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US bans WeChat, TikTok

The U.S. Commerce Department said Friday it will ban Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat from U.S. app stores on Sunday and will bar the apps from accessing essential internet services in the U.S. — a move that could effectively wreck the operation of both Chinese services for U.S. users. TikTok won’t face the most drastic sanctions until after the Nov. 3 election, but WeChat users could feel the effects as early as Sunday. The order, which cited national security and data privacy concerns, follows weeks of dealmaking over the video-sharing service TikTok. President Donald Trump has pressured the app’s Chinese owner to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to a domestic company to satisfy U.S. concerns over TikTok’s data collection and related issues. California tech giant Oracle recently struck a deal with TikTok along those lines, although details remain foggy and the administration is still reviewing it. Trump said Friday said he was open to a deal, noting that “we have some great options and maybe we can keep a lot of people happy,” suggesting that even Microsoft, which said its TikTok bid had been rejected, might continue to be involved, as well as Oracle and Walmart. Trump noted that TikTok was “very, very popular,” said “we have to have the total security from China,” and added that “we can do a combination of both.” The new order puts pressure on TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, to make further concessions, said James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Trump had said this week he does not like the idea of ByteDance keeping majority control of TikTok.

Actor denounces rape charges

LOS ANGELEs — “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson, charged with raping three women, made his first appearance Friday in a Los Angeles courtroom, where his attorney declared his innocence and denounced the charges against him as “politicized.” Masterson, 44, who has been free on bail since his June arrest, stood in court in a blue suit and face mask next to attorneys Tom Mesereau and Sharon Appelbaum, as the three women sat in the gallery. Masterson did not enter a plea, but Mesereau said the charges, based on events nearly 20 years old, were the result of unfair hype from media outlets and pressure to prosecute his client as Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey faces an election. “There have been repeated attempts to politicize this case,” said Mesereau, who also represented Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson in their sexual misconduct cases. “He is absolutely not guilty and we’re going to prove it.” Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller called the statements “pure speculation, with no basis in fact.” Mesereau spoke as the judge was considering media requests to allow media cameras in court, which he approved. Masterson is charged with three counts of rape by force or fear. Prosecutors allege that he raped a 23-year-old woman sometime in 2001, a 28-year-old woman in April of 2003, and a 23-year-old woman between October and December of 2003. Prosecutors said all of the alleged attacks happened in his home. He could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted.

Fentanyl seizures up 465%

MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities say seizures of the synthetic opioid fentanyl so far this year are 465% higher than in 2019, rising to almost 2,300 pounds (1,040 kilograms) from around 405 pounds ( 184 kilograms) last year, but progress against another big Mexican export to the U.S. market — methamphetamines — is slower. The Defense Department said seizures of meth in Mexico rose by only 32.8% between Jan. 1 and Sept. 16, but busts of meth labs dropped 51% compared to the same period of last year. In a similar pattern, Mexico’s seizures of cocaine rose by 46%, but seizures of key transport methods like boats and clandestine landing strips were down by 64% and 79%, respectively. Experts say increased security and reduced traffic due to the coronavirus pandemic may have mad Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said Mexican traffickers import fentanyl from China and India and press it into ubiquitous blue tablets, and repeated Mexico’s claim that there was “no evidence” that there were any labs producing the opioid in Mexico. However, he may have been referring to production of the drug from scratch; there is evidence that Mexican cartels import close precursor chemicals and perform the final stages of processing.

Electric fence deters thieves

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — A Massachusetts man tired of people stealing his Donald Trump campaign sign has come up with a shocking solution: an electrified fence around it. John Oliveira, 54, a disabled Navy veteran and a member of the New Bedford School Committee, put the fence up a few weeks ago. Oliveira told Southcoasttoday.com, which first reported the story, that he started displaying a Trump sign on his lawn in late May. The first one disappeared in July. In all, six signs were taken, he told The Boston Globe. His latest sign has not been stolen since the fence went up. “I’m defending my property and my right to free speech,” he said. The yellow and black solar-powered fence, purchased from a farm supply store, is about 3 1/2 feet high. It has warning signs in English, Spanish and French. He has informed police of the thefts. The fence is not pretty, he acknowledged. “But I’m not going to not put a sign up because somebody keeps stealing it or somebody keeps taking it because they don’t like what I’m saying,” he said.

Weinstein stripped of UK honor

LONDON — Britain on Friday stripped disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of an honor recognizing his contribution to the U.K. film industry. Weinstein, 68, was given the honor in 2004. The 68-year-old former Hollywood producer was convicted earlier this year of rape and sexual assault against two women and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Accusations by dozens of women in 2017 led to the end of his career and helped spur #MeToo — a global movement demanding that powerful men be held accountable for their sexual misconduct. “The Queen has directed that the appointment of Harvey Weinstein to be an Honorary Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, dated January 19 2004, shall be cancelled and annulled and that his name shall be erased from the Register of the said Order,” according to a notice in The Gazette, the U.K.’s official public record.

Pope seeks to ‘liberate’ Mary

ROME — Pope Francis is giving his blessing to a new Vatican think tank that is seeking to prevent the Mafia and organized crime groups from exploiting the image of the Virgin Mary for their own illicit ends. The Vatican’s Pontifical Marian Academy launched the think tank Friday at a conference titled “Liberating Mary from the Mafia.” It was a reference to the historic relationship between the Italian mob and the Catholic Church, and the popular displays of Marian devotion by mobsters in Italy and beyond. In a message from the pope read out at the start of the conference, held at Rome’s Museum of Civilizations, Francis said the religious and cultural image and patrimony of the Madonna “must be preserved in its original purity.” He said any popular displays of devotion to Mary must “conform to the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the church,” and that people participating in them must be true Christians who look out for others, and especially the poor. The Catholic Church in Italy has long been associated with the Mafia, thanks in part to their post-war common cause against communism. While some Catholic priests have courageously opposed the mob — and paid for it with their lives — others have been called to explain their celebration of funerals, weddings and other sacraments for mafia dons, acceptance of their donations and participation in their religious processions. St. John Paul II in 1993 famously demanded Mafiosi convert, change their ways or face the wrath of God’s final judgment as he made a historic visit to Sicily after the mob slayings of two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors. Francis has followed in that tradition, declaring that mobsters were “excommunicated” and saying mobsters can’t live Christian lives because their lifestyle “blasphemes” God.

Trump OKs aid to Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced the release Friday of $13 billion in assistance to repair years-old hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and pledged to restore its economy, setting aside his past bitter treatment of the island and its leaders as he courts Puerto Rican voters in the U.S., particularly in the crucial swing state of Florida. The grant announced Friday includes nearly $10 billion to rebuild an electrical grid that was wiped out by the storm and resulted in the longest blackout in U.S. history.

Massive loss of rare plants

RENO, Nev. — State and federal authorities are investigating the mysterious loss of a significant swath of a rare desert wildflower that’s being considered for federal protection at a contentious mine site in Nevada with some of the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world. The Australian mining company, Ioneer Ltd., and state biologists investigating the unprecedented incident believe small mammals most likely caused the damage to thousands of plants at the only place Tiehm’s buckwheat is known to exist. Conservationists suspect a more sinister scenario: Somebody dug them up while federal wildlife officials consider listing the plant as an endangered species. Nevada’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service are investigating. The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to list the plant earlier this year, estimates as many as 17,000 plants were lost — up to 40% of the entire population. Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Nevada director, and Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden in Claremont, discovered the damage Sept. 13. They believe the plants were removed with small shovels or spades.

Police find books stolen in 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Police in Romania have uncovered a trove of “irreplaceable” books including first editions of works by Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton that were stolen in a sophisticated 2017 heist from a warehouse in London, police and the European Union’s judicial cooperation agency said Friday. The stash of some 200 rare and valuable books was discovered Wednesday hidden in a concealed space under a house in rural Romania. London’s Met Police said in a statement that the recovered books have a combined value of more than 2.5 million pounds ($3.2 million). The books were stolen in a raid on a warehouse in west London. Burglars cut holes in the roof and abseiled down into the building to avoid motion detectors, loaded the books into 16 large bags and clambered back up the ropes to make their getaway through the roof, police said. A joint investigation involving police from London, Romania and the Carabinieri in Italy, supported by EU agencies Europol and Eurojust in The Hague, identified 11 similar burglaries across Britain, that netted some 2 million pounds worth of stolen property. The Met Police said a Romanian organized crime gang was responsible. The probe led to a series of raids in the three countries in June 2019 and the arrest of 13 suspects who were charged in the U.K. with involvement in the burglaries. The Met said that 12 suspects have pleaded guilty and will face sentencing hearings starting later this month. The 13th suspect will go on trial in March.

Morrison targets restrictions

LONDON — Van Morrison has never been one to hold back over the years. Why start now? The 75-year-old singer-songwriter is certainly not holding back on what he thinks of the lockdown restrictions put in place by governments around the world in response to the coronavirus. Morrison, whose decades as a musician produced classic hits such as “Brown Eyed Girl.” “Gloria” and “Moondance,” revealed Friday that he is releasing three protest songs that call for the restrictions on routine activities to be lifted. In ‘No More Lockdown,’ the Northern Irishman says the curbs “enslave” people, effectively labels the British government as “fascist bullies,” condemns celebrities for “telling us what we are supposed to feel” and charges scientists for “making up crooked facts.” “I’m not telling people what to do or think. The government is doing a great job of that already,” Morrison said. “It’s about freedom of choice, I believe people should have the right to think for themselves.” Morrison, who was knighted in 2016 for his services to music and to tourism in Northern Ireland, is also releasing ‘“Born To Be Free” and “As I Walked Out.” The former is due to be released on Sept. 25, followed by the other two songs a month later.

Couple marks 85th anniversary

OMAHA, Neb. — Ralph and Dorothy Kohler are celebrating their wedding anniversary — for the 85th time. WOWT-TV reports that he was just 17 and she was 16 when they tied the knot on Sept. 17, 1935, at the Burt County Courthouse in Tekamah, Nebraska. “Everybody said it would never last,” Ralph said. Ralph credits longevity in life and marriage to healthy habits — neither of them has ever drank alcohol or smoked. “I cooked, and he liked to eat,” Dorothy said. Each grew to enjoy their spouse’s passions. Ralph took up ballroom dancing and Dorothy took up shooting clay targets. To say she took it up sells her short. Dorothy became a trap shooting national champion in 1952.

Virus shrinks vote monitoring

Europe’s largest security organization said Friday that it has drastically scaled back plans to send as many as 500 observers to the U.S. to monitor the Nov. 3 presidential election and now will deploy just 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — which has observed U.S. elections since 2002 but is better known for monitoring voting in countries such as Belarus or Kyrgyzstan — has spent months trying to figure out how to safely keep tabs on an election it worries will be “the most challenging in recent decades” as Americans pick a president in the throes of a global health crisis. The use of mail-in voting is expected to increase in many states this year, with voters seeing that as a safer alternative to casting ballots in-person during the pandemic. Although President Donald Trump has claimed that an increase in mail ballots could lead to a rigged election, there has been no evidence of widespread fraud involving voting by mail in the U.S. The OSCE’s mission originally was to have involved 100 long-term and 400 short-term observers to the U.S. starting this month, but health concerns and restrictions on travel prompted the Vienna-based organization to pare that back to 30 observers. Suddenly, what was going to be Europe’s largest-scale U.S. election monitoring effort ever has become one of its smallest. The OSCE sent 49 observers for the 2018 midterms and about 400 for the 2016 presidential election.

Firefighter dies, gender reveal fire

LOS ANGELES — A firefighter died battling a wildfire in California that officials said was sparked by a device used to reveal a baby’s gender. The death happened Thursday in the San Bernardino National Forest as crews battled the El Dorado Fire. The fire erupted earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby’s gender. The name of the firefighter was being withheld until family members are notified. The device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to extinguish the flames and called 911.

Thousands still without power

LOXLEY, Ala. — Hundreds of thousands of people were still without power Friday along the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally as officials assessed millions of dollars in damage that included a broken bridge in Pensacola and ships thrown onto dry land. While the cleanup pressed on, the record-shattering hurricane season notched another milestone: Forecasters ran out of traditional names for storms after three new systems formed in about six hours. That forced them to begin using the Greek alphabet for only the second time since the 1950s. In Loxley, Alabama, Catherine Williams lost power and some of her roof to Sally. The storm also destroyed three pecan trees in her yard that she used to try to make ends meet. “There’s no food, no money. I took my last heart pill today,” said Williams, who has been laid off twice from her job as a cook because of the economic problems caused by COVID-19. She hoped that the Red Cross would soon show up at her home. Two people in Alabama were reported killed — a drowning and a death during the cleanup in Baldwin County. In Florida, authorities were looking for a missing kayaker who was feared dead in Escambia County. The supercharged Atlantic hurricane season has produced so many named storms that scientists ran out of traditional names as Tropical Storm Wilfred developed in the eastern Atlantic. It was only the second time that has happened since forecasters standardized the naming system in 1953. Wilfred was weak and far from land. Two hours after Wilfred took shape, the National Hurricane Center moved to the Greek alphabet when Subtropical Storm Alpha formed just off the coast of Portugal. It was followed later in the day by Tropical Storm Beta, which formed in the western Gulf of Mexico. The same practice will govern storm names for the rest of hurricane season, which lasts until the end of November. The only other time the hurricane center dipped into the Greek alphabet was the deadly 2005 hurricane season, which included Hurricane Katrina’s strike on New Orleans.

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