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Sessions orders Justice Department to review all police reform agreements

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to review reform agreements with troubled police forces nationwide, saying it was necessary to ensure these pacts do not work against the Trump administration’s goals of promoting officer safety and morale while fighting violent crime.

In a two-page memo released Monday, Sessions said agreements reached previously between the department’s civil rights division and local police departments — a key legacy of the Obama administration — will be subject to review by his two top deputies, throwing into question whether all of the agreements will stay in place.

The memo was released not long before the department’s civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge to postpone until at least the end of June a hearing on a sweeping police reform agreement, known as a consent decree, with the Baltimore Police Department that was announced just days before President Trump took office.

“The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public,” Justice officials said in their filing. “The Department is working to ensure that those initiatives effectively dovetail with robust enforcement of federal laws designed to preserve and protect civil rights.”

Sessions fears short-term spike in crime ‘is not a blip, but it’s the start of a dangerous trend’

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a group of law enforcement officers in St. Louis that he fears crime rates in the United States could rise significantly on March 31. (Reuters)

Sessions has often criticized the effectiveness of consent decrees and has vowed in recent speeches to more strongly support law enforcement.

Since 2009, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees, along with some other agreements. Civil rights advocates fear that Sessions’s memo could particularly imperil the status of agreements that have yet to be finalized, such as a pending agreement with the Chicago Police Department.

“This is terrifying,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who spent five years as the department’s chief of special litigation, overseeing investigations into 23 police departments such as New Orleans, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. “This raises the question of whether, under the current attorney general, the Department of Justice is going to walk away from its obligation to ensure that law enforcement across the country is following the Constitution.”

The Baltimore agreement, reached after Freddie Gray died in April 2015 following an injury in police custody, calls for changes including training officers on how to resolve conflicts without force. The Justice Department asked for 90 additional days to assess whether the agreement fits with the “directives of the President and the Attorney General,” according to the filing Monday evening in U.S District Court of the District of Maryland. U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar had scheduled the public hearing for Thursday.

The filing notes that Baltimore has already made its own progress toward police reform and states that “it may be possible to take these changes into account where appropriate to ensure further compliance while protecting public safety.”

Officials who negotiated the agreement criticized the move. Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said that “the request for a delay is alarming and signals a retreat from the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights and public safety in Baltimore.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh also said she and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis oppose the delay. “Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish,” Pugh said.

But Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file police officers in Baltimore, said he welcomed the federal government’s request. Ryan said his chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police is in favor of reform but worries that the process was hasty.

The agreement reached between Baltimore and the Justice Department was announced in January, coming after a push by Obama administration officials to secure police reform agreements before Trump took office. The department, in a report last year, said the Baltimore police engaged in racially discriminatory policing and used excessive force because of “systemic deficiencies” in the department.

In the blistering report, federal investigators wrote that police in Baltimore, driven by a “legacy of zero tolerance enforcement,” conducted stops, searches and arrests that violated the Constitution.

The federal civil rights probe was launched afterGray, a 25-year-old, died of a spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody. That episode added Baltimore to the list of cities that saw heated demonstrations erupt following controversial encounters between police and black residents.

After months of negotiations, federal and city officials announced an agreement to improve the department’s training, strengthen its responses to sexual assaults and encourage officers to “use force in a manner that avoids unnecessary injury or risk of injury to officers and civilians.”

Then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described the decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, as “binding” and something that “will live on.” A day later, Lynch went to Chicago for the release of a sprawling federal investigation into that city’s police department that similarly assailed its practices. It’s now unclear what will happen with either of the agreements.

Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the St. Louis NAACP, questioned whether the department would also review investigations where officers were not deemed to be at fault.

“We’ve got just as many times that the Justice Department was called in to look at an incident and they found no probable cause for charges, said Pruitt, who was among the first to call for a Justice Department investigation into the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “Are they going to go back and look at those? The attorney general wants to re-examine something? Hell, I’ve got some stuff he can take a look at!”

Pruitt said he fears what the review will signal to communities awaiting reform.

“To the people who told their stories to investigators and cheered the steps toward reforms, it sends a message that the Department of Justice is not going to keep up their end of the deal,” Pruitt said.

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Islamic State orders evacuation of Raqqa amid dam collapse fears

Syrian activists said Sunday the Islamic State group has ordered an evacuation from its de facto capital, Raqqa, following warnings that the Tabqa Dam upstream on the Euphrates River could collapse.

The activist-run Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said civilians are fleeing Raqqa en masse. It said the militants are warning residents that the dam is out of service, weakened by US-led coalition airstrikes, and could collapse. It said water levels are rising behind the dam.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-run monitoring group, also reported the dam is out of service.

The two groups rely on local contacts to smuggle information out of IS-held territory.

Fighting at the dam held by IS in northern Syria put it out of service, risking dangerous rising water levels, a technical source told AFP.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is battling to take Tabqa dam and nearby Tabqa town from IS. The US-backed SDF has been battling IS near the militant-held dam as part of a broader campaign to take Raqqa.

But a source at the dam told AFP that the fighting had damaged its power station, forcing a halt to operations on Sunday.

“Shelling on the area… that supplies that dam with electricity has put it out of service,” the source said.

“The work needed to fix the problem is not possible because there is not sufficient staff available as a result of the intensive shelling in the area of the dam,” he added.

“If the problem is not fixed, it will begin to pose a danger to the dam.”

The source could not confirm what kind of shelling damaged the power station, but there has been heavy fighting nearby as well as air raids by the US-led coalition against IS in support of SDF fighters in the area.

A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) flashes the sign for victory in the village of Sabah al-Khayr on February 21, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

SDF spokesman Talal Sello insisted there was no imminent danger to the dam, which is Syria’s largest and sits on the Euphrates River.

“There have been no airstrikes on the dam,” he told AFP.

SDF forces were helicoptered behind IS lines last week by US forces to begin their assault on the dam, which is around 35 miles (55 kilometers) west of Raqqa.

“We carried out this operation to land there to avoid shelling or damage to the dam,” Sello said.

SDF fighters reached one of the entrances of the dam on Friday, battling IS in clashes in which jihadists were killed and wounded.

But the dam remains under IS control, with SDF progress being hampered by the exposed nature of the terrain, which is also heavily mined, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

IS issued warnings through its propaganda agency Amaq warning the dam “is threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels.”

But the source at the dam told AFP there had not yet been significant water level increases, though he acknowledged levels would rise if the facility remained out of service.

Earlier this month, the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said water levels in the Euphrates had risen 10 meters (33 feet) since late January, in part from heavy rainfall and snow.

But it warned that damage to the dam “could lead to massive scale flooding across Raqqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor” province to the southeast.

Any further rises in the water level or damage to the Tabqa dam “would have catastrophic humanitarian implications in all areas downstream”, the UN warned.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since its conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is making it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the United States by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of American residents.

Diplomatic cables sent last week from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to all American embassies instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny. It was the first evidence of the “extreme vetting” Mr. Trump promised during the presidential campaign.

The new rules generally do not apply to citizens of 38 countries — including most of Europe and longstanding allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea — who can be speedily admitted into the United States under the visa waiver program. That program does not cover citizens from any country in the Middle East or Africa.

Even stricter security checks for people from six predominantly Muslim nations remain on hold because federal courts have temporarily blocked President Trump’s travel ban.

But Mr. Trump and his national security team are not waiting to toughen the rules to decide who can enter the United States. Embassy officials must now scrutinize a broader pool of visa applicants to determine if they pose security risks to the United States, according to four cables sent between March 10 and March 17.

That extra scrutiny will include asking applicants detailed questions about their background and making mandatory checks of social media history if a person has ever been in territory controlled by the Islamic State.

Mr. Trump has spoken regularly of his concern about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” from immigrants. But it is unclear who, exactly, will be targeted for the extra scrutiny since Mr. Tillerson’s cables leave that decision up to security officers at each embassy.

Still, taken together, consular officials and immigration advocates said the administration’s moves will increase the likelihood of denial for those seeking to come to America, and will further slow down a bureaucratic approval process that can already take months or even years for those flagged for extra investigation. In 2016, the United States issued more than 10 million visas.

There are legitimate reasons someone might be targeted, such as evidence of a connection to terrorism or crime. But advocates also said they worry about people being profiled for extra scrutiny because of their name or nationality.

“This will certainly slow down the screening process and impose a substantial burden on these applicants,” said Greg Chen, the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It will make it much harder and create substantial delays.”

The cables from Mr. Tillerson, which were reported by Reuters, make clear that the Trump administration wants a more intense focus on the potential for a serious threat when making decisions about who should receive a visa.

“Consular officers should not hesitate to refuse any case presenting security concerns,” Mr. Tillerson wrote in the cables, titled “Implementing Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications.”

“All visa decisions are national security decisions,” the secretary of state added.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to properly screen people coming into the United States, a claim former officials in that administration reject. As a candidate, Mr. Trump vowed to ban all incoming Muslims until leaders could “figure out what the hell is going on.” Later, he backed away from a total ban on Muslims but promised “extreme vetting” of those trying to come to the United States.

The president’s first attempt to put tougher screening in place was the executive order aimed at temporarily blocking refugees and people whom Mr. Trump called “bad dudes” from predominantly Muslim countries. Courts blocked the first version of the president’s order after a chaotic rollout just days into his term. A second order was blocked this month.

But on March 6, the same day that Mr. Trump issued his revised travel ban, he also wrote a presidential memorandum ordering the secretary of state, the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security to “implement protocols and procedures” to enhance visa screening.

Administration officials said the cables from Mr. Tillerson are among the actions being taken to carry out that memorandum. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the steps aim “to more effectively identify individuals who could pose a threat to the United States.”

Most people seeking entry to the United States, for family, business or tourism reasons, must apply for a visa. Embassy officials can deny a visa for anyone suspected of being a threat, conducting fraud or planning to stay longer than allowed.

The seven-page unclassified cable that Mr. Tillerson sent on March 15, which was provided to The New York Times, makes clear that the process of securing an entry visa is about to get harder and longer at diplomatic posts around the globe.

“Consular chiefs must immediately convene post’s law enforcement and intelligence community partners” to develop what Mr. Tillerson described in the cable as “sets of post-applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny.”

People targeted for increased scrutiny, Mr. Tillerson said in his cable, may be subject to a decision made only after more rigorous screening.

The March 15 cable suggests areas of inquiry during a required interview, including: the applicant’s travel history, addresses and work history for 15 years; and all phone numbers, email addresses and social media handles used by the applicant in the past five years.

Another cable, sent two days later, indicated that consular officers should not begin asking for the 15-year travel and work histories until the State Department received authorization for those questions from the Office of Management and Budget. It is unclear why that permission had not been granted.

The State Department also urged its embassy officials to delay or reschedule interviews if an applicant was unable to provide all of the information demanded. And Mr. Tillerson acknowledged in the cables that the extra scrutiny would cause “backlogs to rise,” even as he recommended that officials should each interview no more than 120 visa applicants each day.

Mr. Chen, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, questioned how a single interviewer who conducts 120 interviews per day — at about five minutes per interview — could improve security for the visa process.

“It’s highly unlikely they could obtain information that demonstrates whether someone is a national security threat in such a brief interview process,” he said.

In addition to the new security protocols for embassies, the four diplomatic cables sent last week offer a view into how the administration hopes to enact the travel ban if the president ever gets the chance.

The March 15 cable, which was sent before federal courts blocked the revised travel ban, increases scrutiny on people from the six countries in the president’s executive order: Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Libya. It also includes a section calling for increased scrutiny for Iraqi nationals.

For those from the six countries covered in the ban, the cable envisions a process for potentially granting a limited number of exemptions from the ban by issuing a waiver, but only after vigorous screening. Those people would be questioned about their past 15 years of travel and occupational history, as well as whether they have visited territory controlled by the Islamic State.

A March 16 cable suspended “all enforcement” regarding the tougher scrutiny on the countries from Mr. Trump’s executive order.

UN chief orders report accusing Israel of ‘apartheid’ pulled from web

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres requested the removal of a report accusing Israel of apartheid from the website of the UN body that published it, Reuters reported Friday, citing an unnamed official in the international body.

Guterres had previously distanced himself from the report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which is comprised of 18 Arab countries.

The report was still available online Friday morning US-time, but was later removed.

The United States on Wednesday had demanded that the report be withdrawn altogether.

“The United States is outraged by the report,” US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement. “The United Nations secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but it must go further and withdraw the report altogether.”

Based in Beirut, ESCWA lists the state of Palestine as a full member, and works to strengthen cooperation and promote development.

“That such anti-Israel propaganda would come from a body whose membership nearly universally does not recognize Israel is unsurprising,” said Haley.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres shaking hands with new US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at the United Nations in New York, January 27, 2017. (AFP/Bryan R. Smith)

Haley has accused the United Nations of being biased against Israel and has vowed as President Donald Trump’s envoy to staunchly defend Israel at the world body.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric has said “the report as it stands does not reflect the views of the secretary-general” and was done without consultations with the UN secretariat.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon slammed the commission on Wednesday for releasing the report which accuses Israel of establishing “an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”

Danon said the “attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy is despicable and constitutes a blatant lie.”

Rima Khalaf (YouTube Screen Shot)

“It comes as no surprise that an organization headed by an individual who has called for boycotts against Israel, and compared our democracy to the most terrible regimes of the twentieth century, would publish such a report. We call on the Secretary-General to disassociate the UN from this biased and deceitful report,” he said in reference to ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian national.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, speaks to the UN Security Council after it passed an anti-settlement resolution, December 23, 2016 (UN Screenshot)

The report published Wednesday, titled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” says that “available evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

The Beirut-based commission slammed Israel’s Law of Return, “conferring on Jews worldwide the right to enter Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship regardless of their countries of origin and whether or not they can show links to Israel-Palestine, while withholding any comparable right from Palestinians, including those with documented ancestral homes in the country,” as a policy of “demographic engineering” meant to uphold Israel’s status as the Jewish state.

The report further accuses Israel of “practices” that have fragmented Palestinians, arguing that it is the “principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime.”

“This fragmentation operates to stabilize the Israeli regime of racial domination over the Palestinians and to weaken the will and capacity of the Palestinian people to mount a unified and effective resistance,” the report reads.

Richard Falk (photo credit: AP/Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi/File)

The report was compiled by Richard Falk, a Princeton professor emeritus with a long track record of vehemently anti-Israel rhetoric who previously was the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine, and by Virginia Tilley, an American political scientist who authored the book “The One-State Solution” in 2005.

Haley described Falk as “a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories.”

NY governor orders probe as Jewish cemetery in Rochester vandalized

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday ordered state police to launch a full investigation after a Jewish cemetery in Rochester was vandalized, the third such incident in the United States in less than two weeks.

Five headstones were found toppled Thursday morning at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery, in the city in western New York.

“A number of headstones were recently vandalized and toppled over at Waad Hakolel Cemetery in Rochester,” the governor said in a statement. “Given the wave of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and disturbing vandalism at Jewish cemeteries nationwide, I am directing the State Police to immediately launch a full investigation into this matter.”

The president of the nonprofit managing the cemetery said he did not want to call the incident a hate crime or anti-Semitism.

“I don’t want to label it a hate crime. I don’t think there’s any proof of that. I don’t want to label it anti-Semitism. I don’t think there’s any proof of that,” said Michael Phillips, president of the Britton Road Association, according to The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Headstones were toppled at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery, in Rochester, NY (Courtesy of News 10 NBC WHEC/ via JTA)

However, Cuomo said the attack appeared to be a part of a dramatic increase in hate crimes in the state recently.

“In recent weeks and months, the family of New York – people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds – have witnessed a dramatic increase in acts of hate and intolerance. The State Police Hate Crimes Task Force, in partnership with federal and local authorities, have launched aggressive investigations into reported hate crimes across the state,” Cuomo said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attending the Cadillac House grand opening in New York City, June 1, 2016. (Mike Pont/WireImage/Getty Images/via JTA)

“New York has zero tolerance for bias or discrimination of any kind, and we will always stand united in the face of anti-Semitism and divisiveness. It is repugnant to everything we believe as New Yorkers, and we will continue to do everything in our power to bring to justice those responsible for these cowardly attacks on the values we hold dear,” he said.

The last two weeks saw vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, as well as two more waves of bomb threats called into Jewish community centers, schools and institutions across the country, representing the fourth and fifth waves of such harassment this year.

The incident came a day after the New York Police Department said anti-Semitic incidents are up 94 percent in New York City over this time last year.

The figure is part of a 55% increase overall in the number of hate crimes in the city as compared to the same time last year. Through the first two months of this year, 35 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported, compared to 18 through February 2016.

Overall, the total number of hate crime incidents in the city for the first two months of 2017 was 68, up from 44 last year, according to the NYPD. Among the incidents, six people were targeted for being black, three for being Muslim and eight for their sexual orientation.

“Hate crimes are up in this city. They’re driven primarily by anti-Semitic hate crimes,” Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a news conference Wednesday.

Trump orders ‘great rebuilding’ of US military

President Donald Trump signed an order Friday to begin what he called a “great rebuilding” of the US armed services, promising new aircraft, naval ships and more resources for the military.

“Our military strength will be questioned by no one, but neither will our dedication to peace. We do want peace,” Trump said in a ceremony at the Pentagon.

Trump predicted that Congress, which sets the expenditures for the government, will “be very happy to see” the White House’s new spending request for the military.

Trump made clear during last year’s presidential campaign and in recent weeks that he wants to enlarge the ranks of the military services and expand its fleets of aircraft and ships.

For example, he said he envisioned a naval fleet of 350 vessels, up from the navy’s current 274 and more than its 310 vessel target.

And Trump excluded the military from a hiring freeze across the rest of the government that he ordered just after being inaugurated president on January 20.

He is also expected to order his new defense secretary, James Mattis, to intensify operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria with more US soldiers and military hardware like artillery and attack helicopters.

Another expected move is to review and the strengthen the country’s ability to defend itself against cyberattacks and to conduct offensive cyberattacks itself.

The order Trump signed Friday was less specific, calling for a sweeping 30-day readiness review of the US military, with the aim of preparing new budget requests to improve readiness.

But he has also pressured the Pentagon to cut costs on some of its most expensive programs.

Earlier, Mattis ordered financial reviews of the costs of two major defense programs — the $400 billion F-35 fighter jet project and the $4 billion development of a new Air Force One presidential jet. Trump had complained that both were too costly.

The Pentagon needs to find ways “to significantly reduce the cost” of the F-35 program, Mattis said, even weighing the competitiveness of the rival F-18.

The F-35 is built by Lockheed Martin, while the F-18 is built by Boeing.

Trump signed the new order at a ceremonial swearing-in of Mattis as defense secretary, lavishing praise on the retired Marine general.

“Secretary Mattis has devoted his life to serving his country. He is a man of honor, a man of devotion, and a man of total action. He likes action,” Trump said.

After Trump orders entry ban, airlines bar Iranians from US-bound flights

TEHRAN, Iran — Foreign airlines are barring Iranians from traveling to the United States following President Donald Trump’s temporary order barring visas for seven Muslim countries, travel agents in Tehran said Saturday.

Two agencies told AFP they had been instructed by Etihad Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airlines not to sell US tickets or allow Iranians holding American visas to board US-bound flights.

The news comes after Trump imposed tough new controls on travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The new US president signed a sweeping executive order on Friday to suspend refugee arrivals and impose tough controls on travelers from the seven countries.

Iran’s Aviation Organization said have not issued any new instructions to Iranian airlines, which do not have direct flights to the Unites States in the absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus looks on in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

With more than a million Iranians living in the United States, many families are concerned about the implications of Trump’s visa ban.

An Iranian studying in California who was visiting home said Saturday that she could not return because her ticket had been cancelled under the new restrictions.

“I had a ticket for Turkish Airlines on February 4, but it has been cancelled,” the girl who did not wish to be identified told AFP.

“I’ve informed the university officials by mail and they were surprised. They are going to send me a letter so I can try fly from Europe.”

On Thursday, one of Iran’s most popular actresses said she would boycott next month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles in protest at the US ban.

“Trump’s visa ban for Iranians is racist. Whether this will include a cultural event or not, I won’t attend the #AcademyAwards 2017,” tweeted Taraneh Alidoosti, who stars in the Oscar-nominated “The Salesman.”

Trump orders environmental agency contract freeze and media blackout

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration has instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants, part of a broader communications clampdown within the executive branch.

The prohibitions came to light Tuesday as the agency moved to delay implementation of at least 30 environmental rules finalized in the closing months of President Barack Obama’s term, a potential first step to seeking to kill the regulations.

A summary of the actions posted in the Federal Register includes a long list of regulations that include updated air pollution rulings for several states, renewable fuel standards and limits on the amount of formaldehyde that can leach from wood products. President Donald Trump signed a directive shortly after his inauguration on Friday ordering a “regulatory freeze pending review” for all federal agency rules that had been finalized that have not yet taken effect.

Emails sent to EPA staff and reviewed by The Associated Press also detailed specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts.

The Trump administration has also ordered what it called a temporary suspension of all new business activities at the department, including issuing task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders were expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide. EPA contracts with outside vendors for a wide array of services, from engineering and research science to janitorial supplies.

Similar orders barring external communications have been issued in recent days by the Trump administration at other federal agencies, including the departments of Transportation, Agriculture and Interior.

Staffers in EPA’s public affairs office are instructed to forward all inquiries from reporters to the Office of Administration and Resources Management.

“Incoming media requests will be carefully screened,” one directive said. “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.”

A review of EPA websites and social media accounts, which typically include numerous new posts each day, showed no new activity since Friday.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday he had no specific information on the blackout.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, that we’re going to review the policies,” Spicer said.

Doug Ericksen, the communications director for Trump’s transition team at EPA, said he expects the communications ban to be lifted by the end of this week.

“We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,” Ericksen said.

Beyond what was stated in the internal email, Ericksen clarified that the freeze on EPA contracts and grants won’t apply to pollution cleanup efforts or infrastructure construction activities. The agency later said it would also seek to complete that review by Friday.

State agencies that rely on EPA for funding were left in the dark, with both Democratic and Republican officials saying they had received no information from EPA about the freeze.

“We are actively seeking additional information so we can understand the impact of this action on our ability to administer critical programs,” said Alan Matheson, executive director of Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

In this Jan. 5, 2017 file photo, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson, File)

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the Trump administration should immediately reverse the media blackout and contracting freeze.

“This decision could have damaging implications? for communities across New York state and the country, from delaying testing for lead in schools to restricting efforts to keep drinking water clean to holding up much-needed funding to revitalize toxic brownfield sites,” Schumer said.

The executive director for the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Jeff Ruch, said the orders go beyond what has occurred in prior presidential transitions.

“We’re watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service,” Ruch said Tuesday, referring to the evil kingdom in the epic fantasy “The Lord of the Rings.”

Ruch noted that key posts at EPA have not yet been filled with Republican appointees, including Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. That means there are not yet the new senior personnel in place to make decisions.

Environmentalists said the orders were having a chilling effect on EPA staff already suffering from low morale. Trump and Pruitt have both been frequent critics of the agency and have questioned the validity of climate science showing that the Earth is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame.

Staff at the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service also received orders not to issue any news releases, photos, fact sheets and social media posts. After an email of the order leaked to the media, the agency said it would rescind the memo.

Spokespersons at agencies within the Transportation Department who are career employees received an email Monday morning telling them: “There will be no releases or social media until we hear from new leadership.” The one-sentence email, which was obtained by The Associated Press, came from the department’s top career spokeswoman, rather than a political appointee.

The department said in a statement that transportation officials didn’t receive any guidance on press releases and social media from the White House.

“Everybody’s being very cautious” and erring on the side of not releasing information, one DOT employee said. The employee didn’t have permission to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The AP reported over the weekend that staff employees at the Interior Department were temporarily ordered to stop making posts to its Twitter account after the official account of the National Park Service retweeted a pair of photos that compared those gathered for Trump’s inauguration with the much larger crowd that attended Obama’s swearing-in.

Trump later falsely claimed that more than 1 million people attended his inauguration, which Spicer insisted was the most watched in history.

In a test of what the new administration will tolerate, the official Twitter account of the Badlands National Park published a series of posts Tuesday accurately quoting climate science data that included the current record-setting high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The tweets were soon deleted.

Israel said to skip General Assembly vote on Syria, on Netanyahu’s orders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Israeli UN mission in New York to skip a vote last week at the General Assembly on a resolution that would have allowed for the establishment of a mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.

According to a report in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, this directive came amid heavy diplomatic pressure from Russia, which is heavily involved in the ongoing Syrian civil war and which did not want its military implicated in any international probes.

Western diplomats told the paper they were surprised by Israel’s absence at the General Assembly on resolution Resolution A/71/L.48, which passed with 105 votes nonetheless. One official who was involved in the drafting of the resolution told the paper that he was sure the whole world, except for Russia and Iran, would unite behind the decision, including Israel.

According to the report, Netanyahu, who also serves as Israeli foreign minister, ordered that Israel skip the vote in contradiction to Foreign Ministry staff recommendations that Israel support it.

A view of the electronic vote tallies in the Assembly Hall, December 21, 2016, after members voted in favor of a resolution establishing an international mechanism investigating war crimes in Syria. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Unnamed Israeli officials who spoke to Haaretz confirmed the events, adding that the General Assembly vote was unusual in that it sought to exploit the UN Charter to circumvent the Security Council, where Russia has consistently used its veto power to nix resolutions on Syria, and go straight to the GA for a binding resolution. One official told the paper that “this expansion of authority of the General Assembly did not serve Israeli interests,” amid fears the move could possibly be used against Israel in the future.

A UN official told Yediot that Israel’s decision was the result of “a cynical deal” between Jerusalem and Moscow.

“In the end you got nothing for it because two days later, the Russians screwed Israel over on the settlements resolution,” the official said according to a translation of the Yediot report on Ynet’s English website.

Indeed, on Friday, Russia, along with 13 other states, voted in favor of a Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. The decision, which infuriated Israel, was allowed to pass after the US decided to depart from policy and abstain instead of veto the resolution.

According to a partial account by Haaretz of some behind-the-scenes events before the anti-settlements vote, Netanyahu sought to cash in on Israel’s acquiescence on the Syrian resolution at the General Assembly by pressuring Russia to delay the vote on UNSC Resolution 2334.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on March 19, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York. (AFP/Stan Honda)

Netanyahu had called Russian President Vladimir Putin hours before the vote Friday, according to Haaretz, to persuade him to postpone. It seems Putin answered the call when, less than an hour before the 15-member council was set to cast votes, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin called for closed consultations to request a delay on the vote until after the Christmas holiday.

Churkin, according to Western diplomats who spoke to Haaretz, said Russia was not satisfied with the text, which slammed Israeli settlement building and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and with the timing of the vote — just weeks before a new US administration is set to take power.

But Churkin was rebuffed and the vote passed with 14 votes in favor, including Russia’s, and a US abstention.

In response to the news of Netanyahu’s order on the Syria resolution, a noted Israeli scholar who penned the IDF’s code of ethics said he felt “shame and sadness.”

“Israel was supposed to be at the forefront of those demanding the world end its silence on this anti-moral behavior [in Syria],” Asa Kasher wrote on Facebook Tuesday, adding that Israel should have been a “moral example” against “mass atrocities committed worldwide, regardless of who is committing them or who its friends are.”

Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, which sits in the opposition, recalled his late father, a Holocaust survivor, when responding to the news that Israel skipped the vote, saying he would not have forgiven Israel’s silence.

“Dad always blamed the world for its silence. For not doing a thing while he was in the ghetto and his father — my grandfather — died in the gas chambers. If he would have heard that we remained silent in this moment, he would have never forgiven us,” Lapid wrote on social media.

South Korea orders record cull of poultry to contain bird flu

South Korea has ordered its biggest-ever cull of chickens and other poultry to fight a bird flu outbreak that is spreading at an unprecedented rate, the Agriculture Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry ordered the cull of 4 million more birds, which would bring the total number killed since mid-November to 16 million, almost one-fifth of its poultry population.

South Korea raised its bird flu alert status to the highest level for the first time on Thursday because of the rapid spread of the H5N6 virus. The government has said it has found 54 cases of the virus in poultry since the first outbreak was reported on Nov. 18.

“It appears to be more highly pathogenic and it is spreading more quickly than the H5N8 virus that occurred in 2014,” Agriculture Minister Kim Jae-soo told reporters. About 14 million birds were culled until that outbreak was finally brought under control in November 2015.

“We have appointed a central emergency measures headquarters to oversee the situation and reinforce our pan-governmental response measures,” Kim added. He was flanked by officials who like him were wearing the yellow windbreakers donned during emergencies.

Although cases of human infections from the H5N6 virus have been previously reported elsewhere, including China, no cases of human infections have ever been detected in South Korea.

Outbreaks of avian influenza have been reported recently in Japan and several European nations, including France, which widened “high risk” restrictions to the entire country last week.

In South Korea, most of the birds culled were egg-laying hens, sending local egg prices soaring.

The average retail price for 30 eggs has risen 15 percent to 6,279 won ($5.31) as of Thursday since the outbreak began, according to the state-run Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp, and is expected to rise further.

Shares of animal vaccine makers rose in early trade on Friday because of the outbreak.

The agriculture ministry said it will consider a temporary shutdown of slaughterhouses and animal feed factories if needed to contain the spread of the virus.

The ministry had already stepped up quarantine measures, including issuing a temporary nationwide ban on the transport of poultry.

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