What Happened Today: Feb 11, 2022
CIA’s endless spying; Russian war countdown; Weekend Reads
The Big Story
Yet again, the Central Intelligence Agency has been caught running a secret bulk surveillance program that includes collecting information on American citizens. The few details that we now have about the program came to light as a result of a partially declassified letter written in April 2021 by two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and released to the public Thursday. This gets complicated, as matters dealing with secret intelligence programs always do, but essentially what happened is this: First a government watchdog group called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that was charged with investigating the intelligence agency operations authorized by Executive Order (EO) 12333—the statute under which most foreign surveillance takes place—issued a report titled “Deep Dive II.” The report remains fully classified, but we now have a heavily redacted version of the letter that Wyden and Heinrich wrote in response to the report, and although it contains no details about the nature of the CIA’s program or the sources the program was collecting from—most likely internet providers and telecommunications companies—it does make clear that the surveillance took place outside the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) and was only done through the EO. “FISA gets all the attention,” Senators Wyden and Heinrich said in a statement released Thursday, “but what these documents demonstrate is that many of the same concerns that Americans have about their privacy and civil liberties also apply to how the CIA collects and handles information under executive order and outside the FISA law.” Because the spying uncovered by the senators was authorized through the executive order, it did not require any warrants and was done “entirely outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection, and without any of the judicial, congressional, or even executive branch oversight that comes from FISA collection.”
Read it here: https://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-and-heinrich-newly-declassified-documents-reveal-previously-secret-cia-bulk-collection-problems-with-cia-handling-of-americans-information
Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads
→ Israel began the evacuation of nonessential staff from Ukraine Friday. While this comes after the United States and some European countries issued similar orders for staff to leave the country, there was an element of public diplomacy and symbolism in those cases that is missing here. Rather than being a warning or sending a signal, the Israelis pulling their people out of Kyiv suggests they may believe some kind of fighting is imminent in Ukraine. Meanwhile, there were mixed signals from Washington, D.C. On Friday, U.S. intelligence sources circulated reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had committed to invading Ukraine and decided on next week as the date to launch a large-scale conventional assault. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan denied any U.S. knowledge that “a final decision has been taken by Putin” but urged any Americans left in Ukraine to leave the country in the next 48 hours.
→ When Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin sat to discuss Russian hostilities on the Russia-Ukraine border, they did so from opposite ends of a 13-foot table. Some interpreted this as a power play from Putin, the Russian leader seeking to demonstrate the distance between his position and Macron’s. The distance, however, was in fact social—the result of Macron refusing to take a Russian PCR test, forcing the leaders to adhere to stringent social distancing guidelines. Macron refused to take a test, fearing that the pleasure of shaking Putin’s hand and sitting by his side would come at the expense of having his DNA stolen by the Russian government.
→ While Germany is in the process of decommissioning all of its nuclear facilities, France has just opted to build six new nuclear reactors with another eight possibly coming after. The move announced Thursday by French President Emmanuel Macron comes as Europe faces a severe energy crunch and rising prices for oil and natural gas exacerbated by the conflict with Russia, the continent’s main supplier.
→ Rather than releasing the $7 billion in Afghan assets now frozen by the United States, President Biden signed an executive order Friday morning authorizing a plan to split the money between humanitarian aid for the country and a compensation fund for Sept. 11 victims. The assets were frozen last August when the Taliban seized control of the country and effectively constituted an emergency reserve fund for Afghanistan. The unusual decision from the Biden administration is an attempt to avoid being seen giving money to the Taliban, but it deprives Afghanistan of money that was originally accumulated to forestall the kind of dire humanitarian crisis Afghans now face.
→ BioNTech, the German company that co-produced the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, is implicated in efforts to sabotage a World Health Organization-sponsored initiative to establish mRNA vaccine production in Africa. The accusation is based on evidence presented in the medical journal The BMJ and concerns efforts by the kENUP Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents BioNTech, to lobby South African government officials to shut down a program to produce a new mRNA vaccine modeled on the Moderna shot.
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→ Big Tech posted record increases in revenue last year, reporting some of the largest annual increases in the sector’s history. Supply issues, lockdowns, and inflation didn’t hamper the growth, with Apple and Alphabet bringing in 3o% more revenue than they did the previous year. The pandemic has been a boon for these companies; with more Americans homebound, Big Tech saw a surge in signups for subscriber-based streaming services—Disney+ alone has seen some 100 million new subscribers since 2020—and digital advertising profits grew substantially, with Google reporting a 42% increase in advertising revenue. Some tech sectors, however, are struggling—especially those that don’t sell consumer goods or entertainment products. As we reported earlier this week, green tech companies saw their stocks fall by as much as 75% amid growing investor skepticism about much-touted new green technologies.
→ Here’s an informative thread on the legal background of the CIA spying program from an analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy group focused on criminal justice issues.
→ Home buyers have never felt worse. That’s the conclusion of a recent Fannie Mae survey that found a “record-low 25% of respondents reported that it’s a good time to buy a home.” Potential homeowners encounter limited stock, rising mortgage rates, and a general sense of economic malaise. Limited supply is exacerbated by increased demand; 2020 saw nearly 2.4 million first-time home buyers, the most in history, and 2021 was a strong year as well. The crowded home-buying market is spilling over into the rental market, deepening an affordability crisis. In New York City, inventory has plummeted in the past year, and prices are poised to reach a 10-year high.
→ Picking up on the “freedom convoy” demonstrations in Canada, thousands of French truckers are gathering in Paris under the banner “Convoi de la Liberté” to protest vaccine mandates. On Friday, 7,000 French police officers were dispatched throughout the city to break up potential protests.
Your Weekend Reads
—Speaking of the trucker protests, it is remarkable just how little in-depth reporting there has been on it. Few journalists have attempted to speak with, rather than for, the people out in the streets in Canada. This piece for Bari Weiss’ Substack, Common Sense, for which Rupa Subramanya went out and spoke to 100 protestors in Ottawa, is the exception:
A lot of the truckers who had driven in from Vancouver and Winnipeg and Quebec City expressed this same uncertainty. It was getting really expensive to get by: rent, utilities, groceries, everything. Almost everyone who was poor or even middle class was mired in debt. They told me that they expected this sort of wealth gap in America, but not in Canada.
The divide that already existed between the haves and have-nots largely mapped onto the new chasm between those who supported the mandates and those who did not. And that was creating this huge, weird fracturing everywhere.
Read it here:
— Here’s another testament to the miraculous journalistic merits of actually speaking with people. This time it’s the journalist Jay Caspian Kang attempting to investigate the origins of the conservative movement’s organized opposition to critical race theory. Rather than simply blaming racism or drawing up a caricature of Koch-brothers-funded, right-wing ideologues, Kang tries to get to the source, which takes him first to the person almost single-handedly responsible for the anti-CRT push, Christopher Rufo, and from there to Rufo’s employer, the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute. What follows is an illuminating conversation between Kang and the head of the Manhattan Institute, Reihan Salam. (Full disclosure: Reihan is a friend.)
I see the CRT fight as part of a larger fight against race essentialism. If we’re going to build a successful multiethnic democracy, it’ll be because we’ve lowered the salience of race in people’s lives. Our goal should be the expansion of the American mainstream, in which people aren’t bound by rigid racial expectations, and ethnic identity is more voluntary or symbolic than something that determines your life chances.
To some, I’m sure this will sound utopian, but I actually think it’s a decent description of an emerging reality in huge swaths of working-class and middle-class America, and particularly for immigrants and second-generation Americans in nonelite neighborhoods and workplaces.
—Anyone who writes a novel titled Fuccboi and certainly any publisher that decides to release a book under that name must be hoping on some level that they will inspire a blistering denunciation of everything wrong with the current generation. You can’t buy that kind of press. Esther Manov’s review asking “Has Fuccboi killed literature?” delivers.
In the glib generational determinism so popular today, one excuses this shallowness of character and failure to depict any interpersonal conflict as a “real” and “relatable” mirror of the “autism” of the young generation (indeed, this self-serving self-ID is so common that forums for the autistic and their caretakers use the acronym AA for “actually autistic”). However, these writers, and the thinly disguised stand-ins that populate their autofiction, are not autistic. They are merely permanent adolescents, incapable of empathizing with any experience outside of their own and comfortably withdrawn into a profound egotism.