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‘There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw’

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By Garrett Haake and Dartunorro Clark

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Tuesday that the evidence connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was so strong, it amounted to “a smoking saw.”

“There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw,” Graham said after leaving an intelligence briefing by CIA director Gina Haspel for a small group of senators. “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.”

The crown prince is often referred to by his initials, MBS.

Graham, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been one of the crown prince’s fiercest critics after Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and vocal critic of the Saudi government who resided in the U.S., was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, have attempted to downplay the crown prince’s role in the murder.

Graham, however, told reporters on Tuesday that there was “zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince.”

Other senators who attended the briefing echoed Graham’s assessment.

“I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince, MBS, ordered the killing, monitored the killing, knew exactly what was happening, planned it in advance,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If he was in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes. Guilty. So, the question is what do we do about that?”

Corker said questions remain on what action lawmakers can take now, but he called on the Trump administration to strongly condemn the killing.

“I know that they have to have exactly the same intelligence that we have. And there’s no way that anybody with a straight face could say there’s any question about what has happened,” Corker said.

Trump, in exclamation point-filled formal presidential statement last month, said his administration would stand by Saudi Arabia’s rulers and take no actions against them over the killing of Khashoggi.

Trump called the “crime” against Khashoggi “terrible” and “one that our country does not condone,” but stopped short of pointing blame at Saudi Arabia.

However, NBC News reported last month that the CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post opinion columnist critical of the crown prince’s regime, according to a person briefed on the CIA’s assessment. The Washington Post, citing people familiar with the matter, first reported the assessment, stating that the CIA made its conclusion with “high confidence.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alaska, said Tuesday that the briefing “basically confirmed a lot of our thoughts.” He also said “somebody should be punished,” but said “the real problem” would be separating the Saudi crown prince and his associates from the nation itself.

Graham said he will press the Senate to vote on a resolution that would find the crown prince complicit in Khashoggi’s murder, according to The Associated Press. The AP also reported that the South Carolina lawmaker said he cannot support arms sales to the country as the crown prince is its leader.



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Brexit warning: Britain MUST ‘get our eggs out of the China basket’

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POST-BREXIT Britain must “get our eggs out of the China basket” and look to secure trade deals and business opportunities across the whole of Asia, a leading economics expert has warned.

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When the FBI shoots someone, including a bystander or hostage, it investigates itself

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By Ken Dilanian and Kevin Monahan

HOUSTON — It seemed like a tragic mistake.

A young father, held for ransom, was shot and killed in January 2018 — not by his kidnappers, but by an FBI agent trying to save him. The agent had fired into a dark room where the hostage had been tied up alone.

But a dramatic twist came in October: The Houston police chief, whose department investigated the incident, announced that the FBI agent’s story didn’t add up.

“Our investigative findings do not support the description of how the shooting occurred by the shooting agent,” Chief Art Acevedo told reporters.

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Two law enforcement sources familiar with the matter told NBC News that the FBI and federal prosecutors are examining whether the agent gave a false account, whether he acted negligently, and whether the pre-dawn raid by heavily armed FBI personnel was properly planned and executed.

But relatives of the victim, Ulises Valladares, say they’ve been told nothing. They say they don’t know the agent’s name or whether he’s still on duty. They have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which is pending.

Ulises Valladares with his son, Junior. Photo blurred by source.Courtesy of the Valladares Family

The Houston case became the latest in a series of incidents in which an FBI agent’s actions with his gun have come into question, according to a review of public records by NBC News. And it underscored what critics say is a troubling culture of secrecy at the nation’s main federal law enforcement agency.

New FBI data obtained exclusively by NBC News shows the bureau found fault with the actions of agents five times in 228 shooting incidents from 2011 to the present. Eighty-one were intentional shootings of people, 34 were intentional shootings of animals, and 113 were accidental discharges. None of the five “unjustified” shots resulted in a death or injury to a person, bureau officials said.

FBI officials refused to discuss any of the internal investigations into each shooting or answer any questions about whether agents were disciplined. They declined to comment on the Houston case.

By determining that the actions of the five agents were unjustified, FBI officials said, the bureau was not saying that an entire shooting was unjustified. In fact, none of the five questionable shooting actions by agents led to an injury or death, officials said. It is possible, they said, for multiple agents to have shot to death a suspect in a manner that followed all the rules, only to have one agent fire a shot that was deemed improper.

“Each round is evaluated,” one FBI official said.

The home where Valladares was held hostage and killed in Houston, Texas.NBC News

Aside from the Houston incident, other recent FBI gunfire has come under scrutiny:

  • In August, an FBI agent was acquitted of federal criminal charges that he lied about firing his weapon in a 2016 standoff with right-wing extremists in Oregon. The FBI declined to comment on any disciplinary investigation.
  • In June, an FBI agent — off-duty but armed with a handgun — accidentally shot someone in a Denver nightclub after he did a backflip that dislodged his weapon. He pleaded guilty to third degree assault and was sentenced to two years probation. The FBI would not discuss his status at the bureau.
  • In 2016, an FBI agent shot a 31-year-old man during a military-style raid to serve a warrant on a different person. The FBI says the man was armed; his family, which has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, disputes that and adds that he was blind in one eye and disabled. The FBI declined to comment on the case.
  • In 2015, the FBI terminated an agent who fired his weapon from a second-story apartment in Queens, shooting an unarmed man as he tried to burglarize the agent’s car on the street below.

FBI officials would not comment on any of those cases, but said that of the five cases in which the actions of agents were faulted, one included the Oregon case and another, the backflip discharge.

“I think the public should be concerned where we have government agents using force without appropriate accountability, and that accountability requires transparency,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Unfortunately, the FBI’s process is not only not independent — it’s the FBI investigating itself — but it’s not very transparent.”

FBI officials disagree, describing their investigative process as meticulous and fair. But the bureau has declined to follow the lead of many of America’s largest police departments, which publish annual reports detailing each use-of-force incident. New York City police, for example, report how often a firearm was discharged, who was hit, and under what circumstances. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., do the same. Houston publishes statistics about officer-involved shootings.

The bureau’s inspection division produces an investigative report for each agent-involved shooting, but the only time the bureau made some of those public in recent years is after the New York Times sued under the Freedom of Information Act, resulting in a story published in 2013.

The redacted records the Times obtained showed that from 1993 to early 2011, FBI agents fatally shot about 70 people and wounded about 80 others. Each one of those shootings was deemed justified.

The bureau’s public affairs office declined a request by NBC News for copies of investigative reports for shootings that occurred subsequent to those reflected in the Times data. An FBI spokeswoman instructed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request — a response to which can take years, due to an enormous backlog. NBC News filed a request, but the FBI turned down an appeal for expedited processing. NBC News argued that the public had an urgent need for more information about FBI shootings, but the bureau disagreed.

The FBI recently launched a campaign to encourage police departments to publicly disclose information on their use of force, as part of a national database the bureau is seeking to build. A video on the FBI website featured local officials promoting the program.

“Any time that information is not readily available, that breeds skepticism. Skepticism leads to distrust,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, says on the video, as stirring music plays in the background.

“What that data really does is allow us to be transparent in the force that we use in our everyday situations,” Gina Hawkins, chief of police in Fayetteville, N.C., says on the video. “This transparency is not all the time easy. It may involve us owning up to we could have made a better decision. … To be transparent is what builds the trust of the community that we work for.”

FBI officials said the bureau itself would also submit information to the database, but that no data has yet been made public.

How the FBI investigates itself

Bureau officials, declining to be named for the record, told NBC News that the evidence gathered in shooting investigations includes interviews with the agents involved. The agents are required to answer questions — in a formal interview with a lawyer representing them.

The evidence is often shared with local prosecutors, and is then turned over for examination by the FBI’s Shooting Incident Review Group, which meets quarterly and votes on whether the agents’ actions in each shooting incident were justified.

Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News law enforcement analyst, spent 25 years at the FBI, including a stint as chief inspector, leading investigations of agent-involved shootings. He was a nonvoting member of the incident review group.

Ulises Valladares of Conroe, Texas.via Facebook

Even when the use of lethal force has been deemed valid, he said, “these reviews frequently identify tactics, methods or conduct that can be improved upon.”

At times, he said, an agent’s use of deadly force may have clearly been within FBI policy, but the reviewers find that he or she should have employed different tactics or approaches that could have precluded the deadly confrontation.

In those cases, a review of practices, training, counseling or even discipline is recommended — but that is not reflected in the FBI data on whether shootings are deemed justified, he said.

“This accounts for a seemingly low percentage of FBI shootings being found to be ‘out of policy,'” he added. In many cases, “a comprehensive review may have found that best practices were not followed, despite a ‘good shoot’.”

Justice delayed?

In the Houston case, Acevedo told reporters the agent said he stuck his M4 rifle through the window of the house where Valladares was bound on the couch. The FBI was storming the residence to free the hostage, who had been seized by men who said his brother owed them money.

Somebody inside grabbed the rifle, the agent told police, leading him to fear that he would lose control of it. He fired two shots, striking Valladares, the only person in the room.

At his news conference in October, Acevedo said he no longer believed that story. The chief didn’t say what he thinks really happened, so as not to disrupt the pending federal investigation into the matter. He declined an NBC News request for an interview, and federal prosecutors declined to comment.

Acevedo told reporters in October that he didn’t understand why the federal investigation was taking so long, given that the Houston Police Department turned over its findings in April.

“I’ve always say, justice delayed is justice denied,” he said. “For everyone involved. For the FBI agent — and his family — I would hate to have something like this hanging over me. For the family of Mr. Valladares, who want to know exactly what happened.”

From left, Jimmy Tony Sanchez, Nicholas Chase Cunningham and Sophia Perez Heath.Conroe Police Department

Valladares’ 13-year-old-son, whom NBC News is not naming, does want to know. His mother died of cancer the year before. He was there the day the armed men took his father. They tied him up, as well, and he wriggled free to call for help.

“He’s kind of at a loss,” said the woman now raising him, Brooke Pearce, his older half-sister. “His heart’s definitely hurting.”

Pearce had to withdraw from nursing school to raise her younger brother along with her own child. More than a year after the shooting, she is still waiting to learn how the FBI agents who came to rescue her brother ended up killing him.

“I don’t feel like anything was handled appropriately. You’re not really reassured that the person was reprimanded or if they were given any additional training or even if they’re still out there with a gun running at people’s homes in situations like this.”



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House VA committee to probe Trump-connected individuals’ influence over VA

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By Phil McCausland

The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced his intention to open an investigation in how three men “ostensibly used their wealth and connections to President Trump and his family to make decisions” for the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a letter he sent to the agency on Friday.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee, requested documents, communications and telephone records between VA officials and Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and attorney Marc Sherman. His letter was addressed to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The three men allegedly formed an informal council that oversaw sweeping changes of the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an August 2018 Pro Publica report.

“The Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is opening an investigation into this relationship so that Congress, veterans, and the American people can better understand the scope and nature of this relationship between the Department and these individuals who have not served in the U.S. military nor U.S. government, and are not accountable to veterans and the American people,” Takano wrote in the letter.

Released Friday, the letter also outlined 20 different requests for documentation of interactions between the three men and VA officials.

When reached by telephone, Moskowitz directed NBC News to speak to Perlmutter, who did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for Moskowitz did not immediately provide a comment. Sherman could not be reached.

The three men told the Wall Street Journal that they never had decision-making authority and that VA officials “often ignored their advice.”

“Our only goal was to help improve veterans care,” the men said in a joint statement provided to The Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t seek or receive any personal or financial gain. We never imagined that volunteering our personal time to improving veterans’ health care would open us up to criticism.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Curt Cashour, press secretary for the department of Veterans Affairs, said in an email that the agency had been “transparent on its communications with these three individuals,” noting that VA officials had responded to numerous requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act that they later shared with Congress.

“Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Sec. Wilkie has been clear about how he does business. No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions – that’s up to Sec. Wilkie and President Trump. Period,” Cashour wrote.

He then referred further requests for comment to previous VA leaders and later sent an excerpt from a Friday Wall Street Journal article that asserted that former VA Secretary David Shulkin had created private email accounts to correspond with the three men.

Cashour previously worked for Shulkin, who did not respond to a request for comment.

NBC News has not independently confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting.

Investigating any untoward influence that the three men may have had was a priority for Takano and the Democrats as they took control of the committee. The information gathered is expected to inform whether they call a committee hearing and use their subpoena powers to compel current and former officials as well as the three men to testify.

“It’s important for the chairman for this to be a methodical process, that it is fair, that it is bipartisan to the largest extent possible,” said Miguel Salazar, the committee’s spokesman.

But Republicans on the traditionally bipartisan committee did not appear to be happy with the decision.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the committee, said his focus would be on veterans’ services and implementing the bills passed in the last Congress.

“It is imperative we spend our time overseeing these laws, delivering on our promises to veterans, and conducting investigations that will improve the quality of care and benefits provided by the department,” Roe said. “I do not believe that our limited time is well spent wading into areas that do not further those objectives.”

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