Russia taunts US biggest military offensive since the Cold War

The assault on the city will also serve to highlight US inaction in the run-up to election day and may aid Donald Trump.

Yesterday, ahead of this morning’s debate with Hillary Clinton, his presidential campaign released a letter from defence experts backing plans to increase the size of the US military.

Royal Navy warships are due to escort a group of eight Russian warships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier, as they sail past the UK on their way to the Mediterranean.

Senior Royal Navy officers expect the task force to sail past the UK as early as Thursday in a show of strength dismissed as “posturing” by defence sources.

But a senior Nato diplomat said the deployment from the Northern Fleet’s base near Murmansk would herald a renewed attack in Aleppo.

“They are deploying all of the Northern Fleet and much of the Baltic Fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” the diplomat said.

“This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.”

The additional military firepower is designed to drive out or destroy the 8,000 rebels in Aleppo, the only large city still in opposition hands, and to allow Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to start a withdrawal.

An intensified air campaign in eastern Aleppo, where 275,000 people are trapped, would further worsen ties between Moscow and the West, which says the Kremlin may be responsible for war crimes.

Mr Trump has consistently praised Mr Putin as a strong leader and has promised a closer relationship with Russia if he wins the Nov 8 US election. He has suggested that, if elected, he would meet the Russian president before the inauguration in January.

Mr Putin has returned the compliment, calling the Republican nominee “outstanding and talented” – one of his closest political allies, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, urged Americans to vote for Mr Trump, calling him a “gift to humanity”.

Barack Obama said earlier this week that Mr Trump’s admiration of Mr Putin was “unprecedented in American politics”.

Mr Obama said: “Mr Trump’s continued flattery of Mr Putin and the degree to which he appears to model many of his policies and approaches to politics on Mr Putin ... is out of step with not just what Democrats think but out of step with what up until the last few months, almost every Republican thought.”

HMS Dragon (foreground) with the Russian aircraft carrier 'Admiral Kuznetsov' in 2014 Credit: EPA / MoD
The Royal Navy has deployed two warships to meet the Northern Fleet group, led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The frigate HMS Richmond is already escorting the group off the coast of Norway, while the destroyer HMS Duncan was last night on its way.

HMS Dragon is due to sail to meet two Russian corvettes travelling towards the UK from the direction of Portugal. Photographs of the vessels, taken on Monday, were released by the Norwegian military.

A Norwegian newspaper quoted the head of the Norwegian military intelligence service saying the ships involved “will probably play a role in the deciding battle for Aleppo”.

Democratic operatives lose jobs after video sting on voter fraud

Conservative undercover journalist James O'Keefe (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

by   The Washington Post

Robert Creamer, husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Scott Foval -- two little-known but influential Democratic political operatives -- have left their jobs after video investigations by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas Action found them entertaining dark notions about how to win elections.

Foval was laid off on Monday by Americans United for Change, where he had been national field director. Creamer announced Tuesday night that he was "stepping back" from the work he was doing for the unified Democratic campaign for Hillary Clinton.

The moves came after 36 hours of coverage, led by conservative and social media, for O'Keefe's video series "Rigging the Election." In them, Foval is filmed telling hidden-camera toting journalists about how they've disrupted Republican events; Foval also goes on at length about how an organization might cover up in-person voter fraud. In another Tuesday night statement, the Creamer-founded Democracy Partners, which used Foval as a contractor, denounced both Project Veritas and the statements caught on camera.

"Our firm has recently been the victim of a well-funded, systematic spy operation that is the modern day equivalent of the Watergate burglars," said the firm. "The plot involved the use of trained operatives using false identifications, disguises and elaborate false covers to infiltrate our firm and others, in order to steal campaign plans, and goad unsuspecting individuals into making careless statements on hidden cameras. One of those individuals was a temporary regional subcontractor who was goaded into statements that do not reflect our values."

Both "scalps," as O'Keefe refers to them, drew new attention to a campaign that had become viewed very skeptically by political reporters. O'Keefe's 2009 sting of ACORN led to the destruction of that group; a 2011 sting of NPR executives led to two resignations. Subsequent investigations found discrepancies between how the undercover journalists approached their targets and how they packaged what the targets said. In the latter case, then-NPR executive Ron Schiller quoted a Republican who viewed Tea Party activists as "racist"; the edited clip made it appear that Schiller himself held that opinion.

Project Veritas and Project Veritas Action — the latter group created to more freely cover political activity — had a more fitfully successful record. In a series of videos, O'Keefe and other journalists posed as registered voters to expose how easy it would be to obtain ballots fraudulently where voter ID was not required. But there were high-profile failures, too. A sting in which a journalist posed as a Canadian citizen and purchased Hillary Clinton campaign merchandise was unveiled at a press conference where the first question was: "Is this a joke?" A mole sent to work for a Democratic campaign in Wisconsin was exposed and fired. A call to the Open Society Foundations, founded by the frequent conservative target, went awry when a Project Veritas journalist left the phone off the hook. The result was shared with New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer.

The result of all that was that the "Rigging the Election" videos got a skeptical reception — at first. But the video of Foval, a Wisconsin-based politico with a long resume, had him bragging about a litany of political dirty tricks. In the first video, he boasts of "conflict engagement in the lines of Trump rallies," takes credit for the violence that canceled a Trump rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago, admits he's paid "mentally ill" people to start trouble, and says there's a "Pony Express" that keeps Democratic operatives in touch, regardless of whether they work for super PACs or the campaigns not permitted to coordinate with super PACs.

In the second video, Foval spends five minutes discussing how voters might be brought from outside Wisconsin to commit voter fraud, buying cars with Wisconsin plates to avoid looking suspicious.

"We've been bussing people in to deal with you f---kin' a--holes for fifty years and we're not going to stop now," he says.

Since the video's release, Foval has responded to media requests by saying the video did not deserve attention from "legitimate news organizations." A call to Creamer on Tuesday night went to voicemail. But while neither man is defending the content of the videos, the editing raises questions about what was said and what may come out later.

Foval, who repeatedly ties a noose with his tongue, also seems to overhype his successes. Reporters who covered the Trump UIC appearance found that students, not Americans United for Change, were responsible for the shut down of the Trump rally; the video's evidence to the contrary is that Zulema Rodriguez, an activist paid in February by the DNC, says on tape that she was there and "did that." In the first video, O'Keefe makes much of the term "bird-dogging," which Foval describes as putting people at the front of rope lines to make sure "they're the ones asking questions."

"It's a word we had not heard until we began this investigation," O'Keefe says, noting that the term appears in WikiLeaks e-mails that include Clinton staffers.

But it's not a new term, and certainly not secret. Bird-dogging is a fairly common activist tactic, and
reporters often recognize it when seemingly "perfect" questions come from a political audience. In August 2015, Foval told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that People for the American Way, his employer at the time, was "bird-dogging all of" the Republican presidential candidates. What was seen as a nuisance political tactic then becomes, in the video sting, a secretive form of voter/candidate intimidation.

In the "voter fraud" video, Foval looks -- somehow -- even worse, describing how voters could be sent to midwestern states to cast fraudulent ballots. But when PVAction edits this into a narrative, something gets lost. Foval says that "Bob Creamer comes up with a lot of these ideas," but what the "ideas" are is lost to a quick edit. After a quick introduction of Creamer that covers his 2005 conviction for tax evasion, Creamer is seen talking to a journalist posing as a possible donor, rambling a bit as he describes how to get voter IDs to people who need them.

"What do you really need, okay?" says the journalist. "What makes you a citizen? And if you look at that checklist, it's an ID card of any kind that shows you who you are and a pay stub that shows you're getting paid at a local address some place."

"To get registered, you mean?" asks Creamer.

"Yeah," says the journalist. "Let's say I had business inside of, say, Illinois or Michigan, and I hired people, and I had addresses for them, I could write them checks, I could use them as day laborers or whatever and use them and find my way around the voter registration law for Hispanics."

Creamer quickly begins jotting down names of voter registration groups: "There are a couple of different organizations, that's their big trick." But while the implication is that the journalist is pitching mass voter fraud, he never says as much, and Creamer never agrees to it. In another tape, filmed at a restaurant, Creamer hears another version of the pitch and says "my fear is that someone would decide that this is a big voter fraud scheme."

In the end, PVAction's evidence that Creamer might help with a voter fraud scheme is that Foval hints at it. In a follow-up clip, Foval tells the undercover journalist that Creamer was not on board with any scheme to grant ID cards, but that he told Creamer it could be handled by someone else. "We talk about a lot of things we don't talk about," Foval says conspiratorially. In PVAction's telling, the "someone else" might be DREAMer activist Cesar Vargas, who is filmed saying he might be able to help another undercover journalist, if not in 2016.

But Vargas, as of now the only target of these videos who has not lost a job, claims that PVAction left out exculpatory video of the interview. "They have a transcript of our conversation to confirm I told them that voting twice was illegal," Vargas wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. "I will not respond to FOX News or the trolls but let them have their field day of conspiracies."

If that video exists, PVAction is not going to make it easy to watch. In the past, and in the immediate wake of some bad publicity, the group posted the entirety of its video stings online. It no longer does this.

"The reporting process and methods of Project Veritas Action are proven successful and effective and are the protected intellectual property and trade secrets of Project Veritas Action,” said Steve Gordon, a spokesman for the PVAction Fund. “This policy is in accordance with the practices of news organizations globally and is generally accepted as the professional norm.”

But Foval's sacking and Creamer's "stepping back" have already given the Trump campaign the confidence to run with these stories. On Tuesday night's episode of "Hannity" on Fox News, two campaign representatives said that the PVAction tapes validated everything Trump had said about the possible threat of election theft, and called for a hasty FBI investigation into anyone connected to Robert Creamer.

Creamer is the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. In 2006, he was sentenced to five months in federal prison for bank fraud and a tax violation.

Creamer was convicted in a check-kiting scheme to keep afloat an Illinois consumer group he had led. A federal prosecutor said Creamer "stole" money from banks in the form of unintended, interest-free loans.

"Once again, Donald Trump was ahead of his time," said Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. "We see that it goes right to the top."

"The FBI should be opening an investigation into these people right now," said Trump ally and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 election and ideological movements. Follow @daveweigel
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

State investigating allegations of voter fraud in Tarrant, TX

As the presidential candidates near the homestretch of their campaigns, Hillary Clinton thanked those across the political aisle for their support while Donald Trump attacked her for being all talk and no action. Late night shows with the Bidens also featured a shoutout to Matlock. Cristina Rayas & Meta Viers

Less than a month before the Nov. 8 election, allegations of voter fraud in Tarrant County are under investigation by the state, prompting concern that the timing may intimidate some voters — and possibly lay groundwork for the Legislature to enact more restrictions on voting next year.

The complaints focus on mail-in ballots, which allow people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity.

Supporters have long said mail-in balloting is crucial for overseas residents, the military and senior citizens. Critics maintain that such voting is ripe for abuse and raises concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people could fill out and return other people’s ballots.

Some say the investigation is politically motivated; others say it’s addressing a practice that has been a problem for years.

“The Republicans have been looking for a blockbuster case to demonstrate that voter fraud isn’t just a series of small mistakes,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “If some of these allegations turn out to be true, they may finally have their white whale.

“Whether there is lawbreaking or not, the issue of voting is polarized and revelations this close to an election are bound to have an effect on Democratic Party and affiliated groups’ efforts to get out the vote. Voters may be hesitant to sign up for or vote through a mail-in ballot, let alone give it to someone else. This may reduce turnout in some heavily Democratic areas that utilize this process.”

Local officials say workers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office have been in the reliably red Tarrant County gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses.

The attorney general’s office declined to “confirm or deny investigations” or comment on the situation. When asked for the complaints that started the local investigation, attorney general’s workers declined to release them, expressing concern that doing so might hamper a criminal investigation.

The Tarrant County Elections Administration has declined to comment on the issue.

“There could be a problem,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. “I really believe our folks are very much on top of things.

“That’s the whole problem with mail-in ballots,” he said. “Someone requests a ballot and we don’t know if they got the ballot, filled it out and returned it. The voter fraud they are referring to can only
be corrected by doing away with mail-in ballots.”

Mail-in ballots

The mail-in ballots involved in the state investigation are from the primary elections, local officials say.

At issue is how often people may assist others — or physically help by witnessing — with filling out applications for mail-in ballots or the ballots themselves.

Texans may assist as many people as they like in requesting mail-in ballots. But each person is allowed to witness only one request for a mail-in ballot per year, unless it’s for more than one immediate family member.

In the primaries, about 20,000 applications for mail-in ballots were received at the Tarrant County elections office, Whitley said.

Of those, 131 involved witnesses. Of those 131, five people witnessed more than one mail-in ballot. Four of those five people witnessed requests from multiple family members, which is allowed. One apparently witnessed five applications from the same address, a nursing home or a retirement center.

That case was turned over to state investigators.

“We’re not currently involved with the AG’s investigation,” said Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “It’s possible they may decide at some point to seek our assistance with some local cases, but we are not to that point yet.”

Jordan said the DA’s office supports the investigation.

Protecting the purity of the voter registration process goes directly to the heart of our system of government. Samantha Jordan, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office
“It’s important to ensure our processes are running as efficiently and effectively as they’re meant to be,” she said. “Protecting the purity of the voter registration process goes directly to the heart of our system of government.”

Jordan said there is one case of alleged voter fraud in the local system right now — Rosa Maria Ortega of Grand Prairie, who was arrested last year and accused of voting in two elections although she is not a U.S. citizen. She is accused of voting in person during the November 2012 general election and the May 2014 Republican primary runoff in Dallas County “when she knew she was not a United States citizen,” according to a Tarrant County grand jury indictment. A trial in the case is scheduled for Oct. 31 in Criminal District Court No. 3.


 ‘Reform the election code’

Aaron Harris of North Richland Hills, a Republican political consultant, is expected to talk about the issue during a meeting that begins at 6:45 p.m. Monday at the Elks Lodge, 3233 White Settlement Road in Fort Worth.

The meeting announcement states that “there is evidence that two current elected officials are in office due to election fraud” and Harris will reveal “the elected officials who possibly benefited from the alleged crimes.”

Harris, a former campaign manager for state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has opposed bond programs including the one that was proposed for John Peter Smith Hospital last year. He has worked with Dallas businessman Monty Bennett to campaign against directors on the Tarrant Regional Water District board.

He has been looking into voting concerns, including those expressed by former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who lost his re-election bid in 2014 by 111 votes.

Burnam filed a lawsuit challenging the results, saying he believed that an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation” was run by his opponent, Ramon Romero, who now is the representative for Texas House District 90.

Burnam dropped the lawsuit months later after judges refused to require county election officials to release the vote-by-mail applications that were in question.

“Virtually every local election I know anything about has been disproportionately impacted by mail-in ballot harvesting program run by a handful of people,” Burnam said. “The only way to fix it is to automatically mail ballots out to all voters over 65.”

Romero said he believes that Paxton’s office will find there are “completely false accusations” in the local complaint.

If there’s an investigation, so be it. Let them investigate. I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always done, encourage people to vote early, in person or by mail. If this has an ill effect on people’s right to vote by mail, … it’s unfortunate. State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth

“If there’s an investigation, so be it. Let them investigate,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always done, encourage people to vote early, in person or by mail. If this has an ill effect on people’s right to vote by mail, … it’s unfortunate.”

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue after Empower Texans posted a blog statement about the AG looking into a “vote-harvesting scheme” in Tarrant County. “Largest Voter Fraud Investigation in Texas History Underway in Tarrant County,” he tweeted. “We will crush illegal voting.”

Abbott’s office declined to comment beyond the governor’s tweet.

Harris, of DFW-based Direct Action Texas, said he has long heard rumors about the “manipulation of the elections system in Tarrant County.”

“This vote harvesting operation preys on the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, who are among our most vulnerable neighbors,” he said in a statement. “This research has uncovered major flaws in the election code and its enforcement. We were happy to assist the AG’s office in their investigation.

“Given the magnitude of this issue, we must reform the election code to restore the integrity of the process.”

Legislative focus?

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, passed House Bill 148 in 2013 to make ballot harvesting illegal.

Burkett’s bill was designed to ensure that campaign workers are no longer paid based on the number of mail-in ballots they collect and mail. It now is a crime to offer payment based on the number of ballots a person collects during a Texas election.

Anyone convicted of “ballot harvesting” faces a misdemeanor charge that could bring 30 days to one year in jail, as well as a fine of up to $4,000. Repeat offenders face a state jail felony charge, jail time up to two years and as much as a $10,000 fine.

Burkett has said the new law “is an attempt to weed out the ‘bad actors’ that are preying on vulnerable Texans and corrupting our democratic process.”

The House Elections Committee has held several hearings, listening to complaints and concerns from voters and officials alike. Members have discussed the possible need for election law reform.

“We understand that, despite all the lollipops and rainbow talk we hear that there is no election fraud, there is rampant voter fraud in parts of this state,” state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, said during a recent hearing.

During a separate hearing, officials with the Texas attorney general’s office responded to concerns.

They were asked whether problems are isolated to perhaps a voter mistakenly voting here or there, or whether there were organized groups creating voter fraud.

“It’s certainly organized groups engaging in voter harvesting,” said Jonathan White, an assistant attorney general with the attorney general’s office.

A local Democrat speaking privately said this investigation is becoming public now, just in time to make it an issue in the 85th Legislature, since part of the Republican-led voter ID law has been overturned by the courts.

“Now they are going to try to propose legislation that would make it harder to vote by mail,” the officeholder said. “Texas has gotten whipped up on voter ID, so they are trying this.”

Some Republican political consultants say privately that they don’t think there’s much to the local investigation.

“It’s amazing, but there’s nothing there,” one said. “The law they want changed now is mail-in ballot.

“It would be hard to imagine that we could get rid of ballots by mail,” the GOP consultant said.

“There are too many people who can’t make it to the polls — the entire military, people in the hospital, people who are forced to be out of town. It’s not practical to get rid of it.”

Local concerns

The investigation has prompted concern among officials.

The Tarrant County Republican Party recently sent out an email titled “Emergency Voter Fraud Information Inside Alert,” asking Republicans to serve as election judges and alternate judges.

“History has repeatedly shown that Democrats will do everything they can to buy, steal and cheat their way to victory at the ballot box,” the email stated. “It is up to us to ensure that every vote here in Tarrant County is PROTECTED and LEGAL.”

The email also asked for poll watchers for both early voting and Election Day.

“We especially need poll watchers in Democrat-controlled locations,” the email stated. “Voter ID is still required in Texas. We want to make sure OUR VOTER ID LAW IS FOLLOWED.”

Tarrant County Democratic Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said she was shocked that the local Republican Party would send out such a message.

“This is supposed to be the kinder, gentler Republican Party,” she said. “They say they’re reaching out to everybody in the party. Then the first opportunity they have, they turn around and say, ‘Those Democrats lie cheat and steal to win an election.’

“This is part of the loss of civility of political parties,” she said. “It’s really sad.”

The Democratic Party also sent out a note requesting election workers.

“The General Election is fast approaching,” wrote Vera Roberts, liaison for the local Democratic Party. “Election Judges, Alternate Judges and clerks are needed throughout Tarrant County to serve on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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Navy Launches Tomahawk Missiles At Rebel Sites In Yemen After Attacks On U.S. Ships

This file photo shows guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze operating in the Mediterranean Sea. (AFP)
The U.S. Navy launched Tomahawk missiles early Thursday from the Red Sea at three coastal radar sites in Yemen, destroying targets associated with rebel missile attacks on U.S. ships this week.

The missiles were launched from the destroyer USS Nitze at about 4 a.m. at three locations north of the Bab el-Mandeb strait, said Pentagon Press Peter Cook. President Barack Obama authorized the strikes upon the recommendations of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway," Cook said. "The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb, and elsewhere around the world."

The strikes were announced late Wednesday in Washington. A defense official said the radar sites were in remote areas held by Houthi rebels where there was little risk of civilian casualties. The equipment was set up near Ras Isa, north of Mukha and near Khoka. All are on Yemen's western coastline.

The Tomahawk strikes followed cruise missiles attacks that were launched against Navy ships on Sunday night and Wednesday in Yemen. Another missile launched Oct. 1 caused near-catastrophic damage to the HSV-2 Swift, a catamaran-style high-speed vessel that was operated by the Emiratis and once was a part of the U.S. Navy. Video of the strike published online shows the ship engulfed in a fireball.

The Houthis, who use weapons smuggled from Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Swift, but denied launching missiles at the Navy on Sunday. But Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that "the facts certainly point" to the Houthis being involved.

In the first attack launched at the U.S. Navy, two cruise missiles were launched Sunday at the USS Mason, a guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Ponce, an amphibious staging base. In that case, the first missile was launched while the ships were at least 12 miles away from Yemen's shore in international waters near the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a waterway between Yemen and Djibouti that is heavily trafficked by oilers. The ships were even farther away when the second one was launched.

In the second attack Wednesday, at least one missile was fired from rebel-held territory at the Mason, Cook said. That missile was launched at about 6 p.m. from south of the coastal city Al Hudaydah. The Houthis pushed the central government out of power in the capital city of Sanaa in 2014, and has resisted U.S.-backed efforts by Saudi Arabia to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.

Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in a statement Wednesday that the Navy will remain on watch in the Red Sea. He credited the crew of the Mason for demonstrating "initiative and toughness" as they defended themselves from both attacks.