In Brief: April 15, 2021

Months after hack, US poised to announce sanctions on Russia

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is preparing to announce sanctions in response to a massive Russian hacking campaign that breached vital federal agencies, as well as for election interference, a senior administration official said Wednesday night.

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The sanctions, foreshadowed for weeks by the administration, would represent the first retaliatory action announced against the Kremlin for last year’s hack, familiarly known as the SolarWinds breach. In that intrusion, Russian hackers are believed to have infected widely used software with malicious code that enabled them to access the networks of at least nine agencies, part of what U.S. officials believe was an operation aimed at mining the secrets of the American government.

The measures are to be announced Thursday, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear what, if any, other actions might be planned. Officials had previously said they expected to take actions both seen and unseen.

The measures are intended to send a clear retributive message to Russia and to deter similar acts in the future. They come amid an already tense relationship between the U.S. and Russia, with President Joe Biden telling Russian President Vladimir Putin this week that the U.S. would “act firmly in defense of its national interests” regarding Russian intrusions and election interference. But it remained unclear whether the actions would actually result in changed behavior, especially since past measures by the U.S. have failed to bring an end to Russian hacking.

J&J vaccine to remain in limbo while officials seek evidence

Johnson &Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will remain in limbo for a while longer after government health advisers declared Wednesday that they need more evidence to decide if a handful of unusual blood clots were linked to the shot — and if so, how big the risk really is.

The reports are exceedingly rare — six cases out of more than 7 million U.S. inoculations with the one-dose vaccine. But the government recommended a pause in J&J vaccinations this week, not long after European regulators declared that such clots are a rare but possible risk with the AstraZeneca vaccine, a shot made in a similar way but not yet approved for use in the U.S.

At an emergency meeting, advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrestled with the fact that the U.S. has enough alternative shots to vaccinate its population but other countries anxiously awaiting the one-and-done vaccine may not.

From wire sources

“I continue to feel like we’re in a race against time and the variants, but we need to (move forward) in the safest possible way,” said CDC adviser Dr. Grace Lee of Stanford University, who was among those seeking to postpone a vote on the vaccine.

Authorities have studied the clots for only a few days and have little information to judge the shot, agreed fellow adviser Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington.

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Stinging report raises new questions about Capitol security

WASHINGTON — Shields that shattered upon impact. Weapons too old to use. Missed intelligence in which future insurrectionists warned, “We get our president or we die.”

As Congress pushes for a return to normalcy months after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, a damning internal report about the deadly siege is painting a dire picture of the Capitol Police’s ability to respond to threats against lawmakers. The full report obtained by The Associated Press before the department’s watchdog testifies at a House hearing casts serious doubt on whether the police would be able to respond to another large-scale attack.

The Capitol Police have so far refused to publicly release the report — prepared in March and marked as “law enforcement sensitive” — despite congressional pressure. Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who heads the House Administration Committee, said last month that she found the report, along with another she had reviewed, “detailed and disturbing.” The inspector general who prepared it, Michael A. Bolton, was scheduled to testify before Lofgren’s committee Thursday.

The Capitol Police said in a statement Wednesday that the siege was “a pivotal moment” in history that showed the need for “major changes” in how the department operates, but it was “important to note that nearly all of the recommendations require significant resources the department does not have.”

Bolton found that the department’s deficiencies were — and remain — widespread: Equipment was old and stored badly; officers didn’t complete required training; and there was a lack of direction at the Civil Disturbance Unit, which exists to ensure that legislative functions of Congress are not disrupted by civil unrest or protest activity. That was exactly what happened on Jan. 6 when supporters of then-President Donald Trump violently pushed past police and broke into the Capitol as Congress counted the Electoral College votes that certified Joe Biden’s victory.

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Daunte Wright: Doting dad, ballplayer, slain by police

Daunte Wright became a father while he was still a teenager, and seemed to relish the role of a doting young dad, his family and friends said.

A family photo shows a beaming Wright holding his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. Another shows Wright, wearing a COVID-19 face mask and his son wearing a bib with the inscription, “ALWAYS HUNGRY.”

Wright, 20, was fatally shot Sunday by a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. As protesters and civil rights advocates called for justice and police accountability over his death, his family asked people to also remember his life.

“He had a 2-year-old son that’s not going to be able to play basketball with him. He had sisters and brothers that he loved so much,” his mother, Katie Wright, said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.”

His aunt, Naisha Wright, said he was “a lovable young man.”

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Defense expert blames George Floyd’s death on heart trouble

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd died of a sudden heart rhythm disturbance as a result of his heart disease, a forensic pathologist testified for the defense Wednesday at former Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, contradicting prosecution experts who said Floyd succumbed to a lack of oxygen from the way he was pinned down.

Dr. David Fowler, a former Maryland chief medical examiner who is now with a consulting firm, said the fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system, and possibly carbon monoxide poisoning from auto exhaust, were contributing factors in the 46-year-old Black man’s death last May.

“All of those combined to cause Mr. Floyd’s death,” he said on the second day of the defense case.

Fowler also testified that he would classify the manner of death “undetermined,” rather than homicide, as the county’s chief medical examiner ruled. He said Floyd’s death had too many conflicting factors, some of which could be ruled homicide and some that could be considered accidental.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson is trying to prove that the 19-year Minneapolis police veteran did what he was trained to do and that Floyd died because of his illegal drug use and underlying health problems.

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More COVID state shutdowns unlikely, despite CDC suggestion

When one of the nation’s top health officials this week suggested states dealing with a spring spike of coronavirus cases should “shut things down,” the remark landed with a thud.

Even Democratic governors and lawmakers who supported tough stay-at-home orders and business closures to stem previous COVID-19 outbreaks say they’re done with that approach. It’s a remarkable turnaround for governors who have said from the beginning of the pandemic that they will follow the science in their decision-making, but it’s also a nod to reality: Another round of lockdown orders would likely just be ignored by a pandemic-weary public.

The political dynamics have changed markedly in recent weeks as vaccination rates have grown, warmer weather has returned, and the public and business owners have become increasingly vocal about reopening schools and loosening restrictions around social gatherings.

“I think we have a real compliance issue if we try to go back to the sort of restrictions that were in place in March and April of last year,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Zabel, a Democrat who had supported previous shutdown orders by Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat. “I don’t think there’s any appetite for that in Pennsylvania at all.”

COVID-19 cases have been increasing in Pennsylvania, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows it has one of the highest per capita case counts in the nation over the past week. Even so, Wolf’s administration said it “has no plans at this time to reinstitute any shutdown orders.” It instead noted that mask-wearing, gathering limits and social distancing remain required as the state gradually reopens.

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Capsized ship off Louisiana: 12 missing, 1 dead, 6 rescued

PORT FOURCHON, La. — Coast Guard boats and aircraft have covered an area larger than the state of Rhode Island to search for 12 people still missing Wednesday off the Louisiana coast after their offshore oilfield vessel capsized in hurricane-force winds.

One worker’s body was recovered Wednesday and six people were rescued Tuesday after the Seacor Power overturned Tuesday afternoon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard said.

The search, interrupted by darkness and bad weather, has totaled nearly 40 hours and more than 1,440 square miles (3,730 square kilometers) of Gulf waters by Wednesday afternoon, according to a news release. The hunt for the missing continued into the evening, said Petty Officer Carlos Galarza.

Coast Guard Capt. Will Watson said earlier that winds were 80 to 90 mph (130 to 145 kph) and waves rose 7 to 9 feet high (2.1 to 2.7 meters) when the lift boat overturned.

“That’s challenging under any circumstance,” Watson said. “We don’t know the degree to which that contributed to what happened, but we do know those are challenging conditions to be out in the maritime environment.”

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Humanitarian crisis feared in St. Vincent amid eruptions

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Ongoing volcanic eruptions have displaced about 20% of people in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent as a U.N. official on Wednesday warned of a growing humanitarian crisis.

Between 16,000 to 20,000 people were evacuated under government orders before La Soufriere volcano first erupted on Friday, covering the lush green island with ash that continues to blanket communities in St. Vincent as well as Barbados and other nearby islands.

About 6,000 of those evacuees are considered most vulnerable, said Didier Trebucq, United Nations resident coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

“So we are facing a situation with a great deal of uncertainty, and also a humanitarian crisis that is growing and may continue for weeks and months,” he said.

Trebucq said that based on certain information and preliminary estimations, 20,000 people are “estimated at risk of food insecurity, given the loss of the assets in terms of livelihood like fisheries, or agriculture.”

Former Minnesota cop charged in shooting of Black motorist

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — A white former suburban Minneapolis police officer was charged Wednesday with second-degree manslaughter for killing 20-year-old Black motorist Daunte Wright in a shooting that ignited days of unrest and clashes between protesters and police.

The charge against former Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter was filed three days after Wright was killed during a traffic stop and as the nearby murder trial progresses for the ex-officer charged with killing George Floyd last May.

The former Brooklyn Center police chief has said that Potter, a 26-year veteran and training officer, intended to use her Taser on Wright but fired her handgun instead. However, protesters and Wright’s family members say there’s no excuse for the shooting and that it shows how the justice system is tilted against Blacks, noting Wright was stopped for an expired car registration and ended up dead.

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“Certain occupations carry an immense responsibility and none more so than a sworn police officer,” Imran Ali, Washington County assistant criminal division chief, said in a statement announcing the charge against Potter. “(Potter’s) action caused the unlawful killing of Mr. Wright and she must be held accountable.”

Intent isn’t a necessary component of second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota. The charge — which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison — can be applied in circumstances where a person is suspected of causing a death by “culpable negligence” that creates an unreasonable risk and consciously takes chances to cause a death.

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