Pompeo’s Latest Attempts To Propel Propaganda On Lab Escape Of SARS CoV-2 Suffer Two Epic Swat-Downs

Recall that back on April 30, I wrote about how the Trump Administration had been orchestrating a propaganda push to claim that SARS CoV-2 was accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Of special importance is that the New York Times article I cited on the topic specifically mentioned Mike Pompeo as one of the primary forces behind pushing the story. Recall also that a part of this propaganda effort came from “leaked” State Department cables.

Apparently, getting called out by the New York Times was not enough to deter Pompeo from this effort. He returned to the airwaves on May 3, telling ABC that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus came from the lab. And then “magically”, but in reality following the aluminum tubes playbook straight out of Cheney’s Iraq WMD playbook, a “report” came into the hands of NBC, who published it May 8. The report purportedly relied on “open source” data to make the case that some sort of accident occurred at the lab in late October, prompting officials to shut down the lab and block roads surrounding it. NBC debunked one aspect of the report in their story, noting that a conference at the lab that the report claims was cancelled in this timeframe actually took place as planned.

Yesterday, Erin Banco and colleagues at Daily Beast published what can only be described as one of the most epic slap-downs of fake intelligence I’ve ever seen. Please go read the piece in full, because summarizing cannot properly capture its full glory.

The dissection of the false intelligence in the report begins with work done by Jeffrey Lewis (one of the best follows on Twitter at @ArmsControlWonk), who utterly destroyed the report’s claims regarding satellite data:

What’s more, imagery collected by DigitalGlobe’s Maxar Technologies satellites and provided to The Daily Beast reveals a simpler, less exotic reason for why analysts believed “roadblocks” went into place around the lab after the supposed accident: road construction. The Maxar images also show typical workdays, with normal traffic patterns around the lab, after the supposedly cataclysmic event.

“This is an illustrated guide on how not to do open source analysis,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who analyzed the MACE report for The Daily Beast. “It is filled with apples-to-oranges comparisons, motivated reasoning, and a complete refusal to consider mundane explanations or place the data in any sort of context.”

That’s right. The report took images showing roads blocked for ordinary road construction and claimed they showed that a catastrophic accident in the lab meant that traffic had to be kept away to prevent exposure to the leaked virus.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. I’ll get to who MACE, who prepared the report, is a bit later. The story continues:

MACE’s analysts tried to establish a “pattern of life” at the Wuhan lab in order to reveal what they claim is an anomaly, one purportedly caused by a leak. The MACE document charts the movement of apparent Wuhan lab personnel into and out of the facility leading up to October, when the alleged leak took place. In one slide, analysts wrote that there is an “18 day gap” in which “there were no observable events” from devices at the lab between Oct. 6 and 24, supposedly suggesting an accidental leak.

In doing so, they appear to have been unaware of a key cultural factor complicating the normal course of events: a holiday. “The first week of October is a golden week in China, which is going to disrupt that pattern,” Lewis said.

Yep. The “anomaly” MACE ascribes to leak was in fact an ordinary holiday when activity would be diminished around the lab for a perfectly ordinary reason.

And the Daily Beast investigators spread the fun around, getting the folks at Bellingcat involved in investigating the claims made in the report:

The Daily Beast asked analysts at the award-winning open source investigative news outlet Bellingcat to review the MACE dossier and evaluate the quality of its conclusions. Within minutes of receiving the dossier, Bellingcat senior investigator Nick Waters disproved one of the MACE document’s claims: that a conference on biosafety lab management at the Wuhan lab scheduled for the first week of November was canceled.

But the conference did take place, as NBC first reported. Waters found a Facebook post from a Pakistani scientist who had attended the event and taken selfies there, including at the BSL-3 laboratory.

Wow. And Waters doesn’t stop there:

He also took a dig at one of the many amateurish elements in the MACE presentation. “Perhaps the authors should have spent more time testing their analysis rather than working out how to crop the eye of Sauron into a logo copy-pasted from the internet,” Waters said.

Okay, I got a huge laugh at the eye of Sauron bit. That’s because I’ve run into the folks behind MACE before. As Daily Beast points out, MACE stands for Multi Agency Collaboration Environment. And according to this link they provide, MACE is hosted at a company in Las Vegas by the name of Sierra Nevada Corporation. Way back in 2011, I wrote about a technology called Gorgon Stare, developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation, that claimed to enable real time remote viewing analysis of entire villages in Iraq or Afghanistan from imaging equipment carried by high-flying drones. Of course, this technology turned out to be a very expensive boondoggle that did nothing to help intelligence-gathering. I can’t help wondering if the eye of Sauron bit was an insider joke at Sierra Nevada that Waters understood and shot right back at them to ridicule this report and the old Gorgon Stare technology.

So, while the MACE report clearly originated in the US, what I haven’t seen yet is a clear indication of just when it surfaced, especially when it surfaced for senior Trump Administration officials and the intelligence community. It would not surprise me if it goes all the way back to the propaganda campaign in mid-April I described in my previous post. The version of the report that NBC published has the last several pages redacted with the description that this was done to protect names from being disclosed. That really makes me wonder if the specific question from John Roberts of Fox News to Trump on April 14 about an intern at the lab being infected and then spreading it to her boyfriend and the wet market was based on the redacted portion of the MACE report. All we know about timing is that the report had made its way to Congressional committees by May 8 when NBC published it.

There is another weak intelligence document, though, that this time is traced directly to the State Department. On May 7, the Sydney Morning Herald debunked a “dossier” that had been leaked from the US embassy in Canberra that the Daily Telegraph (a Rupert Murdoch paper in Australia) wrote about on May 2. The Herald says this about Australian officials  looking for the basis of the dossier:

Senior members of the Morrison government and Australian intelligence agencies at first had trouble finding the document. Eventually they found a research report, based on publicly available information including news reports, which appeared to fit the description. The research paper contained no information that was generated from intelligence gathering, according to people who have read it.

Labor MP Anthony Byrne, the deputy chair of the influential intelligence and security committee, was “incensed” by the report of the dossier. Mr Byrne, one of Parliament’s biggest supporters of the US alliance, directly raised his concerns with senior members of the Morrison government and intelligence agencies, saying Australia shouldn’t accept intelligence that doesn’t exist and fall for a “tricked-up document”.

There are now widespread suspicions within senior ranks of the Australian government and the intelligence community that the document was leaked to The Daily Telegraph by a staff member in the US embassy in Canberra. This suspicion, whether true or not, underlines how the positions between sections of Canberra and Washington national security circles have diverged over the claim. Some senior officials clearly believe the US embassy is pushing a narrative in the Australian media that could be counter to the beliefs and interests of its hosts.

The story continues:

The episode highlights the danger of mischaracterising the work of intelligence agencies. Some of the footnotes in the document contained references to US media reports that were based on unsubstantiated assertions from the US government – the same kind of circular intelligence which resulted in the “children overboard” affair in 2001.

Wow. The Herald also goes there, comparing this propaganda ploy to an Australian false information scandal of similar magnitude to the Iraq WMD operation in the US.

But again, Pompeo and those under him seem to be central to this whole operation. The Daily Telegraph story appeared just a day before Pompeo claimed “huge evidence” and likely was based on a document leaked by a US embassy. And then NBC published the MACE document a few days later. I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the document in Australia is the MACE document, but the Herald’s description and debunking of it sure would fit with them being the same or at least having the same source.

Given Pompeo’s central role in spreading propaganda that has been so easily refuted, I can’t help wondering if we will have another shoe drop on the firing of Steve Linick. Note that in his letter to Congress on the firing (which will be complete at the end of a 30 day clock starting Friday night), Trump said it was based on Pompeo’s suggestion that Linick be fired. Also note that we were first told it was because Linick was investigating Pompeo using State Department personnel to run personal errands. Today, that’s been expanded to cover the fast-tracking of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But in their article on that, CNN notes:

But at this time, House Democrats say they do not yet know which investigation was the biggest factor behind the decision to dismiss Linick.

“I wouldn’t assign percentages,” a Democratic committee aide said.

Democrats on both the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees are interested in learning more about Linick’s investigations into Pompeo, and Engel emphasized the importance of cooperation from the administration in his statement Monday.

“The administration should comply with the probe I launched with Senator Menendez and turn over all the records requested from the Department by Friday,” he said, a reference to Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I find it hard to believe that Pompeo would have felt truly threatened by either the investigation into using aides for personal errands or expediting the Saudi arms sales. Those just seem like garden variety Trump corruption that gets shrugged off as the next daily outrage appears. However, if Linick had started nosing around the leak of the State Department’s own Wuhan cables and/or the allegation of the leak of the report from the Canberra embassy, I think Pompeo would see a bigger danger. That would represent an investigation into an ongoing propaganda operation in which Pompeo disseminated easily disproved disinformation.

The final beautiful irony here is that if Linick had started such an investigation, it likely was based on open source information. Unlike the MACE information though, this open source information would consist of Pompeo’s own recorded media appearances and the subsequent public debunking of the propaganda. That propaganda getting debunked would be both Pompeo’s direct statements and the debunking of the “supporting” material that appears to have been released either by him or those doing his bidding.

It’s the Inequality, Stupid: Why Test, Trace, Isolate Won’t Stop Covid-19 in America

Asian teens dancing memes on disease safety precautions are amazing

Everything is changing, and in the face of that, America is failing. Over 90,000 souls have paid for our failing. Millions more are living in terror for their livelihoods and their families. But Covid-19 isn’t a technology problem, or a science question, or a supply chain issue, or even a question of doctoring. This challenge is public health, and that is something we’ve been failing at for a damn long time. Not completely, but for most people the American health system is a nightmare, and interacting with it is among Americans’ greatest fears. Without addressing that fact, anything else we do can’t succeed, not in the models of countries like South Korea, Germany, or the overlooked best of all pandemic responses, Vietnam. (Not only did they aggressively treat, trace, and quarantine every case, but they did wonderful and memeworthy public communication from the start)

 

…Versus pasty uncool white people protesting their right to sicken other people before they die themselves.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, who reacted quicker than any other governor to shut down the state of California, saved innumerable lives. Now he is opening many shops for curbside pick up, and relaxing other measures. “This is a very positive sign,” he said, “and it is happening for only one reason: The data says it can happen.”

But with testing capacity still lacking in the state, (fewer than 1 in 20 Californians being tested) the data says no such thing, and it’s even worse in most of the country. We are not ready to open. The history of fighting epidemics from Ebola to AIDS to antibiotic resistant TB is very clear. To stop an epidemic: catch every case with testing, trace every contact, and make sure the ill and their contacts can and do isolate safely, and be treated promptly if they fall ill. That last part is key, and each of these epidemics have borne  out that treatment is important to both preventing transmission, and creating a unified populous for fighting the epidemic. Without all of those elements, the only thing stopping Covid-19 burning through the world is staying home, staying distant from everyone else – the isolated life we’ve been living so far in this pandemic.

Sars-CoV-2 is an infectious respiratory virus with a as-of-yet unknown but presumed small infectious dose. One person missed, one popular guy or woman about town doing essential work can start the whole cycle again within days without ever so much a cough or a headache. One party full of invincible young people or one pre-symptomatic nurse can begin another train of transmission that can eventually sicken or kill thousands.

The decisions that determine the course of an epidemic, all epidemics, are personal decisions. They happen millions of times every day in all kinds of contexts around the world. They happen when a kid stays in, or sneaks out a window. They happen when a community of faith cannot bear to be apart and tries to find ways to cope. They happen when people are balancing the need for health and comfort against the proclamations of some local official who is now a soi-disant disease expert. They happen when a doctor with unexamined bigotry passes over caring for a black patient in favor of a white one, or a rich man over a poor woman. They walk the balancing line between top-down power, community consciousness, and the choices each person makes about who they care about and how they enact that caring. On this score, in this pandemic, America has one terrible failing that rises above all of its others: its unwillingness to provide treatment to the sick.

This nonsense.

There are a lot of bad and desperate ideas in America right now: immunity get-out-of-jail-free cards, Bluetooth contact tracing apps, incoherent partial re-openings, and going wild and pretending it’s all going to go away if we just can get a haircut.

The idea of certifying immunity status would be terrible. If you wanted something like that to work, it would have to convey no immediate benefit to the person being certified immune, and certainly not convey the benefit of being free and able to earn a living for yourself and your family. It is the ultimate moral hazard arising out of an immoral and unjust system.

How would you punish people for defrauding this system? Incarceration and fines would only drive more disease. And people faking immunity is the best case problem a health system would face. The worst is people intentionally getting the disease in order to be allowed back into society, and spreading the virus, even knowingly, because they are desperate. What will you do to the people using this system to get ahead in life? Covid-19 parties are inevitable, because people are people, but what happens when they become a condition for public life? Not only will it drive the poor to risk death while the rich sit away safer in their homes, it means that the level of disease will persist in semi-permanently trapping everyone who doesn’t want Covid-19 and can afford to never go out.

Bluetooth apps do not contract trace. Tracing is an intimate process, a long empathetic conversation with a person who understands your community and seeks to understand and hear you. You have to trust a contact tracer, you have to feel like the people who you name and place in their system will be cared for, protected, and treated, should the worst come to pass.

Bluetooth can’t tell if there’s a wall between you. It can’t tell how windy it was between you and that other person, or if you were stuck in traffic next to them for a half hour. An app can’t tell that you left your phone at home that one time. It cannot tell you of someone who went to the emergency room suddenly, phone lost and forgotten, only to be admitted for a week. It cannot tell you about someone who died alone at home, without ever being tested at all. It can tell you about neighbors you never see or speak to, but it can’t tell you it’s them, so you sit, wondering who it was, wondering if it was real, and what to do now.

Tracing a disease through a community is a human conversation. These are things only humans can do. This is a human job, and a job for those who are trusted by their communities, that speak the language, that know about the things that happen in the neighborhood.

Contact tracers don’t just question people. They mostly are there to listen, and to listen carefully, to safeguard people’s secrets and hopes as well as their shame and their double lives. They need to not just speak the language of those affected by the disease, they need to speak the culture. In the largely Spanish-speaking immigrant neighborhood where I am sheltering-in-place, I take many walks. And in those walks, I have seen hundreds of informational flyers, but almost none in Spanish – more failing.

We know that we need more testing and contact tracing, and we know we need people to quarantine to slow this disease, but before all that, we need to treat the people who are most at risk as human beings. In the long term, everyone’s fate depends on that.

If you want people to stay home and be safe, it has to be financially and logistically possible. People who are doing the right thing have to be supported and cared for. If you want people to seek medical care, it must be available and not cost more than the patient can reasonably pay – which means nothing for the poorest people.

Using police powers to enforce public health is also fool’s game. Any use of police powers must be rare and only for the most unusual situations — no one should be able to look at those situations and say “That could be me there.” The racist enforcement we’re seeing now defeats the goals of public health and endangers everyone, not only spreading the disease to the victims of these arrests, but preventing the populations they come out of from cooperating with public health investigations. Incarceration or fines only threaten to spread disease as wells as deepen poverty and resentment. Diseases, all diseases, feed on poverty and resentment.

Even with some as yet un-obtained insight into immunity status, we won’t know for years how long immunity lasts, or how strong it will be from person to person. We still need to understand how the virus is likely to evolve, and how it affects its victims long term, before we can say much about what the elusive goal of “herd immunity” would really mean.

The simple fact is: a million tests a day, a hundred million, won’t make a difference if the people most likely to get the virus don’t want to be tested because they can’t afford to test positive.

The unspoken problem with engaging with a testing regime is why do it when you can’t get treatment, or afford it if you could get it? Why go to the doctor when that risks destroying your family’s future? We want to test, trace the contacts of every case, and isolate everyone infected, and thus reopen the economy, but without the treatment piece, this idea fails the most basic part of epidemiology: universal participation.

The way we get out is not immunity passports or herd immunity, it’s not test test test, it’s a whole system of health that cares for the whole population. The things that have worked the world over, from Germany to Vietnam, always begin and end with universal access to healthcare. Not just testing, tracing, isolating, but the most important part of public health: treatment. But doing that requires a public health system with the public as the beneficiary, not a small percentage of those who can afford it with ease.

If you want people to work together to get out of this, the people coming forward need to know that themselves and their people will be tested and treated with dignity and mercy. They need to know that going to the hospital with Covid-19 doesn’t mean going bankrupt, giving up on dreams of educating their children, taking care of their parents, or facing deportation. They need to know that they will be treated on the basis of their illness, not their skin color, class, sex, or any other distinction the virus doesn’t respect. Biology doesn’t care about social distinctions. The virus doesn’t either — it is a simple machine that responds to the environment it finds itself in. It’s we who create more susceptible bodies through stress, ill health, co-morbidities untreated in a failed healthcare system. But the virus is not prejudiced, it only seems so in statistics. It will kill rich men in good health, and spare prisoners.

Not everyone is going to be prosocial, but when incentives are right, and peoples’ needs are met, overwhelmingly people do the right thing. There’s always exceptions, and those exceptions become news, but rarely are those the people who tip the balance. People well cared for and informed, educated and competent, will act for the best of their communities and loved ones. This in turn creates the kind of healthy communities that break the chains of transmission. If we concentrate on building healthcare capacity and supporting communities, many of the antisocial people will disappear into them, looked after by their own people. There will always be exceptions, but no one can tell you what to do like Grandma can, especially if Grandma can also see to it you get healthy food, a good education, and most importantly right now, medicine when you’re sick.

America’s health disparities, and the likelihood that Covid-19 could follow other coronavirus immunity patterns could mean that we’re doing this again every couple of years, even as other places in the world begin to recover. Our inability to treat, based on our desire to make medical treatment profitable, will doom us to cycles of disease until most susceptible Americans have died, and others who remain are maimed by the potential long term consequences of this disease.

Even with a vaccine, access in our current system, as well as the poison of antivaxxers, could doom the effort to control the disease. If we chose to do nothing to help or treat the victims of Covid-19, our commitment to denying healthcare to all could potentially keep chains of transmission alive for decades. With universal access to care and aid for isolation, we could break that chain in the next few months. But as we have currently constructed what it means to be American, that would be impossible. The choice this country faces is whether to change as a country, or possibly cease to be out of our commitment to inequality.


My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Photo thanks to Becker1999, and more thanks to Ryan Singel


Deficit Hawks Screeching In The Background

The deficit harpies are warming up in the background. [1] Inflation is just around the corner, they shriek, by which they mean Democrats might take over government. There must be a handbook in which their arguments are laid out probably in red ink. They claim that whatever the Fed and the Treasury do to help anyone has to be paid for sooner rather than later by increasing taxes. Those taxes will fall heavily on the capitalists, which (or who) will destroy economic growth. They claim the government is sucking up all the investment capital, which chokes growth. They say the vast amount of debt will hurt the standing of the US in international finance. It’s predictable and this time it’s silly.

1. The numbers. Congress has authorized $2.2 trillion in spending to deal with the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. That’s on top of other spending in a budget originally proposing a deficit of $!.1 trillion. With other spending on Covid-19 issues and reduced tax revenue, the current estimate for fiscal 2020 is about $3.8 trillion. We can reasonably assume another $1 trillion will be needed for states and municipalities, treatments and vaccines, and support for hospitals.

2. Funding Covid-19 expenditures. The US deficit is funded by the sale of US Treasury obligations. Sales are handled by a group called Primary Dealers, who act as market makers in Treasury securities. [3] In the past most of the debt is has been purchased by financial institutions for their own accounts or for the accounts of investors, or by the central banks of other countries. In the current crisis, the Fed has promised to buy all the Treasury debt. Here’s a good explainer. [2]

To get a picture of the situation, in the two months ended 30 April 2020, the national debt held by the public increased by $1.645 trillion. In the comparable period the Fed’s holdings of Treasuries increased by $1.448 trillion. The projected deficit during that period was about $183 billion, so we should estimate the increase in the total debt includes that amount. If we deduct that, we get an estimate of the amount of debt issued on account of the Covid-19 crisis of $1.462 trillion, meaning that the Fed purchased substantially all of the Covid-19 debt.

3. So what? The fear-mongering is based on two speculations: that the federal debt will have to be paid, or that interest rates will somehow increase, and either will have to be paid out of current tax revenues. In either case, we will have to increase taxes. [5] Another theory is that the Fed will have to sell off the Treasuries it bought into the private markets which will be bad for some reason.

The good news is that the Fed can just return the Treasuries to the Treasury in the form of a dividend, or a remittance in Fed parlance, and the debt drops by a like amount. Or the Treasury could pay off the securities and the Fed could remit that payment to the Treasury. If the Fed wants to hold the securities to help it control interest rates or for other reasons, it can just remit the interest payments to the Treasury.

Why would anyone think otherwise? That is the power of neoliberal ideology, which has taken root in the minds of practically every media personality and Twitter economist. There was a moment after the Great Crash when similar questions were raised, but no one paid any attention to see what happened after that, which was a big fat nothing.

It’s possible that the Treasuries aren’t the problem, it’s all the trillions of new dollars flooding the world that will cause inflation. This might actually happen in different circumstances, so it requires a bit of explanation.

1. Demand has fallen dramatically as we cope with lockdown, and in turn, income to business and working people have collapsed. This new money is largely going to people and businesses who need it to replace part of the income they would usually derive from their normal business activities or from employment. It won’t create new demand as it might have six months ago. It just replaces lost income, enabling people and businesses to avoid bankruptcy. It’s true that there are inflationary pressures on certain things, such as medical supplies and equipment. That’s just normal capitalist price-gouging, and unlike similar cases, say, lumber after hurricanes, won’t be prosecuted.

2. Most US business sectors are oligopolies, meaning that three or four companies control 80% or more of revenues. This is certainly true in the medical sector, including the drug business. Thus, salvaged demand paid for by the new money will flow to capitalists. It may be that some will be needed to expand production in some areas and reduce production in others. The rest will go to capitalists, in the same way the Trump tax cuts did, in the form of dividends and stock buy-backs. It is highly unlikely to have a serious inflationary effect.

3. If, however, there were a problem, there is a solution. Congress can increase taxes. The good news is that it can do so in a way that won’t actually impact working people. Congress can hike taxes on the capitalists and on capital.

a. This makes sense in an oligopolistic economy, which is by definition not competitive. When capital flows into oligopolistic businesses, some of the money goes into some new productive use. The rest goes to capitalists. Taxing oligopolistic profits away means that there won’t be inflation in the things only capitalists buy, giant yachts, private jets, politicians, and political favors, for example. Taxing them is doing a service in tamping inflation that only affects them.

b. Republicans will choke on tax hikes. But if inflation driven by all the new money is a problem, it’s one they caused. They threw away any claim to their version of fiscal responsibility when they cut taxes on the rich in the middle of an expansion. If inflation arises, they can’t expect the Fed to fix it for them, because they wouldn’t be able to survive the depression that would cause, just as Carter couldn’t survive the Volcker recession.

c. If this sounds like a layman’s take on Modern Money Theory, well, it is. I hope I got it right.

Update: Shortly after I posted this I saw this headline in the Washington Post: Top White House advisers, unlike their boss, increasingly worry stimulus spending is costing too much.
======
[1] Here are some examples. This is a fairly restrained version. Here’s one from the Federalisr; I read it so you don’t have to, it’s ridiculously wrong on everything, including the conclusion:

In summary, the newly proposed bailout and stimulus packages smack of big government welfarism and crony capitalism. These are the sort of policies that will move the needle toward socialism, impoverishing us and stripping the productive engines of our economy.

I think the writer is worried about our precious national bodily fluids.

Here’s one from a columnist for the Arizona Republic, saying that this is bad, bad, even if the guy has been expecting disaster his entire career. It’s easy to see how this guy scared himself with numbers.

Here’s one explaining that the Fed buying municipal securities from towns and states shifts tax burdens to national taxpayers. That’s aimed specifically at my home state, Illinois, and I hope every shithead who makes this argument loses 75% of their deferred income. Here’s one from the occasionally sober SeekingAlpha.

One more from USA Today, complete with towering red bar graphs.

[2] After the Great Crash, the Fed made a similar promise. Buying and selling Treasuries is one way the Fed controls interest rates. And it’s worth noting that Treasuries are often used by financial institutions in various short-term transactions, such as repurchase agreements, and as collateral for short-term loans, rather than as investments or savings.

[3] Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Primary Dealers, which lists the current dealers.

[4] The Fed’s weekly balance sheets are here. Debt figures from the Treasury are here.

[5] This idea never surfaced from the Republican wing of deficit hawkers when the Republicans insisted on tax cuts in the middle of an economic expansion. And for Grover Norquist, I note that a government small enough to drown in a bathtub has proven to be a nightmare in responding to Covid-19. Norquist and his groupies drowned the federal government’s administrative ability to cope with the pandemic.

All COVID-19 is Local, BBQ edition

Burnt Ends from LC’s BBQ in Kansas City
(photo by stu_spivak CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here in metro KC, our five county area that straddles the MO/KS border and the Missouri River did a relatively good job of shutting down, even in the face of state-level idiocy in both Topeka and Jefferson City. School buildings were closed, large gatherings were cancelled, and when the two states finally caught up and issued state-wide orders, it meant fairly little around here because metro KC had already done much of what was prescribed. It hasn’t all been easy, of course, but folks adjusted and life has gone on.

Now, though, things just got real.

From this morning’s featured story on the KC Star’s website (with emphasis added):

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue lucked out with a hefty contract two months ago, securing 1,200 cases of brisket at a price of $2.45 per pound. As the pandemic began, meat prices actually dropped and the restaurant snagged another 400 cases at $1.75 per pound, said owner Jerry Rauschelbach.

He said those purchases mean Arthur Bryant’s will be set for the next several months. But they also show how fast the market has moved: brisket was selling for more than $6 per pound this week, he said.

At that price, menu prices would soar by the time the meat is trimmed, smoked and served.

“If I didn’t have brisket and I had to pay $6 a pound, I would take brisket and burnt ends off my menu,” he said. “There’s just no way I could consciously serve sandwiches at 20 bucks. There’s just no way.”

For the uninitiated, a brisket is a big slab of meat with two parts – the flat and the point. The point takes longer to cook properly, so the two parts are either split and cooked separately, or they are cooked together until the flat is done and then the point goes back into the pit. It has more connective tissue that needs longer time to break down, and when done right you get a dark “bark” on the surface of the meat and some of the most tender and flavorful deliciousness on the inside. They’re generally cut in cubes and served either on a plate or a sandwich and when done right, they are spectacular.

There’s a lot of folklore around BBQ and who invented different styles or cooking methods or what kind of sauce to use, and damn near every little thing about putting meat over a fire. The origin of selling burnt ends is not folklore or in doubt: they were invented at Arthur Bryant’s. The point of the brisket was seen for years as waste when you trimmed and cooked the brisket flat for sandwich slices, and the counterman at Bryant’s would cut the point in chunks and set it up on the counter for customers to nibble on while waiting to get to the front to order their food. (Note: Bryant’s has also been legendary for its lines.) Eventually they realized “Hey, we could sell this stuff!” and so they did. And then so did everyone else in town. [Time suck warning: that link goes to a 30 minute video that will introduce you not just to burnt ends, but to a good chuck of KC’s best BBQ joints as well.]

So I’ll say it again: things are getting real in KC when Arthur Bryant’s is even contemplating having to take burnt ends off the menu.

I do not want to dismiss what’s happening in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes. That’s as real as real gets. I know a lot of folks in a meatpacking town in southeast Kansas where a cluster of cases has emerged. Things got real there, really quickly, once that hit. What I am saying here is that KC takes its BBQ seriously — as seriously as the pope takes communion — and this nugget about Arthur Bryant’s BBQ is a very KC-specific cultural sign of just how deeply this pandemic is hitting. We can deal with closing our school buildings and postponing our April elections until June and even closing our church buildings, but burnt ends going off the menu of Arthur Bryant’s (even temporarily) would truly be a sign of the apocalypse.

But if BBQ is the way Kansas City identifies the the apocalypse, it’s also how KC identifies hope.

For several years, Jim White has been active in Operation BBQ Relief. which was founded in KC by a bunch of folks in the competition BBQ world. Over the last 9 years, OBR has expanded across the country, and their crews of volunteers have taken their cookers to areas hit by natural disasters, to feed both those hit by the disaster and the emergency workers who come in trying to deal with it. When I sent Jim, Marcy, Bmaz, and some others a link to the KC Star piece, Jim replied with a link to an April 8 press release about OBR and their newest project, Operation Restaurant Relief:

In addition to deploying their trademark effort of providing hot barbecue meals to those affected by natural disasters, Operation BBQ Relief launched a new program called Operation Restaurant Relief with great success last week in Kansas City.

The new initiative revives closed restaurants by utilizing their kitchens to provide free meals to those in need and those on the front lines. As part of the effort, the restaurants will rehire laid off workers to comply with the program and receive a stipend for their participation from Operation BBQ Relief.

Jim could tell you a lot more about OBR, but he’s got a very important matter to attend to at the moment* so unless/until he shows up in the comments, let me direct you to their website at the link above. He did share with me his impression that OBR is doing “pretty amazing work for a group that is populated with folks who lean to the more conservative side of things – sometimes very conservative. They are slowly learning empathy.” This sounded familiar, and sure enough, Jim wrote in more depth about this kind of empathy after he worked on a OBR mission in Wilmington, NC.

That’s another thing about BBQ. Here in KC, despite having a long and ugly history when it comes to race, BBQ is one of those things that does better when it comes to crossing racial divides, in part because some of the most respected historic BBQ joints around here are African American. Even if someone’s favorite ‘cue doesn’t come from Bryant’s or Gates or LC’s, these places get a lot of respect. Arthur Bryant’s and the original location of the Gates chain are in areas of KC that a fair number of white folk would never dream of entering — but they’ll go there happily to get their BBQ fix if that’s their favorite.  Put it this way: BBQ lovers have very firm opinions about color and argue a lot about color, but they’re usually talking about the smoke ring when you cut the meat open or the overall doneness of what you’ve prepared, not the color of the cook’s skin or anyone else’s. And when people share a disaster response cooking line with folks who don’t look like themselves, it changes the way people see each other – that’s the empathy part.

Back in the day, I waited tables and washed dishes, so I know what restaurant life is like from the worker’s point of view. If you’ve got some money and are looking for a charity out there doing great COVID-19 work on the non-medical front, you could do a lot worse than Operation BBQ Relief and their restaurant relief program.

And if you’re a praying kind of person, you might pray that burnt ends do not disappear from the menu of Arthur Bryant’s.

Ever.

______

* Marcy, knowing what happens when BBQ lovers start talking BBQ, interrupted our email discussion before it could really get going, with the observation that this subject “would be a lovely post if any one of you had access to a blog.” Since I brought up the subject, I agreed I could write it up. Jim, for his part, begged off: “The BBQ site I hang out on is having a virtual cookoff. We had two weeks to submit an entry and I forgot to load up on interesting stuff to cook and submit. But we got a spaghetti squash in our CSA basket yesterday and I have some chicken breast and sweet peppers around. Gonna roast the squash and a bunch of veggies on the grill with the chicken and then make pasta sauce to go on it with the chicken.”

Jim may hold various heretical BBQ notions, but those words above comes from the heart of a true BBQ person. When your plans go awry (or you forget to follow them), you make do with what you’ve got — and that menu sounds delicious.

Where’s the Beef? Republicans Don’t Understand Critical Infrastructure and Supply Chains

Over five weeks of a mostly-national shutdown, we never figured out how to protect essential workers.

By April 9, at least 9,000 health care workers — people trained in the proper use of personal protective equipment — had the virus and at least 27 health care workers had died. More than half had no known exposure to COVID outside of their work.

During the period of the shutdown, outbreaks occurred throughout the meatpacking industry, leading to shutdowns in a number of factories.

As a result, we’ve got meat shortages even as farmers have nowhere to sell their livestock. There were reports that a fifth of Wendy’s restaurants have run out of beef.

Stephens analyst James Rutherford said that a study of online menus for every Wendy’s location nationwide revealed that 1,043 restaurants — or 18% of its national footprint — have listed beef items as out of stock. More than 100 locations are still selling Wendy’s chili, which contains beef.

The shortages vary by state. Hundreds of Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and New York restaurants are out of beef, while other states’ menus do not indicate any supply chain issues.

A Tectonix GEO analysis shows one reason why: people from one of the heavily affected areas traveled throughout the country. That suggests one possible way COVID has spread to a bunch of relatively remote factories was truckers serving the industry. I’ve heard inspectors also likely spread the virus between factories.

There were COVID clusters in a number of other professions that remained open during the shut-down: cops, prison guards, public transport workers, grocery store workers.

We never figured out how to protect these critical workers when it was relatively easy, when they and other essential workers made up most of the people on public transportation, when they were the only people relying on child care. That’s partly because we never managed to get the PPE and test and tracking systems in place to keep them safe.

And as a result, as the meat industry shows, our failure to protect critical workers has led to strains in a key part of our food supply chain, impacting consumers and suppliers up and down that supply chain.

Coronavirus has even threatened parts of our economy more directly responsible for keeping people alive. Before we shut down, for example, our Air Traffic Control was buckling, as the virus spread among workers in the close spaces of control towers.

If we were a sane nation, focused on the public good rather than bottom line dollars, we would have spent the five weeks of national shut-down figuring out how to protect critical workers and implementing those systems wherever workplaces had not shut down. We would have used that time to test the system and build up stocks of PPE and test kits needed to replicate the system in other, less essential work places. We would have perfected systems for keeping workers safe in the time of COVID, so we could learn how to do it while it was relatively easy, giving us something to replicate when the economy reopened.

We’re not a sane nation. We’re largely not focused on the public good.

And as a result, during the entire five weeks of the shutdown, we watched in fascination at what happens when you continue to work without implementing adequate measures to limit the spread of COVID without taking the obvious lessons from it. Again, we watched that happen at a time when it would have been easier to protect critical workers, because they were interacting with a limited number of other people. As the economy reopens, it will get harder to protect such workers, because there will be more people using public transportation and in grocery stores and relying on child care, increasing the likelihood that a single case can spread to more people, each potentially leading to the shut-down of an entire workplace three weeks later.

By failing to solve the problem of how you protect workers, those rushing to reopen the economy have set this country up for key failures in our rickety supply chain. Some of those failures will be nuisances, with factories idled because they’re missing a key part or shortages of non-essential items in stores. Some of the failures could lead to further health consequences. Some failures may happen in industries where workers are a lot harder to replace quickly. Those failures will make it harder for businesses that are open, as any outbreak will add to already inflated costs of operating, to say nothing of the blow to confidence such failures will bring.

It turns out, a lot of Republicans don’t understand how our economy works (though the same misunderstandings lay behind their opposition to bailing out the auto industry in 2008). They don’t understand that if critical parts of our fragile system break down, other parts begin to break down, potentially setting off a chain reaction.

And as a result, they’re rushing back to reopen the economy without first having done the basic things needed to operate businesses safely.

Yes, we need to take steps reopen the economy for the sake of the economy and our collective sanity. Which is why it was so important for the Federal government to put the pieces in place that would facilitate reopening the economy during the shut down. Only, the Trump Administration did not do that. It squandered the sacrifice made by the 33 million Americans who lost a job in that period. Now, not having put those pieces in place, the Trump Administration is pushing to reopen the world’s largest economy relying on little more than homemade masks to keep it running.

Jail Couldn’t Silence The Music Of Albany In 1961 And A Voluntary Lockdown Won’t Silence Them Now

Marcy has touched on, and revisited today, the awful toll that COVID-19 is exacting on Albany, Georgia. An early in-depth look by the Atlanta Journal Constitution into how the outbreak started there showed us a very closely-knit community that has a deep history in the civil rights movement. Another very touching peek inside the community came yesterday from USA Today and really got to me, as it hit on what I saw as an echo of the complicated history of the Albany Movement.

The USA Today article goes into detail on how the Albany community refuses to “reopen” as Brian Kemp would have them do. Leaders of the community are coming together on their own to declare that they will only reopen when local health officials pronounce it safe to do so, and that point is still off in the future:

With so much loss, the idea of resuming normal life in Albany and risking a deadly second spike in cases is unthinkable. Town officials, business owners and church pastors are collectively rejecting Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to allow certain businesses to reopen and lift a shelter-in-place order.

The people here say they will decide when their community can go out to dinner again, get a haircut at a local barbershop and worship together at church on Sunday.

And they are not ready yet.

“We are not going to listen to the federal and state people,” said Glenn Singfield Sr., who owns two restaurants in Albany. “We are going to listen to our local health community, because that’s where our trust is.”

To make the losses in Albany personal, the article opens with a focus on Elaine Williams, who lost her 38 year old son to the virus in early April. Near the end of the article, we return to Elaine Williams and her son, Kenya. They reproduced this photo she provided:

Here’s their description of how the loss has affected Ms. Williams:

Williams, meanwhile, is urging her neighbors to stay home so others are spared the pain she has endured losing her son.

Williams still doesn’t know how Kenya, who was born with Down syndrome, contracted the coronavirus. The only public place they visited in Albany was Sam’s Club on March 12.

She misses his forehead kisses, his gentle voice calling her “my dear” and the sound of him singing in his bedroom while blaring Frankie Beverly & Maze songs.

You see, singing and Albany have a deep history. You might recall that I had the opportunity back in February to join a group of people from here in Gainesville on a bus trip to important civil rights sites and museums in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. As preparation for the trip, I started reading Hands on the Freedom Plow, which is a wonderful compilation of over 60 essays written by women who were part of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the roles they played as the civil rights movement unfolded in the South in the early 60’s. The essays are grouped into sections covering different aspects of the overall movement. The stories from the women on the front lines of the Albany Movement are among the most gut-wrenching in the book (which I’m still reading–it’s very long and takes time to process).

I will confess that I had not been aware of the Albany Movement and how it was one of the earliest sustained programs of mass demonstrations in the South and brought SNCC and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference  (SCLC) together for the first time. Most “official” histories of the Albany Movement refer to it as a failure (see for example, here) since the demonstrations were halted without the local police and others instituting the reforms the demonstrators wanted. The “failure” was ascribed fairly often to infighting over power and funding between SNCC and SCLC, but my impression after reading the essays gave me more of a feeling that the people of Albany realized that the extreme physical and sexual brutality inflicted by those in power were not likely to end without structural change on a more national than local level. The Stanford history linked here does admit that the lessons learned in Albany were put to good use in the next movement in Birmingham and eventually in Selma, so the “failure” characterization isn’t really justified.

But there’s more. Although most of those who provided essays to the book only have one appear, one of the early organizers in Albany has two separate essays. Bernice Johnson Reagon played a dual role in Albany. She was a student at Albany State when demonstrations began breaking out on campuses in 1960 and she played a major role in getting demonstrations started in Albany in December of 1961. As the movement progressed, she found herself leading a key aspect of the gatherings: group songs. Her essay that focuses on the musical side of her work opens with the lyrics to “Since I Laid My Burden Down”, which she sings here in a 1986 recording:

Here is what she had to say about the song:

The Albany Movement conquered my fear of going to jail, and the songs helped to do that. They allowed us to name the people who were using jail against us, like Mayor Asa Kelley and Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett.  Not only could we call their names and say what we wanted to say, but also they could not stop our sound. Sometimes the police would say, “Stop the singing.” And we would know we were being heard, and we would just sing louder and longer. “I feel better, so much better since I laid my burden down” expressed what I felt like inside the Albany jail cell. There was a clarity about everything. I knew where I was; I knew what I was doing.  I did not like being locked up, and it was not easy. It was where I was supposed to be. My life was being used for a purpose–fighting racism–and it lifted me up to find that I could take a stand and make clear what I thought about the way we were treated in this country and in my hometown. My body was locked in jail, but I was free and centered.

The parallels between 1961 and 2020 in Albany are striking. The citizens of Albany took a stand for what is right in 1961 and were locked up for it. They realized that this suffering while locked up would help everyone in the struggle for civil rights. Today, the citizens of Albany are once again organizing and this time they’re locking themselves up. Just like before though, this round of being locked up is being undertaken with the knowledge that it is for the good of their community and their country.

But the music didn’t stop. Bernice Johnson Reagon was one of the four founders in Albany of the Freedom Singers. Even after the Albany Movement was over, the Freedom Singers went on tour raising money for SNCC. Here’s a 1963 recording that uses as a backdrop a photo of founders Bob Zellner, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Dottie Miller (Zellner), and Avon Rollins:

And here they are singing at the March on Washington in August of 1963:

Oh, and Bernice didn’t stop there. She later founded “Sweet Honey in the Rock” and she is the performer of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” in the theme music for the PBS civil rights documentary series “Eyes on the Prize“.

Keyna Williams’ voice is now missing from the choir of Albany, but its rich tradition carries on and has made a lasting contribution to civil rights in our country. Now, the citizens of Albany are stepping up once again to lift their voices and dedicate their lives to making a more healthy world for us all. They are still being subjected to brutal racism from their governor and president, but they are far from new to this battle and know how to proceed.

An Update on the Human Experiment in Marion Prison

I’ve had a lot of good things to say about Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s response to the COVID crisis. In days ahead, we’re likely to see more cynical decisions.

For example, OH has asked employers to inform the state when their employees don’t return to work out of fear of the virus. If people don’t have a good medical reason to stay home, they may lose their unemployment payments.

As Ohio reopens some businesses, employees who don’t return to work could lose unemployment benefits – even if they have a health condition that makes them more susceptible to the novel coronavirus or problems getting child care.

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is asking employers to report workers who quit or refuse work – potentially cutting those former employees off from unemployment benefits. Those not eligible for unemployment in Ohio would also lose access to the additional $600 a week approved in the federal stimulus package.

Before someone loses benefits, both the employer and employee would have a chance to weigh in with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Any decision can be appealed to the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission.

“It’s a case-by-case basis, but if you’re just saying ‘I’m afraid of the virus,’ that would not be sufficient,” Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Hall told reporters Monday. “The analysis would need to be that your work environment, the conditions there, are such that you’re at risk from a health and safety standard and you have good cause in that regard.”

It was in anticipation of the return to work that I got so uncomfortable about what I called an uncontrolled human experiment in herd immunity at Marion prison. Marion was one of the first places where an entire population that could be tracked over time was tested; that process started on April 11, about 25 days ago.

By April 20, 76% of the population had tested positive. By the time all the tests came back, up to 86% of prison inmates had tested positive.

By the time you learn almost an entire prison is positive, you’re running a controlled experiment in what the real fatality rates of the virus are. According to yesterday’s data, just over two weeks later, those stats show:

  • Of 175 prison staffers who “reported” positive, 1 has died, .5%.
  • Of those 175, 116 are considered “recovered,” 66%.
  • Around 86% of around 2,500 inmates tested positive.
  • Of around 2,176 inmates who tested positive, 11 have died, .5%.
  • Of those 2,176, 636 are considered “recovered,” 29%.

The fatality in Pickaway is, thus far, notably higher, with a 1.6% fatality rate among prisoners and 1% among prison staff.

The full life cycle of the virus is at least a month, so these numbers are not final, even ignoring the chronic effects seen in some patients.

What Ohio is doing (and other prison systems have replicated) is started to learn what the true fatality rate of this disease is. For better and worse, that data will explain what the risks are to exposing entire populations to the disease.

Once you have that data, it becomes possible to make cost-benefit decisions weighing the cost of human life against the lost production of a factory or a store, decisions that might be used to push towards herd immunity for everyone. And I have every expectation that such data will be used to make those cost-benefit calculations, weighing the cost of human life in terms of dollars.

Live and Let Die: The Data Manipulation Begins

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, various entities in the United States were always engaged in the kind of dishonesty we accuse China of to hide the extent of the virus. Trump tried to keep a cruise ship off shore so it wouldn’t count against “his” numbers. States everywhere didn’t reveal the crises in nursing homes by hiding where they were occurring. Other states refused to track known COVID-19 deaths because they didn’t occur in a hospital.

But now that Trump has fully committed to reopening the economy before the shut down has its desired effect, he and allied governors are engaged in more aggressive data manipulation to hide the stupidity of what they’re doing.

Georgia had long manipulated its data, by rigging cut-off numbers to make it look like the only outbreaks were around Atlanta and in the Black Belt outbreak around Albany. But as Brian Kemp moved to reopen Georgia in the stupidest possible way, the state shifted its reporting to show confirmed cases.

That means it can always show a trend of declining cases that would match White House guidelines for reopening, rather than the plateau the state actually has, because the trend reflects known cases that aren’t counted yet.

Interestingly, Georgia may also be hiding the extent to which this virus has moved beyond predominantly African-American areas, thereby hiding that Kemp’s stupid decision is actually killing white people, too.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who already lost the state’s experienced emergency manager, just ordered some  epidemiologists at the state’s public universities to stop work on a COVID model that used the states internal data, because their model showed the only way to avoid exponential growth would be to stay closed until the end of May.

The universities’ model had shown that reopening at the end of May was the only scenario that didn’t dramatically increase cases.

In late April, Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at ASU, said the model showed five different scenarios for how the disease could progress in Arizona, depending on how social distancing efforts were relaxed.

The slowest curve, based on if the state reopens at the end of May, is “the only one that doesn’t put me immediately back on an exponential growth curve,” Lant said in April. That’s because transmission rates would be lowest at that time, he said.

“I can say, scientifically, no, it’s not safe to reopen unless you’re planning on, you know, shutting down again after a couple of weeks, and we can help figure out what the appropriate amount of time is to stay open before we shut down,” he said.

Bailey wrote that health department leadership asked the team to “pause” all work on projections and modeling. The department would also be ending access to special data sets the modeling team had been using for their efforts, Bailey said.

Finally, yesterday the White House tweeted out the model that is has embraced in lieu of models by epidemiologists.

This release is an effort to rebut WaPo reporting on how this model — by the guy behind the Dow 36,000 book, Kevin Hassett — continues to be pulled out of Hassett’s ass whenever Trump needs to be told something he wants to hear.

The epidemiological models under review in the White House Situation Room in late March were bracing. In a best-case scenario, they showed the novel coronavirus was likely to kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans. President Trump was apprehensive about so much carnage on his watch, yet also impatient to reopen the economy — and he wanted data to justify doing so.

So the White House considered its own analysis. A small team led by Kevin Hassett — a former chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers with no background in infectious diseases — quietly built an econometric model to guide response operations.

Many White House aides interpreted the analysis as predicting that the daily death count would peak in mid-April before dropping off substantially, and that there would be far fewer fatalities than initially foreseen, according to six people briefed on it.

Although Hassett denied that he ever projected the number of dead, other senior administration officials said his presentations characterized the count as lower than commonly forecast — and that it was embraced inside the West Wing by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other powerful aides helping to oversee the government’s pandemic response. It affirmed their own skepticism about the severity of the virus and bolstered their case to shift the focus to the economy, which they firmly believed would determine whether Trump wins a second term.

[snip]

By the end of April — with more Americans dying in the month than in all of the Vietnam War — it became clear that the Hassett model was too good to be true. “A catastrophic miss,” as a former senior administration official briefed on the data described it. The president’s course would not be changed, however. Trump and Kushner began to declare a great victory against the virus, while urging America to start reopening businesses and schools.

The effort to prove the value of the epidemiological models done by people who are considered frauds within their actual profession of economics comes as the CDC’s own model showing an increase to 3,000 deaths a day was leaked. And the Council of Economic Advisors released this line-drawing exercise comes as the US has blown by Hassett’s original estimate of 60,000, one also adopted publicly by Trump.

Understand: This is not just an attempt to lie about the sanity of the decision to reopen the economy even as COVID cases continue to grow. It’s an attempt to lie about the stupidity of the economic decisions Trump made, too.

While other countries have had more cases per population, that has happened with economic relief focused on actual human beings rather than cruise lines and luxury hotels. Here, much of Trump’s economic policies have been just another attempt to loot the economy for his friends and campaign donors. That has made the economic impact of all this in the United States worse than it is in other countries, and it will only continue to get worse.

Some places that reopen prematurely will be forced to shut down again. And as more people are out spreading the virus, more bottle necks in critical infrastructure will be exposed.

Trump has pursued the worst of all policy options. After his initial dawdling let the virus spread in some cities, he endorsed shutting down the economy in an attempt to mitigate the pandemic. That had a predictable catastrophic impact on the economy (and more unemployment numbers will be out today). But because Republicans refused to adopt policies that would actually cushion that crash, the impact was much worse than it might have been.

Now, after taking the full hit of shutting down, Republicans are insisting on reopening — bolstered by their fraudulent charts and graphs — before the shutdown has any lasting epidemiological value. We’ll have the medical impact of a herd immunity approach, with the economic impact of a badly executed mitigation strategy. The worst of both options.

And to pretend that this is not all knowable and known now, Trump has swapped briefings by medical experts for photo ops set to campaign music, to the apt Live and Let Die.

Update: Meanwhile, Florida just removed details of possible positive COVID cases in January and February from a public website.

After Years of Squealing about “FISA Abuse,” Trump’s DNI Nominee Won’t Rule Out Warrantless Wiretapping

As I noted earlier, in his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe made it crystal clear he will lie to protect Trump by stating that he believed Trump has always accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe made some other alarming comments. For example:

  • He repeatedly said that Russia had not changed any votes in 2016. The Intelligence Community did not review that issue and Ratcliffe has no basis to make that claim.
  • Ratcliffe also repeatedly refused to back SSCI’s unanimous conclusion that Russia intervened to help Trump.
  • He dodged when Warner asked him to promise to brief the committee even if Russia were trying to help Trump.
  • When asked whether he supported Inspectors General, Ratcliffe said that he supported Michael Horowitz when others attacked him but then suggested he disagreed with Horowitz’ “opinion,” making it clear he does not accept Horowitz’ conclusions that he found no evidence that bias affected the investigation into Trump’s flunkies.
  • Ratcliffe claimed he didn’t have enough information to address Michael Atkinson’s firing.
  • When Dianne Feinstein read his quotes about the Ukraine whistleblower to him, Ratcliffe pretended those quotes were about something they weren’t.
  • He might not provide intelligence on COVID-19 that showed how Trump blew it off.
  • He suggested that if only the IC had reviewed open source data, they might have warned of the dangers of COVID-19, which they did warn of using both OSINT and classified intelligence.
  • He refused to answer whether he thought there was a Deep State in the IC, and later suggested a few members of the IC were Deep State.
  • Ratcliffe refused to agree to release a report showing that Mohammed bin Salman had Jamal Khashoggi executed and chopped into bits, as required by last year’s Defense Authorization. He suggested that it might have been properly classified; as DNI, he would be the Original Classification Authority to make that decision.
  • He refused to answer clearly on whether Trump’s policies on North Korea and Iran have worked.
  • He later suggested he might not share intelligence if it were too sensitive, again ignoring that as OCA he gets to decide whether it’s really classified.
  • After saying he would appear for a Global Threats hearing, he then dodged when later asked whether he would appear before the committee generally.

Ratcliffe made several comments to make it clear he would side with expansive Unitary Executive interpretations holding that:

  • There are limits to whistleblower protection.
  • If torture were deemed legal it would okay to do it.
  • The executive can use warrantless wiretapping.

There were a few additional hints about stuff going on right now:

  • Mark Warner said that intelligence professionals have been pressured to limit information they share with Congress.
  • Warner also said that Ric Grenell was undermining the IC’s election security group.
  • Both Warner and Richard Burr seemed concerned that the DNI would not declassify their 1000-page Volume V of their Report on Russia’s 2016 election interference (I’m not sure whether this assess the Steele dossier or lays out whether and how Trump “colluded” during 2016).
  • Martin Heinrich made it clear that Grenell is reorganizing the IC, without any consultation or approval from Congress.

It’s not just unqualified, he’s a sycophant. But it seems like there’s so much that Grenell is already screwing up, Republicans on the committee, at least, prefer Ratcliffe.

Update: Here are Ratcliffe’s Questions for the Record. They’re particularly troubling on sharing with Congress.

He twice refused to say that he wouldn’t impose loyalty tests.

QUESTION 39: Personnel decisions can affect analytic integrity and objectivity. A. Would you consider an individual’s personal political preferences, to include “loyalty” to the President, in making a decision to hire, fire, or promote an individual?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards which demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

B. Do you commit to exclusively consider professional qualifications in IC personnel decisions, without consideration of partisan or political factors?

Answer: Personnel decisions should be based on qualifications, skills, merit, and other standards that demonstrate the ability, dedication and integrity required to support the central IC mission of providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers.

He refused to promise to keep the Election Threats Executive Office open.

QUESTION 45: Would you commit to keep the Election Threats Executive Office in place to ensure continuity of efforts, and build on the successes of the 2018 midterms?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work with IC leaders and ODNI officials to ensure the IC is well-positioned to address the election security threats facing our Nation.

He refused to promise to notify Congress if Russia starts helping Trump again.

QUESTION 53: Do you commit to immediately notifying policymakers and the public of Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. democratic processes, to include our elections?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Committee to accommodate its legitimate oversight needs while safeguarding the confidentiality interests of the Executive Branch, including the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence sources and methods

He suggested he had no problem with Section 215 being used to access someone’s browsing records.

QUESTION 7: Do you believe that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act should be used to collect Americans’ web browsing and internet search history? If yes, do you believe there are or should be any limitations to “digital tracking” of Americans without a warrant, in terms of length of time, the amount of information collected, or the nature of the information collected (e.g., whether particular kinds of websites raise special privacy concerns)?

Answer: I believe it is important for the Intelligence Community to use its authorities appropriately against valid intelligence targets. The amendments to Title V of FISA made by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act expired on March 15, 2020 and, to date, have not been reauthorized.

Ratcliffe dodged several questions about whether FISA was exclusive means to collect

Extra-Statutory Collection

QUESTION 9: Title 50, section 1812 provides for exclusive means by which electronic surveillance and interception of certain communications may be conducted. Do you agree that this provision of law is binding on the President?

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General to ensure that IC activities are carried out in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

QUESTION 10: Do you believe that the intelligence surveillance and collection activities covered by FISA can be conducted outside the FISA framework? If yes, please specify which intelligence surveillance and collection activities, the limits (if any) on extra-statutory collection activities, and the legal authorities you believe would authorize those activities.

Answer: If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law. As set forth in Section 112 of FISA, with limited exceptions, FISA constitutes the exclusive statutory means by which electronic surveillance, as defined in FISA, and the interception of domestic wire, oral, or electric communications for foreign intelligence purposes may be conducted.

QUESTION 11: What would you do if the IC was requested or directed to conduct such collection activities outside the FISA framework? Would you notify the full congressional intelligence activities?

Answer: Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any illegal intelligence activities. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA.

If confirmed, I would work with the Attorney General and the heads of IC elements, as well as the General Counsels throughout the IC, to ensure that intelligence activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and applicable federal law.

Senator Wyden asked a question about the IC purchasing stuff they otherwise would need a warrant for.

QUESTION 12: Do you believe the IC can purchase information related to U.S. persons if the compelled production of that information would be covered by FISA? If yes, what rules and guidelines would apply to the type and quantity of the information purchased and to the use, retention and dissemination of that information? Should the congressional intelligence committees be briefed on any such collection activities?

Answer: Elements of the IC are authorized to collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning U.S. persons only in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General. As you know, not all intelligence activities are governed by FISA, and it is my understanding that in appropriate circumstances elements of the IC may lawfully purchase information from the private sector in furtherance of their authorized missions. Nonetheless, any intelligence activity not governed by FISA would be regulated by the Attorney General-approved procedures that govern the intelligence activities of that IC element. Consistent with the requirements of the National Security Act, if confirmed, I would keep the congressional intelligence committees informed of the intelligence activities of the United States.

 

John Ratcliffe Demonstrates How He’ll Politicize Intelligence by Claiming Trump Has Been Honest about COVID-19

John Ratcliffe just had his confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence.

I’ll have more to say about what we learned about the Intelligence Committee after I walk June Bug the Terrorist FosteX Dog. But the main takeaway from the hearing is entirely encapsulated in this exchange (my transcription):

Kamala Harris: Do you believe President Trump has accurately conveyed the threat of COVID-19 to the American people?

Ratcliffe: Are you saying, presently?

Harris: We are in the midst of the pandemic, presently correct.

Ratcliffe: Can you repeat the question? I guess I’m misunderstanding the question. I’m sorry. Has he accurately represented the status of the pandemic?

Harris: Conveyed the severity of the pandemic, yes, Has he accurately conveyed the severity of COVID-19 to the American people.

Ratcliffe: I believe so.

Harris asked a question which has just one true answer. The only objective answer to this question is that no, Trump has not accurately conveyed the seriousness of COVID-19.

Ratcliffe answered yes.

Ratcliffe was asked over and over again whether he’ll politicize intelligence and each time he dutifully delivered his rehearsed answer, no, he won’t. Both Politico and NBC reported those rehearsed answers as the “news” of the hearing. Neither mentioned the Harris exchange, where Ratcliffe answered far more clearly than in any yes or no questions that he will, in fact, lie to the American people to serve Trump (and there were other instances where he made it clear he will politicize intelligence, just not so clear cut).

It is a matter of life or death during a pandemic to separate false information from truth. Everyone should be doing that, and such truthful reporting is supposed to be the job of journalists. For political accountability on the pandemic to happen, it must be clear that Trump appointed a sycophant as Director of National Intelligence, someone who is unwilling to tell the truth about it. It must be clearly reported that Ratcliffe lied in this hearing about a clear factual issue. Hiding that fact by treating Ratcliffe’s false assurances as truthful contributes to the danger of the pandemic.

Ratcliffe will be confirmed DNI. He might even get some Democratic votes, from people who view him as a less awful alternative than the Twitter troll turned German Ambassador turned part time DNI he would replace. But it matters that it be accurately reported that it was clear going into it that Ratcliffe would lie to and for Trump.

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