What Happened Today: January 27, 2023
Terror in Jerusalem; Iranian uranium; Tár, appraised; America buys Chinese drones
The Big Story
On Friday night a Palestinian gunman killed seven Jews outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem and wounded 10 others during an attack that lasted “several minutes.” The gunman then fled from the shul toward the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, where he engaged in a gun battle with police and was shot dead. Magen David Adom paramedic Fadi Dekidek, who was on the scene, told The Jerusalem Post, “We are trained for this. Sadly, we cannot forget a terror attack, and we experience each one anew. There’s nothing to do; this is the time to act professionally because that’s the difference between life or death.” Following the massacre, celebrations complete with fireworks broke out in Arab communities across Israel and the West Bank, while spokespeople for Hamas and Islamic Jihad cheered the slayings, calling it “heroic … revenge” and “a sign that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are united against the Israeli enemy,” respectively.
The attack comes a day after the IDF raided an Islamic Jihad cell in Jenin suspected of planning a terror attack, leaving nine Palestinians dead, including one non-combatant. Islamic Jihad in Gaza responded with a rocket launch overnight Thursday toward Ashkelon, which the Israeli Air Force then responded to with strikes on a Gaza rocket-manufacturing base. President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas had ordered flags flown at half mast for “the souls of the martyrs in the occupation massacre in the Jenin refugee camp.” The IDF’s ongoing operation in the West Bank to thwart the terrorism that killed 31 Israelis in 2022 has led to 2,500 arrests and 201 Palestinian deaths to date.
In the Back Pages: The U.S. Government Is Funding Chinese Spy Technology in America’s Backyard
→ Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi, told European Parliament lawmakers on Tuesday that Iran now has enough enriched uranium for “several nuclear weapons, not one at this point” if it decides to actualize its weapons program. For their part, the Iranians told the Associated Press on Thursday that Grossi’s comments didn’t mean they were going to make a bomb since their program has “never been about” weapons. The United States has continued to work furiously to resurrect it’s nuclear deal with Iran, meanwhile the U.S. military just wrapped up its largest-ever joint exercise with the IDF on Thursday, during which some 6,500 U.S. armed forces troops simulated a variety of potential situations alongside Israeli air, sea, and ground forces. The new chief of staff of the Israeli military, Gen. Herzi Halevi, told reporters on Thursday that the exercises were in part to practice offensive maneuvers “to bring a very clear message to Iran: if Iran makes mistakes, offense capabilities are getting ready.”
→ Remember how the owner of Madison Square Garden and Rockefeller Center has been using facial recognition technology to eject lawyers from his venues who are currently engaged in lawsuits against him? Well, CEO James Dolan had a chance to explain himself in a Thursday interview with FOX5’s Rosanna Scotto, and he gave some incredible quotes:
On facial recognition: “Well, look, facial recognition, right. It’s just the technology. Right? I mean, when I walked into the studio, did you recognize my face?”
On banning lawyers: “[In] a restaurant you get to say who you serve, right? For whatever reason, I don’t care if they’re a lawyer or whatever, you get to say who you serve. And if there’s someone you don’t want to serve, you get to say, ‘I don’t want to serve you.’”
On what legislators who are considering action against him should be worrying about: “Like law enforcement making it safe in our streets, getting our taxes in line. Stop people from leaving New York and ruining our city, right?”
You can watch the whole interview here.
→ The International Association of Fire Fighters is making an about-face on its approach to toxic, cancer-causing gear. Last August, the union and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association told members to not wear “turnout” gear on calls unless necessary since it’s full of PFAS chemicals. As recently as 2017, the union told members that it believed the gear was safe, and didn’t recommend replacing it. But one intrepid wife of a firefighter who’d had cancer brought a collection of 30 sets of gear she’d collected from firemen around the country to be tested by a professor at Notre Dame. He found pounds of the toxic “forever chemicals” in the uniforms along with high concentrations of toxic dust in firehouses. The findings are probably no surprise to firefighters, who are 14% more likely to die from cancer compared to the general population.
→ At Stanford last Friday, a picture of a student reading Mein Kampf was posted to Snapchat. The photo has triggered the filing of a Protected Identity Harm report, which Stanford says “address[es] incidents where a community member experiences harm because of who they are and how they show up in the world.”
In an email to Jewish students on campus, the rabbis who filed the report wrote, “Jewish people belong at Stanford and deserve to be respected by our peers.”
Jewish on Campus (a nonprofit that combats campus antisemitism) Chief Marketing Officer Michal Cohen told The Scroll she agrees more context is needed and that students shouldn’t be punished for reading “for class” but also said, “What makes this troubling is that we are seeing right-wing antisemitism on campus [nationwide]. Just this week, a swastika was found on Georgetown University’s campus; at the University of Alabama #YeWasRight was found chalked all over campus; and No Jew Go Away was going at UC Berkeley.”
Cohen added, “This sentiment is only rising on college campuses. Jewish students do have a right to feel scared on campus when these incidents are happening at some of the top universities in the country.”
→ Picture of the Day:
Was Alfred Hitchcock in Rome recently?
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→ Number of the Day: 18%
That’s how much drug violations for long-distance truckers increased in 2022, mostly because of a surge in marijuana use. Speaking to FreightWaves, P. Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, said that there’s some good news here, primarily that the three-year-old Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse database is working as intended by keeping more drivers off the road if they test positive for banned substances. Also encouraging: More drivers have completed rehabilitation programs and re-entered the workforce, with 27% of offending drivers successfully cleared to come back in 2023. In light of all the data, however, we recommend listening to your dad when he says, “Get out of that semi’s blind spot! He can’t see you there!”
→ Quote of the Day:
But in my generation, Ladies and Gentlemen, there was a time indescribable. Six million Jews—men, women and children—a number larger than many a nation in Europe—were dragged to a wanton death and slaughtered methodically in the heart of the civilized continent. It was not a sudden outburst of human or rather inhuman cruelty that from time to time has happened in the history of mankind; it was a systematic process of extermination which unfolded before the eyes of the whole world for more than six years. Those who were doomed, deprived of their human dignity, starved, humiliated, led away and ultimately turned into ashes, cried out for rescue—but in vain. Other than a few famous and unforgettable exceptions they were left alone to face the destroyer.
That’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in his Nobel acceptance speech, 1978. We quote him today on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
→ Map of the Day:
A new U.N. report on the opium trade in Myanmar shows that last year brought a spike in cultivation after a declining trend from 2017 to 2020 that saw some softening in 2021. The cultivated area rose 33% and yields rose 41% in 2022 for the powdery $2 billion crop, according to satellite data used for estimates. The report blames COVID-19 and the military coup in 2021 for pushing rural citizens back into the old familiar opium economy, followed by big supply shocks from the war in Ukraine that exacerbated conditions.
→ Bibi’s plan to reform the relationship between Israel’s Supreme Court and the Knesset—to allow the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority—is already hurting Israel in the wallet. Eynat Guez, CEO of payroll startup Papaya Global, valued at $3.7 billion and headquartered in Herzliya, tweeted Thursday that her company would no longer keep its money in Israel. “No wealth holder will put money in a state where democracy is crumbling … The startup nation can’t exist without democracy,” Guez said at a Tel Aviv rally protesting the new government. The sentiment was echoed by Tal Barnoach, a general partner at an Israeli venture capital fund: “I am now in London. I have met my investors and they are very concerned,” he told Calcalist.
→ Just in time for awards season, The Scroll is pleased to introduce Sugarcubes, a new weekly culture column from Tablet’s deputy news editor, David Sugarman. With the Oscars less than two months away, we’ll be spending the next few weeks reviewing all 10 films nominated in the Best Picture category.
A film by Todd Field
Standing backstage and listening to her introduction, an impressive if somewhat absurd chronicle of accomplishments that includes conducting every great orchestra on earth and being an EGOT (a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) seems coiled and nervous. The accolades continue, and we cut to her seated onstage, performing and in command of herself as she explains that the conductor—she—holds time in her hands. “Time is the thing,” she says, arm raised like that of an oracle. “You cannot start without me.” She goes on: “Sometimes my second hand stops—which means that time stops.”
This is a wonderful evocation of the power the conductor has over her orchestra: an ability deployed for the sake of the aesthetic sublime. It is also an evocation of egomania, a sense of oneself as possessing power to hold the world in one’s hands. This film—as good a work as any on the subject of power and its abuses—is careful and measured. Lydia can be terrible—to her wife, to her colleagues, and to the professional women who rely on her for advancement. But terror is the other side of awe, and Todd Field, the film’s writer and director, forces us to confront Lydia’s ability to control time and people—to push them to greatness, but also to bend them to her will and even to break them—without judging her. It is the tightrope between these things that makes this film compelling, that renders its politics so ambiguous and its artistic achievement so great.
TODAY IN TABLET:
A Survivor’s Forgiveness by Danica Davidson
Why Eva Mozes Kor ‘forgave’ Josef Mengele—and what that really means
Was the Holocaust Predictable? by Jacob Katz
The secularization of Europe ‘liberated’ the Jews while laying the foundations for genocidal antisemitism
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The U.S. Government Is Funding Chinese Spy Technology in America’s Backyard
An exclusive report on how law enforcement agencies used FEMA funds to buy drones from a company tied to the Chinese government
By Lars Erik Schonander
Federal funds are being used to buy drones and drone detection equipment from DJI, a Chinese drone company that maintains control over data created and compiled by their products. Some of the details of these drone acquisitions were buried on government websites, while other aspects of these programs only came to light after I submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to emergency management departments across the country. These programs indicate an ongoing tolerance among state and federal officials for having Chinese-made technology all but spying on American citizens and public safety officials.
America’s cold war with China has been heating up. New export controls, calls to ban social media applications like TikTok, and rising concerns over Chinese companies buying American farmland, are signs that some lawmakers are now making it a priority to counter Chinese influence in critical sectors of the U.S. economy. Given the intensifying strategic rivalry between Washinton and Beijing, the use of Chinese drone fleets by American law enforcement arguably poses an immediate security risk to American citizens. At the very least, it represents a significant vulnerability.
DJI is not as well known as other Chinese companies with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, such as the telecom giant Huawei, but it deserves to be. For one thing, DJI is on the “Chinese military companies” list maintained by the Department of Defense as a result of the company’s work with China’s military, the People's Liberation Army. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a fully private company in China. Following the country’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law,” mandating Chinese companies to work with the country’s authorities. While drones have many commercial applications, from herding animals to taking wedding photos, they are still essentially military weapons that were pioneered and developed to perform reconnaissance and surveillance on the battlefield.
This makes it even more concerning that DJI retains access and control over the location data of every single drone it sells, giving the company the power to fully restrict where drones fly with no restraints—a capability illustrated during the Russian-Ukrainian war, when the company refused requests by the Ukrainian government to apply geofences that would have prevented the drones from flying inside Ukraine.
DJI’s drone detection product, AeroScope, which “rapidly identifies [drone] communication links, gathering information such as flight status, paths, and other information in real-time,” also raises security concerns. While DJI had initially claimed that AeroScope’s signals were encrypted, last year the company was forced to admit that they were not actually secure, and that anyone with a little technical know-how could access detailed information on where and when the company’s drones had been flying. This capability, too, has played a role in the Russian-Ukrainian war: one group within the Armed Forces of Ukraine has even speculated that DJI is using these technologies to provide Russia with a military advantage.
In short, DJI is not a company the United States should do business with, which raises the question why law enforcement agencies across the country have purchased equipment from DJI using FEMA funds. Police departments in California have purchased nearly $100,000 in drone equipment from DJI using these grants. In Florida, police departments applied for $270,000 in funding to purchase DJI’s AeroScope drone detection software.
These transactions are mostly kept from public view, with the exception of a 2019 purchase made by the government of Massachusetts, which announced that it spent $235,000 on AeroScope equipment with homeland security grant money. They ultimately received eight AeroScope antennas to track drones flying across Massachusetts.
To know about DJI purchases from other states, however, required FOIA record-requests from every local government agency across the country. Surveys of drone purchases by law enforcement agencies show that a substantial majority were DJI drones. If we assume that most police departments that bought drones since 2017 purchased them from DJI, we can estimate how many hundreds of thousands of dollars U.S. taxpayers have put towards bringing a Chinese government aligned surveillance platform into America: Washington D.C. and its surrounding counties spent $420,000 on drones in 2010-2021; in Texas, around $142,000 was spent on drones; in Washington state, police departments spent roughly $322,000 on drones. Including California and Florida, the total comes to roughly $1.4 million. This is a relatively small sum for state governments, but even over a million dollars is not an amount we should be giving to a CCP-affiliated company.
And this is only the spending that we know of. Several states still have yet to respond to my FOIA requests. Even worse, several states have told me that they do not have detailed data on how their states spent these grants over the past 10 years. Some states, for example, only had data on total spending per year. Even worse are states like Texas, where the Texas Homeland Security Act allows the state to hide spending due to vague security concerns.
The purchase of DJI drones with these FEMA grants is alarming but not surprising. The history of these grant programs is filled with dubious purchases and an overall lack of transparency. These drones were purchased through FEMA’s Homeland Security Grant Program, which includes two programs created after 9/11 focusing on funding terrorism preparedness. While the cause is commendable, these post-9/11 programs are notorious for misspending, from the merely wasteful (police departments using grants to buy sno-cone machines) to the harmful, as when police departments purchased militarized equipment such as armored vehicles—often causing alarm and fear amongst the citizenry—despite the fact those police departments were in areas of declining crime.
In 2021, FEMA released guidance on using agency funds to buy DJI drones, stating that there was no prohibition on the usage of FEMA funds to buy Chinese drones while acknowledging data privacy concerns and advising buyers to figure out secure ways to store their data. More prudent, however, would be to ban the usage of these funds to buy DJI drones altogether. Indeed it’s already the rule within other parts of the government. For many years, police departments used a grant program within the Department of Justice to buy Chinese drones until the DOJ banned the practice in 2020. The ban was enacted due to concerns that Chinese drones could be vulnerable to control from an outside actor.
Other parts of the federal government have also enforced bans. In 2021, the General Service Administration (an independent agency of the U.S. government specializing in procurement) prohibited the agency from buying drones from Chinese companies. The GSA requires contracts for drones to be verified as secure through an internal drone security program run by a part of the Department of Defense.
Apart from the obvious dangers and inherent absurdity of American security agencies outsourcing sensitive defense and surveillance functions to China, there is also something drearily predictable about the practice. Critics have pointed out that FEMA grants are used to fund questionable purchases.
And a central issue is that America, with all its spending on military technology, has failed to produce a superior product. While buying the Chinese equipment poses concerns, DJI drones have more features and are cheaper than competitors. The Department of Interior even conceded that there are no good alternatives to DJI.
This raises the question of what American police departments and other public safety groups should replace their DJI drones with. A strategy of promoting the manufacturing of commercial drones in the United States would be optimal, but this may be an issue where things have to get worse before they get better, as groups wean off of using Chinese drones. But if lawmakers want to get serious about protecting U.S. industries from Chinese surveillance, banning DJI drones offers a strong place to start.
Lars Erik Schönander (@LarsESchonander) is a policy technologist at Lincoln Network.