Signs of the Times (9/7/16)

Intelligence Agencies Investigating Covert Russian Influence in U.S.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are probing what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said. The officials cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has “definitive proof” of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so. “But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern,” the official said. “It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.” U.S. intelligence officials described the covert influence campaign here as “ambitious” and said it is also designed to counter U.S. leadership and influence in international affairs. The Russian government hack of the Democratic National Committee, disclosed by the DNC in June but not yet officially ascribed by the U.S. government to Russia, and the subsequent release of 20,000 hacked DNC emails by WikiLeaks, shocked officials. Cyber-analysts traced its digital markings to known Russian government hacking groups.

U.S., China Formally Join Global Climate Pact

President Obama on Saturday said cooperation was “the single best chance that we have” to save the planet as he stood with China’s President Xi Jinping to formally enter their two nations into last year’s Paris climate change agreement. At a ceremony on the sidelines of a global economic summit, Obama and Xi, representing the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, delivered documents to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. The papers certified the U.S. and China have taken the necessary steps to join the Paris accord that set nation-by-nation targets for cutting carbon emissions. The announcement means the accord could take force by the end of the year, a faster than anticipated timeline. Xi, speaking through a translator, said he hoped the announcement would spur more countries to take action.

  • The pace of globalization continues to quicken with the one-world government of Revelation 13 taking shape, although it still has years to go before the anti-Christ rises to his throne

‘Gaps of Trust’ Preventing Syria Cease-Fire

During a 90-minute meeting on the sidelines of the G20 economic summit, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to make a breakthrough in negotiating a cease-fire agreement for Syria. “We haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work,” Obama said during a news conference in Hangzhou. The two leaders agreed to keep looking for a path to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in the war-torn state. They also discussed Ukraine and U.S. concerns over cyber-security.

Oil Pipeline Protest Turns Violent over Destruction of Indian Burial Site

A protest of a four-state, $3.8 billion oil pipeline turned violent Saturday after tribal officials say construction crews destroyed American Indian burial and cultural sites on private land in southern North Dakota. Four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured after several hundred protesters confronted construction crews at the site just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Tribe spokesman Steve Sitting Bear said protesters reported that six people had been bitten by security dogs, including a young child. At least 30 people were pepper-sprayed, he said. The Sheriff’s office said law enforcement authorities had no reports of protesters being injured. There were no law enforcement personnel at the site when the incident occurred. The crowd disbursed when officers arrived and no one was arrested. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country have traveled to this central North Dakota reservation to camp in a nearby meadow and show solidarity with a tribe they think is once again receiving a raw deal at the hands of commercial interests and the U.S. government.

Senate Deadlocked on Zika & Government Funding

The top Republican and Democratic Senate leaders returned from their seven-week summer recess Tuesday and picked up where they left off in July — harshly blaming the other’s party for inaction on critical bills to battle Zika and fund the government. In a pair of votes, Democrats blocked taking up GOP bills to pay for a public health response to the virus and to fund the Pentagon next year leaving in doubt Congress’ ability to pass either bill. Each failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance. If an agreement is not reached, the government could shut down on September 30, just a few weeks before the presidential and congressional elections. The Zika vote came as the mosquito-borne virus, which can also be transmitted sexually, spreads widely in the Puerto Rico and some US states. Democrats blocked the bill because they say it included a provision to prevent funding for Planned Parenthood.

Migrant Update

Europe is “close to limit” on accepting refugees, EU President Donald Tusk said Sunday, as he urged the international community to do more to step up resettlement of those seeking refuge. G20 leaders are meeting in Hangzhou, about one hour outside of Shanghai, through Monday to tackle issues including trade, terrorism and climate change. Tusk urged fellow G20 member countries to do more to support the world refugee population. “In light of an unprecedented number of 65 million displaced people all over the world, the G20 community needs to scale up its share of responsibility,” Tusk said.

An anti-immigration party made a strong showing at the expense of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in her home district Sunday, a repudiation of her open-door policy for migrants. Official results showed the far-right Alternative for Germany came in second with 20.8% of the vote, ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democrats at 19%, the party’s worst showing since German reunification a quarter-century ago. The center-left Social Democrats came out on top with 30.6% of the vote. Alternative for Germany had made as its main campaign issue Merkel’s decision to allow more than 1 million war refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to settle in Germany in the past year.

Nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control, according to a new report released by the U.N. children’s agency. Of that total, 28 million are child refugees who fled conflict, states the UNICEF report. An additional 20 million are child migrants who left their homes in search of better lives. Although a migrant can be a refugee, the term refugee is specifically used to note people fleeing persecution.

Economic News

Americans are borrowing more than ever for new and used vehicles, and 30- and 60-day delinquency rates rose in the second quarter, according to the automotive arm of one of the nation’s largest credit bureaus. The total balance of all outstanding auto loans reached $1.027 trillion between April 1 and June 30. More consumers also are turning to leases, which accounted for 31.44% of all new car and truck transactions in the second quarter, up from 26.9% a year earlier. The average new car loan was $29,880, up 4.8% from the second quarter of 2015, and about $4,000 less than the average new vehicle selling price. The average monthly payment on those loans was $499, up from $483 a year earlier. A growing portion of those loans are for a longer term, sometimes as long seven years. Last month, Fitch Ratings issued a report that found that among subprime and deep subprime borrowers, the percentage that are 60 days or more behind on payments reached 4.59% in July, a 17% increase from a year earlier.

A weak reading for the services segment of the economy was reported Monday. The Institute for Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index slumped to 51.4, the lowest since February 2010, from 55.5 in July.  A reading over 50 indicates expansion, so this is the latest economic measure that suggests the rate of growth of the U.S. economy is slowing down.

Global leaders ended a major economic summit in eastern China on Monday with a forceful endorsement of free trade. In a joint statement on the summit, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping and the leaders of Britain, Japan, Russia and other Group of 20 economies pledged to boost sluggish global growth by promoting innovation and to strengthen the global financial system.

Islamic State

The sophisticated ISIS network that plots foreign strikes had planned for the carnage in the November 2015 Paris attacks to be far worse, to occur in other European countries as well and, investigators believe, had planned to follow them up with strikes in several locations, CNN has learned. “ISIS is increasing its international attack planning,” said Paul Cruickshank, a CNN terrorism analyst. “It’s increasingly sophisticated in the way it does this. It’s set up an intricate, logistical support system for these terrorists … to launch these terrorist attacks.” A CNN team spent months going through 90,000 pages of documents, most of them in French, that included a trove of interrogations, investigative findings and data pulled from cell phones offering insight into the external operations wing of ISIS known as the Amn al-Kharji.

A senior European counter-terrorism official who spoke to CNN said that according to investigations into the network that carried out the Paris attacks, they were a slimmed-down version of an even more ambitious plan to hit Europe. European investigators now believe that ISIS initially planned for the operatives it sent last year to also attack the Netherlands, as well as other targets in France including shopping areas and possibly a supermarket in Paris. These plans were compromised when authorities captured two men who intended to travel to France alongside the two suicide bombers who eventually blew themselves up outside a Paris stadium.

Terrorist group ISIS has reportedly named Pope Francis its number one enemy. According to a recent publication by the terror group, Francis is hated for being a “non-believer” and defending homosexual people. Pope Francis has also sought to open communication and understanding between Christians and Muslims, which ISIS has denounced. The group wrote, “Recent popes – and especially Pope Francis – have attempted to paint a picture of heartwarming friendship, seeking to steer Muslim masses away from the obligation of waging jihad against disbelief.”

Syria

Turkey’s military launched a second incursion into Syria Saturday against an Islamic State-held border town, in a move that U.S. officials view as a necessary step to flushing out the jihadist group from the war-torn country. A Turkish armored unit supported by artillery strikes moved across the border into Al-Rai, a Syrian city that Syrian rebels lost to the Islamic State earlier in May and which is located roughly halfway along the line of control between the Turkish-Syrian border. A statement from the Turkish military said that Syrian rebels, fighting with the support of Turkish armored units and artillery, had regained control of the Syrian town.

A string of bombings, including a suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State group, struck in and around several Syrian cities on Monday, killing at least 43 people, mainly in government-controlled areas. The SANA news agency reported blasts around the coastal city of Tartus, the central city of Homs, the suburbs of the capital Damascus, and the northeastern city of Hasakeh. Areas controlled by President Bashar Assad’s forces have seen several bombings and other attacks during the country’s five-year civil war, with many claimed by Al Qaeda-linked militant groups.

A suspected chlorine attack by Syrian government forces was blamed Wednesday for one death and respiratory injuries suffered by scores of civilians near rebel-held Aleppo. Mohammed Abu Jaafar, head of forensics in the war-torn city, told the Associated Press one man died overnight of heart failure and acute respiratory distress caused by inhaling toxic gas. The BBC said at least 100 people (including dozens of children) were treated with respiratory issues following the alleged barrel-bomb attack Tuesday in the Sukkari area south of the Aleppo. A United Nations report issued last month accused the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad of carrying out at least two toxic gas attacks in 2014 and 2015.

Iran

The U.S. transferred a total of $1.7 billion in cash to Iran in order to settle a long-running dispute over a failed 1979 arms deal, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ said late Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration sent $400 million in cash to Iran in January, with two more subsequent shipments of similar amounts, totaling another $1.3 billion, according to congressional officials briefed by the U.S. State, Treasury and Justice departments. “The cash payments — made in Swiss francs, euros and other currencies— settled a decades-old dispute over a failed arms deal dating back to 1979,” the WSJ reported. It said that U.S. officials acknowledged that the payment of the first $400 million “coincided with Iran’s release of American prisoners and was used as leverage to ensure they were flown out of Tehran’s Mehrabad on the morning of January 17.”

Philippines

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared a “state of lawlessness” following a deadly ‘terrorist’ explosion at an open-air market in southern Davao City that killed at least 14 people and injured at least 70 others during a presidential visit to his hometown on Friday. Duterte added that the “state of lawlessness” did not constitute martial law, though it does authorize security forces to conduct searches throughout the country. The region was under a heightened security alert because of a military offensive against Abu Sayyaf militants. The explosion erupted near one of the top hotels in the city, which is frequented by Duterte. Earlier Friday, the president dismissed rumors of a plot to assassinate him. Duterte was dubbed “the Punisher” after taking a hard stance against the drug trade during his 22 years as mayor of Davao City. Now, President, Duterte has been cracking down hard on drug dealers, even encouraging vigilante justice.

North Korea

North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the East Sea on Monday, as China hosted leaders from across the world for the G-20 summit, according to reports from the South Korean News Service and the Associated Press. Earlier on Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye criticized the neighbor to the north for what she described as provocations that are hurting Seoul-Beijing relations. The U.S. condemned the tests, saying they violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and pose a threat to aircraft and commercial ships in the region. The U.N. Security Council in late August strongly condemned four North Korean ballistic missile launches in July and August, calling them “grave violations” of a ban on all ballistic missile activity.

Laos

President Obama on Tuesday said the United States would spend $90 million over the next three years on clearing unexploded bombs that it dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Obama made the announcement during remarks delivered at the Lao National Cultural Hall in the capital Vientiane. The pledge doubles the current U.S. funding for the effort. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian country. “The spirit of reconciliation is what brings me here today. Given our history here, the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama said. Obama said he wanted to make the two nations “whole again.”

Earthquakes

Oklahoma was hit by a 5.6 magnitude earthquake Saturday morning. It tied for the strongest ever recorded in the state. The quake struck at a depth of about 41 miles below the surface, about 9 miles northwest of Pawnee, Oklahoma, and about 75 miles north of Oklahoma City, according to the United States Geological Survey. Officials with the Pawnee County Emergency Management say at least one building has collapsed there as the result of the quake. Governor Fallin said six buildings on the Pawnee Nation reservation were left “uninhabitable” and emergency responders found a “variety of damage.” The police received lots of reports of buildings with bricks that came off and broken windows. The quake was felt as far away as Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri; Houston and Dallas, Texas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Omaha, Nebraska.

Five months before Saturday’s 5.6 magnitude temblor in central Oklahoma, government scientists warned that oil and natural gas drilling had made a wide swath of the country more susceptible to earthquakes. Saturday’s earthquake spurred state regulators in Oklahoma to order 37 disposal wells, which are used by frackers, to shut down over a 725-square mile area. Fracking is used by oil and gas producers to extract oil from the ground — and it’s behind the massive boom in U.S. oil production. Fracking is a far more efficient drilling technique, but it’s also controversial because it contaminates local water supplies and forcibly breaks apart underground shale formations.

Wildfires

Several fires raging around Spain’s eastern Costa Blanca resorts on Sunday and Monday forced more than 1,400 residents and tourists to flee and have prompted a search for the arsonist responsible for the blazes. The fires, which authorities said were brought under control on Monday, destroyed at least 20 homes, scorched more than 2,000 acres. On Monday afternoon, police reportedly found several empty containers of gasoline they believe were used by the arsonist to light the fires. “This is environmental terrorism, it goes beyond putting at risk our natural heritage, it directly attacks people,” Ximo Puig, the head of the regional government of Valencia, told reporters. Meanwhile, a separate fire broke out near Bolulla that continues to rage out of control. The fire forced the evacuation of at least 100 people and reportedly destroyed at least 40 buildings.

Weather

Three people have reportedly died from Hurricane Newton which made landfall Tuesday on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula near the Cabo San Lucas resort area. Newton pounded Baja California Sur with hurricane-force winds of 90 mph and heavy rains. At least 14,000 tourists were stranded in Los Cabos. All flights had been canceled late Monday ahead of the storm. With storm surge expected to impact low-lying coastal areas, ports in the area were closed and shelters capable of providing sanctuary for at least 16,000 were opened. Before the storm system became a tropical storm, at least 70 homes and schools were damaged in Acapulco in the state of Guerrero and 200 people were trapped in a housing complex. Newton turned to the northeast and emerged over the very warm waters of the Gulf of California late Tuesday, likely keeping it at hurricane strength into Wednesday.” After the storm makes its second landfall in northeast Mexico on Wednesday, it is expected to weaken to a tropical storm and even further to a tropical depression as it makes its way into Arizona delivering abundant rain to the southern regions of the state.

After clobbering the Gulf Coast of Florida, Hurricane Hermine has left at least one reportedly person missing as it tracked through the Southeast, bringing strong winds and heavy rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Tens of thousands were without power Friday in southern Georgia as trees and power lines were downed by the storm’s strong winds. A possible tornado associated with the storm also damaged several structures in the Savannah area. At least eight counties across Georgia reported damage associated with the storm. The Red Cross opened five shelters in South Georgia so residents had a place to stay Thursday night. Hermine struck a major blow to the Labor Day weekend tourist trade along the coast of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Although Post-Tropical Cyclone Hermine remains far from shore off the Northeast coast as of Monday, officials were warning residents and visitors to heed warnings about deadly rip currents and possible coastal flooding.

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