By FRANK BAJAK AP Cybersecurity Writer
A discredited conspiracy theory that blames Ukraine, and not Russia, for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election reared its head again during the first day of public impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political opponent.
First, California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, referenced it obliquely in defending Trump, saying “indications of Ukrainian election meddling” had troubled the president.
Subsequently, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent, under questioning, said there was “no factual basis” to any theory of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election — while there is ample evidence of Russian interference.
In broad outline, the theory contends, without evidence, that the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee was a setup somehow perpetrated with Ukrainian complicity in which computer records were fabricated to cast blame on Russia. One key figure in this supposed conspiracy: CrowdStrike, a security firm hired by the DNC that detected and analyzed the hack five months before the 2016 election.
Kent said Wednesday that he hadn’t even heard of the theory until a whistleblower alerted the public to a July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president.
Here’s how the call brought the debunked theory back into currency.
During that July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump made a brief and cryptic reference to CrowdStrike. According to a reconstructed transcript of the call released by the White House, which is not a verbatim account, he said:
“I would like to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike . I guess you have one of your wealthy people. The server, they say Ukraine has it.” Trump added that he’d like to have Attorney General William Barr call “you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
CrowdStrike determined in June 2016 that Russian agents had broken into the committee’s network and stolen emails that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks. Its findings were confirmed by FBI investigators, with whom it later shared the forensic evidence.
Based on those findings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 members of Russia’s military intelligence agency and later concluded that their operation sought to favor Trump’s candidacy.
Mueller testified before the U.S. Congress the day before Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy.
In the call, Trump mentioned Mueller’s “incompetent performance” and said “they say it started with Ukraine.”
Ukraine and Russia have essentially been at war since Russia’s 2014 military intervention and annexation of Crimea. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about a purported Ukrainian link to the DNC hack began circulating almost immediately after it was discovered.
Some propagated by Russian media and online included mention of a supposed “hidden DNC server,” which acolytes of the Republican political operative Roger Stone picked up and circulated.
Stone is now standing trial for allegedly lying to Congress, obstructing justice and witness tampering after getting swept up in the Mueller probe. He has claimed that CrowdStrike is concealing evidence that could presumably clear Russia of culpability.
The presiding judge has denied Stone’s efforts to challenge the investigation into the hack.
CrowdStrike has also worked for the GOP. It helped the National Republican Congressional Committee investigate email thefts by unidentified hackers during the 2018 campaign, the company told the AP in December.
THE UKRAINIAN CONNECTION
One version of the conspiracy theory holds that CrowdStrike is owned by a wealthy Ukrainian. In fact, company co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a Russian-born U.S. citizen who immigrated as a child and graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Trump himself has made this erroneous reference before.
In an April 2017 interview with The Associated Press, Trump said: “Why wouldn’t (former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John) Podesta and Hillary Clinton allow the FBI to see the server? They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based.”
“CrowdStrike?” the interviewer asked.
“That’s what I heard,” Trump replied. “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian, that’s what I heard. But they brought in another company to investigate the server. Why didn’t they allow the FBI in to investigate the server? I mean, there is so many things that nobody writes about. It’s incredible.”
WHY IT MATTERS
The reference raises questions about Trump’s ability — or, perhaps, willingness — to sort between fact and fiction, analysts say.
“If we take Trump’s words at face value, then it appears that the president of the United States is intellectually unable to distinguish between utterly outlandish conspiracy theories and solid intelligence assessments based on facts,” said Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins security studies professor.
Joan Donovan of Harvard University said conspiracy theories generally have two principal attributes: They simplify matters and lack attribution. And some political actors see a benefit to encouraging them.
“Who can know the truth in these conditions? No one,” said Donovan, who directs the Kennedy School’s technology and social change research project.
CrowdStrike said in a statement that it “provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI.” It added: “We stand by our findings and conclusions that have been fully supported by the US Intelligence community.”
A PREVIOIUS REFERENCE
In October, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the Trump administration’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine was linked to his demand that Kyiv investigate the DNC and the 2016 campaign. Those who believe Trump should be impeached say there is ample evidence the aid was frozen in order to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate political rival Joe Biden’s son’s business activities in Ukraine.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney said.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that,” he added. “That’s why we held up the money.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
GM looking to build 2nd US battery factory, Tennessee likely
General Motors says it’s looking for a site to build a second U.S. battery factory with joint venture partner LG Chem of Korea.
The companies hope to have a decision on a site in the first half of the year, spokesman Dan Flores said Thursday.
Flores would not say where the company is looking, but it’s likely to be near GM’s Spring Hill, Tennessee, factory complex, which is one of three sites the company has designated to build electric vehicles.
A joint venture between GM and LG Chem currently is building a $2 billion battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio, near Cleveland, that will employ about 1,000 people. The site is fairly close to GM’s two other designated electric vehicle plants, one in Detroit and the other north of the city in Orion Township, Michigan.
GM is likely to need far more battery capacity if it’s able to deliver on a goal of converting all of its new passenger vehicles from internal combustion engines to electricity by 2035.
LG Chem now has a battery cell plant in Holland, Michigan, that supplies power to the Chevrolet Bolt hatchback and the new Bolt electric SUV.
Industry analysts have said that automakers face a global shortage of batteries as the industry moves away from gasoline powered vehicles. Most of the world’s batteries are built in China and other countries.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that GM and LG Chem are pursuing a site in Tennessee to build a new battery plant.
GM’s venture is risky, at least based on U.S. electric vehicle sales. Last year full battery electric vehicles accounted for only 2% of the U.S. market of 14.6 million in new vehicle sales. But automakers are set to roll out 22 new electric models this year and are baking on wider consumer acceptance.
The consulting firm LMC Automotive predicts that U.S. battery powered vehicle sales will hit over 1 million per year starting in 2023, reaching over 4 million by 2030.
DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER
UK competition watchdog investigates Apple’s App Store
U.K. authorities have launched an investigation into Apple’s App Store over concerns it has a dominant role that stifles competition and hurts consumers.
The Competition and Markets Authority said Thursday it was looking into “suspected breaches of competition law” by Apple. The announcement adds to regulatory scrutiny of the iPhone maker’s app distribution platform, which is also the subject of three antitrust probes by the European Union’s executive Commission.
Apple said the App Store is “a safe and trusted place for customers” and a “great business opportunity for developers.”
The investigation was triggered in part by complaints from app developers that Apple will only let them distribute their apps to iPhone and iPad users through the App Store. The developers also complained that the company requires any purchases of apps, add-ons or upgrades to be made through its Apple Pay system, which charges up to 30% commission.
“Millions of us use apps every day to check the weather, play a game or order a takeaway,” Andrea Coscelli, the authority’s CEO, said in a statement. “So, complaints that Apple is using its market position to set terms which are unfair or may restrict competition and choice – potentially causing customers to lose out when buying and using apps – warrant careful scrutiny.”
The watchdog said it would consider whether Apple has a “dominant position” in app distribution for Apple devices in the U.K., and, if it does, whether the company “imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers” that results in less choice or higher prices for consumers buying apps and extra.
Apple said it looked forward to explaining its App Store guidelines to the U.K. watchdog.
“We believe in thriving and competitive markets where any great idea can flourish,” the company said by email. “The App Store has been an engine of success for app developers, in part because of the rigorous standards we have in place — applied fairly and equally to all developers — to protect customers from malware and to prevent rampant data collection without their consent.”
By The Associated Press
UK extends job support, tax breaks for pandemic-hit economy
Britain’s treasury chief on Wednesday announced an additional 65 billion pounds ($91 billion) of support for an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, extending job support programs and temporary tax cuts to help workers and businesses in his annual budget.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that it is too soon for the government to rein in spending, saying that his plans would “protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people” through September as the government slowly lifts lockdown restrictions that have shut businesses across the U.K.
At the same time, he said Britain must be prepared to cut the deficit, announcing plans to increase the tax on corporate profits and boost revenue from personal income taxes in 2023.
“An important moment is upon us,” Sunak told the House of Commons. “A moment of challenge and of change. Of difficulties, yes, but of possibilities, too. This is a budget that meets that moment.”
U.K. public borrowing has risen to levels not seen since World War II as the government seeks to cushion the fallout from COVID-19, which has reduced gross domestic product by 10% and cost more than 700,000 people their jobs. Projections released Wednesday by the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the economy will still be 3% smaller five years from now than it would have been without the pandemic.
Sunak said government support programs have succeeded in mitigating the impact. The unemployment rate is now expected to peak at about 6.5%, rather than the 11.9% forecast last July, he said, citing estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The economy is forecast to grow 4% this year and 7.3% in 2022.
On Wednesday, Sunak announced plans to extend those support programs for six months. They include a furlough program, under which the government pays 80% of the wages for private employees unable to work during the pandemic, as well as grants for self-employed workers, a temporary increase in welfare payments and tax relief for businesses.
Sunak cheered business leaders by offering a tax credit of up to 130% of the money companies invest in expanding and improving their operations. Sunak said the credit is expected to increase investment by 10% or 25 billion pounds over the next two years, creating jobs and boosting economic growth.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, described the policy as bold.
“Manufacturers have strong intentions to invest in capital equipment as well as digital and green technologies which are crucial for our long-term recovery,” he said. “Today’s announcement should help turbocharge investment to ensure that those plans turn into reality in the short-term.”
Looking to the future, Sunak said the government will in 2023 increase corporation tax to 25%, from the current rate of 19%, and freeze personal income tax thresholds, which will increase revenue as inflation boosts incomes.
But opposition leader Keir Starmer accused Sunak of failing to address deep-seated economic problems and banking on a “consumer spending blitz” to bail out the economy.
Starmer said the budget fails millions of key workers who are having their pay frozen, businesses swamped by debt, and families paying higher local property taxes.
“The central problem in our economy is a deep-rooted insecurity and inequality, and this budget isn’t the answer to that,” Starmer said. “So rather than the big, transformative budget that we needed, this budget simply papers over the cracks.”
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in Parliament, criticized Sunak for continuing a strategy of temporary support that leaves businesses and consumers unsure of the future.
The budget leaves Scottish voters with a clear choice as the SNP campaigns to hold a second referendum on independence from the U.K., Blackford said.
“For the people of Scotland, this budget comes at a critical moment of choice,” he said, echoing Sunak’s language. “Post-Brexit and post-pandemic, Scotland now has a choice of two futures: The long-term damage of Brexit and more Tory austerity cuts, or the opportunity to protect her place in Europe and to build a strong, fair and green recovery with independence.”
LONDON (AP) — By DANICA KIRKA
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