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What Happened Today: September 18, 2023
Our secret arms deal with Pakistan; Ibram X. Kendi's institute falls apart; The mystery of the missing F-35
The Big Story
The controversial International Monetary Fund bailout for Pakistan earlier this year was driven by a secret arms deal between Pakistan and the United States to funnel much-needed weapons and equipment to Ukraine for the war against Russia, The Intercept reported on Sunday. Citing two sources familiar with the deal, The Intercept wrote that the arms sale generated enough revenue, and political goodwill, for Pakistan to “secure the bailout from the IMF, with the State Department agreeing to take the IMF into confidence regarding the undisclosed weapons deal.”
In the spring of 2022, State Department officials expressed concern to their Pakistani counterparts over Prime Minister Imran Khan’s “aggressive neutral” stance on the Ukraine war, a position that “would be forgiven” if Khan were removed. Soon after, Pakistan military led a no-confidence vote to oust Khan. The replacement government in power since ousting Khan has become an active supporter of the West’s war effort in Ukraine while protests have erupted across the country against the military’s harsh crackdown on Khan’s supporters.
To avoid Pakistan defaulting on foreign debt obligations, the terms of the IMF bailout dictate that Pakistan raise energy prices for residents, which has kicked off new violent protests across the country as demonstrators burn their electricity bills in the streets. On Monday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch rejected the claims of a connection between arms exports and the bailout, calling them “baseless and fabricated.”
“The premise is that we have to save Ukraine, we have to save this frontier of democracy on the eastern perimeter of Europe,” Arif Rafi, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and specialist on Pakistan, told The Intercept. “And then this brown Asian country has to pay the price. So they can be a dictatorship, their people can be denied the freedoms that every other celebrity in this country is saying we need to support Ukraine for—the ability to choose our leaders, ability to have civic freedoms, the rule of law, all these sorts of things that may differentiate many European countries and consolidated democracies from Russia.”
In The Back Pages: Blowing the COVID Cover-up Wide Open
→ Five Americans recently released from Iranian prison were greeted by U.S. diplomats on Monday in Doha, Qatar, in a major prison swap that saw the United States release five Iranians in turn, along with $6 billion in Iranian funds that had been locked up by U.S. sanctions. While it’s unlikely this will move the needle for the Biden administration’s stalled efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said resuming those negotiations was “perhaps the number one issue of concern.” Critics of the prison swap say the funds will simply fuel Iran’s various terrorist activities while incentivizing Iran to capture more Americans on false espionage charges to use as leverage in future deals.
→ The Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, recently founded by renowned antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi, has laid off more than a third of its staff. Some of the 15 or so former staffers have begun speaking out about problems that have plagued the center since its inception, when “the university decided to create a center that rested in the hands of one human being, an individual given millions of dollars and so much authority,” Spencer Piston, from the center’s policy office, told The Boston Globe. Ostensibly formed to combat exploitation and ethnic disparities on a systemic level, the center had a poor structural organization that prompted Saida Grundy, Boston University associate professor of sociology and African American & Black Diaspora Studies, to leave even before the recent layoffs, she explained to the Globe. “It became very clear after I started that this was exploitative, and other faculty experienced the same and worse,” she said.
→ Following the recent dismissal of Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov over allegations of corruption, six deputy defense ministers were fired on Monday. No explanations for the firing have been offered yet from Ukrainian leadership, but the reshuffling is likely tied to ongoing government investigations into misspending by the military. Reznikov had been embroiled in a scandal after the defense ministry purchased jackets that were three times their actual cost. Denying any allegation of wrongdoing, Reznikov nonetheless stepped down from his post.
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→ After an overwhelming majority of Texas State House Republicans voted in May to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton on 16 corruption charges, just two of the state’s 18 Republican senators voted to convict Paxton, leading to his acquittal on Saturday at his Senate impeachment trial. Paxton was reinstated into his role soon after the vote was certified. He could owe the outcome to longtime ally Donald Trump, who claimed on Monday on Truth Social to have “saved … Paxton from going down.” According to Axios, Trump might have been right to take credit, noting that “a secret campaign coordinated by top Trump allies” had applied intense pressure on Texas senators. Regardless of the substantial evidence that Paxton had abused his office to enrich an Austin real estate developer and illegally fired staffers who’d reported that abuse to federal agencies, the campaign had made clear to Texas senators “that they’d face a very well-funded primary opponent in their next election if they voted to impeach,” according to Axios. Writing on Truth Social, Trump added, “It was my honor to have helped correct this injustice!”
→ Hipgnosis, the investment fund that’s led the campaign to acquire song catalogs by some of the world’s most famous musicians, might have overpaid, and not just by a little. Last week, with the fund’s stock down roughly 40% since 2021, Hipgnosis said it was selling off roughly $500 million worth of its song holdings, adding that it had already offloaded some songs 17% below their “fair market value.” Watching Paul Simon haul in $250 million, Stevie Nicks $100 million, and Bob Dylan $400 million for their song catalogs in 2021, writer Ted Gioia noted even then that the values for the songs were overinflated, writing, “This obsession with old songs makes no sense. Songs are a depleting asset, much like oil in the ground. Eventually the copyright expires, and songs enter the public domain—and the older the song and the songwriter, the sooner this will happen.” Observing how rapidly the song catalogs have lost their value, Gioia wrote this weekend that “even I didn’t anticipate how badly these deals would turn out,” a phenomena he attributes in part to the ongoing financialization of the music business with “record labels, especially the largest ones … morphing into rights management operations.”
→ On Sunday, days after Danilo Cavalcante led state and national law enforcement on an almost two-week manhunt in Pennsylvania’s Chester County, nine teenagers broke out of a juvenile facility about 15 miles from the prison Cavalcante escaped, by overpowering prison employees and taking their keys. The teens didn’t last long, though, with four of the escapees turning themselves in by knocking on the front door of a homeowner on Monday morning. “They were done, they were tired, they were cold,” said David Beohm, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police. After fleeing in a stolen car, the other five teens were captured following a pursuit by police.
→ Officials at the Marine’s Joint Base in Charleston, South Carolina, are looking for help from local residents to find an F-35 fighter jet that has gone missing since the pilot of the plane safely ejected, in what officials have described as a “mishap.” Capable of landing and taking off vertically like a helicopter, and equipped with several stealth modes that prevent it from being discovered by radar, the $90 million aircraft is part of the Defense Department’s more expensive weapons systems. Officials have not said what the mission was, or why, exactly, the pilot had to abandon the plane.
→ The strongest man in the world, Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia, continued his long-standing dominance of the global weight-lifting circuit on Sunday, winning his record-breaking ninth title in the super heavyweight division. Besting the closest competitor by 28 pounds, the man who’s known simply as Lasha by fans snatched 485 pounds while hoisting 557 pounds in the clean and jerk, for an astonishing total of 1,042 pounds. Despite that herculean effort, Lasha’s coach, Giorgi Asanidze, said “the others are closing in,” and there’s still more work to do ahead of the upcoming Olympics in Paris next year. Since returning in 2015 from a two-year ban after testing positive for steroids, Lasha, 29, has won two Olympic contests and seven world titles.
TODAY IN TABLET:
The Rise of the Yom Kippur Appeal by Jenna Weissman Joselit
Why synagogues turned away from weekly ‘shnuddering’ and adopted an annual donation campaign instead
Zoya Cherkassky, Hero-Tyrant by Frances Brent
An interview with ‘Israel’s eternal dissident’ on her New York exhibition
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Blowing the COVID Cover-up Wide Open
A CIA whistleblower pulls back the curtain on COVID’s origins in the shadowy world of U.S. biodefense programs
Earlier this week, the mystery surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 took another bewildering turn when the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic revealed that a “multi-decade, senior-level, current [CIA] officer” stepped forward to claim that when six of the seven specialists tasked by the CIA with investigating the origins of the virus concluded with low confidence that it likely came from a lab in Wuhan, the CIA paid those scientists hush money to reverse their decision. The six experts who were offered “financial incentives”—otherwise known as bribes—eventually concluded that the origin of the pandemic was uncertain. For its part, the CIA has denied the whistleblower’s claims. This denial was issued by CIA spokesperson Tammy Kupperman Thorp who, until just two years ago, worked as a journalist for CNN and NBC News covering, among other things, the CIA.
Despite intense investigations for the past three years, the origins of the worst pandemic in generations remain, to this day, unknown. What is certain, however, is that a massive official cover-up took place. There is proof that Anthony Fauci knowingly deceived the public, that academic scientists and once-prestigious science journals colluded with him in that deception, and that scientists investigating the virus at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence were censored when they concluded it most likely came from a laboratory. Now there appears to be evidence that the CIA was involved as well.
What we still don’t know is what exactly was covered up. China isn’t a U.S. ally. So why would the CIA want to hide evidence that the virus might have come from a Chinese government laboratory? The answer may have to do with the fact that funding for the infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology came from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—which is relevant because USAID, while nominally America’s foreign aid agency, has decadeslong ties to the CIA and a history of acting as a cutout for the intelligence agency.
This is not the first time questions regarding America’s intelligence agencies’ ties to the Wuhan lab have come up. In June, I reportedthat one of the earliest gain-of-function experiments done at the Wuhan lab—where Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli houses what is likely the largest collection of bat-borne coronaviruses in the world—were funded by USAID. The aid agency’s funding was initially omitted from the paper that published the results of those experiments. But these new whistleblower allegations, which come from the CIA itself, present the first plausible evidence connecting America’s lead intelligence agency to efforts to sway official assessments of the pandemic’s origin.
The whistleblower’s testimony appears to reveal how deep the ties between virus research, the military-industrial complex, and China really run, and corroborates the diligent work of researchers and journalists who have been investigating the virus’s origins for the past three years. What these investigations have shown is that agencies including the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (formerly led by Fauci), as well as USAID, funneled millions of taxpayer dollars through an otherwise obscure New York NGO called EcoHealth Alliance to virus research programs. USAID, which was caught as recently as 2014 building a fake Twitter in Cuba on behalf of the CIA, gave $64.7 million to EcoHealth Alliance. At least $1.1 million of the USAID money went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses.
In one collaboration between WIV’s Shi Zhengli and University of North Carolina—the study where USAID was mysteriously omitted from the funding disclaimer—researcher Ralph Baric produced a new hybrid virus that would later be described as the “prototype” for making SARS-CoV-2 in a lab. Baric is widely credited as the leading figure in coronavirus-related gain-of-function (GoF) research, the controversial line of experimentation by which scientists intentionally engineer viruses to be either more virulent or more deadly. Back in 2012, GoF work set off alarm bells when two different studies succeeded in giving avian flu—which has a species-ending 60% death rate in humans but has a hard time infecting mammalian cells—the ability to spread through the air between mammals.
Why would the United States government want to give Chinese researchers, who answer to their CCP bosses, the ability to conduct research that could potentially lead to mass deaths? And why would they want to fund it? One answer lies in Fauci’s true role inside the government. Contrary to the popular depiction of Fauci as an altruistic public health official, he was in fact deeply embedded in the U.S. military establishment through his role as the first head of U.S. biodefense, which made intelligence gathering essential to his work. Unlike nuclear weapons development, which requires the underlying physics to be transferred into technologies capable of delivering a warhead that detonates a nuclear reaction, advanced virus research provides little to no differentiation between the results of scientific experimentation and what essentially amounts to a bioweapon.
This is known in the field as dual-use research—work that could simultaneously produce advances capable of serving civilian and military ends. But scientists like Richard Ebright have argued that, to date, gain-of-function research and its scientific sibling—the virus-hunting that gathers previously unknown pathogens from the wild for scientists like Baric and Shi to study and modify—have produced no civilian benefit whatsoever. Indeed, despite USAID’s $200 million virus-hunting and surveillance program, “Predict,” it was Chinese doctors who alerted the world to the new pathogen rampaging around through Hubei province in late 2019, while those in the U.S. running nine-figure global surveillance programs remained, at least for a while, blissfully unaware.
Proponents of this type of research often point out that respiratory viruses make ineffective weapons since they infect your enemy’s population as well as your own. But this is not entirely true. The possession of an effective vaccine by one side prior to the release of a deadly virus transforms the pathogen from a common scourge into a strategic weapon. And this is, of course, why vaccines are of primary importance to America’s national security apparatus; without them the nation is susceptible to an attack that not only destroys the bodies of those it targets but, as we’ve seen, disrupts global trade and tears through the social fabric. It presents the potential for exactly the kind of superweapon that Dick Cheney panicked over in the early 2000s when he anointed Fauci, then just one among 27 directors of NIH institutes and centers, as head of American biodefense. (It’s also why, despite his penchant for prevarication, a taste for the limelight, and a deft hand at obfuscation, it’s hard to deny that Fauci’s intention was to serve his government and country.)
Whatever the exact mechanism, it is clear that the United States government had an interest in pursuing this research. So perhaps it’s understandable that senior officials at the CIA, who would have known that they were risking a major scandal by obscuring evidence that tied the pandemic to a lab connected to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, would have decided the risk was worth it. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that U.S. government and intelligence agencies, which had been involved in research carried out in those labs for so long, would allow the fact to become common knowledge in the midst of an unfolding pandemic.
Whatever their reasons, the effect on public discussion of the pandemic was immediate, with the media dutifully falling in line with the cover-up. One of the main pillars journalists used to enforce the claim that inquiry into a “lab leak" was an irresponsible and even racist conspiracy was the intelligence community’s tilt toward the explanation that the pandemic likely came from an animal—a phenomenon known as zoonosis. An assessment of a lab origin for COVID-19 by the CIA would have undoubtedly altered the calculus. The New York Times, citing a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted this past spring that “The C.I.A. and another agency remain unable to determine the precise origin of the pandemic, given conflicting intelligence.”
The New York Times and Washington Post were among the first major news outlets to cast a lab origin as not merely unlikely but as a “conspiracy theory.” The papers published twin accounts on Feb. 17, 2020—a month before any scientific study, or even raw data, had been published suggesting a zoonotic origin was likely. In its story from that day, the Times pointed to questions raised in the senate by Sen. Tom Cotton as “fringe” theories about bioweapons. “Mr. Cotton later walked back the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon run amok,” the Times reported.
Cotton, however, never once mentioned the possibility of a bioweapon, nor did he walk back those would-be claims. Instead, the connection between Cotton’s statements and the question of bioweapons was an invention that existed solely in the pages of the Times’ story. There, off-the-wall speculation pulled from Steve Bannon’s podcast (of all places) was juxtaposed with Cotton’s actual remarks, including benign statements like, “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated [from the lab].” If it wasn’t outright propaganda from America’s leading establishment publications, it certainly looked like it: China Daily made the exact same misassociation in a piece published one week prior to the Times’ own article.
The New York Times article was written by reporter Alexandra Stevenson, who claimed in her piece that “experts generally dismiss the idea” that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab. Stevenson, however, failed to name a single expert or cite a study, which raises a critical question: Where did she get that information? But just as notable was the fact that the Times tapped Stevenson for its first major story on the pandemic’s origin. While the paper had plenty of its own science and health reporters to choose from, it instead assigned the story of a global pandemic to Stevenson, a business reporter with little to no experience reporting on viruses, diseases or pandemics. (Stevenson directed previous requests for comment to The New York Times’ communications department, which did not respond.)
In a parallel worthy of The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson is the daughter of William Stevenson, a reporter who, according to his Times obituary, “spent much of his career straddling the worlds of espionage and journalism,” eventually working for the Near and Far East News Group, a British government propaganda outfit. William Stevenson wrote a bestselling chronicle of the life of William Stephenson, a Canadian spy credited with playing a significant role in the creation of early incarnations of the CIA.
This is not to say that the younger Stevenson has ties to intelligence—there is no evidence to suggest this. But it does raise questions concerning the prerogatives and incentives of the professional elite that cuts across government, media, intelligence and, of course, science. The media went to bat for Anthony Fauci, a power broker who, as America’s top biodefense official, sat at the precise intersection of government, science, and national security. This seems inevitable given the shared interests and incentives among the various members of that class. Despite Fauci’s dramatic and destabilizing switchbacks on key issues like masking, the media was relentless in beatifying him as a technocratic saint. We should not be surprised that CIA officials and other members of the military-industrial complex got the same treatment.
This phenomenon of interlocking professional power is evident in the connections between the media and the intelligence community. Carl Bernstein reported in his landmark 1977 story that then-publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger (great-grandfather to the present-day publisher) signed a “secret agreement with the CIA” as part of its effort to give covert operatives cover as Times journalists. As I wrote in The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions, and Fabrications Radically Alter History, the Times collaborated with the Department of War in the late 1930s and early 1940s to deny the existence of radiation poisoning as a result of the atomic bombing of Japan, going so far as to have its top science reporter pen propaganda pamphlets on the topic. In exchange, it got unprecedented exclusive access to the Manhattan Project and, indeed, to the bombing run on Nagasaki itself—as well as a Pulitzer for the resulting reporting.
Just as important as the letter released this week by the House select subcommittee is the utter lack of coverage by news organizations that came out strong and early against a lab origin, like the Times and Washington Post. Despite the implications of the claim—the CIA bribing its own experts to alter professional assessments in a way that would favor the CCP—and the quality of the source, there has been nothing yet from either outlet as of the time of this writing.
As Rudyard Kipling wrote in Kim, his famous novel about international spy games playing out under the cover of seemingly mundane events in 19th-century India, the wheel turns, and turns again.