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Top Democrat: Moscow Has Closed Cyber Gap With US

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee warns the United States is being outgunned in cyberspace, already having lost its competitive advantage to Russia while China is rapidly closing in.

“When it comes to cyber, misinformation and disinformation, Russia is already our peer and in the areas of misinformation or disinformation, I believe is ahead of us,” Senator Mark Warner told an audience Friday in Washington.

“This is an effective methodology for Russia and it’s also remarkably cheap,” he added, calling for a realignment of U.S. defense spending.

Warner, calling Russia’s election meddling both an intelligence failure and a “failure of imagination,” strongly criticized the White House, key departments and fellow lawmakers for being too complacent in their responses.

As for China, Warner called Beijing’s cyber and censorship infrastructure “the envy of authoritarian regimes around the world” and warned when it comes to artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G mobile phone networks, China is “starting to outpace us on these investments by orders of magnitude.”

In contrast, the Democratic senator laid out a more aggressive approach in cyberspace, with the United States leading allies in an effort to establish clear rules and norms for behavior in cyberspace.

He also said it was imperative the U.S. articulate when and where it would respond to cyberattacks.

“Our adversaries continue to believe that there won’t be consequences for their actions,” Warner said. “For Russia and China, it’s pretty much been open season.”

Warner also delivered a stern message to social media companies.

“Major platform companies — like Twitter and Facebook, but also Reddit, YouTube and Tumblr — aren’t doing nearly enough to prevent their platforms from becoming petri dishes for Russian disinformation and propaganda,” he said. “If they don’t work with us, Congress will have to work on its own.”

The Trump administration unveiled a new National Cyber Strategy in September, calling for a more aggressive response to the growing online threat posed by other countries, terrorist groups and criminal organizations.

“We’re not just on defense,” National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters at the time. “We’re going to do a lot of things offensively, and I think our adversaries need to know that.”

Top U.S. military officials have also said their cyber teams are engaging against other countries, terrorist groups and even criminal organizations on a daily basis.

Warner on Friday praised elements of the new strategy, particularly measures that have allowed the military to respond to attacks more quickly. But, he said, on the whole it is not enough, pointing to Trump’s willingness to “kowtow” to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki Summit over Moscow’s election interference efforts.

“No one in the Trump administration in the intel [intelligence] or defense world doesn’t acknowledge what happened in 2016,” he said. “But the fact that the head of our government still [finds] it’s hard to get those words out of his mouth, is a real problem.”

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Former Armenian President Arrested for Deadly Crackdown

An Armenian court on Friday put the nation’s former president in custody on charges linked to a deadly police crackdown on a 2008 protest over alleged voting fraud.

Robert Kocharian, 64, spent two weeks in jail last summer on charges of violating the constitutional order by sending police to break up the protest in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. He was freed on appeal, but on Friday a higher court ordered that he should stay behind bars.

Kocharian’s lawyer said he walked to jail without waiting for police to escort him there.

Kocharian rejects the charges, calling them a political vendetta by incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who helped stage the 2008 protest. The demonstration protested the results of an election two weeks earlier for Kocharian’s replacement. Eight demonstrators and two police died in the clash.

“The main organizer of the events … tries to clean himself of blood,” Kocharian said of Pashinian in a statement Friday.

In the 2008 election, Kocharian, who was president from 1998 to 2008, backed Serzh Sargsyan, who served as Armenia’s president for the following decade.

In April, due to term limits, Sargsyan shifted into the prime minister’s seat in what was seen as an attempt to cling to power. But he stepped down after just six days in office in the face of massive protests organized by Pashinian, who then took the prime minister’s post.

Wiretaps released earlier this week had Pashinian discussing Kocharian’s arrest with the nation’s top security official. Pashinian denounced the released recordings as a “declaration of war” by his political foes.

Pashinian has called an early parliamentary election for this Sunday in a bid to win control of parliament, which is still dominated by members of Sargsyan’s Republican Party. Pashinian’s party is expected to sweep the vote.

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Former Armenian President Arrested for Deadly Crackdown

An Armenian court on Friday put the nation’s former president in custody on charges linked to a deadly police crackdown on a 2008 protest over alleged voting fraud.

Robert Kocharian, 64, spent two weeks in jail last summer on charges of violating the constitutional order by sending police to break up the protest in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. He was freed on appeal, but on Friday a higher court ordered that he should stay behind bars.

Kocharian’s lawyer said he walked to jail without waiting for police to escort him there.

Kocharian rejects the charges, calling them a political vendetta by incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who helped stage the 2008 protest. The demonstration protested the results of an election two weeks earlier for Kocharian’s replacement. Eight demonstrators and two police died in the clash.

“The main organizer of the events … tries to clean himself of blood,” Kocharian said of Pashinian in a statement Friday.

In the 2008 election, Kocharian, who was president from 1998 to 2008, backed Serzh Sargsyan, who served as Armenia’s president for the following decade.

In April, due to term limits, Sargsyan shifted into the prime minister’s seat in what was seen as an attempt to cling to power. But he stepped down after just six days in office in the face of massive protests organized by Pashinian, who then took the prime minister’s post.

Wiretaps released earlier this week had Pashinian discussing Kocharian’s arrest with the nation’s top security official. Pashinian denounced the released recordings as a “declaration of war” by his political foes.

Pashinian has called an early parliamentary election for this Sunday in a bid to win control of parliament, which is still dominated by members of Sargsyan’s Republican Party. Pashinian’s party is expected to sweep the vote.

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Yemen Negotiations Face Numerous Stumbling Blocks on Day Two of Talks

Talks between the opposing sides in the Yemeni conflict are deadlocked on day two of indirect negotiations outside the Swedish capital Stockholm, according to Arab media reports.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths has been meeting separately with the Houthi delegation and that of the internationally recognized government. 

The conflict in Yemen has been under way for nearly four years, and the second day of talks showed that many difficult issues remain to be resolved. 

Media reports say the two sides agreed to release captives, though there is no timetable yet to actually begin releasing prisoners.

But Foreign Minister Khaled al Yamani, head of the delegation of the internationally-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, told journalists such confidence-building measures are a step forward.

He says that releasing prisoners and forcing the Houthis to allow aid into certain regions of the country that they control, in addition to getting them to withdraw from the (Red Sea port of) Hodeida, were the first steps on the road to peace.

However, Jamal Amr, who is a member of the Houthi delegation from Sanaa, told the BBC Arabic service the two sides remain far apart on who should control Hodeida, but the Houthis “would like to avoid any fighting that could potentially damage the port,” which is essential to bring food aid and other goods into the country. 

The U.N. has offered to administer the port, but the Houthis refuse to hand it over.

Another dispute: re-opening Sanaa Airport to commercial air traffic. 

The Houthis, who control the airport, say it should re-open to international flights, without forcing planes to be searched for weapons in Saudi-coalition controlled areas.  

Hamza al Kamali, deputy minister of youth and sports, says the Hadi government and the Saudi-coalition are worried that without searches, weapons will be smuggled in from outside the country.

He says that the Houthis would like to use Sanaa Airport as a military airport, but that the government side considers that unacceptable and thinks traffic should be limited to food aid and commercial goods.

Other key issues include ending a blockade that has divided Taiz — Yemen’s second largest city — and put some of its population in dire straights.

There are also arguments over control of Yemen’s central bank and payment of government employees. The government of President Hadi insists that revenues be deposited at the central bank branch in Aden, which it controls. Houthis reject that demand. 

Yemeni analyst Ezzet Mustapha told Saudi-owned al Arabiya TV that Griffiths “has not done a good job of organizing the talks,” and that he is afraid that they “may degenerate into a battle of rival agendas and irreconcilable demands.” The Houthis, he claims, “are insisting on achieving their political goals before making any concessions.”

Meanwhile, Houthi spokesman Mohammed al Bakhiti, told Arab media that “a new transitional government must be formed (in Sanaa) to replace the Hadi government as well as the Houthi-backed government.” “Then,” he argues, “all the parties inside the country must return to the bargaining table.”

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Yemen Negotiations Face Numerous Stumbling Blocks on Day Two of Talks

Talks between the opposing sides in the Yemeni conflict are deadlocked on day two of indirect negotiations outside the Swedish capital Stockholm, according to Arab media reports.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths has been meeting separately with the Houthi delegation and that of the internationally recognized government. 

The conflict in Yemen has been under way for nearly four years, and the second day of talks showed that many difficult issues remain to be resolved. 

Media reports say the two sides agreed to release captives, though there is no timetable yet to actually begin releasing prisoners.

But Foreign Minister Khaled al Yamani, head of the delegation of the internationally-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, told journalists such confidence-building measures are a step forward.

He says that releasing prisoners and forcing the Houthis to allow aid into certain regions of the country that they control, in addition to getting them to withdraw from the (Red Sea port of) Hodeida, were the first steps on the road to peace.

However, Jamal Amr, who is a member of the Houthi delegation from Sanaa, told the BBC Arabic service the two sides remain far apart on who should control Hodeida, but the Houthis “would like to avoid any fighting that could potentially damage the port,” which is essential to bring food aid and other goods into the country. 

The U.N. has offered to administer the port, but the Houthis refuse to hand it over.

Another dispute: re-opening Sanaa Airport to commercial air traffic. 

The Houthis, who control the airport, say it should re-open to international flights, without forcing planes to be searched for weapons in Saudi-coalition controlled areas.  

Hamza al Kamali, deputy minister of youth and sports, says the Hadi government and the Saudi-coalition are worried that without searches, weapons will be smuggled in from outside the country.

He says that the Houthis would like to use Sanaa Airport as a military airport, but that the government side considers that unacceptable and thinks traffic should be limited to food aid and commercial goods.

Other key issues include ending a blockade that has divided Taiz — Yemen’s second largest city — and put some of its population in dire straights.

There are also arguments over control of Yemen’s central bank and payment of government employees. The government of President Hadi insists that revenues be deposited at the central bank branch in Aden, which it controls. Houthis reject that demand. 

Yemeni analyst Ezzet Mustapha told Saudi-owned al Arabiya TV that Griffiths “has not done a good job of organizing the talks,” and that he is afraid that they “may degenerate into a battle of rival agendas and irreconcilable demands.” The Houthis, he claims, “are insisting on achieving their political goals before making any concessions.”

Meanwhile, Houthi spokesman Mohammed al Bakhiti, told Arab media that “a new transitional government must be formed (in Sanaa) to replace the Hadi government as well as the Houthi-backed government.” “Then,” he argues, “all the parties inside the country must return to the bargaining table.”

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Last Migrant Rescue Ship to End Operations in Mediterranean

The search-and-rescue ship Aquarius, which has helped about 30,000 migrants avoid death in the Mediterranean Sea, is suspending its operations.

The humanitarian groups Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee said European governments were forcing them to end the rescue runs.

The Aquarius has been docked in Marseille, France, since early October after Panama revoked its registration at the behest of the right-wing, anti-immigration Italian government.

The ship has been rescuing migrants who were trying to make the dangerous crossing from Libya to Europe in inadequate rafts and dinghies.

“The end of Aquarius means more lives lost at sea; more avoidable deaths that will go unwitnessed and unrecorded. It really is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for UK and European leaders as men, women and children perish,” Vickie Hawkins, head of MSF UK, said in a statement.

15,000 deaths

The International Organization for Migration said that about 15,000 migrants have drowned in the central Mediterranean since 2013. An estimated 2,133 have died this year alone.

The Aquarius was the last rescue ship operating in the Mediterranean. Last year, five groups were running rescue ships.

At the height of the migrant influx in 2015 and 2016, NGO vessels worked alongside Italian coast guard ships.

The election of Italy’s coalition government this year on an anti-migrant platform rapidly ended the cooperation, and rescue boats have been prevented from docking in Italian ports. Migrant arrivals in Italy have since fallen to pre-crisis levels following a series of hard-line measures drafted by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Now rescue missions fall on national coast guard crews from Europe and North Africa, who tend to return the rescued migrants to the country they set off from, usually Libya.

NGO groups describe conditions for the migrants there as “inhuman,” with allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, rape and killings by human smugglers and security forces.

Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report. 

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Rescue Efforts Begin for Lone Female Sailor in Arduous Race 

A rescue operation began Thursday for a British woman who was sailing solo in an around-the-world race and was stranded in the Southern Ocean after a storm battered her boat. 

Susie Goodall texted that she was “safe and secure” after being briefly knocked unconscious when the storm flipped her boat end over end and destroyed its mast.  

On the race website, Golden Globe Race officials said they had been in regular radio contact with Goodall since she regained consciousness. 

 

Goodall, 29, was the youngest skipper and the only woman participating in the 48,280-kilometer (30,000-mile) race.  

 

On Wednesday, Goodall texted race officials, “Taking a hammering! Wondering what on earth I’m doing out here,” and sent her position. 

Hours later, she tweeted, “Nasty head bang as boat pitchpoled [somersaulted].” She then tweeted that her rig had been “totally & utterly gutted!” 

She also reported that she’d lost most of her equipment and was unable to make any makeshift repairs. 

Goodall was about 3,200 kilometers (1,990 miles) west of Cape Horn, near the southern tip of South America. Chile diverted a ship to her location to rescue her, and it was expected to reach her Friday. 

The race began on July 1 in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, with 18 skippers from around the world. After Goodall’s exit, just seven remained in the hunt.  The race will end at the same port. 

The sailors are expected to sail alone, nonstop and without outside assistance. They are also not allowed to use most modern technology, including satellite navigation, and the yachts must have been designed before 1988. 

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EU Nations Increasingly Divided over UN Migration Pact

Just days before scores of countries sign up to a landmark U.N. migration pact, a number of European Union nations have begun joining the list of those not willing to endorse the agreement.

The 34-page U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is to be formally approved in Marrakech, Morocco, on Dec. 10-11.

The drafting process was launched after all 193 U.N. member states, including the United States under President Barack Obama, adopted in 2016 a declaration saying no country can manage international migration on its own and agreed to work on a global compact

But the United States, under President Donald Trump, pulled out a year ago, claiming that numerous provisions in the pact were “inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies.”

Despite its non-binding nature, Bulgaria signaled this week that it will not sign the pact, as did Slovakia, whose foreign minister resigned in protest at his government’s stance. Meanwhile, Belgium’s government was teetering on the brink of collapse, riven by coalition differences over the pact.

“It’s way too pro-migration. It doesn’t have the nuance that it needs to have to also comfort European citizens,” Belgium’s migration minister, Theo Francken, said Thursday.

“It’s not legally binding, but it’s not without legal risks,” he said, adding that rights laws are being interpreted widely in EU courts and those rulings are tying the hands of migration policy-makers.

Francken said his right-wing N-VA party wants “nothing to do with it.”

But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel took the migration agreement to parliament Thursday, where it was approved against the wishes of the N-VA, the biggest party in his governing coalition.

The arrival in Europe in 2015 of well over 1 million migrants — most fleeing conflict in Syria or Iraq — plunged the EU into a deep political crisis over migration, as countries bickered over how to manage the challenge and how much help to provide those countries hardest hit by the influx. Their inability to agree helped fuel support for anti-migrant parties across Europe.

Experts say the pact is an easy target. Leaving it can play well with anti-migrant domestic audiences and pulling out has no obvious negative impacts on governments.

“The ones who opposed the global compact, have they read it? It is only a framework of cooperation with all countries,” EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Thursday. “It is not binding. It doesn’t put in question national sovereignty.”

Other EU countries to turn their back on the document are Hungary and Poland, which have opposed refugee quotas aimed at sharing the burden of Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece and more recently Spain, where most migrants are arriving.

But the withdrawal of Austria — holder of the EU’s presidency until the end of the year — has been of high symbolic importance.

Conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in a coalition with the nationalist, anti-migration Freedom Party, announced Austria’s departure from the pact in October, highlighting “some points that we view critically and where we fear a danger to our national sovereignty.”

Francken said that never before had the head negotiator for the European states, Austria, “pulled out the plug. That gave a lot of political shock effect in all countries.”

It remains to be seen whether North African countries — and others like Turkey, which the EU has outsourced its migrant challenge to — see this as a new sign that migration management can only be done on Europe’s terms. 

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Paris Riots Show Difficulty of Fighting Warming With Taxes

The “yellow vests” in France are worrying greens around the world.

The worst riots in Paris in decades were sparked by higher fuel taxes, and French President Emmanuel Macron responded by scrapping them Wednesday. But taxes on fossil fuels are just what international climate negotiators, meeting in Poland this week, say are desperately needed to help wean the world off of fossil fuels and slow climate change.

“The events of the last few days in Paris have made me regard the challenges as even greater than I thought earlier,” said Stanford University environmental economist Lawrence Goulder, author of the book “Confronting the Climate Challenge.”

Economists, policymakers and politicians have long said the best way to fight climate change is to put a higher price on the fuels that are causing it — gasoline, diesel, coal and natural gas. Taxing fuels and electricity could help pay for the damage they cause, encourage people to use less, and make it easier for cleaner alternatives and fuel-saving technologies to compete.

These so-called carbon taxes are expected to be a major part of pushing the world to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and try to prevent runaway climate change that economists say would be far more expensive over the long term than paying more for energy in the short term.

But it’s not so easy for people to think about long-term, global problems when they are struggling to get by.

Macron said the higher tax was his way of trying to prevent the end of the world. But the yellow vest protesters turned that around with the slogan: “it’s hard to talk about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”

The resistance to the fuel tax is a personal blow to Macron, who sees himself as the guarantor of the 2015 Paris climate accord, its strongest defender on the global stage. He has positioned himself as the anti-Trump when it comes to climate issues.

The French government quietly fears a Trump-led backlash against the accord could spread to other major economies whose commitment is essential to keeping the deal together.

The fuel tax was not originally Macron’s idea; it dates back to previous administrations. But he vigorously defended it and won the presidency in part on a promise to fight climate change.

So what went wrong?

Yale University economist William Nordhaus, who won this year’s Nobel prize for economics, said the tax was poorly designed and was delivered by the wrong person. “If you want to make energy taxes unpopular, step one is to be an unpopular leader,” he said. “Step two is to use gasoline taxes and call them carbon taxes. This is hard enough without adding poor design.”

Macron, like French presidents before him, made environmental and energy decisions without explaining to the public how important they are and how their lives will change. He’s also seen as the “president of the rich” — his first fiscal decision as president was scrapping a wealth tax. So hiking taxes on gasoline and diesel was seen as especially unfair to the working classes in the provinces who need cars to get to work and whose incomes have stagnated for years.

The French government already has programs in place to subsidize drivers who trade in older, dirtier cars for cleaner ones, and expanded them in an attempt to head off the protests last month. But for many French, it was too little, too late.

The French reaction to higher fuel prices is hardly unique, which highlights just how hard it can be to discourage fossil fuel consumption by making people pay more. In September, protests in India over high gasoline prices shut down schools and government offices. Protests erupted in Mexico in 2017 after government deregulation caused a spike in gasoline prices, and in Indonesia in 2013 when the government reduced fuel subsidies and prices rose.

In the United States, Washington state voters handily defeated a carbon tax in November.

“Higher taxes on fuel have always been a policy more popular among economists than among voters,” said Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist and former adviser to President George W. Bush.

Even proponents of carbon taxes acknowledge that they can disproportionally hurt low-income people. Energy costs make up a larger portion of their overall expenses, so a fuel price increase eats up more of their paycheck and leaves them with less to spend. And because energy costs are almost impossible to avoid, they feel trapped.

It is also not lost on them that it is the rich, unbothered by fuel taxes, who are hardest on the environment because they travel and consume more.

“The mistake of the Macron government was not to marry the increase in fuel taxes with other sufficiently compelling initiatives promising to enhance the welfare and incomes of the ‘yellow vests,’ said Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Now the question is “How can we address the climate problem while also avoiding producing political upheaval,” Goulder said.

The key is giving a good chunk of money back to the people, Wesleyan University environmental economist Gary Yohe said.

Many economists back proposals that would tax carbon, but then use that money to offer tax rebates or credits that would benefit lower-income families.

The protests, while sparked by fuel prices, are also about income inequality, populism and anti-elitism, experts say, not just about carbon taxes.

“Is it a death knell for the carbon tax or pricing carbon? I don’t think so,” economist Yohe said. “It is just a call for being a little bit more careful about how you design the damn thing.”

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Scores Arrested in Europe’s Massive Anti-Mob Operation

Police across Europe and in South America have carried out a massive operation targeting members of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta organized crime group, with agents arresting scores of suspects wanted for cocaine trafficking and money-laundering, among other crimes.

In the largest-ever sweep against the organized crime group, 90 people were arrested in Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. One person was also apprehended in Suriname. The coordinated dawn raids were carried out in locations that had been identified by the police in an investigation codenamed “Pollino” that was launched in 2016.

Italy’s national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor, Federico Cafiero de Raho, speaking in the Hague, said the arrests were nothing for the ‘Ndrangheta, because thousands of people affiliated with the clan should be arrested.

De Raho stressed that the ‘Ndrangheta has cells that operate and cooperate with each other in a network that covers all of Europe. Officials said 3 to 4 tons of cocaine were seized, 140 kilos of ecstasy pills and 2 million euros in cash. They said the ‘Ndrangheta was laundering money in Italian restaurants and ice cream parlors.

Officials provided details of the maxi operation at the headquarters of Eurojust, the European agency in charge of judicial cooperation in criminal investigations.

Filippo Spiezia, vice president of Eurojust, explained the purpose of the press conference, the first of its kind for an operational case.

“To inform you about an unprecedented and extraordinary result that we have reached today with a joint judicial action that has been carried out in different member states in order to fight ‘Ndrangheta, one of the most powerful organizations — criminal organizations — in the world,” he said.

The ‘Ndrangheta has its base in the southern Italian region of Calabria, but its tentacles extend all over the world. De Raho said the group has infiltrated ports in Europe to ease drug smuggling. He added that coordination among the police forces in different European countries is essential in order to combat these types of criminal activities.

Tuesday’s operation came one day after Italian police arrested Settimino Mineo, the suspected new “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian mafia Cosa Nostra, along with 45 other alleged mobsters.