CENTCOM Commander Iran’s Russian Satellite Interest ‘Not Particularly Concerning’ to US Security in MidEast

Iran’s reported desire to purchase a Russian advanced satellite system is not “particularly concerning” to U.S. security in the region, according to the commander who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.   In an interview with VOA, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said Russia’s Kanopus-V satellite is not effective at targeting. “You really can’t do much with it,” he said. “It would probably allow them to see something the size of a school bus, which is not going to be particularly concerning to us.” Earlier this month, U.S. and Middle East officials told The Washington Post that Iranian military officials have been deeply involved in the satellite acquisition and have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to work on an agreement to buy the system. While the Kanopus-V is marketed for civilian use, Iranian military officials have been heavily involved in the acquisition, and leaders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, the officials said. The Koanupus-V is marketed for civilian use, and McKenzie said some commercial imagery options provide better visuals than what the satellite’s high-resolution camera could capture.   “While it might seem attractive to put it (the satellite) into space on a Russian rocket, if that’s the way they want to spend their money and do it, they should go ahead,” he said.    Drone Attacks   Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militia have continued to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Iraq with small, armed drones.    “We’ve been attacked three times over the last little over a month,” McKenzie said. He and other military officials have told VOA that Iran has shifted to using compact, kinetic attacks because their armed drones can cause damage to U.S. resources without amassing casualties, keeping the threat just below a level that might spark retaliation from the United States. “It’s a very dangerous path that they’re on,” warned McKenzie, “and they’re doing it because, as we should remember, they failed and their principal aim, which was a political objective of having us leave Iraq.”   
 
The military is still conducting forensic analysis right now to determine exactly where the drones used in the latest attacks on U.S. forces originated. 

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Biden, Putin Set for Geneva Talks

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to meet Wednesday in Geneva with both sides expressing low expectations for any major agreements. U.S. and Russian officials said there would likely be four to five hours of talks. The agreed-upon format includes an initial session with the two leaders along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and then further discussions with an expanded group. A senior Biden administration official told reporters en route to Geneva that one potential outcome Wednesday is reversing the recall of each country’s ambassador.  U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov returned home earlier this year amid worsening U.S.-Russia relations. Both ambassadors were due to be in Geneva on Wednesday. A senior U.S. administration official said Biden’s goals in the talks included seeking areas where the United States and Russia can work together, to clearly state U.S. vital national interests and that “Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response,” and to lay out his “vision for American values and our national priorities.” The meeting takes place in the final hours of Biden’s first trip abroad as president. During the past week, he has attended the G-7 summit and held talks with NATO and European Union leaders, seeking to boost relations with allies and consult with them about the U.S.-Russia talks. When a reporter asked Biden shortly after his arrival Tuesday in Geneva if he was ready for his meeting with Putin, the U.S. leader said, “I’m always ready.”The United States flag waves on a bridge near the fountain Jet d’eau in the Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland, June 15, 2021.In an interview with NBC News, Putin said U.S.-Russia ties had deteriorated to their “lowest point in recent years.”  Following their meeting, Biden and Putin are expected to appear separately before reporters, unlike in 2018 when Putin and former U.S. President Donald Trump held a joint news conference after their summit in Helsinki.  At that time, Trump contradicted his own intelligence agencies by saying he had no reason to doubt Putin’s assertion that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.    “A solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns,” a White House official said Saturday.  A senior U.S. official told reporters Tuesday that cybersecurity, in particular ransomware attacks, “will be a significant topic of conversation” between Biden and Putin. “And the President will make clear that if we see significant types of cyber activity, like we did with SolarWinds, he will respond like we did with SolarWinds,” the official said.  In April, Biden expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on six Russian technology companies that provide support to the cyber program run by Putin’s intelligence services linked to the hacking of the SolarWinds information technology company.      In May, two key U.S. businesses — Colonial Pipeline, which transports fuel in the southeastern United States, and the JBS meat production company — were targeted in cyberattacks believed to have originated in Russia. Both Colonial and JBS paid millions of dollars in ransom demands to restore their business operations, although U.S. law enforcement officials have recovered some of the money Colonial paid.     Putin has rejected U.S. claims that Moscow and Russian hackers are carrying out debilitating cyberattacks on American companies and government agencies.  The two leaders are also expected to cover strategic nuclear stability and souring relations between Russia and the West. VOA’s Senior White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report. 

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Federal Judge Blocks Biden’s Pause on New Oil, Gas Leases

The Biden administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water was blocked Tuesday by a federal judge in Louisiana, who ordered plans be resumed for lease sales that were delayed for the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed in March by Louisiana’s Republican attorney general Jeff Landry and officials in 12 other states. Doughty’s ruling granting a preliminary injunction to those states said his order applies nationwide.The 13 states said the administration bypassed comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays can be undertaken. Doughty heard arguments in the case last week in Lafayette.The moratorium was imposed after Democratic President Joe Biden on January 27 signed executive orders to fight climate change. The suit was filed in March. The states opposing the suspension said it was undertaken without the required comment periods and other bureaucratic steps.Federal lawyers also argued that the public notice and comment period doesn’t apply to the suspension, that the lease sales aren’t required by law and that the secretary of the Interior has broad discretion in leasing decisions.Although Landry and the lawsuit’s supporters said the moratorium has already driven up prices and endangered energy jobs, Biden’s suspension didn’t stop companies from drilling on existing leases.”No existing lease has been canceled as a result of any of the actions challenged here, and development activity from exploration through drilling and production has continued at similar levels as the preceding four years,” lawyers for the administration argued in briefs.A long-term halt to oil and gas sales would curb future production and could hurt states like Louisiana that are heavily dependent on the industry that has contributed to global warming.The lawsuit notes that coastal states receive significant revenue from onshore and offshore oil and gas activity. Stopping leases, the lawsuit argues, would diminish revenue that pays for Louisiana efforts to restore coastal wetlands, raise energy costs and lead to major job losses in oil-producing states.

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Study: Half of US Cosmetics Contain Toxic Chemicals

More than half the cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada are awash with a toxic industrial compound associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight, according to a new study.  Researchers at the University of Notre Dame tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained fluorine — an indicator of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” that are used in nonstick frying pans, rugs and countless other consumer products.  Some of the highest PFAS levels were found in waterproof mascara (82%) and long-lasting lipstick (62%), according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Twenty-nine products with higher fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS, the study found. Only one item listed PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as an ingredient on the label. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, said the agency does not comment on specific studies. The FDA said on its website that there have been few studies of the presence of the chemicals in cosmetics, and the ones that have been published generally found the concentration is at very low levels not likely to harm people, in the parts per billion level to the hundreds of parts per million. A fact sheet posted on the agency’s website says, “As the science on PFAS in cosmetics continues to advance, the FDA will continue to monitor” voluntary data submitted by industry as well as published research. But PFAS are an issue of increasing concern for lawmakers working to regulate their use in consumer products. The study results were announced as a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to ban the use of PFAS in cosmetics and other beauty products.  The move to ban PFAS comes as Congress considers wide-ranging legislation to set a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS and clean up contaminated sites across the country, including military bases where high rates of PFAS have been discovered. “There is nothing safe and nothing good about PFAS,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who introduced the cosmetics bill with Republican Senator Susan Collins. “These chemicals are a menace hidden in plain sight that people literally display on their faces every day.” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., talks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, June 15, 2021.Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat who has sponsored several PFAS-related bills in the House, said she has looked for PFAS in her own makeup and lipstick but could not tell whether they were present because the products were not properly labeled. “How do I know it doesn’t have PFAS?” she asked at a news conference Tuesday, referring to the eye makeup, foundation and lipstick she was wearing.  The Environmental Protection Agency is also moving to collect industry data on the uses and health risks of PFAS as it considers regulations to reduce potential risks caused by the chemicals. The Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing the cosmetics industry, said in a statement that a small number of PFAS may be found as ingredients or at trace levels in products such as lotion, nail polish, eye makeup and foundation. The chemicals are used for product consistency and texture and subject to FDA safety requirements, said Alexandra Kowcz, the council’s chief scientist. “Our member companies take their responsibility for product safety and the trust families put in those products very seriously,” she said, adding that the group supports prohibition of certain PFAS from use in cosmetics. “Science and safety are the foundation for everything we do.”  But Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at Notre Dame and the principal investigator of the study, said the cosmetics pose an immediate and long-term risk. “PFAS is a persistent chemical. When it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates,” Peaslee said. No specific companies were named in the study.  Environmental, health risksThe chemicals also pose the risk of environmental contamination associated with manufacturing and disposal, he said. The man-made compounds are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams. Public health studies on exposed populations have associated the chemicals with an array of health problems, including some cancers, weakened immunity and low birth weight. Widespread testing in recent years has found high levels of PFAS in many public water systems and military bases. Blumenthal, a former state attorney general and self-described “crusader” on behalf of consumers, said he does not use cosmetics. But speaking on behalf of millions of cosmetics users, he said they have a message for the industry: “We’ve trusted you and you betrayed us.” Brands that want to avoid likely government regulation should voluntarily go PFAS-free, Blumenthal said. “Aware and angry consumers are the most effective advocate” for change, he said. 
 

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Military Defends January 6 Response as House Steps Up Probes

A top Army leader defended the Pentagon’s response to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, telling a House panel Tuesday that the National Guard was delayed for hours because they had to properly prepare for the deployment and that senior military leaders had determined beforehand that there was “no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.” Lieutenant General Walter Piatt, director of the Army staff, echoed comments from other senior military leaders about the perception of soldiers being used to secure the election process. He said the Pentagon wanted to be careful about their response in part because of concerns about military helicopters that had flown low over Washington streets during protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the summer of 2020. It also took several hours for Guardsmen to be equipped and given a plan for how to secure a building overrun by hundreds of supporters of former president Donald Trump, Piatt said.  “When people’s lives are on the line, two minutes is too long,” he said. “But we were not positioned to respond to that urgent request. We had to reprepare so we would send them in prepared for this new mission.” FILE – Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., walks to a news conference at the Capitol, Feb. 25, 2021.Piatt’s testimony comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the House will step up its investigations into the deadly insurrection. She said Tuesday that the House “can’t wait any longer” to do a comprehensive investigation after Senate Republicans blocked legislation to create an independent commission. “Whether we have a commission today, tomorrow or the next day over in the Senate or not, the work of the committees will be very important in what we’re seeking for the American people — the truth,” Pelosi said.  One option under consideration is a select committee on the January 6 attack, a setup that would put majority Democrats in charge. More than three dozen Republicans in the House and seven Senate Republicans wanted to avoid a partisan probe and supported the legislation to create an independent, bipartisan commission outside Congress.  But those numbers weren’t strong enough to overcome GOP opposition in the Senate, where support from 10 Republicans is needed to pass most bills. Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer has said he may hold a second vote after the legislation failed to advance last month, but there’s no indication that Democrats can win the necessary support from three additional Republicans.  “We can’t wait any longer,” Pelosi said. “We will proceed.”  Meanwhile, most Republicans are making clear they want to move on from the January 6 attack, brushing aside the many unanswered questions about the insurrection, including how the government and law enforcement missed intelligence leading up to the rioting, and the role of Trump before and during the attack.  FILE – FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies on Capitol Hill, June 10, 2021.The hearing Tuesday in the House Oversight and Reform Committee was to examine “unexplained delays and unanswered questions” about the siege, with public testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray, Piatt and General Charles E. Flynn, who was previously Army deputy chief of staff.  All three men were involved that day as the Capitol Police begged for backup. The National Guard did not arrive for several hours, as police were overwhelmed and beaten by the rioters.  Piatt insisted that he did not deny or have the authority to deny Guard help during a call with former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who has previously said he believed Piatt and other Army leaders were concerned about the optics of soldiers surrounding the building. According to the Defense Department, military leadership approved activation of the full D.C. National Guard at 3:04 p.m., about 40 minutes after the call with Sund.  FILE – Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2020.Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the committee, criticized Wray for not providing documents her staff had requested and asked him if he believed the FBI should be blamed for the law enforcement failures on January 6.  “Our goal is to bat 1.000, and any time there’s an attack, much less an attack as horrific and spectacular as what happened on January 6, we consider that to be unacceptable,” Wray replied.  Seven people died during and after the rioting, including a Trump supporter who was shot and killed as she tried to break into the House chamber and two police officers who died by suicide in the days that followed. A third officer, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, collapsed and later died after engaging with the protesters, but a medical examiner determined he died of natural causes. 
 

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Biden Picks Israel, Mexico, NATO Ambassadors

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced his nominees to be ambassadors to Israel, Mexico and NATO, as he moves to strengthen U.S. alliances in tough regions. Among a slate of names announced by the White House on Tuesday were Thomas Nides, a Morgan Stanley vice chairman who served as a deputy secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, to serve as the ambassador to Israel. The close U.S. ally is welcoming a new government after Israel’s parliament ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister on Sunday. Biden also picked Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado and interior secretary, as his ambassador to Mexico. The country is one of the United States’ biggest trading partners and the Biden administration is working to manage immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border. He also chose security expert Julianne Smith to represent the United States on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a key Western bulwark against Russia. Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to meet in Geneva on Wednesday at a time of increased tensions between the two powers. The White House also said Biden picked C. B. “Sully” Sullenberger to be an ambassador and serve as the U.S. representative on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Sullenberger rose to fame in 2009 after gliding his Airbus A320 to a safe landing on the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, in what became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” He also joined Biden on the campaign trail when he was running for president. Biden also named his ambassador picks to Sri Lanka, Gambia, Guinea, Paraguay and Costa Rica. 
 

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Tree to Table: Cicadas Make for Culinary Adventure at DC Restaurant

Parts of the United States are being invaded by a mass brood of cicadas that emerges from the ground once every 17 years.  For most people the noisy insects are a nuisance, but for others, they’re a meal. VOA’s Alam Burnahan has details in this story narrated by Irfan Ihsan.
Camera: Alam Burhanan, Irfan Ihsan, Ronan Zakaria

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Biden in Geneva Ahead of Talks with Putin

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time Wednesday in Geneva amid deteriorating relations between the world powers. The meeting takes place in the final hours of Biden’s first trip abroad as president during which he has already attended the 47th G-7 summit in the English city of Cornwall, as well as talks with NATO and EU leaders in Brussels. An armored vehicle and a truck block roadway access to the Inter Continental hotel before the arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden, in Geneva, Switzerland, June 15, 2021.In an interview with NBC News, Putin said U.S.-Russia ties had deteriorated to their “lowest point in recent years.” The White House said Saturday that Biden would appear alone at a post-summit news conference, unlike former President Donald Trump who addressed reporters together with Putin following their 2018 summit in Helsinki. At that time, Trump contradicted his own intelligence agencies by saying he had no reason to doubt Putin’s assertion that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.”A solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns,” a White House official said Saturday. Regarding expectations, a senior U.S. official told reporters Tuesday that Biden would elaborate. “We were going to let him speak to that when he concludes the meeting tomorrow. And the president will make clear that if we see significant types of cyber activity like we did with SolarWinds, he will respond like we did for SolarWinds.”  In April, Biden expelled 10 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on six Russian technology companies that provide support to the cyber program run by Putin’s intelligence services linked to the hacking of the SolarWinds information technology company.   In May, two key U.S. businesses — Colonial Pipeline, which transports fuel in the southeastern U.S., and the JBS meat production company — were targeted in cyberattacks believed to have originated in Russia. Both Colonial and JBS paid millions of dollars in ransom demands to restore their business operations, although U.S. law enforcement officials have recovered some of the money Colonial paid. FILE – An Out of Service bag covers a gas pump as cars line up at a Circle K gas station near uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, May 11, 2021, following a ransomware attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline, a major East Coast gasoline provider.The White House also said it expects the Biden-Putin meeting “to be candid and straightforward” and that Biden will bring up ransomware attacks originating in Russia, the Kremlin’s aggression toward Ukraine, the imprisonment of dissidents and other issues.  “Ransomware will be a significant topic of conversation,” a senior U.S. official said Tuesday. “They will also discuss the broader issue of cyber norms, cyber rules of the road tomorrow in the discussion.” Putin has rejected U.S. claims that Moscow and Russian hackers are carrying out debilitating cyberattacks on American companies and government agencies. The two leaders are also expected to cover strategic nuclear stability and souring relations between Russia and the West. VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.
 

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