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Scott Pruitt kicked back with conservative media after day of rough headlines

April 4, 2018 - 11:08am

Embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt knows where to turn when he wants some friendly press.

Pruitt, who’s been under fire for the last several days over a number of scandals, took some time to defend himself in media interviews after a day of rough headlines on Tuesday. And the news outlets he spoke to have something in common: They all lean right.

Pruitt gave interviews to both the Daily Signal, the publication of conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, and the right-leaning Washington Examiner. In those, the EPA chief had the opportunity to explain away the controversies, which include staying in a condo tied to an oil and gas lobbyist for $50 a night.

“I’m dumbfounded that that’s controversial,” Pruitt told the Washington Examiner. The lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, president of lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, had a pipeline project pass EPA muster while Pruitt was at the agency, according to the New York Times.

“This was an Airbnb-type situation where I rented literally one room that was used in a temporary status, until I found more permanent residence,” he told the Daily Signal.

Pruitt also stressed that ethics officials at the EPA found that he had paid “market value” for the condo. Former ethics chief Walter Shaub, however, called that decision “total baloney.”

READ: Here are all the new Scott Pruitt controversies from just the last day

In the interviews, Pruitt also stressed that the ethics scandals plaguing his tenure at EPA — which include using a loophole to increase staff salaries, costly travel, and several other controversial moves — are a deliberate misrepresentation of his actions, aimed at hamstringing the president’s agenda.

“This president’s courage and commitment to make those things happen and him empowering his teammates in each of these respective agencies to say go forth and get results and get accountability, it’s happening. It’s happening here, it’s happening elsewhere. And do I think that is something that some folks don’t like? Absolutely.” Pruitt told the Washington Examiner.

Still, Pruitt doesn’t plan to back down. He’ll “lean in” — like “when a pitcher throws to you inside and tries to knock you off the plate,” he told the Washington Examiner. (The baseball analogy, which was included in the Examiner’s story on Tuesday night, wasn’t there on Wednesday morning.)

Pruitt was happy to go on the record with both conservative outlets, but earlier on Tuesday, he tried to keep most media outlets from attending a press conference, where he announced his rollback of vehicle emissions standards. The only news outlet explicitly invited to attend was Fox News, according to CNN. Few cameras were in the room, and the EPA’s feed of the event broadcast no questions from reporters.

The presser was announced in a tweet, sent out minutes before the conference was set to start, and journalists from other outlets raced to get there on time.

Pruitt may have gotten the idea to turn to conservative outlets because of their previous coverage. Last week, the EPA’s press office peddled a narrative to conservative outlets that Pruitt had spent less than his Obama-ear counterparts. While conservative media quickly aggregated the story, the math involved was patently misleading and compared a time period of eight years to Pruitt’s one while ignoring the high cost of Pruitt’s domestic travel.

And as the scandals have piled up, Fox focused on Pruitt’s rollback of emissions standards. The network largely ignored all of the other news breaking around the embattled EPA administrator.

At least one person in Pruitt’s orbit gave an interview to a left-leaning outlet, however: David Rivkin, who worked with Pruitt as Oklahoma’s attorney general and helped the state challenge the Clean Power Plan, spoke to NPR on Tuesday.

“I think these attacks are driven entirely by the fact that he’s one of the effective members of the cabinet,” Rivkin said. “This is the man I had the privilege of working with for a number of years. This is a man who’s absolutely unassuming, austere in his personal habits.”

Cover image: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a news conference at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, on April 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik,File)

How Trump’s attempt to kill DACA could help ICE deport thousands of Dreamers

April 4, 2018 - 10:27am

One of the first questions that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents asked Daniel Ramirez Medina before arresting him last February was: “Are you legally here?”

Ramirez Medina, an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, replied that he had a work permit.

ICE arrested him anyway, making him the first first DACA recipient to be detained under Trump, and setting in motion a series of legal battles that will affect the collective fate of some 800,000 undocumented Americans.

More than a year after his arrest, Medina, now 24, remains in what his lawyer calls “kind of weird limbo,” much like the DACA program itself. And though President Trump’s efforts to kill DACA have so far been blocked in federal courts, he made it clear with a recent flurry of tweets that he no longer has any intention of striking a deal to save the program.

With the future of DACA in jeopardy, immigration advocates and lawyers are again worried that instead of giving its recipients a modicum of protection from deportation and the ability to work legally in the United States, DACA may soon be weaponized against them, with ICE using the sensitive information they provided to track down, detain and deport anyone who ever applied to the program and their family members.

“The very real concern that exists is that information might have been furnished for one purpose can now get into the hands of another agency and be used for a different purpose, such as immigration enforcement,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.


U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency within the Department of Homeland Security that administers DACA — maintains that only limited information from the program is shared with ICE and other DHS enforcement agencies. And in the cases of Ramirez Medina and several other DACA recipients who have been detained since Trump took office, it appears that ICE agents merely encountered them in the field while pursuing other targets for deportation.

But the full extent to which ICE enjoys access to information about DACA recipients — who are required in their initial application to provide biometric data, employment records, and information about family members — through shared Homeland Security databases remains unclear. And there are looming questions about whether ICE intends to seek even more from USCIS in the future.

Read: The Supreme Court created a legal mess for detained immigrants

In January, VICE News filed a request with the Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act for a list of all instances in which ICE contacted USCIS to seek information about DACA applicants. We also requested all correspondence between ICE and USCIS regarding DACA and enforcement operations. ICE responded on March 30 with a letter (see PDF below) that said “no records responsive to your request were found.”

But ACLU attorneys said it’s entirely possible that no formal inquiries have been made from ICE to USCIS regarding DACA because immigration enforcement agents already have all the information they need at their fingertips.

Guliani, who previously worked in the chief of staff's office at the Department Homeland Security, pointed to two “Privacy Impact Assessments” that indicate information about DACA recipients is available through at least one database that ICE agents can access. The assessments, which agencies must file to disclose how personal information is stored and shared internally, say DACA information is entered into a database called CLAIMS 3, which ICE and Customs and Border Protection can access for “border enforcement purposes,” and “immigration investigations.”

But the assessments don’t spell out exactly what those circumstances entail and the full extent of the DACA information that is available to ICE. Guliani also noted that there may be other internal Homeland Security databases that include DACA information. States and cities also maintain records — such as driver’s license registries — that ICE can sometimes access.

“It’s still not entirely clear to the public not only which databases exist but at a practical level how they’re being used and who is accessing them,” Guliani said. “It’s difficult to sort of piece together the entire universe of what’s happening.”

ICE and USCIS did not directly address questions about the databases when contacted by VICE News.

USCIS spokesperson Steve Blando said in a statement that “information provided in a DACA request is protected from disclosure to ICE and CBP for the purpose of immigration enforcement,” unless the person has been put into deportation proceedings, which can happen for a variety of reasons. The agency said DACA information can also be handed over to ICE “for purposes other than removal, including for assistance in the consideration of DACA, to identify or prevent fraudulent claims, for national security purposes, or for the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense.”


USCIS also said info about “family members and guardians” can be shared with ICE under those circumstances, which is especially troubling for young people with DACA since their parents and older relatives do not qualify for the same protections from deportation.

“I think relatives and parents, their info, that’s definitely something I’d be concerned about from the application information,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, a managing attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez said in a statement that people with DACA “are not categorically targeted for immigration enforcement,” but if agents encounter someone whose status has expired they will “evaluate the totality” of the circumstances and decide how to proceed.

Read: ICE keeps rounding up "non-criminal" immigrants while Congress tries to fix DACA

“ICE continues to focus its enforcement resources on those who pose a threat to national security or public safety, illegal reentrants, and aliens with final orders of removal,” the ICE statement said, noting that agents typically arrest people with DACA “only if the period of deferred action has expired or if DACA has been or will be revoked due to criminal conviction, gang affiliation, or some other violation of the program requirements.”

The issue of DACA information sharing also factored into a recent federal court ruling in Maryland, one of several jurisdictions where immigrant rights advocates have challenged the legality of Trump’s decision to end DACA last September.

In that case, Trump administration lawyers acknowledged that the official USCIS policy about not sharing DACA information for enforcement purposes was subject to change at any time. In response, the judge ruled that the government cannot use the information except on a “case-by-case basis” for national security or public safety reasons, and in that situation the court would have to review and approve the decision.

The fate of DACA will likely be eventually decided by the Supreme Court, and in the meantime the Trump administration has been forced to continue processing renewal applications for people who have already been approved in the past. More than 55,000 applications were approved in the first three months of 2018.

If Homeland Security ultimately decides to go back on its word and officially sanctions the use of DACA information for deportation purposes, Ignacia Rodriguez, an immigration policy advocate with the National Immigration Law Center, warned that it could affect future immigration reform efforts.

“It would be really hard to regain that trust because people relied on the promise that their information wouldn't be shared and if it would be shared it would be for very limited purposes,” said “Any shift from that, especially in the context we’re in where there’s already a lot of fear and uncertainty, would create a lot of damage.”


Even without full-fledged ICE access to DACA data, the latest statistics from USCIS show that an increasing number of young people are being stripped of their DACA protections under the Trump administration, a trend that VICE News first reported last May. At the end of the 2017 fiscal year, 850 people had their DACA status revoked due to allegations “related to criminal and gang activity,” a 7 percent increase from the previous year under the Obama administration.

Luis Cortes, a Seattle immigration attorney who represents Ramirez Medina, said that even a mere accusation of criminal behavior is enough justification for ICE to strip away a young person’s DACA status.

“Anybody who is accused of breaking the law, even if they haven't been convicted, they’ll go after them,” Cortes said. “They're already targeting DACA beneficiaries and finding pretexts.”

Read: How Trump made "chain migration" an anti-immigrant buzzword

In Ramirez Medina’s case, ICE agents came looking for his father, who was arrested and eventually prosecuted for illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation. When the agents found Ramirez in his father’s house, they asked him about his legal status. He was taken into custody and spent more than six weeks in an immigration detention center, with ICE accusing him of being a gang member — a charge he has steadfastly denied.

In February, an immigration court judge issued an order of deportation against Ramirez Medina. That ruling is currently under appeal. Separately, he was able to get his DACA status reinstated thanks to a class-action lawsuit in California. In that case, which was brought by the ACLU, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration had unlawfully revoked DACA protections for three undocumented immigrants from the state’s Inland Empire area. The judge granted a temporary injunction saying the plaintiffs and others like them across the country, including Ramirez Medina, could qualify once again for DACA and that the government would have to provide advance notice and an explanation in order to revoke the protections again in the future.

Cortes said Ramirez Media continues to hold out hope for a victory in his fight for legal status, especially because he has a young child who is a U.S. citizen. But the arrest and subsequent battle has taken its toll; his father was deported back to Mexico last year, and he lives each day hoping he's not next.

“When his dad was being deported, it caused a weird introspective situation where Daniel was losing his dad, but as a dad he’s thinking ‘I’m going to be losing my son,’” Cortes said. “He was a having a big, tough time with the whole situation and a big life crisis.”

Cover image: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. on February 9, 2017. Picture taken on February 9, 2017. Courtesy Bryan Cox/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via REUTERS

Mark Zuckerberg will finally testify before Congress

April 4, 2018 - 9:15am

It’s finally happening.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is coming to Capitol Hill on April 11 for his first-ever congressional testimony, a House committee announced Wednesday morning.

“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” said Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey in a joint statement as heads of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee said more details on the hearing would be forthcoming.

Next Wednesday, however, might not be Zuckerberg’s only congressional hearing. A Facebook spokesperson told VICE News that conversations with other committees are ongoing. Always in slight competition with the House, the Senate will likely demand their own hearing as well. Several senators, including the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley, have called for the Facebook CEO to testify.

Zuckerberg’s testimony comes in response to the revelation that a third-party app developer had improperly sold the personal data of up to 50 million Facebook users to political consulting group Cambridge Analytica, which did election work all over the globe, including for Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. A lot is at stake in the hearings for Facebook. If they go poorly and members of Congress sense a change in public opinion, the so-far scattered calls for more privacy regulations could grow into a chorus.

Once Facebook discovered the data had been improperly transferred following a 2015 report from the Guardian, the social media giant forced Cambridge Analytica to certify that it would delete the data. But The New York Times and The Observer of London reported last month that the company still had copies of the raw data. Facebook preemptively banned Cambridge Analytica from its platform the day before the story came online.

The normally media-shy 33-year-old Zuckerberg has been doing a flurry of interviews on cable television, newspapers, and even a podcast to try to explain what happened and what the company is doing to fix it. The company has avoided putting Zuckerberg before Congress in past controversies. Most recently, Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch testified to multiple committees investigating how Kremlin-linked Russians purchased political ads during the 2016 election.

Zuckerberg has said the incident was a “major breach of trust” with the company’s users. He also announced (through a Facebook post, naturally) that the company would begin performing audits of third-party app developers and take steps to make it easier for users to know which apps Facebook has granted access to.

But those steps may be too little too late. The company has weathered previous complaints and scandals about its lax privacy safeguards, but this comes as Facebook is fighting multiple battles, including the spread of fake news and Russian meddling on its platform during the 2016 election.

Cover image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the commencement address at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower says #deleteFacebook is not the answer

April 4, 2018 - 8:53am

It’s been two weeks since Chris Wylie went from faceless data expert to world-famous whistleblower by revealing that Cambridge Analytica gamed Facebook on behalf of right-wing causes like the Brexit “leave” campaign, before the firm was hired for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Because of Wylie, we now know how Cambridge Analytica got its hands on 50 million Facebook users’ personal data and spread targeted political content, and how Facebook's old privacy rules made it perfectly OK.

Those revelations have set off a firestorm for the social media giant, and triggered a Federal Trade Commission investigation in the U.S., hearings before Congress and Parliament, and a police investigation in the U.K.

For Wylie, the fallout has been life-changing. In addition to the year he spent preparing to tell his story to The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others, his day-to-day now means dealing with the tsunami of interest from the media, responding to requests from governments and investigators, and dealing with people who recognize him on the street (the pink hair doesn’t help).

“It’s been chaotic. I cannot keep up with the demands for my time,” said Wylie, 28. “The first couple days you could keep up with it, but after a while it weighs you down.”

On this day, VICE News is Wylie’s fourth interview, and he’s not even close to done. Earlier in the day he’d given a witness statement to U.K. police, and attended a “Fair Vote” rally on Brexit, at which he was harassed. “I got attacked several times after,” he said. “I had bodyguards, and even then I had to be bundled into a car.”

He is routinely tracked and filmed by right-wing bloggers who blame him for undermining the will of the people, as well as progressives who blame him for helping set up Cambridge Analytica in the first place.

“I’m a Euro-skeptic myself, so Brexit is not my sacred cow,” he said. “But if you win by cheating and breaking the law on something so fundamental as an irreversible change to the constitution, you should probably double-check with people that indeed that’s what they want.”

We asked him about his life now and if we should all #deleteFacebook. The answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

What’s been hardest about being a whistleblower?

Well, I can’t do my job anymore because I got banned from Facebook. And for somebody who works in online advertising, when you can’t work on Facebook it’s sort of a thing. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I think I am one of the only people in the world they have banned as a person, not just an account, but as a person.

Why did Facebook ban you?

What I find bizarre about the whole thing is that they have known about this for several years, and I corresponded with their lawyers back in 2016. So I gave them help when they were investigating this the first time. When I called and asked their lawyers if they wanted to talk about it, they didn’t seem to care that much about it. It seemed like a routine thing. It was only when Facebook found out I was planning to go public with it that they decided to ban me, which didn’t make any sense because I was the one who went to the authorities. It wasn’t Facebook that went to the authorities. I am not a suspect. I’m a key witness. Yet they still maintain a ban on me.

[Facebook disputes this account. “Mr. Wylie has refused to cooperate with us until we lift the suspension on his account. Given he said he ‘exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,’ we cannot do this at this time,” a spokesman told VICE News.]

Was Facebook’s ad tech broken when it leaked 50 million profiles?

It’s hard to say it was broken when they intended for it to work that way. This wasn’t an oversight; it was an actual feature that you could apply for and it would be granted to your app. It’s not broken. I understand there is some legitimate ways you could use that feature. It doesn’t have to always be nefarious to collect friends’ data.

Is it fixed now?

Well, no, because you can still pull data out of Facebook. The only difference is you can’t pull out friend data using an app. You can scrape the sites; if somebody installs browser extensions, you can get friend data. If somebody puts something on your phone on your computer that then accesses Facebook and then pulls data — there is no way Facebook can stop that from happening.

How would you do that?

It’s very easy to get people to download things. You offer someone a coupon for 5 percent off a Subway sandwich, and they will download something. You can get anything you want about this person and indeed everyone they interact with.

If we wanted to know if the 50 million profiles were used by the Trump campaign in the U.S., how would we do that?

Ask Facebook? Facebook sent out this weird message that sort of implied that it didn’t quite know how many records actually got pulled from the system. They were conservative in their statement, like, ‘We’re going to work with people who may have been affected by this even if we’re not sure.’ It’s sort of insinuating that they might not even know or they might not have maintained records of the people who had the app. Or they might have records of people who had the app, but might not have the friends of the people who had the app at the time. So they might not even really know whose data actually was pulled.

Do you know which Cambridge Analytics employees embedded in the Trump campaign?

I know Alexander Nix was there, and Alexander Taylor. They had an office in Texas. A lot of the team was based in Texas but not in Trump headquarters. They had an office called Project Alamo. But in terms of other people, I’m not sure because I did not work on the Trump campaign.

What should Facebook be doing going into 2018 to stop this from happening again?

One of the first recommendations I would have is, in every advertisement have a very clear ‘This is who paid for it’ and ‘These are the parameters you are being targeted on.’ If you also had some sort of communal monitoring system so you could flag ads with warnings so you don’t necessarily need to stop the ads. If an ad has gotten a lot of complaints, show people that, warn people. You do get into other issues if you are narrowly targeting something. If you are targeting people prone to conspiratorial thinking, as Cambridge Analytica used to do, say that a certain percentage of the ad buy has to go to a random cohort to encourage monitoring. There are a lot of things you can do that doesn’t limit free speech.

What about restricting this kind of targeting altogether?

I think it would be a mistake to create an overly restrictive platform for advertisers simply because that may actually encourage bad behavior.

Should we all delete Facebook?

I find the whole Delete Facebook really problematic because it creates this dichotomy where it’s like either you surrender all data and you have no privacy or you just don’t use those platforms. So the problem I see with a lot of the potential solutions or proposed solutions is I just see them not working long-term. You can’t really escape the role of data online and you can’t escape social networks and you can’t escape Google, in the same way you can’t escape electricity. The way we deal with electricity is we demand proper safety standards. You have building codes — and building codes that are really specific. It’s not just that you have to have safe wiring, it defines what that is.

OK, so should we be avoiding social networks or limiting what we disclose to them?

I don’t think people should be avoiding social networks because, what next?! Are you not going to use Google anymore, or email anymore, or apps anymore? How the fuck are you going to function? How are you going to apply for a job without LinkedIn? Or function at work or have a life if you can’t use Google? How are you going to interact with people without social networks? These are now essential parts of daily life, so treat them that way.

If Facebook is a utility, should it be regulated like one?

When you look at how utilities are regulated at the forefront is safety. We recognize as a society that whether to use or not to use electricity is not really a choice. You can’t really function in modern society without electricity. So if you need it, you have to use it. The narrative of consumer choice or you could just walk away and not have electricity is a false choice. There is no substantive freedom in that. In the same way that you don’t really have a choice to not use a social network. So let’s look at safety and let’s look at engineering and look at systems design.

What would Facebook regulation look like?

I think that you can have platforms that engage data and use data but you can still maintain people’s privacy and consent. I see consent as an ongoing thing. So, for example, when we look at consent like sexual relations saying yes at one moment doesn’t mean it’s yes for everything forever. So you know when we look at consent in other in other areas like sexual assault, you might you know start with some kind of intimate contact and decide you don’t want to proceed further and revoke consent. And so like even just basic things like renewal of consent, or for example having the terms and conditions that are based around the idea of reasonable expectations.

Cover image: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie arrives to speak at a demonstration held by Fair Vote, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, calling for a fair vote on the EU referendum, March 29, 2018. (Photo by Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

The YouTube shooter was “angry” at the company for demonetizing her videos

April 4, 2018 - 5:42am

Police Tuesday identified Nasim Najafi Aghdam as the shooter who injured three people at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, before killing herself.

According to Aghdam’s father Ismail, the vegan activist “hated” YouTube for censoring her channels.

He said he warned police Tuesday that his daughter could target the video-sharing platform and told the Bay Area News Group he thought his daughter might go to YouTube because she was “angry” at the company.

A San Francisco General Hospital spokesperson said Tuesday a 36-year-old man was in critical condition, a 32-year-old woman was in a serious condition, and a 27-year-old woman was in fair condition.

READ: The NRA had a lot to say about building security after the YouTube shooting

Police have yet to confirm a motive for the shooting. Initially officials said they were investigating a “domestic” incident, but they later walked that back.

“At this time there is no evidence that the shooter knew the victims of this shooting or that individuals were specifically targeted,” the San Bruno Police Department said in a press release Tuesday.


Aghdam’s anger at YouTube is clear on her website, where she claims her Farsi channel was censored by “close-minded YouTube employees” in 2016 who “began filtering my videos to reduce views and suppress and discourage me from making videos.”

She points out that even though her videos gained more than 300,000 views, she was paid just $0.10.

“There is no free speech in real world and you will be suppressed for telling the truth that is not supported by the system,” Aghdam posted. “Videos of targeted users are filtered and merely relegated, so that people can hardly see their videos. There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to.”

Aghdam also posted a video on Facebook in February criticizing YouTube for demonetizing her channels.

Aghdam’s father said after the shooting he had reported his daughter missing Monday, after she failed to answer her phone for two days. At 2 a.m. Tuesday he received a call from Mountain View Police saying they had found his daughter sleeping in her car.

When Nasim’s brother, Shahran Aghdam, heard she was in Mountain View he checked online and found she was close to YouTube’s headquarters.

READ: Female suspect confirmed dead after opening fire at YouTube headquarters

The police confirmed they found Aghdam in her car Tuesday morning after she was reported missing, but didn’t comment on whether or not they were warned about her possible intentions.

The family said they had no idea where Aghdam got the handgun she used. “Maybe she bought one,” her father said.

Vegan activist

Nasim moved from Iran to California in 1996 with her family, and lived in the family home in Menifee, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Her brother said she had recently been living with her grandmother in San Diego.

From an early age, Aghdam was an activist and animal lover. Her father said that she wouldn’t even kill ants that invaded the family home and instead used paper to remove them to the backyard.

She established a charity called Peace Thunder Inc. with the aim of “educating people about animal cruelty, environmental pollution” and other causes.

“For me, animal rights equal human rights,” Aghdam told the San Diego Union-Tribune at a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest in 2009 outside Camp Pendleton.

She was a prolific social media user, with multiple YouTube channels, as well as Instagram and Facebook pages — all of which were taken offline on Tuesday evening. However, a channel on the encrypted message app Telegram remains online and has more than 3,500 followers.

Aghdam posted a mixture of videos to her various channels, ranging from strange workout videos to vegan cooking demonstrations and graphic animal abuse videos.

Cover image: A screengrab of a video the suspect posted to Faceboook in which she complains about YouTube.

Russia's spy chief says Trump and May ordered the Salisbury nerve agent attack

April 4, 2018 - 5:15am

Russia’s spy chief Wednesday accused the U.S. and Britain of carrying out the Salisbury nerve agent attack, calling it a “grotesque provocation” by Western intelligence agencies.

Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, told an audience in Moscow that the March 4 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been “crudely concocted by U.S. and British security services.”

He also warned that Washington’s actions were pushing relations with Russia back to Cold War levels.

“Washington has become fixated with the fight against a non-existent, so-called Russian threat,” he said. “This has reached such proportions and acquired such absurd characteristics that it’s possible to speak of a return to the dark times of the Cold War.”

He said the West was “ready to put up a new Iron Curtain around itself” and called on it to change course so as “not to bring matters to a new Cuban Missile Crisis.”

READ: Russia is loving the fear the nerve agent attack inspired, U.K. says

Naryshkin’s comments came as British and Russian officials attended an emergency meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague — the first time the body has met since the attack on Skripal, a former Russian double agent.

Moscow called the closed-door meeting, saying it wants the U.K. to share its evidence of Russian culpability, and to push for a joint investigation into the matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday he hoped the meeting would allow both sides to move past the issue.

But the British delegation to the OPCW called Russia’s request for a joint probe a “perverse” attempt by Moscow to evade scrutiny.

“There is no requirement in the Chemical Weapons Convention, for a victim to engage the likely perpetrator in a joint investigation. To do so would be perverse,” said John Foggo, Britain’s acting permanent representative to the body.

Results from independent lab tests by the OPCW into the substance used in the attempted murder are expected next week. The body is not able to allocate blame for the attack, but could request that Moscow grant inspectors access to former chemical weapons sites to check stockpiles have been destroyed.

Britain maintains it is highly likely that Moscow carried out the attack, a stance backed by other Western countries, resulting the coordinated expulsion of about 130 Russian diplomats from across the globe. Moscow responded with a round of counter-expulsions.

Britain’s Porton Down laboratory has identified the substance as Novichok, a Russian-developed nerve agent, and has said it was likely deployed by a state actor, but says it cannot identify where exactly the substance was made.

Britain’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox doubled down on the accusation against Moscow Wednesday, saying that Russia had been stockpiling the nerve agent and exploring methods to deploy it.

“We know that Russia has previously been willing to poison outside its borders,” he said. “We know it regards ex-agents as being candidates for assassination. It's not the U.K. alone that came to this conclusion, it's a conclusion that's backed up by our allies around the world.”

Yulia Skripal, who was also affected by the nerve agent, has reportedly gained conscious and is able to speak. Her father Sergei Skripal, who was convicted by Russia in 2006 of selling state secrets to the British, before being traded in a spy swap four years later, remains critically ill.

Cover image: Sergei Naryshkin attends National Historical Assembly's meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June, 22, 2016. Russians mark 75th anniversary of German Nazi's invasion in Soviet Union and commemorate victims of WWII today. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

China just escalated Trump’s trade war by taxing soybeans, whisky, and cigars

April 4, 2018 - 5:00am

The escalating protectionism between the two largest economies edged towards a full-on trade war Wednesday as Beijing proposed tariffs on American goods worth $50 billion a year.

The move came in retaliation for similar duties announced by Washington just hours earlier.

China’s Commerce Ministry announced that 106 U.S. products, including soybeans, automobiles, chemicals, whisky, and cigars, would be hit with a 25 percent tariff. The levies will come into effect if the U.S. follows through on its threat to impose new duties on Chinese-made goods.

China’s targeting of $50 billion in goods is exactly the same amount as a list of 1,300 Chinese industrial, transport and medical exports that Washington said Tuesday could be hit with 25 percent duties.

The tariffs are part of a push by Washington to pressure Beijing over what it says is a culture of intellectual property theft of American-made technology.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters that Beijing urged the U.S. to drop its plan for the tariffs, and engage in dialogue instead.

“Those who attempt to make China surrender through pressure or intimidation have never succeeded before, and will not succeed now,” he said, adding that “the best opportunities for resolving the issues through dialogue and negotiations have been repeatedly missed by the U.S. side.”

READ: Trump is finally getting his trade war

China’s deputy finance minister Zhu Guangyao told reporters Wednesday that Beijing did not want a trade war, which would be a “lose-lose” for both parties. But he warned that Beijing wouldn’t back down over the issue. “Pressure from the outside will only urge and encourage the Chinese people to work even harder,” he said.

The U.S. tariffs are especially sensitive for Beijing as they target high-tech industries which China sees as critical to the future of its economy.

The quick response to Washington’s latest move, coming less than 11 hours after U.S. tariffs were announced, fuelled fears among investors that the dispute will escalate into a full-blown trade war that will hamper international trade and affect the global economic recovery. Markets slumped Wednesday in the wake of the news from Beijing.

The China director of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, Zhang Xiaoping, told Reuters that Beijing’s announcement of tariffs on the product was “regrettable” and would not solve the $375 billion trade deficit between the countries. Soybeans are America’s top U.S. agricultural export to China, the world’s largest soybean consumer, and were worth about $14 billion in 2016. U.S. soybean futures fell following the announcement.

Cover image: A China supporter smokes a cigar during a rally in support of Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

NRA has a lot to say about building security after YouTube shooting

April 3, 2018 - 9:12pm

Within hours of a woman allegedly opening fire at the YouTube campus in San Bruno, California, hosts, reporters and experts on the National Rifle Association’s TV channel had trotted out their mass shooting-response playbook.

Bottom line: the NRA thinks YouTube’s security infrastructure is to blame.

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the suspected shooter, her motive, and whether she was an employee of the company. But that didn’t stop NRA personalities from filling up nearly two hours with speculation about YouTube’s security protocol.

“The weakness will be found. Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened,” said Dan Bongino, a former secret service agent who now has his own show on NRA-TV with the tagline, “Making the world a better place by debunking one liberal myth at a time.”

“How do you correct the weakness. If it was it a weakness we’ve seen before, why did we not learn from it. Wait for the facts to come out with situations like this and then make sure this never happens again," Bongino added.

Silicon Valley companies, like YouTube and Google, generally don’t take chances when it comes to security. But, Kara Swisher, co-founder of Recode, told Time that those companies also tend to “feel like college campuses in a lot of ways.” “It’s easy to come in and out of doors. It’s relatively easy to get access to these buildings,” Swisher said. Swisher said the San Bruno YouTube campus spanned about 200,000 square feet, and included a “lap pool, a basketball court and a slide going between the second and third floors.”

Grant Stinchfield was one of several talking heads who railed against the notion that “access security” keeps you safe. “Entry control is not security,” said Stinchfield. Yeah you gotta press the buzzer to be buzzed in, but there’s two 62 ladies behind the desk. Is that gonna do anything?”

“We want to be careful we’re not speculating here,” interjected NRA-TV host and spokesperson Dana Loesch. “Its odd because on almost every campus you have security guards, access points and access units, that a lot of people believe to be security precautions, and aren’t.”

But the speculation continued.

“How did the guy or the gal get inside? And where was the weakness? Always there’s a weakness that was exploited. Where was the weakness and can it be fixed?” mused Stinchfield. “Sometimes evil manages to slip through. Those cases are rare.”

Echoing the solutions they put forward in the wake of the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, the consensus seemed to be that more guns means more safety.

“Access control is not security. It can contribute to security, but it is not security. Gun control is not security,” said former army ranger turned NRA-TV correspondent Chuck Holton. “The only thing that is security is that cordon of law enforcement that is now parked around YouTube headquarters.”

Early indicators from Tuesday’s shooting suggest that the suspect was romantically involved with one of the victims, a 36-year-old male who was reported to be in critical condition after the shooting. “It’s not just Silicon Valley. It’s every company across America. Even say its just a domestic dispute case - some estranged lover wants to kill their lover. This could happen to anyone,” said Stinchfield. “You don’t know what your cube-mate is going through...You could get caught in the middle of things in any time.”

Holton also noted California’s strict gun laws. “Liberals are always trying to fight the last battle and not the next one,” said Holton. In this case, age restrictions wouldn’t have done anything. California has a ban on assault rifles. They have a ban on high capacity magazines. There’s a 10-day waiting period for any firearm purchase.”

Holton’s comments about liberals and gun control came not long after a Stinchfield and Bongino had commiserated over what they were reading on twitter.

“It’s sad — you go to twitter and you see right away, the stuff that goes right to the top of the feeds.. Is a couple of knuckle heads trying to make politics out of a situation,” said Bongino. “It’s unforgivable.”

What John Bolton's past tells us about his future as Trump's national security adviser

April 3, 2018 - 7:03pm

When John Bolton becomes Donald Trump’s national security adviser later this month, he’ll assume more influence over U.S foreign policy than he’s ever had before.

That has a lot of people nervous. For one thing, Bolton has rarely seen a military intervention he didn’t like — he supported the war in Iraq (and still does), regime change in Iran, and a first strike against North Korea’s nuclear program.

But the last time Bolton was up for a big job, in 2005, when he was nominated for ambassador to the United Nations, what tripped him up wasn’t his policies — it was testimony about his penchant for berating subordinates, and a refusal to listen to information that countered his personal beliefs.

Carl Ford, Jr. was the director of the State Department bureau responsible for intelligence analysis in 2002, when Bolton served undersecretary of state for Arms Control. At the time, the Bush administration was building up evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq — wrongfully, as it turned out — and Bolton was seeking to make the case that Cuba was also working on its own biological weapons program. (It wasn't.)

Ford’s analysts disagreed, but Bolton, Ford says, didn’t want to hear it. He called the analyst into his office, and threatened to have him fired. Ford says he fought back instead.

“I was steaming,” Ford recalled. “I explained to him… ‘John, if you want to say this, that you believe it — be our guest. But you cannot say that it's the intelligence community's view.'”

The drama that ensued followed Bolton for years, and nearly kept him out of the UN job. (He was later granted a recess appointment by the president.)

But more than a decade later, former colleagues say it’s a worrisome sign of how Bolton might deal with intelligence that contradicts his views in his new, much more powerful position.

“It is the best evidence we have of how he will behave in the future,” said Greg Thielmann, another former State Department intel analyst who worked with Bolton. “These things might be academic but this is how you build the case for war.”

This segment originally aired April 3, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Videos show YouTube being evacuated and SWAT teams entering amid reports of active shooter

April 3, 2018 - 3:53pm

YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, has an active shooter situation, police have confirmed. Aerial videos and social media posts show people being evacuated from the building and heavily armored police entering.

Some YouTube employees are using social media to describe what’s happening inside the building.

"I looked down and saw blood drips on the floor and stairs. Peaked around for threats and then we headed downstairs and out the front. Police cruisers pull up, hopped out with rifles ready and I told them where the situation was as I headed down the street to meet up with a couple team members," YouTube product manager Todd Sherman, who said he is safe and on his way home, tweeted.

Caption: Officers run toward a YouTube office in San Bruno, Calif., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Police say they’re responding to an active shooter at YouTube headquarters. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Female suspect confirmed dead after opening fire at YouTube headquarters

April 3, 2018 - 3:15pm

A female suspect is confirmed dead and at least four victims wounded after multiple gunshots were fired inside YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California Tuesday afternoon, police said.

The suspect is believed to have died of self-inflicted wounds, San Bruno Police Chief Ed Barberini told reporters. Barberini did not provide any details on the weapons the suspect used or on the motivation behind the shooting, but said the four victims have all been transported for emergency care. Three of those victims suffered gunshot wounds, police later confirmed.

“We anticipate being out here through the night as part of our investigative effort,” Barberini said at a second press conference Tuesday evening. Police spent the afternoon searching Youtube’s headquarters, which is located roughly 12 miles outside of San Francisco. FBI agents were also on the scene.

Police officers arrived at YouTube’s headquarters at 12:48 p.m. local time, minutes after receiving several 911 calls reporting gunfire, according to a press release issued by the San Bruno police department. Officers located one victim at the front of the building, and later located two more who had fled to a business next door.

The suspect used a handgun, Barberini told reporters.

Multiple senior law enforcement officials told NBC News that the shooting is believed to be related to a domestic incident rather than a terrorist attack, and that the suspect is in her thirties. VICE News has not yet independently confirmed the age of the suspect. The Los Angeles Times also reported that authorities do not believe the shooting to be an act of terrorism. The San Bruno Police Department hasn’t yet confirmed the motive of the shooting.

In a statement, Google — which owns Youtube — said it was cooperating with authorities and that Bay Area employees have been asked to stay away from the area.

Area hospitals confirmed receiving multiple patients from the scene. Stanford Health Care told the Huffington Post it is treating four to five patients from the incident, and a spokesperson for San Francisco General Hospital told the Associated Press that three patients, including a 36-year-old man in critical condition, had been admitted. A 32-year-old woman in serious condition and a 27-year-old woman in fair condition were also reportedly admitted.

A woman also showed up at the Kaiser Permanente medical center in south San Francisco with a twisted ankle from the incident, Joe Fragola, the center’s media relations manager, told VICE News.

About 1,700 people work in the office, according to ABC 7 San Francisco. Some of them described the scene on social media.

Read: Videos show YouTube being evacuated and SWAT teams entering amid reports of active shooter

“Heard shots and saw people running while at my desk. Now barricaded inside a room with coworkers,” Vadim Lavrusik, a YouTube product manager, wrote on Twitter.

Todd Sherman, another product manager, described the chaotic scene: "We were sitting in a meeting and then we heard people running because it was rumbling the floor," he wrote on Twitter. "First thought was earthquake."

"After existing the room we still didn’t know what was going on but more people were running. Seemed serious and not like a drill. We headed towards the exit and then saw more people and someone said that there was a person with a gun. Shit."

"I looked down and saw blood drips on the floor and stairs. Peeked around for threats and then we headed downstairs and out the front. Police cruisers pull up, hopped out with rifles ready and I told them where the situation was as I headed down the street to meet up with a couple team members," Sherman, who said he was safely in an Uber home, tweeted.

Aerial shots of the scene appeared to show YouTube employees leaving the building in single file with their hands raised. Ibrahim Dababneh, the owner of Big Mouth Burgers — which is located across the street from Youtube headquarters — said that he saw a barrage of police officers and firefighters pull up outside the building.

Michelle Tam, a hostess at the Hashes & Brews restaurant located near the YouTube building, told the Los Angeles Times three YouTube employees came in after the shooting looking “visibly shaken.” One of the employees had a partial bullet fragment in her shoe, she said.

President Donald Trump tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” for people involved with the incident.

California Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein also tweeted about the incident, as did Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier. (The shooting took place in her district.) House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also tweeted a call to end gun violence.

The shooting follows Youtube’s recent crackdown on videos that promote firearm sales and on tutorials about assembling firearms, which took place days after the Parkland, Florida massacre. March for Our Lives, the gun control group formed by survivors of the Parkland shooting also tweeted its solidarity with Youtube.

This is a developing story ...

Cover image: Officers walk near a YouTube office in San Bruno, Calif., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Police in Northern California are responding to reports of a shooting at YouTube headquarters in the city of San Bruno. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Martin Shkreli decided not ta fuck wit turning over his Wu-Tang album to the feds

April 3, 2018 - 3:00pm

“Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli almost lost it all when he was convicted of multiple counts of securities fraud in August 2017. As part of his sentencing, prosecutors asked the federal court to order Shkreli to forfeit $7.3 million, but he was “cash-broke” at the time. So they asked for a few substitutes, including the $5 million bail he posted and a one-of-a-kind, unreleased album by the Wu-Tang Clan, "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin."

Ahead of Shkreli’s sentencing on March 9, a federal judge finally ordered him to forfeit those assets, including the famed album. If Shkreli did turn it over, the album would become U.S. property and fall into the hands of the Department of Justice (and maybe even Attorney General Jeff Sessions). But Shkreli hasn’t turned over the album, according to the DOJ, and he might never have to.

“The Wu-Tang album is not in our possession,” a senior Justice Department official told VICE News on Tuesday. “Forfeiture has been stayed in the Shkreli case pending his appeal of the conviction. And we may never seize the album if, after he loses his appeal, he writes a check to cover his forfeiture obligation.”

Shkreli is currently spending seven years in prison. If he wins his appeal, he won’t need to follow the judge’s order to hand over the album. And if he loses, he could just pay off his dues — if he has the money.

Shkreli, who earned villain status when he raised the price of an AIDS drug by 5,000 percent, might still have the album. It hasn’t been seen since 2017, when Shkreli placed it for sale on eBay. The bidding started at $1 and went all the way up to a winning bid of $1,025,100. But the deal was never completed.

People close to the Wu-Tang Clan have raised questions about the album’s authenticity, and therefore, its value. If the album isn’t what Shkreli says it is, it would be worth little to nothing. Last year, Shkreli’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said the album was “probably worthless.”

Still, many people — including Wu-Tang Clan cofounder RZA and Matt "M-Eighty" Markoff, who worked with the group — have attempted to buy it back from Shkreli. Those deals never went through either.

When asked whether Shkreli had the album, Brafman responded, “No comment.”

The Wu-Tang Clan released exactly one copy of the album in 2014 and placed it in a silver and nickel-plated box with a 174-page leather-bound book. Shkreli bought the album for $2 million at an auction in 2015; he could do whatever he wanted with it, as long as he didn’t release it commercially for 88 years. All he did was play a bit of the album on a livestream after President Donald Trump won the presidential election, as promised.

Even if the Department of Justice did have the album, Sessions wouldn’t spend much time listening to it — he prefers other music, more relevant to his role.

“While the Attorney General generally enjoys listening to Gilbert and Sullivan (see "Policeman’s Song"), this example highlights the importance of our forfeiture policies because we all agree fraudsters who can afford to buy $2 million albums aren’t going to beat the rap by selling them on eBay,” Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs for the DOJ, told VICE News.

Cover image: Martin Shkreli arrives at federal court in New York, for the fifth day of deliberations at his securities fraud trial. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Trump swears "nobody has been tougher on Russia" than he has

April 3, 2018 - 2:47pm

President Donald Trump claimed Tuesday that “nobody has been tougher on Russia,” than he has, before immediately insulting the American press during a joint press conference with Baltic leaders.

Trump made the comment in response to a question from a Baltic reporter, adding that, “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have. I know you’re nodding yes because everyone agrees when they think about it.”

However, the president seemed unsure about how he actually feels about the country, saying first that he thought he could have “a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin,” before adding that there’s a “great possibility” that he and Putin actually don’t have a good relationship.

Trump’s meeting with Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, and Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis comes at time of increased tension in Europe over Russia’s military buildup and intrusive cyber activities, combined with pervasive confusion over the Trump administration’s mixed messages towards the Kremlin.

On the one hand, the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries expelled over 150 Russia diplomats in the last two weeks, following a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K. last month. The Trump administration also announced sweeping sanctions last month against several Russian individuals and entities for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and attempting cyber attacks other key American infrastructure.

On the other hand,, President Trump offered a warm congratulations to Putin for his reelection in a personal phone call last month, reportedly against the wishes of his aides, and the two plan to meet at the White House in the “not-so-distant future.”

Trump’s talking points on Russia Tuesday weren’t all that different from what the public has heard before, Andrew Weiss, vice president for Russia and Eurasia studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told VICE News. Trump refused to outright critique the Kremlin for its behavior, despite willingly critiquing some NATO members just moments before, and since before his election for not paying “their fair share.”

However, the “numbers game” Trump used to defend his toughness on Russia “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Weiss, who worked in the Clinton White House said. Worse, he said, it may fuel skepticism in Europe over the U.S.’ commitment to countering Russia when push comes to shove.

In one aside, Trump bragged that he had expelled 60 Russian diplomats, while Germany had only expelled four. But the size of the Russian mission in the U.S. is substantially larger, and comparing their actions is like “comparing apples to oranges,” Weiss said.

The U.S. requested $4.8 billion in its defense budget to beef up American military presence, primarily in Eastern Europe to “deter and defend against Russian aggression,” a $1.4 billion increase from 2017 under the European Deterrence Initiative. The American build-up, which includes boosting rotational troop presence and investing in cold-weather training in countries like Norway, also signals increasing concerns over countering Russian aggression. The U.S. deploys nearly 7,000 service members under the program, according to the U.S. European Command.

In the meantime, the Baltic states have urged the U.S. to give more support. Lithuania's Grybauskaite told local reporters ahead of the meeting that she hoped “the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended.”

"It is important that [U.S. troops] are here on a permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states," she added.

Cover image: WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: (L-R) Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House April 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. Marking their 100th anniversary of their post-World War I independence from Russia, the three Baltic heads of state participated in the United States-Baltic Summit at the White House. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Watch the trailer for VICE on HBO's season 6 premiere, “Raised in the System”

April 3, 2018 - 1:52pm

VICE on HBO returns for its sixth season Friday, April 6, at 11 p.m. ET/PT with “Raised in the System,” an extended special season premiere featuring Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams as he embarks on a personal journey to expose the root of the American mass incarceration crisis: the juvenile justice system.

“Raised in the System” offers a frank and unflinching look at people caught up in the system, exploring why the country’s mass incarceration problem cannot be fixed without first addressing the juvenile justice problem, and investigates community efforts that are resulting in drastic drops in crime and incarceration.

With more than 850,000 juvenile arrests a year and 48,000 kids sitting in lock-up daily, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of minors in the world. However, recent FBI statistics reveal that the highest arrest rates for violent crimes, including murder, robbery and car theft, come in late teenage years and then fall significantly.

Having grown up in Brooklyn’s Vanderveer projects, Williams has seen firsthand how family and close friends have been swept up in the criminal justice system at an early age. In “Raised in the System,” Williams meets with his nephew Dominic, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder at age 19, and his cousin Niven, who entered the prison system age 14, was released with restrictions preventing him from returning to his family, and ultimately fell back into crime.

In Baltimore, Williams reunites with Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, his former co-star on the HBO series “The Wire,” who describes how her life was transformed after being sent to a maximum security facility for adult women as a teenager.

From Brooklyn to Toledo, from Richmond to Baltimore, Williams meets young offenders stuck in the system, as well as the judges and community members trying to keep them out.

“Raised in the System” also examines solutions already being enacted across the country. In Newark, Howard University’s Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad works with children of incarcerated parents and helps them cope with their emotions by opening up lines of dialogue in the classroom.

In Toledo, Ohio, a juvenile court is using the latest in child psychology and data to help offenders correct their behavior.

In Richmond, Calif., one of the nation’s leading firearm-related homicide rates has dropped by 75 percent through a controversial program that pays a small stipend to the most at-risk offenders; the goal is to incentivize them to undergo counseling with former violent offenders, who help them reform their behavior.

VICE's “Raised in the System” airs on HBO Friday, April 6, at 11 p.m. ET/PT. It's the season 6 premiere of the Emmy-winning newsmagazine series.

Florida mayors are suing Rick Scott for making local gun control impossible

April 3, 2018 - 1:22pm

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, facing pressure to protect their cities from gun violence, 10 mayors from Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties are suing Republican Gov. Rick Scott over a law they say blocks them from passing local gun control ordinances.

The law, signed by Scott in 2011, bolstered state protections for firearms and empowered the Florida legislature to punish mayors who try to enforce stricter gun laws. Mayors who undermine the state law could be personally fined $5,000 and even lose their job, while cities or towns can face up to $100,000 in legal damages. Although 43 states have “preemption laws” that make it hard for cities or towns to pass their own gun regulations, Florida’s 2011 law seeking to hold local officials liable was the first of its kind. Other states, including Mississippi, Kentucky and Arizona, have since followed suit with similar laws.

The 45-page lawsuit was filed Monday in Weston — 24 miles from Parkland, where a teen gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Feb. 14, killing 17 people and sparking a gun reform movement led by the student survivors.

READ: These teachers already carry guns in Florida

Weeks later, Scott signed an omnibus bipartisan bill that included a few gun control provisions, including banning bump stocks in the state of Florida, raising the minimum age for long-rifle purchases, and creating a three-day wait period for firearm sales. Signing the bill cost Scott his longtime relationship with the National Rifle Association, but it didn’t do what the students asked, and local leaders from cities in Miami-Dade and Broward say it doesn’t do enough to address gun violence.

“We get phone calls every day: ‘What are you going to do?’” said Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam at the press conference announcing the suit on Monday.

In Coral Gables, city officials want to ban assault weapons. “We don’t want those weapons to be carried in Coral Gables [or] sold in Coral Gables,” said Mayor Raul Valdés-Fauli. According to the lawsuit, Valdés-Fauli was threatened with removal following his efforts to ban AR-15s in Coral Gables after the Parkland shooting. The effort was abandoned after the city attorney warned of the enormous financial consequences.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber wants to ban guns from City Hall. “The idea that we cannot control our own space is astounding,” said Gelber at the press conference. “At my own City Hall, someone can walk in with a concealed weapon, and there is legally nothing I can do about it. Nothing.”

Weston City Commissioner Tony Feuer says that the current law violates local municipalities’ First Amendment rights.

Pompano Beach, Weston, Lauderhill, Miramar, Miami Gardens. Miami Beach, South Miami, Coral Gables, Pinecrest, and Cutler Bay are the cities that have passed resolutions to sign on to the suit against Scott. The two cities most affected by the Feb. 14 massacre, Parkland and Coral Springs, are currently missing from the list of plaintiffs. According to WPLG Local 10 News, Parkland is not considering joining at this time, and Coral Springs is working on its own lawsuit.

Cover image: Florida Gov. Rick Scott spoke to the media at the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department, in Tampa, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (Monica Herndon/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Trump wants troops at the border until the wall is built

April 3, 2018 - 1:18pm

President Trump announced Tuesday the U.S. military will guard the United States' southern border with Mexico until the U.S. has “a wall and proper security” installed.

Speaking at a meeting with Baltic leaders, Trump said he had spoken with Secretary of Defense James Mattis about the move, which he said would be a “big step” to combat a “caravan” of migrants from Honduras entering the United States through Mexico.

The “caravan” he mentioned is likely a reference to a group of more than 1,000 migrants fleeing Honduras into Mexico who hope to enter to the U.S. under an asylum claim.

It is unclear how many troops will be assigned to the border and whether any funds will be allocated to the diversion of military resources. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we are going to be guarding a border with the military,” Trump told reporters, calling current American border laws “so weak and pathetic.”

“It’s like we have no border,” Trump said.

Border security has been a prime talking point for the president, who'd promised since his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall. In the past month, however, Trump began floating the idea of having the military fund his long-promised barrier, after both Congress and Mexico declined to play along.

READ: Trump wants the military to fund the wall he promised Mexico would pay for

CNN reports Trump suggested the military budget after reviewing the spending bill he later signed. The bill includes roughly $1.6 billion for border-security measures like fencing — a disappointing sliver of the $25 billion the president had sought.

However, as Roll Call points out, it may all be hot air: A section of the U.S. code bars a U.S. president from using the military as a police force, unless Congress waives the provision.

Cover image: WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a joint news conference with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in the East Room of the White House April 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. Marking their 100th anniversary of their post-World War I independence from Russia, the three Baltic heads of state participated in the United States-Baltic Summit at the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Russia investigation just sent its first person to jail

April 3, 2018 - 12:45pm

The first sentence in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe has been handed down.

A federal judge sentenced Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan to 30 days in jail and a $20,000 fine on Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to lying to special counsel Robert Mueller and withholding documents related to the Russia investigation. While 19 people have been charged in Mueller’s probe so far, Van der Zwaan became the first to get jail time.

Van der Zwaan’s ties to the Russia investigation are tangled. Long before Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates started working for the Trump campaign, Van der Zwaan did lobbying work with them for Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Van der Zwaan came to Mueller’s attention in the process of investigating Manafort’s and Gates’ ties to Russia.

When Mueller’s investigators questioned Van der Zwaan in November 2017 about his relationship with Gates and Manafort, they caught him in a lie about the timing of his last communication with his former business associates. Van der Zwaan said his last communication with Gates was in August 2016 and his last communication with a “Person A” was in 2014. Turns out he had communicated with Gates and “Person A” in September 2016 regarding their 2012 Ukrainian lobbying work. He also withheld emails Mueller had asked him to produce.

Van der Zwaan’s work with Manafort means he may be able to assist Mueller with the case against Manafort, although the terms of his plea agreement do not require him to cooperate. Manafort has been charged with a range of financial crimes associated with his foreign lobbying, and Mueller is investigating allegations that Manafort colluded with Russian government officials to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.

Gates has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the Mueller investigation; money laundering charges against him were dropped as a result of plea deal. Former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia probe. They’re both cooperating with Mueller’s probe now.

Cover image: Alex van der Zwaan leaves Federal District Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Holding the sign up is Bill Christeson from the Washington area. A federal judge sentenced Alex van der Zwaan to 30 days in prison. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Kim Jong Un's train trip to China included denuclearization talks and an art show

March 27, 2018 - 7:52pm

After days of rumors, China’s state news agency confirmed Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un not only made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet with the Chinese leader, but expressed a commitment to denuclearization and said he’d be willing to host a dialogue with the U.S.

The unofficial four-day visit, which included Kim’s wife, was Kim’s first known trip abroad since taking power in 2011. He was invited by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, according to Chinese state media. During the trip, Kim and his wife reportedly had a banquet with Xi and his wife, and watched an art show together.

The meeting comes at a time of heightened tension in the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and China’s backing of international efforts to curb it. Kim is also supposed to be meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the first time in several weeks, and is expected to meet with President Trump by the end of May.

On Sunday, the North Korean delegation arrived in an olive-green 21-car armored train, which quickly prompted rumors that Kim was aboard because of the resemblance to the train used by Kim’s late father.

READ: Did Kim Jong Un just show up in Beijing on a 21-car bulletproof train?

The two leaders reportedly spoke about four issues related to improving North Korea-China relations, including frequent communication, promoting diplomatic cooperation, peace, and increased youth exchanges.

"It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il," Kim said.

Cover image: This picture taken on March 5, 2018 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 6, 2018 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) meeting with South Korean delegation, who travelled as envoys of the South's President Moon Jae-in, in Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un discussed ways to ease tensions on the peninsula with visiting South Korean envoys, the state KCNA news agency reported on March 6. STR/AFP/Getty Images

This elite gymnast quit at the height of her career to escape USA Gymnastics abuse

March 27, 2018 - 7:08pm

Mattie Larson was an elite gymnast who was adored by fans. She was also one of the dozens of people sexually abused by USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar.

"I don't think it's possible for someone like Larry to get away with doing what he did for 20-plus years if it's not in a corrupt environment and organization," Larson told VICE News. "I just don't really see how that would work."

To understand the environment, you have to understand how the USAG organization works. Gymnastics isn't a popular high school sport like football, so the path to the top — the Olympics — goes through some 3,400 private clubs nationwide. Those clubs are governed by USAG, which sets rules about who coaches and at what levels gymnasts compete.

When gymnasts reach the very top level, elite, they're invited to "the ranch," a gym in remote Texas that's also the home of legendary coach Martha Karolyi. From 2001 to 2016, Karolyi served as the national team coordinator, effectively picking the world and Olympic teams, making her the most powerful person in the sport. And she required the national team members to spend one week each month at the ranch, to monitor their fitness.

The ranch was also the site of much of Nassar's abuse.

At the ranch, "The rules were never show any weakness," Jessica O'Beirne, host of the gymnastics podcast GymCastic, told VICE News. "You don't talk, you don't giggle. You don't show a lot of personality. There's not a lot of food. You work out twice a day. There's not a lot of time to do homework or study. Up until February 2018, you could not bring a parent or chaperone with you to the ranch."

O'Beirne added, "And the other rule was you had to see Larry for treatment."

That's one way Nassar exploited the system, according to Larson. He would be kind to the gymnasts, and give them snacks, even letting them make fun of their coaches. But he also let them compete injured. Larson would hide the pain from injuries from her coaches, but not from Nassar. "Like with him we would be honest," Larson said. "But he never really like kept us out of competition. So they definitely benefited from him. He let us compete when we were super injured."

In 2009, Larson dislocated both her ankles and broke a foot at the same time at the ranch. "He didn't wrap them whatsoever. I didn't get a wheelchair. I had to stay the rest of the camp crawling on my hands and knees." She did upper body and core exercises while her feet dangled. And the adults who watched as a teenage girl crawled around them? They did "nothing," Larson said.

USAG closed the ranch in January after Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles tweeted that she didn't want to go back to the scene of her abuse. Multiple congressional committees are now looking into USAG, and the Texas Rangers are investigating the ranch. USAG told VICE News it’s “cooperating fully” with the investigations, but won’t comment on the ranch amid litigation.

This segment originally aired March 27, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Trump wants the military to fund the wall he promised Mexico would pay for

March 27, 2018 - 7:07pm

President Trump repeatedly promised both in his campaign and in office that Mexico would pay for the wall, but after a year in office he seems resigned to billing the multi-billion dollar wall to the e U.S. military.

Trump reportedly suggested the idea to White House officials, advisers, and even House Speaker Paul Ryan, reasoning that the military should pay for the wall considering the roughly $700 billion spending package it was allocated, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

He floated the idea while reviewing the omnibus spending bill, CNN reported, which includes about $1.6 billion for border security, such as levee fencing, which in sum is a mere sliver of the $25 billion sought by the president for the construction of the barrier.

Trump appeared to start publicly pushing for the border wall to fall under defense spending as early as Sunday. “Build WALL through M!” Trump tweeted, apparently referring to the military. Two sources told the Washington Post that “M” stood for “military. “

When asked about the reports at the press briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to give details, but said “the continuation of building the wall is ongoing and we’re going to continue moving forward in that process.”

With both Congress and the Mexican government so far declining to foot the bill, the president appears intent on finding alternative funding for his “big, beautiful wall.”

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal, though Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee tried to stop this very thing from happening with an amendment to the annual defense bill. The amendment would have ban Pentagon funds being used “to plan, develop, or construct any barriers, including walls or fences along the international border of the United States,” but the provision was stripped from the bill in July.

Several policymakers have already come out against the use of Pentagon funds to construct the barrier, included Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, however, told Lou Dobbs on Fox Business that it was a matter of national security and the military could fund the wall and keep its missions in place.

"Trust me, you can find $25 billion in the balance of [military spending] to make sure we put that wall up because it is national security,” Biggs said.

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Trump traveled to opposition territory -- California -- to fire up support for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a project that has encountered resistance in Congress. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images