By Steve Dorsey
Some private U.S. citizens who traveled to Cuba say they have experienced symptoms similar to those suffered by at least 22 U.S. diplomats after mysterious acoustic attacks in Havana.
“Since we issued the September 29 Travel Warning, we have received a handful of reports from U.S. citizens who report they experienced similar symptoms following stays in Cuba,” a State Department official told CBS News. “We have no way of verifying whether they were harmed by the same attacks targeting official U.S. employees.”
At this point, nearly a year since the attacks, U.S. investigators are no closer to determining either the source or the methods, according to officials close to the investigation underway by several agencies including the FBI and CIA.
Investigators have been probing whether the attacks were caused by something more than just mysterious sonic devices after U.S. government personnel complained about hearing loud, bizarre and unexplained noises in homes and hotels.
Medical records examined by CBS News show some Americans suffered mild traumatic brain injury, cognitive problems, hearing loss and other health issues. The victims include a handful of Americans connected to the U.S. intelligence community, according to sources.
The U.S. has ordered most of its personnel and all families to leave Cuba, and isof Cuban embassy officials from its embassy in Washington. But the U.S. has stopped short of blaming Cuba for the attacks, as investigators consider whether another country could be involved.
By Rachel Zoll, Eric Tucker, and Sadie Gurman.
WASHINGTON (AP) — In an order that undercuts protections for LGBT people, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping directive to agencies Friday to do as much as possible to accommodate those who say their religious freedoms are being violated.
The guidance, an attempt to deliver on President Donald Trump’s pledge to his evangelical and other religious supporters, effectively lifts a burden from religious objectors to prove that their beliefs about marriage or other topics are sincerely held.
Under the new policy, a claim of a violation of religious freedom would be enough to override concerns for the civil rights of LGBT people and anti-discrimination protections for women and others. The guidelines are so sweeping that experts on religious liberty are calling them a legal powder-keg that could prompt wide-ranging lawsuits against the government.
“This is putting the world on notice: You better take these claims seriously,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This is a signal to the rest of these agencies to rethink the protections they have put in place on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Trump announced plans for the directive last May in a Rose Garden ceremony where he was surrounded by religious leaders. Since then, religious conservatives have anxiously awaited the Justice Department guidance, hoping for greatly strengthened protections for their beliefs amid the rapid acceptance of LGBT rights. Religious liberty experts said they would have to see how the guidance would be applied by individual agencies, both in crafting regulations and deciding how to enforce them. But experts said the directive clearly tilted the balance very far in favor of people of faith who do not want to recognize same-sex marriage.
“Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law,” Sessions wrote. “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm, called it “a great day for religious freedom.” The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights group, called the guidelines an “all-out assault” on civil rights and a “sweeping license to discriminate.”
The new document lays the groundwork for legal positions that the Trump administration intends to take in future religious freedom cases, envisioning sweeping protections for faith-based beliefs and practices in private workplaces, at government jobs, in awarding government grants and in running prisons.
In issuing the memo, Sessions is injecting the department into a thicket of highly charged legal questions that have repeatedly reached the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case that said corporations with religious objections could opt out of a health law requirement to cover contraceptives for women.
The memo makes clear the Justice Department’s support of that opinion in noting that the primary religious freedom law — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 — protects the rights not only of people to worship as they choose but also of corporations, companies and private firms.
In what is likely to be one of the more contested aspects of the document, the Justice Department states that religious organizations can hire workers based on religious beliefs and an employee’s willingness “to adhere to a code of conduct.” Many conservative Christian schools and faith-based agencies require employees to adhere to moral codes that ban sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships, among other behavior.
The document also says the government improperly infringes on individuals’ religious liberty by banning an aspect of their practice or by forcing them to take an action that contradicts their faith. As an example, Justice Department lawyers say government efforts to require employers to provide contraceptives to their workers “substantially burdens their religious practice.” Separately Friday, the Health and Human Services Department allowed more employers with religious objections to opt out of the birth control coverage rule in the Affordable Care Act.
Session’s directive affirms Trump’s earlier directive to the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches and tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates. The policy has only rarely been enforced in the past.
The department’s civil rights division will now be involved in reviewing all agency actions to make sure they don’t conflict with federal law regarding religious liberty. Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, in a statement lauding Trump, said his group has set up a hotline for federal employees and others who feel they’ve faced discrimination over their religious beliefs.
By David Kravets
Rob Joyce, the White House cybersecurity czar, said on Tuesday that the government should end using the Social Security number as a national identification method.
“I believe the Social Security number has outlived its usefulness,” said Joyce, while speaking at The Washington Post‘s Cybersecurity Summit. “Every time we use the Social Security number, you put it at risk.”
One problem with the Social Security number, he said, is that a victim of identity theft cannot get it changed after it has been stolen.
Joyce’s comments come a month after the Equifax hack, in which hackers gained access to the Social Security numbers of as many as 143 million Americans.
The Social Security number, originally a code for federal retirement benefits, has grown to become a personal identifier used for everything from getting a job to buying auto insurance.
The Hill said that Joyce has “raised the issue” with the Trump administration. Bloomberg said the Trump administration has asked federal departments and agencies “to look into the vulnerabilities of employing the identifier tied to retirement benefits, as well as how to replace the existing system.”
Joyce said, “It’s really clear there needs to be a change.”
“The concept of a Social Security number in this environment being private and secure—I think it’s time as a country to think beyond that,” Smith testified. “What is a better way to identify consumers in our country in a very secure way? I think that way is something different than an SSN, a date of birth, and a name.”
And now what?
Joyce said the government is examining the use of a “modern cryptographic identifier,” like public and private keys.
“I personally know my Social Security number has been compromised at least four times in my lifetime. That’s just untenable,” Smith said.
According to Bloomberg, financial services firm Cowen said in a research note to investors that the White House’s plotting of a move to a new form of identification might stall congressional efforts to regulate the credit industry.
The “White House may be indirectly coming to Equifax’s rescue,” Cowen wrote. “This reduces the risk of business-model-busting legislation such as a requirement that consumers opt-in to a credit bureau collecting their data.”
By John Paul Brammer
A view of the front range mountains seen from Westminster, Colorado on March 8, 2016.Katie Wood / Denver Post Via Getty Images
Westminster became the first city in Colorado to officially declare its opposition to “conversion therapy” when earlier this week the mayor and town council issued a proclamation against the controversial practice.
“The City of Westminster acknowledges that conversion therapy to change one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is a harmful abuse to those subjected to these practices,” the proclamation stated.
Brianna Titone, secretary and treasurer of the Jefferson County Democrats LGBTQ+ Caucus, applauded the move.
“After three years of state legislation banning the practice getting stymied before it could reach a vote in the state senate … action on a local level was pivotal,” Titone said in a statement. “It is important that the people of Colorado know that this dangerous practice is happening in our state … Colorado needs to stand on the right side of history, and today, Westminster did just that.”
Conversion therapy is a controversial practice which claims to “treat” homosexuality and turn gay people heterosexual. It is currently legal in Colorado and 40 other states. Nine states and Washington, D.C., have banned the practice.
“These harmful practices use rejection, shame, and psychological abuse to force young people to try to change who they are. Unfortunately, many young people are coerced and subjected to these harmful practices in our state, which puts them at a higher risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicide,” Daniel Ramos, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado said.
While the proclamation is not legally binding, advocates see it as an important first step.”We extend our gratitude to Westminster City Council for the proclamation and hope this action is another step toward getting a ban to pass in the Colorado Legislature,” Ramos said.
Ramos told NBC News the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal group that has also supported anti-transgender “bathroom bills” across the country, is one of the main forces speaking out in favor of conversion therapy. He also noted, however, that there are other religious organizations and faith leaders in Colorado “who are speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ young people.”
A request for comment from the ADF was not immediately returned.
The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and a number of other health organizations have issued statements against conversion therapy (also known as “reparative therapy).
“The potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great and include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient,” a position statement from the American Psychiatric Association states.
“APA opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, that is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or is based on the a priori assumption that the patient should change his or her homosexual orientation.”
We should all make sure that no young person is told that who they are or who they love is wrong.
We should all make sure that no young person is told that who they are or who they love is wrong.
Conversion therapy survivor Samuel Brinton, who recently helped launch 50 Bills 50 States, a grass-roots campaign that is trying to end conversion therapy across the U.S., told NBC News he welcomes Westminster’s decision.
“The flurry of cities, counties, and local districts taking matters into their own hands when it comes to protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy is nothing short of exhilarating,” Brinton said. “As state after state submits and passes legislation to end the practice of licensed therapists from selling the snake oil of the dangerous and discredited notion of conversion therapy for minors, cities from Westminster, Colo., to Palm Beach County, Fla., are standing up to let LGBTQ youth know they are safe and don’t need to change.”
Ramos urged politicians on both sides of the aisle to come out against the controversial practice and ban it for good.
“This is a way for us to say that banning conversion therapy is not a partisan issue,” he said. “We should all make sure that no young person is told that who they are or who they love is wrong.”
Set in the grimy, trash-strewn New York of 1971, The Deuce is named after a notoriously seedy stretch of West 42nd Street that was populated by pimps and prostitutes, and home to live peep shows and porn shops. Written by David Simon, who created The Wire, and his frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, the series charts the rise of the pornography industry in New York City. Simon has said that the show is about “the commodification of women” and from the female bar staff poured into skimpy leotards by James Franco’s bar manager, Vinnie, to the violent control the pimps exert over the prostitutes they run, every woman in the show, and her sexuality, is being packaged and profited from. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute and single mother who rejects street-walking protocol and refuses to be controlled by a pimp, stating that “nobody makes money off my pussy but me”.
“Somebody asked me the other day whether I thought porn was exploitative or empowering for women,” says Gyllenhaal. “At the time, I didn’t actually know how to answer. Then a couple of days later, I thought, can the answer just be: ‘Yes?’”
It is a typically nebulous answer from an actor, who, in spite of roles in mainstream films such as The Dark Knight and Nanny McPhee Returns, has spent much of her career in the independent film sector. She is famed for playing the kind of complex, unconventional women who are now increasingly emerging from the small screen; her most famous role to date, of course, was the troubled, submissive assistant to the masochistic James Spader in 2002’s Secretary. While initially wary of the extensive shooting schedules of most series, the enormous success of The Honourable Woman – the BBC miniseries that won her a Golden Globe for her role as Baroness Nessa Stein – opened up Gyllenhaal to television. With The Deuce – set to be one of HBO’s biggest shows of the year – how did she feel about the high levels of nudity the part required?
“You know, I spent no time moralising it. I am pretty comfortable with it,” Gyllenhaal says when we meet in a slick boutique hotel on the Brooklyn waterfront. “I have never been very shy about my body, and this is something I really believe in.” She lets out a small laugh. “This is so silly, but the only place I have felt shy is imagining those people who I see when I pick up my kids from school watching it. And I have to be honest and say that I don’t think I ate any bread at all while I was making this show. When you know you are going to have to wear very short shorts all summer long, you don’t.”
The show has already been commissioned for a second season, which will jump forward to the late 1970s; while a pending third season will take place in the mid-1980s, thus charting the effects of the boom in pornography on its players over a 15-year stretch. In order to explore the intricacies of such a shrouded, changing industry, Gyllenhaal was faced with a challenge. “There is so much about sex work that is in the dark, because it’s illegal, so how do you get that information in a reliable way?” she asks.
She was directed to Annie Sprinkle, a 63 year-old writer and television presenter, and former porn actor, who had also worked as a prostitute in the early 1970s in San Francisco and New York.
“She has a support group for women who are involved in porn and prostitution,” says Gyllenhaal. “So she introduced me to this world of women in their 60s who had been, and some of whom still are, involved in sex work.” Their experiences challenged many received ideas about prostitutes as victims. “They all said: ‘Don’t write us off,’” reports Gyllenhaal. “They said: ‘Yes, there is often an element of damage [in their past].’ But there are a lot of other things too; there’s curiosity, and an actual love of sexuality. And I saw both elements.”
And, contradictory though it may sound, in a show that features both graphic sex and violence, there is also an innocence to the trade it portrays. “Annie said that sex work then really had a different feeling about it than now,” nods Gyllenhaal. “That they were just coming out of the 1960s, and there was a celebration of freedom. People had this idea that they were smoking pot and making love.” Similarly, her ideas about pornography were transformed. “I thought of all pornography the same way, and what I realised is that pornography is an art form. And that there are actresses who are very proud of what they did in pornography.” The growth of the embryonic porn industry is seen primarily through Candy’s lens, both figuratively and literally: over the course of eight episodes, she develops an ambition not merely to star in porn films, but to direct them. “It’s like a light goes on inside her, and she starts thinking of herself as an artist,” says Gyllenhaal.
A similar shift took place with Gyllenhaal’s ambitions, too. “I wanted some kind of guarantee that I would be a part of the storytelling, part of considering what it is we want to be saying,” she says. Gyllenhaal asked for a production credit, but people around her said that given a show of this size and profile she shouldn’t expect to get one. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’m still going to ask for it.’” To her surprise her request was granted. When this happened she felt a “real shift in my sense of myself as a woman and an artist. Which was like a meta version of what the piece is about.”
As a producer, she was empowered to suggest additions to the script. For example, a deeply intimate scene in which we see Candy masturbate was Gyllenhaal’s own idea. “It wasn’t that I had a burning desire to pretend to masturbate on television,” she says, wryly. “It was that I wanted to find a way to express the difference between performative, transactional sex, and sex that is about someone’s actual desire. And I thought that was an interesting way to do it. But that was the scene I felt the most vulnerable about. Because I was trying to create something that looked and felt real.”
Other challenging scenes included a porn shoot in episode two in which Gyllenhaal’s character “gets Campbell’s soup sprayed on her face with a fucking turkey baster,” she says, looking suitably horrified. “I can’t actually think of anything more degrading. And I knew it was in service of having a conversation about degrading women – which we are having – but I still had to do it, and I found that very difficult.”
So far, The Deuce has been widely applauded for its exploration of the female gaze, and Gyllenhaal claims that it is “absolutely, definitely a feminist project”. But therein also lies a challenge: how to make a show about the sex trade and pornography without it becoming pornographic itself. Gyllenhaal, however, believes that is part of the show’s power and what it has in common with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Girlfriend Experience.
“If it turns you on, but then makes you horrified to consider what’s actually turning you on, and what the consequences are for the characters that are turning you on, then it’s a better show,” she says. “If you’re patting yourself on the back and just thinking how terrible porn is, then it doesn’t make you consider your position as a person in the world right now, and how sex is commodified everywhere today.”
The Deuce continues on 3 October, 10pm, Sky Atlantic
By Mike Wall
The Trump administration is committed to sending astronauts to the moon as part of a broader push to prioritize human spaceflight and firm up U.S. dominance in the final frontier, Vice President Mike Pence said.
“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but [also] to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said today (Oct. 5) at the first meeting of the newly reinstated National Space Council (NSC).
“The moon will be a stepping stone, a training ground, a venue to strengthen our commercial and international partnerships as we refocus America’s space program toward human space exploration,” Pence added. [From Ike to Trump: Presidential Visions for Space Exploration]
Under the previous administration, that stepping stone was much smaller: President Barack Obama had directed NASA to prep for Mars trips by visiting a near-Earth asteroid. In response, the space agency devised a plan to pluck a boulder off a space rock and haul that fragment into orbit around the moon.
A new direction?
Yesterday (Oct. 4) was the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, which kicked off the Space Age and the Cold War space race. Pence referenced that seminal event during his remarks today, while lamenting a perceived lack of direction in U.S. space policy.
“Rather than lead in space, too often, we’ve chosen to drift,” he said. “And, as we learned 60 years ago, when we drift, we fall behind.”
As evidence of this drift, Pence cited the fact that NASA astronauts haven’t gone beyond low-Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon mission, in 1972. In addition, he noted, the country has had to pay Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle retired in 2011. That service currently costs $76 million per seat. (Two U.S. companies, SpaceX and Boeing, are both developing capsules to take over this taxi service for NASA astronauts; these spacecraft could begin crewed flights next year.)
Pence pledged that the Trump administration, with the help of the NSC, will develop and implement a coherent, long-term U.S. space strategy.
That strategy will focus heavily on human spaceflight, economic development and national security, if Pence’s words today and in an op-ed published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal are any guide.
“We will renew America’s commitment to creating the space technology needed to protect national security. Our adversaries are aggressively developing jamming and hacking capabilities that could cripple critical military surveillance, navigation systems and communication networks. In the face of this threat, America must be as dominant in the heavens as it is on Earth,” Pence wrote in the op-ed. (A subscription is required to read the full piece, but some snippets are available for free at whitehouse.gov.)
“We will promote regulatory, technological and educational reforms to expand opportunities for American citizens and ensure that the U.S. is at the forefront of economic development in outer space,” he added. “In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble. ”
The first meeting
The primacy of these stated goals was reflected in the makeup of the panelists at today’s meeting, which was held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. (The space shuttle Discovery is on display at Udvar-Hazy, providing a dramatic backdrop.)
Two of the three panels consisted of executives of the spaceflight companies SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp., Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Orbital ATK. The third panel focused on national security and featured retired Navy Adm. James Ellis, the former chief of U.S. Strategic Command; former NASA astronaut and former DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Deputy Director Pamela Melroy; and former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
“We won the race to the moon half a century ago, and now we will win the 21st century in space,” Pence said at today’s meeting, a full replay of which you can see here.
The NSC was last active in the early 1990s, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. President Trump resurrected the council via executive order on June 30.