Dalton’s aim: Put the big play back in Bengals’ offense

By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) — Bill Lazor’s statistical study of the Bengals’ offense during the offseason left him feeling the same as he did on all those discouraging game days. The numbers confirmed what his eyes had seen so many times.
Some mighty small numbers filled up the columns measuring big plays. The Bengals were one of the most inept teams in the league at getting the ball downfield, the main factor in a second straight losing season.
“Statistically, it looks just like it felt,” the Bengals’ offensive coordinator said. “You were there.”
The main emphasis in Lazor’s overhaul of the offense has been finding ways to get big plays out of an offense that finished last in total yards and near the bottom in big plays as well. It all begins with Andy Dalton, who is coming off one of his least-effective seasons.
The eighth-year quarterback completed 69.9 percent of his passes and averaged 6.69 yards per attempt, both figures his worst since his rookie season. Dalton repeatedly was off-target on long passes. He also was under constant pressure, which limited the time for receivers to get open downfield and contributed to the lack of long passes.
“This group’s been one of the best groups in the NFL — since Andy came into the league — on vertical passes,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “And we weren’t very good. So that alone is the first thing.”
The 2015 season was Dalton’s best as he worked behind a veteran line. The Bengals had 63 pass plays of at least 20 yards, nine shy of the league high shared by the Saints and Jaguars. Last season, they managed only 34 such plays, a huge decline. The Saints led the league with 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
The passing game wasn’t the only failed area. The Bengals’ longest run was only 25 yards, the worst in the league.
Injuries played a role. Tight end Tyler Eifert hurt his back in the second game and was out for the rest of the season. Top draft pick John Ross was severely limited by two shoulder injuries and didn’t catch a pass.
By contrast, every part of the offense — receivers, tight ends, running backs — provided game-turning plays in 2015.
“Guys did a good job of making tough, contested catches,” Dalton said. “I was being accurate with the ball, and guys were catching and running. I think there were probably some broken tackles in the run game and different things. It’s a big thing we want to do.”
The Bengals failed to score a touchdown in their first two games last season and fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. Lazor took over as an interim coordinator, got the job after the season, and was given a lot of latitude to reinvent the offense.
The new playbook provides many opportunities to try for a big play.
“It’s not on everything, but there’s definitely chances to take shots down the field,” Dalton said.
The Bengals traded with the Bills for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafted center Billy Price in the first round as part of their line overhaul. Ross is back and making impressive plays during camp. Eifert signed a one-year deal and was cleared to practice on Monday.
There was no thought of bringing in someone to challenge Dalton, who has the backing of Lewis and owner Mike Brown. They’re hoping a solid line will give Dalton the time he needs to perform more like he did in 2015.
“When Andy came to us in 2011 up to now, our winning percentage is eighth in the league,” said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel. “We’re confident in him leading our team. We have to be better in front of him than last year. We’ve got to put a better run game with him.
“We feel like we’ve got weapons on the outside and he should be in the prime of his career, so he’s going to have to lead the charge.”

Phillies get All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos from Rays

BOSTON (AP) — The NL East-leading Philadelphia Phillies have acquired All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos from the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named or cash.
Ramos is batting .297 with 14 homers and 53 RBIs but is on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain. He’ll upgrade an offense that has struggled during a four-game losing streak.
Ramos, who turns 31 next month, has a $10.5 million salary, and the Phillies will be responsible for the remaining $3,443,548. He has 315 plate appearances and can earn $250,000 each for 450, 475 and 500.
He is eligible for free agency after the World Series.
Jorge Alfaro has been Philadelphia’s starting catcher with Andrew Knapp also seeing plenty of action. They’ve combined for 16 errors and 13 passed balls.

Pirates bolster rotation, add Tampa Bay’s Archer at deadline

By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The surging Pittsburgh Pirates are intent on making a run at a playoff spot.
The Pirates bolstered the front end of their rotation at the non-waiver deadline on Tuesday, adding Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer while sending the Rays a couple of coveted prospects in outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow and a player to be named.
Archer, a two-time All-Star, is 3-5 with a 4.31 ERA in 17 starts this season for the Rays. The 29-year-old gives the Pirates a significant jolt in experience in a rotation that includes three starters __ Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove __ 26 or younger.
The move is the second significant trade by the Pirates ahead of the non-waiver deadline. Pittsburgh acquired Texas Rangers closer Keone Kela early Tuesday for left-handed pitching prospect Taylor Hearn and a player to be named. The trades came at the end of a torrid 15-4 run by the club that pulled Pittsburgh within 3½ games of a wild-card spot heading into a two-game set with the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs.
Pittsburgh, which was the only team to not sign a free agent during the offseason despite parting with established stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, assumes the remaining $2,049,731 in Archer’s $6.25 million salary.
Archer receives a $500,000 assignment bonus for the trade. His deal includes a $7.5 million salary for 2019, a $9 million team option for 2020 with a $1.75 million buyout and an $11 million club option for 2021 with a $250,000 buyout.
The Pirates, who have been reluctant to part with young prospects in recent years at the deadline, gave up a pair of promising talents in Meadows and Glasnow.
Meadows, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, hit .292 with five home runs and 13 RBIs in 49 for the Pirates after making his major league debut on May 17. The 24-year-old Glasnow dominated as a starter in the minors but struggled as a starter during his first season-plus in Pittsburgh, going 2-7 with a 7.69 ERA in 15 games (13 starts) in 2017.
The Pirates moved Glasnow to the bullpen this season with better results. The 6-foot-8 right-hander is 1-2 with a 4.34 ERA in 34 appearances.

IS claims Tajikistan attack that killed 4 foreign cyclists

By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a car-and-knife attack on Western tourists cycling in Tajikistan that killed two Americans and two Europeans.
Officials in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation didn’t publicly address the IS claim and instead blamed the Sunday attack on a banned local Islamist group. The young men featured in an IS-linked video resembled the individuals that Tajik authorities identified as attack suspects who were later killed by police.
The Islamic State group said in a statement late Monday that several of its soldiers attacked the “citizens of the Crusader coalition.”
The four tourists were killed when a car rammed into a group of foreigners on bicycles south of the capital of Dushanbe, Tajik officials have said. The driver and the passengers then got out and attacked the cyclists with knives.
Two of the victims were American, one was Swiss and the fourth was from the Netherlands, foreign and Tajik officials said. The three people injured included a woman from Switzerland.
A video posted on an IS-linked website Tuesday shows five men sitting on a hill against the backdrop of a black-and-white IS flag and declaring allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The men say they’re from Tajikistan and pledge to slaughter disbelievers in the name of Allah. A note accompanying the video said the men took part in the weekend attack.
Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry posted photos Tuesday of what it said were the bodies of four suspected attackers lying dead in a field. Three of the men resemble ones in the IS video.
It blamed the attack on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a local party banned several years ago for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Tajikistan, an impoverished, predominantly Muslim nation of some 8 million people, was devastated by a 5-year civil war with Islamist-inspired rebel forces that ended in 1997.
Alarmed by the rise of the Islamic State group in recent years, Tajik authorities have clamped down on behavior and traditions associated with Islam, regulating how people dress and behave at funerals and ordering men to shave their beards. Critics say the restrictions could help radicalize secular Muslims.

Animals, crops and people all suffer amid Europe’s heatwave

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER, Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — The heatwave gripping large stretches of Europe has already been blamed for deadly forest fires and crop failures. Now freshwater fish could be its next victims.
Some regions in Germany sweltered as the mercury hit 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) and the German Meteorological Office said the country’s record of 40.3 Celsius (104.5 Fahrenheit) could be topped Tuesday.
Rivers like the Rhine and the Elbe have soaked up so much heat that fish are beginning to suffocate.
“I’m expecting a tragedy as soon as next week,” Philipp Sicher from the Swiss Fishery Association told German news agency dpa.
In Hamburg, authorities collected almost five metric tons (11,000 pounds) of dead fish from ponds over the weekend, dpa reported. Firefighters have started pumping fresh water into some ponds and lakes in a bid to raise oxygen levels.
Scientists say the record heat seen in Europe but also North America and parts of Asia this year points to the influence of man-made climate change and could become more common in future.
Several of Germany’s nuclear power stations are reducing energy output because rivers used to cool the power plants are too warm.
The low water levels have also made shipping more difficult, with a complete ban imposed on boats on the Oder river in eastern Germany.
Meanwhile, the country’s Farmer’s Association is asking the government for 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) in financial aid to help cover losses from this year’s poor harvest.
Association president Joachim Rukwied said German farmers expect the grain harvest to be 20 percent smaller than last year, with rapeseed crops down 30 percent, as it has barely rained during the past 12 weeks, dpa reported.
A group representing potato farmers said they’re expecting harvests to be 25 percent smaller than last year and warned that the losses may lead not only to more expensive but also shorter French fries — because the spuds are so small this year.
The oceans, too, have been affected.
Authorities in Poland last week banned swimming at over 50 beaches along its Baltic Sea coast, after hot weather led to the growth of toxic bacteria in the unusually warm sea. Water temperatures in the Baltic Sea exceeded 23 C (73.4 F) in some places. Emergency water rescuers told vacationers on hot, sandy beaches — from Swinoujscie in the west to Gdynia in the east — not to enter the sea, where thick, green-brown cyanobacteria colonies have grown and pose a health threat.
Police in western Germany, meanwhile, rushed to where callers overnight reported hearing frantic screaming from a woman — but it turned out that a hospital had opened its windows because of the heat and several women there were in labor.
Police dogs in the Swiss city of Zurich have been getting special shoes to prevent them from burning their paws on the scorching streets. Swiss authorities have also cancelled traditional fireworks displays in some areas during Wednesday’s national holiday celebrations, citing the high risk of forest fires.
Across Europe, forest fires have already caused major damage. On July 23, at least 91 people died in a wildfire in Greece — the deadliest in Europe for decades.
Temperatures of up to 45 C (113 F) are forecast for Spain and Portugal from Wednesday and authorities are preparing for the mercury to climb even higher through Sunday, increasing the risk of emergencies.
In Spain, 27 of the country’s 50 provinces are at “extreme risk” from heat beginning Thursday, the national weather agency said. In neighboring Portugal, the General Directorate for Health warned about dust blowing in from North Africa and authorities said almost 11,000 firefighters and 56 aircraft are on standby to tackle forest fires.
On the other side of the continent, Banak peninsula in northern Norway reported temperatures Monday of 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 Fahrenheit) — highly unusual for the Arctic Circle.
Some are benefiting from the simmering heat.
Beer brewers in Germany have seen sales rise 0.6 percent, or 300,000 hectoliters (7.92 million gallons), in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period last year.
“Especially the alcohol-free types are currently very much sought after,” said Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, from the German Brewer-Association.
In Denmark, where the Meteorological Institute reported that the month of July has been the sunniest since they started recording data in 1920, sales of alcoholic beverages dropped in favor of non-alcoholic beers, sodas and white wine, the country’s TV2 reported.
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Frank Jordans in Berlin; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.

Zimbabwe says election is clean; opposition is skeptical

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and FARAI MUTSAKA, Associated Press
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s election took an uneasy turn Tuesday when the opposition alleged results were not posted outside one-fifth of polling stations as required by law, and the electoral commission said the impatient nation would have to wait longer to learn who will be its next president.
The government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, meanwhile, suggested the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and his supporters were inciting “violence” by declaring he had won Monday’s election even though only a few parliamentary returns have been announced.
“Let me also warn such individuals and groups that no one is above the law,” Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu said. Security forces “will remain on high alert and continue to monitor the security situation in the country.”
Zimbabweans desperately hope Monday’s peaceful vote will lift them out of economic and political stagnation after decades of Robert Mugabe’s rule, but the country is haunted by a history of electoral violence and manipulation that means trust is scarce, despite today’s freer environment.
While the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has five days from the end of voting to release the final tally, the national mood is growing anxious partly because unofficial results are already swirling on social media.
Dozens of opposition supporters even gathered at their headquarters in the capital, Harare, celebrating in the belief that they had won the presidential election based on results they said they collected from agents in the field. As they danced to music blasting from speakers set up on a truck, police with water cannon circulated in the area.
There was no confrontation, but even the possibility of it was an unnerving reminder of the tensions that pervade the southern African nation, debilitated by Mugabe’s long rule. The 94-year-old former leader had been in power since independence from white minority rule in 1980 until he was forced to resign in November after the military and ruling ZANU-PF party turned on him.
Mnangagwa, a former deputy president who fell out with Mugabe and then took over from him, has said his showing in the presidential polls was “extremely positive” while urging people to wait for official results.
Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, has gone further, saying his own count shows that he won the election and that he’s ready to form the next government.
Chamisa’s party also said results have not been posted outside 21 percent of the country’s nearly 11,000 polling stations, raising concerns about possible vote-rigging. It suggested there was a deliberate effort to delay announcing the results, reflecting deep suspicion about the panel presiding over the election.
Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who heads the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, said she was confident there had been no “cheating” in the first election without Mugabe on the ballot. Each polling station must post its results outside after vote-counting, she said.
“We will not steal their choice of leaders, we will not subvert their will,” Chigumba said.
“The atmosphere has remained peaceful” and the commission has not received any major complaints about the election, she said.
The commission said it would delay releasing any results of the presidential race until all the votes are collated. So far, it has announced the results of seven out of 210 parliamentary races, six of which went to the ruling party.
If no presidential candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Sept. 8.
More than 5.5 million people were registered to vote in an election featuring a record number of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties.
Western election observers were in Zimbabwe, a sign of a freer political environment since the resignation of Mugabe, who declared he would not vote for the ruling party he long controlled and called Chamisa the only viable candidate.
Meanwhile, a monitoring group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, issued preliminary findings on the vote, noting improvements such as a biometric registration system that reduced the chances of fraud.
However, it noted problems with implementation, saying the election commission at one point allotted more registration kits to rural areas and fewer to urban areas. The ruling party has strong rural support, while the opposition is popular in the cities.
Elmar Brok, head of the European Union monitoring mission, said Tuesday that his team noted some “inconsistencies” but that overall there was “progress” compared to past elections.
“In African elections, often stakes are very high and nobody has a backup plan for losing,” said John Dramani Mahama, former president of Ghana and head of the observer mission from the Commonwealth nations, mostly former British colonies.
The contenders in Zimbabwe’s vote must accept the results and “should look at the larger picture of success, a successful election for Zimbabwe,” he said.
A voter in Harare said Zimbabwe is eager to hear the election results as soon as possible.
“Because people are not yet settled, they’re thinking of too many things,” said 65-year-old Chaka Nyuka. “They need a good change. People are looking for that.”
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Follow Africa news at https://twitter.com/AP_Africa

Bodies of 76 killed in deadly Greek wildfires identified

By ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The bodies of 76 people killed by Greece’s deadliest wildfire in decades have been identified, authorities said Tuesday, as forensic experts kept working to identify more remains recovered from the charred resort area.
Separately, the coast guard said Tuesday it had recovered the body of a woman from the sea in the Saronic Gulf south of Athens, many miles away from the site of the July 23 blaze. The body had not been identified and it was unclear whether it was related to the deadly wildfire that devastated the seaside resort of Mati northeast of Athens.
Coast guard special operations divers recovered another body Monday from waters off the coast of the fire area, believed to be someone who drowned in their effort to escape the flames. Identification of that body was pending.
During the blaze, hundreds of people fled to beaches, and many were forced to swim out to sea to escape the flames and choking smoke. A massive search operation involving ship and divers looking for more fire victims in the water is continuing near the fire zone.
At least 91 people are believed to have died in the blaze, but confusion surrounds the exact death toll.
On Sunday, the fire department said 59 bodies had been identified, while the identification procedure was pending for another 28. A further four people died of their injuries in hospitals.
However, the fire department explained Tuesday that coroners found some bodies were so badly burned that some body bags contained the remains of more than one person. The intensity of the heat during the fire was such that it even melted metal.
That has led the fire department to stop issuing information about the number of bodies believed to have been recovered, changing instead to relating the number of identified victims.
A list of people officially registered as unaccounted from the fire for stood at 8.
Fanned by gale-force winds, the blaze raced through seaside resorts that are a mixture of permanent residences and holiday homes for those living in the capital of Athens.
The high death toll has prompted strong criticism of the Greek government for not preparing enough for this year’s fire season. The Mati area lacked good evacuation access roads, warning systems and other civil protection measures even though it was a residential area surrounded by forest and at high risk of wildfires.

US Vatican cardinal: “Not once did I even suspect” McCarrick

By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY (AP) — The highest-ranking American at the Vatican insisted Tuesday he never knew or even suspected that his former boss, disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused boys and adult seminarians, telling The Associated Press he is livid that he was kept in the dark because he would have done something about it.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s family and laity office, spoke as the U.S. church hierarchy has come under fire from ordinary American Catholics outraged that McCarrick’s misconduct with men was apparently an open secret in some U.S. church circles.
Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation as cardinal on Saturday and ordered him to live a lifetime of penance and prayer pending the outcome of a canonical trial.
In an open letter Tuesday, a contributor to the conservative Catholic magazine First Things urged Catholics to withhold diocesan donations to the U.S. church until an independent investigation determines which U.S. bishops knew about McCarrick’s misdeeds — a “nuclear option” aimed at making the laity’s sense of betrayal heard and felt.
Some of that outrage has been directed at Farrell, who was consecrated as a bishop by McCarrick in 2001 and served as his vicar general in the archdiocese of Washington until McCarrick’s 2006 retirement. Some Catholic commentators have speculated that Farrell must have at least heard the rumors that Catholic laity, students and professors at Catholic University in Washington and even some journalists had heard.
Farrell lived with McCarrick and other priests and bishops in a converted school building off Dupont Circle that serves as a residence for Washington clergy. But Farrell said he never heard any rumors about his boss’ penchant for young men, or suspected anything, and was not McCarrick’s roommate, as some bloggers have claimed.
“That might be hard for somebody to believe, but if that’s the only thing on your mind, well then you’ll focus on that. I was focused on running the archdiocese. What Cardinal McCarrick was doing here, there and everywhere and all over the world, didn’t enter into my daily routine of running the archdiocese of Washington,” he said.
“At no time did anyone ever approach me and tell me. And I was approached by over 70 victims of abuse from all over the United States after 2002,” when the U.S. sex abuse scandal first erupted, Farrell said.
“Never once did I even suspect,” he said. “Now, people can say ‘Well you must be a right fool that you didn’t notice.’ I must be a right fool, but I don’t think I am. And that’s why I feel angry.”
McCarrick, 88, was initially removed from public ministry on June 20 after U.S. church officials determined that an accusation that he fondled a teenage altar server in New York in the 1970s was “credible and substantiated.”
Since then, another man identified only as James has come forward saying that McCarrick first exposed himself to him when he was 11 and then engaged in a sexually abusive relationship with him for the next 20 years. McCarrick has denied the initial accusation but has not responded to the second one.
At the time of McCarrick’s June removal, the New Jersey archdioceses of Newark and Metuchen revealed that they had received three complaints from adults alleging misconduct and harassment by McCarrick and had settled two of them.
It was apparently no secret that McCarrick invited seminarians to his New Jersey beach house and into his bed, suggesting that some in the U.S. hierarchy knew of his abuse of power but turned a blind eye. Certainly the New Jersey bishops who handled the settlements in 2005 and 2007 would have known.
In addition, a group of concerned American Catholics reportedly traveled to the Vatican in 2000 to warn of McCarrick’s misconduct, but he was still appointed Washington archbishop and made a cardinal in 2001.
As head of the most politically powerful U.S. archdiocese, McCarrick took a lead role in the U.S. bishops’ 2002 response to the sex abuse scandal. He served as a spokesman when the bishops were summoned to the Vatican that spring and then helped craft the “zero tolerance” policy they adopted at a landmark congress in Dallas later that year.
That hypocrisy is what is driving the sense of betrayal among rank-and-file Catholics, and the anger they are directing at McCarrick’s fellow bishops.
“Not only did they not produce what they promised, but we have a level of downright depravity that was right in their midst while they were making these promises,” said Marjorie Murphy Campbell, a civil and canon lawyer in Park City, Utah, who has called for an independent investigation into the scandal.
On Monday, Catholic University of America revoked the honorary degree it gave McCarrick in 2006, following in the footsteps of Fordham University in New York. Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, has suggested that McCarrick be defrocked and for all those in the hierarchy who knew to be held accountable “for their refusal to act, thereby enabling others to be hurt.”
Farrell, 71, said he only met McCarrick after McCarrick arrived in Washington, where he was appointed archbishop in November 2000.
Farrell said he never expected to remain working in the Washington archdiocesan chancery because he wanted to get back to being a pastor at the Annunciation parish on Massachusetts Avenue. He said he turned down McCarrick’s request that he give up the parish three times, but then was told by the Vatican ambassador that he was being made a bishop.
Farrell also said he didn’t know anything about misconduct with seminarians at a New Jersey beach house and that no accusations against McCarrick were ever brought to the Washington archdiocese, which from 2002 onwards was deluged with claims from victims of sexually abusive clergy.
“If there were a complaint … I would have discussed it with the (archdiocesan) chancellor, who was a woman at the time, a woman who was in charge of victims and in charge of all the telephone calls we would get,” he said.
The current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has said that a review of archdiocesan records showed no complaints about McCarrick.
“There is no record there,” Farrell told the AP. “Because I would know about it.”
Farrell said that in retrospect, if he had known that McCarrick took seminarians to a beach house it would have raised a red flag. But he also recalled that when he was growing up, he played soccer with a priest-led squad, and that American priests used to regularly run retreats for young people.
“He didn’t invite Washington seminarians there — that I would have known,” Farrell said of the beach house. He also said that if the rumors about McCarrick were so well known, “it would have been looked at” by Vatican authorities who vet bishop nominations.
But McCarrick was an effective fundraiser even before he came to Washington, and the Vatican has a history of ignoring reports of sexual misconduct for clergy adept at bringing in donations and vocations.
Farrell said he didn’t want to dwell on the McCarrick scandal anymore as he helps organize the Catholic Church’s huge family rally in his native Ireland next month, which will be presided over by Francis. In a remarkable shift, it is being led by a 2-to-3 margin by laity.
Farrell said he understands the betrayal felt by ordinary Catholics over McCarrick.
“I feel it myself,” he said.

Facebook finds ‘sophisticated’ efforts to disrupt elections

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook said it has uncovered “sophisticated” efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to influence U.S. politics on its platforms.
The company said it removed 32 accounts from Facebook and Instagram because they were involved in “coordinated” political behavior and appeared to be fake. Nearly 300,000 people followed at least one of the accounts.
Facebook stopped short of saying the effort was aimed at influencing the U.S. midterm elections in November, although the timing of the suspicious activity would be consistent with such an attempt.
According to a Facebook official, the company this week briefed members of the House and Senate as well as officials at the Department of Homeland Security. The official declined to be named because the briefings were private. Facebook disclosed its findings after The New York Times reported on them earlier Tuesday.
The company said it doesn’t know who is behind the efforts, but said there may be connections to Russia. Facebook said it has found some links between the accounts it removed and the accounts created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency that it removed before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, called the disclosure “further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”
The earliest page was created in March 2017. Facebook says more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the fake pages. The most followed Facebook pages had names such as “Aztlan Warriors,” ”Black Elevation,” ”Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.”
Facebook didn’t provide detailed descriptions of those pages. But the names it released are reminiscent of groups set up by Russian agents to draw in and manipulate Americans with particular ethnic, cultural or political identities ahead of the 2016 election. That effort targeted people with both liberal and conservative leanings.
Facebook says the pages ran about 150 ads for $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017; the last was created in June 2018.
The company added that the perpetrators have been “more careful to cover their tracks” than in 2016, in part because of steps Facebook has taken to prevent abuse over the past year. For example, they used virtual private networks and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf. After it became clear that Russia-linked actors used social media to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook has stepped up its efforts to ensure that what happened then does not happen again. But the disruptors are stepping up their efforts as well.
“We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics,” Facebook said in a statement.
During a conference call Tuesday, Facebook executives declined to paint a broader nature of the pages, including whether they included a range of political positions. They also did not say whether any of the activity mentioned specific candidates or politicians, and were careful to say that Facebook is not “publicly” linking the activity to any group or government.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said more work needs to be done before the midterm elections. “Foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016,” he said. They are “dividing us along political and ideological lines, to the detriment of our cherished democratic system.”
President Donald Trump has offered mixed message on Russian interference, at times even calling it a “hoax.” After appearing to question whether the Russians would try again to interfere earlier this month, he acknowledged last week in a tweet that the midterms were a likely target. But he said that Democrats, not his fellow Republicans, would be the ones targeted.
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Jalonick reported from Washington.

Will he or won’t he? Trump sows confusion on shutdown plans

By CATHERINE LUCEY and ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Will he or won’t he?
President Donald Trump is sowing confusion about whether he’s committed to keeping the government open through the fall elections or would willingly shut it down to secure more money for his promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump on Tuesday escalated his public threats of a government shutdown, even as he has told aides privately that he won’t make any move until after the midterm elections. The president tweeted Tuesday that he did not care about the “political ramifications,” adding that “a Government Shutdown is a very small price to pay for a safe and Prosperous America!”
His comments followed several days of shutdown threats in which he declared he saw “no problem” in shutting down the government to secure backing for one of his key campaign promises. But two officials said Trump recognized the political cost of a shutdown before the November elections and had assured staff he wouldn’t provoke a fiscal crisis until after Election Day. A congressional aide said the White House had sent a similar message to Capitol Hill amid widespread anxiety about a potential shutdown as Republicans face tough re-election fights.
The two officials and the congressional aide spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations.
Trump’s shutdown comments appeared to put him further at odds with Republicans in Congress. The threats came days after GOP leaders believed they had secured a pledge of Trump’s patience on the budget.
A shutdown when government funding expires at the end of September, just weeks before the midterm elections, would be the third under unified Republican control of Washington, following stoppages in January and February. With Congress likely needing to pass a short-term spending bill before the new fiscal year, aides have emphasized that Trump would get another opportunity to force a showdown with Democrats over the border wall during a lame-duck session.
The president is eager to stress immigration during the fall election —and his own 2020 effort — believing it will fire up his base. Republican leaders disagree, hoping they can avoid a high-profile display of dysfunction and focus their message on the GOP tax cuts and the strong economy.
Trump has proved to be an inconsistent negotiating partner with Capitol Hill, as evidenced by his most recent mixed messages on a potential shutdown. Earlier this year he publicly weighed vetoing a government spending bill he had backed just days earlier, facing criticism from conservative allies that it didn’t address his immigration priorities.
The president has made no secret of his belief that his hard-line immigration policies boosted him to the Oval Office, and he launched an aggressive push for additional border security measures early this year. They include $25 billion toward construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Trump acknowledged on Monday his demands are a starting point.
Republican leaders believed they had an understanding with Trump last week when they met at the White House to discuss strategy ahead of the budget year that starts Oct.1. After the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a radio interviewer that a shutdown so close to the Nov. 6 midterm elections wouldn’t happen. He said the border funding issue in particular would probably have to wait until after the elections.
But on Sunday, Trump reversed course in a surprise tweet: “I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!”
“Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT!” he tweeted.
With time short, lawmakers appear most likely to approve a short-term funding measure to keep the government open through Election Day. That would set up another fiscal showdown during a lame-duck session.
Trump campaigned on a promise of building a wall to deter illegal immigration and to make Mexico pay for it. Mexico has refused, leading Trump to look to U.S. taxpayers to fund the endeavor instead, at least for now.
Trump has gotten some wall money from Congress, and likely will get more, though the total is well short of the $25 billion he has requested.
He also wants changes to legal immigration, including scrapping a visa lottery program. In addition, Trump wants to end the practice of releasing immigrants caught entering the country illegally on the condition that they show up for court hearings. And he wants to shift the U.S. immigration system to one based more on individual merit and less on family ties. Democrats and some Republicans have objected to those proposals.
Both chambers will have a short window to act before government funding expires at midnight Sept. 30.
The House is in recess and won’t return until after Labor Day. The Senate will stay in session for most of August, except for a weeklong break scheduled to begin Aug. 6. McConnell canceled most of his chamber’s recess to give senators time to work on the annual spending bills.
House Republicans released a spending bill this month that would provide $5 billion next year to build Trump’s wall, a plan Trump supports.