White House denies Trump planning Scotland trip after Sturgeon tells him he’s not allowed to visit because of Covid Graeme Massie and Gino Spocchia Tue, January 5, 2021, 10:25 PM GMT+2White House denies Trump was planning Scotland trip after Sturgeon tells him he’s not allowed because of Covid.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) Donald Trump does not have plans to travel to Scotland, the White House has said, amid reports the US president was planning on travelling to Turnberry to escape Joe Biden’s inauguration later this month.In a statement to The Independent, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said such reports were “not accurate” and that “President Trump has no plans to travel to Scotland”.It comes after Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, suggested that Mr Trump would be unable to visit Turnberry to play golf, due to local coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
The House and Senate are screening members and staff with a Covid-19 test that the Food and Drug Administration says is prone to false results — complicating the already difficult task of stemming coronavirus outbreaks on Capitol Hill.
The Office of the Attending Physician has been offering the test, made by Curative, to members, staff and reporters on Capitol Hill since at least November. The service, which typically offers results within 12 hours, is used by dozens, if not hundreds, of people a day when Congress is in session.
Now the accuracy of recent Curative results are in doubt, after the FDA took the unusual step Monday of alerting health care providers and patients that the test poses a “risk of false results, particularly false negative results.”
Brian Monahan, the Capitol physician, acknowledged the FDA’s warning in a Monday memo obtained by POLITICO, which described the test as “the most accurate available” and noting that the risk of a false negative “is a problem for all coronavirus tests.”
“We expect to have additional information in the coming days from the FDA and our expert consultants with regard to any concerns about the ongoing use of this test for the Capitol community,” Monahan wrote in the memo Monday.
False negative results are of particular concern because they can result in infected people unknowingly spreading the virus, and delay their treatment.
House and Senate leaders, along with the Capitol physician, implemented a mass testing program in November, under pressure to better manage the risk of Covid-19 as hundreds of members travel from across the country on a weekly basis. Congressional officials had initially resisted calls for testing in the building amid a nationwide shortage.
Questions about the accuracy of the Curative test come as anxiety over the virus has skyrocketed in the Capitol this week, with hundreds of members required to vote in person on the floor — rather than using proxy voting — and potentially creating a superspreader event on the opening day of the new Congress.
More than 50 lawmakers have publicly disclosed that they have tested positive for the virus, including one member, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who tested positive after taking a Curative test at the Capitol over the weekend.
The FDA says the test should not be used as the only data point for treatment or patient-management decisions. Health care providers can reduce the risk of inaccurate results by limiting use of the test to people who have had symptoms for 14 days or less, the agency added.
“Consider retesting your patients using a different test if you suspect an inaccurate result was given recently by the Curative SARS-Cov-2 test,” the FDA alert states. “If testing was performed more than two weeks ago, and there is no reason to suspect current SARS-CoV-2 infection, it is not necessary to retest.”
In recent days, lawmakers and senior aides have complained that House officials allowed several quarantining lawmakers to take part in this week’s proceedings, protected by a plexiglass barrier. Several GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, continue to flout public health measures, including mask wearing and adhering to physical distancing.
“We have taken every precaution, we believe, to ensure the safety, not only of our members and the health of our members, but also of our staff,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday, speaking of the renewed efforts by Capitol officials to enforce masks and social distancing.
Curative CEO Fred Turner told POLITICO that the company is aware of the FDA safety communication and plans on providing more information soon.
“We are confident in our data and we are working with the FDA closely on the matter,” Turner said. “Testing sensitivity and accuracy on behalf of our patients is at the heart of our work.”
Curative’s test, which must be analyzed in a lab, uses a technology — real-time polymerase chain reaction — generally considered the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19. Testing experts consider PCR to be more accurate than rapid point-of-care tests, including the Abbott system in use at the White House. But PCR tests generally take hours to produce results, rather than minutes for the rapid tests.
The Curative tests at the Capitol are not the only ones lawmakers have relied upon in recent months; some have also been tested at private locations in their districts before returning to Washington.
Romania US AIr Force
FILE – In this Thursday, April 10, 2014 file picture, Romanian children, visiting an airbase, wait to get a close look at a Soviet era Romanian MIG 21 fighter jet in Campia Turzii, Romania. The U.S. Air Force has deployed on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, about 90 airmen and an unspecified number of drone aircraft to a base in central Romania, boosting its military presence in the region where there are allied concerns that Russia is trying to display its military strength. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The U.S. Air Force has deployed about 90 airmen and an unspecified number of drone aircraft to a base in central Romania, boosting its military presence in the region where there are allied concerns that Russia is trying to display its military strength.
The Romanian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the U.S. deployment in its Campia Turzii Air Base will be for “a few months” to conduct information gathering, surveillance and research missions in support of NATO operations.
NATO-member Romania shares the Black Sea border with Russia, and Moscow has lately been arming its neighbor Serbia with military aircraft, tanks and other armored vehicles.
“The forward and ready positioning of our MQ-9s (Reaper drones) at this key strategic location reassures our allies and partners, while also sending a message to our adversaries, that we can quickly respond to any emergent threat,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, said in a statement.
The statement said the Reapers will boost surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the Black Sea region, where the U.S. has regularly accused Russia of dangerous intercepts of its military aircraft and other incidents that have caused tensions to flare between the two superpowers.
The Pentagon has spent millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade the Cold War communist-era base in central Romania where its air force hosts two squadrons of modernized version MiG-21 aircraft and two Puma helicopter squadrons.
This deployment has been fully coordinated with the Romanian government, the statement said. The United States and Romania enjoy a close military-to-military relationship as NATO allies and cooperate on numerous regional security issues, the U.S. statement said.
The forward MQ-9 presence enabled by this deployment demonstrates the United States’ commitment to the security and stability of Europe and aims to strengthen relationships between NATO allies and other European partners, it added.
Linda Zall played a starring role in U.S. science that led to decades of major advances. But she never described her breakthroughs on television, or had books written about her, or received high scientific honors. One database of scientific publications lists her contributions as consisting of just three papers, with a conspicuous gap running from 1980 to 2020.
The reason is that Zall’s decades of service to science were done in the secretive warrens of the CIA.
Now, at 70, she’s telling her story — at least the parts she is allowed to talk about — and admirers are praising her highly classified struggle to put the nation’s spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing.
“It was fun,” she said of her CIA career. “It was really a lot of fun.”
Zall’s program, established in 1992, was a kind of wayback machine that looked to as long ago as 1960. In so doing, it provided a new baseline for assessing the pace and scope of planetary change. Ultimately, it led to hundreds of papers, studies and reports — some classified top secret, some public, some by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific advisory group to the federal government. The accumulated riches included up to six decades of prime data on planetary shifts in snowfall and blizzards, sea ice and glaciers.
“None of this would have happened without her,” said Jeffrey K. Harris, who worked with Zall as director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s fleet of orbital spies. “You have to decide if you’re going to break down the wall or climb over it, and she did a little bit of both.”
Some of her biggest fans are surviving members of her team of 70 elite scientists whom Zall recruited to sift through and analyze mountains of images from a secret archive. The storehouse was accumulated mainly as a byproduct of Washington’s spying on adversaries from space as a means of distinguishing threats and propaganda from deadly capabilities.
“She was an amazing leader,” said Michael B. McElroy, a planetary physicist and professor of environmental studies at Harvard. “She had energy and enthusiasm and a wonderful ability to communicate with people” — as well as the tact to handle large egos. “Having this woman from the CIA telling them what to do wasn’t easy. It was amazing to watch her.”
The top-secret images that Zall succeeded in repurposing for environmental inquiries came from satellites that were some of Washington’s crown jewels. The spy satellites would zero in on such targets as deadly weapons and render images that in some cases were said to be good enough to show a car’s license plate. The first reconnaissance satellite, known as Corona, was launched in 1960. Federal experts have put the overall cost of its hundreds of successors at more than $50 billion.
An accident of fate let the fleet assess a top environmental concern — the extent to which vast expanses of Arctic and Antarctic ice were retreating. Many spy satellites orbit on north-south paths that pass close to the poles so that, as the planet turns, the vast majority of Earth’s surface passes beneath their sensors over the course of 24 hours. Thus, their many paths converge near the poles.
Spies had little use for sweeping Arctic and Antarctic images. But they dazzled environmentalists because the Earth’s poles were fast becoming hot spots of global warming and melting ice.
“It gave us the first real measurements of the ice budget — how much loss you have from season to season,” said D. James Baker, who directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1993 to 2001 and served on Zall’s CIA advisory panel.
In normal science, where collaborators share credit, Zall might have been listed on papers as a co-author or even a lead author. But not in a twilight zone where science was part open, part secret. For decades, hers was a hidden hand.
Zall’s environmentalism for the CIA began in 1990 when Vice President Al Gore, then a Democratic senator from Tennessee and now a leading climate-change activist, wrote a letter asking the agency to examine whether the nation’s spy fleet might address environmental riddles. The agency put Zall onto the question. Quickly, she saw how the nation’s archive of surveillance observations could also serve to strengthen assessments of Earth’s changing environment.
“I worked night and day,” Zall recalled. “I was fascinated.” The secret information, she added, boded well “for all the things I loved.”
The oldest of three children, Linda Susan Zall grew up in North Hornell, New York, a village nestled in rolling farmland near the Finger Lakes. Her childhood was spent outdoors raking leaves and speeding through the countryside on sleds and toboggans, bikes and boats.
“I didn’t try to love nature,” Zall recalled. “I didn’t know anything else.” She lived for snow. “We’d build forts and play in the hills and nearly kill ourselves.”
Her father, the manager of a large dairy, moved his family to Ithaca, New York, in the mid-1960s so he could study for a doctorate in food science at Cornell University. She liked what she saw. In 1976, she graduated from Cornell with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering.
Her mentor at the university, Donald J. Belcher, was a pioneer in applying aerial photography to engineering questions, such as where to build houses and cities. Belcher was hired by Brazil to pick the best site for its new capital, Brasília.
He put his graduate student onto an aerial project in Alaska that sought to assess changes in permafrost — ground that’s usually frozen but in some places was starting to thaw. “I had my face glued to the window,” Zall said of viewing the continental wilderness during her flight to Fairbanks. “It was mind-blowing. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
After Cornell, Zall gained a higher perspective. Civilian surveillance satellites such as Landsat were flying hundreds of miles up to take images of the planet for farmers, geographers and other specialists. From 1975 to 1984, she worked for the Earth Satellite Corp. Based in Washington, it used computers to enhance Landsat images, making their details more accessible.
Zall then vanished into the CIA It was 1985 — a bruising last chapter of the Cold War — and U.S. satellites were playing outsize roles in scrutinizing Moscow. She used her skills to improve the analysis of reconnaissance images and to plan new generations of spy satellites.
In 1989, she took on a new assignment as the CIA’s liaison to the Jasons — a group of elite scientists who advise Washington on military and intelligence matters. Its ranks would eventually supply her with contacts for top environmental scientists.
Then, in late 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Its collapse diminished not only a main threat to Washington but also a top rationale for maintaining a fleet of costly spy satellites.
New uses beckoned. But the prospect of training spy satellites on environmental questions faced vast resistance from the deeply entrenched fiefs of the intelligence world that were built on decades of colossal budgets.
As Gore pushed, Zall provided answers. She wrote a highly classified report describing what the secret reconnaissance could do for Earth science. “Spy Satellite Photos May Aid in Global Environment Study,” The Associated Press reported in May 1992. The article made no mention of Zall.
By October 1992, the CIA was so confident in the ability of spy satellites to solve environmental mysteries that it established a large task force. Zall was put in charge and recruited its members, mainly Earth scientists. In the face of some bureaucratic foot-dragging, she named her group Medea, after the headstrong character of Greek mythology who let nothing stand in her way.
“She wanted to understand nature,” said Jeff Dozier, a snow hydrologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an early recruit. “She was really curious. She also was very good at drawing us out.”
The ensuing rush of satellite imagery “changed my life,” Dozier said. For the first time, he was able to monitor wide shifts in snow cover, especially in the Sierra Nevada. “That has affected me ever since,” he said. His findings inform a textbook he published last month with three colleagues, “Lakes and Watersheds in the Sierra Nevada of California.”
As Medea picked up speed, Zall found herself deeply involved with an old foe. As part of the post-Cold War thaw, the Clinton administration wanted to engage Russia with new projects and better relations. The Soviets, it turned out, had amassed a treasure of Arctic ice data.
The negotiations to share the trove involved top officials from both sides, starting with Zall. “I went to Moscow probably 10 times and St. Petersburg twice,” she said.
Her first visit took her to a mansion on Moscow’s outskirts. She rode a tiny elevator made of ornate ironwork that opened to a large room full of vases, Oriental rugs and chandeliers. Five men met her, including a general. “It was really intimidating,” she said. “I was a satellite wonk. They all spoke perfect English. They were extremely warm and inclusive.” In time, that meeting was part of a series that helped broker a peaceful new era.
In 1995, Medea was the driving force when President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of over 800,000 spy-satellite images, including mapping and surveillance ones. Taken from 1960 through 1972, the images showed not only airfields and missile bases but also giant swaths of land marked by deforestation and environmental ills. A 1962 image revealed the Aral Sea before an ecological catastrophe left it bone dry.
Medea also fostered a parallel movement for the Navy to release once-secret information that illuminated inner space — the ocean’s sunless depths. In late 1995, a new map of the seabed was unveiled that bared riots of deep fissures, ridges and volcanoes.
“This was the first, uniform map of the global seafloor,” said John A. Orcutt of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. That breakthrough, he added, became the initial source for the kinds of detailed ocean topographies that are now visible to everyday users of Google Earth.
President George W. Bush’s administration and conservatives in Congress, questioning the scientific consensus on global warming, let Medea languish for many years. But in late 2008 it was revived in cooperation with a Democratic Congress, and continued by the Obama administration.
Zall then focused on how Earth’s changing environment would most likely prompt security issues and crises. In late 2009, the CIA set up a Center on Climate Change and National Security. Its mission was to help U.S. policymakers better understand the impact of floods, rising sea levels, population shifts, state instabilities and heightened competition for natural resources. News reports announcing the program again made no mention of Zall.
She retired from the CIA in 2013. Medea was never the same. The agency shut it down in 2015, and the Trump administration made sure there was no revival of the program.
In interviews, former Medea members said the incoming Biden administration might want to establish a similar panel for helping the world push ahead on knotty issues of environmental change.
Zall agreed, adding that Medea’s agenda was unfinished. She said her group, knowing that Earth’s fate might hang in the balance, wrestled for years on how to monitor climate treaties. She called the problem “very difficult” and argued that its resolution was even more important today.
“It needs to be done,” Zall said. “We have to figure it out.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
(Bloomberg Opinion) — The bigamy conviction got a lot of the attention but Lai Xiaomin received a death sentence on Tuesday over a much more serious issue troubling China.
Lai oversaw China Huarong Asset Management Co. from 2012 until he ran into trouble in 2018. He was found guilty of receiving 1.79 billion yuan ($277.3 million) in bribes, with bigamy thrown in for good measure. Still, capital punishment for this kind of white-collar crime is unusual, legal experts say. Wu Xiaohui, former chairman of Anbang Insurance Group Co., whose clean-up is costing Beijing billions of dollars, was sentenced to 18 years in jail over a $10 billion fraud in 2018.
So what is Beijing trying to signal? Who’s the intended audience of this harsh sentence? Other rich and privileged people? Should Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s founder Jack Ma be worried? Though he hasn’t been charged with any crime, he has disappeared from the public eye since the suspension of his $35 billion Ant Group initial public offering in November.
At first glance, it may be meant as a reminder to naughty business tycoons of Beijing’s lethal legal arsenal. But the punitive measure against Lai is more likely part of the Communist Party’s internal housekeeping. With Donald Trump and the Covid-19-related economic slowdown out of the way, President Xi Jinping is going back to his war on shadow banking, which he started in earnest in late 2017. Beijing wants to set an example for bureaucrats, to show what can happen to those who do not heed their corporate deleveraging mandate.
Unlike Anbang, Huarong is a proper state-owned enterprise. Backed by the Ministry of Finance, Huarong was established to clean up the bad debts on the books of commercial banks. As such, the distressed debt manager enjoyed many privileges, including quasi-sovereign creditworthiness and a wide array of financial licenses that the private sector covets and can’t get hold of.
But instead of dealing with the bad debt, Lai went rogue, dabbling in everything from private equity to junk bond trading. At the end of 2016, distressed loans accounted for only 25% of Huarong’s total assets, down from 34% two years earlier. Instead, other financial products rose as a percentage of assets, including bonds, which could be easily turned around for profit.
In mainland China, Huarong established hundreds of joint venture companies, with the sole purpose of purchasing real estate, reported Caixin, an online and print business journal. In Hong Kong, Lai’s company raised large amounts from dollar bond issues, in turn using the proceeds to buy junk-rated notes. Energy trader CEFC Shanghai International Group Ltd., one of its investments, has since gone bust. As part of that game, Huarong built a labyrinth of shell companies, which activist David Webb has told investors not to own.
If Lai were a mere day trader, he might not be facing such serious consequences. However, his shadow lending resulted in huge losses that ultimately go on Beijing’s own books. For instance, without proper protocols, Huarong provided a large amount of structured financing to Ningxia Tianyuan Manganese Industry Co., which enabled the latter’s rapid debt-fueled global expansion.
You can just hear Beijing’s ire in Lai’s sentence. He leapfrogged the reporting lines and interfered in ground-level investment projects in order to seek improper benefits for certain individuals, declared the Tianjin court that sentenced him to death. “He endangered [China’s] financial stability.”
In this sense, Beijing’s bigamy accusation is, ironically, a perfect analogy. Lai was provided with tons of “dowry” for the sole purpose of lessening banks’ bad debt load. Instead, he branched out, built other nests and sired offspring that Beijing did not want. Instead of solving a problem, Lai became a problem.
Granted, Anbang’s Wu was a troublemaker too, using proceeds collected from short-term insurance products to buy long-term assets such as New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel. But he is a private citizen who exploited his association with Deng Xiaoping’s family to open doors and perpetuate fraud. Officials like Lai, on the other hand, come with great power handed to them by the state — with plenty of room to abuse that power.
In China’s sprawling state-owned financial sector, bureaucrats sometimes forget to act responsibly, giving out loans to family and friends without proper risk management. So how does Beijing ensure its bureaucrats behave? Desperate times call for desperate measures. With total debt edging to 300% of gross domestic product, China is one of the world’s most indebted nations. One death sentence may be just enough of a deterrent.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron’s, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.
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