As inauguration nears, law enforcement scrutiny drives U.S. extremists into internet’s dark corners

January 15, 2021, Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shortly after rampaging Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a fan of the president posted a message on the pro-Donald Trump website Inspired by the mob’s attempt to stop lawmakers from confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win, user CONN_WYNN said in an all-caps message, replete with an expletive, that it was “TIME TO LEAVE THE KEYBOARD” and “FIGHT FOR MY…COUNTRY.”

Two days later, agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Francisco field office came calling, according to another post by CONN_WYNN on the same website.

“PRO TIP: Think before you post. They are watching. I learned the hard way,” wrote the user on Sunday alongside a photograph of a business card from the agents.

A spokesman for the FBI’s San Francisco office said he could not provide any details about the reported interaction or confirm whether agents actually paid a visit to the person who posted that message. But “if he has our business card and said he was visited, I’m pretty sure we visited him,” the spokesman said.

Before the Capitol attack, such a post may not have elicited a follow-up visit. But in the aftermath of the riot, which left five people dead, federal law enforcement agencies have intensified their scrutiny of extremist chatter online, activity that officials warn could be early warning signals of planned attacks around Biden’s inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20.

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Will your mail ballot count in the U.S. presidential election? It may depend on who’s counting and where

September 25, 2020, Reuters

Two elderly women in small towns in Wisconsin voted by mail during April’s presidential nominating contests. Both were sheltering in place as coronavirus surged across their state.

Each mailed her ballot to the local election office with a note explaining why no witness had signed the envelope, as Wisconsin’s strict voting laws require. The women didn’t want to risk virus exposure, they told Reuters in telephone interviews this month.

That’s where the similarity ends. The ballot of Peggy Houglum, a 72-year-old voter in the eastern Wisconsin hamlet of Cedar Grove, was rejected due to the missing witness information. That of Judith Olson, 88, a resident of the northern town of Elk, was accepted, according to “incident” logs viewed by Reuters in which Wisconsin election offices document irregular ballots. Houglum, who plans to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in November, said she was never told her ballot didn’t count. Olson wouldn’t provide her party affiliation or say whom she supports for president.

Local election officials confirmed the fate of those ballots. Cedar Grove Village Clerk Julie Brey told Reuters she had sought guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission on what to do. Her Elk counterpart, Suzanne Brandt, said she couldn’t recall who advised her to accept an unwitnessed ballot.

The unequal treatment in the same crucial battleground state underscores a growing worry about the general election on Nov. 3 between Biden and incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. Whether or not a mail ballot is counted could depend to a large degree on how local election workers enforce mail-in voting rules, how they notify voters who submit deficient ballots, and whether they allow them to fix such errors. Each of the 50 U.S. states has a central election authority, but ballots are processed by dozens of separate county or municipal election offices within each state.

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Rebel with a Cause

September 22, 2020, Lapham’s Quarterly

The eighty-year-old mystery of the murder of Sheldon Robert Harte, Leon Trotsky’s most controversial bodyguard.

On a sultry May night in 1940, two dozen Stalinists wearing police and army uniforms, goggles, and fake mustaches approached the villa in Mexico City where Leon Trotsky lived in exile. They disarmed several officers in a nearby police booth. One of the former Soviet leader’s bodyguards stood at the compound’s gate; the posse strode up to him and asked to enter. Once inside, they tossed a homemade bomb into the room of Trotsky’s grandson and fired submachine guns into the bedroom of Trotsky and his wife Natalia. The elderly couple dove to the floor shortly before seventy shots pockmarked their bed and walls.

After twenty minutes, the assailants withdrew. Trotsky and his entourage were virtually unharmed. But the bodyguard who had been on duty at the gate was gone. From where they had been tied up, the real police officers said they had seen him protesting as the shooters marched him to a stolen car and sped off.

Cables flew between Mexico City, Washington, DC, and Moscow in the following days. Nobody was surprised that someone was trying to kill Trotsky, who had been in exile from the Soviet Union since losing a power struggle with Joseph Stalin in 1928. But questions surrounded the missing bodyguard, known to Trotsky and his associates as Bob Shields, a twenty-five-year-old New Yorker from a bourgeois background. His disappearance triggered an investigation involving the Mexican secret police, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Soviet intelligence units.

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Decorated veteran at center of U.S. fraud charges on border-wall fundraising

August 21, 2020, Reuters

Annotation 2020-08-24 094111(Reuters) – Brian Kolfage lost both legs and his right hand in a 2004 rocket attack in Iraq. He earned a Purple Heart and became known as one of the most severely injured U.S. service members to survive the war.

It was this reputation as a war hero – showcased particularly in conservative media – that helped him raise $27 million for President Donald Trump’s promised “wall” on the U.S. southern border, a centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Now Kolfage is one of four defendants, including former presidential adviser Steve Bannon, named in a federal indictment alleging the group secretly diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars for their personal use. The indictment was unveiled in New York Thursday.

Last year, Kolfage told Reuters that his wall initiative stemmed from a desire to bolster American security amid an onslaught of immigrants from Mexico. “As citizens of our country, it’s our duty to do what’s right,” the former airman said.

At the time, Kolfage, 38, said his team had coordinated closely with the White House. Trump associate Kris Kobach – a former Kansas Secretary of State and attorney for Kolfage’s organization – briefed the president regularly on the effort, Kolfage said.

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Philadelphia’s new voting machines under scrutiny in Tuesday’s elections

June 1, 2020, Reuters

Annotation 2020-06-01 144533WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When Pennsylvania holds primary elections on Tuesday, some election security advocates will be watching closely to see if more than 2,000 new voting machines acquired last year by Philadelphia and two other counties perform without glitches.

Philadelphia and Northampton counties first used the new “ExpressVote XL” machines in last November’s local elections and will deploy them again in the presidential nominating contests and local races on Tuesday. A third county, Cumberland, will use the machines for the first time.

Their first widespread use in 2019 in Pennsylvania was marred by miscounted vote tallies in Northampton, a politically divided county in eastern Pennsylvania. Some ExpressVote XL machines incorrectly recorded votes for several candidates in the November election, prompting the county to count backup paper receipts to identify the correct winners, according to Maudeania Hornik, chair of the Northampton Election Commission.

The manufacturer of the ExpressVote XL equipment said in a December press conference that some of Northampton’s 320 machines “were configured improperly at our factory prior to delivery to Northampton County.” The manufacturer told the county as many as 30% of the machines were affected, Hornik said.

Problems with at least 366 ExpressVote XL machines also arose in Philadelphia, according to public records exclusively obtained by Reuters. The city last year replaced its old voting equipment with a new fleet of 3,750 ExpressVote XL machines. Reuters could not ascertain how many of those machines were deployed in the November 2019 election there.

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Coronavirus-spurred changes to Ohio’s primary raise concerns about November

April 27, 2020, Reuters

Annotation 2020-04-30 144721WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ohio will hold its primary election on Tuesday, a virtually all-mail contest that could serve as a test case for voting in the coronavirus era.

Citing public health concerns, the state’s legislature moved back the date of the primary, originally slated for March 17, to April 28 and sharply curtailed in-person voting.

It’s a glimpse of what the presidential contest might look like in November if COVID-19 remains a threat. But some voters, election officials and voting-rights watchdogs are already alarmed: Ohio’s system has been overwhelmed by the crush of requests for absentee ballots, a situation that could disenfranchise potentially tens of thousands of voters.

“I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Brent Lawler, a manager at the board of elections in Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland and more registered voters than any other Ohio county.

More than 1.9 million Ohio voters requested to vote absentee in Tuesday’s primary, a 421% increase from absentee turnout in the 2016 primary, according to state election data.

The state’s election offices were required by law to mail ballots to any voters whose applications they received by noon on Saturday, April 25. At least 37,000 absentee ballots were mailed out on Saturday, county election data show.

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Fewer poll workers, coronavirus, spark fears of election day woes in Ohio Democratic primary

March 13, 2020, Reuters

Annotation 2020-03-13 172113WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nearly a quarter of Ohio’s counties are deploying fewer poll workers for the state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday than they have in previous presidential election years, raising concerns from voting-rights advocates who say the reductions could lengthen lines at the polls. 

Thanks to a change in state law last year, at least 1,200 fewer poll workers are slated to be on duty than in past federal elections, according to a Reuters analysis of staffing projections supplied by county election boards across Ohio.

The cuts will affect polling stations across 20 of Ohio’s 88 counties, impacting 7.8% of Ohio’s electorate but more than half of voters in the affected counties.

On top of these planned reductions, fears of the novel coronavirus have prompted hundreds of poll workers – who are often elderly and therefore at higher risk if they contract the virus – to stay at home rather than work on Election Day, said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

“We’re doing our best to backfill and level the losses, though we’re not at 100%,” Ockerman said.

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Inside Trump’s Divisive Mission to Identify and Deter Potential Extremists

March 2, 2020, The Nation

Annotation 2020-03-03 150315

Marginalized minorities targeted by the DHS’s counter-extremism program say it lacked transparency and deepened their mistrust of government.

Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood is a historically black part of the city, straddling a blighted past and a gentrifying future. It is home to some of Massachusetts’s oldest colonial sites and a large Somali community; it also has one of Boston’s highest crime rates. Police officers frequent its streets, squares, and transit hubs, enforcing a citywide stop-and-frisk program.

Roxbury is also the site of a federally funded initiative to stop potential terrorists. The Boston Police Department participated in what the plan’s proponents described as trust-building workshops with Somali youths under an almost $500,000 counterextremism project that ended last fall.

Six months after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the Department of Homeland Security awarded $10 million to 25 law enforcement, public safety, and civil society groups across the country for programs intended to prevent people from embracing violent extremist ideologies. Some grant projects encouraged community members to report acts that might be seen as early signs of radicalization. Others trained cops to spot potential extremist behavior. Several mentored children with the aim of instilling in them a truer understanding of Islam, an aversion to violence, or simply more respect for the police.

The DHS invited initiatives combating any form of terrorism to apply when it announced the funding opportunity in 2016. But two-thirds of the applications chosen by the Trump administration focused on immigrants or Muslims, even though white supremacists and other domestic terrorists have caused more deaths and led to more arrests in recent years than extremists inspired by foreign ideologies. And several grant recipients described their projects as run-of-the-mill community programs, without disclosing to participants that they were funded by the DHS and were targeting those it deemed susceptible to violent extremism.

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Trump tweet, political divisions fuel rising discourse about new U.S. civil war

October 29, 2019, Reuters

Annotation 2020-03-03 145749MIDDLETOWN, Va. (Reuters) – Sporting a Confederate flag shirt near a field clouded by cannon smoke, where blue- and gray-clad soldiers reenacted a Civil War battle from 155 years ago, Larry Caldwell Piercy, Jr. said he sees a new war looming in the United States – and a role for himself in any fighting.

“It would be all guerrilla warfare, not this open field-style kind of thing,” he said, gesturing at the reenactment of the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek in Middletown, Virginia, earlier this month. “I would probably be an officer in that effort.”

Piercy, 62, is one of the motorcycle riders known as the “mechanized cavalry” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has an estimated 30,000 members and describes itself as a “non-political heritage organization” that preserves the history and legacy of soldiers in the pro-slavery Confederacy in the 1861-1865 Civil War.

He is also a fierce supporter of President Donald Trump.

As Democrats push to impeach Trump and controversy rages over whether to remove monuments to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Piercy warned a new civil war is brewing.

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Border wall business: The non-profits, startups and PACs seizing on Trump’s dream wall

July 3, 2019, Reuters


President Donald Trump’s signature campaign vow to erect a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico has been mired in cross-border bickering and opposition from Democratic lawmakers with power over the government’s purse strings.

But amid the political stalemate, a wave of only-in-America entrepreneurs, fundraisers and profiteers have taken the issue into their own hands.

Tapping into Trump’s outrage over immigrants pouring into the United States, several dozen citizens have created non-profit and for-profit organizations, started GoFundMe pages, and launched political action committees to raise money to fund the wall or support like-minded candidates. In all, more than $25 million has poured in, the vast majority to a venture led by an Air Force veteran who has become the most public face of the fundraising mission.

Who’s paying the bill? Americans such as Arlene Mackay, 80, a Montana cattle rancher who gave $1,000 in January to what she thought was a multi-million dollar fundraiser, dubbed We Build the Wall, to construct a border wall. In fact, her money went to a different venture with a similar name: Build the Wall.

“I thought I might be buying a piece of the wall – like an inch,” said Mackay, when informed her donation had not reached its intended target. The money, she said, could have gone instead to buy half a cow. “I’m just going to say I better be very cautious from now on.”

In all, Reuters found, more than 330,000 Americans have dipped into their wallets to bankroll emerging border wall campaigns. With their investments have come big promises, but few concrete results. The most noticeable impact so far: A half-mile of new bollard-style fencing in eastern New Mexico, built by the largest border wall fundraiser.

Even that project has been beset by regulatory concerns. Meanwhile, wall-themed novelty toy sellers and failed political action committees have left behind some disappointed customers and donors.

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