What Happened Today: September 30, 2022
Dealmaking in Elon Musk’s text messages; CIA missteps led to Iranian torture of informants; 30-second implosion of a political campaign
The Big Story
Twitter shouldn’t be a publicly traded corporation, said Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in a trove of Elon Musk’s text messages made public in court filings on Thursday as part of Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter to terminate his purchase of the platform. “It should have never been a company. That was the original sin,” Dorsey said, adding that a new social media platform not subject to censorship and “advertising revenue” was needed instead. Such critiques were shared by several other Silicon Valley leaders and some of the world’s wealthiest individuals in messages exchanged with Musk after he announced in April that he would buy the company and take it private. Mathias Döpfner, the top executive of Axel Springer, said he was willing to run Twitter for Musk “and establish a true platform of free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.”
Oracle founder Larry Ellison and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman were both quick to offer $2 billion in support of Musk’s acquisition in their text message exchanges, revealing the appetite within Silicon Valley for a new kind of open-source social platform that wouldn’t be subject to the intensifying public-private censorship carried out by the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP). As highlighted in a new analysis from Just the News, EIP is a consortium of Stanford and University of Washington academics working with the Atlantic Council and a social media consulting firm that collaborated directly with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to remove or throttle more than 4,000 news stories from social media platforms ahead of the 2020 election.
The federal government outsourcing state-sponsored censorship raised “very real First Amendment questions,” according to Renée DiResta, a leader within the Stanford arm of the consortium. More worrisome, the group found success across several social platforms in 2020, removing at least 13% of flagged news articles originating from predominantly conservative news outlets. Following that election, new federal grants flowed to the consortium members, including $5 million in awards from the Department of Defense. In July, the EIP announced its more ambitious 2022 midterm election campaign, which sought to ensure “collaborative sense-making” was in line with “the surrounding information environment.”
In the Back Pages: Weekend Reads
→ The CIA was routinely negligent in its handling of its Iranian informants, a yearlong Reuters investigation found, and that negligence led to the beating and torture of numerous American assets in Iran. A “faulty covert communications system” enabled the Iranian government to easily intercept secret messages—something one informant taken into custody teased out after being baffled as to how the Iranian government knew everything. “These are things I never told anyone in the world,” the informant told Reuters. Another informant was asked to make information drops at a site that the CIA knew was being monitored by the Iranian government. Furthermore, the CIA did not offer these informants or their families any assistance after they were caught and tortured. Reuters’ report adds to growing concern about the CIA’s ability to build out its network of informants; in a secret cable obtained by The New York Times last year, CIA leadership noted that the agency was losing an unsustainable number of foreign assets, who were being captured and killed.
→ Seeking to circumnavigate public scrutiny as they increased their influence over the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, Peter Thiel’s data-analytics startup Palantir devised a scheme to buy several smaller companies with existing relationships with NIH, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. In a contribution to the forever-expanding tabulation of things one maybe shouldn’t put in writing, a Palantir executive penned an email with the subject line “Buying our way in … !” with a note that included an ambitious “hoovering up” of vendors tied to NIH that would “take a lot of ground and take down a lot of political resistance.” There was much to be gained for Palantir by expanding its existing business relationship with NIH, whose $208 billion annual budget makes it one of the largest operations in the world. Palantir, it seemed, had hoped to evade the type of controversy it stirred up in the past over its involvement in expanding invasive surveillance programs for government agencies in the United States and abroad. Responding to the emails seen by Bloomberg, a Palantir representative said that the language in the messages was indeed “regrettable” but that it was “not an accurate characterization of our relationship with the NHS.”
→ Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—the former president of Brazil who was in prison in 2018 on corruption charges when his left-wing Workers Party was swept from power by Jair Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party in a landslide victory—is poised to win back the presidency this coming Sunday. Lula remained a historically popular leader at the end of his term, with an 87% approval rating. That favorability dipped as Lula’s successor, a man he personally chose, collapsed Brazil’s economy and was impeached in the most wide-reaching corruption case in Brazil’s history. Lula seems to have emerged from prison and political purgatory a changed man, with a pragmatic vision for his country that is supported by a broad center-left coalition. “I have lived a full life. I have no time for hatred or revenge. I only have time to believe that tomorrow will be a better day,” he said in a recent campaign ad.
→ Quote of the Day:
Yale not only tolerates the cancellation of views—it actively practices it. Starting today, I will no longer hire law clerks from Yale Law School. And I hope that other judges will join me as well.
Judge James Ho of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in remarks delivered to the Kentucky Chapters Conference of the Federalist Society. Yale Law, considered the top law school in the country, has repeatedly been at the center of controversy in recent years over issues of free speech. In March, more than 100 students shouted down a panel hosted by the Federalist Society that was intended to illustrate that liberal and conservative thinkers “could find common ground on free speech issues”—an anodyne idea that was met with fury. Another dustup led the “Yale Law Journal to host a diversity trainer who told students that antisemitism is merely a form of anti-blackness [because some Jews are black] and suggested that the FBI artificially inflates the number of antisemitic hate crimes.”
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→ In yesterday’s Scroll, we noted the job prospects of online “creators” and social media “influencers,” most of whom don’t earn enough to support themselves. Influencers in India, however, now hope to be hired to host Amazon Live, a new QVC-style home shopping network where viewers tune in to see their favorite celebrities and influencers touting products that Amazon rush delivers. This is part of Amazon’s $6.5 billion effort to win over India’s growing market of middle-class consumers, and the company hopes that the new service will see the same success that such programs have had in China, where one influencer, Austin Li, typically sells more than a billion dollars’ worth of goods per stream.
→ Thread of the Day:
Television showrunner and author David Simon weighed in on the criminal justice debate this week following more grim crime statistics of rising death rates and assault coming out of U.S. cities; he noted that, despite critiques to the contrary, a wide body of research shows that a city is made safest when police target its repeat violent offenders. “As Fitzgerald told us, the sign of a first-rate mind is the capacity to hold two—seemingly—contradictory ideas at once and see their value,” Simon wrote, a reference to the notion that legitimate police work does not need to be mutually exclusive to reforms to “mass incarceration and the drug war [that] have filled too many American prisons.”
→ Paul Gicheru, a Kenyan lawyer accused of bribing and intimidating witnesses in a case tied to the country’s president, William Ruto, was found dead in his home outside Nairobi on Tuesday. Gicheru was tried in the International Criminal Court at the Hague earlier this year and was awaiting the verdict in a case that marks the latest in a series of scandals that have plagued Kenya’s political class since the violent presidential election of 2007, which was followed by charges of election fraud and civil unrest that claimed the lives of more than 800 people. During that unrest, Ruto distributed weapons and “kill lists” of political opponents—acts for which he was indicted in 2011 by the Hague and found guilty of crimes against humanity. The Hague is still investigating the aftermath of that violent election, and numerous witnesses have disappeared in the process.
→ If you happen to find yourself on the ticket in a tight race for a statewide office but don’t actually want to serve anymore, then you might not find a more effective method for tanking your campaign than the move deployed this week by Christine Maine, the Democratic candidate for Connecticut General Assembly. Speaking about the difficulty the state had in finding new candidates for law enforcement during a radio debate with her Republican opponent, she said her time as a magistrate processing a high volume of police warrants convinced her the problem was the type of people who go into law enforcement in the first place: “I knew them very, very well. And some of them joined the police department because they wanted to beat people up with impunity. They wanted to have sex because their uniform attracted women, and they wanted to speed. And I was shocked when they told me that.” Her wild speculation about why anyone enters into law enforcement left her opponent speechless, and now at least one Democratic group is set to vote next week on revoking their support for Maine. “We were frankly shocked and appalled by her statement,” the Putnam Democratic Town Committee wrote in a statement.
→ David Gottesman, a quiet Wall Street winner and a patron of beloved institutions in the United States and Israel, died on Wednesday in New York. He was 96. Born in 1926 in New York City, Gottesman understood early that he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and work in finance. “I was not a good student, more interested in making money,” Gottesman told The New York Times. After a short stint in the Army and a rushed course of college study, Gottesman finally arrived at Harvard Business School and then hurried to Wall Street. His career exploded following a fateful introduction in 1963 to Warren Buffet, who would become Gottesman’s lifelong friend and investment partner. Gottesman was an early investor in Buffet’s company, Berkshire Hathaway. “There probably has never been a better return on any stock held for 44 years in the history of Wall Street,” Mr. Gottesman said, speculating that his initial investment had likely increased by 6,000 times its initial value. As a philanthropist, Gottesman left his mark on many institutions. In Jerusalem, he helped fund The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (which his mother was instrumental in securing for Israel decades before), the Gottesman Family Aquarium, and the new National Library. In New York, his family’s name is on libraries across the city, from Yeshiva University to Columbia University, and adorns the entrance to the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Planet Earth. Gottesman is survived by his wife, Ruth, his three children, and his six grandchildren.
Additional reporting and writing provided by The Scroll’s associate editor, David Sugarman
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→ French author Emmanuel Carrère is out with his latest book, Yoga, and while there is actual yoga sprinkled throughout the narrative, that’s hardly what the book is about, exactly. As Lucy Sante notes for Bookforum, Carrère’s “books have subjects, for the most part originating outside of him, that he winds himself around like a vine.”
Sometimes it’s as if he were reviving the New Journalism of distant memory, inserting himself into the story as the scrupulously frank hands-on reporter who occasionally competes with the nominal subject. He began primarily as a novelist (he was born in 1957), but since the waning years of the twentieth century everything he has written has spotlighted his self-doubts, his misgivings, his ambitions, and his love life.
It’s hard to quote Carrère, since his gift is not for the making of phrases per se, but resides in his élan, his pacing, his ability to build momentum from the shape and movement of his thoughts. In his best work he is chatty and confiding, and the many apparently extraneous elements that crowd in—stray memories, literary citations, remembered conversations, full-blown flashbacks, not to mention his constant self-questioning—only assist his drive. That is because they all contribute to the suspense of watching Carrère find his story, hacking through the underbrush, machete in hand. He succeeds in conveying the illusion that his insights are occurring in real time, as we look on. That bit of legerdemain makes every nugget seem dewy fresh and the less worthy of them lightly forgivable. His books may be a succession of self-portraits captioned “Me having an insight,” but the insights have mostly been worth the price.
→ Joshua Cohen reviews Jared Kushner’s foray into the White House memoir racket and, well:
Jared Kushner, former special adviser to the president of the United States, is Don Corleone’s dream come to waking life: he is the grandson of immigrants to New Jersey who worked in the trades and the eldest son of a New York property developer and manager who did time in federal prison after entrapping his brother-in-law in a recorded encounter with a prostitute he’d hired and copping a plea to sixteen counts of tax evasion, one count of retaliating against a federal witness, and one count of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission regarding his and his company’s illegal campaign contributions, most of which were to Democrats, and some of which were to the Clintons.
Credit where it’s due: the wholesale import of Manhattan real estate realpolitik into the White House that’s usually attributed to Trump was just as much a contribution of Kushner’s—perhaps even more so, given that Trump spent vast swaths of his administration on the fairways and in executive-time social-mediating, whereas Kushner’s portfolio as an adviser kept growing, from renegotiating NAFTA to figuring out prison reform, with his father on his conscience and the lobbying of Kim Kardashian in his pocket.
Dealing with these disparate briefs, he was guided less by the Latin of the Great Seal—E Pluribus Unum—than by the outer-borough demotic of Greg Cuneo, a contractor-macher who used to work for the Kushner Company and once told Kushner, Tutti mangia, or “Everybody eats” (which Kushner leadenly translates as “Everybody has to eat”). It was this principle of spreading the dough around and making room at the trough that Kushner brought with him when he switched from negotiating air rights to negotiating treaties: “People found that they could make money by working with me, which led to many incredible opportunities.”