Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times

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Police lined up near an armored vehicle during clashes with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.

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Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Police departments will now have access to military surplus equipment typically used in warfare, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles and bayonets, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday, describing it as “lifesaving gear.”

The move rescinds limits on the Pentagon handouts that were put in place by President Barack Obama in 2015 amid a national debate over policing touched off by a spate of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of the police, including the shooting death in 2014 of 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., by a white officer. Some local residents viewed police use of military equipment during the ensuing protests as an unnecessary show of force and intimidation.

In a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Obama had made it harder for the police to protect themselves and their neighborhoods.

“Those restrictions went too far,” Mr. Sessions said. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”

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“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Monday.

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Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Mr. Sessions said that President Trump would sign an executive order on Monday fully restoring the military program, called 1033, and that the president was doing “all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America.”


Mr. Sessions has rolled back a number of Obama-era efforts toward police reform. In April, he ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.

Mr. Obama ordered a review of the Pentagon program in late 2014 after the police responded to protests with armored vehicles, snipers and riot gear. The images of police officers with military gear squaring off against protesters around the country angered community activists who said law enforcement agencies were reacting disproportionately.

In addition to the prohibitions on certain military surplus gear, he added restrictions on transferring some weapons and devices, including explosives, battering rams, riot helmets and shields.

The Pentagon said 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets had been returned since Mr. Obama prohibited their transfer.

The program was started in the 1990s as a way for the military to transfer surplus equipment to federal, state and local police agencies fighting the drug war. More than $5 billion in surplus gear has been funneled to law enforcement agencies.

Local law enforcement officials have defended the program, saying that it is a way to acquire equipment that is useful in dangerous situations without stretching tight budgets. For example, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, the site of severe flooding in recent days, received two armored vehicles under the program. One was used for high-risk operations and the other for high-water rescues.

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Mr. Obama, criticized Mr. Trump’s policy reversal. She said the limits were created to make sure police departments “had a guardian, not warrior, mentality.”

“Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone,” Ms. Gupta said in a statement. “It is especially troubling that some of this equipment can now again be used in schools where our children are sent to learn.”

Trump’s decision angered community activists and some Republicans. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said in a tweet: “I will oppose this move by the AG and administration. And I will continue to fight for our civil liberties and criminal justice reform.”

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People were rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in an armored police vehicle in Dickinson, Tex., on Sunday.

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Rick Wilking/Reuters

After learning about changes to the program, an animated Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, said, “Are you kidding me?” Mr. Sanford recalled traveling to a small South Carolina county when he was governor and finding a sheriff taking helicopter lessons because, Mr. Sanford noted, the jurisdiction had “pulled about seven copters” thanks to the federal program.

“This makes my blood boil,” he said, from “both a taxpayer standpoint and a civil liberties standpoint.”

Administration officials defended the restoration of the program, saying the police need all the tools available to do their jobs.

In a set of talking points distributed ahead of the announcement, the Justice Department noted that a military-style helmet saved the life of an officer responding to last year’s mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., in which a gunman killed 49. Armored vehicles and military gear were also used to hunt the two terrorists who mounted an attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

The document says much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is “entirely defensive in nature.”

But it is not clear why the police need bayonets, which the talking points did not address. Even the Pentagon has said it does not understand why the police would require them. Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.


 

Source: Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times

Sessions Says ‘Evil Attack’ in Virginia Is Domestic Terrorism – The New York Times

“You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable evil attack,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown in April, said on “Good Morning America.”

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Monday that the “evil attack” in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend meets the legal definition of an act of domestic terrorism, an early declaration in an investigation after a car plowed into a crowd of protesters.

“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,” Mr. Sessions said on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” referring to a fatal attack on Saturday when a vehicle drove into a crowd protesting white nationalists, killing one woman and injuring others. A 20-year-old man has been arrested and charged by Virginia authorities with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in a death.

“You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable evil attack,” Mr. Sessions said, adding that terrorism and civil rights investigators were working on the case.

Mr. Sessions appeared on several morning news shows on Monday, condemning the violent demonstrations over the removal of a Confederate monument and defending President Trump’s response.

Mr. Trump has been reluctant to criticize white supremacists for the weekend’s bloody protests in Charlottesville. The attorney general’s remarks were notable for being more specific and direct than the president’s in condemning the alt-right, a loose collective of far-right activists, some of whom espouse racist and anti-Semitic views.


Mr. Sessions, who is coming off weeks of pointed criticism from Mr. Trump over his performance as attorney general, was pressed to explain why the president had not forcefully condemned white nationalism.

Mr. Sessions said the president had done so, but he was referring to an unattributed White House statement on Sunday that condemned “white supremacists,” not to comments Mr. Trump made publicly.

“He said that yesterday, his spokesman did,” Mr. Sessions said on ABC.

“It came from the White House,” Mr. Sessions said on NBC’s “Today” show. “It was authorized.”

“I think we’re making too much of this,” Mr. Sessions added on “CBS This Morning.”

As United States attorney in Alabama, Mr. Sessions was accused decades ago of making racist comments, something he has denied. But critics again assailed him as racist during his Senate confirmation.

But Mr. Sessions’s record on law and order suggests a more nuanced view.

“I’ve always said he’s good on criminal civil rights enforcement, on hate crimes. I think he really cares about it,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Ms. Gupta was head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. “The problem is, he’s completely unwilling to address systemic problems.”

Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet in Washington later Monday with Mr. Sessions and the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, about the Charlottesville incident, the White House said. Mr. Trump has been on vacation in New Jersey. Mr. Sessions said that Mr. Trump would speak “to the people” later on Monday.

The “domestic terrorism” language is largely symbolic — many of the law’s stiffest penalties are for international terrorism that do not apply domestically. But the debate over language has raged for more than a decade, as Muslim groups in particular argue that the word terrorism is used only when the attackers are Muslim.

By declaring the attack to be domestic terrorism, Mr. Sessions is moving quickly to quell a debate that swirled after the 2015 shooting of a historically black church in South Carolina. Dylann S. Roof, a South Carolina man who had once worn white supremacist patches, killed nine people in that attack. Loretta E. Lynch, the attorney general at the time, declared hate crimes “the original domestic terrorism.” But some civil rights groups wanted her to go farther.

Under federal law that was expanded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a violation of federal or state criminal law qualifies as domestic terrorism if it appears to be intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population or to coerce the policy of the government. But domestic terrorism carries no additional penalties. Investigators rely on charges like murder and assault in prosecuting these crimes.

The Justice Department announced over the weekend that it was opening a civil rights investigation into the Charlottesville incident.


 

Source: Sessions Says ‘Evil Attack’ in Virginia Is Domestic Terrorism – The New York Times

If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump made his animus toward the news media clear during the presidential campaign, often expressing his disgust with coverage through Twitter or in diatribes at rallies. So if his campaign is any guide, Mr. Trump seems likely to enthusiastically embrace the aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers that is an important yet little understood component of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s stance on press freedom, government transparency and secrecy is hotly disputed by the White House, but many journalism groups say the record is clear. Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases.


I experienced this pressure firsthand when the administration tried to compel me to testify to reveal my confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation. The Justice Department finally relented — even though it had already won a seven-year court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court to force me to testify — most likely because they feared the negative publicity that would come from sending a New York Times reporter to jail.

In an interview last May, President Obama pushed back on the criticism that his administration had been engaged in a war on the press. He argued that the number of leak prosecutions his administration had brought had been small and that some of those cases were inherited from the George W. Bush administration.

“I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and the need for journalists to pursue every lead and every angle,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Rutgers University student newspaper. “I think that when you hear stories about us cracking down on whistle-blowers or whatnot, we’re talking about a really small sample.

“Some of them are serious,” he continued, “where you had purposeful leaks of information that could harm or threaten operations or individuals who were in the field involved with really sensitive national security issues.”

But critics say the crackdown has had a much greater chilling effect on press freedom than Mr. Obama acknowledges. In a scathing 2013 report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of The Washington Post who now teaches at Arizona State University, said the war on leaks and other efforts to control information was “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”

When Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, press freedom groups had high expectations for the former constitutional law professor, particularly after the press had suffered through eight years of bitter confrontation with the Bush administration. But today, many of those same groups say Mr. Obama’s record of going after both journalists and their sources has set a dangerous precedent that Mr. Trump can easily exploit. “Obama has laid all the groundwork Trump needs for an unprecedented crackdown on the press,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, added: “Obama’s attorney general repeatedly allowed the F.B.I. to use intrusive measures against reporters more often than any time in recent memory. The moral obstacles have been cleared for Trump’s attorney general to go even further, to forget that it’s a free press that has distinguished us from other countries, and to try to silence dissent by silencing an institution whose job is to give voice to dissent.”

The administration’s heavy-handed approach represents a sharp break with tradition. For decades, official Washington did next to nothing to stop leaks. Occasionally the C.I.A. or some other agency, nettled by an article or broadcast, would loudly proclaim that it was going to investigate a leak, but then would merely go through the motions and abandon the case.

Of course, reporters and sources still had to be careful to avoid detection by the government. But leak investigations were a low priority for the Justice Department and the F.B.I. In fact, before the George W. Bush administration, only one person was ever convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking — Samuel Morison, a Navy analyst arrested in 1984 for giving spy satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to Jane’s Defense Weekly. He was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Things began to change in the Bush era, particularly after the Valerie Plame case. The 2003 outing of Ms. Plame as a covert C.I.A. operative led to a criminal leak investigation, which in turn led to a series of high-profile Washington journalists being subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury and name the officials who had told them about her identity. Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter, went to jail for nearly three months before finally testifying in the case.

The Plame case began to break down the informal understanding between the government and the news media that leaks would not be taken seriously.

The Obama administration quickly ratcheted up the pressure, and made combating leaks a top priority for federal law enforcement. Large-scale leaks, by Chelsea Manning and later by Edward J. Snowden, prompted the administration to adopt a zealous, prosecutorial approach toward all leaking. Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, recalls that, during a private 2011 meeting intended to air differences between media representatives and administration officials, “You got the impression from the tone of the government officials that they wanted to take a zero-tolerance approach to leaks.”

The Justice Department, facing mounting criticism from media organizations, has issued new guidelines setting restrictions on when the government could subpoena reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources. But those guidelines include a loophole allowing the Justice Department to continue to aggressively pursue investigations into news reports on national security, which covers most leak investigations. In addition, the guidelines aren’t codified in law and can be changed by the next attorney general.

More significantly, the Obama administration won a ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in my case that determined that there was no such thing as a “reporter’s privilege” — the right of journalists not to testify about their confidential sources in criminal cases. The Fourth Circuit covers Virginia and Maryland, home to the C.I.A., the Pentagon and the National Security Agency, and thus has jurisdiction over most leak cases involving classified information. That court ruling could result, for example, in a reporter’s being quickly jailed for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Trump administration’s Justice Department to reveal the C.I.A. sources used for articles on the agency’s investigation into Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election.

Press freedom advocates already fear that under Senator Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump’s choice to be attorney general, the Justice Department will pursue journalists and their sources at least as aggressively as Mr. Obama did. If Mr. Sessions does that, Ms. Dalglish said, “Obama handed him a road map.”


 

If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times.

Source: If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times