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What Happened Today: September 12, 2023
McCarthy announces impeachment intentions; CIA paid to kill lab-leak theory; Tragedy in Libya
The Big Story
The GOP House caucus will pursue an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy announced on Tuesday. Citing evidence gathered by multiple Republican committees currently investigating the Biden family’s business dealings, McCarthy noted that the “allegations of abuse of power, obstruction, and corruption” against the president now require a more thorough investigation. He added that Biden has not been forthcoming about his role in the family business, alleging that the president “did lie to the American people about his own knowledge of his family’s foreign business dealings.”
Whether McCarthy can whip up enough votes to get such an impeachment inquiry off the ground remains to be seen. Many centrist Republicans are not yet onboard, including 18 from districts that voted for Biden. Senate Republicans don’t seem eager to support the cause either, in part because they know it won’t succeed in their chamber. Texas Republican John Cornyn warned his House colleagues that “it really comes to how do you prioritize your time? I don’t know of anybody who believes [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer [D-NY] will take it up and actually have a trial and convict a sitting president.” Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, cautioned against becoming a country like Peru, where they “impeach whoever the president is, and it’s become almost a national sport.” Utah Republican Mitt Romney says that for all the committees’ investigations, he has not yet seen evidence that would warrant an impeachment.
The unacknowledged complication for McCarthy is that his right flank, including Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, is using the impeachment question as a sword of Damocles, threatening not to cooperate with a new budget bill unless the impeachment moves forward.
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→ Congressmen Brad Wenstrup and Mike Turner, who respectively chair the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter on Tuesday to Director William J. Burns of the Central Intelligence Agency demanding more information on the CIA’s initial investigation into COVID-19’s origins. The congressmen claim to be in contact with a “multi-decade,” “senior-level” Agency whistleblower who alleges that the CIA’s COVID Discovery Team initially leaned 6-1 in favor of a Wuhan lab origin for the virus but that the Agency paid them off “to come to the eventual public determination of uncertainty.” The FBI and the Department of Energy have both concluded in their own investigations that a lab leak was the most likely origin of the pandemic.
→ In addition to allowing a $6 billion transfer of funds to the Iranian government, albeit only to be used for “humanitarian trade,” the United States will also release five Iranian nationals in exchange for “five wrongfully held Americans,” a White House spokeswoman said on Monday. Not everyone is happy with the deal, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “It’s ridiculous for [the United States] to be blackmailed into paying $6B for hostages which will help indirectly finance the number 1 foreign policy of Iran: terrorism.” In the waiver on sanctions that will allow banks to transfer the Iranian cash, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote, “I determine that it is in the national security interest of the United States to waive the imposition of sanctions.”
The champion of universal basic income and founder of the nonpartisan Forward Party, Andrew Yang, has been talking with the centrist third-party organization No Labels about a third-party challenge to the likely Trump v. Biden rematch in 2024. Yang told Politico that while “we have a lot of friends and people in common,” he also would never run if “it would increase the chances of someone like Donald Trump becoming president again.”
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→ On Saturday, The New York Times published an interview with Paul Landis, a Secret Service agent who was with JFK’s motorcade on the day of his assassination in Dallas. Landis, 88, claims that amid all the chaos, he saw a bullet lodged in the seat of the limousine and grabbed it, lest it be forgotten evidence. Then, at the hospital, he placed it on Kennedy’s stretcher, thinking it could “help doctors figure out what happened.” He says the bullet must have hit Kennedy’s back and then dropped into the seat. This new claim contradicts the received wisdom of the “magic bullet” that managed to get both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John B. Connally before being recovered from Connally’s stretcher later in the day. James Robenalt, a Cleveland lawyer and author of several books of history, told the Times, “If the bullet we know as the magic or pristine bullet stopped in President Kennedy’s back, it means that the central thesis of the Warren Report, the single-bullet theory, is wrong.” Landis’ new addition to the events of that tragic day points things more in the direction of the multiple-shooters theory espoused by many, including Oliver Stone in his landmark film JFK. It’s worth noting Landis’ age and that some of his current testimony contradicts details he filed in reports immediately after the assassination; Landis says he just needed to tell his story.
→ MGM Resorts suffered a massive cyberattack on Monday that locked guests across properties out of their rooms, shut down reservations systems and, worst of all, turned off the slot machines. Upon discovering nothing was happening when they pulled those levers, thousands of little old ladies from Pasadena scoffed in disgust, ordered their dirty martinis to go, hopped in their Super Stock Dodges, and headed back through the desert toward home.
→ LastPass, a digital password protection service, hasn’t been so safe for crypto holders who stored their vault backup passwords with the service. Several digital security researchers have now concluded that a series of large cryptocurrency thefts, claiming 150 victims and snatching $35 million, can be traced back to two hacks against LastPass in August and November last year.
→ Much like the labyrinthian experience of developing the F-35 fighter aircraft, which will ultimately cost taxpayers $1.7 trillion or more over the life of the program, a new ProPublica report on the Navy’s ballyhooed littoral combat ships shows that the estimated $100 billion program might have been a gigantic waste of money. The ships were supposed to be an everything burger, not only lighter and faster than the Arleigh Burke destroyer class but also able to sink submarines, take out mines, and engage in surface combat with bigger ships. It doesn’t appear to be able to reliably do any of those things. One former officer called the ship a “box floating in the ocean.” Naturally, Congress continued funding the production of new units even after several of them had broken down at sea, showing their vulnerabilities. The Navy is now retiring the ships way ahead of their scheduled lifespan.
→ A horrible flood has destroyed the east Libyan city of Derna after two dams broke in the aftermath of Mediterranean storm Daniel. Officials from the east Libyan government (the nation has been split in two since 2015, with east Libya under the rule of Libyan National Army head Khalifa Haftar) are saying that at least 2,000 but as many as 5,200 people have died, not to mention possible deaths in other nearby population centers. Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan policy research center, told The New York Times that the suffering is “biblical” and blames Libyan authorities for having no plan to deal with the incoming storm. At least 10,000 people are still reported missing.
TODAY IN TABLET:
Keeping Beekeeping in the Family by Nomi Kaltmann
Jonathan Landes and his son Asher both keep bees, and help others to do the same—whether it’s in the Berskshires or Melbourne, Australia
Babyn Yar by Natan Sharansky
A response to Vladislav Davidzon
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You may think you’re not worth spying on. But to our government, we’re all terrorists now.
My email was being “held in government quarantine” pending review, a letter from Yahoo! informed me. I was sitting in the computer lab in the German department at New York University. It was September of 2003. I remember because I’d just received an email about a merit scholarship for that semester. The government wants to know about my scholarship? was my first thought. My next one was: Let ‘em. What did I care if the government knew my GPA?
This is a common line of reasoning in the bulk surveillance era. The “nothing to hide” argument, which, as Edward Snowden points out, was likely the brainchild of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Americans reallytook to it back in 2013, when Snowden revealed the government’s mass spying programs. Unless their private photos were being looked at, nobody cared.
Fast forward 10 years, and Americans seem to have adopted the same basic attitude toward the revelation that the government is spying on millions of social media accounts. So what if the government is spying on us—how else could it protect us from Russia and domestic extremists? Defenders of the new censorship regime focused on the politics of those censored, arguing over the finer points of what counts as a legitimate extremist threat. But they’ve missed the point: The government is reading our tweets, and monitoring our activity online, regardless of our individual political persuasions.
As a former military intelligence contractor told me: The real name of the game is data fusion. The government wants to collect tens of millions of tweets and cross-reference them with geolocations and credit scores, not so that it can protect Americans from Islamic terrorism or domestic extremism, but in order to exercise power. This is nothing new: In 1971, Sam Ervin, a Democratic senator from North Carolina, held a hearing on “Federal Data Banks, Computers, and the Bill of Rights,” the last of which, Ervin warned, was being trampled by the country’s security establishment. Ervin testified that “demonstrators and rioters” in the unrest of the 1960s had been treated not “as American citizens with possibly legitimate grievances, but as ‘dissident forces’ deployed against the established order.” And given that view, Ervin concluded, “it is not surprising that Army intelligence would collect information on the political and private lives of the dissenters.” Fast forward 60 years, and the FBI is still at it: BLM and J6 protesters, members of Congress and their campaign donors have all been investigated for links to terrorism. Of course, in the meantime, the Patriot Act provided an updated legal framework for this kind of overreach, giving intelligence agencies greater latitude than ever.
I’ve been asking around for years, and no one’s been able to tell me exactly what my letter from Yahoo! was about. A former intelligence officer I know offered the best conjecture yet. The surveillance programs that got going immediately after 9/11 were disorganized. New systems needed to be developed with clearer protocols, particularly when it came to surveilling Americans. Most likely, whatever agency was surveilling me was also surveilling my husband, a Lebanese immigrant. By law, the NSA doesn’t need to notify foreign nationals when it spies on them. My husband did not, incidentally, receive a letter like mine. But the NSA (in theory) can’t spy on me because I’m an American citizen, which means I fall under the FBI’s jurisdiction. In 1998, Congress passed the Security and Freedom Through Encryption (Safe) Act, which stipulated that citizens have a "right to be notified when their decryption information is provided to law enforcement, or when law enforcement is granted access to the plaintext of their data.” In other words, the FBI has to tell me when it looks at my emails.
The FBI and the NSA had a deal worked out: The FBI, which is technically a law enforcement and not an intelligence agency, became a front for laundering the vast quantities of data captured through the NSA’s bulk collection programs. The FBI’s Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) relayed NSA surveillance queries to companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!, and then conveyed the results back to the NSA. So it’s safe to assume the FBI and the NSA were reading my email.
In theory, the NSA was only after metadata, which is everything but the content of your communications. But you have to be credulous to believe that. According to NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, the government began trying to capture as much of the data of American citizens as it could mere weeks after 9/11. Binney blew the whistle because he’d seen the NSA abandon ThinThread, a program he’d developed that would have protected the privacy of American citizens. Instead, it went with Stellar Wind, which mined major communication databases for everything from phone conversations to emails to SMS’s. Theoretically, its scope was limited to metadata. By 2007, however, content was definitely on the menu. Prism, the program Snowden’s leak made famous, took content off the servers of major webmail providers like Google and Yahoo!—with their help, an arrangement that would be revived post-2016, when the government turned its sights on social media.
Stellar Wind and Prism represent one method of data collection: partnering with communication companies to capture metadata and/or content. Programs like Tempora took a different approach. Bypassing the need for corporate partnership, the NSA and GCHQ, the U.K.’s security agency, actually insertedintercepts into the fiber optic cables that make up the internet’s backbone.
“Unsubscribe from everything.” That was my lawyer’s advice to me. Anything with an even mildly political leaning needed to be banished from my inbox. Going forward, it would reflect the quiet, disengaged life I was to lead. Same went for my offline activity: no political protests. No antiwar anything. No The Nation, no Mother Jones. Cancel any subscription that might even hint at my political thoughts. And this was the kicker: Don’t vote.
If, back in 2003, government surveillance had reached a point that many of us felt the need to self-censor, today it’s private citizens who are imposing the censorship regime. Online mobs savage people for making an insensitive remark, communities shun people for asking questions. The desire to speak freely and without fear is driving not only the creation of platforms like Substack, but actual migration patterns. This is what happens when surveillance and social control are pervasive enough: True enemies, like al-Qaida, are replaced by boogeymen like @TrumpDyke, and dubious figments like "disinformation" supplant real threats like terror. The zealous among us begin policing speech so the actual police don’t have to, and the press, the inevitable organ of every authoritarian regime, either turns a blind eye or actively colludes with the government and its partners to smother unsanctioned views.
To the extent that there has been a debate about the abuses of power the Twitter Files revealed, it has revolved around whether dissenting voices—including those of distinguished scientists—should be censored for the greater good, but this is shortsighted. Censorship is a secondary effect of surveillance, and 9/11 elicited a sea change in the way intelligence agencies approach it. In Binney’s words: “we changed our policy of how we looked at communications and analyzed things from groups of people to individuals. That meant they switched from going after the bad guys to going after everybody.” Maybe today you’re on the right side of the surveillance machine, but that could change in an instant. Just ask Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who went from being an obscure epidemiologist to a Twitter pariah overnight. Anyone can be put in the crosshairs.
The transition from the “war on terror” to the “war on disinformation” was seamless. The target may have changed—alleged Russian saboteurs became the new jihadists—but the essential tactics and players remained the same. As one of his last acts before leaving the White House, President Obama created the Global Engagement Center. It was originally called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and was created to counter ISIS messaging online. However, beginning in 2017, the GEC’s new mission was to go after “counterfactual narratives abroad that threaten ... national security interests,” the idea being that Russian operatives had swung the election in Trump’s favor, a theory that has since been debunked. The GEC, it should be noted, was designed to facilitate coordination across multiple agencies—FBI, CIA, DHS, the Office of the President, and others—so its mission-shift resonated across the government at many levels, making Americans surveillance targets not just of any one agency, but of their government as a whole.
Read the rest in Tablet: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/were-all-terrorists-now