From happy-go-lucky, gregarious soldier to purposeful cop killer: Micah’s journey

DALLAS (AP) — He was disarmed in the middle of a war zone and placed under 24-hour escort. The most humiliating part was that everyone in Micah Johnson’s unit in Afghanistan knew why: He was accused of stealing a female soldier’s panties.

Johnson’s aspirations to a military career were over. Now he faced removal from the Army. The well-liked, easygoing young black man whose friendships were described as colorblind was suddenly deeply shamed and ostracized.

People who knew him, both before and after, say he was never the same.

 Authorities have described Johnson as a loner who shot and killed five officers in downtown Dallas during last week’s peaceful protest over police shootings nationwide. President Barack Obama, at a memorial for the victims, called him “demented.”
But in multiple interviews with The Associated Press, the Mississippi-born, Texas-bred 25-year-old was remembered by friends, comrades and acquaintances as a gregarious, even “goofy” extrovert.

Johnson wasn’t the best marksman, a fellow Army Reserve buddy recalled, and his former squad leader described him as less than motivated during training. But in Dallas, he showed striking tactical effectiveness, video from the scene shows. He moved stealthily, used columns for cover and swiveled his head to watch corners for threats.

Such was his skill that police initially thought they were taking fire from multiple snipers.

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Climate change, runaway development worsen Houston floods

By FRANK BAJAK and SETH BORENSTEIN

HOUSTON (AP) — With clay soil and tabletop-flat terrain, Houston has endured flooding for generations. Its 1,700 miles of man-made channels struggle to dispatch storm runoff to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the nation’s fourth-largest city is being overwhelmed with more frequent and more destructive floods. The latest calamity occurred April 18, killing eight people and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. The worsening floods aren’t simple acts of nature or just costly local concerns. Federal taxpayers get soaked too.

Extreme downpours have doubled in frequency over the past three decades, climatologists say, in part because of global warming. The other main culprit is unrestrained development in the only major U.S. city without zoning rules. That combination means more pavement and deeper floodwaters. Critics blame cozy relations between developers and local leaders for inadequate flood-protection measures.

An Associated Press analysis of government data found that if Harris County, which includes Houston, were a state it would rank in the top five or six in every category of repeat federal flood losses — defined as any property with two or more losses in a 10-year period amounting to at least $1,000 each.

Since 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid more than $3 billion in today’s dollars for flood losses in metropolitan Houston.

While repeat federal flood relief payouts average about $3,000 per square mile nationally, they are nearly half a million dollars per square mile in metro Houston. Six of Texas’ eight federally declared disasters since December 2013 included floods.

houston repeat flood loss graphic

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Reward for ‘hero’ cop in Peru’s drug war: Neglect

By FRANK BAJAK

TALAVERA, Peru (AP) — Johnny Vega rarely carried his 9-mm pistol when he wasn’t on duty. He wishes he had that day.

The narcotics cop was chatting with a friend on a park bench, the Andean sun burning the dawn’s chill off this highlands town nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

 On that morning of Aug. 20, 2014, Vega had dropped his son Juan at nursery school and then walked to Talavera’s main square. He noticed a tall young man strolling by and wondered if he knew him.

Vega was a rarity in this nation where cops, courts and congress are badly compromised by corruption . An earnest provincial narcotics officer, he had made a career of actually doing what he was trained for: locking up criminals.

Defying death threats from narcos, he led a hand-picked team of trusted officers who consistently scored trafficker arrests and record drug seizures even as Peru became the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. In a country where police are as likely to take bribes as to make arrests, Vega was a hero. Three times, he had been named police officer of the year.

In this March 30, 2015 photo, narcotics police Sgt. Johnny Vega, poses for a portrait in Lima, Peru. Vega, 46, was shot during an attempt on his life in 2014 in what police called payback for taking down the region's biggest drug gang. He remains disabled and is struggling to mend. If he doesn't by August, he will be forced to retire. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 Vega was deep in conversation when the young man walked by again, stopped and leveled a silencer-equipped Bersa at the cop’s head.

“What are you doing, dammit!” Vega shouted, jumping to his feet. The bullet ripped into him just below his solar plexus. Without hesitating, he dashed for a nearby taxi stand, leaning forward and zig-zagging to make himself a smaller target.

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A year in digital insecurity – nothing, and no one is safe

I have a relative who has been terrified of the Internet for years. Two decades ago, he was a heavy CompuServe user. Now, he only goes online at the library. But even he can’t escape. The Internet is everywhere now. It is in cars, on TV. It connects to medical devices, to toys (Barbie). It flies on airplanes, touches the power grid.

Andy Greenberg’s automobile-hacking crash-test dummy piece gets my nod as cybersecurity story of 2015.

Credit: Andy Greenberg

In reviewing the past year’s top cybersecurity stories, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai said 2015 proved that nothing, and no one, is really safe from hackers.” Children were not spared (Vtech). Nor were corporate hackers (Hacking Team).  Customers of 55 U.S. health care providers were hacked, the biggest Anthem, which did not encrypt social security numbers.

Journalists and political dissidents were targeted, of course. Citizen Lab’s sleuths and the AP uncovered a South American cyber-espionage operation with all the hallmarks of state sponsorship.

Kim Zetter at Wired predicts more hacker shakedowns, break-ins in which attackers extort victims, threatening to publish pilfered data. Brian Krebs, who broke the Ashley Madison hack story, noted the opportunistic extortions that followed. (Hollywood was still smarting from the Sony hack, and celebrities led by Jennifer Lawrence are surely thinking twice now about storing nude photos on iCloud).

The proliferation of ransomware _ which holds data hostage _ is scary enough. Zetter anticipates a growing threat of cyber-attacks that compromise the integrity of data. The Stuxnet hack, of course, did so much more than that, and a robot last year killed a human at a Volkswagen plant in Germany, violating Asimov’s first law of robotics. Ted Koppel, meanwhile, sounded the alarm on the threat a cyber-attack could pose to the U.S. power grid. Ukraine’s grid was hit in December in what security researchers called the first known hacker-caused outage.

The year’s biggest hack was of the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management. It exposed sensitive personal information from job applications, including of intelligence and military employees with security clearances. In all, 21.5 million people were potentially affected, 5.6 million sets of fingerprints obtained. The authors were Chinese, though Beijing claimed the hack was NOT state-sponsored. They told U.S. officials the culprits were arrested, @nakashimae reported, but provided no further information.

The U.S. government has not proven itself an trustworthy bearer of data; protection efforts fall short.

On the cusp of Christmas, a major vulnerability was announced. Juniper Networks found two unauthorized backdoors in its NetScreen firewalls that would allow “a knowledgeable attacker” to gain access to encrypted traffic on virtual private networks. Major U.S. corporations, banks, universities and government agencies were affected. A looming question in this unsolved mystery is whether the GCHQ (and by extension the NSA) had a role in creating the vulnerabilities.  Backdoors are exactly what U.S. and U.K. law enforcement want as theoretical tools against terrorism.

Silicon Valley has resisted the idea, and rightly so. Tim Cook of Apple emerged as its most passionate, articulate voice on how encryption and digital privacy are essential to our First Amendment rights and should not be sacrificed to satisfy the Department of Homeland Security.

“If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it,” Cook said in June.  Tim CookWeakening encryption makes no sense, he said. “The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available.”

So all the 2015 security news isn’t bad, after all.

South America hacker team targets dissidents, journalists

By FRANK BAJAK

LIMA, Peru (AP) — A shadowy cyber-espionage group that sent malware to the prosecutor whose mysterious death transfixed Argentina early this year has been hitting targets in left-leaning nations across South America, the Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported Wednesday.

The breadth and brazenness of the hackers’ activity bear the hallmarks of state sponsorship. So do its targets.

The group has been attacking opposition figures and independent journalists in Ecuador with spyware. It also ran dummy websites. The most elaborate, geared toward Venezuela, is a constantly updated news site featuring dubiously sourced “scoops” on purported corruption among the ruling socialists. In Ecuador, a similarly faux site seemed tailored to attract disgruntled police officers.

The researchers launched the three-month probe after determining that spyware found on the smartphone of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was written to send pilfered data to the same command-and-control structure as malware sent to targets infected in Ecuador. They said the hackers had a “keen and systematic interest in the political opposition and the independent press” in the three nations, all run by allied left-wing governments. That suggests it may have operated on behalf of one or more of those governments, the 60-page report said.

In September, the hackers threatened a Citizen Lab researcher as he poked around in a U.S.-based machine the group had infected.

“We’re going to analyze your brain with a bullet — and your family’s, too,” read a message that popped up on his computer screen. “You like playing the spy and going where you shouldn’t, well you should know that it has a cost — your life!”

That’s rare behavior among professional hackers, perhaps indicating little fear of criminal prosecution, said Morgan Marquis-Boire, one of the researchers.

In November, the group attempted to infect the computer of an Associated Press reporter, who was also investigating it, with a phishing attack aimed at stealing his Google password.

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A week after AP’s Peru drug investigation published, a landmark arrest

Eight days after we published my investigation on how more than a ton of cocaine was being flown daily out of the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley right under the Peruvian military’s nose, we have a significant development.

For the first time in more than a decade, an officer of Peru’s armed forces has been arrested for drug trafficking.  An army lieutenant, he had worked in the valley for eight years and collected bribes of $10,000 per flight that likely were shared with his superiors, the prosecutor told me. That’s the same sum that an accused narco pilot had told me local military commanders got per plane.

blowing-up-airstriMy months of reporting were now being substantiated by events. Intercepted phone conversations made it clear that Lt. Wilmer Eduardo Delgado Ruiz was the bag man. Or rather his wife was, as the money was transferred into her account.

Former Peruvian army Maj. Evaristo Castillo, who blew the whistle on military drug trafficking in the 1990s, says drug corruption is _ as it was then _ systematic in the military, as top to bottom as the command structure.

One arrest is no guarantee of a housecleaning. Just ask Castillo. None of the generals he publicly denounced for drug trafficking was ever convicted of it, he told me. Castillo’s military career was wrecked because he blew the whistle, was disloyal. He spent seven years in exile. And, as one of his four sons (also Evaristo), told me, their hopes of following their father into the service were also extinguished.

 

 

 

 

 

Peru announces probe after AP drug plane report

MAZAMARI, Peru — Peru’s defense minister has announced an investigation into possible drug-related military corruption following an Associated Press report that Peru’s armed forces were turning a blind eye to daily drug flights to Bolivia.

The official, Jakke Valakivi, said Wednesday evening that the Defense Ministry and the joint armed forces command would jointly conduct the probe.

blowing-up-airstri

Peru’s armed forces have failed to effectively impede the ferrying of more than a ton of cocaine a day to Bolivia from the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley, traffic that has picked up in recent years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.

In part because of that nearly unhindered air bridge from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world’s top cocaine exporter.

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Narco planes fly past Peru military unhindered

By Frank Bajak

MAZAMARI, Peru — It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.

Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.

Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.

peru-drug-airstrips

Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the armed services control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”

An Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with partially refined cocaine at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.

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The Disappearing Mississippi Delta – A Preservationist’s Tour

Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary is upon us and much attention is being paid to rebuilding and recovery. A bigger question is how much longer New Orleans and the disappearing lands around it will last. A great river delta is dying. (See my AP colleague Cain Burdeau’s fine feature from Delacroix). Richie Blink, a local boat captain, lives to save it.

Of the 55 classmates who graduated from his Plaquemines Parish high school in 2005 with Richie Blink only about a half dozen stuck around. Blink tried moving to Baton Rouge, where he worked at the airport and got his pilot’s license, but the land drew him back. What’s left of the land, that is.

Blink won’t quit on the Mississippi River Delta, which is disappearing at the rate of a football field an hour in what some have called the Western Hemisphere’s biggest environmental disaster after the deforestation of the Amazon.

He’s lobbying and cajoling to broaden coastal restoration projects and save the delta from the seeming death sentence rendered by human activity. (View ProPublica project Losing Ground)

One goal is to rebuild a 50-mile buffer against ocean storm surges that has been erased in a single human lifetime, a buffer that might have eased the hurt to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.

Mostly open bay just over the levee that shields the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico

 

Blink sets off from the wharf at Buras _ where Katrina made landfall _ in a fisherman’s skiff into a mostly open bay with sparse clumps of marsh grass.

We’re 70 miles southeast of New Orleans on the right bank of the Mississippi. This is the sliver of land, sheltered on both sides by 20-foot-high levees, that those who remain inhabit. Rebuilt homes on the peninsula _ including the high school _ are raised on piles driven deep into sandy soil.

Blink shows us where engineers have built an “oyster break” in the shallow water by the wharf. It’s a concrete honeycomb designed to help rejuvenate the oyster population .

He opens up the throttle and the boat slides through heavily brackish water.

“When I was a kid, this was all little bayous, meandering streams. I spent a lot of time here,” he says.

Shrimp boat in mostly barren salt marsh

 

We pass a working shrimp boat and an old abandoned fishing camp on stilts.

A little more than a decade ago, the place was crawling with alligators and other wildlife, a teeming coastal swamp. Now, the Gulf of Mexico is in charge.

Man-made berm on the Gulf of Mexico side

 

We pull up to a barrier being built by barges that dredge the bottom and hurl muck over the berm. This is land-building. And it’s expensive.

The government has spent $300 million building a barrier a few miles away across more than 30 miles of coastal islands fronting the gulf.

It’s six feet high in some places.

But it’s not holding back the tide. Sea levels are on the rise with global warming. But that’s the least of it.

The reason the Mississippi Delta has been sinking by much as a meter a century is human engineering. It’s part of the reason half of New Orleans is now below sea level.

By stringing levees up and down the length of the Mississippi to protect homes and businesses from flooding, we have robbed the great river of vigor, diminishing the flow of silt that, since the last ice age ended 7,000 years ago, made the delta. Once meandering, the river is now straight-jacketed. Successful river control has degraded coastal wetlands.

The greatest flood danger now comes not from the Mississippi but the ocean, as Katrina proved.

Worsening matters, the energy industry has since the 1930s dug some 20,000 miles of canals in the delta to extract oil and natural gas and service pumping operations.

Add to that as aggravating factor the introduction of an invasive South American rodent, the nutria. It devours root systems _ yet another coastal erosion engine at work.

The toe of the boot that is Louisiana is wasting away. The physical version we know from maps is no longer true. The boot is not solid. It is gossamer.

“This is the dying side of the river,” says Blink. We head back to the marina. Blink runs the skiff up on its trailer.

It’s time to head over to the Mississippi and drop in there. We’ve done the bad news piece of our vanishing coastline tour.

___

Buras, Louisiana

 

Blink works as Coastal Zone Program Manager for Plaquemines Parish. He ensures coastal restoration projects are built as designed. The job dovetails with his passion of fighting to preserve a peninsula that four in five residents abandoned after Katrina.

Blink sits on the parish’s Coastal Zone Advisory Committee and is active in the Louisiana Lost Lands Foundation that Pulitzer-winning journalist Bob Marshall and his wife Marie Gould created.

They run educational tours of these wetlands in kayaks. And Blink plants cypress trees, well over 10,000 to date, to fight the ravages of sinking soils and salt water seepage.

___

We cross the Mississippi to its left bank, what Blink calls the bank of hope.

Mississippi River lock, left bank, Buras, Louisiana

 

A few locks separate the river here from marshlands and estuaries to the northeast.

But there are also breaches, crevasses they’re called. We drop down one, the boat swirling in a churning whirlpool.

Below a crevasse, fresh water spills into a healthy tidal marsh

 

Soon, we are motoring through true tidal marsh. We hear songbirds, see fish jump. Marsh grass, cattails and lotus pods abound. A farmer still grazes cattle on land above one bayou.

Blink navigates into a narrow channel where grass gets caught in the outboard’s propeller.

He is taking us to a cemetery whose graves _ several score _ date back to the 1830s. The most recent is from 1976 and relatives still tend it, cutting the grass and even bringing flowers from time to time.

Video: Disappearing Tombs

Point Pleasant cemetery

 

Blink does his best not to get too heartsick. But he has no illusions.

Stacked up against the coastal reconstruction campaign he champions are an influential lot: oyster and shrimp fishermen, the oil and gas industry.

He realizes that he and others who are bound sentimentally to the disappearing delta and are trying to turn back the rising tide will most likely have to settle, if they want to stick around, for what climate scientists call adaptation.

“Either your house will be on stilts,” he says, “or on an earthen mound.”

Gaming Twitter – Measuring how Venezuela’s rulers marshal bots

Quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work went into Hannah Dreier’s story on how Venezuela’s ruling party, having successfully squelched most independent voices in traditional media, uses automated robot accounts on Twitter to try to dominate political discourse online.

We started with a few scripts (computer programlets) written for us by a Twitter programmer who wishes to remain anonymous. They were used to passively identify the bots that instantly retweet hashtags issued by various state- and party-run accounts. Hannah then passed the scripts along to three academic groups, who also used programs of their own.

_A Northeastern University PhD candidate, working under the supervision of an MIT adviser.
_The University of Washington’s politicalbots.org team. It did it’s own research, “Political Bots and the Manipulation of Public Opinion in Venezuela”
_The Data Science lab at Utah State.

Takis Metaxis on the twittertrails.com project also helped. Their results here.

And we checked in with Emilio Ferrara, part of the team at the “Truthy” project that created “Bot or Not.” – I recommend “The Rise of Social Bots”

Here is a partial image of what one script identified as bots:  TwitterBots