Signs of the Times (9/14/17)

Irma Aftermath at End under Weather

Important Religious Freedom Case Goes to Supreme Court

Potentially “huge ramifications” for religious liberty – that’s what is at stake, says the American Family Association, as a Colorado cake shop case is to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in October. In 2012, cake shop owner Jack Phillips declined to provide a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on his faith and lost before Colorado courts. Attorney General Sessions’ Department of Justice has submitted a 34-page “friend of the court” brief to the nation’s top court encouraging a ruling in favor of Phillips. “We’ve seen over a dozen examples specifically of Christian business owners who are being driven out of business by various commissions and bureaucrats because of their religious beliefs,” AFA spokesman Walker Wildmon said. “And this case could be a turning point at the Supreme Court for religious liberty and frankly for the First Amendment rights of people of faith.”

U.N. Agrees to Toughest-Ever Sanctions Against North Korea

The U.N. Security Council on Monday agreed on its toughest-ever sanctions against North Korea that passed unanimously after the United States softened its initial demands to win support from China and Russia. The sanctions set limits on North Korea’s oil imports and banned its textile exports in an effort to deprive the reclusive nation of the income it needs to maintain its nuclear and ballistic missile program and increase the pressure to negotiate their way out of punishing sanctions. “Today, we are attempting to take the future of the North Korean nuclear program out of the hands of its outlaw regime,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The new sanctions come on top of previous ones that cut into North Korea’s exports of coal, iron ore and seafood. Haley said that more than 90 percent of North Korea’s reported exports are now fully banned by sanctions. President Trump called for a complete U.N. blockade of North Korea to stop all imports and exports.

President Trump Renews 9/11 Emergency Proclamation

President Trump has become the third president to renew a post-9/11 emergency proclamation, stretching what was supposed to be a temporary state of national emergency after the 2001 terror attacks into its 17th year. But the ongoing effects of that perpetual emergency aren’t immediately clear, because the executive branch has ignored a law requiring it to report to Congress every six months on how much the president has spent under those extraordinary powers, USA TODAY reports. Exactly 16 years ago Thursday, President Bush signed Proclamation 7463, giving himself sweeping powers to mobilize the military in the days following terrorist attacks that crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field. It allowed him to call up National Guard and Reserve troops, hire and fire military officers, and bypass limits on the numbers of generals that could serve. Presidents Bush and Obama renewed that emergency each year. And on Wednesday, Trump published a now-routine notice in the Federal Register extending the emergency for the 16th time, explaining simply that “the terrorist threat continues.” But as Trump extends the emergency into a third presidential administration, legal experts say a review of those powers is long overdue.

Supreme Court: No Expansion of Travel Ban’s Refugee Exemptions

The Supreme Court handed President Trump a temporary victory Tuesday, blocking a lower court decision that would have greatly expanded the number of refugees exempted from his controversial travel ban. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments next month in the broader constitutional challenge to the travel ban from states and immigrant rights groups. The current dispute is over which immigrants and refugees can enter in the meantime. Trump administration lawyers asked the court on Monday to set aside last week’s federal appeals court ruling that would allow more refugees into the United States while the case is pending. That ruling was due to take effect Tuesday because the lower court had said thousands of refugees were “gravely imperiled.” The administration argued that by granting entry to any refugees who had been matched up with a resettlement agency in the U.S., the lower court went far beyond the type of personal relationship Trump required.

Trump’s Debt Deal with Democrats Stuns GOP

President Trump has stunned Republican lawmakers with his abrupt decision to strike a deal with Democrats for a short-term increase in the debt ceiling tied to Hurricane Harvey relief money. The president made the deal during a White House meeting Wednesday with the top congressional leaders of both parties. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had wanted a longer-term increase in the debt ceiling that would also cover hurricane relief funding. Instead, Trump sided with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in agreeing to a three-month deal that would both fund the government and raise the debt ceiling through mid-December. The deal averts the threat of a shutdown or even default for now, but virtually guarantees a congressional showdown before the end of the year. It appeared to some observers that Trump grew weary of the ongoing back-and-forth negotiations and decided to strike an agreement to end it. Fox News reported that Trump wanted to come out of that meeting with the decks cleared so he could get Congress to focus on tax reform – his big legislative agenda item this fall.

Trump Also Working with Democrats about DACA

President Donald Trump is moving closer to a deal with Democrats that would protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation and put off funding for his marquee campaign promise of a border wall along the US-Mexico border, reports CNN. The bombshell developments, which were first announced in a statement Wednesday night by Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi and reiterated by Trump himself Thursday morning, were met with immediate outrage from conservatives and put pressure on the President’s Republican allies in Congress. The two Democratic leaders announced that following a dinner at the White House, they had “agreed to enshrine the protections of (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.” Trump insisted on Twitter Thursday morning that “no deal was made” on DACA, and Schumer and Pelosi later issued a statement clarifying that what was agreed upon was Trump supporting congressional actions to put DACA protections into law. The wall will come later, he said.

Russian Meddling Documented in 27 Countries Since 2004

Russia has meddled in the affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004 with interference that ranges from cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns, according to an analysis by a surveillance organization. The alleged Russian interference was compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund, a nonprofit organization that fosters closer bonds between the United States and Europe. The meddling started in former Soviet republics allied with the West and spread to Western Europe. More recently, Canada and the United States were targeted. The U.S. Congress and an independent prosecutor are investigating possible Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. On Wednesday, Facebook said an internal investigation uncovered $100,000 in advertising spending by hundreds of fake accounts and pages, likely operated out of Russia, which sought to sow political division during the U.S. presidential election. The ads were traced to a Russian “troll farm,” a Facebook official said.

Equifax: 143M U.S. Consumers Affected by Criminal Cybersecurity Breach

Credit reporting company Equifax announced Thursday that a cybersecurity data breach could have impacted about 143 million U.S. consumers. The company said in a statement the unauthorized entry occurred mid-May through July 2017, as criminals exploited a website “vulnerability” to access files ranging from social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver’s license numbers. Hackers also accessed the credit card numbers of about 209,000 consumers in the U.S. and other documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 people in the U.S. Equifax said it discovered the breach on July 29, 2017 but did not publicly disclose the information until Sept. 7, 2017. Three Equifax executives sold stock prior to the announcement. The company has set up a website for consumers Opens a New Window. that will help them identify if their information was affected. It will also send notices directly in the mail to consumers that have had credit card numbers or dispute documents with personal identifying information compromised. “The Equifax data compromise was due to (Equifax’s) failure to install the security updates provided in a timely manner,” said the Apache Foundation, noting that the exploited flaw was found, reported and fixed two months prior to the hack. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed.

Hackers Can ‘Whisper’ Commands to Alexa, Siri, Google Now

Your digital assistant of choice, be it Alexa, Siri, or Google Now, should only carry out the voice commands you issue. But it turns out these assistants are not as loyal as we thought, and all a hacker has to do is whisper to them, reports PC Magazine. A research team at Zhejiang University in China figured out how to issue commands to the digital assistants provided by Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung, and Huawei that nobody else can hear. That includes Alexa, Cortana, Google Now, Huawei HiVoice, Samsung S Voice, and Siri They named the technique DolphinAttack, and it’s possible due to a security flaw in the way these assistants work. The DolphinAttack takes advantage of the 20kHz and above frequencies that humans can’t hear. A voice command is recorded and then translated it to an ultrasonic frequency version. Microphones still pick up the ultrasound just like a normal voice command and therefore treat it as such. Issuing commands to make a call, open a web address, even to unlock a door will all work with the appropriate silent command. Modifying a smartphone to issue such commands costs around $3, the researchers say.

U.S. Bans Russia’s Kapersky Security Software

The U.S. government on Wednesday moved to ban the use of a Russian brand of security software by federal agencies amid concerns the company has ties to state-sponsored cyberespionage activities. In a binding directive, acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke ordered that federal civilian agencies identify Kaspersky Lab software on their networks. After 90 days, unless otherwise directed, they must remove the software, on the grounds that the company has connections to the Russian government and its software poses a security risk. “The risk that the Russian government, whether acting on its own or in collaboration with Kaspersky, could capitalize on access provided by Kaspersky products to compromise federal information and information systems, directly implicates U.S. national security.”

White Christians Swing from Majority to Minority in U.S.

Those Americans who identify as white Christians are now considered to be a minority of the country’s population, according to a new survey. The number has dipped below 50 percent for the first time, a transformation fueled by immigration and by growing numbers of people who reject organized religion altogether, said a report released Wednesday by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). While Christians overall remain a large majority in the U.S., at nearly 70 percent, white Christians – once a mainstay of the country’s religious life — now comprise only 43 percent of the population. About 17 percent of Americans now identify as white evangelical, compared to 23 percent a decade ago. The survey also found that more than a third of all Republicans say they are white evangelicals, and nearly three-quarters identify as white Christians. By comparison, in the Democratic Party, white Christians have become a minority shrinking from 50 percent a decade ago, to 29 percent currently.

International Planned Parenthood Surpasses 1 Million Abortions in 2016

One of the world’s most extensive and prolific abortion networks has passed a tragic milestone. In 2016, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), for the first time reported in its history, aborted more than one million unborn baby boys and girls in a single year. IPPF, a London-based international pro-abortion organization, maintains a vast network of affiliates (Member Associations) across the globe that actively perform and/or advocate for abortion. IPPF maintains 142 Member Associations worldwide and is currently active in 171 countries. Planned Parenthood Federation of America is IPPF’s Member Association in the United States. IPPF claims that its network has contributed to over 950 legislative or policy changes worldwide since 2005. IPPF claims the organization contributed to more legislative and policy changes in 2016 than at any other point in its history. In 2016, IPPF also significantly increased its reach among the youth in the domain of sex education. According to the Financial Statements 2016, over 28.1 million adolescents and young adults were given “comprehensive sex education” programming through one of IPPF’s Member Associations

Economic News

U.S. median income hit $59,039 in 2016, the highest ever reported by Census Bureau. Middle-class household income set an all-time record last year, besting the previous high set in 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday. Median income is a key measure of the economic health of the U.S. middle class, which struggled during the slow economic growth of the early 2000s and was devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The nation’s poverty rate fell to 12.7 percent in 2016, with 40.6 million people living in poverty, 2.5 million fewer than in 2015, the agency reported. The poverty rate hit its post-recession peak in 2010 at 15.1 percent and is now slightly above where it was in 2007.

The U.S. dollar is cooling off after a red-hot surge. Though it rose in the weeks following President Trump’s election victory last November, the greenback has steadily fallen this year. It’s now down to its lowest level since January 2015. Since January 1, 2017, the dollar is down 11%. Financial analysts point to disappointment with the progress of President Trump’s agenda, as well as Europe’s economy picking up steam as the primary causes. Also, investors are disappointed over the diminishing prospects of another interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve this year.

A study released last summer by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, claimed the Red Cross had spent $124 million — or a quarter of the money donors gave after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti — on internal expenses. Since 2014, National Public Radio and ProPublica have teamed up for investigations into Red Cross spending. Those reports argue that the agency, whose main role is as a blood broker, spends just a small fraction of its money on its high-publicity disaster relief programs and has made “dubious claims of success.” The reports specifically slammed the agency’s response to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012. And last year, the Red Cross came under more fire for its response to flooding in Louisiana with numerous complaints from relief workers and organizers who often were left without promised assistance.

Hurricane Harvey packed such a powerful punch that more than a dozen Gulf Coast oil refineries are still hurting two weeks after the storm struck Texas. Five oil refineries remain shuttered as of Monday. Refinery comeback efforts have been disrupted by flooding, damage, power outages and challenges created by the sudden nature of some shutdowns. All told, about 2.4 million barrels of daily refining capacity in Texas is offline because of Harvey. At one point, about 4 million barrels of refining capacity was shut down. Gasoline prices spiked around the United States. The good news, however, is that gas prices have stopped spiking. The average price has held steady for five days at $2.67 a gallon, up from $2.36 a month ago, according to AAA.

Christianity is Dying in Germany, Islam Rising

There are about 47 million Catholics and Protestants combined in Germany, representing roughly 60 percent of the German population, but that number is falling by 500,000 a year, according to the Gatestone Institute. All across Germany, churches now sit mostly empty on Sunday mornings, and it’s a problem for Catholics and Protestants alike. In 2016 alone, the German Catholic Church lost 162,093 faithful attendees and closed 537 parishes, according to data from the German Bishops’ Conference. One-quarter of all German Catholic communities that existed in 1996 have now closed. Similarly, in 2016, 340,000 German Protestants died while 190,000 people left the church. Only 25,000 people joined the church. While Christianity is dying in Germany, Islam is on the rise. Historian Walter Laqueur wrote that Germany had about 700 “little mosques and prayer rooms” in the 1980s but “more than 2,500 at the present time” – and that was in 2009. Today, Turkey controls 900 mosques or religious communities in Germany. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is committed to building more mosques in European capitals, just as he has built 17,000 Islamic prayer sites in Turkey since taking power.

Iran Sanctions Up for Renewal

President Trump must decide by Thursday whether to once again waive economic sanctions on Iran, a task imposed on him by a deal he holds in contempt and appears to be preparing to ditch, reports the Washington Post. But despite his concern that Iran is an international threat, Trump is expected to waive sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors for the second time since taking office. If not, the United States will be in breach of the landmark 2015 deal that is a legacy of the Obama administration. Even if Trump waives sanctions, as he must by law reassess every 120 days, it comes as Iran and the agreement it negotiated with six world powers are coming under increasing attack. In a series of public critiques of the deal and Iran’s behavior, administration officials appear to be laying the groundwork to kill the existing agreement, possibly by finding a way to reopen it for modifications. The next and most consequential decision on the horizon is Oct. 15, when Trump must decide whether Iran is fully complying with its commitments under the deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The president is required to revisit the issue every 90 days, and in July he reportedly was angry that his advisers offered no options except to certify it. More than 80 nuclear nonproliferation specialists issued a joint statement Wednesday saying the agreement “has proven to be an effective and verifiable arrangement that is a net plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.”

Earthquakes

At least 90 people died after a massive earthquake hit off the southwestern coast of Mexico late Thursday. The magnitude-8.1 earthquake struck off the coast of Mexico’s Chiapas state. The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake’s epicenter was 54 miles southwest of Pijijiapan, Mexico, not far from Guatemala. It had a depth of more than 40 miles. Some people continued to sleep outside, fearful of more collapses, as strong aftershocks continued to rattle the town, including a magnitude 5.2 jolt early Sunday. Local officials said they had counted nearly 800 aftershocks of all sizes since late Thursday’s big quake, and the U.S. Geological Survey counted nearly 60 with a magnitude of 4.5 or greater. The powerful quake caused buildings to sway violently and people to flee into the streets in panic as far away as the Mexico City. Chiapas Governor Manuel Velasco said the quake was the strongest on record in state history, topping a magnitude 7.9 quake in 1902; and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said the quake was the strongest earthquake Mexico has experienced in 100 years.

Wildfires

Several fires believed to have been caused by lightning continue to burn across Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, prompting mandatory evacuations and the closure of a lake. Officials shut down Lake Frances in Pondera County Tuesday so fire crews can use the water to battle the blazes. “The western fires are not stopping,” incident commander trainee James Casaus, who is working with the team managing three fires on the Front, told the Great Falls Tribune. “They’re just getting bigger.” Twenty-one large (over 100 acre) wildfires are burning in western Montana, having already consumed 413,000 acres (645 square miles), more than half the size of Rhode Island. In addition, 25 large wildfires are burning in Oregon and Washington, with a total of 766,000 acres torched, as the northwest drought continues.

Weather

Irma has finally disappeared from the map after a nearly two-week onslaught of destruction, death and terror. Now, millions of people from the wiped-out Caribbean island of Barbuda to the devastated Florida Keys try to piece their lives back together. The storm is responsible for the deaths of least 68 people, with 32 of those in battered Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. More than 2.6 million customers were still without power in Florida as of Thursday morning. Florida fruit growers and farmers fear the damage Irma wrought on the state’s citrus, sugar cane and vegetable crops will be significant. FEMA estimates that 25% percent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed. Another 65 percent suffered major damage. At least 99 percent of structures were at least partly damaged in hard-hit Anguilla, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin/St. Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos. The situation remains dire in parts of the Caribbean with some residents running out of food and water as power outages linger. The Dutch Red Cross said more than 200 people were still listed as missing on St. Maarten, the Dutch side of St. Martin. Looting has become rampant.

With Texas and Florida still digging out from Harvey and Irma, Hurricane Jose inched closer to the U.S. mainland Thursday, but forecasters said the storm would likely shift northward in the next few days and skirt the Mid-Atlantic on its way up the coast. While a U.S. landfall was not totally out of the picture yet, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and New England areas, tracking models show Jose likely remaining well offshore. On Thursday morning, Jose was located about 510 miles south-southwest of Bermuda moving west at 3 mph. It was packing sustained winds of 75 mph.

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