Dubai, May 13 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. issued a new warning early Sunday to sailors over alleged "acts of sabotage" targeting ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates amid heightened regional tensions between America and Iran.
The UAE's regional allies meanwhile condemned the reported sabotage Sunday of the four ships off the coast of Fujairah, which came just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions at the city's port.
Emirati officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible. However, the reported incident comes as the U.S. has warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and as America is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran.
Tensions have risen in the year since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, restoring American sanctions that have pushed Iran's economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.
Underling the regional risk, the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the alleged sabotage as a "serious escalation" in an overnight statement.
"Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger," Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said. Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen's internationally recognized government similarly condemned the alleged sabotage.
A statement Sunday from the UAE's Foreign Ministry put the ships near the country's territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of the port of Fujairah. It said it was investigating "in cooperation with local and international bodies." It said there were "no injuries or fatalities on board the vessels" and "no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel."
The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, did not immediately offer comment. Emirati officials declined to answer questions from The Associated Press, saying their investigation is ongoing.
Earlier Sunday, Lebanon's pro-Iran satellite channel Al-Mayadeen, quoting "Gulf sources," falsely reported that a series of explosions had struck Fujairah's port. State and semi-official media in Iran picked up the report from Al-Mayadeen, which later published the names of vessels it claimed were involved.
The AP, after speaking to Emirati officials and local witnesses, found the report about explosions at the port to be unsubstantiated.
Fujairah's port is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. The facility handles oil for bunkering and shipping, as well as general and bulk cargo. It is seen as strategically located, serving shipping routes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.
Sunday's incident comes after the U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, warned Thursday that Iran could target commercial sea traffic.
"Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz," the warning read. "Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait or the Persian Gulf."
Early Sunday, the agency issued a new warning to sailors about the alleged sabotage, while stressing "the incident has not been confirmed." It urged shippers to exercise caution in the area for the next week.
Publicly available satellite images of the area taken Sunday showed no smoke or fire.
It remains unclear if the previous warning from the U.S. Maritime Administration is the same perceived threat that prompted the White House to order the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region on May 4.
Trenton, May 11 (AP/UNB) — A New Jersey man who defrauded Medicare by using the promise of ice cream to lure senior citizens into genetic testing was sentenced Friday to more than four years in prison.
Seth Rehfuss had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. U.S. District Judge Ann Thompson also ordered Rehfuss to pay restitution of about $435,000 and forfeit more than $66,000.
Prosecutors alleged the 44-year-old Somerset resident and others used a nonprofit, The Good Samaritans of America, to gain access to senior housing complexes where they would persuade residents to submit to genetic tests.
Rehfuss would advertise he was serving free ice cream to lure residents to the presentations, according to a criminal complaint. The seniors were told the tests would help them guard against heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses.
Rehfuss and his co-conspirators paid health care providers to authorize the tests even though the providers hadn't examined the patients. Prosecutors alleged they found the providers by placing ads on Craigslist.
The group allegedly defrauded Medicare out of $430,000 and made more than $100,000 in commissions from laboratories.
Forty-seven-year-old Sheila Kahl, of Ocean County, New Jersey, and 39-year-old Kenneth Johnson of Lorton, Virginia, also have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced this month.
According to the U.S. attorney's office, the group had planned to expand the scheme to other states.
Washington, May 11 (AP/UNB) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will head to Russia next week for talks with President Vladimir Putin amid heightened U.S.-Russia tensions over the crisis in Venezuela and the Trump administration's hardline policy on Iran, the State Department said Friday.
Pompeo's meeting with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi will be the highest-level face-to-face talks between the former Cold War foes since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Putin and President Donald Trump spoke at length by phone last week and Pompeo saw Lavrov earlier this week in Finland.
The trip will be Pompeo's first to Russia as secretary of state and as he prepared for his weekend departure, administration critics, including congressional Democrats, noted that a statement highly critical of alleged Russian involvement in an attempted coup in Montenegro had been removed from the State Department's website.
The statement, which had been released on Thursday, said a Montenegrin court's conviction in absentia of two Russian intelligence officers for plotting to overthrow the Balkan country's government and prevent it from joining NATO was "a clear victory for the rule of law, laying bare Russia's brazen attempt to undermine the sovereignty of an independent European nation."
After Pompeo's office objected to the release, the statement was taken down from the website, according to officials, who stressed that it had not been formally recalled and still reflected U.S. government policy. Its removal, first reported by Foreign Policy, however, appeared to amuse Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who tweeted a screenshot of the statement, saying "Good news, @StateDept: we saved a copy."
The State Department said Pompeo and Putin and Lavrov would discuss "the full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges" facing the two countries. A senior department official said in addition to Venezuela and Iran, the talks would include arms control, stalled U.S. nuclear negotiations with North Korea, Syria, Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and Washington's concerns about Russian election interference efforts.
The official, who was not authorized to preview the trip publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pompeo did not necessarily expect the talks to produce any "overnight" breakthroughs and were instead "an opportunity to take the conversation to a higher level."
The official said one primary focus of the meeting would be Trump's desire to modernize and expand existing arms control agreements, particularly ahead of the formal U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in August after Washington's repeated complaints that Moscow was violating it. Trump has said he wants new arms control accords that reflect the current post-Cold War situation and bring in other nations, notably China. The official would not be specific about any particular agreement Pompeo would push.
After meeting with Lavrov on the sidelines of an Arctic Council foreign ministers meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, on Monday, Pompeo said he believed the conversation had been "good" and had set the stage for potentially positive discussions on the significant differences between Washington and Moscow on many issues.
"We covered a wide range of issues and I think on every one have charted a way that we can begin to have positive conversations forward," he said. "We have interests that are definitely different and there will be places where we run into hard stops pretty quickly, but there is no doubt there was a desire to begin to try and find paths where we can make real progress on places where we have overlapping interests."
After speaking with Putin last Friday, Trump appeared to undercut strong criticism of Russia's support for embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro from Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Trump said Putin had no desire to be involved in Venezuela, although Pompeo and Bolton have made increasingly strong demands for Russia and Cuba to cease support for Maduro over U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Pompeo, however, said he had reiterated his previous calls for Russia to get out of Venezuela. "I made clear our view that the Venezuelans deserve a democracy that doesn't have any foreign party running their country or involved in their country on a consistent basis in a military way."
In response, Russia has accused the U.S. of illegally interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs.
As tensions between Washington and Tehran over re-imposed U.S. sanctions have heightened in recent weeks, Moscow has sided with Iran in calling for the 2015 nuclear deal to remain in place. Iran said this week it would partially end its compliance with the deal unless European nations are able to circumvent the sanctions and provide it with benefits it was due under the accord, from which Trump withdrew last year.
This week, the U.S. said it was dispatching an aircraft carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East in response to intelligence that Iran is preparing to retaliate for the sanctions with attacks on American interests in the region.
On election interference, although Trump has downplayed its significance and rejected allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia to win in 2016, Pompeo said he had told Lavrov in Finland that "it's not appropriate and that we're going to do everything we can to deter it."
The senior official said Pompeo would be interested in hearing Putin's account of his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who visited Vladivostok, Russia, last month amid an impasse in talks with the U.S. and has since directed several ballistic missile tests.
Pompeo will begin his two-day visit in Moscow, where he will meet employees of the U.S. Embassy as well as American business leaders and Russian alumni of State Department-run exchange programs.
Washington, May 9 (AP/UNB) — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the Democrats' extraordinary legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia report.
The vote capped a day of ever-deepening dispute between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump, who for the first time invoked the principle of executive privilege, claiming the right to block lawmakers from the full report on Mueller's probe of Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York declared the action by Trump's Justice Department a clear new sign of the president's "blanket defiance" of Congress' constitutional rights to conduct oversight.
"We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice," Nadler said after the vote.
The White House's blockade, he said, "is an attack on the ability of the American people to know what the executive branch is doing." He said, "This cannot be."
But Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said it was disappointing that members of Congress "have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics."
Barr made "extraordinary efforts" to provide Congress and the public with information about Mueller's work, she said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said neither the White House nor Barr "will comply with Chairman Nadler's unlawful and reckless demands."
Late Wednesday the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee issued his own subpoena to the Justice Department for the full Mueller report, as the confrontation intensifies.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, whose committee had previously requested the documents, said he has "no choice" but to compel the department's compliance. He warned that if it continues to "ignore or rejects our requests," the panel could take legal action.
Kupec declined to comment.
Though the White House initially hesitated on invoking privilege, Trump told his staff and political advisers in recent weeks to refuse to cooperate with Democrats, believing the party's goal was simply to damage him politically going into his re-election campaign. The coming legal battle could stretch to 2020, and the White House is aiming to tie up congressional probes until Election Day.
Executive privilege is the president's power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
The president's decision was weeks in the making, the next inevitable escalation between the White House and Congress over a number of probes. The White House has rejected all efforts to probe Trump's business dealings or tax returns as well as the West Wing's security clearance procedure.
The committee voted along party lines, 24-16, to recommend the full House hold Barr in contempt, but only after some five hours of heated and, at times, emotional testimony.
Democrats made their case that Congress was at a historic juncture as it confronts what they consider Trump's stonewalling of lawmakers' ability to conduct oversight of the administration. Republicans portrayed the majority as angry and lashing out at Barr after the special counsel did not find that Trump colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election.
Said Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas: "The president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States."
And Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said the road ahead may be "messy" but Democrats must fight to "protect our democracy." Other Democrats called the standoff a "serious" and "grave" moment.
However, the panel's top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, said Democrats were manufacturing a crisis and rushing the process to "sully Bill Barr's good name."
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally, said the Democrats were trying to "delegitimize" the president and biding time before they try to impeach him.
"Get over it," Gaetz said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the next step will be consideration by the full House. Nadler said that will happen soon.
If approved by the House, where the Democrats hold a solid majority, the contempt resolution would almost certainly move to an unusual, and potentially protracted, multi-pronged court battle with the Trump administration.
The contempt finding could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who would be likely to defend rather than oppose Barr. Democratic House leaders could also file a lawsuit, though the case could take months or even years to resolve. Some committee members have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds information.
Nadler said Wednesday the Trump administration's refusal to provide the special counsel's full Russia report to Congress presents a "constitutional crisis."
In a letter Wednesday to Trump , Barr explained that the special counsel's files contain millions of pages of classified and unclassified information. He said it was the committee's "abrupt resort to a contempt vote" that "has not allowed sufficient time for you to consider fully whether to make a conclusive assertion of executive privilege."
Barr told Trump he should assert privilege now, "pending a full decision on the matter."
Talks with the Justice Department broke down over the committee's subpoena for an unredacted version of the report.
Barr released a redacted version of Mueller's 400-plus-page report to the public last month, but Democrats subpoenaed the full document , along with underlying evidence.
The department has rejected that demand, while allowing a few top lawmakers from the House and Senate to view a version with fewer redactions. That version blacks out grand jury information, which needs a judge's approval for release, and it doesn't include the report's underlying evidence. Democrats have said they won't view that version until they get broader access.
Almost half the report's pages contain some type of redaction including those around the Russian influence campaign, presidential pardons and other topics.
Barr has refused to testify in public to the committee after a disagreement over the Democrats' demand that he answer questions from a staff attorney in addition to lawmakers. The committee is in talks for Mueller himself to appear May 15, but there is no agreement yet, and Trump has said Mueller should not testify.
Nadler also has threatened to hold former White House Counsel Don McGahn in contempt of Congress if he doesn't testify before the committee later this month. Nadler rejected a White House claim that documents McGahn refused to provide despite a subpoena are controlled by the White House and thus McGahn has no legal right to them.
Pelosi, who has tamped down calls from her liberal flank to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump, said in a Washington Post interview Wednesday that the president, by obstructing Congress was becoming "self-impeachable."
Mueller, in his report, said he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided there were not grounds to charge Trump with obstruction.
Washington, May 9 (AP/UNB) — Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the Trump administration intends to challenge the right of federal district courts to issue rulings blocking nationwide policies, arguing that such injunctions are obstructing President Donald Trump's agenda on immigration, health care and other issues.
In a speech at the Federalist Society conference in Washington, Pence argued that nationwide injunctions issued by federal judges "prevent the executive branch from acting, compromising our national security by obstructing the lawful ability of the president to stop threats to the homeland where he sees them."
He said the administration will seek opportunities to put this question before the Supreme Court "to ensure that decisions affecting every American are made either by those elected to represent the American people or by the highest court in the land."
Top administration officials have often complained about the proliferation of nationwide injunctions since Trump became president, so the idea of pushing back is not new.
Indeed, the administration has asked the Supreme Court to deal with nationwide injunctions in the past, including in the travel ban case. But the court never addressed the nationwide extent of the injunction against the ban issued by lower courts because the justices upheld the ban in its entirety.
For the Supreme Court to issue a definitive ruling on nationwide injunctions, it would first have to rule against the administration on the underlying merits of the case before it. Only at that point could the court consider whether a lower court order should apply nationwide or only to the people who are challenging an administration policy.
A nationwide injunction has the effect of stopping "a federal policy everywhere," the administration told the Supreme Court in the travel ban case. The more common practice is for a judge to issue an order that gives only the people who sued what they want.
A White House official said the administration would be looking for potential relevant cases to press the issue, and said Pence also discussed it at the end of the Cabinet meeting convened by the president on Wednesday.
In his remarks, Pence quoted from an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority opinion upholding the Trump travel ban last June, but also wrote separately to say nationwide injunctions "are legally and historically dubious" and that the high court would have to step in "if federal courts continue to issue them."
Trump has long railed against district courts, especially the 9th Circuit, for blocking his initiatives, including efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
At a re-election rally Wednesday night in Florida, Trump said, "Activist judges who issue nationwide injunctions based on their personal beliefs undermine democracy and threaten the rule of law."
But Trump won a 2-1 ruling from the 9th Circuit on Tuesday that allows the administration to make asylum seekers wait in Mexico for immigration court hearings while a court challenge continues.