyn, he asked, “You didn’t object then, did you?”

Cornyn said he wasn’t sure he was there when Cruz spoke.

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Democrats boycotted a planned vote on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The vote was postponed.

Pruitt has questioned the scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to global warming and joined lawsuits against the agency’s emission curbs.

Another panel postponed a vote on Trump’s pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee’s FBI file.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Amid Donald Trump’s shake-up, many wondering ‘what’s coming next’

Days into an administration that promised to govern by upheaval, Donald Trump‘s White House has been the target of massive protests, defied reporters who questioned fact-challenged statements and issued a blur of lightning-rod executive actions. The speed and depth of it all have left many Americans apprehensive: Even some who longed for a shake-up are unsettled by a sense of chaos it has unleashed.

“We’re in a very fragile state right now,” said Margaret Johnson of Germantown, Maryland, who runs a small translation business. “We don’t know what’s coming next. The country’s divided. There’s a lot of fear. And I think we’re kind of at that point where things can go any kind of way, and it’s really hard to say which way they’re going to go.”

That uncertainty finds an echo in Pastor Mike Bergman‘s church in Adrian, Missouri, 40 miles south of Kansas City, where many congregants count themselves as conservatives and embrace the new administration’s order cutting off funding to international groups that provide abortions. But as church members consider another order — restricting refugees and pausing entry to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries — worries about security are tempered by concern about the needs of refugees and whether Trump’s rhetoric is widening the gulf between Americans, Bergman said.

“There is worry about how deep the divide is going to run. There is worry about some of the political rhetoric … about how all that is going to cause the divide in the community to deepen and more bitterness to spring up between the people of our country. I wouldn’t say we’re really optimistic right now,” he said.

Trump is hardly the first president to take office promising wholesale change in the face of substantial skepticism. But Kevin Boyle, a professor of American history at Northwestern University, said the new administration has put itself at the center of an extraordinary political moment.

Boyle hears echoes of the Ronald Reagan era in Trump’s attempts to alter the role of government; this administration’s willingness to play on division rather than serve as a calming influence is reminiscent of Richard Nixon. The mass protests since inauguration day are reminiscent of some of the upheaval of the 1960s. Still, Boyle said, the tensions swirling around Trump’s administration are unique.

“I cannot in my adult life think of a moment that compares to this,” he said. “The level of tension between these two competing visions of the country needs to be resolved in some way or another.”

Trump’s actions have unsettled Suzanne Kawamleh, 24, a graduate student born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from Syria. On Saturday night, Kawamleh said, she joined protesters outside the terminal at O’Hare International Airport to protest the executive order stopping Syrian refugees from entering the country. The next day, she told a crowd gathered at the county courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana, about how her relatives had fled Syria by boat and ended up in a refugee camp before finding refuge in Germany.

Last year, Kawamleh said, she and her father were taken off a flight for questioning when they returned from Lebanon to do relief work in a refugee camp. But that scrutiny, she said, pales with Trump’s executive order, which forced a family friend from Syria who had flown to the U.S. to visit a sick relative to return to the Middle East on Saturday.

“Immediately after the order, everything changed. There wasn’t a chance to plead your case,” she said. “It seems like everything is very in flux. People don’t know what’s going on.”

Over the last week, teacher Dee Burek has led discussions with the seventh- and eighth-graders in her debate and journalism classes about Trump’s first days as president. Students were dismayed when they read about false statements by White House press secretary Sean Spicer and by an interview with Trump adviser Steve Bannon in which he compared himself to Darth Vader.

When one girl compared Trump to Dolores Umbridge — a character from the Harry Potter series who provokes a student revolt after issuing a series of harsh decrees — classmates nodded in agreement, Burek said.

“As a teacher I’m trying to present both sides, as I always have to, and when I deal with the children and I’m reading articles to them (about the Trump administration), their faces are in shock,” said Burek, who teaches in Allentown, New Jersey. “They just keep coming back to, ‘We’re America. How could this happen?’ And I say I just don’t have the answers.”

Many Americans say that Trump’s moves since taking office are exactly what the country needs. Nonetheless, they are taking note of the pushback.

Juan Villamizar, a 52-year-old flooring business owner in West Hartford, Connecticut, said he supports Trump’s executive order restricting refugees and immigration from seven countries as a way to protect Americans from terrorism. But while he believes the country is headed in the right direction, he is disheartened to see a negative response to Trump’s actions.

“I just think that the people of this country, the citizens of this country, need to take a really deep breath and read the Constitution,” he said.

During the presidential campaign, Brenda Horvath strapped a giant “Hillary for Prison” sign to her Logan, West Virginia, front porch, and another that read “Make America Great Again” beside it. She isn’t opposed to Trump’s plans, but thinks the new president could do a better job at presenting his plans with compassion, in a way that doesn’t alienate and offend so many. She believes Trump is off to a rocky start, but believes he deserves more time to get on track.

“You can listen to the wrong people and do the job wrong. I’m hoping and praying that he’ll start listening to the right people,” she said.

Yatziri Tovar, a 24-year-old college student in New York who emigrated from Mexico as a toddler, saw the response to Trump in a different light. Though troubled by the initial days of the new administration, she was encouraged to see the activism it has spurred and the people of many backgrounds who have spoken in protest. She felt a duty to speak, too, addressing a weekend rally that she helped organize as a member of an immigrant advocacy group, Make the Road New York, which drew an estimated 30,000 people.

“It’s a moment that has a lot of confusion, it has some scary times, but at the same time it has become a time of unity,” said Tovar, a part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Barack Obama instituted to allow young people brought into the country illegally as children to stay and obtain work permits.

Others hold the protesters, not Trump, responsible for the discord.

John Fusaro, an immigration officer in Dallas who voted for Trump, said the media and protesters should ease up.

“They’re trying to sow seeds of doubt and keep stirring the pot,” he said. “They’re just not giving him a chance.”

Fusaro said the upheaval represents a “new normal” of constant protests. While he’s dubious of the protesters’ message, the presence of a niece in their ranks reminds him of the wide gulf in Americans’ political views.

“She’s standing against Trump, out there yelling and stuff, and I’m honestly thinking you don’t know the whole picture. I sent her a message: Give it time. It’ll sort itself out.”

So far, he said, she hasn’t responded.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump’s voter fraud expert registered in 3 states

A man who President Donald Trump has promoted as an authority on voter fraud was registered to vote in multiple states during the 2016 presidential election, the Associated Press has learned.

Gregg Phillips, whose unsubstantiated claim that the election was marred by 3 million illegal votes was tweeted by the president, was listed on the rolls in Alabama, Texas and Mississippi, according to voting records and election officials in those states. He voted only in Alabama in November, records show.

In a post earlier this month, Phillips described “an amazing effort” by volunteers tied to True the Vote, an organization whose board he sits on, who he said found “thousands of duplicate records and registrations of dead people.”

Trump has made an issue of people who are registered to vote in more than one state, using it as one of the bedrocks of his overall contention that voter fraud is rampant in the U.S. and that voting by 3 to 5 million immigrants illegally in the country cost him the popular vote in November.

The AP found that Phillips was registered in Alabama and Texas under the name Gregg Allen Phillips, with the identical Social Security number. Mississippi records list him under the name Gregg A. Phillips, and that record includes the final four digits of Phillips’ Social Security number, his correct date of birth and a prior address matching one once attached to Gregg Allen Phillips. He has lived in all three states.

At the time of November’s presidential election, Phillips’ status was “inactive” in Mississippi and suspended in Texas. Officials in both states told the AP that Phillips could have voted, however, by producing identification and updating his address at the polls.

Citing concerns about voters registered in several states, the president last week called for a major investigation into his claim of voter fraud, despite his campaign lawyer’s conclusion that the 2016 election was “not tainted.”

“When you look at the people that are registered, dead, illegal and two states, and some cases maybe three states, we have a lot to look into,” Trump said in an ABC interview.

Reached by telephone Monday, Phillips said he was unaware of his multiple registrations but asked, “Why would I know or care?”

“Doesn’t that just demonstrate how broken the system is?” he asked. “That is not fraud — that is a broken system. We need a national ID that travels with people.”

Phillips has been in the national spotlight since Nov. 11, when he tweeted without evidence that his completed analysis of voter registrations concluded the “number of non-citizen votes exceeded 3 million.”

Thousands of people liked and retweeted the claim, which led to a viral article three days later on InfoWars.com, a site known to traffic in conspiracy theories.

Phillips also has previously tweeted about the dangers of “inactive voters” being able to vote in U.S. elections. “There is already law that compels states to remove inactive voters. Many don’t,” Phillips tweeted Nov. 29.

According to media reports, five Trump family members or top administration officials also were registered to vote in two states during the 2016 election — chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon; Press Secretary Sean Spicer; Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin; Tiffany Trump, the president’s youngest daughter; and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser.

The Houston-based True the Vote has challenged the validity of voter rolls in numerous states. On Friday, Phillips tweeted that the conservative group “will lead the analysis” of widespread voter fraud, and suggested in a CNN interview that it might release the underlying data in a few months.

Shortly after Phillips appeared on CNN on Friday, Trump tweeted: “Look forward to seeing the final results of VoteStand. Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

What Legislative leaders want to clean up during session

Florida Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran both said what they want to clean up during the coming legislative session – but Negron focused on waterways and college student finances while Corcoran is concentrating on state agencies.

The two legislative leaders, who are more than two months into their two-year terms, previewed their priorities on Tuesday ahead of the session, which begins on March 7.

Corcoran said he’s been alarmed by House and media inquiries into two public-private agencies – Visit Florida, which promotes the state as a tourist destination, and Enterprise Florida, which aims to get companies to relocate to the state. He compared his findings with switching on the light in a kitchen late at night.

“There’s cockroaches everywhere and you see that. Bonuses, severance packages, trips,” he said. “If there is one thing that scares me most about being here is that you have a fleeting amount of time. We only have limited time to make a transformative difference to benefit the state and people.”

Negron cited two bills being prepared for the session. One bill is aimed at getting students to graduate on time by expanding financial assistance, implementing flexible tuition policies and other incentives. The other deals with expanding funding for universities to recruit and retain faculty, enhance professional schools and improve infrastructure.

“I’m pleased with the progress we have made in making national elite universities a reality,” Negron said during the annual legislative preview meeting hosted by The Associated Press.

While Negron and Corcoran are in agreement on higher education, they differ on how to fund new water storage facilities south of Lake Okeechobee. Negron has proposed $100 million a year in bonds over 20 years to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir to reduce discharges from the lake, which have caused algae blooms that have fouled beaches along the coast.

“Now we’re talking about when and how it should be done,” Negron said. “It is not just a regional issue. It’s important to the entire state and country.”

Corcoran said he is opposed to using bonds. Gov. Rick Scott‘s budget also does not have any funds for Negron’s plan.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said he agrees that buying land and storing water south of the lake is important but also wants to examine all options.

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz said she didn’t see a problem with state spending or revenue, but that there is a problem with priorities.

Cruz said that she is still furious that Visit Florida gave a million dollars to rap star Pitbull to promote tourism, but also understands that the agency also has sought to attract more non-stop flights to international airports, like Tampa which she represents.

“I see both sides of the situation, but we still have teachers that are some of the lowest paid in the country. So maybe we make cuts on some of the enterprise money, maybe we take away pet projects from members and fund teachers,” she said.

Orlando shooter’s widow seeks jail release pending trial

Lawyers for the widow of the man who carried out a deadly attack at a Florida nightclub are urging a judge to release her from jail pending trial on charges she supported her husband’s terroristic plans.

Noor Salman‘s attorney on Wednesday are expected to argue in an Oakland federal court that the widow is not a threat to public safety or at risk of fleeing. Family members have pledged their homes as collateral.

Salman was arrested in November at her mother’s home in Rodeo, California, a San Francisco suburb. She is charged with helping her husband plan his attack of the Pulse nightclub, where he killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.

Attorney Haitham Amin said prosecutors have yet to turn over to Salman’s legal team much of the evidence they have collected to make their case. Amin and court papers filed Tuesday by Salman’s lead attorney Charles Swift say it appears Salman is charged with being present when her husband was making plans to attack the nightclub.

In particular, Swift cites media accounts reporting that Salman accompanied Mateen on a “scouting trip” in a car to the nightclub in the days before the attack and that she was with her husband when he purchased ammunition at a Walmart near their Fort Pierce home.

Swift wrote “the evidence will show that the purported scouting trip occurred while the family was on their way home from babysitting the children of a relative, that Mateen chose to drive into Orlando and to pass by the Pulse Night Club, and that Noor, who did not possess a driver’s license at the time, was at most a reluctant passenger who wanted to go home.”

Federal authorities arrested Salman in November at her mother’s suburban San Francisco home and charged her with aiding Mateen’s support of the Islamic State and then lying to FBI agents and police investigating the Orlando, Florida nightclub attack.

Salman has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to appear in federal court Wednesday in Oakland, California.

Salman and Mateen lived with their 3-year-old son in nearby Fort Pierce, Florida before the attack. Salman and her son moved in with an aunt in Mississippi immediately after the attacks before settling with her mother in her hometown of Rodeo, California, about 25 miles east of San Francisco.

Details of the charges remained under seal Tuesday and the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco did not return phone calls from The Associated Press.

Mateen told her he needed the ammo for his job as a security guard when she asked him about buying the ammunition, the court filing said.

“Although Noor may have been present when Mateen was possibly making preparations, mere presence alone is insufficient to establish aiding and abetting,” Swift wrote.

Donald Trump nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court

President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This photo provided by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shows Judge Neil Gorsuch. President Donald Trump has narrowed his choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy to three judges and said he expects to make his decision in the coming days. The leading contenders, who all have met with Trump, are Gorsuch, William Pryor and Thomas Hardiman, the person said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly about internal decisions. (10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals via AP)
This photo provided by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shows Judge Neil Gorsuch. (10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals via AP)

Gorsuch, 49, serves on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, where he has made a name for himself as a graceful writer. Gorsuch is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and served as a law clerk to Justices Anthony Kennedy and fellow Coloradan Byron White. If chosen, he would be the first justice to serve with a colleague for whom he once worked.

With a clear, colloquial writing style, Gorsuch has written in favor of courts’ second-guessing government regulations, in defense of religious freedom and skeptically about law enforcement. He has contended that courts give too much deference to government agencies’ interpretations of statutes. He sided with two groups that mounted religious objections to the Obama administration’s requirements that employers provide health insurance that includes contraception for women.

He is the son of President Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Anne Gorsuch. He worked for two years in Bush’s Justice Department before Bush appointed him to his appeals court seat. He was confirmed by a voice vote in 2006.

Gorsuch has written 175 majority opinions and 65 concurrences or dissents in his decade on the 10th Circuit, according to Rebecca Love Kourlis, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice.

Gorsuch also is a notable advocate for simplifying the justice system to make it more accessible, Kourlis said.

Gorsuch is also an avid skier, fly fisherman and horseback rider, Kourlis said. He teaches at the University of Colorado’s law school in Boulder.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

MacDill ‘WebOps’ employees center of botched online fight against Islamic State

On any given day at MacDill Air Force Base, web crawlers scour social media for potential recruits to the Islamic State group. Then, in a high-stakes operation to counter the extremists’ propaganda, language specialists employ fictitious identities and try to sway the targets from joining IS ranks.

At least that’s how the multimillion-dollar initiative is being sold to the Defense Department.

A critical national security program known as “WebOps” is part of a vast psychological operation that the Pentagon says is effectively countering an enemy that has used the internet as a devastating tool of propaganda. But an Associated Press investigation found the management behind WebOps is so beset with incompetence, cronyism and flawed data that multiple people with direct knowledge of the program say it’s having little impact.

Several current and former WebOps employees cited multiple examples of civilian Arabic specialists who have little experience in counter-propaganda, cannot speak Arabic fluently and have so little understanding of Islam they are no match for the Islamic State online recruiters.

It’s hard to establish rapport with a potential terror recruit when — as one former worker told the AP — translators repeatedly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority.” That’s led to open ridicule on social media about references to the “Palestinian salad.”

Four current or former workers told the AP that they had personally witnessed WebOps data being manipulated to create the appearance of success and that they had discussed the problem with many other employees who had seen the same. Yet the companies carrying out the program for the military’s Central Command in Tampa have dodged attempts to implement independent oversight and assessment of the data.

Central Command spokesman Andy Stephens declined repeated requests for information about WebOps and other counter-propaganda programs, which were launched under the Obama Administration. And he did not respond to detailed questions the AP sent on Jan. 10.

The AP investigation is based on Defense Department and contractor documents, emails, photographs and interviews with more than a dozen people closely involved with WebOps as well as interviews with nearly two dozen contractors. The WebOps workers requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the work and because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

The information operations division that runs WebOps is the command’s epicenter for firing back at the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine, using the internet to sway public opinion in a swath of the globe that stretches from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

Early last year, the government opened the bidding on a new counter-propaganda contract — separate from WebOps- that is worth as much as $500 million. Months after the AP started reporting about the bidding process, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service told the AP that it had launched an investigation. NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said the service is investigating a whistleblower’s “allegations of corruption” stemming from how the contract was awarded.

The whistleblower’s complaint alleges multiple conflicts of interest that include division officers being treated to lavish dinners paid for by a contractor. The complaint also alleges routine drinking at the office where classified work is conducted. The drinking was confirmed by multiple contractors, who spoke to AP and described a frat house atmosphere where happy hour started at 3 p.m.

One of the most damning accusations leveled by the whistleblower is against Army Col. Victor Garcia, who led the information operations division until July 2016, when he moved to a new assignment at Special Operations Command, also in Tampa. The whistleblower contended that Garcia successfully steered the contract to a team of vendors that included a close friend’s firm. The whistleblower requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

The AP obtained a screen-grab from a Facebook page that shows Garcia and the friend at a tiki bar in Key Largo two weeks before the winning team was officially announced Sept. 30. The photo was also turned over to NCIS investigators by the whistleblower, who said the photo created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.”

Garcia, a West Point graduate and decorated officer, denied any wrongdoing and described the complaint as “character assassination.” Garcia, who moved to his new post two months before the contract was decided, said he scrupulously avoided any discussions about the contract with both his friend and his former deputy. His former deputy served on the five-member panel that reviewed all of the bids.

“Because I was aware of these conflicts of interest, I intentionally kept myself out of that process — with any of these contract processes,” Garcia said.

The whistleblower is a senior manager at a company that lost its bid for the work. He told AP that he was investigated for attempting to accept kickbacks on an unrelated government contract. He denied the allegations, which were made four years ago, and no charges have been filed in the case.

The problems with the WebOps operation and the personal bonds underpinning the new contract illustrate challenges awaiting President Donald Trump. He has promised to boost military spending by tens of billions of dollars while also cutting waste at the Defense Department and ensuring that contractors aren’t getting sweetheart deals.

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore’s law school and a government contracting expert, reviewed AP’s findings and called Central Command’s lack of rigorous oversight inexcusable.

“These people should not be wasting the money consigned to defend us against terrorism,” said Tiefer, who served on a bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. The commission reported in 2011 that at least $31 billion was lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“DO YOU SPEAK ARABIC?”

In a large office room filled with cubicles at Central Command, about 120 people, many of them Arabic language specialists, are assigned to fight IS militants on their own turf: the internet.

The WebOps contract is run by Colsa Corp., based in Huntsville, Alabama. A major challenge for Colsa — and contractors working on other national security programs- is finding people who can speak Arabic fluently and can also get security clearances to handle classified material.

The problem, according to six current and former Colsa employees, is that to engage with operatives of the Islamic State, or their potential recruits, you need to be fluent in language, nuance and Islam — and while Colsa has some Arabic experts, those skills are not widely distributed.

“One of the things about jihadis: they are very good in Arabic,” said one specialist who worked on WebOps.

Another former employee said common translation mistakes he personally witnessed, including the “Palestinian salad” example, were the result of the company hiring young people who were faking language abilities.

He mockingly described the conversations between managers and potential hires: “‘Do you speak Arabic?'” he mimicked. “‘Yes. How do you say ‘good morning?’ Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.'”

A third specialist said she asked a colleague, who was assigned to analyze material written in Arabic, why he was discarding much of it. While watching a soap opera online, the colleague said the material was irrelevant because it was in Farsi or Urdu. But when she checked, it was indeed Arabic. She has since left WebOps to find more meaningful work, she said.

The WebOps Arabic program focuses on Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but for most of the time Colsa has been running it, it has had no Syrian or Yemeni staff, the AP was told in separate interviews with two current employees and one who left recently.

Engaging in theological discussions on social media with people who are well versed in the Quran is not for beginners. Iraq and Syria are riven with sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who follow different interpretations of Islam. Multiple workers said that WebOps “experts” often trip up on language that is specific to one sect or region.

“People can tell whether you are local, or whether you are Sunni or Shia,” said another former worker, so poorly crafted messages are not effective. He said he left WebOps because he was disgusted with the work.

A number of the workers complained to AP that a large group on staff from Morocco, in North Africa, were often ignorant of Middle Eastern history and culture — or even the difference between groups the U.S. considers terrorist organizations. The group was so dominant that colleagues jokingly referred to them as “the Moroccan mafia.”

A lot of them “don’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas,” said the employee who left to find more meaningful work. Hezbollah is an Iran-backed Shiite group based in Lebanon. Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, is the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Cathy Dickens, a vice president for business management and corporate ethics at Colsa Corp., referred questions to CENTCOM, which declined to comment.

“YOU SHOULDN’T GRADE YOUR OWN HOMEWORK”

To determine whether WebOps actually dissuades people from becoming radicalized, Colsa’s scoring team analyzes the interactions employees have online and tries to measure whether the subjects’ comments reflect militant views or a more tolerant outlook.

Three former members of its scoring team told the AP they were encouraged by a manager to indicate progress against radicalism in their scoring reports even if they were not making any.

The employee who said she left to find meaningful work recalled approaching a Colsa manager to clarify how the scoring was done shortly after starting her job. She said he told her that the bottom line was “the bread we put on the table for our children.”

The boss told her that the scoring reports should show progress, but not too much, so that the metrics would still indicate a dangerous level of militancy online to justify continued funding for WebOps, she said.

She was shocked. “Until my dying day, I will never forget that moment,” she said.

She, like other former employees, spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from Colsa that could affect future employment.

The manager she spoke to declined to comment. AP withheld his name because of security concerns.

Employees and managers routinely inflate counts of interactions with potential terrorist recruits, known as “engagements,” according to multiple workers. Engagements are delivered in tweets or comments posted on social media to lists of people and can also be automated. That automation is at times used to inflate the actual number of engagements, said two former workers, including the one who talked about colleagues faking their language abilities.

The worker who left in disgust explained that a single tweet could be programmed to be sent out to all the followers of a target individually, multiple times. So the targets and their followers get the same tweets tagged to them over and over again.

“You send it like a blind copy. You program it to send a tweet every five minutes to the whole list individually from now until tomorrow,” the former employee said. “Then you see the reports and it says yesterday we sent 5,000 engagements. Often that means one tweet on Twitter.” The person said that he saw managers printing out the skewed reports for weekly briefings with CENTCOM officers. But the volume made it look like the WebOps team’s work was “wow, amazing,” he said.

Garcia said Colsa has a done a good job under his watch, that the data is sufficiently scrutinized and the program is succeeding.

In 2014, a group of more than 40 Defense Department data specialists came to Tampa to evaluate the program. Their unclassified report, obtained by AP, identified what one of the authors called “serious design flaws.” For instance, the report found that any two analysts were only 69 percent likely to agree on how to score a particular engagement. The author said a rate of 90 percent or higher is required to draw useful conclusions.

The report found that computers would be as accurate or better than analysts, and could evaluate effectiveness more quickly — and cheaply.

What Central Command really needed, the report said, was outside oversight.

“You shouldn’t grade your own homework,” said the author, a former U.S. military officer and data specialist once stationed at Central Command. The author, one of many people who signed off on the report, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

He said the report was given to officers, including Garcia, and to Colsa. The author said the suggestions were not implemented and WebOps managers resisted multiple attempts at oversight. The author said that when he directly appealed to Garcia for outside assessment, an officer under Garcia said the effort would cloud the mission.

“The argument was that WebOps was the only program at Central Command that was directly engaging the enemy and that it couldn’t function if its staff was constantly distracted by assessment,” he said. The argument worked, he said, and Colsa was not forced or instructed to accept outside oversight.

Garcia disputed that account but would not elaborate on what steps were taken to address the Defense Department data specialists’ concerns. The Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2015 on WebOps oversight, but it is classified.

“UNTOUCHABLE”

Despite the problems behind the scenes at WebOps, Central Command will play a key role in the new $500 million psychological operations campaign against the Islamic State and other groups. The five-year contract was a hefty commitment to “degrade and ultimately defeat extremist organizations,” according to a document detailing the scope of the work. It would run parallel to WebOps.

The request for bids was announced in April. Four separate teams of companies competed for the contract, including one led by defense giant Northrop Grumman.

From the start, competitors complained among themselves that Simon Bergman, an executive with the British advertising firm M&C Saatchi, had an advantage because he was friends with Garcia. Bergman was working with Northrop to prepare the bid.

A former British officer, Bergman was deployed to Iraq while Garcia was there working on psychological operations during the Iraq War. It was well known that the two men were close, and in recent years, contractors often saw Bergman at CENTCOM offices.

In April, defense contractor CACI International held a meeting in Tampa to discuss the bid. Three contractors on the team said a CACI manager warned a roomful of people that Garcia had already told him that he would decide who got the contract. The manager said that Garcia indicated that having Bergman on the team would help.

So in mid-September, when a photo appeared on Facebook showing Garcia and Bergman together in the Florida Keys, it did not look good in the eyes of many contractors. Garcia’s girlfriend captured the old friends inside the Tiki Bar at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo. They were on her Facebook page, shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling and giving the thumbs up.

Within days, the photos had been taken down from her page.

Two weeks later, the government announced Northrop had won the contract. Its team included M&C Saatchi, Bergman’s firm.

A panel led by the U.S. General Services Administration chose the winner of the contract. Chris Hamm, a senior GSA acquisition executive, said a five-member team scrutinized the technical merits of the proposals for the contract. That team was led by two GSA officials and included three military officers — one of whom was Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matt Coughlin, who reported directly to Garcia before Garcia left his post. Coughlin is the information operations’ liaison with contractors.

In an interview with AP, Hamm said the contract award was handled properly.

“The process is designed to avoid bias,” Hamm said.

But several other contractors on losing teams said Coughlin would clearly have been the person on the panel with the most sway, because of both his technical expertise and the fact that he represented CENTCOM. And given Coughlin’s ties with Garcia, they found that troubling.

Garcia said that while the bids were being considered, he stayed away from any discussions of it with Coughlin, his deputy. So he didn’t even realize the award announcement was imminent when he went with Bergman to the Keys.

“I wasn’t involved with the contracting process at all,” Garcia said. “So I had no idea what the timing of the contract was.”

When asked why the photo with Bergman was taken off Facebook, Garcia declined to comment.

Bergman said that his friendship with Garcia, one of many he has with military officers, is irrelevant. He noted that M&C Saatchi was only a subcontractor.

“I don’t see why my relationship with somebody in the military would have any influence over anything,” he said.

The whistleblower complaint however, filed in December with Central Command’s inspector general, contended the photo of Garcia and Bergman created a “clear impression and perception of impropriety.”

The four-page complaint, now under investigation by NCIS, said the atmosphere at the CENTCOM division, with routine drinking at the office and myriad conflicts of interest, led to an “air of untouchable invincibility.”

Several contractors who spoke to AP, among the nearly two dozen either bidding for work or involved in CENTCOM information operations, said they suspected undue influence in the decision for the $500 million contract. In his complaint, the whistleblower alleges that Garcia told him directly at one point that “any team must include Simon Bergman.”

All the contractors asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive work because they feared repercussions for their companies.

Colsa, the primary WebOps contractor, was not involved in Northrop’s bid. However, nothing prevents Northrop from bringing the company in as a subcontractor.

That’s the plan, said several contractors who have been briefed by Northrop. Such a move would provide ample funding to keep WebOps running for up to five more years.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Democratic state attorneys general begin Donald Trump pushback

Washington became the first state to sue the Trump administration with a filing Monday over the president’s executive order restricting refugees and immigration. It likely will not be standing alone for long.

Since Donald Trump was elected president, Democratic state attorneys general have been forming a coordinated wall of legal resistance over immigration, environmental protections, health care and other major issues.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told The Associated Press that lawyers, including attorneys general, are having an “awakening” regarding the Trump administration.

 “This is a president who does not have respect for the rule of the law,” he said. “That’s something that bothers a lot of people.”

Schneiderman has given model legislation to local governments in New York showing them how to become sanctuary cities that would refuse to cooperate with federal authorities on some immigration enforcement matters.

Their plan for legal pushback has precedent: Several Republican attorneys general made it a practice to routinely file lawsuits against the policies of former President Barack Obama.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are taking up similar fights on behalf of individuals. But attorneys general —the chief lawyers for state governments — can sue more broadly on behalf of their states. Most are elected and thus can act independently of their state legislatures or governors.

“It’s my responsibility as attorney general to defend the rule of law, to uphold the Constitution on behalf of the people of this state. And that’s what we’re doing,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said when announcing his lawsuit against Trump’s executive order.

He said other states could join the lawsuit, which asks a judge to throw out key provisions of the order Trump issued Friday. It temporarily closes the U.S. to all refugees and all people from seven majority-Muslim countries and bars Syrian refugees indefinitely.

The administration says such action is needed to protect the country from terrorist attacks. Since it was issued, the White House has said people from the banned countries who have permission to work in the U.S. can enter.

On Sunday, 17 Democratic attorneys general signed a letter vowing to “use all of the tools of our offices to fight this unconstitutional order.” Most of the signatories were from states controlled by Democrats and that Hillary Clinton won in November. But also signing were the Democratic attorneys general from Iowa and Pennsylvania, which voted for Trump, and Maine, where the electoral vote was split.

Attorneys general have taken smaller actions since Trump was elected, both on their own and in concert.

For example, some wrote Trump calling for him to keep former President Obama’s clean power plan in place and to oppose weakening a federal agency in charge of consumer financial protection. Some banded together to urge the U.S. Senate to reject former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to lead the U.S. Department of Justice.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has hosted town hall meetings to speak with residents about how to deal with a Trump presidency.

“I don’t wish for or want opportunities to either sue the Trump administration, sue a federal agency or to have to act in a way to protect people because of something the federal government has done,” she told The Associated Press. “But we have to be prepared to do that.”

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said he has spoken with advocacy groups about legal strategies. Among them is Planned Parenthood, which is preparing to react if Trump and the GOP-led Congress defund the organization.

One of the first steps T.J. Donovan took when he became attorney general in Vermont this month was forming a task force to advise him on immigration policies.

State attorneys general have a history of banding together. Most notably, a series of lawsuits from them led to the 1998 tobacco industry settlement under which cigarette makers agreed to pay states more than $200 billion over 25 years.

Republican attorneys general sued President Obama over his health insurance overhaul minutes after he signed it and over his rules to limit power plant emissions even before the details were final. In both cases, courts sided with them, at least in part. After Trump won the White House in November, taking on the president became part of the job description for their Democratic counterparts.

State attorneys general have become more active since the administration of former President George W. Bush, especially when it comes to federal laws and policies, said a scholar who studies the office.

“It’s become such an established part of what AG’s do on the national level,” said Paul Nolette, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. “It’s become much more AG’s going on the offensive.”

Money-time: Gov. Rick Scott to outline spending plans

Starting what could become a contentious debate with state legislators, Gov. Rick Scott is going to announce his annual budget recommendations.

Scott plans to release details of his spending plan Tuesday during the annual legislative planning session hosted by The Associated Press. Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran are also scheduled to appear.

The Florida Legislature will consider Scott’s budget request during the session that starts in March.

Scott has already outlined some recommendations, including a push to slash taxes by $618 million. Scott maintains there is enough money to carry out his plans.

But Scott’s optimistic outlook isn’t being shared by Republican legislative leaders.

Corcoran maintains that the state’s finances are being squeezed and that legislators need to cut the budget by at least $1 billion.

Donald Trump campaigned as a disrupter, begins governing by chaos

Trump’s temporary halt to the U.S. refugee program — the most consequential policy he’s unveiled in his presidency’s opening days — wreaked havoc at airports and sparked protests across the country. The order left Trump’s own government agencies scrambling, his Republican Party divided and allies around the world uneasy. A federal judge issued an emergency order temporarily blocking part of the measure, setting up a legal battle ahead.

Trump could have avoided at least some of these consequences. He could have consulted significantly with the agencies tasked with implementing the order. He could have delivered a speech explaining his action and its intent in detail to the American people. His team could have prepared a contingency plan for the newly banned travelers already en route to U.S. as Trump signed the order.

Instead, Trump showed that not only does he intend to follow through on his controversial campaign promises, he plans to do so in the spirit of the mandate his advisers believe he has: disrupting Washington and setting fire to the playbook its leaders have long relied on.

It’s not clear whether the White House acted Friday knowing the consequences that would follow. But Saturday, as protesters crowded U.S. airports where legal U.S. residents were stuck in limbo, the president declared he was pleased with the results.

“It’s working out very nicely,” Trump said Saturday.

Trump is known to tolerate considerable instability and fluidity in his inner circle. His campaign was often improvisational and unpredictable, driven at times by the split decisions of the candidate. As a chief executive of a private company, Trump rarely had to contend with the complexity or scrutiny involved in operating the federal government.

Even before the chaos surrounding the refugee restrictions, Trump was sowing confusion in his first days in office.

He announced an investigation into voter fraud — on Twitter — but a scheduled signing of the executive action was canceled at the last minute. He clashed with the president of Mexico, one of America’s most important international partners, over his planned southern border wall, prompting President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a visit to Washington. A spokesman raised the prospect of paying for the wall with a 20 percent tax on all imports from Mexico, only to quickly backtrack.

As the weekend wrapped up, Trump’s White House appeared to be acknowledging the trouble with governing by decree. Top aides scrambled to explain the policy and offer guidance to those implementing it.

A statement from the president sought to clarify that Trump was not intending a ban on all Muslims. Aides also backed off earlier assertions that a full ban on entry from seven Muslim-majority countries applied to those with U.S. legal permanent residency “green cards.” The White House, which was largely silent about details of the refugee restrictions after Trump signed the order, hastily arranged two briefings for reporters over the weekend.

Still, Trump heads into his second full week in office facing a test on which presidencies can rise and fall: selling a controversial and complicated policy to the public. He’ll do so against the backdrop of a steady stream of sympathetic stories about families split up by the refugee ban, and children and the elderly detained at U.S. airports.

Meanwhile, experts dispute Trump’s assertion that the policy is needed to keep Americans safe. Recent acts of deadly extremist violence have been carried out either by U.S. citizens or by individuals whose families weren’t from the nations singled out.

Many of Trump’s loyal supporters no doubt back his actions and his decisive, urgent approach. As a candidate, Trump called for a full ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., then shifted his focus to temporarily halting entry from countries with terror ties to give the government time to implement “extreme vetting” measures.

Some Republicans also leapt to Trump’s defense, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said it was “time to re-evaluate and strengthen the visa-vetting process.”

But Trump is otherwise left with few defenders, even within his own party. The White House spent little time briefing lawmakers on the order before the president signed it, leaving even those who might be inclined to support the directive with little information to help make Trump’s case.

Other Republicans were willing to publicly break with their party’s new president.

“This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement. “That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”

The business executives and Silicon Valley moguls whose support Trump has been trying to cultivate also appeared caught off guard. Some issued statements criticizing the directive, noting the positive impact immigration has had on their businesses.

And allies— including British Prime Minister Theresa May, who spoke warmly about building a relationship with Trump after a visit to the White House Friday — panned the measure. For world leaders who depend on America’s stability, Trump’s action seems likely to only deepen their leeriness of his vows to govern unpredictably.

“This will be one particularly egregious piece of evidence of their judgment of the whole man — and it’s a pretty negative judgment,” Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor under former President George W. Bush, said of the world’s response.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons