U.S. Senate panel approves subpoena authority in Trump-Russia probe

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided Senate Judiciary Committee approved sweeping subpoena power on Thursday for a politically charged congressional probe of an FBI investigation into Republican President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and its contacts with Russia.

The Republican-led panel voted 12-10 along party lines to grant its chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, authority to subpoena dozens of former Obama administration officials including former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Republicans turned away multiple efforts by Democrats to gain authority to subpoena Trump advisers and former aides, including his current attorney Rudy Giuliani, former attorney Michael Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Rick Gates.

Trump and his Republican allies contend that the probe code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to the 22-month Russia investigation by then-U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was a corrupt effort to undermine Trump’s candidacy and later his presidency.

“This is really unprecedented,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, who accused Graham of negating committee rules that require separate approval for individual subpoenas.

Graham said Democrats were simply trying to stop his probe. “I’m not going to be stopped,” he said.

The Russia probe overshadowed Trump’s presidency. A Justice Department watchdog said in December that investigators made numerous errors but found no evidence of political bias.

Democrats view the current Senate probe as a political ploy to harm Trump political rival Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee in the Nov. 3 election, noting that Biden’s campaign chairman, Steve Ricchetti, is among the Republican subpoena targets.

Thursday’s vote came just over a week after former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the Mueller investigation before the same panel. Mueller found numerous contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but concluded there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy.

(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

FBI chief says threats from drones to U.S. ‘steadily escalating’

FBI Director Christopher Wray, testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on "Threats to the Homeland" at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Wroblewski

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – FBI director Christopher Wray told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that the threat from drones “is steadily escalating” even as Congress gives agencies new tools to address threats.

Wray told the Senate Homeland Security committee that the FBI assesses that “given their retail availability, lack of verified identification requirement to procure, general ease of use, and prior use overseas, (drones) will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering.”

Wray made his comments days after President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI new powers to disable or destroy drones that pose a threat to government facilities.

The new law also requires DHS to conduct several assessments to evaluate emerging threats that drones may pose to state or private critical infrastructure entities and domestic airports. Wray said the risk has “only increased in light of the publicity associated with the apparent attempted assassination of Venezuelan President Maduro using explosives-laden” drones.

Wray noted the FBI had disrupted a plan in the United States to use drones to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol building. In 2012, Rezwan Ferdaus was sentenced to 17 years in prison for attempting to conduct a terrorist attack.

Ferdaus, who held a degree in physics, obtained multiple jet-powered, remote-controlled model aircraft capable of flying 100 miles per hour and planned to fill the aircraft with explosives and crash them into the Pentagon and the Capitol using a GPS system in each aircraft.

Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the committee, said earlier this year that the number of drone flights over sensitive areas or suspicious activities has jumped from eight incidents in 2013 to an estimated 1,752 incidents in 2016, citing federal statistics.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the drone provision, saying it “amounts to an enormous unchecked grant of authority to the government to forcefully remove drones form the sky in nebulous security circumstances.”

The FBI has said drone threats could include surveillance, chemical, biological or radiological attacks or attacks “on large open-air venues” and attacks against government facilities.

Since 2017, federal officials have banned drones over U.S. military bases, national landmarks, nuclear sites and other sensitive areas. The Defense Department previously was given authority to address drone threats to military facilities.

More than 1 million U.S. drones have been registered, the Federal Aviation Administration said in January.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)