Off the Wires

How the U.S. bobbled Russia's disinformation campaign

December 21st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

The U.S. government spent more than a decade preparing responses to malicious hacking by a foreign power but had no clear strategy when Russia launched a disinformation campaign over the internet during the U.S. election campaign, current and former White House cyber security advisers said.

Far more effort has gone into plotting offensive hacking and preparing defenses against the less probable but more dramatic damage from electronic assaults on the power grid, financial system or direct manipulation of voting machines.

Over the last several years, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked Russia's use of coordinated hacking and disinformation in Ukraine and elsewhere, the advisers and intelligence experts said, but there was little sustained, high-level government conversation about the risk of the propaganda coming to the United States.

During the presidential election it did - to an extent that may have altered the outcome, the security sources said. But U.S. officials felt limited in investigating Russian-supported propaganda efforts because of free speech guarantees in the Constitution.

A former White House official cautioned that any U.S. government attempt to counter the flow of foreign state-backed disinformation through deterrence would face major political, legal and moral obstacles.  

"You would have to have massive surveillance and curtailed freedom and that is a cost we have not been willing to accept,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They (Russia) can control distribution of information in ways we don't."

Clinton Watts, a security consultant, former FBI agent and a fellow at the nonprofit Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the U.S. government no longer has an organization, such as the U.S. Information Agency, that provided counter-narratives during the Cold War.

He said that most major Russian disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe have started at Russian-government funded media outlets, such as RT television or Sputnik News, before being amplified on Twitter by others.

Watts said it was urgent for the U.S. government to build the capability to track what is happening online and dispute false stories.

"Those two things need to be done immediately," Watts said. "You have to have a public statement or it leads to conspiracy theories."

A defense spending pill passed this month calls for the State Department to establish a "Global Engagement Center" to take on some of that work, but similar efforts to counter less sophisticated Islamic State narratives have fallen short.

The U.S. government formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against U.S. political organizations in October, a month before the Nov. 8 election.


James Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who has worked for the departments of State and Commerce and the U.S. military, said Washington needed to move beyond antiquated notions of projecting influence if it hoped to catch up with Russia.

"They have RT and all we know how to do is send a carrier battle group," Lewis said. "We're going to be stuck until we find a way deal with that."

Watts, who said he has tracked tens of thousands of pro-Russia Twitter handles since 2014, believes many of the most effective stories stoke fear of war or other calamities or promote a narrative of corrupt Western politicians, media and other elites.

He and others said Sputnik shows the intensity of the Russian effort.

Launched two years ago as a successor to the official Russian wire service and radio network, Sputnik does not merely parrot the Kremlin political line, according to experts. It has gone out of its way to hire outsiders with social media expertise, including left and right-leaning Americans who are critical of U.S. policies.

Sputnik News did not respond to a request for comment.

During the election campaign, one of the most prominent fulltime Sputnik writers and commentators, Cassandra Fairbanks, shifted from an ardent anti-police protestor and supporter of socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders to a vocal backer of Republican Donald Trump.

Fairbanks said in an interview with Reuters that Sputnik had not told her to advocate for Trump, now president-elect. She said she was swayed by Trump's opposition to overseas wars and international trade agreements.

"I did my best to push for him," Fairbanks said, "but that was of my free will."

A woman in her thirties with more than 80,000 Twitter followers, Fairbanks was an activist with the hacking movement known as Anonymous before she joined Sputnik.  

The day before the election, Fairbanks said on a YouTube channel that it was "pretty likely" that the authors of emails hacked from the account of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta were using code words for pedophilia when they spoke about pizza.

The assertion fed the falsehood that Clinton supporters were operating a child sex ring out of a Washington-based pizza parlor. The channel, with 1.8 million subscribers, was run by Alex Jones, a radio host who has said the 9/11 attacks were an "inside job."

Joe Fionda, a veteran of the Occupy protests who worked briefly for Sputnik in 2015, said the organization’s articles and social media efforts overall were aimed at praising Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies such as Syria and dwelling on negative news in the United States, including police misconduct.

Some U.S. officials and political analysts have said Putin could believe businessman Trump would be friendlier to Russia than Clinton, especially when it came to economic sanctions.

Fionda said spreading hacked emails was a priority at Sputnik. He said his job included trying to create viral memes on a Facebook page called Mutinous Media, which did not list a Sputnik connection.

Former workers of the Democratic National Committee, one of the groups infiltrated by Russian-backed hackers, said the U.S. government should consider providing funding for the technological defense of major political parties. They said that once hacked emails began appearing online, party functionaries were constantly behind in responding.

They also said that the staff of Democratic President Barack Obama had been overly concerned about not appearing to defend its own party's candidate.

Obama has asked spy agencies to deliver an analysis of Russian meddling in the election that will include discussion of propaganda operations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence General Counsel Robert Litt told Reuters.

Asked on Tuesday whether he thought the U.S. government had been caught off guard, Litt said: "I'm not touching this with an 11-foot pole. It is a very important issue that the intelligence community is looking at very carefully, and it will issue a report in due time."

Trump taps Exxon's Tillerson as top U.S. diplomat, lawmakers uneasy

December 13th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump announced Exxon Mobil Corp Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as his choice for U.S. secretary of state on Tuesday, despite concerns from lawmakers in both political parties over the oilman's ties to Russia.

Tillerson's experience in diplomacy stems from making deals with foreign countries for Exxon, the world's largest energy company, and Trump praised him as a successful international dealmaker who leads a global operation.

"He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America's vital national interests and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America's security and standing in the world," Trump said in a statement.

Tillerson has been chief executive of Exxon Mobil since 2006 and, like Trump, has never held public office. Tillerson said in a statement that he shared the president-elect's "vision for restoring the credibility of the United States' foreign relations and advancing our country's national security."

Some lawmakers raised concerns about Tillerson's relationship with Moscow. His appointment requires Senate confirmation.

Senator John McCain, a leading Republican foreign policy voice and his party's 2008 nominee for president, told Reuters: "I have concerns. It's very well known that he has a very close relationship with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin."

Trump was poised to add another figure with close ties to the oil industry to his Cabinet.

A source close to the transition said Trump had chosen former Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose state is a leading oil producer, as his nominee for energy secretary, with an announcement expected soon. Perry met Trump on Monday at Trump Tower in New York.

Trump picked Tillerson, 64, after the Texan was backed by several Republican establishment figures, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a senior transition official said.

Rice and Gates, who have worked for Exxon as consultants, both issued statements of support on Tuesday.

Their backing is seen as crucial to helping Tillerson get past a possibly contentious Senate confirmation battle likely to focus on his relationship with Putin.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said he would hold a confirmation hearing in early January. He called Tillerson "a very impressive individual" with "an extraordinary working knowledge of the world."

Exxon Mobil's board will meet soon regarding its transition, CNBC reported citing a company statement.


In 2013, Putin bestowed on Tillerson a Russian state honor, the Order of Friendship, citing his work "strengthening cooperation in the energy sector."

There also has been controversy over alleged Russian interference in the Nov. 8 presidential election, with the CIA concluding Moscow had intervened to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Tillerson's "cozy ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia would represent an untenable conflict at the State Department," Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement he also had serious concerns.

"The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America's interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America's foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage," Rubio said.

Trump is confident that Tillerson can get past questions about his ties to Russia, the transition official said.

"His relationships with leaders all over the world are second to none," Trump's statement said.

There also are concerns among lawmakers about former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who has been mentioned as a possible No. 2 State Department official and who has voiced hawkish views on Iraq and Iran, as well as on China and Taiwan.

Republicans and Democrats said they would ask Tillerson, who has met Putin several times, about his contacts with Russia. He won fresh support from Moscow on Tuesday, with a Kremlin foreign policy aide saying Tillerson has good relations not only with Putin but with many other Russian officials as well.

The U.S. business community welcomed Trump's choice of Tillerson, with GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt calling him "a great negotiator."

"We are pleased that Rex will bring a business perspective to the State Department," the National Association of Manufacturers added.

Human rights, environmental and other advocacy groups decried the choice, questioning Exxon deals with various governments and environmental impact under Tillerson.

"This sets a very alarming path for the new administration," Global Witness said in a statement.


While busily filling out his Cabinet, Trump is seeking to answer questions about how he will separate himself from his far-flung business empire before taking office on Jan. 20.

He had planned a news conference on Thursday to lay out the details but delayed it until Tuesday due to what aides said was the crush of picking people to serve in his administration.

In a series of late-night tweets on Monday, Trump said he would be leaving his business before his Jan. 20 inauguration so he can focus full-time on the presidency and that he would leave his two sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, to manage it.

He did not mention his daughter Ivanka, who has been a central player in his business affairs, as well as his campaign, and who is said to be considering a move to Washington to help her father.

"No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office," Trump said, adding that he would hold a news conference "in the near future."

Quake magnitude 6.5 reported off coast of Northern California

December 8th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 was reported off the coast of Northern California on Thursday but there were no immediate reports of damage in the nearest town, officials said.

The quake was centered in the Pacific Ocean about 102 miles (165 kilometers) west of Ferndale, California, at a depth of 6.2 miles (10 km), the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The coastal area nearest the quake is sparsely populated.

There was no tsunami warning, advisory or threat in effect following the earthquake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center of the National Weather Service said on its website.

In Ferndale, which has a population of about 1,300 people, Mayor Don Hindley said in a phone interview that he had not heard of any damage from the quake. He said he felt the temblor for about 15 seconds.

"It wasn’t that bad at all," Hindley said. He added that he felt more shaking from another quake earlier this week.

The area near Ferndale had a 4.3 magnitude earthquake right on the coastline on Monday, according to the USGS.

U.S. spy chief resigns

November 17th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper said on Thursday that he submitted his letter of resignation but would stay until the end of the Obama administration.

"I submitted my letter of resignation last night, which felt pretty good. I've got 64 days left," Clapper said during a U.S. congressional intelligence committee hearing.

Clapper, 75, has served as the U.S. top spy since 2010 and has said for months he intended to step down when President Barack Obama leaves office in January.
Clapper's service in government spans six decades, beginning in the 1960s as a U.S. Air Force officer.

Clapper "always exhibited sober judgment and put the fate of the nation first," said Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Wall St. soars as FBI clears Clinton ahead of Election Day

November 7th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

U.S. stocks marched higher on Monday, a day before the U.S. presidential election as Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton's prospects brightened after the FBI said it would not press criminal charges related to her use of a private email server.

The gains were broad based, with all 30 Dow components and all 11 major S&P 500 sectors rising. Global markets also rose, while a volatility measure for U.S. stocks was set for its biggest one-day percentage drop since late June.

U.S.-listed iShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF (EWW.P), known recently as the "Trump ETF", rose 4.7 percent and was on track for its best day in more than five years. The ETF is viewed as a barometer for Republican Donald Trump's chances of winning the election since his policies are considered negative for Mexico.

Wall Street closed lower for nine days in a row through Friday, their longest losing streak in more than 35 years and one that gained momentum after the FBI said on Oct. 28 that it was reviewing some newly found Clinton emails.

The FBI said on Sunday that it stood by its July finding that Clinton was not guilty of criminal wrongdoing.

At least five major polls on Monday showed Clinton had the lead over Trump in the race for the White House, with one showing Clinton enjoying a six percentage-points advantage.

"We're up almost half of what we've lost since then (Oct. 28). So it clearly shows the market prefers a Clinton victory and also improves her likelihood of eventually winning the election and the markets are reacting as a result," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas.

Investors have tended to see Clinton as a more status quo candidate and expect her victory to clear the path for a U.S. interest rate hike next month. On the other hand, Trump's stance on foreign policy, trade and immigration has unnerved the market.

"As long as the Democrats do not sweep all three houses, it will likely remain a gridlock with no drastic movement in policy and the markets historically tend to do better in that scenario," Frederick said.

The CBOE Volatility index .VIX, dubbed Wall Street's "fear gauge", was down 16.9 percent, on pace for its biggest one-day fall since June 28, a few days after Britain voted to leave the European Union.

At 10:47 a.m. ET (1447 GMT), the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was up 276.54 points, or 1.55 percent, at 18,164.82.

The S&P 500 .SPX was up 36.37 points, or 1.74 percent, at 2,121.55 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was up 98.82 points, or 1.96 percent, at 5,145.19.

The financials' .SPSY 2.2 percent rise lead the gainers among the 11 S&P sectors, while the defensive utilities sector .SPLRCU brought up the rear with a 0.18 percent increase.

Risk assets were back in favor, with Brent crude futures rising for the first time in seven days, also helped by OPEC's commitment to stick to a deal to cut output.

Elite Iraq forces advance into Mosul, face tough resistance

November 4th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

Jihadist fighters unleashed a deluge of bombs and gunfire Friday on Iraqi forces punching into the streets of Mosul for the first time, forcing some units into a partial pullback.

Some armoured vehicles from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) returned from the streets of Al-Karamah a few hours after moving in and encountering fierce resistance from the Islamic State group, an AFP correspondent reported.

"We weren't expecting such resistance. They had blocked all the roads," said one officer, as top brass considered whether or not to attempt a fresh foray.

"There are large numbers of jihadists... It was preferable to pull back and devise a new plan," the CTS officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some CTS forces remained inside the city, however, and there were at least five regiments involved in the operation launched Friday, making it hard to gauge the extent of the pullback.

After daybreak, bulldozers and tanks backed by air strikes pushed into the streets of Mosul from the east for the first time since Iraqi forces launched a broad offensive to retake the city on October 17.

The CTS's "Mosul Regiment", the last to leave the city when the jihadists overran it in June 2014, immediately faced "tough resistance", commander Muntadhar Salem told AFP.

The gunfire was almost uninterrupted for hours and reports from the front crackling into CTS radios said IS had set up barriers and laid bombs all along the streets.

Air strikes by the US-led coalition had intensified over the past two days, despite the smoke from burning tyres set alight by IS in a bid to provide cover.

They ebbed when the ground push got under way, however.

- Back from the dead -

The resistance came despite widespread reports in recent weeks that top IS commanders had left the eastern side of the city and crossed the Tigris river to regroup on its west bank.

An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 IS fighters are scattered across the sprawling city, Iraq's second largest, where a million-plus civilians are believed to be trapped.

There has been an exodus of civilians from outlying villages this week, but few managed to find a safe way out of Mosul itself.

Umm Ali could not hold back tears when she spoke of her constant fear the jihadists would take her young sons.

"They kept coming to our home. Sometimes they'd knock on the door at 10:00 pm," she said. "They took our car, saying: 'This is the land of the caliphate, it belongs to us'."

Civilians seeking refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas east of the city recounted tales of IS brutality.

"We're coming from the world of the dead back to the world of the living," said Raed Ali, 40, who fled the nearby village of Bazwaya.

In a rare audio message released on Thursday, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged his fighters to defend the city where he proclaimed the "caliphate" in June 2014.

The public announcement he made from the pulpit of Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri heralded the most ambitious and brutal experiment in modern jihad, a period marked by mass murder, attempted genocide and slavery.

But the "caliphate" has been shrinking steadily since mid-2015, and the loss of Mosul would leave Raqa, in Syria, as the group's only major urban stronghold.

- Caliphate 'on defensive' -

IS has been increasingly pragmatic in its tactics this year, falling back in the face of superior force even in emblematic bastions such as Fallujah in Iraq and Dabiq in Syria.

However Baghdadi, in his first message of 2016, called on IS fighters still in Mosul to make a stand.

"Holding your ground with honour is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame," he said.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, a jihadism expert at the Middle East Forum, said the tone of the half-hour speech was "very much of a caliphate on the defensive".

Iraqi forces and their Iranian and US-led coalition allies see the battle for Mosul as capping a two-year recovery from the rout that saw IS sweep through the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad.

As they regained ground and the caliphate declined, defections from IS increased, providing intelligence that enabled coalition aircraft to take out key field commanders.

The jihadist group has carried out a series of diversionary attacks elsewhere in Iraq since the Mosul battle began.

On Friday, jihadists infiltrated Sharqat, an area south of Mosul that was recaptured over a month ago, sparking clashes that killed seven Iraqi security personnel, police said.

With colder weather setting in, concern has grown for Mosul's civilian population.

Aid groups say up to a million people could seek to flee as soon as they can, but shelter is available for only a fraction of that number.

The United Nations says it has received credible reports of IS forcing tens of thousands of civilians into Mosul from outlying areas for use as "human shields".

FBI’s Clinton investigation is a ‘black swan’ that could swing the election: Citi

November 1st, 2016  |  Source:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s bombshell announcement Friday that it is reviewing additional emails as part of its probe into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server is a “black swan” that could be a game changer, a Citibank analyst warned.

“These developments do constitute an ‘October Surprise’ that could have a meaningful impact on the race,” said Tina Fordham, an analyst at Citibank, in a Monday note to clients.

Black swans are by definition events that are highly improbable but have major consequences in retrospect.

As a result of the FBI’s revelation, prediction market odds of a Clinton victory have declined to 75% from 81%, she said. Even before Friday, Clinton’s lead over Republican rival Donald Trump had narrowed to 5.6 percentage points on Oct. 27 from 6.4 percentage points on Oct. 20 in the Real Clear Politics average of major polls. On Monday, Clinton’s average lead was 2.5 percentage points.

Read: Clinton’s unfavorable rating hits new high in poll see: Post-FBI poll by Morning Consult shows Clinton keeping 3-point lead

On Friday, news of the probe, revealed in a letter by FBI Director James Comey to Congress, sparked a modest selloff in equities and a flight into haven assets like gold. On Monday, U.S. stocks traded flat to slightly higher. investors appearing to pay more attention to falling oil prices, merger news and corporate earnings.

Citi is still betting on Clinton winning the White House on Nov. 8 and left probability of a Clinton presidency at 75%. However, the FBI news could depress voter turnout among Clinton supporters and affect down-ballot congressional races.

“These developments have added a significant obstacle to the Clinton campaign, and are likely to further dent voter confidence,” said Fordham, who had been consistently cautioning against taking a Clinton win for granted.

How exactly the latest news will influence the result is unclear as it takes a few days before such developments are reflected in the polls. But one thing is certain—uncertainty is expected to rise.

The CBOE Market Volatility Index VIX, +8.91% , known as Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” has been trading at elevated levels and is poised for a five-day gain. The index rose 5.2% to 17.03 on Monday, its highest reading since mid-September.

“We continue to emphasize the potential for more Black Swan events emerging, making things more complicated for forecasters and pollsters,” said the analyst.

Fordham said the FBI probe increases the risk that if Trump loses, he won't accept the results. And if Clinton wins, she will have to contend with a Republican-controlled or a divided Congress which raises the chances of additional investigations and “non-negligible” impeachment risk.

In other words, the election is shaping up to be a contest without a true winner.

Election could create flood of marijuana cash with no place to go

October 31st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Although the sale of marijuana is a federal crime, the number of U.S. banks working with pot businesses, now sanctioned in many states, is growing, up 45 percent in the last year alone.

Still, marijuana merchants say there are not nearly enough banks willing to take their cash. So many dispensaries resort to stashing cash in storage units, back offices and armored vans.

Proponents believe the Nov. 8 election could tip the balance in favor of liberalizing federal marijuana laws, a move seen as key to getting risk-averse banks off the sidelines.

Measures on ballots in California, Florida and seven other states would bring to 34 the number of states sanctioning pot for medical or recreational use, or both. That could push annual sales, by one estimate, to $23 billion.

The prospect for a market of such scale is adding urgency to calls for a national approach to marijuana that expands banking options. Law enforcement and Federal Reserve officials have expressed concern about the fraud and crime associated with un-bankable cash.

Nearly 600 dispensary robberies have been reported in Denver since recreational pot was legalized in Colorado three years ago.

"There's not a single human being who thinks there is any benefit at all in forcing marijuana business to be conducted on an all-cash basis," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon who has called for the decriminalization of marijuana since coming to Congress in 1996.


The U.S. Justice Department said in 2014 it would not prosecute banks for serving state-sanctioned marijuana businesses. At the same time, the Treasury Department requires banks to report suspected drug crimes.

At last count, 301 banks were serving marijuana businesses, according to the Treasury Department. Many more have avoided the sector out of fear that making the wrong call could put them at risk, said Robert Rowe, a vice president at the American Bankers Association.

The National Cannabis Association is pressing Congress for a law that would hold banks harmless for handling pot cash, said Michael Correia, a lobbyist for the trade group. If California legalizes recreational use next week, the nation's biggest Congressional delegation will have a big stake in the issue.

In lieu of federal action, some states have tried their own fixes. Colorado created a credit union system for state-sanctioned marijuana businesses. But it fell apart when the Kansas City Federal Reserve denied a Colorado pot credit union access to the national payments system, which distributes currency and clears checks and electronic payments.

California has no such plans, said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for the state’s Department of Business Oversight.

“This was a problem created by federal law,” Dresslar said, “and it needs a federal solution.”

In northern California, where growers serve state-sanctioned medical dispensaries as well as the black market, the Community Credit Union of Southern Humboldt stopped opening pot business accounts because of the red tape and uncertainty, said senior vice president Janet Sanchez.

“We’re not being asked to go over to the gun dealer and ask them if they’re making appropriate background checks,” she said.

Dispensary operators unable to find willing banks tell tales of subterfuge, recordkeeping nightmares and armies of security guards. Many open bank accounts and submit credit card charges in ways that obscure their true enterprise, such as “spa services.”

Susana de la Rionda has run a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary for 12 years and has had to find a new bank about once a year and submit to tax audits twice as often.

“I feel like a gangster,” she said.

Denver Relief dispensary founder Ean Seeb said operators always are trying workarounds to get cash into banks, including washing bills in fabric softener to hide the odor of pot. For a time, he said, one automated teller machine near a Denver mall drew lines every night of marijuana merchants, each depositing the maximum $500 in cash.


Partner Colorado Credit Union began working with state-sanctioned dispensaries two years ago and has developed elaborate protocols to minimize risk, including an initial vetting that can take three weeks. It uses armored trucks to take cash deposits directly from dispensaries to the Denver branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.

When the credit union spots a red flag, Chief Executive Sundie Seefried dispatches employees to pay the dispensary a visit, and she has closed two accounts for compliance problems. Seefried encourages operators to visit by keeping fine cigars in her office, and she stays in touch with regulators.

“Our program is designed with eyes on the business, eyes on the owner, eyes on the money,” she said.

With 95 dispensary members, Seefried said the credit union is at capacity, and she hopes more bankers will get involved. She fields calls for advice, speaks to industry groups and, earlier this year, shared what she’s learned in a book.

Despite the safeguards, Seefried said she takes nothing for granted. Every few months, she said she drills her staff to make sure they know what to do in the event of her arrest.

“What calls are you going to make?” she said she asks them.

“If you don’t have a little fear going into this because of the illegality at the federal level, you’re probably not the person to do this job,” she said.

To drill, or not to drill

October 25th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Forget the accusations of groping, bigotry and email mismanagement.

If the American voter had to choose between Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton based on their energy policies alone, the presidential election would still be a remarkable drama, amounting to the biggest referendum on global climate change since the term was coined.

How the country decides on Nov. 8 will have far-reaching implications for the price of electricity and gas at the pump, as well as the future of the U.S. energy industry, which employs about 10 million people.

Trump's vision is an America where oil derricks pump furiously again, coal miners get back to work, and the country puts its own economy ahead of foreign nations worried about the effects of fossil fuels on sea levels, droughts, and storms.

Clinton sees an America where half a billion solar panels power homes, cars run on electricity, oil use is cut by a third, and the clean energy sector provides a deep well of new jobs supported by government mandates and subsidies.

"At a very basic level, it would be a climate vote," said Sarah Emerson, the head of Energy Security Analysis Inc in Boston. "Do you want fossil fuels, or renewables?"


Trump has said he wants to unleash a U.S. “energy revolution” by streamlining environmental regulation, easing infrastructure permitting and pulling the country out of a global pact to combat climate change – moves he says would promote increased oil and gas drilling and revive the dying coal mining industry without compromising air and water quality.

The proposals align neatly with both the Republican Party’s opposition to government overreach, and Trump’s own campaign theme of making “America Great Again” by restoring traditional industries, including many that have been hurt by international trade agreements.

While the plan has earned him some support within an oil and gas industry naturally opposed to regulation, it has also given rise to skepticism among even his closest allies over whether he can deliver.

“Obama hasn’t shut down drilling – what has shut down drilling is price,” Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, a Trump supporter, told Reuters. “I don’t know what Trump can do to help the industry.”

A technology-driven drilling boom has pushed U.S. oil and gas production up 70 percent since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, making America the top producer in the world, but it has also triggered a slump in prices as demand has failed to keep up.

Oil prices are running at four-month highs around $50 a barrel after the OPEC cartel signaled in September it may make its first production cut in eight years, but prices remain less than half their levels from mid-2014.

While the price crash has been a boon for consumers and energy-intensive businesses, dozens of energy companies have gone bankrupt, putting blue collar workers in the coal mines, shale fields and oil rigs out of work.

Critics have said Trump’s plan to revive natural gas drilling would finish off the very coal industry he promises to restore, because the two fuels compete. It would “seem to defy basic market laws of supply and demand,” said Jason Bordoff, a former energy adviser to Obama.

The coal industry, once a large employer in parts of America, now employs less than 60,000 miners. It has become a symbol of Trump's vow to revive dying industries. Clinton suffered political damage when she said "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

Trump’s energy plan would also force the United States to make an abrupt turnabout on the environment: He wants to withdraw from the global climate change pact agreed in Paris last year.

He has called climate change a hoax and has argued the Paris deal would cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars and put it at a disadvantage.

Trump wants to rescind the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon output and downgrade the Environmental Protection Agency to a commission, not a cabinet level agency, and refocus it on its “core mission: clean air and clean water for all Americans, regardless of race or income.”

An oil industry lobbyist in Washington D.C., who asked not to be named, said that even if Trump’s policies were unlikely to solve the root problem facing the industry right now – the low price of oil and gas – his ideas were still mainly welcomed.

“Regulation is a killer, and if it can be streamlined, it helps,” he said.

Trump’s campaign has drawn about $99,000 from employees of the oil and gas industry since July, when he was formally nominated, while Clinton has received about $114,000 from the industry over the same period, according to the latest federal campaign finance disclosures.


Environmental advocates argue that a failure to agree on strong measures like the Paris accord would doom the world to ever-hotter average temperatures, bringing with them deadlier storms, more frequent droughts and rising sea levels as polar ice caps melt.

Clinton says she wants to address that by making America a “clean energy superpower." Her plan calls for phasing out fossil fuels, embracing clean energy sources like solar and wind, strengthening environmental protections and leading the world in curbing carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change.

“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity,” Clinton said in the first presidential debate in September.

Solar development is aided by a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the cost of a system. That credit was set to expire at the end of this year, but received a five-year extension from Congress in late 2015. Even so, the cost of electricity from large-scale solar installations has dropped to a level that is now comparable to natural gas-fired power, even without incentives.

Clinton has also signaled increased regulation of fracking to prevent water and air pollution, continued support for the Obama administration’s efforts to curb carbon output that would pressure fuels like coal, and a tougher approach to infrastructure permitting.

Her approach appears much more likely than Trump’s to lift consumer prices for gasoline, heating oil, and electricity, given that increased regulation typically increases costs of production, many analysts said.

Still, Clinton will likely face stiff resistance from U.S. Congress - if Republicans retain control of one or both houses. She could follow in Obama's footsteps by relying on executive orders to implement her agenda, but opponents would almost certainly challenge her in the courts.

Jay Faison, a North Carolina entrepreneur who calls himself a conservative advocate for clean energy, agrees with the need for more lower-carbon sources of energy, but says Trump’s plans to cut regulation could provide a more effective way to get there. They could potentially make it easier to build nuclear power plants and hydro-electric dams, which produce no carbon dioxide, for example.

Environmentalists, who have helped mobilize mass protests against energy infrastructure projects during Obama's presidency, hate Trump's proposals. But they are also suspicious of Clinton. She promoted fracking technology to European allies while America’s top diplomat to help them reduce their dependence on Russia, according to leaked diplomatic cables, and was slow to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that would have piped in more oil sands from Alberta to U.S. refineries.

“It’s a shame that were going to have to spend four or eight years pressuring her at every turn but we will,” said Bill McKibben, founder of, which advocates a complete halt to fossil fuels development.

The fight for Mosul is on

October 17th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Iraqi government forces launched a U.S.-backed offensive on Monday to drive Islamic State from the northern city of Mosul, a high-stakes battle to retake the militants' last major stronghold in the country.

Two years after the jihadists seized the city of 1.5 million people and declared a caliphate from there encompassing tracts of Iraq and Syria, a force of some 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni tribal fighters began to advance.

Helicopters released flares and explosions could be heard on the city's eastern front, where Reuters watched Kurdish fighters move forward to take outlying villages.

A U.S.-led air campaign has helped drive Islamic State from much of the territory it held but 4,000 to 8,000 fighters are thought to remain in Mosul.

Residents contacted by phone dismissed reports on Arabic television channels of an exodus by the jihadists, who have a history of using human shields and have threatened to unleash chemical weapons.

"Daesh are using motorcycles for their patrols to evade air detection, with pillion passengers using binoculars to check out buildings and streets," said Abu Maher, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

He and others contacted were preparing makeshift defenses and had been stockpiling food in anticipation of the assault, which officials say could take weeks or even months. The residents withheld their full names for security reasons and Reuters was not able to verify their accounts independently.

The United States predicted Islamic State would suffer "a lasting defeat" as Iraqi forces mounted their biggest operation in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

But the offensive, which has assumed considerable importance for U.S. President Barack Obama as his term draws to a close, is fraught with risks.

These include sectarian conflict between Mosul's mainly Sunni population and advancing Shi'ite forces, and the potential for up to a million people to flee Mosul, multiplying a refugee crisis in the region and across Europe.

"We set up a fortified room in the house by putting sandbags to block the only window and we removed everything dangerous or flammable," Abu Maher said. "I spent almost all my money on buying food, baby milk and anything we might need."

The United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Iraq said the military had told the U.N. it expected the first significant population movement to begin in five to six days, suggesting that is when the assault would move to the city itself.

Lise Grande said Iraqi security forces would transport fleeing civilians, who would be vetted to ensure Islamic State fighters could not hide among them, following residents' reports that militants had shaved off their beards to escape detection.

Video showing rockets and bursts of tracer bullets across the night sky and loud bursts of gunfire was shown on Qatar-based al-Jazeera television after Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced what he called "the heroic operations to free you from the terror and oppression of Daesh".

"We will meet soon on the ground in Mosul to celebrate liberation and your salvation," Abadi said on state television, surrounded by commanders of the armed forces.

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