New Haiti leader with international backing to take charge

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A new prime minister supported by key international diplomats will take charge of Haiti, an official said Monday — a move that appeared aimed at averting a leadership struggle following the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse.

Ariel Henry, who was designated prime minister by Moïse before he was slain but never sworn in, will replace the country’s interim prime minister, Haiti Elections Minister Mathias Pierre told The Associated Press.

It wasn’t immediately clear how quickly Claude Joseph, who has been leading Haiti with the backing of police and the military since the July 7 assassination of Moïse, would step down.

“Negotiations are still in course,” Pierre said, adding that Joseph would go back to being minister of foreign affairs. There was no immediate comment from Joseph.

In an audio recording, Henry referred to himself as prime minister and called for unity, saying he would soon announce the members of what he called a provisional consensus government to lead the country until elections are held.

“I present my compliments to the Haitian people who have shown political maturity in the face of what can be considered a coup. ... Our Haitian brothers gave peace a chance, while leaving the possibility that the truth could one day be restored,” Henry said.

“Now it is up to all the national leaders to walk together in unity, towards the same goal, to show that they are responsible.”

The political turnover followed a statement Saturday from a key group of international diplomats that appeared to snub Joseph as it called for the creation of “a consensual and inclusive government.”

“To this end, it strongly encourages the designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry to continue the mission entrusted to him to form such a government,” the statement from the Core Group said.

The Core Group is composed of ambassadors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the U.S., France, the European Union and representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

On Monday, the U.N. issued a statement calling on Joseph, Henry and other national stakeholders “to set aside differences and engage in constructive dialogue on ways to end the current impasse.”

The U.N. added that Joseph and Henry made significant progress in the past week and that it supports dialogue to find “minimal consensus” for holding fair legislative and presidential elections.

Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer, activist and former U.N. official, said she doesn’t anticipate any changes under Henry, whom she expects to carry on Moïse’s legacy. But she warned Henry might be viewed as tainted because of the international backing that preceded his taking power.

“There is not only a perception, but the reality that he has been put there by the international community, and I think that’s his burden to carry,” she said.

“What we’re calling for is for Haitians to really say this is unacceptable. We do not want the international community stating who ought to be in power and what ought to be done. It is up to us.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the Biden administration “welcomes reports that Haitian political actors are working together to determine a path forward in the country.”

“We have been encouraging, for several days now, Haitian political actors to work together and find a political way forward,” she said.

Earlier, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price had said the U.S. would continue to work with Joseph after noting he was the incumbent in the position and was serving as acting prime minister before the assassination.

On Monday, Price urged all political actors in Haiti as well as the civil society and private sector to work together in the interest of the people, adding that the U.S. is standing with them.

“We have always said, and we continue to believe, that the decision of who should lead Haiti belongs to the Haitian people,” he said. “Political gridlock has taken a tremendous toll on the nation of Haiti, and it’s vital for the country’s leaders to finally come together to chart a united, inclusive path forward.”

The Core Group statement was issued hours after Moïse’s wife, Martine, arrived in Haiti on Saturday aboard a private jet clad in black and wearing a bulletproof vest after being released from a hospital in Miami. She has not issued a statement or spoken publicly since her return to Haiti as the government prepares for the July 23 funeral that will be held in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. Other events to honor Moïse are planned this week in the capital of Port-au-Prince ahead of the funeral.

Moïse designated Henry as prime minister shortly before he was killed, but he had not been sworn in. The neurosurgeon was previously minister of social affairs and interior minister. He has belonged to several political parties including Inite, which was founded by former President René Préval.

The upcoming change in leadership comes as authorities continue to investigate the July 7 attack at Moïse’s private home with high-powered rifles that seriously wounded his wife.

Authorities say more than 20 suspects directly involved in the killing have been arrested. The majority of them are former Colombian soldiers, most of whom Colombian officials say were duped. Another three suspects were killed, with police still seeking additional ones, including an ex-Haitian rebel leader and a former Haitian senator.

Size of Oregon wildfire underscores vastness of the U.S. West

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The monstrous wildfire burning in Oregon has grown to a third the size of Rhode Island and spreads miles each day, but evacuations and property losses have been minimal compared with much smaller blazes in densely populated areas of California.

The fire’s jaw-dropping size contrasted with its relatively small impact on people underscores the vastness of the American West and offers a reminder that Oregon, which is larger than Britain, is still a largely rural state, despite being known mostly for its largest city, Portland.

The 476-square-mile Bootleg Fire is burning 300 miles southeast of Portland in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges.

Prosecutors barred from seizing reporters’ records

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday formally prohibited federal prosecutors from seizing the records of journalists in leak investigations, with limited exceptions, reversing years of department policy.

The new policy largely codifies the commitment Garland made in June, when he said the Justice Department would abandon the practice of seizing reporters’ records in leak investigations. It aims to resolve a politically thorny issue that has long vexed Justice Department prosecutors trying to weigh the media’s First Amendment rights against government’s desire to protect classified information.

But the memo makes clear that federal prosecutors can, in some cases, seize journalists’ records, including if the reporters are suspected of working for agents of a foreign power or terrorist organizations. There is also an exception for situations with imminent risks, like kidnappings or crimes against children.

Garland was moved to act following an outcry over revelations that the department during the Trump administration had obtained records belonging to journalists at The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times as part of investigations into who had disclosed government secrets related to the Russia investigation and other national security matters.

Others whose records were obtained were members of Congress and their staffers and former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Garland’s announcement came after President Joe Biden said he would not allow the Justice Department to seize journalists’ phone records and emails, calling the practice “wrong.” Since then, Garland and other senior Justice Department staffers have met with representatives of news media organizations, with both sides agreeing on the need for new department policies. Garland has also said he would support federal legislation to add additional protections for journalists.

The move was immediately praised by media advocates.

“The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time,” said Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.”

Leak investigations have long challenged department officials, resulting in policy changes in the last decade as well as pushback from media groups against government encroachment into their work.

President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, announced revised guidelines for leak investigations after an uproar over actions seen as aggressively intrusive into press freedom, including the secret seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors.

Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, announced in 2017 a leak crackdown following a series of disclosures during the investigation into Russian election interference.

Microsoft Exchange hack caused by China, U.S. and allies say

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration and Western allies formally blamed China on Monday for a massive hack of Microsoft Exchange email server software and asserted that criminal hackers associated with the Chinese government have carried out ransomware and other illicit cyber operations.

The announcements, though not accompanied by sanctions against the Chinese government, were intended as a forceful condemnation of activities a senior Biden administration official described as part of a “pattern of irresponsible behavior in cyberspace.” They highlighted the ongoing threat from Chinese hackers even as the administration remains consumed with trying to curb ransomware attacks from Russia-based syndicates that have targeted critical infrastructure.

The broad range of cyberthreats from Beijing disclosed on Monday included a ransomware attack from government-affiliated hackers that has targeted victims — including in the U.S. — with demands for millions of dollars. U.S officials also alleged that criminal contract hackers associated with China’s Ministry of State Security have engaged in cyber extortion schemes and theft for their own profit.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department on Monday announced charges against four Chinese nationals who prosecutors said were working with the MSS in a hacking campaign that targeted dozens of computer systems, including companies, universities and government entities. The defendants are accused of stealing trade secrets and confidential business information.

Unlike in April, when public finger-pointing of Russian hacking was paired with a raft of sanctions against Moscow, the Biden administration did not announce any actions against Beijing. Nonetheless, a senior administration official who briefed reporters said that the U.S. has confronted senior Chinese officials and that the White House regards the multination shaming as sending an important message.

President Joe Biden told reporters “the investigation’s not finished,” and White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not rule out consequences for China, saying, “This is not the conclusion of our efforts as it relates to cyber activities with China or Russia.”

Even without fresh sanctions, Monday’s actions are likely to exacerbate tensions with China at a delicate time. Just last week, the U.S. issued separate stark warnings against transactions with entities that operate in China’s western Xinjiang region, where China is accused of repressing Uyghur Muslims and other minorities.

Then on Friday, the administration advised American firms of the deteriorating investment and commercial environment in Hong Kong, where China has been cracking down on democratic freedoms it had pledged to respect in the former British colony.

The European Union and Britain also called out China. The EU said malicious cyber activities with “significant effects” that targeted government institutions, political organizations and key industries in the bloc’s 27 member states could be linked to Chinese hacking groups. The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre said the groups targeted maritime industries and naval defense contractors in the U.S. and Europe and the Finnish parliament.

In a statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the hacking was “conducted from the territory of China for the purpose of intellectual property theft and espionage.”

The Microsoft Exchange cyberattack “by Chinese state-backed groups was a reckless but familiar pattern of behaviour,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

NATO, in its first public condemnation of China for hacking activities, called on Beijing to uphold its international commitments and obligations “and to act responsibly in the international system, including in cyberspace.” The alliance said it was determined to “actively deter, defend against and counter the full spectrum of cyber threats.”

That hackers affiliated with the Ministry of State Security were engaged in ransomware was surprising and concerning to the U.S. government, the senior administration official said. But the attack, in which an unidentified American company received a high-dollar ransom demand, also gave U.S. officials new insight into what the official said was “the kind of aggressive behavior that we’re seeing coming out of China.”

The majority of the most damaging and high-profile recent ransomware attacks have involved Russian criminal gangs. Though the U.S. has sometimes seen connections between Russian intelligence agencies and individual hackers, the use of criminal contract hackers by the Chinese government “to conduct unsanctioned cyber operations globally is distinct,” the official said.

Dmitri Alperovitch, the former chief technology officer of the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, said the announcement makes clear that MSS contractors who for years have worked for the government and conducted operations on their behalf have over time decided — either with the approval or the “blind eye of their bosses” — to “start moonlighting and engaging in other activities that could put money in their pockets.”

The Microsoft Exchange hack that months ago compromised tens of thousands of computers around the world was swiftly attributed to Chinese cyber spies by private sector groups. An administration official said the government’s attribution to hackers affiliated with the Ministry of State Security took until now in part because of the discovery of the ransomware and for-profit hacking operations and because the administration wanted to pair the announcement with guidance for businesses about tactics that the Chinese have been using.

Given the scope of the attack, Alperovitch said it was “puzzling” that the U.S. avoided sanctions.

“They certainly deserve it, and at this point, it’s becoming a glaring standout that we have not,” he said.

He added, in a reference to a large Russian cyberespionage operation discovered late last year, “There’s no question that the Exchange hacks have been more reckless, more dangerous and more disruptive than anything the Russians have done in SolarWinds.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately return an email seeking comment Monday. But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has previously deflected blame for the Microsoft Exchange hack, saying that China “firmly opposes and combats cyber attacks and cyber theft in all forms” and cautioning that attribution of cyberattacks should be based on evidence and not “groundless accusations.”

 
 

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