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Buffalo Shooting Suspect to Appear in Court

The 18-year-old suspect in the Buffalo, New York, grocery store mass shooting is expected to make a second court appearance Thursday.

Payton Gendron is charged with killing 10 people and wounded three others last Saturday at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Eleven of those shot were Black.

The FBI is investigating the attack as a hate crime. U.S. President Joe Biden visited the scene Tuesday.

Investigators are studying a racist 180-page document, purportedly written by Gendron, that said the assault was intended to terrorize all non-white, non-Christian people and get them to leave the United States.

In his first court appearance, Gendron’s court-appointed lawyer entered a plea of “not guilty” on his behalf. The Washington Post reports New York law gives a defendant held after a felony arrest the right to a hearing unless he is indicted quickly, generally within five days.

If prosecutors from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office report Thursday that a grand jury has already indicted Gendron, no hearing will be necessary. If not, the judge may hear evidence to decide whether Gendron can remain in the county lockup, where he has been held without bail since his arraignment hours after the shooting.

Some information in this report was provided by the Associated Press.

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US Spy Agencies Urged to Fix Open Secret: A Lack of Diversity

The peril National Security Agency staff wanted to discuss with their director didn’t involve terrorists or enemy nations. It was something closer to home: the racism and cultural misunderstandings inside America’s largest intelligence service.

The NSA and other intelligence agencies held calls for their staff shortly after the death of George Floyd. As Gen. Paul Nakasone listened, one person described how they would try to speak up in meetings only to have the rest of the group keep talking over them. Another person, a Black man, spoke about how he had been counseled that his voice was too loud and intimidated coworkers. A third described how a coworker addressed them with a racist slur.

The national reckoning over racial inequality sparked by Floyd’s murder two years ago has gone on behind closed doors inside America’s intelligence agencies. Publicly available data, published studies of its diversity programs, and interviews with retired officers indicate spy agencies have not lived up to years of commitments made by their top leaders, who often say diversity is a national security imperative.

People of color remain underrepresented across the intelligence community and are less likely to be promoted. Retired officers who spoke to The Associated Press described examples of explicit and implicit bias. People who had served on promotion boards noted non-native English speakers applying for new jobs would sometimes be criticized for being hard to understand — what one person called the “accent card.” Some say they believe minorities are funneled into working on countries or regions based on their ethnicity.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the first woman to serve in her role, has appointed diversity officials who say they need to collect better data to study longstanding questions, from whether the process for obtaining a security clearance disadvantages people of color to the reasons for disparities in advancement. Agencies are also implementing reforms they say will promote diversity.

“It’s going to be incremental,” said Stephanie La Rue, who was appointed this year to lead the intelligence community’s efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion. “We’re not going to see immediate change overnight. It’s going to take us a while to get to where we need to go.”

The NSA call following Floyd’s death was described by a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private discussion. The person credited Nakasone for listening to employees and making public and private commitments to diversity. But the person and other former officials said they sometimes felt that their identities as people of color were discounted or not fully appreciated by their employers.

The NSA declined to comment on the call. It said in a statement that agency officials “regularly examine the outcomes of our personnel systems to assess their fairness.”

“Beyond the mission imperative, NSA cultivates diversity and promotes inclusion because we care about our people and know it is the right way to proceed,” the statement said.

A former NSA contractor alleged this year that racist and misogynistic comments often circulate on classified chatrooms intended for intelligence work. The contractor, Dan Gilmore, wrote in a blog post that he was fired for reporting his complaints to higher-ups. A spokesperson for Haines, Nicole de Haay, declined to comment on Gilmore’s allegations but said employees who “engage in inappropriate conduct are subject to a variety of accountability mechanisms, including disciplinary action.”

The U.S. intelligence community has evolved over decades from being almost exclusively run by white men — following a stereotype that Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, referred to in a hearing on diversity last year as “pale, male, Yale.” Intelligence agencies that once denied security clearances to people suspected of being gay now have active resource groups for people of different races and sexual orientation.

Testifying at the same hearing as Himes, CIA Director William Burns said, “Simply put, we can’t be effective and we’re not being true to our nation’s ideals if everyone looks like me, talks like me, and thinks like me.”

But annual charts published by the Office of Director of National Intelligence show a consistent trend: At rising levels of rank, minority representation goes down.

Latinos make up about 18% of the American population but just 7% of the roughly 100,000-person intelligence community and 3.5% of senior officers. Black officers comprise 12% of the community — the same as the U.S. population — but 6.5% at the most senior level. And while minorities comprise 27% of the total intelligence workforce, just 15% of senior executives are people of color.

A 2015 report commissioned by the CIA said the “underrepresentation of racial/ethnic minority officers and officers with a disability at the senior ranks is not a recent problem and speaks to unresolved cultural, organizational, and unconscious bias issues.” Among the report’s findings: Progress made between 1984 and 2004 in promoting Black officers to senior roles had been lost in the following decade and recruitment efforts at historically Black colleges and universities “have not been effective.”

“Since its founding, the Agency has been unmistakably weak in promoting diverse role models to the executive level,” the report said.

Lenora Peters Gant, a former senior human capital officer for the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote last year that the intelligence community constantly imposes barriers on minorities, women and people with disabilities. Gant, now an adviser at Howard University, called on agencies to release some of their classified data on hiring and retention.

“The bottom line is the decision making leadership levels are void of credible minority participation,” Gant said.

ODNI is starting an investigation of the slowest 10% of security clearance applications, reviewing delays in the cases for any possible examples of bias. It also intends to review whether polygraph examiners need additional race and ethnicity training.

The intelligence community currently doesn’t report delays in getting a security clearance — required for most agency jobs — based on race, ethnicity or gender. The months or years a clearance can take can push away applicants who can’t wait that long.

The office is implementing annual grant monitoring and assigning additional staff to work with universities in the intelligence community’s Centers for Academic Excellence program, intended to recruit college students from underrepresented groups. A 2019 audit said it was impossible to judge the program due to poor planning and a lack of clear goals.

The program also got a new logo after ODNI officials heard that the previous “IC CAE” insignia appeared to spell out “ICE,” an unintended reference to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Additional quiet changes are taking place across the agencies. Officials say the changes were in process before Floyd’s death, though conversations held with employees brought new urgency to diversity issues.

The NSA stopped requiring applicants for internal promotions to disclose the date they were last promoted to the boards considering their application. Officials familiar with the change say it was intended to benefit applicants who take longer to move up the agency ladder, often including working parents or people from underrepresented communities.

The CIA two years ago formally tied yearly bonuses for its senior executives to their performance on diversity goals, measured next to factors such as leadership and intelligence tradecraft. Last year’s class of new senior executives was the most diverse in the agency’s history.

Said CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp: “We are proud of the Agency’s progress in ensuring our hiring, assignment, and promotion processes do not create barriers to advancement.”

La Rue, the chief diversity officer for the intelligence community, has hired several data analysts and plans for her office to issue annual report cards on diversity for each intelligence agency. She acknowledges advocates have to break through enduring skepticism inside and outside government that diversity goals undermine the intelligence mission or require lower standards.

“The narrative that we have to sacrifice excellence for diversity, or that we are somehow compromising national security to achieve our diversity goals, is ridiculous,” she said.

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North Korea Looms as Biden Makes First Asia Trip

Although U.S. foreign policy during the first part of Joe Biden’s presidency has focused more on issues such as a rising China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden this week will be confronted by another nagging foreign policy issue, a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Biden, who departs Friday for his first trip to Asia as president, may be welcomed by a major North Korean weapons test, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.

U.S. intelligence reflects the “genuine possibility” that North Korea will conduct either a long-range missile launch or a nuclear test, or possibly both, in the days surrounding or during Biden’s Asia trip, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday.

“We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” Sullivan said in a briefing.

Much of Biden’s five-day trip is expected to focus on China, where he will work to reassure allies who have questioned long-term U.S. commitment to the region.

During the trip, Biden is expected to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a long-awaited economic initiative meant to increase U.S. involvement in Asia.

In Tokyo, Biden will hold a meeting of the Quad, a four-country grouping made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – democracies that have a strong interest in containing China’s rise.

In Seoul, Biden will meet South Korea’s newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to take a tougher stance on China and who wants to expand cooperation with Washington on other global issues.

However, South Korean officials have warned for days that a major North Korean test may upend Biden’s agenda. South Korean and U.S. officials have come up with a “Plan B,” which may include altering Biden’s existing schedule in the event of a North Korean provocation, according to Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s first deputy national security adviser.

North Korea has often conducted major launches on or around visits to the region by U.S. presidents. Some analysts say such moves may be meant to attract U.S. diplomatic attention or increase North Korean leverage in potential nuclear negotiations.

North Korea has conducted a dizzying number of missile launches this year. In March, the North launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile in almost five years.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes North Korea has also completed preparations for what would be its seventh nuclear test and is currently determining the best time to conduct such an explosion, according to South Korean lawmakers quoted by the country’s Yonhap news agency.

Biden’s visit comes a week after North Korea first acknowledged it is struggling to contain the coronavirus and began reporting an explosion of “fever” cases, which are presumed to be COVID-19-related.

On Thursday, North Korean state media reported 262,270 new fever cases, and one additional death. Over the past week, North Korean officials say nearly 2 million people have been hit by the fever outbreak, including 63 people who have died.

However, analysts are skeptical about North Korean pandemic data, saying Pyongyang may be hiding the true extent of the outbreak for political reasons or may not have the supplies to sufficiently track the virus’ spread.

Medical experts have long warned a coronavirus outbreak could devastate impoverished North Korea, whose dilapidated health care system focuses mainly on the well-being of the elite in richer parts of the country.

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department expressed support for providing COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic help to North Korea.

Despite its dire pandemic situation, North Korea may not be any more likely than before to accept outside help, analysts warn.

“Just because North Korea has confirmed infections doesn’t mean it will come hat in hand to the international community,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University. Instead, North Korea may continue major weapons tests to “avoid showing weakness,” Easley said.

“Such gratuitous launches also reinforce how difficult it will be to reach the North Korean people,” he added.

North Korea has rejected or ignored multiple offers of COVID-19 assistance, including shipments of vaccines from COVAX, the United Nations-backed vaccine sharing mechanism.

North Korea and Eritrea are the world’s only two countries yet to begin mass coronavirus vaccinations, according to the World Health Organization.

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US Warns North Korea Could Greet Biden With Nuclear, Missile Tests

U.S. intelligence shows there could be a North Korean nuclear test, or a long-range missile test, or both, before, during or after President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan starting this week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday.

The White House said Biden would not visit the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea during his visit to South Korea, which begins Friday, having said last week he was considering such a trip.

“Our intelligence does reflect a genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on or after the president’s trip to the region,” Sullivan told a White House briefing.

“We are preparing for all contingencies,” he said.

Sullivan said that the United States was coordinating closely with South Korea and Japan and that he had also discussed North Korea with a senior Chinese diplomat in a phone call Wednesday.

Biden’s trip, which is to run through Tuesday, will be his first to Asia as president. It will include his first summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office May 10 and has vowed to take a harder line against North Korean “provocations.”

Sullivan said the United States was prepared to make both short- and longer-term adjustments to its military posture as necessary “to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region and that we’re responding to any North Korean provocation.”

Earlier, U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea appeared to be preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile ahead of Biden’s trip to South Korea, even as it battled a big COVID-19 outbreak.

South Korean deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo said such a test appeared imminent and a U.S. official said it could happen as soon as Thursday or Friday.

Kim Tae-hyo said a “Plan B” had been prepared in the event of a small or large North Korean “provocation,” which could involve altering the summit schedule.

A weapons test could overshadow Biden’s broader trip focus on China, trade and other regional issues, and underscore the lack of progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea, despite his administration’s vow to break the stalemate with practical approaches.

North Korea has conducted repeated missile tests since Biden took office last year and this year resumed launches of ICBMs for the first time since 2017. After each launch, Washington has urged North Korea to return to dialog, but to no response.

Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to encourage tougher international sanctions have met Russian and Chinese resistance.

Analysts say that while China’s view on sanctions might alter with another nuclear test, Russian support appeared unlikely after the campaign of U.S.-led sanctions over Moscow’s Ukraine intervention.

Yoon is expected to seek greater assurances from Biden that Washington will strengthen “extended deterrence” against North Korea — a reference to the U.S. nuclear weapons umbrella protecting its allies.

Yoon’s administration has asked Washington to station more nuclear-capable “strategic assets,” such as long-range bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers in the region.

Kim said the chances that North Korea would conduct a nuclear test this weekend appeared low, but if it staged any major provocation, such assets were ready to be mobilized.

A nuclear test could complicate international efforts to offer Pyongyang help to deal with its COVID crisis.

Yoon has offered to help North Korea with this issue, and analysts expect Biden to endorse this effort, even though his administration has said it has no plans to send vaccines directly to North Korea and Pyongyang has persistently refused help though the global vaccine initiative.

The World Health Organization is worried that the rising caseload and a lack of modern care for COVID-19 in North Korea could give rise to deadlier new variants. 

North Korea sent aircraft to China to pick up medical supplies days after it confirmed the outbreak, media reported Tuesday.

A new report by Washington’s Center for International and Strategic Studies said commercial satellite imagery showed work continuing at North Korea’s main nuclear site, where underground testing tunnels were shuttered in 2018 after leader Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.

He has since said he is no longer bound by that moratorium because of a lack of progress in talks with the United States. While North Korea has resumed ICBM testing, it has not tested a nuclear bomb since 2017.

North Korea has also resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor that would increase its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons by a factor of 10, researchers at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported last week, citing satellite imagery.


China talks

Earlier Wednesday, Sullivan discussed the possibility of North Korean nuclear or missile tests with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, during a call focused on regional security issues and nonproliferation.

Sullivan did not provide further details about the call, but the White House said in a statement that he and Yang had discussed Russia’s war against Ukraine and “specific issues in U.S.-China relations.”

Sullivan and Yang last met in Rome in March, ahead of Biden’s call that month with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during which the U.S. president warned Xi of consequences should Beijing offer material support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

China has refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and has criticized sweeping Western sanctions on Russia, but senior U.S. officials say they have not detected overt Chinese military and economic support for Russia.

The United States, India, Australia and Japan agreed in March that what is happening to Ukraine should not be allowed to happen in the Indo-Pacific, an oblique reference to the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

“If the U.S. side persists in playing the ‘Taiwan card’ and goes further down the wrong path, it will surely put the situation in serious jeopardy,” Xinhua cited Yang as telling Sullivan.

Yang added that China would take “firm actions” to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests, Xinhua said.

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Biden Invokes Defense Production Act for Infant Formula Shortage

President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of infant formula and authorized flights to import supply from overseas, as he faces mounting political pressure over a domestic shortage caused by the safety-related closure of the country’s largest formula manufacturing plant.

The Defense Production Act order requires suppliers of formula manufacturers to fulfill orders from those companies before other customers, in an effort to eliminate production bottlenecks. Biden is also authorizing the Defense Department to use commercial aircraft to fly formula supplies that meet federal standards from overseas to the U.S., in what the White House is calling “Operation Fly Formula.”

Supplies of baby formula across the country have been severely curtailed in recent weeks after a February recall by Abbott Nutrition exacerbated ongoing supply chain disruptions among formula makers, leaving fewer options on store shelves and increasingly anxious parents struggling to find nutrition for their children.

“I know parents across the country are worried about finding enough formula to feed their babies,” Biden said in a video statement released by the White House. “As a parent and as a grandparent, I know just how stressful that is.”

The announcement comes two days after the Food and Drug Administration said it was streamlining its review process to make it easier for foreign manufacturers to begin shipping more formula into the U.S.

In a letter Wednesday to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, Biden directed the agencies to work with the Pentagon to identify overseas supplies of formula that meet U.S. standards over the next week, so that chartered Defense Department flights can swiftly fly it to the U.S.

“Imports of baby formula will serve as a bridge to this ramped-up production,” Biden wrote.

Regulators said Monday that they’d reached a deal to allow Abbott Nutrition to restart its Sturgis, Michigan, plant, the nation’s largest formula plant, which has been closed since February because of contamination issues. The company must overhaul its safety protocols and procedures before resuming production.

After getting the FDA’s approval, Abbott said it will take eight to 10 weeks before new products begin arriving in stores. The company didn’t set a timeline to restart manufacturing.

“I’ve directed my team to do everything possible to ensure there’s enough safe baby formula and that it is quickly reaching families that need it the most,” Biden said in the statement, calling it “one of my top priorities.”

The White House actions come as the Democratic-led House is expected to approve two bills addressing the baby formula shortage as lawmakers look to show progress on what has become a frightening development for many families.

One bill expected to have wide bipartisan support would give the secretary of the Department of Agriculture the ability to issue a narrow set of waivers in the event of a supply disruption. The goal is to give participants in an assistance program commonly known as WIC the ability to use vouchers to purchase formula from any producer rather than be limited to one brand that may be unavailable. The WIC program accounts for about half of infant formula sales in the U.S.

The other measure, a $28 million emergency spending bill to boost resources at the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to have less bipartisan support and it’s unclear whether the Senate will take it up.

“This is throwing more FDA staff at a problem that needs more production, not more FDA staff,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Michigan.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the money would increase FDA staffing to boost inspections of domestic and international suppliers, prevent fraudulent products from getting onto store shelves and acquire better data on the marketplace.

Abbott’s voluntary recall was triggered by four illnesses reported in babies who had consumed powdered formula from its plant. All four infants were hospitalized with a rare type of bacterial infection and two died.

After a six-week inspection, FDA investigators published a list of problems in March, including lax safety and sanitary standards and a history of bacterial contamination in several parts of the plant. Under Monday’s agreement, Abbott must regularly consult with an outside safety expert to restart and maintain production.

Chicago-based Abbott has emphasized that its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections in children. Samples of the bacteria found at its plant did not match the strains collected from two babies by federal investigators.

But FDA officials pushed back on that reasoning Monday on a call with reporters — their first time publicly addressing the company’s argument. FDA staffers noted they were unable to collect bacterial strains from two of the four patients, limiting their chances of finding a match.

“Right from the get-go we were limited in our ability to determine with a causal link whether the product was linked to these four cases because we only had sequences on two,” FDA’s food director Susan Mayne said.

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Looming Midterm Elections Put US Voting Rights in Spotlight

Millions of U.S. voters are casting ballots in state primary races to determine which candidates face off in November’s midterm elections. The stakes are high for Democrats and Republicans, as the outcome will determine which political party controls both houses of Congress next year. The contest will be a test of new voting laws in many states that restrict access to the ballot in the name of election security.

With barely six months until the 2022 midterms, fierce debate has emerged over voting rights and voting integrity, topics that have long stirred passions in America. In broad terms, Democrats favor making it easier and more convenient to vote, while Republican lawmakers in some states have passed laws to restrict voting access and heighten scrutiny of those who cast ballots.

“I think our democracy is under threat by these new laws,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, said at a Washington, D.C., event to unveil his new book that chronicles the country’s fight for voting rights.

“Many citizens have only had unfettered access to the ballot since the 1960s. Now, there are efforts to make it harder to vote, not easier,” Holder told VOA earlier this month.

This year, at least 27 Republican-led states have introduced or enacted a total of 250 pieces of voting legislation, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The initiatives range from limiting early or absentee balloting to implementing stricter voter identification requirements. The flurry of activity comes after 19 state legislatures in 2021 approved 34 restrictive voting laws.

Republicans maintain the measures are designed to prevent voter fraud and ensure election integrity. Democrats and voting rights advocates counter that the new laws will disproportionately impact the ability of African Americans and other minority groups to vote.

The laws add to Democrats’ apprehensions ahead of the midterms. Not only are key minority constituencies that tend to vote Democratic registering frustration and low levels of voter enthusiasm in current polls, those who do intend to vote in November may find it more difficult to do so in many states.

“I think many African Americans are concerned about more voting restrictions,” said Jatia Wrighten, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. “Establishing methods to increase voting participation is one of the major ways in which we see change come about in Black communities.”

Florida example

A U.S. federal appeals court recently cleared the way for a restrictive voting law in Florida to go into effect. The court said earlier this month that a lower court order blocking parts of the law had been issued too close to the state’s primary elections in August.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, who blocked the voting law last March, said Florida state legislators had deliberately written provisions to suppress turnout by Black voters. The new measures included tighter rules on mailed ballots, paring back the number of ballot dropoff boxes, limiting voter registration drives and barring people from giving food or other assistance to those waiting in line to vote.

But while Walker found that the right to vote is “under siege” in Florida, the appeals court argued for a “presumption of legislative good faith” among Florida’s elected state representatives who crafted the bill.

Reaction outside the courts has been swift.

“Let’s be clear, this law in Florida undoes the progress that voting rights groups have made and targets the very tools minority communities like ours use to increase voter turnout,” Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Florida-based voting rights group Equal Ground, said in a statement.

Not so, according to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate.

“I don’t think there is any other place in the country where you should have more confidence that your vote counts than in the state of Florida,” he said during a recent news conference.

DeSantis has made voting legislation a key priority. He recently pushed the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to adopt a new law creating an Office of Election Crimes and Security. Its staff of 15 people would conduct preliminary investigations of suspected election fraud and investigate voting-related complaints.

“We just want to make sure whatever laws are on the books that those laws are enforced,” DeSantis said.

The new measure is the second major overhaul of Florida’s election laws since the November 2020 election in which Democrat Joe Biden defeated then-President Donald Trump, and Democrats narrowly won control of both houses of Congress.

Florida and other Republican-led states have acted amid persistent false claims by Trump and his supporters that his election defeat was the result of widespread election fraud. Those claims were rejected by multiple courts and state election authorities. Extensive research has found that voter fraud in the U.S. is exceedingly rare and generally detected. An Associated Press investigation found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies disputed his loss to Biden.

Voting protections

Voting rights advocates have called on the Justice Department to ensure free and fair elections nationwide. However, the department has limited powers following a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder) that dismantled part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The provisions the high court nixed required states with a history of voting discrimination to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before changes are made to state election laws.

The case centered around an Alabama county that sued Holder to stop the Justice Department from enforcing key sections of the Voting Rights Act.

“Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, you saw states around the country putting in place voter suppression measures that would have been prohibited had part of the (Voting Rights) Act stayed intact,” said Holder. “The decision had a negative impact on our democracy.”

Efforts to win congressional approval for nationwide voting rights protections stalled in Congress last year. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but was ultimately shelved in the politically divided Senate

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgia Democratic representative and civil rights leader, would restore Justice Department review of changes in election laws in states with a history of discrimination. Another measure called The Freedom to Vote Act set nationwide standards for how elections are conducted and expands voting access.

Historically, it has been left up to individual states to determine how to conduct elections. Republican lawmakers oppose attempts to federalize voting in America with uniform rules set in Washington.

Earlier this year, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who played a critical role in blocking the voting legislation, took issue with any suggestion that state legislatures were seeking to disenfranchise Black voters.

“The concern is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, Black people vote at similar rates to all American voters,” McConnell said.

Despite an increasingly challenging legal landscape, voting rights groups say they will work even harder to get Americans to turn out to vote — and to overcome any obstacles they may face to cast a ballot.

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New US ‘Disinformation’ Board Paused Amid Free Speech Questions

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday paused a new and controversial board’s work on disinformation and accepted the resignation of its leader, capping weeks of concerns about impinging on free speech rights and at times frenzied conspiracy theories about the board itself.

What remains to be seen is whether the debate over the board will damage ongoing U.S. efforts to counter disinformation used as a weapon by Russia and other adversaries. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the board had become a distraction to the department’s other work, which includes safeguarding U.S. elections, two officials familiar with his decision said.

The Disinformation Governance Board’s director, Nina Jankowicz, wrote Wednesday that the board’s future was uncertain, according to a resignation letter obtained by The Associated Press.

While the board has not formally been shuttered, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that’s expected to make recommendations in 75 days. The Washington Post first reported the board’s pause.

Federal and state agencies treat disinformation as a national security threat. In a statement announcing its launch, DHS said the new initiative would coordinate efforts around threats of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at the U.S. and false claims that encourage migrants to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose, funding and work with an uneven rollout that further confused its mission. Mayorkas struggled to answer questions about the board’s work in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Mayorkas made the decision to pause the board in response to the cumulative negative reaction and growing concerns that it was distracting from the department’s other work on disinformation, according to two department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

“The Board has been grossly and intentionally mischaracterized: It was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner,” the department said in a statement. “It was designed to ensure we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constitutional rights.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted the board had never met and neither the department nor Jankowicz had any power to censor or remove content labeled as disinformation.

DHS officials had tried to quell concerns about how the board would impact issues of free speech and online privacy by describing it as an internal working group intended to study definitions of disinformation across the department.

But opponents remained unconvinced about the board’s work and purpose.

The top Republicans on the House intelligence and homeland security committees issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the board “a political tool to be wielded by the party in control.”

“This board was only successful in reinforcing that the Department of Homeland Security’s priorities are severely misplaced,” wrote Representatives Mike Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, who previously said DHS had not disclosed information to them about the program.

Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Mayorkas the board was a “terrible idea” that “communicates to the world that we’re going to be spreading propaganda in our own country.”

Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action over the board “unless you turn back now and disband this Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board immediately,” Miyares said in a statement.

Reception online and across conservative television shows to the board was even worse.

The phrase “Ministry of Truth” — a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” — trended on Twitter in discussions about the board. Conservative pundits and social media users pushed conspiracy theories and falsehoods around its purpose, with some falsely claiming the board was quickly developed by DHS in response to billionaire Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter. Others put out false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit the tweets of everyday Twitter users.

“It’s been really mischaracterized from the beginning,” said Cindy Otis, a disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst.

Experts on disinformation warned the controversy around the board could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about elections and hot-button issues in American society.

Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronavirus pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.

But, Otis warned, “It would be really unfortunate if they just decided that disinformation is too publicly sensitive of an issue.”

Jankowicz became the center of sexist and antisemitic attacks, and even death threats online. A Fox News personality recently questioned whether Jankowicz should have agreed to lead the board while pregnant.

Critics have pointed to statements made by Jankowicz that questioned the provenance of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

Supporters of Jankowicz have accused the department of not doing enough to protect her from trolls and online attacks.

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Will Biden Visit Ukraine?

A slew of top U.S. officials have made the dangerous voyage into Ukraine since the war began in February, raising the question: When will President Joe Biden make the trip? VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.
Produced by: Brian Allen

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