Republican Lawmakers Grill Comey on Leadership of Russia Probe

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday confronted former FBI Director James Comey about his oversight of the Trump-Russia investigation during a politically charged hearing that focused attention on problems with the probe that have become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump’s supporters.Comey, making his first appearance before Congress since a harshly critical inspector general report on the investigation, acknowledged under questioning that the FBI’s process for conducting surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser was “sloppy” and “embarrassing.” He said he would not have certified the surveillance had he known then what he knows now about applications the FBI submitted in 2016 and 2017 to eavesdrop on the aide, Carter Page.The questioning of Comey, conducted with the election just weeks away, underscores the extent to which the FBI’s investigation four years ago into potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia remains front and center in the minds of Republican lawmakers, who see an opening to rally support for the president and cast him as the victim of biased law enforcement. The hearing was part of a review of the Russia probe by the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee.Just a part of investigationThough Comey acknowledged the FBI’s shortcomings in the surveillance of Page, he also described that aspect of the probe as a “slice” of the broader Russia investigation, which he defended as legitimate and valid.But those answers, including Comey’s repeated assertions that he had been unaware at the time of the extent of problems, frustrated Republicans who point to the surveillance flaws to try to discredit the overall Russia investigation.Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asks questions to former FBI Director James Comey, during an oversight hearing to examine the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation, Sept. 30, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.A Justice Department inspector general report identified errors and omissions in each of the four applications that the FBI submitted to obtain warrants to surveil Page, who was never charged with any wrongdoing. The FBI relied in part on Democratic-funded research in applying for those warrants. The inspector general report and documents released in recent months have raised questions about the reliability of that research.The FBI relied on that documentation “over and over and over” again, even though it was “fundamentally unsound,” said the Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.’That’s the way it goes'”What do we do? We just say, ‘Well, that was bad, that’s the way it goes’? Does anybody get fired? Does anybody go to jail?” Graham said. “To my Democratic friends, if it happened to us, it can happen to you.”Comey was fired by Trump in May 2017 but has remained a prominent and complicated character for Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans have joined Trump in heaping scorn on Comey, but Democrats have not embraced him either, angered by his public statements made during the Hillary Clinton email case that they believe contributed to her loss.Democrats lamented the backward-looking nature of Wednesday’s hearing, saying the FBI had good reason to investigate contacts between Trump associates and Russia and that the committee’s time could be better spent on other matters.Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 30, 2020, to examine the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”Most people think we should be talking about other things, except maybe President Trump,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.Comey defended the investigation, which was opened after a campaign adviser boasted that he had heard Russia had damaging information about Clinton. The probe examined multiple contacts between Russians and Trump associates during the 2016 campaign. Comey noted that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation resulted in criminal charges against dozens of people.”In the main, it was done by the book. It was appropriate, and it was essential that it be done,” Comey said.He later added: “The overall investigation was very important. The Page slice of it? Far less, given the scope.”But Comey, the latest high-profile former official from the FBI or Justice Department to testify in Graham’s investigation, acknowledged “embarrassing” problems in the handling of surveillance applications. He said had he known then about the problems, he would not have certified the surveillance “without a much fuller discussion” within the FBI.”I’m not looking to shirk responsibility,” Comey said. “The director is responsible.”Legitimate probeA Justice Department inspector general report did not find evidence of partisan bias and concluded the investigation was opened for a legitimate reason. But Republican lawmakers have seized on the critical aspects of the watchdog report to cast broader doubt on the Russia investigation. They have also released documents they say support the conclusion that the probe was flawed.On Tuesday, Graham revealed that he had received declassified information on the probe from national intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist, even though Ratcliffe has said he does not know if it is true.In a letter to Graham made public Tuesday, Ratcliffe said that in late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained “insight” into Russian spycraft alleging that Clinton had “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against” Trump.But Ratcliffe added that American intelligence agencies do “not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”Comey brushed aside questions about that document, saying, “I don’t understand Mr. Ratcliffe’s letter well enough to comment on it. It’s confusing.”The Senate panel has already heard from Rod Rosenstein and Sally Yates, both former deputy attorneys general, and has scheduled testimony from ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
 

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Giant 18-Meter Tall Robot Comes to Life in Japan

A robot from “Gundam” has been undergoing testing in preparation for the opening of a theme park to celebrate the iconic Japanese anime’s 40th anniversary.An accelerated video filmed recently showed the 18-meter tall, 25-ton robot slowly moving its hands and feet and kneeling. The video has been viewed more than 6 million times since it was first published on Twitter on September 21.The robot will be the centerpiece of Gundam Factory Yokohama, a theme park operated by Evolving G, a subsidiary of Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc., a Japanese video game developer and publisher.The park’s opening, scheduled for October, has been postponed due to COVID-19.(Reuters)

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Hundreds in US Charged in $6B Medical Fraud Schemes

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday announced charges against 345 people for committing over $6 billion in medical fraud. Those charged include more than 100 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who filed fraudulent claims to federal health care programs and private insurers, according to the Justice Department. The bulk of the fraud — $4.5 billion — was connected to telemedicine, which has surged during the pandemic. For example, the Cleveland Clinic went from averaging 5,000 telemedicine visits a month before the pandemic to 200,000 visits just in April, the Associated Press reported. “Telemedicine can foster efficient, high-quality care when practiced appropriately and lawfully. Unfortunately, bad actors attempt to abuse telemedicine services and leverage aggressive marketing techniques to mislead beneficiaries about their health care needs and bill the government for illegitimate services,” U.S. Health and Human Services Deputy Inspector General Gary Cantrell said in a statement. “Unfortunately, audacious schemes such as these are prevalent and often harmful.”  FILE – The U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building is seen in Washington, July 13, 2018.According to the Justice Department, some telemedicine company executives allegedly paid doctors and nurse practitioners to order unnecessary medical equipment, medical tests and pain medications without interacting with a patient or with only a brief telephone conversation with a patient they had never seen.  “Durable medical equipment companies, genetic testing laboratories, and pharmacies then purchased those orders in exchange for illegal kickbacks and bribes and submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and other government insurers,” according to a statement from the Justice Department. In addition to telemedicine fraud, other defendants were charged with more than $845 million worth of fraud related to substance abuse facilities, and more than $806 million was connected to other health care fraud, including the illegal distribution of opioids. “This nationwide enforcement operation is historic in both its size and scope, alleging billions of dollars in health care fraud across the country,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt said in a statement. “These cases hold accountable those medical professionals and others who have exploited health care benefit programs and patients for personal gain.” 
 

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British PM Receives Rare Rebuke in House of Commons

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a rare reprimand Wednesday by the speaker of the House of Commons for treating lawmakers with contempt by rushing through far-reaching COVID-19 restrictions without proper review by lawmakers.Just before the prime minister’s weekly “question time” with members of Parliament, Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, admonished Johnson for making rules in a “totally unsatisfactory” way.Hoyle said that several of the COVID-19-related measures were published and brought before Parliament only hours before they were to take effect, and some after the fact. The speaker said the actions showed total disregard for the House of Commons and called on Johnson and his government to prepare measures more quickly.The speaker did hold back a rebellion within Johnson’s own Conservative Party, where more than 50 members had threatened to join an opposition-led measure demanding more say over future rules to stop the spread of the virus and accusing ministers of governing “by decree.”But they were denied a chance to vote on the proposal after the speaker ruled there was not enough time for a proper debate.Later Wednesday, during a news briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said the government would not hesitate to put even stricter pandemic restrictions in place if evidence supported such a move.Britain reported 7,143 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest one-day figure to date for the country, which has the highest official death toll in Europe.Areas of Britain, particularly in the northeast where a second wave of COVID-19 infections is surging, are faced with local restrictions designed to slow its spread. Britain has reported more than 42,233 deaths from the virus, the world’s fifth-highest total.

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UN Chief: $35B Needed to Expand Global Access to COVID-19 Vaccine

The U.N. secretary-general appealed to the international community Wednesday for $35 billion to rapidly fund equitable global access to COVID-19 tests, therapeutics, and when available, vaccines, as deaths from the coronavirus surpass 1 million.“It is in every country’s national and economic self-interest to work together to massively expand access to tests and treatments, and to support a vaccine as a global public good — a ‘people’s vaccine’ available and affordable for everyone, everywhere,” Antonio Guterres told a virtual forum on the ACT-Accelerator, the mechanism through which the U.N. is coordinating its response.The ACT-Accelerator was launched at the end of April as a global collaboration of governments, scientists, private sector and civil society groups to end the pandemic by making sure that not just rich countries get the necessary tools, including vaccines, but that poorer ones do too.The initiative received an initial $3-billion infusion for its start-up phase and the U.N. chief said it needs an additional $35 billion — $15 billion of that immediately — in order to meet its goals of producing 2 billion vaccine doses, 245 million treatments and 500 million diagnostic tests.“These resources are crucial now to avoid losing the window of opportunity for advance purchase and production, to build stocks in parallel with licensing, to boost research, and to help countries prepare to optimize the new vaccines when they arrive,” Guterres said.FILE – U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks about the coronavirus, at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 24, 2020.The initiative’s vaccine arm, known as the COVAX Facility, is supporting the development of nine vaccines, with several more in the pipeline.“Collaboration is our best hope to bring the pandemic under control and our best hope to keep our economies and our societies open, which can ensure a genuinely collective economic recovery,” event co-host, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said.His government and several others, including Germany, Sweden and Canada, announced commitments of nearly $1 billion in new financing for the initiative.
Although the U.S. government is not participating, there is private support from American corporations and organizations for the ACT-Accelerator. Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has committed up to 500 million vaccine doses to lower income countries to be delivered by mid-2021.U.S. philanthropist Bill Gates announced in a video message that his foundation had just signed a joint agreement with 16 pharmaceutical companies to scale up the speed and distribution of vaccines once they are approved.“The companies involved in the agreement are committed to using donations, foregoing profits and using tiered pricing to make their products as affordable as possible,” Gates said.The World Bank president said his institution will make vaccine funding available to low- and middle-income developing countries.“I have proposed to our board to make available up to $12 billion of fast track financing to countries for the purchase and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines, once the vaccines have been approved by several highly respected, stringent regulatory agencies,” David Malpass said.U.N. agencies including the World Health Organization and the children’s agency, UNICEF, also will use their vast networks and supply chains to speed COVID-19 vaccines to all parts of the world. UNICEF says it is working to secure more than 2 billion doses by 2021.More than 150 countries are now committed to or eligible to receive vaccines through the ACT-Accelerator.
 

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Zimbabwe Officials Blame Bacterial Disease for Elephant Deaths

Zimbabwe parks authority officials say they suspect a bacterial disease called hemorrhagic septicemia is behind the recent deaths of at least 34 elephants in the northwestern part of the country.The elephant deaths, which began in late August, come soon after hundreds of elephants died in neighboring Botswana in mysterious circumstances. Authorities subsequently blamed the deaths on toxins produced by another type of bacterium.FILE – A combination photo shows dead elephants in Okavango Delta, Botswana, May-June, 2020. (Photographs obtained by Reuters)Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority Director-General Fulton Mangwanya said Tuesday they have discovered 34 dead elephants, but suspect more may be found.  The elephants were found lying on their stomachs, suggesting a sudden death.Mangwanya said the dead elephants were discovered in an area between the Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in west-central Zimbabwe, suggesting to him the outbreak has been isolated.Mangwanya said postmortems on some of the elephants showed inflamed livers and other organs. Samples have been sent to the UK and South Africa to confirm the type of disease.Experts say that Zimbabwe’s current elephant population could be close to 90,000.Elephants in Botswana and parts of Zimbabwe are at historically high levels — roughly half of the continent’s 400,000 elephants, according to estimates — but elsewhere on the continent, especially in forested areas, many populations are severely depleted, researchers say. 
 

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German Chancellor Imposes New COVID-19 Restrictions

After consulting with Germany’s 16 regional governors, German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday announced new restrictions on the size of gatherings to prevent the country’s coronavirus infection figures from accelerating.At a Berlin news briefing following her virtual meeting with the governors, Merkel said she wants to act regionally and address the virus where it is surging rather than shut down the whole country, which she said should be avoided at all costs.  “In order to achieve this, we must have minimum standards for certain frequencies of infections,” said Merkel.The German chancellor said in places where there are more than 35 new infections per 100,000 residents recorded in a week, the number of people attending gatherings at public or rented facilities should be limited to 50 and no more than 25 should attend events in private homes.She said that where infections hit at least 50 per 100,000 residents, those figures should be cut to 25 and 10 respectively.Merkel said she expects the rate of infection to rise as the change in weather means more people will spend time inside in the coming months. She said the number of daily infections could rise to 19,200 in three months if the rate of infection continues as it has over the past three months.  “This underlines the urgency for us to act,” said Merkel.The chancellor also discouraged travel to high risk areas in Europe in the coming months, saying staying in Germany was a good option. She said low risk European nations such as Italy might be a good option, noting the number of COVID-19 cases are very low there now and “they are acting very carefully.”Johns Hopkins University reports Germany has over 289,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and just over 9,450 deaths.

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Pompeo Calls on Vatican to Reconsider Deal With Beijing

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to advocate for persecuted religious minorities in China while calling on the Vatican to reconsider renewing a deal with Beijing.”Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo said Wednesday in Rome, Italy. ”Nor of course have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.”   Pompeo’s latest remarks come as the Vatican and China are negotiating to renew a controversial 2018 agreement on the nomination of bishops. The terms of that deal have not been publicly revealed.   U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich greet Cardinal Raymond Burke, right, during a symposium in Rome, Sept. 30, 2020.While admitting nation-states’ efforts to protect religious freedom are “constrained by the realities of world politics,” Pompeo made a subtle appeal to the Vatican to reverse the planned renewal under way.   “The Church is in a different position. Earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths.”  Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See hosted a symposium on “Advancing and Defending International Religious Freedom through Diplomacy.” Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Holy See Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher also participated.  A senior State Department official confirmed the top U.S. diplomat is not scheduled to have an audience with Pope Francis during this visit.     Pompeo met with the pontiff last October.    State Department: Pompeo, Pope Francis Urge Religious Freedom in Mideast, ElsewhereSecretary of state, whose trip to Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Greece has been overshadowed by an impeachment inquiry at home targeting President Donald Trump, met the pope for about a half an hourThe Pope’s office reportedly told American diplomats he would not personally receive Pompeo due to concerns of being seen as influencing the November U.S. election.  The U.S. secretary of state also met Wednesday with the Italian foreign minister. 
 

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Washington Mural Pays Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Many Americans are mourning the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Makeshift memorials to the popular liberal justice have sprung up all over the country.  One of them at the site of a  large mural dedicated to the justice in September 2019. Anush Avetisyan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.VIDEOGRAPHER: Andrey Degtyarev

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Robot Arms Perform Tests to Detect COVID-19

The world recently reached a tragic milestone of one million known deaths linked to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.  Experts say more testing is key to combating the virus’s spread.  A biotech company in Taiwan has developed a robot capable of conducting thousands of COVID tests each day, making it possible to safely revive the economy.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.Camera: Reuters
Producer: Arash Arabasadi     

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Ghanaian Cancer Experts Want More Focus on Colon Cancer

Cancer experts in Ghana lament that little attention is paid to screening for colorectal cancers, leading to a high death rate, despite the disease’s relatively low occurrence. The death from colon cancer of American actor Chadwick Boseman, who played the lead role in the Hollywood film Black Panther, might bring fresh awareness of the disease.  Stacey Knott reports from Accra 

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Judge Blocks Increase in US Immigration Fees

A U.S. federal judge on Tuesday blocked an increase in immigration fees that was due to go into effect this week. The fees were set to go up Friday by an average of about 20% depending on the type of entry being sought. The halted hikes include a $50 fee for asylum applications, the first time the United States would have charged such a fee.  The cost for applying to be a naturalized citizen was due to increase from $640 to $1,170. Applicants from lower-income households have been able to ask that their fees be waived, but the new rules that were due to go into effect eliminated certain categories of waiver eligibility, such as showing extreme financial hardship. Some applicants would no longer have been eligible under tighter household income thresholds. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes visas, asylum requests, naturalizations and other applications, reported a sharp decline in revenues earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and at one point considered furloughing more than half its staff. Unlike most federal agencies, a significant portion of USCIS’s funding comes from fees collected.In this June 26, 2020 photo, Vida Kazemi is sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Allen Chrysler, immigration services officer, during a drive-up naturalization ceremony in Laguna Niguel, Calif.U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White wrote he based his injunction on several factors.  He said the Trump administration did not adequately follow procedures for making new rules, including failing to consider the impact of the higher fees on low-income applicants. White also agreed with arguments presented by the plaintiffs, a group of eight non-profit groups that work with low-income immigration applicants, who said the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security had been improperly elevated to their roles at the time the new rules were issued. Plaintiffs in other federal immigration cases have made the same argument about Kevin McAleenan, who was named acting head of the Department of Homeland Security last year before resigning in November, and Chad Wolf, who succeeded him as acting chief.   The defendants argued the appointments were valid. But Judge White ruled the plaintiffs are “likely to succeed” on the claim that neither McAleenan nor Wolf were validly serving as acting Homeland Security secretary. 

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Asian Markets Mixed Wednesday

Asian markets are mixed Wednesday after the chaotic U.S. presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. The Nikkei index in Tokyo lost 1.5%. Sydney’s S&P/ASX index closed 2.2% lower.  The KOSPI index in Seoul gained 0.8%, and Taipei’s TSEC index earned 0.3%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index is up 0.8% in late afternoon trading.  Shanghai’s Composite index is down 0.2%, while the Sensex in Mumbai is 0.2% higher.  In commodities trading, gold is trading at $1,893.30 an ounce, down 0.5%.  U.S. crude oil is trading at $39.09 per barrel, down 0.5%, and Brent crude is trading at $40.49 per barrel, down 1.3%. All three major U.S. indices are trending lower in futures trading.   

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Syrian Amputee Therapist Designs Prosthetics, Helping Others

Abdelmawla Ibrahim was only 16 when a stray bullet pierced his left leg, shattering his bones and forcing doctors to amputate it above the knee. “I was very upset, I hated myself, hated my life, I was very depressed,” said Ibrahim, now 24 years old. But the Syrian man, who lives in the city of al-Bab near Aleppo, said his outlook on life changed after getting fitted with a prosthetic. This inspired him to get certified as a physiotherapist specialized in prosthetics. Ibrahim now works at the al-Bab Centre for prosthetics, which is funded by a UK-registered charity Hand in Hand for Aid and Development, that provides medical aid across Syria. He designs and develops the prosthetics, drawing on his experience from wearing them. He also provides physiotherapy, and pep talks, to other amputees who visit the center. According to the United Nations over 1.5 million Syrians are now living with permanent impairments caused by the conflict, including 86,000 who have lost limbs. The recently married Ibrahim said his dream now is to continue his education abroad to gain more knowledge to help others who have lost their limbs. (Reuters) 

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Concerns Raised Over Nigerian Measure to Punish Rapists with Castration

Nigerian lawmakers in the northwestern state of Kaduna have approved a measure to castrate men convicted of raping children under the age of 14. The controversial law comes in the wake of public outrage over the rising number of rape cases in recent months. But while supporters praise the new law as a move to defend women and children, some human rights activists say it is too harsh and may even fail to deter perpetrators. Timothy Obiezu has more from Kaduna State.Camera: Emeka Gibson

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COVID-19 Deaths Surpass 1 Million

The COVID-19 death toll has climbed to more than one million people worldwide.  And because of a recent surge of infections in many countries including in Europe and the United States, more coronavirus deaths are expected in the coming months. But there are also signs that death rates are dropping and people who contract the virus now are faring better than those infected early on.  VOA correspondent Mariama Diallo has more.Produced by:  Bakhtiyar Zamanov   

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