800 Americans Stranded in Venezuela

800 Americans Stranded in Venezuela

The Covid-19 pandemic in Venezuela has stranded 800 U.S. citizens — who have become political pawns between the Nicolas Maduro regime and the American government.

James Story, chargé d’affaires of the U.S .State Department for Venezuela, who dispatches from Bogotá, Colombia, denounced the Venezuelan regime for refusing to allow American citizens to return to the United States.

Ambassador Otto Reich in his official portrait at unknown time in an unknown location. (U.S. State Department)

After Story sent a message to Jorge Arreaza, minister of foreign affairs of the Venezuelan regime, to resolve the impasse, Maduro replied by proposing the use of Conviasa, his state airline, which is sanctioned by Washington, to transfer the Americans back home.

“A humanitarian cause should not be worth illegal, unilateral sanctions,” said Maduro.

But the Venezuelan strongman’s proposal has caused mistrust on the part of former U.S. government officials, exile leaders and officials linked to Juan Guaido, who declared himself acting president backed by the United States and 60 countries.

“It is odd that the situation of these American citizens had not been revealed before,” said Otto Reich, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, and former assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department.

“What Maduro is doing is typical of an outlaw, because he knows the Venezuelan state airline is sanctioned by the United States, and he wants to take advantage of a difficult situation,” Reich added.

The airline was sanctioned in February. “The illegitimate Maduro regime relies on the Venezuelan state-owned airline CONVIASA to shuttle corrupt regime officials around the world to fuel support for its anti-democratic efforts,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, when the sanctions were imposed.

Reich added the tactic used by the Venezuelan regime has previously been used by dictatorships, such as in Cuba.

 

“Maduro’s offer to Trump to repatriate people of American nationality has a logistical complication, due to the sanctions: Conviasa cannot land in the United States. Maduro seeks this to present it as a political victory and a victory against the “blockade,” but I doubt that Washington will grant it, “said Manuel Avendaño, who has been director of the International Office of Guaido.

“It is one more example for the United States and the world to realize the catastrophe that exists in Venezuela in every sense, in addition to what we repeatedly denounce about violated human rights,” said Maria Teresa Van Der Ree, president of the organization Civil Resistance of Venezuelans Abroad (Recivex), which, since 2001, has opposed the regimes of the late Hugo Chávez and Maduro.

The United States suspended its foreign service operations in Venezuela on March 11, 2019, and has tightened oil and financial sanctions against the dictatorship in Caracas.

Story revealed the United States has made multiple offers since March, both to bring Americans home and to deal with Venezuelans trapped in the United States amid the pandemic. The State Department offered to organize direct, private flights from Caracas to the United States, or through third-party countries, such as Spain and Mexico. The Maduro government has rejected both suggestions.

Story issued a warning in March saying citizens with U.S. passports and permanent residents should prepare to stay indefinitely in Venezuela. The diplomat reported that some American citizens who tried to fly to Mexico were told they were on a government list that prohibited them from leaving the country.

Since last May, Washington suspended all its commercial and cargo flights with Venezuela “for security reasons,” so travelers have to make stops in other countries.

(Edited by Rafael Prieto and Fern Siegel)



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Iranian gasoline shipments to Venezuela seized

Iranian gasoline shipments to Venezuela seized

When the United States intercepted and seized illegal shipments of Iranian fuel bound for Venezuela, the siege of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro tightened.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, four tankers carrying just over 1.1 million barrels of fuel from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the IRGC, were stopped and comandeered. The foreign-flagged ships were identified as Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna, which were brought to Houston, Texas. Last year, the U.S. Department of State designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization.

The cargo of the four seized ships valued at $50 million, was seized by order U.S. District Court Judge Jeb Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The U.S. has accused Iran of using foreign-owned and flagged ships to violate sanctions on both Venezuela and Iran.

The M/T Bering, one of the vessels that had its oil seized is pictured in an undated photograph in an unknown location. (U.S. DOJ)

 

The M/T Bella, one of the vessels that had its oil seized is pictured in an undated photograph in an unknown location. (U.S. DOJ)

 

The M/T Pandi, one of the vessels that had its oil seized is pictured in an undated photograph in an unknown location. (U.S. DOJ)

In May, the Iranian government sent five oil tankers to Venezuela with 1.5 million barrels of gasoline.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Craig S. Fuller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said that the Maduro regime and its allies continue to pose a serious threat to freedom and democracies for neighboring countries of Latin America.

 

“The drastic growth of drug trafficking that comes from Venezuela is a serious threat to North and South America,” he said.

For Lila Urdaneta, an ordinary citizen in exile in Miami, the seizure of fuel affects “everyone, but the guiltiest is the regime, which did not maintain the plants so that they would collapse and there would be no production. They thought about having gasoline from abroad and managing it to maintain control,” she said.

Venezuela, one of the largest oil reserves in the world, has run out of gasoline due to the deterioration of Petróleos de Venezuela. The state oil company suffers from years of mismanagement, underinvestment, and corruption. The Trump administration has ratcheted up sanctions on the Maduro regime.

Following the seizure order, the Iranian ambassador in Caracas, Hojat Soltani, denied that his country had anything to do with the ships. “The ships are not Iranian, and neither the owner nor its flag has anything to do with Iran,” the diplomat said on Twitter.

Petróleos de Venezuela SA, a state company, began operations on January 1, 1976, and was nationalized by President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The company appeared in the Global 500 list of the “Fortune” Magazine in position 39 among the largest companies in the world.

The oil firm has the largest oil reserves on the planet, reaching at the end of 2013 a total certified sum of 298,353 million barrels, which represent 20% of the world reserves.

The company had 140,626 employees until 2019, and a workforce hired in the same year of 16,168 employees. Citgo is one of its subsidiaries in the United States.

In 2019, Petróleos de Venezuela SA reported a decline in crude oil production from 1.1 million to 768,000 barrels per day.

(Edited by Rafael Prieto and Bryan Wilkes.)



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DOJ Witness Charges Malfeasance in Flynn Probe

DOJ Witness Charges Malfeasance in Flynn Probe

The looming indictment of Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was improperly known outside law enforcement and top Obama administration officials in 2017, according to a recently published account.

The claim comes from a witness in a controversial federal investigation into the origins of the Russia probe.

Steven Schrage, the person behind the claim, is a longtime Republican foreign affairs and trade official who interviewed a key figure in the so-called Russiagate scandal in January 2017.

Schrage is a witness in the investigation being run by John H. Durham, the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation that began in 2016.

Durham was asked to lead the probe by Attorney General William Barr who has been a vociferous critic of how the FBI and the Obama administration investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. Democrats have repeatedly charged that Barr has played politics with the issue, including his selective release of excerpts of the report by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Mueller criticized Barr’s characterization of the report as exonerating Trump.

According to Schrage, Stefan Halper, a British academic and key intermediary in the Russia story as well as his former thesis advisor, predicted that Flynn, then president-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, wouldn’t be “around long.”

Schrage interpreted that to mean that Halper had special access to the electronic monitoring of Flynn that led to the former Army General’s plea bargain. In December 2017, Flynn admitted to perjury and obstruction of justice charges but earlier this year he sought to withdraw his plea and the Department of Justice has reversed its stand and is now backing Flynn after prosecuting him. At least one career prosecutor resigned from the department to protest the startling turnaround. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. is considering the case.

Schrage claimed the minute-long recording is a snippet of his conversation with Halper, a former professor at the University of Cambridge in England and himself a veteran of Republican administrations,

In the recording, the man who is purportedly Halper predicts that Flynn would not be in the administration for long and cautions Schrage against working for him.

“I don’t think Flynn’s going to be around long. I mean, that’s just my guess,” Halper said.

“He’s really fucked. I mean, I don’t where he goes from there,” Halper said, according to Schrage.

Halper and others, Schrage alleges, did “a miraculous job in pushing fake Trump-Russia conspiracy stories that undermined America’s democratically-elected government and sparked investigations still ripping us apart today.”

That position is at odds with the voluminous report by Mueller and several congressional probes.

On Tuesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released information that Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was being used by a Russian intelligence operative.

The conversation, which Schrage said Halper knew was recorded, allegedly occurred Jan. 10, 2017, days after an Oval Office meeting where top Obama officials discussed Flynn’s intercepted calls with the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak where the two discussed recently imposed American sanctions on Moscow over interference in the U.S. elections.

Then-Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn speaks at the Defense Intelligence Agency change of directorship at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, July 24, 2012. Army Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess Jr. turned over directorship of DIA to LtGen Flynn after serving in the position since 2009. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DOD)

A few weeks after his inauguration, Trump fired Flynn, later explaining he did so because Flynn “lied” to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak, denying that sanctions had been discussed.

“Halper would not have independently known Flynn, Trump’s most trusted security advisor, was about to go down,” Schrage wrote.

It’s possible, though, that Halper was referring to something else that might end Flynn”s tenure including what was then his much condemned and recently detailed work for the Turkish government and its efforts to deport a cleric who opposed the regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

A federal appeals court is considering Flynn’s efforts to take back his plea and his admission of guilt. The original judge in the case rejected his claim and chided the Justice Department for its reversal.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote about Flynn’s calls on Jan. 12, 2017 citing a “senior U.S. government official.” The column was published two days after Schrage’s recorded conversation with Halper.

“This led to Flynn’s downfall and reignited the Trump-Russia investigations still tearing our nation apart. 48 hours before the leak was published, my former supervisor Halper eerily laid out what was about to happen to Flynn, something he had no independent reason to know,” Schrage wrote.

Schrage suggested but provides no evidence that Halper was Ignatius’ source.

“With both Flynn’s hearing and the election approaching, whatever the consequences, everyone impacted deserves to know the truth,” Schrage wrote.

Schrage made his claims in a post published by journalist Matt Taibbi, a longtime critic of the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Moscow.

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on March 14, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Schrage teased that he would have more information to release in the coming weeks.

(Edited by Matt Cooper and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)



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Historic UAE-Israel deal boosts Trump, hurts Iran and Russia

Historic UAE-Israel deal boosts Trump, hurts Iran and Russia

The announcement of the third peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state came as a complete surprise to the international community Thursday. No dialogue leaked, no statements floated to the press ahead of time, no countermeasures deployed to interfere, and no traditional diplomacy—only President Donald Trump’s blackjack-like brinksmanship and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s calm.

But the sound of throats clearing Friday in Abu Dhabi was followed by cautious gloating, and efforts to point out how the Israelis will no longer be “annexing” the West Bank.

“The UAE has long been a champion of the Palestinian cause, their dignity and right to self-determination and peaceful coexistence,” said Hend Al Otaiba, the director of strategic communications at the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We cannot act on behalf of the Palestinians or the Israelis, but we hope this agreement gives them space and support in which to negotiate a lasting peace treaty that will secure broader regional peace and stability.”

“We believed the two-state solution was existentially threatened by annexation and we had an opportunity to put a stop to it,” she told Zenger News.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out in a Jerusalem address after a signing ceremony that the text of the agreement called for Israel to “suspend” its annexation, not cancel its plans.

“There is no change to my plan to extend sovereignty, our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said, referring to the West Bank by its Biblical names,” in full coordination with the United States.”

Otaiba said her government made the right deal even knowing some would disagree with it. She said achieving peace in the Middle East must involve Israel, Palestine, the UAE and the U.S. if it is to provide stability and prosperity to the region.

“There will always be those who prefer violence to peace, but overall this deal makes the region safer and more stable,” said Otaiba. “It is an achievement centered around diplomacy and dialogue, an opportunity to move forward on numerous fronts: political, economic, and cultural.”

Hamas, the Islamic Jihad movement, and other entities that antagonize Israel describe the deal as a betrayal to the Palestinians.

And other, more subtle pessimists who tried to sabotage Thursday’s agreement expressed suspicion that Israel would never commit to halting its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. That assumption was rejected by the Mayor of Efrat, Oded Revivi—who had been in talks with representatives from the U.S. administration about the deal. Efrat is a Jewish settlement in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank.

Revivi said postponing the application of the Israeli law which declared sovereignty over the West Bank is a fair price to pay for a peace agreement with the UAE.

In an exclusive interview with Zenger, Reviv said: “Netanyahu has agreed to postpone the application of Israeli sovereignty in order to formalize Israel’s relationship with the Emiratis and hopefully other Gulf States. With Netanyahu saying that, and the Administration indicating that it would not recognize the move right now, it is hard to see how credible an argument that Israel would do so anyway at this time.”

The Efrat mayor stressed that new developments allow Israel the opportunity to present the reality of life in Israel without the filter of a corrupt and repressive Palestinian Authority.

“In due time I would expect the Emiratis and others to recognize the huge distinction between Palestinian people and the corrupt PA extends even to the controversial issue concerning Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.”

Reviv said he has high hopes that Thursday’s deal will start a new era in the region. “I certainly hope it is the beginning of a peaceful era, and a recognition that there are bigger priorities in the Middle East than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, adding that terrorist organizations that reject any kind of normalization with Israel have found themselves humiliated by more practical and cooperative Arab Middle East states.

Saudi writer Ahmad al-Farraj emphasized on importance of the Israeli commitment to the Arab world, stressing that this historic deal would pave the way for a new dialogue to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

Farraj described the general sentiment in the counties of the Gulf Cooperation Council as overwhelmingly positive, pointing out that the Saudi Arabian people are beginning to shed their old, habitual frame of the Middle East. “The Saudis are changing their perspective of who their real enemy is. It is not Israel anymore,” he said.

The Saudi political analyst said Iran and Turkey are now the threats in the region.

“Iran has been trying to seize control of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen while the Muslim Brotherhood via Turkey is expanding its influence in Syria, Lebanon and Libya. These are the real enemies, especially for the people of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Bahrain,” Farraj said.

He said the people who oppose the deal are watching Qatar closely because it was the first Gulf country to normalize its relations with Israel—and also watching Turkey and the Muslim brotherhood for negative reactions designed to inflame tensions again.

The historic Abraham Accords also put Russia on its back feet: Its negotiations to form trade alliances across the Arab world have largely failed. Some of the Trump administration’s have succeeded.

(Edited by David Martosko and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)



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Justice Dept. Lawyer: Secret Evidence May Have Led Bill Barr to Drop Michael Flynn Case

Justice Dept. Lawyer: Secret Evidence May Have Led Bill Barr to Drop Michael Flynn Case

U.S. Attorney General William Barr may have evidence that has not yet surfaced supporting his motion to drop criminal charges against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to a top U.S. Department of Justice attorney.

“It may be possible that the attorney general had before him information that he was not able to share with the court. So what we put in front of the court was the reasons that we could, but it may not be the full picture available to the executive branch,” acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall told a federal appellate court on Tuesday.

Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI, a case that resulted from an investigation into his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Justice Department later dropped the charges against him.

The new information came during a 4-hour hearing about whether a lower court judge should have followed the government’s request to dismiss the case, or whether that judge should have been able to hear arguments about why the DOJ dropped the charges before Flynn appealed the case upward.

Flynn cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling.

Flynn hired new lawyers in June 2019, and then claimed he was innocent and that the FBI had tried to entrap him. Flynn attorney Sidney Powell accused the FBI and Department of Justice of plotting against him.

Barr moved to drop the prosecution in May, saying there had been no legitimate basis for investigating Flynn, and that his lies were immaterial to the larger Russia probe.

Then-Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn speaks at the Defense Intelligence Agency change of directorship at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, July 24, 2012. Army Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess Jr. turned over directorship of DIA to LtGen Flynn after serving in the position since 2009. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DOD)

“The attorney general made that decision or that judgment on the basis of lots of information. Some of it is public and fleshed out in the motion and some of it is not,” Wall told the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The Justice department did not respond to a request for comment.

A majority of judges on the panel could rule that District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan should be allowed to decide whether to approve the Justice department’s efforts to dismiss the Flynn case.

If Sullivan refuses to drop the charges, Trump’s former national security adviser could then appeal the decision, the judges suggested.

A majority of the appellate judges agreed on July 30 to hear the case involving the Justice department’s decision to withdraw the charges.

That ruling followed a June decision by a three-judge panel from the appeals court, which sided with the Justice department and Flynn’s legal team.

Sullivan, who oversaw Flynn’s trial, declined to end the case and appointed a retired federal judge to argue whether Flynn perjured himself. He scheduled a hearing on the issue, but Flynn’s legal team asked the appeals court to step in.

The three-judge panel said Sullivan was wrong to appoint the retired judge and ordered him to dismiss the case. Sullivan then asked the full appeals court to rehear the case.

Tuesday’s hearing was a procedural one, determining whether Flynn should have waited to appeal until after Sullivan made a ruling in the case.

“The court can’t continue a prosecution on its own, which is essentially what Judge Sullivan has tried to do here and has done very effectively for three months,” Powell told the judges.

“Only the government can decide when to stop a prosecution and that’s the authority he is intruding on,” she said. “We have a 100-page motion to dismiss supported by stunning exculpatory evidence that was suppressed for three years or more.”

Powell accused Sullivan of being biased and demanded that he be disqualified from presiding over the case.

Sullivan’s attorney Beth Wilkinson said the judge hasn’t done anything yet to warrant an appeal. Sullivan has not requested additional evidence, affidavits or witnesses, she said.

“The parties’ speculation and fears about what the district court might do are not a proper basis for mandamus,” she said, adding that it’s possible Sullivan could ultimately dismiss the case, which is what the government and Flynn want.

Barr ordered a review of the Flynn investigation in January. Records released in April show top FBI officials discussed the possibility of prosecuting Flynn for lying about his conversations with the Russian diplomat.

An FBI official scrawled a note that was partially redacted, musing on whether the FBI interviewed Flynn in order to trap him in a lie.

One official, who was not identified in the unredacted portion of the note, wrote: “What is our goal? Truth/Admission or get him to lie so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”

Barr has several prosecutors reviewing the Justice department and FBI’s conduct during their investigations into Trump and his associates. U.S. Attorneys John Bash and Jeff Jensen are investigating matters related to the Flynn probe, and U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating the origins of the Russia investigation.

(Edited by Allison Elyse Gualtieri and David Martosko.)



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FBI: Few errors found on wiretapping applications

FBI: Few errors found on wiretapping applications

Errors discovered in the FBI’s applications to wiretap suspected foreign spies and terrorists did not undercut the applications, the U.S. Department of Justice said Monday.

The FBI audited 29 applications that were presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in recent years after a report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general found “significant errors and omissions” in the bureau’s applications to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide.

A review of the 29 applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants found 203 false statements or omissions, but the Justice department and FBI said only two of those were “material,” according to a partly redacted court submission released Monday.

“The government has identified only one material misstatement and one material omission, neither of which are assessed to have invalidated the authorizations granted by the court in the applicable dockets,” wrote Melissa MacTough, the deputy assistant attorney general for national security.

 

“Non-material” errors included typographical errors, date discrepancies, the misidentification of sources or the inability to locate a supporting document, MacTough said.

The audit looked at more than 6,700 “factual assertions” within the 29 FISA applications, Dawn Browning, acting general counsel for the FBI, said in a sworn statement.

“The complete absence in the twenty-nine applications of material errors impacting probable cause should instill confidence in the FBI’s use of its FISA authorities,” Browning said. “Indeed, the overwhelming majority of factual assertions — approximately 6,568 — were determined not to be erroneous at all, materially or otherwise.”

Some critics of the FISA process were skeptical of the results.

“The officials reviewing the applications come from the same parts of the department that made the errors in the first place. They have every incentive to downplay the significance of the errors. I would have much more confidence if the analysis of the significance of the mistakes had been conducted by the office that discovered them, namely, the Office of the Inspector General. The attorney general could have asked the OIG to do this review, but didn’t,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Even if it were true that only two of the errors in the 29 applications reviewed were ‘material,’ that’s nothing to be proud of. In just the past three years, the Department of Justice has submitted 3,270 applications to conduct electronic surveillance under Title I of FISA. Based on the rate of material error found by DOJ, we can expect that there were roughly 225 material errors in those applications. With that many material errors, you can be fairly confident that at least some surveillance orders were issued that otherwise would not have been. That’s a serious miscarriage of justice,” she said.

U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz found serious errors with the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, according to a report he released in December on the early stages of the Russia investigation. The Justice department said in January that the final two of the four warrants against Page were invalid, indicating that the department believed the surveillance on the Trump aide should have ended in early 2017.

The FBI sought to surveil Page in connection with its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

“These new findings reaffirm that the FISA warrant process, thankfully, isn’t suffering from a systemic problem, but also that the problems with the Carter Page warrant process were uniquely concerning,” said Brad Moss, a national security attorney.

“There were mistakes that, in hindsight, were rather clear in how the Page process was pursued and that need to be rectified to prevent similar errors in the future. What remains unclear is if political gamesmanship will prevent proper reforms from being implemented that would save this critical national security tool,” Moss said.

When reached Tuesday, Page declined to comment on the latest FISA review, saying he had not had time to look over it but he would have more to say on the process in his forthcoming book.

(Edited by Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)



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