TPM News

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war, U.S. officials said.

That marks a tactical shift by the Trump administration, which has previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involve the Afghan government. The U.S. officials said Monday that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiation remains the goal of any engagement with the militants.

The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.

The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with Washington. The militants have persisted in that stance despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral extension of a holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to the bargaining table. With the Taliban continuing to mount deadly attacks, Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.

The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security force members.

A Taliban official in the small Gulf Arab nation of Qatar told The Associated Press on Monday that no American official or intermediary has been in touch with them to start direct talks, and it had only heard of it in the media. The administration’s willingness to hold direct talks with the Taliban was first reported by The New York Times on Sunday.

The Taliban official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was authorized to speak to journalists, said, “We wait for them to officially inform us.” But he added that if the U.S. is interested in talks, it should take steps to get Taliban leaders off a sanctions blacklist and support the formal opening of the Taliban office in Qatar where its political representatives reside. The official reiterated the Taliban’s call for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Asked if the U.S. was willing to hold direct talks with the Taliban, the State Department said Monday, the United States “is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.”

The department added that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government.”

Last August, President Donald Trump launched an Afghanistan strategy that centered on boosting the capabilities of Afghan security forces and aiming — with help from Pakistan and other interested nations — to compel the militants to negotiate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan last week to reinforce its support for talks.

“The United States will support, facilitate, and participate in these peace discussions, but peace must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them. We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said after meeting Ghani in Kabul on July 9.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.

The conflict appears stalemated, with insurgents controlling or contesting more than 40 percent of the country. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said Sunday that 1,692 civilians were killed in violence in the first six months of this year, the highest six-month death toll since the systematic documentation of civilian casualties started in 2009.

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NEW YORK (AP) — Showtime and Sacha Baron Cohen are pushing back against allegations the comedian duped guests on his new show by posing as a disabled veteran.

The network says in a statement Monday that Baron Cohen “did not present himself as a disabled veteran” or wear any military apparel when he met with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Palin last week on Facebook complained that Baron Cohen “heavily disguised himself” as a disabled U.S. veteran in a wheelchair when she was “duped” into an interview. She challenged Baron Cohen and Showtime to donate proceeds from the show to a veterans’ charity.

In the new show “Who Is America?,” Baron Cohen dons various prosthetics and accents in an attempt to embarrass those on the right and left.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Exactly seven months before the 2016 presidential election, Russian government hackers made it onto a Democratic committee’s network.

One of their carefully crafted fraudulent emails had hit pay dirt, enticing an employee to click a link and enter her password.

That breach of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was the first significant step in gaining access to the Democratic National Committee network.

To steal politically sensitive information, prosecutors say, the hackers exploited some of the United States’ own computer infrastructure against it, using servers they leased in Arizona and Illinois. The details were included in an indictment released Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller, who accused the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, of taking part in a wide-ranging conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The companies operating the servers were not identified in the court papers.

The Russians are accused of exploiting their access to inexpensive, powerful servers worldwide — conveniently available for rental — that can be used to commit crimes with impunity. Reaching across oceans and into networks without borders can obfuscate their origins.

The indictment painstakingly reconstructs the hackers’ movements using web servers and a complex bitcoin financing operation.

Two Russian hacking units were charged with tasks, including the creation and management of a hacking tool called “X-agent” that was implanted onto computers.

The software allowed them to monitor activity on computers by individuals, steal passwords and maintain access to hacked networks. It captured each keystroke on infected computers and took screenshots of activity displayed on computer screens, including an employee viewing the DCCC’s online banking information.

From April to June 2016, the hackers installed updated versions of their software on at least 10 Democratic computers. The software transmitted information from the infected computers to a GRU-leased server in Arizona, the indictment said. The hackers also created an overseas computer to act as a “middle server” to obscure the connection between the DCCC and the hackers’ Arizona-based server.

Once hackers gained access to the DCCC network, it searched one computer for terms that included “hillary,” ”cruz,” and “trump” and copied select folders, including “Benghazi Investigations.”

In emails, the hackers embedded a link that purported to be a spreadsheet of Clinton’s favorability ratings, but instead it directed the computers to send its data to a GRU-created website.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the hackers broke into 33 DNC computers and installed their software on their network. Captured keystrokes and screenshots from the DCCC and DNC computers, including an employee viewing the DCCC’s banking information, were sent back to the Arizona server.

The Russian hackers used other software they developed called X-Tunnel to move stolen documents through encrypted channels to another computer the GRU leased in Illinois.

Despite the use of U.S.-based servers, such vendors typically aren’t legally liable for criminal activities unless it can be proved in federal court that the operator was party to the criminal activity.

A 1996 federal statute protects internet vendors from being held liable for how customers use their service, and except for a few exceptions, provides immunity to the providers. The law is considered a key part of the legal infrastructure of the internet, preventing providers from being saddled with the behemoth task of monitoring activity on their servers.

“The fact that someone provided equipment and or connectivity that was used to engage in data theft is not going to be attributed to the vendor in that circumstance,” Eric Goldman, a professor of law and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, said. A notable exception, however, is if federal prosecutors are bringing a criminal charge for violations of a federal criminal law.

In that case, “we’re going to require a high level of knowledge of their activity or intent,” Goldman said.

When the DNC and DCCC became aware they had been hacked, they hired a cybersecurity firm, Crowdstrike, to determine the extent of the intrusions.

Crowdstrike, referred to as “Company 1” in the indictment, took steps to kick the hackers off the networks around June 2016. But for months the Russians eluded their investigators and a version of the malware remained on the network through October — programed to communicate back to a GRU-registered internet address.

“We do not have any information to suggest that it successfully communicated,” said Adrienne Watson, the DNC’s deputy communications director.

As the company worked to kick them off, GRU officials allegedly searched online for information on Company 1 and what it had reported about its use of X-Agent malware and tried to delete their traces on the DCCC network by using commercial software known as CCleaner. Though Crowdstrike disabled X-agent on the DCCC network, the hackers spent seven hours unsuccessfully trying to connect to their malware and tried using previously stolen credentials to access the network on June 20, 2016.

The indictment also shows the reliance of Russian government hackers on American technology companies such as Twitter, to spread its stolen documents.

The hackers also accessed DNC data in September 2016 by breaking into DNC computers hosted on the Amazon Web Services’ cloud. The hackers used Amazon Web Services’ backup feature to create “snapshots” that they moved onto their own Amazon cloud accounts. Amazon also provides cloud computing services for various government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to defend the theft of Democratic emails somewhat in an interview Monday — while continuing to deny that Russia interfered in the 2016 American election — by saying the emails were real and not fabricated.

“Russia, as a state, has never interfered with the internal affairs of the United States, let alone its elections,” Putin told Fox News’ Chris Wallace through a translator, repeating a consistent claim. He added: “Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States, and influenced the choice of millions of Americans? This is utterly ridiculous.”

Wallace stopped him. “I’m not asking whether they influenced, I’m asking whether they tried.”

The idea was about hacking an email account of a Democratic candidate,” Putin responded. “Was it some rigging of facts? Was it some forgery of facts? That’s the important point that I am trying to make. Was this any false information planted? No, it wasn’t.”

The Russian leader noted that some of the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and later published online revealed Democratic Party officials who were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton, despite the party not making an endorsement in the primary.

Wallace interjected: “You’re indicating that they stole real money, not counterfeit money. So are you saying it’s okay because the facts that they took from the DNC, from John Podesta, it was their real emails so it’s okay to hack, and spread this information out and interfere with the election?”

“The information that I am aware of, there’s nothing false about it,” Putin said, not answering Wallace’s question. He moved on, urging special counsel Robert Mueller to formally request Russia’s investigative help in the probe into Russian election meddling.

Watch below:

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HONOLULU (AP) — An explosion sent lava crashing through the roof of a tour boat off Hawaii’s Big Island, injuring 23 people Monday, officials said.

A woman in her 20s was in serious condition with a broken thigh bone, the Hawaii County Fire Department said. Three others were in stable condition at a hospital with unspecified injuries. The rest of the passengers suffered burns, scrapes and other superficial injuries.

They were aboard a tour boat that takes visitors to see lava plunging into the ocean from a volcano that has been erupting for two months. Firefighters said the lava punctured the boat’s roof, leaving a gaping hole.

Officials have warned of the danger of getting close to lava entering the ocean, saying the interaction can create clouds of acid and fine glass. Beside the hazards, several companies operate such tours.

The U.S. Coast Guard in May instituted a safety zone where lava flows into the ocean off the Big Island. It prohibits vessels from getting closer than 984 feet (300 meters) from ocean-entry points.

The agency allows experienced boat operators to apply for a special license to get up to 164 feet (50 meters) from where lava sizzles into the sea.

The molten rock is coming from the Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting from a rural residential area since early May and has destroyed more than 700 homes. But until now, the only serious injury was to a man who was hit by flying lava that broke his leg.

Officials were interviewing injured passengers at a hospital.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Business leaders lined up Monday to urge a North Carolina city council to vote to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, while opponents of the idea cited everything from Trump administration policies to the possibility of violence if the convention is invited.

The Charlotte City Council heard from more than 100 speakers in slightly more than two hours in council chambers. The council was slated to hear from 132 speakers, but some didn’t appear when called.

Some opponents of the bid carried green-and-white signs into council chambers which read “No RNC In CLT. #defendcharlotte”.

Published reports suggest Charlotte is favored to land the convention.

Many pro-convention speakers represented the hotel industry, among them Dan Hooks, who said the council should look past political rhetoric and see what’s good for the city.

Hooks said to reject the RNC would be to reverse the good done by hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Other businesspeople said hosting the convention would mean jobs and paychecks for residents who would work extra hours during the week of the convention. Some mentioned that the city would be showcased to the nation by hosting the convention.

Brenda Jackson-Little said the RNC would be “a tremendous economic boon for the region.”

Former city councilman Kenny Smith urged support for the bid.

“A “no” vote only hurts the city you have sworn to represent,” Smith said. “Cast aside politics.”

Some supporters held white sheets of paper with the words “2020 RNC Supporter” printer on them.

One man stood outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center holding a big white flag with the red, white and blue GOP logo on it.

Opponents of the bid were more passionate in their remarks to the council.

Local resident Ray McKinnon contrasted Trump to former President Barack Obama in voicing opposition.

“President Obama did not speak about people the way this president does,” McKinnon said. “Please vote no.”

A woman who followed McKinnon to the podium urged the council to reject the convention because Trump criticized NBA star and Charlotte native Steph Curry.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles has championed the bid, saying in a recent newspaper column that it’s a chance for the city to show its inclusiveness at a time when the nation is at “a tipping point of incivility.”

Lyles is the city’s first black female mayor.

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Russian gun activist Mariia Butina was arrested on Sunday and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government” over her alleged effort to promote Russia’s interests by establishing relationships with political figures in the U.S.

Though the affidavit made public on Monday does not name the National Rifle Association (NRA), it appears that references to “Gun Rights Organization” in the document refer to the NRA.

Indeed, photos found on Butina’s Facebook page and elsewhere show that she mixed and mingled with NRA leaders and American politicians. Check out the photo opportunities Butina managed below:

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday moved to pause Sinclair Broadcast Group’s massive $3.9 billion Tribune Media Co. acquisition, putting a deal to expand the conservative local broadcasting behemoth in danger.

At issue, Pai said on Twitter, is whether Sinclair’s proposed divestitures of some stations are in reality a ploy for the company to maintain control of the stations. Pai said the divestitures could allow Sinclair “to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law.”

The proposed deal would transfer Tribune’s 42 stations to Sinclair’s ownership, adding to the company’s existing 173 stations. Tribune’s stations cover huge markets including New York and Chicago.

Sinclair has said it will sell off some stations to avoid becoming too big and breaching an FCC cap. But many of the potential future owners of those stations are closely tied to Sinclair leadership. (Pai has supported eliminating the ownership cap as chairman, leading to an inspector general’s probe into whether he improperly coordinated his support with Sinclair.)

Pai’s move to send the issue to an administrative judge for review, the Wall Street Journal reported, could spell trouble for the entire deal. The decision meant “likely doom” for the acquisition, Politico said.

In March, Sinclair made headlines — literally — when it required that newscasters at its stations read a so-called “must run” script warning of the dangers of “biased and false news” and “fake stories.”

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think,’” the must-run script, written by Sinclair higher-ups, read. “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

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A recently passed GOP measure in North Carolina, a hotbed of voter suppression efforts, claims to be aimed at expanding voting rights but appears that it would actually have the opposite effect. The bill, passed over the Democratic Governor’s veto, requires early voting polling places to remain open for 12 hours a day each weekday. The problem is that it was passed quickly, late in the legislative session, surprising many localities that had already set their annual budgets. The fear among voting rights advocates, as Slate reported, is that the requirement will actually suck up local resources, and counties will have to cut back on the number of sites where they offer early voting.

Former President Barack Obama took a rare step into the public spotlight last week by filming a video touting the work of a group led by his former Attorney General Eric Holder, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which focuses on electing lawmakers and bringing lawsuits that seek to curtail extreme gerrymandering.

Related to the fight over redistricting is the focus on the 2020 Census. In addition to the half-dozen or so lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the census, which critics say will diminish immigrant representation in redistricting and apportionment, Alabama Republicans have brought a lawsuit seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census count used to apportion U.S. congressional districts. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a motion Thursday to intervene in that case to defend the current system of counting undocumented immigrants in congressional apportionment.

Voting rights advocates were dealt both a victory and a defeat in state legislatures over the past week. On the pro-voting rights side, the Massachusetts legislature passed an automatic voter registration bill on Thursday; it now awaits Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature.

In New Hampshire, however, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed a GOP bill on Friday that will greatly increase the obstacles for college students in the state to register to vote. The move came after a 3-2 state Supreme Court advisory opinion greenlighting the bill.

Voting rights activists in Michigan got closer to implementing measures to expand access to the franchise there. A group called Promote the Vote last week collected 430,000 signatures for a ballot initiative slated for November’s election which would bring to the state automatic voter registration, same-day registration, access to absentee ballots on request, and better access for military service members and overseas voters.

The Campaign Legal Center and Southern Poverty Law Center rolled out a new campaign in Alabama, called Alabama Voting Rights Project, to tout a new state law that restores eligibility to vote to people who committed certain felonies.

The federal grand jury indictment of 12 Russian hackers unveiled by special counsel Robert Mueller Friday provided new details about Russia’s attempts to infiltrate state and local elections systems. I broke down what was new in the indictment, and how it compares to what we previously knew, here.

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