US spy agencies say origins of COVID-19 may never be known

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, left, next to CIA Director William Burns, testifies at a US House Intelligence committee hearing on Oct. 27, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 30 October 2021
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US spy agencies say origins of COVID-19 may never be known

  • ODNI report dismissed suggestions that the coronavirus originated as a bioweapon
  • China has faced criticism for failing to cooperate more fully in investigations of COVID’s origins

WASHINGTON: US intelligence agencies said on Friday they may never be able to identify the origins of COVID-19, as they released a new, more detailed version of their review of whether the coronavirus came from animal-to-human transmission or leaked from a lab.
The Office of the US Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a declassified report that a natural origin and a lab leak are both plausible hypotheses for how SARS-COV-2 first infected humans. But it said analysts disagree on which is more likely or whether any definitive assessment can be made at all.
The report also dismissed suggestions that the coronavirus originated as a bioweapon, saying proponents of this theory “do not have direct access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology” and have been accused of spreading disinformation.
The report issued on Friday is an update of a 90-day review that President Joe Biden’s administration released in August, amid intense political infighting over how much to blame China for the effects of the global pandemic rather than governments that may not have moved quickly enough to protect citizens.
China responded on Friday by criticizing the report.
“The US moves of relying on its intelligence apparatus instead of scientists to trace the origins of COVID-19 is a complete political farce,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in an emailed statement.
.”.. It will only undermine science-based origins study and hinder the global effort of finding the source of the virus,” the statement said.
Former Republican President Donald Trump — who lost his bid for re-election as the deadly pandemic ravaged the US economy — and many of his supporters referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”
Some US spy agencies had strongly favored the explanation that the virus originated in nature. But there has been little corroboration and over recent months the virus has spread widely and naturally among wild animals.
The ODNI report said four US spy agencies and a multi-agency body have “low confidence” that COVID-19 originated with an infected animal or a related virus.
But one agency said it had “moderate confidence” that the first human COVID-19 infection most likely was the result of a laboratory accident, probably involving experimentation or animal handling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
US spy agencies believe they will not be able to produce a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 without new information demonstrating that the virus took a specific pathway from animals to humans or that a Wuhan laboratory was handling the virus or a related virus before COVID-19 surfaced.
The report said US agencies and the global scientific community lacked “clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases” and said it could revisit this inconclusive finding if more evidence surfaces.
China has faced international criticism for failing to cooperate more fully in investigations of COVID’s origins.
The embassy statement also dismissed that criticism.
“We have been supporting science-based efforts on origins tracing, and will continue to stay actively engaged. That said, we firmly oppose attempts to politicize this issue,” it said. 


US probes security risks posed by Chinese tech in cars

Updated 14 sec ago
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US probes security risks posed by Chinese tech in cars

  • The latest investigation concerns vehicles that constantly connect with personal devices, other cars, US infrastructure and their manufacturers — including electric and self-driving cars

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden announced an investigation Thursday into the national security risks posed by Chinese tech in cars, warning they could be used to collect sensitive data.
He has ordered the Commerce Department to conduct the probe, focusing on connected vehicles containing technology from “countries of concern” such as China, and to respond to threats.
“China is determined to dominate the future of the auto market, including by using unfair practices,” Biden said in a statement.
“China’s policies could flood our market with its vehicles, posing risks to our national security.”
Washington has been working to lower the US auto sector’s reliance on China, offering tax breaks for American-made electric vehicles and batteries, while trying to build up its domestic production capacity.
The latest investigation concerns vehicles that constantly connect with personal devices, other cars, US infrastructure and their manufacturers — including electric and self-driving cars.
As part of the probe, Commerce will collect information with a 60-day public comment period.
Authorities could eventually impose limits on some transactions but officials did not commit to a timeline.

The White House said connected vehicles collect vast amounts of data on drivers and passengers, log information on US infrastructure through cameras and sensors, and can be piloted or disabled remotely.
“New vulnerabilities” could arise if a foreign government gained access to their systems or data, it added.
“This is yet another acknowledgment by the Biden administration that critical and emerging technologies are set to shape both economic growth and national security,” Thibault Denamiel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.
It is noteworthy that the new measure considers “risks associated by technology transfers into the United States,” he added.
Previous moves, such as outbound investment restrictions and semiconductor export controls, focused on transfers from the United States to foreign countries.

“China imposes restrictions on American autos and other foreign autos operating in China,” said Biden.
“Why should connected vehicles from China be allowed to operate in our country without safeguards?” he added.
While there are not many such vehicles containing China-made tech on US roads currently, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo stressed the need to “understand the extent of the technology in these cars.”
A senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity it is important to act before there are large numbers of these vehicles in the country, with China’s automobile export market growing rapidly and making strong inroads including in Europe.
In a January post-earnings conference call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Chinese car companies were “the most competitive” globally, expecting that they would likely be successful outside China.
“If there are not trade barriers established, they will pretty much demolish most other car companies in the world,” he said.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing welcomed the investigation, calling for more to be done including higher tariffs and limiting EV tax credits.
In November, 14 members of Congress signed letters to 10 China-related companies involved in the auto sector — including Baidu, Didi Chuxing and AutoX — raising concerns over the handling of data collected when testing autonomous vehicles in the United States.
Besides autos, the White House said this week that Biden was issuing an executive order aimed at limiting the flow of sensitive US personal data abroad.


French President Macron calls for immediate ceasefire in Gaza

Updated 6 min 57 sec ago
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French President Macron calls for immediate ceasefire in Gaza

French President Emmanuel Macron called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Friday and said the situation in Gaza is “terrible.”
“Deep indignation at the images coming from Gaza where civilians have been targeted by Israeli soldiers. I express my strongest condemnation of these shootings and call for truth, justice, and respect for international law,” Macron said in a post on the social platform X, formerly known as Twitter.


US Supreme Court’s move to hear Trump’s immunity claim gives him gift of delay

Updated 21 min 27 sec ago
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US Supreme Court’s move to hear Trump’s immunity claim gives him gift of delay

  • Trump’s lawyers have argued that he should be shielded from prosecution for his effort to reverse President Joe Biden’s election victory over him because he was president when he took those actions
  • Some legal experts criticized the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three Trump appointees, for undue delay

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court appears likely to reject Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for trying to undo his 2020 election loss, according to legal experts, but its decision to spend months on the matter could aid his quest to regain the presidency by further delaying a monumental criminal trial.
Trump’s lawyers have argued that he should be shielded from prosecution for his effort to reverse President Joe Biden’s election victory over him because he was president when he took those actions, a sweeping assertion of immunity firmly rejected by lower courts.
But the Supreme Court’s decision not to schedule its arguments on the issue until late April reduces the chances that a trial on election subversion charges brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith could be finished before the Nov. 5 US election. Trump is cruising toward the Republican nomination to challenge Biden, a Democrat.
Some legal experts criticized the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three Trump appointees, for undue delay.
“They could have set a more aggressive briefing and argument schedule, as Smith requested,” University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman said. “The immunity claims are also outlandish. They could have been rejected on the papers (legal briefs) if they wanted to be the one to decide it.”
“They’ll reject his immunity bid,” Litman added, but forecast that the soonest a decision would come is May.
Legal experts said the justices would need to rule by about June 1 to leave enough time for Trump’s trial on the charges to wrap up before Election Day.
Smith, seeking to avoid trial delays, had asked the justices on Dec. 11 to launch a fast-track review of the immunity claim. Trump asked the justices to not expedite the review, and on Dec. 22 they did what he requested, opting to let the matter play out in a lower court rather than resolving it right away.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Feb. 6 upheld US District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s Dec. 1 ruling rejecting the immunity claim. Trump on Feb. 12 asked the Supreme Court to freeze the D.C. Circuit ruling. On Feb. 14, Smith asked the justices to reject Trump’s bid to further delay the matter. It took the court two more weeks before it announced it would hear arguments in the matter, which it scheduled for the week of April 22.
The trial had been scheduled to start on March 4 before the delays over the immunity issue. Now no trial date is set.

Four prosecutions
The case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces. A March 25 trial date has been set on charges in state court in New York involving hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. It is unclear when the other criminal cases will go to trial.
Trump has pleaded not guilty in all four cases, seeking to portray them as politically motivated.
“I should not have to go through any fake prosecutions before the election,” Trump wrote on social media on Feb. 19.
A criminal conviction could harm Trump’s election chances. In Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls, a quarter of Republicans and half of independents said they would not vote for Trump if a jury convicted him of a felony.
If he is elected and becomes president again next January, he could order an end to this case and a second brought by Smith concerning Trump’s handling of classified documents — or seek to pardon himself for any federal convictions.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked with Trump during the 2020 campaign, said of the delays in the trial timeline as the Supreme Court resolves the immunity matter: “It’s hard to overstate what a victory this is politically for the Trump legal team and for Donald Trump.”
“This is a great benefit to Trump in terms of the timeline of these cases, and how they may interact with the election, particularly in the fall,” O’Connell said.

Slowing things down
University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade, a former senior federal prosecutor appointed by President Barack Obama, said that a time frame for the election subversion trial “is manageable as long as the Supreme Court acts promptly, and remains mindful of the public’s right to a speedy trial.”
McQuade added that “it seems likely that the court will uphold the D.C. Circuit ruling against Trump.”
“I think that Trump’s arguments are pretty thin,” added Georgetown University law professor Erica Hashimoto.
Chutkan has promised to give Trump about 90 days to prepare for trial once the case returns to her courtroom, with a trial expected to last six to eight weeks. For a verdict to come before the election, the trial would need to start by around Sept. 1, McQuade said.
UCLA School of Law elections expert Richard Hasen said that if the Supreme Court’s ruling comes in late June, “it is not at all clear that there could be a trial before the election.”
“I’m also skeptical the judge would make Trump go to trial if he’s the general election candidate on the Republican side,” Hasen added.
Hasen forecast that the Supreme Court “is likely to reject Trump’s immunity argument on the merits.”
Delaying the trial gives Trump more time to rally supporters around his claim that the charges were politically motivated, an assertion that Reuters/Ipsos polls show is broadly held by Republican voters.
Some experts cite Trump’s long-established record of making strategic use of court delays for legal and political advantage.
Hasen noted that “given the weakness of Trump’s position, it’s reasonable to ask whether this is simply an attempt, now more likely to be successful, to run out the clock.”

 


Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

Updated 01 March 2024
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Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

  • The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death

MOSCOW: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny will be buried in Moscow later on Friday amid tight security and fears of a police crackdown two weeks after he suddenly died at the age of 47 in an Arctic penal colony.
Navalny’s allies — who have promised to livestream the day’s events online — have accused President Vladimir Putin of having him murdered because the Russian leader could allegedly not tolerate the thought of Navalny being freed in a potential prisoner swap.
They have not published proof to back up that accusation, but have promised to set out how he was murdered and by whom.
The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death and has said it is unaware of any agreement to free Navalny. His death certificate — according to allies — said he died of natural causes.
Navalny, a former lawyer, mounted the most determined political challenge against Putin since the Russian leader came to power at the end of 1999, organizing street protests and publishing high-profile investigations into the alleged corruption of some in the ruling elite.
But a series of criminal charges for fraud and extremism — which Navalny said were politically-motivated — saw him handed jail sentences of over 30 years and most of his supporters have either fled the country or are in jail.
Navalny decided to return to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for what Western doctors said was poisoning with a nerve agent only to be immediately taken into custody.
Putin, who controls all the levers of state and is expected to be comfortably re-elected for another six-year term in two weeks, has yet to comment on Navalny’s death and has for years avoided mentioning him by name.
Though Navalny is well known in the West, state TV inside Russia did not mention him for years either and when it did it was brief and in a negative light.
A religious service for Navalny is due to be held at 1400 local time in the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in the Moscow district of Maryino where Navalny used to live.
He is then scheduled to be buried at the Borisovskoye cemetery, around 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away on the other side of the Moskva River two hours later.
Navalny’s allies, who are outside Russia and have been designated as US-backed extremists by the authorities, have called on people who want to honor his memory but cannot attend his funeral service to instead go to certain landmarks in their own towns on Friday evening at 7 p.m. local time.
The Kremlin has dismissed statements by his allies as provocative and warned that the police will uphold the law.
Judging from previous gatherings of Navalny supporters, a heavy police presence is likely and the authorities will break up anything they deem to resemble a political demonstration under protest laws.
Navalny’s wife Yulia, with whom he had two children, has said she is unsure whether the funeral itself will pass off peacefully or whether police will arrest attendees. She is outside Russia.
Navalny’s mother Lyudmila, 69, is expected to attend his funeral. It is unclear who else will be allowed into the church for the service.
Navalny was a Christian who condemned Putin’s decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine as a crazy enterprise built on lies. But the church that will host his funeral has donated to the Russian army and enthusiastically advertised its backing for the war.
In the run-up to his funeral, his allies accused the authorities of blocking their plans to hold a bigger civil memorial service and said unknown individuals had even managed to thwart their attempts to hire a hearse to transport him to his own funeral.
The Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Navalny’s funeral arrangements.


First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

Updated 01 March 2024
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First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: The first US spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo astronauts fell silent Thursday, a week after breaking a leg at touchdown and tipping over near the lunar south pole.
Intuitive Machines’ lander, Odysseus, lasted longer than the company anticipated after it ended up on its side with hobbled solar power and communication.
The end came as flight controllers received one last photo from Odysseus and commanded its computer and power systems to standby. That way, the lander can wake up in another two to three weeks — if it survives the bitterly cold lunar night. Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said these final steps drained the lander’s batteries and put Odysseus “down for a long nap.”
“Good night, Odie. We hope to hear from you again,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.
Before losing power, Odysseus sent back what Intuitive Machines called “a fitting farewell transmission.”
Taken just before touchdown, the picture shows the bottom of the lander on the moon’s pockmarked surface, with a tiny crescent Earth and a small sun in the background.
The lander was originally intended to last about a week at the moon.
Houston-based Intuitive Machines became the first private business to land a spacecraft on the moon without crashing when Odysseus touched down Feb. 22. Only five countries had achieved that since the 1960s, including Japan, which made a sideways landing last month.
Odysseus carried six experiments for NASA, which paid $118 million for the ride. The first company to take part in NASA’s program for commercial lunar deliveries never made it to the moon; its lander came crashing back to Earth in January.
NASA views these private landers as scouts that will pave the way for astronauts due to arrive in another few years.
Until Odysseus, the last US moon landing was by Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.