Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Killing 15 in East Congo Village 

Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least 15 civilians in a village in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, the militant group said on an affiliated Telegram channel.   

A rights group and a local official said on Monday that fighters believed to be members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) stormed the village of Bulongo in North Kivu province after dark on Sunday, pillaging homes, murdering inhabitants that crossed their path and setting fire to six vehicles. Read full story.

The ADF is a Ugandan militia that has been active in east Congo since the 1990s and killed scores of civilians, many in middle-of-the-night attacks carried out with machetes and hatchets. It pledged alliance to Islamic State in 2019.   

Islamic State claimed its members killed nearly 20 Christians and set fire to six trucks in the attack using machine guns, and returned to their bases unhurt. 

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US Supreme Court Blocks Texas Law Restraining Social Media Companies 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that bars large social media companies from banning or censoring users based on “viewpoint,” siding with two technology industry groups that have argued that the Republican-backed measure would turn platforms into “havens of the vilest expression imaginable.”   

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, granted a request by NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which count Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as members, to block the law while litigation continues after a lower court on May 11 let it go into effect.   

The industry groups sued to try to block the law, challenging it as a violation of the free speech rights of companies, including to editorial discretion on their platforms, under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. 

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch issued a written dissent, saying that it is “not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies.” Liberal Justice Elena Kagan separately dissented but did not offer any reasons. 

The Texas law was passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature and signed by its Republican governor. Its passage comes as U.S. conservatives and right-wing commentators complain that “Big Tech” is suppressing their views. These people cite as a prominent example Twitter’s permanent suspension of former President Donald Trump, a Republican, from the platform shortly after the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters, with the company citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.”   

The law, formally known as HB20, forbids social media companies with at least 50 million monthly active users from acting to “censor” users based on “viewpoint,” and allows either users or the Texas attorney general to sue to enforce it. 

In signing the bill last September, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values. This is wrong and we will not allow it in Texas.” 

The industry groups said the state’s law would unconstitutionally allow for government control of private speech. Restricting the platforms’ editorial control, the groups said, “would compel platforms to disseminate all sorts of objectionable viewpoints — such as Russia’s propaganda claiming that its invasion of Ukraine is justified.”  

“Instead of platforms engaging in editorial discretion, platforms will become havens of the vilest expression imaginable: pro-Nazi speech, hostile foreign government propaganda, pro-terrorist-organization speech, and countless more examples,” they added.   

The groups also denounced what they called “viewpoint discrimination against ‘Big Tech,'” in the Texas law through its exclusion of smaller social media platforms popular among conservatives such as Parler, Gab, Gettr and Trump’s own Truth Social.  

U.S. Judge Robert Pitman in the state capital Austin blocked the law last December. Pitman ruled that the constraints on how the platforms disseminate content violate the First Amendment.   

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently put Pitman’s decision on hold two days after hearing oral arguments in the case. The 5th Circuit has yet to issue a ruling on the merits of the case. 

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Biden, Powell Meet to Discuss Taming Inflation

With inflation in the United States at levels not seen in decades, President Joe Biden on Tuesday met with Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, to discuss the ongoing effort to tame rising prices.

Over the 12 months ending in April, the Consumer Price Index, which tracks what average Americans pay for a broad array of goods and services, increased by 8.3%, down slightly from the month before, but still at a level not seen in 40 years.

The issue is a vital one for Biden, whose party is facing serious challenges in the run-up to November’s midterm elections. Public opinion polling indicates that rising prices are among voters’ biggest concerns at the moment, and high inflation appears to be driving down the president’s approval rating.

Political concerns

Despite political pressures, Biden approached his conversation with Powell cautiously, reluctant to appear to be meddling in the affairs of the central bank, which is meant to operate independently.

In advance of the meeting with Powell, Biden used an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal to signal that he does not want to be seen as pressuring the Fed, contrasting himself with former President Trump, who frequently made public statements critical of Powell and the central bank.

“First, the Federal Reserve has a primary responsibility to control inflation,” Biden wrote. “My predecessor demeaned the Fed, and past presidents have sought to influence its decisions inappropriately during periods of elevated inflation. I won’t do this. I have appointed highly qualified people from both parties to lead that institution. I agree with their assessment that fighting inflation is our top economic challenge right now.”

Responding to inflation

As the central bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve is currently engaged in a very delicate process, attempting to slow price increases without tipping the United States economy into a damaging recession.

The Fed’s main tool in the effort is the ability of the Federal Open Market Committee, a body within the broader central bank, to set benchmark interest rates that affect borrowing costs across the economy.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy was plunged into a recession in 2020, and the Fed lowered interest rates to just above zero in order to provide economic stimulus. A recession is typically defined as two or more consecutive quarters in which a nation’s gross domestic product shrinks. However, the National Bureau of Economic Research ruled that a two-month economic downturn at the beginning of the pandemic counted as a recession, making it the shortest on record.

However, low interest rates combined with other government stimulus programs and supply shortages related to the pandemic as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snowballed to bring higher prices that have strained many Americans’ budgets.

In March of this year, the Fed began raising rates, and it continued with another rate increase in early May. With the “target” interest rate currently between 0.75% and 1%, the Fed has signaled that it will raise rates several more times before the end of the year, probably in increments of one half of a percentage point.

How it works

“Raising interest rates works by restraining demand in the economy and restraining spending,” Kenneth N. Kuttner, a professor of economics at Williams College and a former assistant vice president of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, told VOA. “It’s only through restraining spending that inflationary pressures can be brought down.

“In order to get inflation down, the Fed would have to slow the economy until the level of desired spending can be accommodated by the supply side of the economy, or maybe a little bit lower,” Kuttner said. “The problem is, if it restrains spending too much, then the economy is going to go into a … recession.”

The trouble is that there is a significant lag between the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates and the effect that the increase has on economic activity, Greg McBride, senior vice president and chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, told VOA.

“By the time today’s actions take effect, the economy may look a lot different than it did,” McBride said. “That’s what makes this complicated and what brings about the risk of the Fed tipping the economy into a recession. They may be raising interest rates at a point where the economy is already slowing, and those rate hikes only serve to slow the economy further.”

McBride said he does not see a recession as likely in the immediate term. “The U.S. economy is growing this year, and the labor market is very strong,” he said. “Yes, growth will certainly slow through the balance of the year, but in terms of outright contraction, I see that more as a 2023 likelihood than 2022.”

Fed’s abilities limited

On Tuesday afternoon, in remarks at the start of his meeting with Powell, Biden reiterated his promise not to pressure the central bank over inflation.

“I’m not going to interfere with their critically important work,” the president said. “They have a laser focus on addressing inflation, just like I am.”

But while Biden may be counting on the Fed to bring down consumer prices, experts warn that many of the factors contributing to higher prices are well beyond the central bank’s control.

“The Fed has a very difficult task at hand,” said McBride. “A lot of that is tied to issues on the supply side, not just the demand side. The Fed cannot fix the supply chain. They can’t open ports in China that are closed. They can’t broker peace in Eastern Europe.”

He added, “What they can do is address the demand side in the U.S. … But without substantive healing of the supply chain, raising interest rates is not likely to be the panacea that it has been in the past, in terms of putting inflation to bed.”

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First Funerals Held for Victims of Texas School Mass Shooting

The grieving town of Uvalde, Texas, began to hold funerals Tuesday for the first of the 19 children and two teachers who were shot to death May 24 by a teenage gunman who barged into their elementary school armed with an assault rifle.

The first funerals were set for two 10-year-old girls. One of them, Amerie Jo Garza, was described in her obituary as sweet, sassy and funny, a girl who loved swimming and drawing. The other victim, Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, was, according to her obituary, an honor student who loved learning about whales and dolphins and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist.

More funerals for the remaining victims are set in coming days, through mid-June.

In Washington, a handful of U.S. senators — Democrats Chris Murphy and Kyrsten Sinema, and Republicans John Cornyn and Thom Tillis — began virtual talks to determine whether agreement is possible on measures to curb a level of gun violence and mass killings that are unlike those anywhere else in the world.

President Joe Biden, a gun control proponent whose efforts to enact new controls on gun sales has been stymied by opposition Republicans, told reporters at the White House: “I will meet with the Congress on guns, I promise you.”

Biden, who spent seven hours Sunday in Uvalde visiting with the relatives of the victims and survivors of the attack, said, “I’ve gotten to more mass shooting aftermaths than I think any president in American history, unfortunately.”

“And it’s just, so much of it is — much of it is preventable,” he said. “And the devastation is amazing.”

Going into a meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Biden said he would ask her about her country’s response after a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019, streaming the carnage on Facebook as it happened.

Within weeks, Ardern led a dramatic push to restrict firearms in New Zealand, including a permanent ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles and a program to buy back and destroy such guns already in circulation.

Such a plan would meet with widespread opposition in the U.S., where many people see the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of gun ownership rights as sacrosanct.

While lawmakers debate new controls on gun sales, the Justice Department has opened a review of the police response to the attack on Robb Elementary School, “to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events.”

In the Texas shooting, law enforcement officials are being sharply criticized for taking more than an hour to directly confront the gunman, Salvador Ramos, a high school dropout.

In the past few days, Texas law enforcement authorities have changed their accounts of exactly how the Robb Elementary massacre unfolded and their response to it.

Even as children trapped in the classroom with the shooter made urgent emergency calls, pleading with police to rescue them, the incident commander on the scene, the police chief for Uvalde schools, assessed — wrongly — that it was no longer an active shooter incident but rather that the assailant had barricaded himself in a classroom.

As a result, the incident commander, Pete Arredondo, did not immediately order police officers into the classroom to end the mayhem before more were killed.

Eventually, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrived at the school, burst into the classroom and killed Ramos.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steven McCraw, said last week that with the benefit of hindsight, “it was the wrong decision” to wait to confront the shooter.

Some information from Reuters was used in this report.

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Kenyan Fugitive Wanted for Wildlife, Drug Trafficking Arrested

One of two Kenyans wanted for alleged involvement in wildlife and drug trafficking has been arrested in a joint U.S.-Kenyan operation. The U.S. government had announced a reward for information leading to the arrest of Badru Abdul Aziz Saleh.

U.S. officials said Kenya’s security agencies received a tip from the public that led to the arrest of Saleh Monday in Liboi, Garissa county. An embassy statement said U.S. and Kenyan law enforcement officials cooperated to apprehend Saleh.  

Another suspect, Abdi Hussein Ahmed, remains at large.

On Thursday, the United States announced rewards of up to $1 million each for information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the two Kenyans.

Eric W. Kneedler, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, said Monday’s arrest of Saleh “would not have been possible without the public’s support. He appealed for information leading to Ahmed’s arrest.

Saleh remains in police custody in Nairobi and is expected to be extradited to the U.S.

Saleh was arrested back in 2019 for drug trafficking but released on bail, according to the U.S. State Department. A statement said he was a fugitive with an outstanding warrant for his arrest. A federal grand jury in New York indicted him in 2021.

Saleh and Ahmed were accused in the transportation, distribution and smuggling of 190 kilograms of rhinoceros horns and 10 tons of elephant ivory from different African countries.

They were also alleged to have been involved in transporting and distributing 10 kilograms of heroin from Kenya to the United States.

If convicted, both could face up to 10 years in prison in the U.S.  

In March, Kenya launched a financial toolkit to help fight illegal wildlife trade. 

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Turkish Greek Tensions Rise as Arms Race Looms

Tensions are rising between Turkey and Greece, with the Turkish foreign minister on Tuesday warning that Ankara could challenge the sovereignty of Greek islands. The threat comes as both sides increase their military presence in contested waters of the Aegean Sea. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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Soccer Body Investigating Pre-Game Chaos at Paris Champions League Final

International soccer officials are investigating the chaos outside Paris’s Stade de France stadium for last Saturday’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The highly anticipated game was uncharacteristically delayed for 37 minutes because many fans, mostly Liverpool fans, were unable to get in. Some fans reportedly were mugged.

Tear gas also reportedly was used.

The French government is blaming Liverpool fans, while Liverpool says that is an “irresponsible, unprofessional” rush to judgment and cites heavy-handed policing.

Some potential causes of the problems include only having three months to prepare for the event because the game was originally going to be hosted in Russia.

Some are pointing to a lack of signage to guide fans to the game in an orderly way.

Some also are wondering why Liverpool fans were made to walk through a narrow path from the subway to the stadium.

Another factor may be there reportedly were many fake tickets in circulation, leading to more delays.

“It was a pretty big mess,” said Madrid defender Dani Carvajal, whose family encountered safety issues. “They have to learn and fix the mistakes for the next events that may happen at this stadium, and hopefully everything will be better. But yes, in the end there were people who suffered a lot.”

Real Madrid won the game by a lone goal.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Clinton Campaign Lawyer Acquitted of Lying to the FBI

A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was acquitted Tuesday of lying to the FBI when he pushed information meant to cast suspicions on Donald Trump and Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The jury in the case of Michael Sussmann deliberated on Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning before reaching its verdict.

The case was the first courtroom test of special counsel John Durham since his appointment three years ago to search for government misconduct during the investigation into potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. The verdict represents a setback for Durham’s work, especially since Trump supporters had looked to the probe to expose what they contend was sweeping wrongdoing by the FBI.

The trial focused on whether Sussmann, a cybersecurity attorney and former federal prosecutor, concealed from the FBI that he was representing Clinton’s campaign when he presented computer data that he said showed a possible secret backchannel between Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump’s business company, the Trump Organization. The FBI investigated but quickly determined that there was no suspicious contact.

The bureau’s then-general counsel and the government’s star witness, James Baker, testified that he was “100% confident” that Sussmann had told him that he was not representing any client during the meeting. Prosecutors say he was actually acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client, and that he hid that information so as to make it seem more credible and to boost the chances of getting the FBI to investigate.

Lawyers for Sussmann deny that he lied, saying that it was impossible to know with certainty what he told Baker since they were the only participants in the meeting and neither of them took notes.

They argued that if Sussmann said he wasn’t acting on the Clinton campaign’s behalf that that was technically accurate since he didn’t ask the FBI to take any particular action. And they said that even if he did make a false statement, it was ultimately irrelevant since the FBI was already investigating Russia and the Trump campaign and would have looked into the Alfa Bank data no matter the source.

During the two-week trial, jurors heard from current and former FBI officials who described efforts to assess the data’s legitimacy as well as former Clinton campaign aides.

The original Trump-Russia investigation, overseen for two years by former special counsel Robert Mueller, found multiple efforts by Russia to interfere on the Trump campaign’s behalf but did not establish that the two sides had worked together to sway the election.

After Mueller’s work was done, then-Attorney General William Barr named a new Justice Department prosecutor, then-Connecticut U.S. Attorney Durham, to examine whether anyone from the FBI or other agencies violated the law as the government opened its investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign.

Durham has remained at work into the Biden administration. He has brought three cases so far, though the one against Sussmann is the only to have reached trial. A former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, was given probation after pleading guilty in 2020 to altering an email related to the surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign aide, and a Russian analyst who contributed to a dossier of Democratic-funded research into ties between Russia and Trump awaits trial on charges of lying to the FBI about his sources of information.

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