Democrat John Whitmire Elected Houston Mayor

Houston elected Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire as its next mayor on Saturday night, elevating a Texas lawmaker who has represented the city for 50 years by giving him a victory over U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a runoff.

Whitmire, 74, who is one of Texas’ most powerful Democratic legislators, will now be at the helm of America’s fourth-largest city. His campaign focused on reducing crime, improving streets and bringing people together. He heavily outspent Jackson Lee, who was running to become Houston’s first Black female mayor.

The congresswoman’s campaign also had to deal with fallout from the release in October of an unverified audio recording that purported to capture her profanely berating staff.

Whitmire built an insurmountable lead among early voters, winning among those voters by 30 percentage points.

Whitmire and Jackson Lee had made it to Saturday’s runoff after emerging from a crowded field of nearly 20 candidates in the Nov. 7 general election.

Both candidates — two of Houston’s biggest political fixtures — touted their decades-long political experience as strong qualifications to lead a growing city facing challenges that include crime, crumbling infrastructure and potential budget shortfalls.

Whitmire started in the Texas Legislature in 1973, first as a state representative and the majority of his time as a state senator. Jackson Lee has represented Houston in Congress since 1995 and before that had served on Houston’s City Council.

Booming growth over the last decade has caused municipal headaches but has also turned the Houston area into an expanding stronghold for Texas Democrats. Although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, Whitmire and Jackson Lee are both Democrats.

Whitmire will be the oldest big city mayor in the U.S. He is set to lead a city which is becoming younger, with a median age of around 35 and with 25% of its population below 18, according to census figures.

The choice between Whitmire and Jackson Lee, who is 73, frustrated some Democratic voters, particularly younger ones, at a time when the party is searching for new political stars in Texas who might end 30 years of GOP dominance statewide.

The new mayor will have to deal with new laws from the GOP-led state government over control of local elections and the ability to impose local regulations.

Whitmire will replace Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has served eight years and can’t run again because of term limits.

Whitmire will also lead what is considered one of the country’s most diverse cities. Of the city’s 2.3 million residents, 45% are Latino, with 23% Black and 24% white. One in every four Houston residents was born outside the U.S.

Known as the energy capital of the world, Houston’s economy has long been tied mainly to the oil industry. But the city is working to become a leader in the transition to cleaner energy. Like other large U.S. cities, Houston is also dealing with a lack of affordable housing and concerns among residents over growing gaps between the rich and poor.

6 Dead, 2 Dozen Injured After Severe Storms in Tennessee

Severe storms that tore through the U.S. state of Tennessee killed six people Saturday and sent about two dozen to the hospital as homes and businesses were damaged in multiple cities.

Three people, including a child, were killed after an apparent tornado struck Montgomery County north of Nashville near the Kentucky state line, county officials said in a news release. And the Nashville Emergency Operation Center said in a post on a social media account that three people were killed by severe storms there. Montgomery County officials said another 23 there were treated for injuries at hospitals.

Photos posted by the Clarksvillle fire department on social media showed damaged houses with debris strewn in the lawns, a tractor trailer flipped on its side on a highway and insulation ripped out of building walls.

“This is devastating news and our hearts are broken for the families of those who lost loved ones,” said Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts in a statement. “The city stands ready to help them in their time of grief.”

No other information about the victims was immediately available Saturday.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that a tornado touched down around 2 p.m. A shelter was set up at a local high school.

Residents were asked to stay at home while first responders evaluated the situation. In a briefing shared on social media, Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts said there was extensive damage.

“So please, if you need help, call 911 and help will be on the way immediately. But if you can, please stay home. Do not get out on the roads. Our first responders need time and space,” he said.

Allie Phillips, who lives in Clarksville, said she was grabbing lunch when she began receiving notifications of the tornado that was quickly approaching her neighborhood.

“It was excruciating watching the live stream and not knowing if my house was still there,” she said. “When we finally decided to leave, the road to my home was shut down because so many power lines were on the road and we had to take a detour.”

Phillips said her home survived with minimal damage – noting that her daughter’s toys were banged up and that a neighbor’s dog kennel hit the back of her home – but she was saddened to see that her neighbor’s house was missing a roof and a home up the block had all but completely disappeared.

“This doesn’t happen enough that you’re ever prepared for it,” she said.

The National Weather Service issued multiple tornado warnings in Tennessee, and said it planned to survey an area where an apparent tornado hit in Kentucky.

About 85,000 electricity customers were without power in Tennessee on Saturday night, according to

The storm came nearly two years to the day after the National Weather Service recorded 41 tornadoes through a handful of states, including 16 in Tennessee and eight in Kentucky. A total of 81 people died in Kentucky alone.

Russia Puts Prominent Russian-American Journalist on Wanted List

Russian police have put prominent Russian American journalist and author Masha Gessen on a wanted list after opening a criminal case against them on charges of spreading false information about the Russian army.

It is the latest step in an unrelenting crackdown against dissent in Russia that has intensified since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine more than 21 months ago, on Feb. 24, 2022.

The independent Russian news outlet Mediazona was the first to report Friday that Gessen’s profile has appeared on the online wanted list of Russia’s Interior Ministry, and The Associated Press was able to confirm that it was. It wasn’t clear from the profile when exactly Gessen was added to the list.

Russian media reported last month that a criminal case against Gessen, an award-winning author and an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was launched over an interview they did with the prominent Russian journalist Yury Dud. 

In the interview, which was released on YouTube in September 2022 and has since been viewed more than 6.5 million times, the two among other things discussed atrocities by Russian armed forces in Bucha, a Ukrainian town near Kyiv that was briefly occupied by the Russian forces.

After Ukrainian troops retook it, they found the bodies of men, women and children on the streets, in yards and homes, and in mass graves, with some showing signs of torture. Russian officials have vehemently denied their forces were responsible and have prosecuted a number of Russian public figures for speaking out about Bucha, handing some lengthy prison terms.

Those prosecutions were carried out under a new law Moscow adopted days after sending troops to Ukraine that effectively criminalized any public expression about the war deviating from the official narrative. The Kremlin has insisted on calling it a “special military operation” and maintains that its troops in Ukraine only strike military targets, not civilians.

Between late February 2022 and early this month, 19,844 people have been detained for speaking out or protesting against the war while 776 people have been implicated in criminal cases over their anti-war stance, according to the OVD-Info rights group, which tracks political arrests and provides legal aid.

Gessen, who holds dual Russian and American citizenships and lives in the U.S., is unlikely to be arrested, unless they travel to a country with an extradition treaty with Russia. But Russian court could still try them in absentia and hand them a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Pressure is also mounting on dissidents imprisoned in Russia. On Friday, supporters of Alexei Gorinov, a former member of a Moscow municipal council sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking out against the war, reported that his health significantly deteriorated in prison, and he is not being given the treatment he needs.

Gorinov was sentenced last year and is currently serving time at a penal colony in the Vladimir region east of Moscow. In a post on the messaging app Telegram, his supporters said his lawyer visited him on Friday and said Gorinov “doesn’t have the strength to sit up on a chair or even speak.” He told the lawyer that he has bronchitis and fever, but prison doctors claim he doesn’t need treatment, the post said.

The 62-year-old Gorinov has a chronic lung condition, and several years ago had part of a lung removed, the post said.

Allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny were also concerned about his well-being on Friday.

Navalny is serving a 19-year prison term on the charges of extremism in the same region as Gorinov, and for the last three days his lawyers have not allowed to visit him, the politician’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on X, formerly known as Twitter. Yarmysh said that letters to Navalny were also not being delivered to him.

“The fact that we can’t find Alexey is particularly concerning because last week he felt unwell in the cell: he felt dizzy and lay down on the floor. Prison officials rushed to him, unfolded the bed, put Alexey on it and gave him an IV drip. We don’t know what caused it, but given that he’s being deprived of food, kept in a cell without ventilation and has been offered minimal outdoor time, it looks like fainting out of hunger,” Yarmysh wrote.

She added that the lawyers visited him after the incident, and he looked “more or less fine.”

Navalny is due to be transferred to a “special security” penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system. Russian prison transfers are notorious for taking a long time, sometimes weeks, during which there’s no access to prisoners, and information about their whereabouts is limited, or unavailable at all.

Navalny, 47, has been behind bars since January 2021. As President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe, he campaigned against official corruption and organized major anti-Kremlin protests. His 2021 arrest came upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he recuperated from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin.

Navalny has since been handed three prison terms and spent months in isolation in prison for alleged minor infractions. He has rejected all charges against him as politically motivated.

US-Russian Dual National Detained for ‘Rehabilitating Nazism’

A man with dual U.S.-Russian nationality has been placed in pre-trial custody in St. Petersburg for “rehabilitating Nazism” in posts on social media, the city’s court service said Saturday. 

Yuri Malev was charged over posts in which he was alleged to have denigrated the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol of Russian military valor. One contained obscene language and the other showed a picture of a corpse wearing the ribbon. 

The court service said this showed disrespect for society and insulted the memory of the Great Patriotic War, as Russians refer to World War II. 

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the reported detention but had no further comment on the case. Representatives for Malev could not be immediately reached. 

‘Partially admitted guilt’

The court service statement said Malev, who was detained in St. Petersburg on Friday, had “partially admitted guilt,” but did not elaborate. He was placed in custody until February 7. 

Several Americans and dual citizens are being held in Russia, including former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich. Earlier this week, the State Department said Russia had rejected a substantial proposal to release both men, who have been charged with spying, an allegation the United States has denied. 

Last week, a Russian court extended the pre-trial detention of Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent,” an offense that carries up to five years in prison. 

Fox News Disputes Reporter’s Claim He Was Fired for Challenging Jan. 6 Coverage

Fox News pushed back Friday against a former reporter’s lawsuit saying he was targeted and fired for challenging false claims about the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

The network argued that Jason Donner had not shown he faced illegal discrimination. The nation’s capital bans discrimination based on political party membership or endorsement, but Donner hasn’t shown he joined a political party, nor that his bosses knew and fired him for it, Fox lawyers said. 

“That law does not protect employees of news media organizations based on their differences of opinion over reporting and commentary on matters of public concern,” Fox attorneys wrote. 

Donner said in his lawsuit he was a longtime Republican who affiliated with Democrats more recently. 

The network also questioned whether he had properly informed managers when taking sick time after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and whether he filed the lawsuit within the time allowed by the law. 

Donner’s lawsuit said he was fired in 2022 as part of a “purge” of employees who refused to only report information that would “appease” former U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters. He had been inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and called to scream at the control room when he learned Fox News referred to the rioters as peaceful, he wrote in his suit. 

Taliban Criticize New US Human Rights Curbs Against Two Leaders

Afghanistan’s Taliban government denounced the United States Saturday for imposing fresh sanctions against two of its leaders for human rights abuses, saying that pressure and restrictive measures do not help solve problems.

The response came a day after the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions against 20 people in nine countries, including China, Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10.

Friday’s Afghan-related designations listed Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, head of the Taliban’s vice and virtue ministry, and Fariduddin Mahmood, a member of the group’s male-only cabinet and the head of the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences.

The U.S. said the two Taliban men were responsible for “the repression of rights for women and girls based solely on their gender.”

The Taliban ban girls from receiving an education beyond the sixth grade in Afghanistan and women from most workplaces. The Islamist group reclaimed power from an American-backed government two years ago, declaring its male-only administration as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or IEA.

“We condemn the restrictions imposed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on IEA’s two officials,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, said in an English-language statement on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

He urged Washington to desist from “imposing pressure and restrictions” on his government, alleging the United States “should not repeat its failed experiences” of the past.

“While America itself is among the biggest violators of human rights due to its support for Israel, it is unjustified and illogical to accuse other people of violating human rights and then ban them,” Mujahid said.

Education bans

The U.S. announcement Friday identified Mahmood as a supporter of the education-related bans on women and girls. It said that members of Hanafi’s ministry “have engaged in serious human rights abuse, including abductions, whippings and beatings.” They also have assaulted Afghans protesting the restrictions on women’s activity, including access to education, the statement noted.

“Khalid Hanafi and Fariduddin Mahmood are complicit in serious human rights abuses against women and girls in #Afghanistan. We hold them accountable for denying half the #Afghan population their rights,” Karen Decker, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Afghanistan, said Saturday on X.

The Taliban returned to power in August 2021 when the U.S.-led international forces withdrew from Afghanistan after two decades of involvement in the war with the then-insurgent Taliban.

“Since August 2021, the Taliban has implemented expansive policies of targeted discrimination against women and girls that impede their enjoyment of a wide range of rights, including those related to education, employment, peaceful assembly and movement, among others,” said the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in its Friday statement.

It added that the Taliban’s restrictions have turned Afghanistan into the world’s only nation where women and girls are prohibited from pursuing secondary education.

Friday’s sanctions freeze all property and interests of the designated people in the United States and prohibit them from conducting business with Americans.

De facto Taliban rulers defend their policies, saying they are aligned with Afghan culture and Islamic law. Scholars and governments across the rest of Muslim-majority countries, however, dispute their claims.

No foreign government has recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of the country, mainly over human rights concerns and their harsh treatment of Afghan women.

Understanding Carbon Capture and Its Discussion at COP28

The future of fossil fuels is at the center of the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, where many activists, experts and nations are calling for an agreement to phase out the oil, gas and coal responsible for warming the planet. On the other side: energy companies and oil-rich nations with plans to keep drilling well into the future.

In the background of those discussions are carbon capture and carbon removal, technologies most, if not all, producers are counting on to meet their pledges to get to net-zero emissions. Skeptics worry the technology is being oversold to allow the industry to maintain the status quo.

“The industry needs to commit to genuinely helping the world meet its energy needs and climate goals — which means letting go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution,” International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol said before the start of talks.

What is carbon capture?

Many industrial facilities such as coal-fired power plants and ethanol plants produce carbon dioxide. To stop those planet-warming emissions from reaching the atmosphere, businesses can install equipment to separate that gas from all the other gases coming out of the smokestack and transport it to where it can be permanently stored underground. And even for industries trying to reduce emissions, some are likely to always produce some carbon, such as cement manufacturers that use a chemical process that releases CO2.

“We call that a mitigation technology, a way to stop the increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Karl Hausker, an expert on getting to net-zero emissions at World Resources Institute, a climate-focused nonprofit that supports sharp fossil fuel reductions along with a limited role for carbon capture.

The captured carbon is concentrated into a form that can be transported in a vehicle or through a pipeline to a place where it can be injected underground for long-term storage.

What is carbon removal?

Then there’s carbon removal. Instead of capturing carbon from a single, concentrated source, the objective is to remove carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. This already happens when forests are restored, for example, but there’s a push to deploy technology, too. One type directly captures it from the air, using chemicals to pull out carbon dioxide as air passes through.

For some, carbon removal is essential during a global transition to clean energy that will take years. For example, despite notable gains for electric vehicles in some countries, gas-fired cars will be operating well into the future. And some industries, like shipping and aviation, are challenging to fully decarbonize.

“We have to remove some of what’s in the atmosphere in addition to stopping the emissions,” said Jennifer Pett-Ridge, who leads the federally supported Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s carbon initiative in the United States, the world’s second-leading emitter of greenhouse gases.


How is it going?

Many experts say the technology to capture carbon and store it works, but it’s expensive, and it’s still in the early days of deployment.

There are about 40 large-scale carbon capture projects in operation around the world capturing roughly 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the International Energy Agency, or IEA. That’s a tiny amount — roughly 0.1% — of the 36.8 billion metric tons emitted globally as tallied by the Global Carbon Project.

The IEA says the history of carbon capture “has largely been one of unmet expectations.” The group analyzed how the world can achieve net zero emissions, and its guide path relies heavily on lowering emissions by slashing fossil fuel use. Carbon capture is just a sliver of the solution — less than 10% — but despite its comparatively small role, its expansion is still behind schedule.

The pace of new projects is picking up, but they face significant obstacles. In the United States, there’s opposition to CO2 pipelines that move carbon to storage sites. Safety is one concern; in 2020, a CO2 pipeline in Mississippi ruptured, releasing carbon dioxide that displaced breathable air near the ground and sent dozens of people to hospitals.

The federal government is working on improving safety standards.

Who supports carbon capture?

The American Petroleum Institute says oil and gas will remain a critical energy source for decades, meaning that for the world to reduce its carbon emissions, rapidly expanding carbon capture technology is “key to cleaner energy use across the economy.” A check of most oil companies’ plans to get to net-zero emissions also finds most of them relying on carbon capture in some way.

The Biden administration wants more investment in carbon capture and removal, too, building off America’s comparatively large spending compared with the rest of the world.

But it’s an industry that needs subsidies to attract private financing. The Inflation Reduction Act makes tax benefits much more generous. Investors can get a $180-per-ton credit for removing carbon from the air and storing it underground, for example. And the Department of Energy has billions to support new projects.

“What we are talking about now is taking a technology that has been proven and has been tested but applying it much more broadly and also applying it in sectors where there is a higher cost to deploy,” said Jessie Stolark, executive director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, an industry advocacy group.

Investment is picking up. The EPA is considering dozens of applications for wells that can store carbon. And in places such as Louisiana and North Dakota, local leaders are fighting to attract projects and investment.

Who is against it?

Some environmentalists argue that fossil fuel companies are holding up carbon capture to distract from the need to quickly phase out oil, gas and coal.

“The fossil fuel industry has proven itself to be dangerous and deceptive,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

There are other problems. Some projects haven’t met their carbon removal targets. A 2021 U.S. government accountability report said that of eight demonstration projects aimed at capturing and storing carbon from coal plants, just one had started operating at the time the report was published despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

Opponents also note that carbon capture can serve to prolong the life of a polluting plant that would otherwise shut down sooner. That can especially hurt poorer, minority communities that have long lived near heavily polluting facilities.

Wyoming Holds Off on Sale of Land Within National Park

Wyoming’s governor and other top leaders decided Thursday to hold off on auctioning a big chunk of state-owned land within Grand Teton National Park, choosing instead to continue negotiations with the U.S. government on a purchase or land swap for the pristine and valuable property.

Depending on how those talks go, the state Board of Land Commissioners made up of Governor Mark Gordon and the state’s other four statewide elected officials, all of whom are Republicans, might revisit the unpopular proposal next fall.

“Thank you very much,” Grand Teton Superintendent Palmer “Chip” Jenkins Jr. told the board members after their 5-0 vote against auction for now.

Park employees understand that revenue from such state lands funds education — they, too, have kids in Wyoming’s public schools — but are concerned about development in “inappropriate places,” Jenkins added.

An auction, recommended by State Lands Director Jenifer Scoggin to comply with a legal mandate to raise as much money for schools as possible, would have happened as soon as January. The land is appraised at $62.4 million.

Scoggin had suggested a minimum $80 million bid, investment of which would yield millions of dollars a year compared with the $2,800 a year now realized from grazing leases and recreation permits.

State lands staff speculated in a report for the board that a luxury home developer who subdivided the property into lots no smaller than 35 acres (14 hectares) would pay the most at auction.

Even compared with Wyoming officials’ previous threats to auction state-owned parcels within the park to prod the U.S. government to step in and pay millions to conserve the properties, the reaction was noteworthy for the lack of support for the proposal. In public hearings and letters since October, thousands of people opposed an auction.

“This area should not be destroyed by the construction of luxury houses and other development,” read a form statement for submission to the state on the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund website. “Too much development has already encroached on critical winter habitat near the park.”

As of Thursday, a counter showed more than 12,500 submissions of the form.

Located on the park’s eastern edge, the square-mile (2.6 square-kilometer) Kelly Parcel is undeveloped except for a road through it and offers an unobstructed, head-on view of the famously spectacular Teton Range. The land is prime habitat for moose, elk, deer and other wildlife typical of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wyoming has owned the land since statehood and it has existed within — but is technically not part of — Grand Teton since a park expansion in 1950.

Previous sales of state mineral rights and 86 acres (34.8 hectares) of state land in the park in 2012, followed by the sale of a different square-mile (2.6 square-kilometer) parcel in 2016, have netted Wyoming over $62 million. State officials and the Interior Department originally agreed the federal government would buy the Kelly Parcel for $46 million no later than early 2015, but negotiations broke down and have dragged on ever since.

Gordon raised the issue with Interior officials in a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Jackson Hole last month, according to spokesman Michael Pearlman.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, a member of the state land board, made Thursday’s motion to delay a possible auction, saying that $2,800 a year is “not an acceptable rate of return” but lands like the Kelly Parcel are essential to Wyoming’s character. Other options, such as a land swap, should be attainable through negotiations, she said.

“However, I do not think the answer is a sweetheart deal with the federal government,” Degenfelder said. “Our land and our education are worth more than that.”

US Federal Judge Accepts Settlement in Family Separation Case

Following a five-year legal battle, the settlement of a class action lawsuit concerning the practice of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border has been approved, and, importantly, it bars the use of a similar policy for the next eight years.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought the lawsuit in 2018 to stop the forcible separation of children from their parents after they illegally crossed the border into the United States.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in the Southern District of California approved the settlement Friday.

“When we brought this lawsuit, no one thought it would involve thousands of children, take us to so many countries searching for families, or last for years,” Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney on the case, wrote in a statement.

“While no one would ever claim that this settlement can wholly fix the harm intentionally caused to these little children, it is an essential beginning,” the statement continued.

The policy resulted in immigration agents separating more than 4,000 children from their parents and only became known after audio of scores of sobbing children screaming for their parents emerged from a U.S. federal detention facility.

About 4,500-5,000 children and their parents will be covered under this settlement. The government is expected to continue to identify families that were separated.

Though news of the separations came to light in 2018, a pilot program began in 2017 in the El Paso, Texas, area.

The policy sparked widespread bipartisan outrage and eventually pushed then-President Donald Trump to sign an executive order ending the practice. Many of the parents were deported from the United States without their children, some of whom were in foster care or with relatives they had never known before.

The settlement offers resources to help families address the trauma they suffered under the policy, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an October statement.

“The Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to ensure that the prior practice of separating families does not happen again, and we are continuing the work of reuniting children with their parents,” his statement said.

However, former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has said he could reinstitute the family separation policy if he’s reelected.

“If a family hears that they’re going to be separated — they love their family — they don’t come. I know it sounds harsh,” Trump said during a town hall in May.

But Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who represented the separated families, told VOA in an email that, “If a future administration tries to reinstate the family separation practice, the settlement allows us to go back to court to get an order stopping it.”

The order

The 46-page settlement does not offer money to families who were separated, but it does allow them to apply for temporary legal status for three years and a work permit. They can receive some help finding housing, and aid for initial rent payments such as first and last month’s rent. And the federal government must cover co-payments for medical and behavioral health services.

Families can also apply for asylum, even if they were denied it during their time in the U.S.

It also prohibits U.S. immigration officials from using the accusation that migrants entered the U.S. illegally as a reason to separate parents and their children. Agents at the border must prove child abuse or serious crimes before separating families and also record the charges, evidence and where each child is sent in a shared government database. Under the settlement, if families are separated, the ACLU lawyers must be informed so they can dispute the separations.

The Biden administration created a task force to continue to reunite separated families. According to a September report by the task force, 3,126 children have been reunited with their parents or legal guardians. The task force is still working with nonprofit and nongovernment organizations to reunite 1,073 children with their parents.

Of those, 81 children have no valid contact information for their parents or other relatives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, child psychology experts, and other child welfare groups have spoken out against separating children from their parents. They say it can have long-lasting effects on children’s emotional growth and cognitive development.

The ACLU has settled hundreds of lawsuits in its 103-year history, its executive director, Anthony D. Romero, wrote in an email to the media.

“None more important than this one … but as welcomed as it is, the damage inflicted on these families will forever be tragic and irreversible,” he added.

China’s Xi to Visit Vietnam as Hanoi-US Relations Warm 

Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Vietnam next week, his third to Hanoi after a six-year break and as Beijing and Washington jostle for influence.

The visit, on Tuesday and Wednesday, will coincide with the 15th anniversary of the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the nominally communist one-party, authoritarian states.

It also will come just three months after Vietnam upgraded its relationship with the United States to that same partnership level. U.S. President Joe Biden’s September visit to Vietnam put Washington on an equal footing with Beijing in Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy.

But unlike their relationships with the U.S., China and Vietnam share a high degree of ideological convergence, with leaders of both countries often describing their bilateral relationship as “comrades and brothers.”

Since Xi became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong, has visited China three times, in 2015, 2017 and 2022. He was the first foreign dignitary to visit after Xi secured his unprecedented third term as leader.

Xi also visited Vietnam in 2015 and 2017 but stopped traveling for three years during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Over the past decade, economic and trade relations between China and Vietnam have become increasingly close. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and second-largest export market, and it is now a major source of foreign investment in Vietnam. Vietnam is China’s top trading partner among countries in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China’s General Administration of Customs says trade between China and Vietnam exceeded $200 billion for the first time in 2021, reaching $230.2 billion — a year-on-year increase of 19.7%.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says trade between the U.S. and Vietnam in 2022 totaled $142 billion, with U.S. exports since 2021 up 3% and imports up 25%.

Despite close political and economic ties between China and Vietnam, the two countries have a decades-long sovereignty dispute over large parts of the South China Sea. Beijing’s aggressive assertion of its claims has pushed Hanoi closer to Washington.

China’s placement of an oil rig near the Paracel Islands in 2014 led to a standoff and collision with a Vietnamese fishing vessel that sparked anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

Tensions flared again in 2020 after a Vietnamese fishing boat and Chinese vessel collided near the Paracel Islands, sinking the Vietnamese one.

China’s militarization over the past decade of the Spratly Islands, where it has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles, has also triggered serious concern in Vietnam.

Vietnam has responded with reclamation and expansion projects on islands under its control.

Popular perception

While most Vietnamese have come to terms with the Vietnam War that ended when the U.S. withdrew its troops in 1975, many still look warily at China — a giant neighbor with whom they fought a brief war in 1979. Beijing launched a three-week attack on Vietnam to punish Hanoi for invading Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, and the two sides had occasional border skirmishes in the years that followed.

A survey published in February by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute showed that while a majority of Vietnamese views on U.S. influence were positive, a growing majority saw Chinese influence as negative.

The survey showed most Vietnamese were not confident that China would do the right thing in terms of global peace, security, prosperity and governance, while 65% believed that Beijing’s economic and military power could be used to threaten their own country’s interests and sovereignty.

Appeals Court Upholds, but Narrows Gag Order on Trump in Washington Case

A federal appeals court in Washington largely upheld a gag order on Donald Trump in his 2020 election interference case on Friday, but narrowed the restrictions on his speech to allow the former president to criticize the special counsel who brought the case.

The three-judge panel’s ruling modifies the gag order, permitting the Republican 2024 presidential front-runner to make disparaging comments about special counsel Jack Smith, but it reimposes limits on what he can say about known or reasonably foreseeable witnesses in the case and about court staff and other lawyers.

The unanimous ruling is mostly a win for Smith’s team, with the judges agreeing with prosecutors that Trump’s often-incendiary comments about participants in the case can have a damaging practical impact and rejecting claims by defense attorneys that restrictions on the ex-president’s speech amount to an unconstitutional muzzling. It lays out fresh parameters about what Trump can and cannot say about the case as he both prepares for a March trial and campaigns to reclaim the White House.

“Mr. Trump’s documented pattern of speech and its demonstrated real-time, real-world consequences pose a significant and imminent threat to the functioning of the criminal trial process in this case,” Judge Patricia Millett wrote for the court. She noted that many of the targets of Trump’s verbal jabs “have been subjected to a torrent of threats and intimidation from his supporters.”

The case accuses Trump of plotting with his Republican allies to subvert the will of voters in a desperate bid to stay in power in the run-up to the Capitol riot by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. It is scheduled to go to trial in March in Washington’s federal court, just blocks away from the Capitol.

Friday’s opinion says that though Trump has a constitutional right to free speech and is a former president and current candidate, “he is also an indicted criminal defendant, and he must stand trial in a courtroom under the same procedures that govern all other criminal defendants.”

The appeals court also said that a comment on court staff, other lawyers or their family members was off-limits “to the extent it is made with either the intent to materially interfere with their work or the knowledge that such interference is highly likely to result.”

In a social media post responding to the ruling, Trump said his team would appeal, and he complained anew about restrictions on his speech.

“In other words, people can speak violently and viciously against me, or attack me in any form, but I am not allowed to respond, in kind,” he said. “What is becoming of our First Amendment, what is becoming of our Country?”

The special counsel has separately charged Trump in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate after he left the White House following his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. That case is set for trial next May, though the judge has signaled that the date might be postponed.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has claimed the cases against him are part of a politically motivated effort to keep him from returning to the White House.

Kremlin Propaganda on Uptick in Latin America

Javier Vrox, the host of a political program on a YouTube channel in Chile who constantly monitors social networks in his country, recently noticed an uptick in pro-Russian political messaging, which had already been common in the country.

“They copy and paste the same messages on social media — that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy is an actor, that he is a funny president; they copy those videos of Zelensky’s past TV series, making the point that he is an actor and a liar.”

According to Vrox, such reports aim to convince Chileans that Ukrainians only pretend to be victims of Russian aggression but are themselves a regional threat, and that NATO and the United States, by that logic, are its partners and equally hostile to Chile while Russia is a reliable ally.

“I think they’re doing a great job of tagging influencers, people from Twitter, now X, to share video messages and posts … to create the idea that if you’re a friend of the U.S., you’re an enemy to Chile,” said Vrox, who added that some posts referred to Ukrainian leaders as “Nazis,” even though Zelenskyy himself is Jewish.

These sentiments are not shared by Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who has publicly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine and met with Zelenskyy in September 2023 during the U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss a possible Ukraine-Latin America summit.

“Chileans don’t really support Ukraine; they think that Ukrainians are trying to manipulate the media to look like victims,” said Vrox. But “Boric supports Zelenskyy’s government, so a weird situation has developed.”

Well-funded network

James Rubin, the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center special envoy and coordinator, agreed in an interview with VOA last month that Russia is “covertly co-opting local media and influencers to spread disinformation and propaganda” in Latin America.

In a public statement issued on November 7, the State Department said Russia “is currently financing an ongoing, well-funded disinformation campaign across Latin America,” spanning at least 13 countries, from Argentina and Chile in the south all the way to Mexico in the north.

“A cultivated group of editorial staff would be organized in a Latin American country, most likely in Chile, with several local individuals and representatives — journalists and public opinion leaders — of various countries in the region,” the statement said.

“A team in Russia would then create content and send the material to the editorial staff in Latin America for review, editing, and ultimately publication in local mass media.”

Christopher Hernandez-Roy of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, said Russia has a “legacy of propaganda” in the region going back to the Cold War.

Hernandez-Roy is a CSIS Americas Program deputy director and senior fellow.

The Soviets, he said, were “supporting revolutionary movements throughout the region, including military support in the case of Cuba, Nicaragua and other places, Central America in general, in the 70s and 80s.”

The annexation of Crimea in 2014, he said, became the starting point of a new wave of disinformation in the region.

“It’s around then that you start to see maybe an uptick in Russia’s influence or trying to influence narratives in the Western Hemisphere,” he told VOA. “In those three years — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — you start to see, for instance, ‘Russia Today’ coming online in Chile and Mexico, and I think in Argentina, as well.”

According to an October report by the United States Institute of Peace, Actualidad RT (Russia Today in Spanish) and Sputnik Mundo are the key purveyors of Russian state media in the region. Hernandez-Roy said these two media organizations have about 32 million regular listeners in Latin America, which has 667 million inhabitants.

“So, [even] 30 million is quite significant, and those are [merely] the overt ways,” he said. “Russia has a much more sophisticated apparatus than just simply its visible media outlets, [such as] using social media, sympathetic journalists, sympathetic influencers and Russian automated bots on social media. It can amplify its messages, which then are picked up by other sympathetic mechanisms.”

“We know [Actualidad RT] have offices in Havana, Buenos Aires and Caracas,” said Armando Daniel Armas, a Venezuelan opposition politician currently living in Europe. “We know that [Actualidad RT] have over 200 Spanish-speaking, let’s say, journalists working in Moscow … who allocate resources to find professional people, good people with content” to perpetuate Russian narratives on the ground in Latin American.

The object, according to U.S. officials, is to have Russian public relations and internet companies recruit and cultivate Latin American journalists, influencers and public opinion leaders to seed their publications and broadcasts with content favorable to Moscow while hiding any links to the Kremlin.

“They’ve been somewhat successful in using RT and Sputnik in Latin America,” Rubin told VOA in November. “The difference here is they’re trying to operate surreptitiously. They’re trying to create content in Russia and launder it through Latin American journalists. They are covertly co-opting local media and influencers to spread disinformation and propaganda.”

U.S. officials said it is unclear how many of the journalists and opinion leaders are aware they are being fed Russian disinformation, although a senior State Department official told VOA, “There are definitely some willing participants.”

Others involved in the network may be sympathetic to the Russian viewpoints but unaware that the directions are coming from Moscow.

Russia’s ultimate objective, said Hernandez-Roy, is to convince people in Latin America that Moscow is not the only one to blame — that there’s blame on both sides in a war caused by the U.S. and NATO.

“Essentially, what they’re trying to do is to make sure that the region is neutral,” said Hernandez-Roy. “We’re not talking about Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which, of course, are completely on the Russian side.”

Soft diplomacy

Yuriy Polyukhovych, Ukraine’s ambassador to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, points to another asset utilized to influence opinions in Latin American that Moscow has used since Soviet times: its diplomatic corps.

“Russian ambassadors, Russian embassies here are a part of Russia’s propaganda machine,” he told VOA. “They’ve been doing their work for many years. These are not embassies of four or five persons. These embassies have 60, 70, 80 people each. Imagine what can be done with such a group of people! According to our information, some work for the intelligence service.”

At the same time, said Ukrainian Ambassador to Argentina Yuriy Klymenko, the Russian war against Ukraine at least somewhat undermined Russia’s standing in Latin America, presenting a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and its allies.

“From my experience, it is now considered bad manners to invite representatives of Russia to diplomatic or other public events,” he told VOA.

Yuriy Polyukhovych once called Latin America a region of “contact diplomacy,” emphasizing the need to work directly with local populations to counteract Russian influence. Hernandez-Roy suggested the U.S. project more soft power in the region.

“The U.S. used to project much more soft power decades ago than today,” he said. “Soft power means people-to-people exchanges, more high-level visits, cultural interchanges.”

Kyiv, he said, should allocate more resources to the region and conduct active diplomacy with high-level visits and ambassadors to counter Russian narratives.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service. VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed reporting.

UNLV Gunman Had List of Targets at University, Police Say

The 67-year-old gunman who killed three faculty members and wounded a fourth in a roughly 10-minute rampage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had a list of targets at the school and more than 150 rounds of ammunition, police said Thursday. 

Clark County Sheriff Kevin McMahill identified the suspect, who was killed in a shootout with police, as Anthony Polito, a longtime business professor who was living in nearby Henderson, Nevada. The sheriff said at a news conference that investigators were still looking into a motive but noted that Polito had applied for several jobs at various colleges and universities in Nevada but was denied the job each time. 

However, Roseman University of Health Sciences in Henderson said Polito had an adjunct faculty contract and taught two courses in the school’s Master of Business Administration program from October 2018 to June 2022. He left when the program was discontinued, said Jason Roth, a spokesperson for the school. 

McMahill said targets on Polito’s list also included faculty members at East Carolina University in North Carolina, where Polito was a professor at the university’s business school from 2001 to 2017. 

“None of the individuals on the target list became a victim,” McMahill said, adding that police have contacted everyone on the suspect’s list, except for one person who is on a flight.

Before the shooting, Polito also mailed 22 letters to university faculty members across the U.S., according to footage reviewed by detectives from a dashcam in Polito’s vehicle, McMahill said. 

Some envelopes contained an unknown white powder that was later found to be harmless, police said. 

Terrified students and professors cowered in classrooms and offices as the gunman roamed the top three floors of UNLV’s five-story Lee Business School around lunchtime Wednesday.

Polito arrived at UNLV about 15 minutes before the shooting in a 2007 Lexus, McMahill said. He exited his car, placed items in his waistband and then entered the business school just after 11:30 a.m. The first reports of gunfire came about 15 minutes later, McMahill said.

The sheriff said the rampage ended around 11:55 a.m., when Polito left the business school and was confronted by police outside the building.

The suspect’s weapon, a 9 mm handgun, was purchased legally last year, McMahill said.

Police were still investigating how many rounds were fired during the attack. But the sheriff said that due to the sheer amount of ammunition in the gunman’s possession, he believed Polito may have been headed to the student union, which is next to the business school, when university police officers found him, and he was killed in the shootout. 

McMahill said the shooter brought 11 magazines with him to the campus, and police found nine of them on the shooter after he was killed.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the school’s 30,000 students were on campus at the time, but McMahill said students had been gathered outside the building and the student union to eat and play games. If police hadn’t killed the attacker, “it could have been countless additional lives taken,” he said. 

The victims

UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield identified two of the victims who were killed as business school professors Patricia Navarro-Velez and Cha Jan “Jerry” Chang. Whitfield said the name of the third victim will be released after relatives have been notified of the death. 

In a letter to students and staff, Whitfield said that the shooting “was the most difficult day in the history of our university.” 

The wounded man, a 38-year-old visiting professor, was still hospitalized Thursday. McMahill said his condition had been “downgraded to life-threatening” from critical. 

Navarro-Velez, 39, was an accounting professor who held a Ph.D. and was currently focused on research in cybersecurity disclosures and data analytics, according to the school’s website.

Chang, 64, was an associate professor in the business school’s Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology department and had been teaching at UNLV since 2001. He held degrees from Taiwan, Central Michigan University and Texas A&M University, according to his online resume. He earned a Ph.D. in management information systems from the University of Pittsburgh.

The attack at UNLV terrified a city that experienced the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history in October 2017, when a gunman killed 60 people and wounded more than 400 after opening fire from the window of a high-rise suite at Mandalay Bay on the Las Vegas Strip, just miles from the UNLV campus.

The suspect

Authorities on Thursday said Polito appeared to be struggling financially. When they arrived at his apartment Wednesday night to search the property, McMahill said, they found an eviction notice taped to his front door. Inside the apartment, detectives found a chair with an arrow pointing down to a document “similar to a last will and testament,” McMahill said, though the sheriff did not provide specifics on the contents of that document.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long Polito had been living in the Las Vegas area. He resigned from East Carolina University as a tenured associate professor, according to a statement Thursday from the university.

One of Polito’s former students at East Carolina, Paul Whittington, said Polito seemed obsessive over anonymous student reviews at the end of each semester.

Polito told Whittington’s class that he remembered the faces of students who gave him bad reviews and would express that he was sure who they were and where they sat, pointing at seats in the classroom, Whittington said.

“He always talked about the negative feedback he got,” said Whittington, now 33, who took Polito’s intro to operations management class in 2014. “He didn’t get a lot of it, but there would always be one student every semester, or at least one student every class, that would give a negative review. And he fixated on those.”

Classes at UNLV were canceled through Friday, and the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo canceled events that were scheduled Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV. 

US Funding to Counter China in Pacific in Limbo

Funding to counter China in the Pacific is now caught in the congressional battle in Washington over foreign aid and border security. The White House calls the package a “critical component” of its national security. And as VOA’s Jessica Stone reports, time is running out to lock in an economic and security relationship between the United States and three strategic Pacific Island nations. Camera: Yu Chen, Jessica Stone, Saqib Ul Islam

US Embassy in Baghdad Attacked With 7 Mortars, No Casualties

Approximately seven mortar rounds landed in the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad during an attack early on Friday, a U.S. military official told Reuters, in what appears to be one of the largest attacks against the embassy in recent memory.

It also marked the first time the U.S. embassy had been fired on in more than a year, apparently widening the range of targets after dozens of attacks on military bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since mid-October amid fears of broadening conflict in the region.

No group claimed responsibility, but previous attack against U.S. forces have been carried out by Iran-aligned militias which have targeted U.S. interests in Syria and Iraq over Washington’s backing for Israel in its Gaza war.

The U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, left open the possibility that more projectiles were fired at the embassy compound but did not land within it.

The official added that the attack caused very minor damage but no injuries.

Explosions were heard near the embassy, in the center of the capital, at about 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Friday. Sirens calling on people to take cover were activated.

State media said the attack damaged the headquarters of an Iraqi security agency.

The U.S. military official added that Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts U.S. and other international forces in western Iraq, had also been targeted but the projectiles did not land in the base.

Sheik Ali Damoush, a senior official in the Lebanese group Hezbollah, said in a Friday sermon that attacks by Iran-aligned groups across the Middle East aim to apply pressure for a halt to Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip. He did not refer specifically to Friday’s attack.

The dozens of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been claimed by a group of Iran-aligned Shi’ite Muslim militias operating under the banner of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

The U.S. has responded with a series of strikes that have killed at least 15 militants in Iraq and up to seven in Syria.

‘Acts of terrorism’

The attacks pose a challenge for Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who has pledged to protect foreign missions and capitalize on fragile stability to focus on the economy and court foreign investment, including from the United States.

Sudani directed security agencies to pursue the perpetrators, describing them as “unruly, lawless groups that do not in any way represent the will of the Iraqi people,” a statement from his office said.

He also said that undermining Iraq’s stability, reputation and targeting places Iraq has committed to protect were acts of terrorism.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson called on the Iraqi government to do all in its power to protect diplomatic and coalition personnel and facilities.

“We reiterate that we reserve the right to self-defense and to protect our personnel anywhere in the world,” he said.

Aside from its diplomatic staff in Iraq, the United States has about 2,500 troops in the country on a mission it says aims to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large swathes of both countries before being defeated.

Iran-aligned Houthis have been firing at Israel and ships in the Red Sea in a campaign they say aims to support the Palestinians. U.S. warships have shot down several of their projectiles.

Donor Threatens To Withdraw $100 million From University After Congressional Hearing

A University of Pennsylvania donor has threatened to withdraw a $100 million donation from The Wharton School, the university’s business school, following the appearance of the university’s president before Congress.

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill appeared before Congress Tuesday along with leaders of two other Ivy League schools – Harvard President Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth of MIT.

During a hearing, none of the presidents answered “yes” or “no” to the question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?”

All three presidents told the panel that they did not condone antisemitism and were taking steps to prevent it on campus, but on the specific question they cited free speech rights and said any discipline would depend on the specific circumstances.

Hate speech and acts — both antisemitic and Islamophobic — have erupted on U.S. college campuses since the Hamas-Israel war began in October.

All the presidents have received criticism because of their refusal to give a definitive answer to the question.

Stone Ridge Asset Management CEO Ross Stevens says he will withdraw his donation, now worth $100 million, to the Wharton School’s Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance if Magill is not removed from office. 

Republicans Split on Whether Trump Would Be ‘Dictator’ if Reelected

As part of his campaign for a second term as U.S. president, Donald Trump and his allies say the former president — if he wins — would use federal law enforcement to punish his political enemies and restructure the federal government to streamline implementation of his policies.

While Democrats have been virtually unanimous in their concerns about a second Trump presidency, warning that it would be tantamount to a “dictatorship,” the reaction among Republicans has been sharply divergent. Some in the Republican Party are raising an alarm, while others downplay Trump’s rhetoric, suggesting that concerns about it are overblown.

A key distinction, though, is that most of the Republicans expressing concerns about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are either no longer in office or have announced their retirement, which suggests that resistance to the former president’s expressed preferences may not be a tenable position in the modern-day Republican Party.

Revenge and retribution

In recent weeks, Trump has promised his supporters that he will be their “retribution” if he retakes the White House, and has used language reminiscent of the worst of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, calling his political opponents “vermin” and warning that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the United States.

Trump has also expressed interest in reclassifying broad swaths of the federal workforce — tens of thousands of career civil servants — as “Schedule F” employees whom he could fire at will. A coalition of conservative think tanks, spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation, is currently “vetting” thousands of Trump supporters who are interested in serving in a second Trump administration and who could be expected to faithfully carry out his wishes.

Trump has also promised to take specific steps, including “going after” President Joe Biden and his family with a “special prosecutor,” and has suggested that news outlets critical of him should be silenced.

Trump’s closest supporters have echoed his threats. In an interview with former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon this week, Kash Patel, a former Defense Department official during the Trump administration, said that in a second Trump term, “We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media …

“Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections — we’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.”

“This is just not rhetoric,” Bannon added. “We’re absolutely dead serious.”

A one-day dictator?

As recently as Tuesday in a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Trump was given the opportunity to allay concerns that he would behave like a dictator if reelected.

“To be clear, do you in any way have any plans whatsoever if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people?” Hannity asked.

“You mean like they’re using right now?” Trump replied, and did not answer the question.

A few minutes later, Hannity tried again, “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”

“We love this guy,” Trump replied. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Other than Day One. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator. OK?”

The Trump campaign did not respond to an emailed request asking for clarification of his remarks.

Republicans issue warnings

In the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie painted a dire picture of what he thinks another Trump presidency would look like.

“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct, and every one of these policies that he’s talking about are about pursuing a plan of retribution,” Christie said.

“Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator?” Christie continued. “All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim empowers him. …

“Let me make it clear: His conduct is unacceptable. He’s unfit. And be careful of what you’re going to get if you ever got another Donald Trump term. He’s letting you know, ‘I am your retribution.'”

Trump was not on the stage, having declined to participate in any of the primary debates. The other three Republicans on the debate stage, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, avoided any sharp criticism of the former president, who retains a commanding lead in polls of likely primary voters.

‘Sleepwalking into a dictatorship’

Christie’s concerns have been echoed by other Republicans such as Utah Senator and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who told The Washington Post this week that Trump’s base seems to want him to behave like an authoritarian.

“His base loves the authoritarian streak,” Romney said. “I think they love the idea that he may use the military in domestic matters, and that he will seek revenge and retribution. That’s why he’s saying it and has the lock, nearly, on the Republican nomination.” In September, Romney announced that he will not be running for reelection next year.

Former Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who has been a vocal critic of Trump and served on the House panel that investigated the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, told CBS News last weekend that she has no doubts about what a second Trump presidency would look like.

“One of the things that we see happening today is sort of sleepwalking into a dictatorship in the United States,” she said.

Not a serious threat

Current Republican officeholders who are supportive of the former president often downplay his suggestion that he will use the levers of governmental power to punish his critics.

During Wednesday’s debate, for example, DeSantis dismissed concerns about Trump behaving as an authoritarian during a second term.

“Look, the media’s making a big deal about what he said about some of these comments,” he said. “I would just remind people that is not how he governed.”

Senator Lindsey Graham has said publicly he believes Trump’s comments to Hannity were meant to be “funny.” In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Graham disputed Cheney’s assertions about how Trump will behave in office, saying they stem from her personal animosity toward the former president.

“I think a continuation of the Biden presidency would be a disaster for peace and prosperity at home and abroad,” Graham said. “Our border is broken. The only person who is really going to fix a broken border is Donald Trump. When he was president, none of this stuff was going on in Ukraine. Hamas and all these other terrorist groups were afraid of Trump.”

Asked to comment on Trump’s statement that he would be a one-day dictator, Republican Senator Thom Tillis said, “He said he would do two things: He would close the border and drill. Everybody could say that’s abusing power. I think that’s a righteous use of power, and President Biden’s failed on it.”

‘Autocrats always tell you who they are’

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University and author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present,” warned against the danger of dismissing Trump’s rhetoric as unserious or flippant.

“Everything Donald Trump says should be taken seriously,” she wrote in an email exchange with VOA. “Autocrats always tell you who they are and what they are going to do. In this case, Trump is saying clearly he has aspirations to be a dictator, which is unsurprising given his incitement of a coup to stay in office illegally and given his open adulation of others of his tribe such as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping].”

Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of Communications at American University who studies the connection between political language and violence, said that downplaying Trump’s rhetoric allows much of what the former president says to become “normalized” with the general public.

“They’ve been saying he’s ‘just joking’ for seven years now,” Braddock told VOA. “And whether he’s just joking or not is immaterial as far as I’m concerned. People interpret it, or some segment of the population interprets it, as being truthful.”

“When there’s a population that admires somebody as much as some individuals admire Trump, the normalization of this kind of language promotes positive attitudes about the kinds of things it implies,” Braddock said.

“So if he jokes about being a dictator, or jokes about implied violence against political enemies, the more he does that the more it kind of becomes part of our normal vocabulary.”

US Deals with Allies Signal Concerns Over China’s Disinformation Campaign

Western foreign policy experts are welcoming recent U.S. agreements to jointly tackle foreign disinformation with Seoul and Tokyo, saying they are needed to counter Chinese efforts to undermine liberal democracies through the spread of fake news.

The U.S. signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Japan in Tokyo on Wednesday “to identify and counter foreign information manipulation,” according to a State Department statement.

The agreement follows a Memorandum of Understanding signed with South Korea in Seoul on Friday to cooperate in their efforts to tackle foreign disinformation. The agreements, the first designed to fight disinformation, were made during an Asia trip by Liz Allen, the U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

They are designed to “demonstrate the seriousness with which the United States is working with its partners to defend the information space,” according to the State Department’s Wednesday statement, which did not specify any nations as threats.

In response, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Tuesday that he wants to stress that “China always opposes the creation and spread of disinformation.”

He said, “What I have seen is that there is a lot of disinformation about China on social media in the U.S. Some U.S. officials, lawmakers, media and organizations have produced and spread a large amount of false information against China without any evidence, ignoring basic facts.”

The agreements the U.S. made with its allies are “a deliberate acknowledgment of the threats posed by China,” said David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

“Disinformation is part of a deliberate long-term political warfare campaign by China to subvert the democracies of the U.S., the ROK and Japan as well as to undermine the alliance relationships to prevent unified action against China,” Maxwell said, using the acronym for South Korea’s official name, Republic of Korea.

China is seemingly accelerating its social media operation aimed at influencing the U.S. election in 2024.

Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, announced on Nov. 30 that it took down 4,789 Facebook accounts based in China that were impersonating Americans, including politicians, and posting messages about U.S. politics and U.S.-China relations.

In the report on adversarial threats, Meta said China is the third-most-common source of foreign disinformation after Russia and Iran.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, said, “The Chinese, Russians, and others seek to disrupt the normal give and take of our political discourse.”

Wilder, formerly National Security Council director for China in 2004-05 during the George W. Bush administration, continued to say the agreements Washington made with Seoul and Tokyo are “a significant step forward” as “democracies must work together” to offset “disinformation designed to influence electorate and sow overall dissent within our open political systems.”

Beijing appears to be spreading anti-U.S. and pro-China messages in South Korea as well.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) announced Nov. 13 it had identified and taken down 38 fake Korean-language news sites operated by two Chinese public relations firms, Haimai and Haixun.

South Korea’s National Cyber Security Center, which is overseen by NIS, released a report on the same day describing the kind of propaganda that the firms disseminated through the fake news sites by posing as members of the Korean Digital News Association. The organization oversees the copyrights of news articles posted by its members.

Using news site names such as Seoul Press with the corresponding domain name as and Busan Online with, Haimai has been disseminating disinformation and operating the sites from China, according to the report. Busan is South Korea’s second-largest city.

An article on Daegu Journal, another illicit site Haimai was running, stated in June that nuclear wastewater released from Japan would affect the South Korean food supply chain.

The National Cyber Security Center report also noted that U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant, owned by Google, released a report in July accusing Haimai of operating 72 fraudulent websites to spread anti-U.S. messages.

Cho Han-Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told VOA’s Korean Service on Tuesday that “China and North Korea have been attempting in various ways to influence South Korea’s public opinion.”

He said the influence campaign could affect South Korean politics and therefore Seoul’s relations with Beijing or its stance on Pyongyang.

Kim Hyungjin in Seoul contributed to this report.

Cherokee Nation Chief Speaks to VOA on US Promises, Progress

President Joe Biden convened a two-day summit Wednesday with the heads of more than 300 tribal groups, saying his administration is committed to writing “a new and better chapter of history” for the more than 570 Native American communities in the United States by making it easier for them to access federal funding.

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the United States, spoke to VOA about those efforts and also some of the themes of Native history that are in the forefront today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: What are your goals for your half-million citizens at this summit?

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: It’s to press the administration on meeting America’s commitment but also learn more about what their plans are. … The most important thing for the Cherokee Nation, I think — and all tribes — is the efficient deployment of resources, and then allowing tribes to decide how to use those resources. So, a more efficient, streamlined process in terms of getting funding out.

VOA: The Biden administration says it will release at this summit a report card of sorts. What’s your assessment of how the administration has succeeded and where it could do better?

Hoskin: I think overall, it’s been very, very positive. … The bipartisan infrastructure deal has been important for the Cherokee Nation. The American Rescue Plan has enabled us to do things that may seem small to the rest of the world, like putting a cell tower in a community that didn’t have cellphone access, by improving water systems.

VOA: Any criticism?

Hoskin: To the extent that it’s criticism: The federal government’s a big ship, it’s tough to steer. What I have seen over the years is, you get a new administration in, it takes a while for the relationships to be built up, for executive orders on consultation to translate down to agencies.

VOA: President Biden has not made — publicly, at least — any sort of land acknowledgment statement. Is that something you seek?

Hoskin: Reminding the country that there were aboriginal people here before anyone ever heard of the United States, I think that’s important. But I think in terms of what tribal citizens want to see, and what tribal leaders want to see is access to land, control of resources, more land placed into trust for the benefit of Native Americans.

VOA: The current war between Israel and Hamas is also about land. Do you have any advice for President Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during this very tense moment?

Hoskin: I do think there are some parallels. You’re talking about people who say that they’ve been on the land from time immemorial. That’s what we Cherokees say, and we have a history of being dispossessed from our land. I would just remind people that there’s a way to balance rights. I think we’re trying to do that in the United States in terms of Indian Country versus the rest of the country. We haven’t perfected it, but I think we’re making some progress. So, all I would say is the respect and dignity that every human being deserves ought to be on display anytime you’re having these sorts of situations. That’s a difficult sentiment to express in the midst of some real difficulties.

VOA: Adversaries of the U.S. have weaponized the well-documented suffering of Native Americans, saying the U.S. doesn’t have the moral high ground on the world stage.

Hoskin: Certainly it would be accurate to say the United States has an appalling record towards Indigenous peoples. Is it perfect now? No, it’s not. But we’re making progress. I mean, think about what’s happened on the world stage. In Australia, that country just rejected the recognition of aboriginal people. In the United States, we have federal recognition. … We do have a foundation upon which we built a great deal. And so, to those critics of the United States, I would say, come to the Cherokee Nation and look at what we’re doing, leading in things like health care and lifting up people economically. It’s not perhaps the picture that has been painted by some of these regimes.

VOA: I believe you knew [former Cherokee chief] Wilma Mankiller very well. Talk a bit about her.

Hoskin: Anybody in the world who cares about human rights, the dignity of everybody, civil rights, they should get to know her. … She reminded us of who we are and what we always had in us, which was the ability to govern ourselves, to protect ourselves, to understand we have this common history and destiny. She reminded us that we were Cherokee after generations of being suppressed and a bit beaten down. So, she lifted us up. The fact that there’s a Barbie doll that depicts her, that there’s a quarter from the United States Mint — that shows what a powerful person she was.

VOA: How do you feel about not being consulted on the Barbie doll?

Hoskin: Well, I think it’s disrespect on the part of Mattel, but I will also tell you that they very quickly understood that, and we’re engaging. So, I think that overall, I appreciate Mattel depicting Wilma Mankiller, the great Cherokee chief. On balance, this is a good thing.

VOA: What does it mean to you to be an American?

Hoskin: I think a lot about this. I can go back a few generations to my ancestors who signed up to fight for this country in World War I and World War II — while within their living memory, there was a great deal of oppression and atrocities by this country to their own people. But in terms of the principles of what we want for this country, like freedom and opportunity for everyone, if we aspire to that, that’s something we all share. And so for me, that’s what it means to be an American.

VOA: How do you feel about public holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving?

Hoskin: Columbus Day is abhorrent. [Christopher Columbus is] demonstrably somebody who engaged in great atrocities towards Native peoples. … There’s plenty to celebrate in American history without celebrating and misstating what he did. In terms of Thanksgiving, I think it’s become for the Cherokee people something that we just celebrate in terms of what unites humanity, which is giving thanks for what we have and trying to do better.

VOA: Anything else you’d like to tell our audience? We broadcast in 48 languages. Would you like to say something in your language?

Hoskin: Sure. I’d say “osiyo,” which is “hello” in Cherokee. And “donadagohvi,” which is ”we will see each other again.” We don’t say goodbye. We just look forward to seeing people again. I look forward to seeing you again.

VOA: And I look forward to seeing you again.

Senate Approves USAGM Board

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved six people to serve on the board of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the government agency that oversees six congressionally funded international broadcasting and tech entities, including Voice of America.

The bipartisan International Broadcasting Advisory Board (IBAB) was approved by the Senate en bloc, meaning the nominees were approved without a recorded vote.

In an email Thursday to staff, USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett said the newly approved board “brings a wealth of talent, expertise and passion to our mission, which remains critical in the wake of the ongoing global information war.”

“As hundreds of millions of people rely on our fact-based news to triumph over information manipulation and censorship, the IBAB adds a layer of oversight and strategic guidance that will undergird our commitment to freedom and democracy into the future,” she added.

The board members include Jamie Fly, the former head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Kathleen Cunningham Matthews, a former journalist and communications executive; Jeffrey Gedmin, a journalist, author and former head of RFE/RL; Kenneth M. Jarin, a partner at national law firm Ballard Spahr; Luis Manuel Botello, a former investigative journalist and consultant for the International Center for Journalists; and Michelle Mai Selesky Giuda, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and acting undersecretary of state.

USAGM has a seven-person board, six of whom are presidentially appointed and one who is the secretary of state. No more than three can be affiliated with the same political party.

This is the first USAGM board approved since legislation passed in late 2020 empowered the board to approve appointments or dismissals of any network heads.

Under those changes, the board is required to advise the chief executive on ways to improve the effectiveness of programming, report to congressional committees and act as a safeguard to ensure the chief executive “fully respects the professional integrity and editorial independence” of the networks she oversees.

Those provisions were created after the previous USAGM chief, Michael Pack, drew widespread criticism for his interpretation of the powers granted to the presidentially appointed chief executive.

An independent investigation into whistleblower complaints about Pack and his team’s governance found he abused his authority, allowed gross mismanagement of funds and breached the editorial firewall designed to protect USAGM journalists from political interference.

Under the amended provisions approved in late 2020, the USAGM chief executive now needs majority board approval to hire or remove network heads.

Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist and former VOA director, was approved as USAGM chief executive in a September 2022 vote for a three-year term. She oversees an agency that for fiscal 2024 submitted a budget request of $944 million and that has a mission to provide independent international news coverage and circumvention tools to a weekly audience of 410 million.

USAGM oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. It also oversees the Open Technology Fund, which provides tools to help audiences overcome internet restrictions and surveillance.

US House Votes to Censure Democratic Member for Pulling Fire Alarm in Capitol Office Building

House members voted again Thursday to punish one of their own, targeting Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman for triggering a fire alarm in a U.S. Capitol office building when the chamber was in session.

The Republican censure resolution passed with a few Democratic votes, but most of the party stood by Bowman in opposition of an effort they said lacked credibility and integrity. The prominent progressive now becomes the third Democratic House member to be admonished this year through the censure process, which is a punishment one step below expulsion from the House.

“It’s painfully obvious to myself, my colleagues and the American people that the Republican Party is deeply unserious and unable to legislate,” Bowman said Wednesday as he defended himself during floor debate. “Their censure resolution against me today continues to demonstrate their inability to govern and serve the American people.”

The 214-191 vote to censure Bowman caps nearly a year of chaos and retribution in the House of Representatives. Since January, the chamber has seen the removal of a member from a committee assignment, the first ouster of a speaker in history and, just last week, the expulsion of a lawmaker for only the third time since the Civil War.

Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from Michigan, who introduced the censure resolution, defended it, claiming Bowman pulled the alarm in September to “cause chaos and the stop the House from doing its business” as lawmakers scrambled to pass a bill to fund the government before a shutdown deadline.

“It is reprehensible that a Member of Congress would go to such lengths to prevent House Republicans from bringing forth a vote to keep the government operating and Americans receiving their paychecks,” McClain said in a statement.

Bowman pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor count for the incident, which took place in the Cannon House Office Building. He agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and serve three months of probation, after which the false fire alarm charge is expected to be dismissed from his record under an agreement with prosecutors.

The fire alarm prompted a buildingwide evacuation when the House was in session and staffers were working in the building. The building was reopened an hour later after Capitol police determined there was no threat.

Bowman apologized and said that at the time he was trying to get through a door that was usually open but was closed that day because it was the weekend.

Many progressive Democrats, who spoke in his defense, called the Republican effort to censure him “unserious,” and the accused those across the aisle of weaponizing the censure process against Democrats over and over again for political gain.

“Censure me next. That’s how worthless your effort is,” Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said on the floor late Wednesday. “It has no credibility. No integrity. No legitimacy. Censure me next, and I’ll take that censure and I’ll wear it next week, next month, next year like a badge of honor.”

The vote is the latest example of how the chamber has begun to deploy punishments like censure, long viewed as a punishment of last resort, routinely and often in strikingly partisan ways.

“Under Republican control, this chamber has become a place where trivial issues get debated passionately and important ones not at all,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said during floor debate. “Republicans have focused more on censuring people in this Congress than passing bills that help people we represent or improving this country in any way.”

While the censure of a lawmaker carries no practical effect, it amounts to severe reproach from colleagues, as lawmakers who are censured are usually asked to stand in the well of the House as the censure resolution against them is read aloud.

Bowman is now the 27th person to be censured by the chamber — and the third just this year. Last month, Republicans voted to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in an extraordinary rebuke of her rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war.

In June, Democrat Adam Schiff of California was censured for comments he made several years ago about investigations into then-President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

US Sanctions Money Lending Network to Houthi Rebels in Yemen

Responding to increased attacks on ships in the southern Red Sea by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the U.S. announced sanctions against 13 people and firms alleged to be providing tens of millions of dollars from the sale and shipment of Iranian commodities to the Houthis in Yemen. 

Treasury says that previously sanctioned Houthi and Iranian financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal uses a network of exchange houses and firms to help Iranian money reach the country’s militant partners in Yemen. 

The sanctions block access to U.S. property and bank accounts and prevent the targeted people and companies from doing business with Americans. 

Money lenders in Lebanon, Turkey and Dubai are listed for assisting al-Jamal, along with shipping firms from Russia to St. Kitts and Nevis, which allegedly move al-Jamal’s Iranian commodity shipments. All people and firms were hit with sanctions Thursday. 

Brian Nelson, Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the Houthis “continue to receive funding and support from Iran, and the result is unsurprising: unprovoked attacks on civilian infrastructure and commercial shipping, disrupting maritime security and threatening international commercial trade.” 

“Treasury will continue to disrupt the financial facilitation and procurement networks that enable these destabilizing activities.” 

Since October, the Houthis have launched missile and drone attacks over commercial shipping operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 

The Houthis have sporadically targeted ships in the region over time, but the attacks have increased since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, spiking after an October 17 explosion at a hospital in Gaza killed and injured many. Houthi leaders have insisted Israel is their target. 

Texas Judge Grants Pregnant Woman Permission To Get An Abortion Despite State’s Ban

A Texas judge on Thursday granted a pregnant woman permission to obtain an abortion in an unprecedented challenge to the state’s ban that took effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned last year.

It was unclear how quickly or whether Kate Cox, a 31-year-old mother of two from the Dallas area, will be able to obtain an abortion. State District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble, an elected Democrat, said she would grant a temporary restraining order that would allow Cox to have an abortion under what are narrow exceptions to the state’s ban. That decision is likely to be appealed by the state.

Cox is 20 weeks pregnant and doctors say her fetus has a fatal diagnosis. In a brief emergency hearing Thursday, her attorneys told Gamble that Cox went to an emergency room this week for a fourth time since her pregnancy.

Cox and her husband both attended the hearing via Zoom but did not address the court. Doctors have told Cox that if the baby’s heartbeat were to stop, inducing labor would carry a risk of a uterine rupture because of her prior cesarean sections, and that another C-section at full term would endanger her ability to carry another child.

“This law might actually cause her to lose that ability is shocking and would be a genuine miscarriage of justice,” Gamble said.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Cox.

Since that landmark ruling, Texas and 12 other states rushed to ban abortion at nearly all stages of pregnancy. Opponents have sought to weaken those bans — including an ongoing Texas challenge over whether the state’s law is too restrictive for women with pregnancy complications — but until now, a woman has not gone to court seeking approval for an immediate abortion.

“I do not want to continue the pain and suffering that has plagued this pregnancy or continue to put my body or my mental health through the risks of continuing this pregnancy,” Cox wrote in an editorial published in The Dallas Morning News. “I do not want my baby to arrive in this world only to watch her suffer.”

Although Texas allows exceptions under the ban, doctors and women have argued that the requirements are so vaguely worded that physicians still won’t risk providing abortions, lest they face potential criminal charges or lawsuits.

State officials had asked Gamble to deny the request, alleging that Cox does not meet the requirements for an exception to the ban.

“There are no facts pled which demonstrate that Ms. Cox is at any more of a risk, let alone life-threatening, than the countless women who give birth every day with similar medical histories,” the state wrote.

Cox has been told by doctors that her baby will likely be stillborn or live for a week at most, according to the lawsuit filed in Austin. The suit says doctors told her their “hands are tied” under Texas’ abortion ban.

The lawsuit was filed a week after the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the ban is too restrictive for women with pregnancy complications. That case is among the biggest ongoing challenges to abortion bans in the U.S., although a ruling from the all-Republican court may not come for months.

Cox had cesarean sections with her previous pregnancies. She learned she was pregnant for a third time in August and was told weeks later that her baby was at a high risk for a condition known as trisomy 18, which has a very high likelihood of miscarriage or stillbirth and low survival rates, according to the lawsuit.

In July, several Texas women gave emotional testimony about carrying babies they knew would not survive and doctors unable to offer abortions despite their spiraling conditions. A judge later ruled that Texas’ ban was too restrictive for women with pregnancy complications, but that decision was swiftly put on hold after the state appealed.

More than 40 woman have received abortions in Texas since the ban took effect, according to state health figures, none of which have resulted in criminal charges. There were more than 16,000 abortions in Texas in the five months prior to the ban taking effect last year.

Australian Laser Technology to Help Future NASA Missions to Mars

A new optical ground station has been built by the Australian National University to help the U.S. space agency, NASA, and others explore space and safely reach Mars.

The Australian team has developed a new type of space communication using lasers.

Researchers say the system will allow them to connect with satellites and NASA-crewed missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

The project is supported by the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars initiative.

The Australian National University Quantum Optical Ground Station is based at the Mount Stromlo Observatory, near Canberra.

It is a powerful telescope that will support high-speed advanced communications with satellites orbiting at distances from low-Earth orbit to the moon.

Kate Ferguson, associate director for strategic projects at the Australian National University Institute for Space, told VOA current communication systems relying on radio frequencies can be slow and cumbersome.

“I am sure some of us remember the grainy pictures that we got of the moon landing that came from the Apollo era,” Ferguson said. “So, again the current radio frequency systems, they have these much slower data rates and especially over really long distances.  For space exploration those become very slow but with optical communications we will be able to increase the rate of that communication.”

She said the new system, based on powerful lasers that are invisible to the naked eye, will transform communications in space.

“What we are aiming to do is to be able to receive high-definition video from future crewed missions. Not only will that be great for us here on Earth, seeing what is happening with the astronauts on these types of missions, but it will improve the connectivity between those missions,” she said. “And what we are doing here is optical communication, which uses laser beams to communicate and these offer much higher speeds and increased security over the current systems and this is really important for us to be getting that data down and being able to use it here on Earth.”

Scientists say the Australian-developed systems will be compatible with NASA missions.

They say the laser-based technology will improve astronauts’ ability to connect with Earth from the moon and also allow high-definition video to be sent from the moon and Mars.

NASA has said previously that astronauts could be sent on a mission to the red planet by the mid-to-late 2030s.


Generative AI May Need News Organizations, Journalism to Succeed

In the year since Open AI introduced ChatGPT to the world, almost 600 media organizations have blocked the technology from scraping their content. 

Two other AI chat bots — Google AI’s Bard and Common Crawl’s CCBot — are also blocked by some or most of those same news organizations.

The list grows longer each day, according to Ben Welsh, a news applications editor for Reuters, who compiled a survey of news organizations for his media blog. 

“What we are seeing here is that news publishers, at least half of them in my survey, want to put the brakes on this a little bit and not just allow themselves to be included in this without some sort of conversation or negotiation with the Open AI company,” Welsh said. 

Open AI, the creator of ChatGPT, offered 1,153 news organizations the option to block its chat bot in August 2023. As of Wednesday, nearly half have taken up that offer.   

While most are U.S. organizations, including The New York Times and CNN, the list also includes international media groups, including Australia’s ABC News, The Times of India, and The South African.   

Welsh’s survey didn’t dig deeply into the reasons for blocking ChatGPT, but he said that commercial media tend to be among the groups that stop ChatGPT whereas nonprofits are more likely to share content.  

VOA’s attempts to contact ChatGPT via LinkedIn, email and at its offices in San Francisco were unsuccessful.

Seen as threat  

Many media analysts and press freedom groups see AI as a threat to publishers and broadcasters, as well as a threat to ethical journalism. 

Among the chief concerns are the use of artificial intelligence to create false narratives and fake visuals and to amplify misinformation and disinformation. 

“It is clearly possible that some groups or organizations use and fine-tune models to create tailored disinformation that suits their projects or their purpose,” said Vincent Berthier, who manages the technology desk at Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. “But right now, today, the higher risk of disinformation comes from generative AI from pictures and deep fakes.” 

RSF organized a commission made up of 32 journalism and AI experts, led by Nobel laureate and disinformation expert Maria Ressa, to regulate how media use the technology.  

The resulting Paris Charter on AI and Journalism, released in November, sets parameters for the use of AI for news organizations and makes clear that journalists must take a leading role.   

RSF’s Berthier believes that many of the organizations opting out are sending a clear message to AI developers. 

“What media companies are saying is AI won’t be built without us and it is exactly RSF’s position on this topic,” Berthier said. “It is the spirit of the charter we released this month saying that media and journalism should be part of AI governance.”   

Media freedom is already at risk from Big Tech and social media algorithms, Berthier said. 

“That’s why we fight every day to protect press freedom and just make sure that journalists can still do their jobs to give the most accurate information to the public,” he said. 

The Associated Press became partners with OpenAI in a news content and information sharing agreement in July.  

Pamela Samuelson, a MacArthur Fellow, University of California-Berkeley law professor and information technology expert, said the deal might be just the beginning of many licensing agreements and partnerships between AI and journalism.  

But she also predicted that companies would work to develop their own AI. 

“So The New York Times might be doing it, CNN might be doing it, we just don’t know,” Samuelson said. “They will announce either their own generative stuff or they will just keep it in house.” 

Ethical concerns

As the debate over the use of AI in journalism unfolds, many news organizations and journalists cite ethical concerns and reservations about its use.   

Others cite economic factors, such as the use of their copyrighted materials and unique intellectual property without payment or provenance.   

But, said Samuelson, “The predictions of doom, doom, doom are probably overblown.” 

“Predictions that everything is going to be perfect, that is probably wrong, too,” she added. “We will have to find some new equilibrium.” 

Generative AI can write computer code, create art, produce research and even write news articles. But makers widely admit in disclaimers that there are problems with its reliability and accuracy.  

There is also growing fear among researchers that a dependence on generative AI to both produce and access news and information is spreading and that too often the information being dispensed isn’t reliable or accurate. 

“There is one thing that journalism puts right up at the top of the list and that’s accuracy and that is a weakness of these tools,” Welsh said. “While they are incredibly great at being creative and generating all sorts of interesting outputs, one thing they struggle with is getting the facts right.” 

Some AI analysts and watchers say the growing list of news organizations blocking AI bots could further affect that quality.

Biden Clears Path for Tribal Nations to Access Federal Funds

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his administration is committed to writing “a new and better chapter of history” for more than 570 native communities in the U.S. by — among other things — making it easier for them to access federal funding. A leader of one of the largest communities speaks to VOA about those efforts and how some of the themes of native history continue to play out halfway across the planet. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from the Department of the Interior.