Biden Administration Grilled Over $23B in Licenses for Blacklisted Chinese Firms

The Biden administration approved more than $23 billion worth of licenses for companies to ship U.S. goods and technology to blacklisted Chinese companies in the first quarter of 2022, a Republican lawmaker said Tuesday.

The data comes amid growing pressure on the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden to further expand a broad crackdown on shipments of sensitive U.S. technology to China from Republican lawmakers, who now control the House of Representatives.

“Overwhelmingly, [the Commerce Department] continues to grant licenses that allow critical U.S. technology to be sold to our adversaries,” Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing on combating the generational challenge of Chinese aggression, as he grilled U.S. officials for allowing the licenses to be approved.

“How does this align with your statement that ‘we’re doing everything within [the Commerce Department’s] power to prevent sensitive U.S. technologies from getting in the hands of [Chinese] military, intelligence services or other parties?’”

McCaul said the Commerce Department, which oversees export controls, denied only 8% of license requests to sell to companies on the U.S. trade blacklist during the January to March period last year.

Commerce Department official Alan Estevez, who oversees U.S. export policy, told the hearing that a Trump-era policy that allows China’s blacklisted telecommunications equipment maker Huawei to receive some U.S. technology below the “5G level” is “under assessment.”

Estevez also described TikTok as a “threat,” noting that a powerful committee that reviews foreign investments in the United States was dealing with how to handle the popular Chinese-owned social media app.

TikTok said in a statement the company has been working with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States “for over two years on a plan to address national security concerns about TikTok in the U.S.”

Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks cautioned against reading too much into the licensing numbers, noting that the approval and denial data provides no information about the transactions.

The data comes a week after the Biden administration added new Chinese companies to the trade blacklist for aiding Russia’s military and months after announcing a sweeping new policy aimed at dramatically curbing shipments of chips and chipmaking tools to China.

Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. was added to a trade blacklist known as the entity list by former Republican President Donald Trump in 2019, amid allegations of sanctions violations, spying capabilities, and intellectual property theft.

Suppliers of most companies added to the entity list see their requests to ship to the targeted firms denied, but the Trump administration implemented a special policy for Huawei, pledging to deny it access to some things like 5G chips but allow it to receive other items, such as 4G chips.

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Uganda Set to Begin Oil Drilling Despite Environmental Concerns

As Uganda looks to drill its first oil wells, critics say the government and its French and Chinese partners are damaging the environment and impeding wildlife migration. Halima Athumani reports from Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Camera: Francis Mukasa

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Slam Poetry Gives Voice to Young Senegalese

In Senegal, slam poetry is making its mark on urban culture and offering young people a way to voice their opinions about their lives and society. Seydina Aba Gueye has this report from Senegal, narrated by Salem Solomon.

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Rebel Clashes Flare in East DR Congo Despite Pullout Plan

M23 rebels continued fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, local sources said on Tuesday, the day they were supposed to begin withdrawing from their positions under a regional plan.  

On February 17, East African leaders urged all non-state armed groups to withdraw from territory they occupy in eastern Congo by March 30.  

The withdrawal was intended to take place in three stages, with the initial phase to begin on February 28. 

But M23 rebels continued advancing in the DRC’s North Kivu province on Tuesday.  

On Monday, the Tutsi-led group seized the town of Mweso, about 100 kilometers west of the provincial capital Goma. 

Local civil society leader Alphonse Habimana told AFP on Tuesday that the M23 was in control of the town of 30,000 people.  

Heritier Ndangendange, spokesman for the APCLS, one of the militias fighting the M23, confirmed rebels had captured Mweso. 

Clashes with the M23 continued Tuesday about 30 kilometers west of Goma, a city of more than 1 million people, according to a security official who declined to be named.  

M23 fighters also remained in their positions several dozen kilometers north of Goma.  

The rebels are close to encircling the city, which is sandwiched between Lake Kivu and the Rwandan border, with three of the four roads leading out of it cut off. 

The remaining road, which leads to neighboring South Kivu province, is in a state of disrepair because of heavy rain last year.  

The M23 reemerged from dormancy in November 2021, accusing the DRC of ignoring a promise to integrate its fighters into the army. 

It subsequently won a string of victories over state forces, seizing swaths of territory in North Kivu province and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. 

The DRC accuses its smaller neighbor Rwanda of backing the M23, a charge supported by independent U.N. experts as well as the United States and several other western countries but denied by Kigali.  

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Ukrainian Intelligence Official Assesses Security Situation as War Enters Second Year

With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its second year, there is renewed attention on the eastern salt-mining city of Bakhmut, the focus of a sustained Russian offensive in recent months. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation in Bakhmut is becoming more and more “complicated.” Bakhmut is just one of many areas in Russia’s sights as the war continues.

Along with the billions of dollars in military assistance that Western nations have given, Ukraine seeks fighter jets, but so far, the West has refused that request. The NATO military alliance has also voiced concern that Ukraine is using ammunition faster than it can be replenished.

Russia controls about 20% of Ukrainian territory, far short of the quick, countrywide takeover that had been predicted when Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24, 2022.

VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the main intelligence directorate at the Ukrainian defense ministry in Kyiv. Budanov spoke of what to expect in the coming months as Russia intensifies its military campaign in Ukraine. The interview has been edited for clarity.

VOA: You are the only person, in fact, as people close to the processes say, who at the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the start of a full-scale invasion, emphasized the need to be ready for a major Russian offensive. Have you been heard then?

Kyrylo Budanov, military intelligence chief, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine: Since today is already the 25th [of February 2023] and Russia has not been able to fulfill any of its strategic tasks, we can see that, at least partly, I was heard. At that time, let’s say different people had different opinions; however, as the period of February 2022 approached … certain steps were taken and it was because of this that Russia was unable to implement its plan on the 24th.”

VOA: You said, “Because of it.” Because of what?

Budanov: As an example, I can give you that already on the 23rd [of February 2022], our aviation was dispersed. So, when the missile attacks began on the 24th [of February 2022], the losses in our combat aviation were almost minimal, almost zero. These are little-known steps, a lot of them were taken at the last moment, probably, but they were taken.

VOA: How else did Ukraine manage to survive, during the first, very difficult days of the full-scale invasion?

Budanov: Thanks to our people, heroism. What else can I add? Everyone saw … Russia is out there crying that this is their Great Patriotic War; in fact, it is not yet for them. But for us, it is actually a Great Patriotic War. Everyone, from teenagers to old men, at that time, everyone stood up for defense.


VOA: Ukraine and Russia have very different military power, of course, both in terms of manpower and military equipment. What does Ukraine need most today in order to make a breakthrough in this military process?

Budanov: I don’t think I will say anything new for you; it is the intensification of weapons supply. Intensification. “Armament is coming, but the pace and volume are not sufficient for a breakthrough.”

VOA: Is it about some special, specific equipment, additional equipment, or is it about what is already supplied?

Budanov: Mostly about what I think is already supplied. In addition, we need attack aircraft, which as of now have not yet arrived.

VOA: There are many calls for the provision of F-16s to Ukraine. Is F-16 a panacea? Are there different types of similar weapons that Ukraine needs?

Budanov: In my opinion, we need attack aircraft. F-16 and similar platforms are not attack aircraft. Assault aircraft, in the USA, are first of all, A10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. This is also army aviation, but these are attack helicopters of the AH-64 type and so on. These are aerial platforms designed for ground strikes.

VOA: Why, then, does the president of Ukraine and his team talk specifically about the F-16?

Budanov: As I already said, this is my exclusively subjective vision, let’s say so. Maybe someone sees a different concept.

VOA: There is a lot of talk about a major Russian offensive. There were predictions that there would be massive missile shelling on the 23rd, 24th [of February 2023]. We did not see it.

Budanov: Thank God, it hasn’t happened yet. But this, let’s face it, unfortunately, is quite an everyday matter for Ukraine now. The only irregularity in it is that each time, the time between missile strikes increases, and the number of missiles in the strikes decreases. Here is the only regularity.

VOA: And what is the reason for this trend?

Budanov: Reduction of missile stocks. There is no other reason. They are already, in fact, ranging almost at zero.

VOA: There is a lot of talk about China being able to supply weapons for [Russia].

Budanov: I do not share this opinion. As of now, I do not think that China will agree to the supply of weapons to Russia. I see no indication that such things are even being negotiated.

VOA: American officials are also talking about it…

Budanov: I am the head of intelligence and, excuse me, but I rely, not on the opinion, with all due respect, of individual people, but only on facts. I do not see such facts.

VOA: Where else can Russia get supplies to continue the war in Ukraine today?

Budanov: Well, let’s say, if you are interested in other countries, as I understand from your question, in fact, almost the only country that actually supplies more or less serious weapons is Iran. I won’t tell you anything new either. There was information that something was coming from North Korea, but we have no confirmation of that. And there is not a single case when we would record that here is some kind of weapon that came from North Korea, that it was used here. Maybe we just haven’t seen it yet or it goes to some other, let’s say, needs. Well, let’s say, other countries, Russia is just trying to buy anything, anywhere. Because their problems are significant. Serbia, which everyone in Russia hoped for, refused to supply weapons. There are certain efforts to buy through third countries. Large-scale withdrawal of weapons. Now they are trying with Myanmar, we will see what will come of it in time. But in fact, Russia is limited, let’s say, by Iran in terms of weapons. As of now.

VOA: From what you say, Russia is practically exhausting its military reserves. But it doesn’t look like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is going to stop in this war.

Budanov: I’m sorry, but what, according to you, should it be so that somehow it looks different?

VOA: I’m not here to express my opinion, I’m asking. How can Russia continue this war under these conditions?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Being in these conditions, Russia cannot afford, as of now, to admit that it will lose. This is, let’s say, a direct dependence of the stability of the regime on this factor. However, if you rephrase, reformulate your question: “Is Russia unanimous, let’s say, on the issue of continuing hostilities?” The answer will be no. Not unanimous. In terms of the top state leadership. Many have come to the understanding that, after all, something is wrong. Let’s put it this way.

VOA: So, there is a split in the Russian leadership now?

Budanov: Opinions are divided. This cannot be called a split. Opinions are divided. And there are not so many people who speak out, in the leadership, I emphasize, for the fact that there is a war until the end and so on. For the most part, those people who are in favor of it, let’s say, behind this desire, they have a banal fear of responsibility. Because there are a certain number of people who will not be able to say that somehow a decision was made there without us, it was not us. There are very few of them, by the way.

VOA: And those people who do not agree with this war, do they have an influence on the decision, do they have an influence on Putin?

Budanov: Everyone is waiting for a certain moment when, let’s say, the tower of the Kremlin, which advocates a unanimous war, figuratively speaking, leans against the wall and admits that it is not going well. It’s a dead end.

VOA: And then? What to expect?

Budanov: Then we will see how things will go on. If you want to lead to the idea that, well, then they will get along there. They will not get along. Nothing will happen without our decisive actions.

VOA: I have heard such thoughts among the political elite in the USA that they do not see how this war can end, and in particular, maybe it can be just some kind of long-term, deep, unstable truce. Do you see it?

Budanov: I do not believe in this. No. First of all, Ukraine will not agree to such conditions; this is the first reason why it is unrealistic. And secondly, it simply won’t happen. And Russia is not ready for long-term hostilities. I am telling you this as the head of the military intelligence service. They show in every possible way that they are ready for “a war for decades,” but in reality, their resources are quite limited. Both in time and in volume. And they know it very well.

VOA: So they are also in a hurry?

Budanov: Everyone will be in a hurry right now.

VOA: We have already talked many times about the fact that the next three months will be decisive.

Budanov: Not just decisive. They will be quite active. Well, very active. Which will determine the further course of events. It’s active combat if you’re leading to that. This is what’s going to happen. Efforts will be on both sides.

VOA: Are we talking today about the east, Donetsk, Luhansk region. Or we are talking about the South?

Budanov: Absolutely everywhere.

VOA: Are we talking about the north?

Budanov: North, do you mean Russia’s attempt to attack Kyiv? Let’s put it this way. We do not know of such plans and there are no signs of any real ones. It’s not that we don’t know them, they just don’t exist. Maybe when they get certain defeats, they will look for a quick solution, but it will be a disaster for them. Another one, similar to what happened back then [in February-March 2022].

VOA: From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the full-scale invasion, very active cooperation with the intelligence services of the USA and Great Britain began.

Budanov: You are wrong; this cooperation has been going on for many years. It just burst into the mass media now, let’s put it this way. This cooperation has a long history.

VOA: How important is it for Ukraine today?

Budanov: With no exaggeration, you understand that we need everyone’s help now. These are common truths. This helps us. Certain technical capabilities of the U.S., which we do not have, they significantly add to our understanding. First of all, it concerns the military component. Such as, movement at a considerable depth and so on.

VOA: Do you have ongoing cooperation with senior intelligence management? If possible, how does this cooperation take place?

Budanov: What intelligence?

VOA: In particular, the USA.

Budanov: We have all communications.

VOA: Now, about Ukrainian defense capability. During this year, in fact, for the first time, Ukraine strengthened militarily very much, and was also able to go further in its technical equipment and developments. What progressive changes have taken place in the army and in intelligence in particular?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way, we have accelerated quite a lot, intensified the pace of reconnaissance of everything related to unmanned aircraft complexes. This area is developing very actively. This is, in principle, such a general global trend, and Ukraine, as, unfortunately, Russia, in this aspect did not become an exception. It should be mentioned, as an example, that the first thing Russia began to buy was drones. Drones were the first thing that they, and the most important thing, that in principle they try to get from all over the world.

VOA: Ukraine uses, and has an IT industry, very actively. Can today’s Ukraine really be of service in the same way, in particular to NATO countries, because there is talk that after the end of the war, Ukraine will be one of the most powerful military machines in Europe. Can you agree with this?

Budanov: Ukraine will never serve anyone. But becoming a reliable partner, well, it has already happened in fact.

VOA: How can Ukraine be useful as a partner today?

Budanov: Ukraine is now the guarantor of security, in fact, for the whole of Europe. And this is true without exaggeration. Let’s put it this way. All of Eastern Europe understands this absolutely clearly. There are different opinions further, but what concerns Eastern Europe, everyone agrees on this. And in fact, why is everyone trying so hard to help Ukrainians in every possible way? Because if it somehow happened that Ukraine would have fallen, they would be next. And I’m sorry, but the capabilities of these countries are in no way comparable to Ukraine. Everything would be much worse there.

VOA: It is clear that the countries of Eastern Europe understand very well that they are next, that is why they are very active, their leaders talk about it and lobby for the interests of Ukraine and their interests, first of all. Why do you think, especially in the countries of Western Europe, there is no such deep understanding of the danger that comes from Russia?

Budanov: I am sorry, but what is the danger for them other than this, purely hypothetical? Tell me. What could even be in theory?

If, this [aggression] went to the east of Europe, then they would understand that there is a problem, because it would come closer to them. Well, that already happened. After the end of the Second World War, the Warsaw bloc and the NATO bloc stood close to each other. Then everyone understood it. Then such a conditional buffer appeared. Everyone started saying that, well, in fact, you can trade and live normally with Russia. It’s some of their business there; it’s something of theirs, and we don’t get into that. Well, it was the same. Very recently.

VOA: So, Ukraine today, in fact, creates new trends in international politics to some extent?

Budanov: Thanks to the idiocy of the Russians, all their biggest geopolitical horror stories have become a reality. And Ukraine will become one of the most powerful states, and, let’s say, they have already encountered Western weapons. And we all disposed of, let’s say, jointly, all the remains of Soviet weapons from around the world. And they threw out the defense industrial complex of the Russian Federation for many years from the world arms trade. And, let’s say, yes, they limited the activity of their defense industrial complex. They disposed of, in fact, the entire able-bodied part of their army. This, again, sets back their military ambitions for many years. Because simply all specialists, the majority no longer exist.

VOA: If you’re talking about Russia, I see here are maps of what Russia could look like.

Budanov: This is not what it might look like. This is their future. Their very real future.

VOA: So, you see the division of Russia after this war?

Budanov: There are already problems in Russia and they will only increase. The sooner they leave Ukraine, the more chances, in theory, they will have to keep their territory within more or less similar borders. It will not be the same as it was, but more or less similar. Perhaps it will become a real federation, because in fact, if you look at their legislation, they are closer to a unitary state, although they are called a federation. It could turn into a confederation. And so on. As it was, there will be nothing to hold on to.

VOA: You recently visited the Vatican. You have been meeting with the pope. What was the purpose of this visit? Why is the pope himself important?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Since I hold several positions, and one of them is the head of the center for the exchange of prisoners of war, I have to, let’s say, try all the mechanisms that even hypothetically exist in the world. This was my main, let’s say, goal.

VOA: That the pope would help in the exchange process.

Budanov: Let’s say, try to connect the Holy See to this process as well.

VOA: And?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way, altogether the mechanisms gave the result we have.

VOA: How does this exchange process take place today, and how possible and effective is dialogue with Russia in this particular context, the return of prisoners of war?

Budanov: The situation is unique in all aspects. Because, maybe it was somewhere, but we have consulted with many foreign partners, how they do it. None of them conducted exchanges during hostilities. In principle, so far only we have succeeded in this. To say that everything is great is absolutely not the case, that would be a lie on my part. Because there are people and many of them in captivity. You can’t say that things are going great. You can’t say that it’s terrible either, well, I’m sorry, with all due respect and understanding of the delicacy of the issue. Because, again, these exchanges are going on and about 2,000 people have already been returned. This is quite a significant amount. Therefore, everything is in working order. Unfortunately, the Russian side often puts sticks in the wheels. But still, we find effective mechanisms that force them to take such steps [war prisoners exchange].

Budanov: We have returned about 2,000. You can understand, these will be significant numbers [the total number of those in captivity].

VOA: You say you are finding mechanisms that work. May I ask, perhaps which ones?

Budanov: We are a special service. I’m sorry, our forms and methods of work are… read the books, they haven’t changed in years.

VOA: Is it possible to publish the numbers of Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine?

Budanov: I tell you again, you should understand. Almost 2,000 were exchanged.

VOA: But are these numbers similar in the total amount? How many prisoners of war are there now on both sides?

Budanov: Unfortunately, they have more prisoners of war than we do. This is very easy to explain. First of all, they captured 90% of all prisoners of war in the first days. The first days, the first month… We do not take civilians as prisoners. There are a lot of women, unfortunately, and children, there are all kinds of elders, postmen, railway workers, mayors, and janitors. Everyone is there.

VOA: Are there any that Ukraine simply does not know — the number that is not recorded?

Budanov: Most likely, there are some, but believe me, 99%, we know who they are.

VOA: Recently, there has been a lot of information about the fact that (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy announced Russia’s desire to overthrow the leadership of Moldova. It was very well publicized, there was a lot of talk about it, and Moldova changed its government almost immediately after that. What risks do you see from that side?

Budanov: When you mentioned the change of government, you have to look at the person who came. (Prime Minister) Dorin Recean. He is quite a professional person and he is a military bloc, a power bloc; it is more correct to say so. Therefore, it is clear that the situation is not the easiest for Moldova. By the way, Transnistria (PMR ) plays not the first role here. This is precisely the issue of the Russian Federation’s attempt to overthrow the constitutional authority. Well, as you can see, they haven’t succeeded yet. A number of measures have been applied, which, for sure, will give results, and all these plans will once again fail. They have already partially experienced this failure in its infancy.

VOA: How important was it for you to convey this information to the Moldovan leadership? How important do you see the risks on that part?

Budanov: I’m telling you, the set of measures that have been taken and are being taken make Russia’s efforts impossible.

VOA: Another question about nuclear weapons. Many people talk about this and say that if Ukraine approaches the borders of Crimea and really wants to take Crimea, then the last step will be, for Putin to use nuclear weapons?

Budanov: And how many times has it happened already? Red line — Russia will use nuclear weapons, Russia is already using it, almost. The first time it happened at the end of spring, and then once every month-and-a-half. The apogee was from late summer to mid-autumn. At that point it was that they will launch a nuclear strike right there tomorrow. Did they? No, they did not. Can they do it? Hypothetically, everything in life is possible. In reality? No, it’s not possible. Because the Russian Federation is a state, let’s say, a soap bubble.

I mean in a sense that they inflate everything. There are not such idiots sitting there as they want to appear to the world. They clearly understand the first thing: nuclear weapons are not [offensive] weapons. It is a means of strategic deterrence. Secondly: the use of a nuclear deterrent by anyone in the world will lead to fatal consequences for whomever does it. No matter who it is.

VOA: Even if we are talking about tactical nuclear weapons?

Budanov: What’s the difference? This is the answer.

VOA: What is the deterrent to them not to do it?

Budanov: Again, if you and I will get into details of this issue, we will spend hours. With all the power of the Soviet Union, and it is incomparable with the Russian Federation today, absolutely incomparable. Several times everything was on the edge. Well, have they used it? No. And can it be used? No it cannot. This is not a weapon, I tell you again, it is officially a means of strategic deterrence.

VOA: Final question. How do you see the end of this war?

Budanov: The most difficult question. The end of the war in the first stage will be the return to the administrative borders of 1991. This is probably the correct answer. This will cause a change in the entire architecture and security, and the economy, and everything else in the entire region. That’s why I say: At the first stage, this is access to the administrative borders.

Next, we need to look at the security zone around Ukraine, at least from the Russian side. To a depth of 100 kilometers or more. And so on.

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Pentagon: Iran a ‘Global Challenge’ Due to Alliance with Russia

The United States and its allies are moving to treat Iran as a global threat, warning that its growing alliance with Russia — and cooperation in the war on Ukraine — mean Tehran’s destabilizing activities will pose a greater danger than ever before.

“We are now at a point where Iranian threats are no longer specific to the Middle East, but a global challenge,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul told reporters during a media call Tuesday.

Stroul pointed to the enhanced military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow and specifically to Iran’s provision of one-way drones to the Russian military, calling for “a global coalition to push back on the malign cooperation between Iran and Russia.”

“It is reasonable to expect that the tactics, techniques and procedures that the Iranians are learning and perfecting in Ukraine will one day come back to our partners in the Middle East, which is why we are increasing cooperation now, intelligence sharing, understanding these networks and increasing our collective defensive capabilities so that we are prepared to counter these threats in the region,” she said.

Stroul is the latest high ranking U.S. official to sound the alarm about Iran’s alliance with Russia.

This past Sunday, CIA Director William Burns called the growing relationship “disturbing.”

“It’s moving at a pretty fast clip in a very dangerous direction right now,” Burns said during an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We know that the Iranians have already provided hundreds or armed drones to the Russians. … We know that they’ve provided ammunition for artillery and for tanks, as well,” he said, adding there are signs Moscow could give Iran Russian-made fighter jets and even help Tehran with its ballistic missile program.

Iran denies it has provided drones to Russia.

The description of Iran as a “global challenge” appears to be a departure from language used by the U.S. intelligence community just last year.

“Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its annual Worldwide Threats Assessment report.

“The Iranian regime sees itself as locked in an existential struggle with the United States and its regional allies, while it pursues its longstanding ambitions for regional leadership,” the report noted, adding Iran’s leadership would seek to “entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states.”

The State Department’s just-released report, Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, called Iran “the leading state sponsor of terrorism, facilitating a wide range of terrorist and other illicit activities around the world.”

The report further warns that Tehran maintains “a near-global procurement network,” to acquire cutting-edge technology for its military and its various proxies, like Hezbollah.

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Supreme Court Weighs Biden Student Loan Plan Worth Billions 

The Supreme Court has begun hearing arguments in a partisan legal fight over President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe away or reduce student loans held by millions of Americans.

The high court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, heard arguments on Tuesday on two challenges to the plan, which has so far been blocked by Republican-appointed judges on lower courts.

Arguments were scheduled to last two hours but were likely to go much longer. The public can listen in on an outside link or the court’s website.

Twenty-six million people have applied, and 16 million have been approved to have up to $20,000 in federal student loans forgiven, the Biden administration says. The program is estimated to cost $400 billion over 30 years.

“I’m confident the legal authority to carry that plan is there,” Biden said Monday, at an event to mark Black History Month.

The president, who once doubted his own authority to broadly cancel student debt, first announced the program in August. Legal challenges quickly followed.

Republican-led states and lawmakers in Congress, as well as conservative legal interests, are lined up against the plan as a clear violation of Biden’s executive authority. Democratic-led states and liberal interest groups are backing the Democratic administration in urging the court to allow the plan to take effect.

Without it, loan defaults would dramatically increase when the pause on loan payments ends no later than this summer, the administration says. Payments were halted in 2020 as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The administration says a 2003 law, commonly known as the HEROES Act, allows the secretary of education to waive or modify the terms of federal student loans in connection with a national emergency. The law was primarily intended to keep service members from being worse off financially while they fought in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nebraska and other states that sued say the plan is not necessary to keep the rate of defaults roughly where it was before the pandemic. The 20 million borrowers who have their entire loans erased would get a “windfall” that will leave them better off than they were before the pandemic, the states say.

Dozens of borrowers came from across the country to camp out near the court on a soggy Monday evening in hopes of getting a seat for the arguments. Among them was Sinyetta Hill, who said that Biden’s plan would erase all but about $500 of the $20,000 or so she has in student loans.

“I was 18 when I signed up for college. I didn’t know it was going to be this big of a burden. No student should have to deal with this. No person should have to deal with this,” said Hill, 22, who plans to study law after she graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May.

Biden’s plan could meet a frosty reception in the courtroom. The court’s conservatives have been skeptical of other Biden initiatives related to the pandemic, including vaccine requirements and pauses on evictions. Those were billed largely as public health measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The loan forgiveness plan, by contrast, is aimed at countering the economic effects of the pandemic.

The national emergency is expected to end May 11, but the administration says the economic consequences will persist, despite historically low unemployment and other signs of economic strength.

In addition to the debate over the authority to forgive student debt, the court also will confront whether the states and two individuals whose challenge also is before the justices have the legal right, or standing, to sue.

Parties generally have to show that they would suffer financial harm and benefit from a court ruling in their favor. A federal judge initially found that the states would not be harmed and dismissed their lawsuit before an appellate panel said the case could proceed.

Of the two individuals who sued in Texas, one has student loans that are commercially held and the other is eligible for $10,000 in debt relief, not the $20,000 maximum. They would get nothing if they win their case.

A decision is expected by late June.

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South African Solar-Powered Cinema Inspires African Youth

A South African group is bringing films to African youth in impoverished areas with poor services through solar-powered, portable cinemas.  The group, Sunshine Cinema, works in four countries aiming to inspire more youth on the continent through African films. Zaheer Cassim reports from Pankop, South Africa.

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US: 25 Million Lives Saved by AIDS Program

The head of a U.S. government program to fight AIDS, Dr. John Nkengasong, says that in its 20 years of existence the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, has saved 25 million lives.

PEPFAR, set up in 2003 under the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush, has transformed the trajectory of HIV/AIDS, Nkengasong told reporters Tuesday while visiting South Africa.

“Twenty-five million lives have been saved, 5.5 million children have been born free of HIV/AIDS, health systems have been strengthened in a remarkable way,” he said.

Nkengasong, who comes from Cameroon, said there was once a “sense of hopelessness” in Africa, the continent worst-hit by HIV/AIDS, but since then countries’ economies have increased and life expectancy has improved.

Some 95% of the total $110 billion spent through PEPFAR was spent on Africa as it bore the brunt of the disease, he said.

“Before PEPFAR only 50,000 people, 50,000 people on the continent of Africa who were infected, were on treatment, 50,000. Today over 20 million people are receiving life-saving anti-retroviral therapy.” he said.

Nkengasong said the infrastructure rolled out across Africa as part of the U.S. government program was also useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AIDS official said he was also “very positive” about the tools in the pipeline to combat HIV, including the roll out of pre-exposure prophylactics for HIV negative people that can be injected every three months and will stop the spread of new infections.

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Father of Cellphone Sees Dark Side but Also Hope in New Tech

Holding the bulky brick cellphone he’s credited with inventing 50 years ago, Martin Cooper thinks about the future.

Little did he know when he made the first call on a New York City street from a thick gray prototype that our world — and our information — would come to be encapsulated on a sleek glass sheath where we search, connect, like and buy.

He’s optimistic that future advances in mobile technology can transform human lives but is also worried about risks smartphones pose to privacy and young people.

“My most negative opinion is we don’t have any privacy anymore because everything about us is now recorded someplace and accessible to somebody who has enough intense desire to get it,” the 94-year-old told The Associated Press at MWC, or Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest wireless trade show where he was getting a lifetime award this week in Barcelona.

Besides worrying about the erosion of privacy, Cooper also acknowledged the negative side effects that come with smartphones and social media, such as internet addiction and making it easy for children to access harmful content.

But Cooper, describing himself as a dreamer and an optimist, said he’s hopeful that advances in cellphone technology have the potential to revolutionize areas like education and health care.

“Between the cellphone and medical technology and the Internet, we are going to conquer disease,” he said.

It’s a long way from where he started.

Cooper made the first public call from a handheld portable telephone on a Manhattan street on April 3, 1973, using a prototype device that his team at Motorola had started designing only five months earlier.

Cooper used the Dyna-TAC phone to famously call his rival at Bell Labs, owned by AT&T. It was, literally, the world’s first brick phone, weighing 2.5 pounds and measuring 11 inches. Cooper spent the best part of the next decade working to bring a commercial version of the device to market.

The call help kick-start the cellphone revolution, but looking back on that moment 50 years later, “we had no way of knowing this was the historic moment,” Cooper said.

“The only thing that I was worried about: ‘Is this thing going to work?’ And it did,” he said Monday.

While blazing a trial for the wireless communications industry, he hoped that cellphone technology was just getting started.

Cooper said he’s “not crazy” about the shape of modern smartphones, blocks of plastic, metal and glass. He thinks phones will evolve so that they will be “distributed on your body,” perhaps as sensors “measuring your health at all times.”

Batteries could even be replaced by human energy.

“The human body is the charging station, right? You ingest food, you create energy. Why not have this receiver for your ear embedded under your skin, powered by your body?” he imagined.

Cooper also acknowledged there’s a dark side to advances — the risk to privacy and to children.

Regulators in Europe, where there are strict data privacy rules, and elsewhere are concerned about apps and digital ads that track user activity, allowing tech and digital ad companies to build up rich profiles of users.

“It’s going to get resolved, but not easily,” Cooper said. “There are people now that can justify measuring where you are, where you’re making your phone calls, who you’re calling, what you access on the Internet.”

Smartphone use by children is another area that needs limits, Cooper said. One idea is to have “various internets curated for different audiences.”

Five-year-olds should be able to use the internet to help them learn, but “we don’t want them to have access to pornography and to things that they don’t understand,” he said.

The inspiration for Cooper’s cellphone idea was not the personal communicators on Star Trek, but comic strip detective Dick Tracy’s radio wristwatch. As for his own phone use, Cooper says he checks email and does online searches for information to settle dinner table arguments.

However, “there are many things that I have not yet learned,” he said. “I still don’t know what TikTok is.”

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Snowstorms Flank US, with Northeast, California Digging Out

Heavy snow bookended the United States on Tuesday, with a late-season storm bringing a messy morning commute to the Northeast and California residents digging out, or in some cases simply stranded, after yet another storm.

While not a blockbuster storm by regional standards, the Northeast felt what could end up being the most significant snowfall of what has so far been a mild winter. The brunt of the storm hit Boston as the Tuesday morning commute commenced.

A winter storm warning covered parts of the Northeast, including Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, with heavy snow forecast through Tuesday afternoon.

Most of the nation’s flight cancellations or delays were concentrated in the Northeast early Tuesday. There were about 450 flight cancellations in the U.S. and over 500 delays, according to

Boston could get 5 inches (13 centimeters), according to the weather service. As much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) were forecast in western Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut and Vermont.

Dozens of school districts in Massachusetts closed or delayed opening, WCVB-TV reported. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey directed all nonemergency state employees in the executive branch to stay home Tuesday, her office said.

By early Tuesday, parts of New York City saw an inch or so of snow — some of the first snow to stick to the ground this season. The worst was over before sunrise, and a mix of snow and rain was expected Tuesday morning in the city, making for a slippery commute, NY1 reported.

At the other end of the country, California dug out yet again.

San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, declared a state of emergency amid the latest snow event after many mountain residents were trapped in their homes over the weekend. Heavy snow stranded hundreds of motorists at higher elevations, KTLA-TV reported.

Dozens of elementary school children were stranded at a science camp in Crestline for nearly a week, but buses escorted by the state highway patrol eventually evacuated them, the TV station reported. The county fire department used “specialized snow vehicles” to reach people who need critical medical care.

The new series of storms arrived even as parts of California were still digging out from last week’s powerful storm, which added to a massive snowpack left by a siege of “atmospheric rivers” in December and January.

A cold weather alert was declared for valley and mountain areas north of Los Angeles as overnight temperatures were expected to plunge below freezing for much of the week. Shelters were opened for residents without access to warmth.

While the mountainous areas around Los Angeles tried to dig out, rain fell on lower elevations of California, near the Pacific Coast. Storms were to continue moving through the state until the end of Wednesday. Blizzard warnings were in effect in the Sierra Nevada range in California and Nevada.

An avalanche warning was issued for the backcountry around Lake Tahoe, where up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) of snow was expected over the next two days in the upper elevations and gale-force winds could create waves up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) high on the lake, the National Weather Service said.

State offices across northern Nevada, and the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, shut down.

The northbound side of Interstate 5, the West Coast’s major north-south highway, closed amid the weather and was littered with disabled vehicles about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of the Oregon line. Interstate 80 was closed due to blizzard conditions.

While not expecting a blockbuster storm by regional standards, southern New England felt what could end up being the most significant snowfall of what has so far been a mild winter. The brunt of the storm was hitting just as the Tuesday morning commute commenced.

A winter storm warning covered parts of the Northeast, including Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, with heavy snow forecast through Tuesday afternoon.

Most of the nation’s flight cancellations or delays were concentrated in the Northeast early Tuesday. There were about 450 flight cancellations in the U.S. and over 500 delays, according to

Boston could get 5 inches (13 cm), according to the weather service. As much as 10 inches (25 cm) could fall in western Massachusetts, northwest Connecticut and southern Vermont.

Dozens of school districts and organizations closed or delayed opening, WCVB-TV reported. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey directed all non-emergency state employees in the executive branch to stay home Tuesday, her office said.

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‘Cyprus Problem’ Top Priority for Island’s New President

Nikos Christodoulides was sworn in as Cyprus’s president on Tuesday, promising to make finding a solution to the “Cyprus problem” his top priority after winning an election runoff on Feb. 12.

Christodoulides, 49, inherits a deadlock in reunification talks on the ethnically split island, labor disputes over high inflation, and what he called challenges of “exceptionally complex” irregular migration.

Christodoulides took an investiture oath in parliament. Cyprus has an executive system of government, with power invested in the presidency and its council of ministers.

Backed by centrist and right-wing parties, Christodoulides, a foreign minister until early 2022, won 52% of the vote over his main rival, leftist-backed Andreas Mavroyiannis.

“A solution to the Cyprus problem is my top priority,” he said. He met with Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot leader, last week.

Christodoulides has already sailed into his first controversy by falling short on a pre-election pledge of women making up 50% of his cabinet and of avoiding appointments of individuals who served in past governments.

“He raised the bar, but fell short,” the opposition leftist AKEL said in a statement.

Of 25 appointments announced on Monday, 14 were male and 11 female, though there were fewer females in key posts.

Two of his ministers have served in previous administrations – Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou, who served as health minister under the government of former President Nicos Anastasiades, and Finance Minister Makis Keravnos, who served in the same post 20 years ago.

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Death Toll Rising in Italian Migrant Boat Shipwreck 

The death toll from the wooden boat carrying hundreds of migrants that shipwrecked Sunday off the Italian coast has risen to at least 64.

At least one body was pulled out of the sea Monday, according to news outlets.

Survivors estimate that between 150 to 200 people were onboard the vessel that began its journey a few days ago from Turkey. Eighty people survived the tragedy, while officials fear the death toll may reach more than 100. Many of the migrants were from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reuters news agency reports that three men, a Turkish national and two Pakistani nationals, have been arrested by Italian authorities on suspected trafficking charges.

Huge piles of debris from the vessel began washing up on the beach Monday near the town of Steccato di Cutro, including wood, gas tanks, food containers and children’s toys.

More than 105,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea during 2022, with most coming from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Italy has asked other European Union countries to step up and take in some of the migrants, many of whom are not looking to stay in Italy, but instead are focused on traveling elsewhere in Europe to find work and/or reunite with family members.

The government of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has approved legislation that has placed strict restrictions on humanitarian groups’ ability to deploy boats to assist with rescues.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Partial Results of Disputed Nigeria Election Show Tinubu in Lead

Provisional results from Nigeria’s disputed presidential election over the weekend showed Bola Tinubu from the ruling party in the lead, a Reuters tally of votes in 25 of the country’s 36 states showed on Tuesday. 

Electoral commission results from the states showed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress party (APC) was ahead with about 36% or 7 million of valid votes counted, with Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) trailing close behind with 30% or nearly 6 million valid votes. 

Peter Obi of the smaller Labour Party got 20% or about 3.8 million votes. More results were expected to show the winner later on Tuesday. 

The preliminary results were announced in the states by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officers and will still have to be presented at the commission’s national collation center in the federal capital Abuja. 

But opposition parties have rejected the results as the product of a flawed process, which suffered multiple technical difficulties owing to the introduction of new technology by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). 

INEC had promised to upload results directly from each polling unit to its website in the election to replace outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, but most were unable to do so immediately. 

That meant results had to be collated manually inside ward and local government counting centers as in previous polls, problems observer missions also criticized as the result of poor planning. 

There are fears frustrations over the process could boil over into violence. 

In a normally bustling market on Lagos island, one of the most densely populated places in Africa, shops were shut and streets deserted on Tuesday morning.  

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Education Part of China’s Belt and Road Push in Africa

Under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, China has been spreading its global influence through the building of major infrastructure like railways, ports and bridges. But another key part of the BRI involves something much less tangible – spreading Chinese language and values as well as the Communist Party’s ideology. Kate Bartlett reports from Cape Town, South Africa. Videographers: Gianluigi Guercia and Rajabu Hassan. Contributor: Charles Kombe

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US, Canada Eliminating TikTok on Government Devices

Canada and the United States moved forward Monday with bans of TikTok on government devices. 

The White House gave federal agencies 30 days to halt the use of the popular social media app, implementing a ban approved by Congress in December. 

The U.S. measure has limited exceptions for law enforcement, national security and research purposes. 

“This guidance is part of the Administration’s ongoing commitment to securing our digital infrastructure and protecting the American people’s security and privacy,” said Chris DeRusha, the federal chief information security officer.  

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has drawn scrutiny from Western governments concerned about the security of user data and the potential the app could be used to promote pro-China views. 

The company has dismissed the concerns and called the bans “political theater.” 

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to proceed Tuesday with a bill that would give President Joe Biden the ability to ban TikTok nationwide. 

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the TikTok ban for government devices could serve as a signal to the wider population. 

“I suspect that as government takes the significant step of telling all federal employees that they can no longer use TikTok on their work phones many Canadians from business to private individuals will reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices,” Trudeau said. 

The European Commission and the EU Council banned TikTok on staff phones last week. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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Murdoch Says Some Fox Hosts ‘Endorsed’ False Election Claims

Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch acknowledged that some Fox News commentators endorsed the false allegations by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that he didn’t step in to stop them from promoting the claims, according to excerpts of a deposition unsealed Monday.     

The claims and the company’s handling of them are at the heart of a defamation lawsuit against the cable news giant by Dominion Voting Systems.      

The recently unsealed documents include excerpts from a deposition in which Murdoch was asked about whether he was aware that some of the network’s commentators — Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity — at times endorsed the false election claims. Murdoch replied, “Yes. They endorsed.”     

The Murdoch deposition is the latest filing in the defamation case to reveal concerns at the top-rated network over how it was handling Trump’s claims as its ratings plummeted after the network called Arizona for Joe Biden, angering Trump and his supporters.    

 An earlier filing showed a gulf between the stolen election narrative the network was airing in primetime and doubts about the claims raised by its stars behind the scenes. In one text, from November 16, 2020, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said “Sidney Powell is lying” about having evidence for election fraud, referring to one of Trump’s lawyers.     

The Dominion case is the latest example showing that those who were spreading false information about the 2020 election knew there was no evidence to support it. The now-disbanded House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol disclosed that many of Trump’s top advisers repeatedly warned him that the allegations he was making about fraud were false — and yet the president continued making the claims.     

Murdoch urged in September 2020, weeks before the election, that Dobbs be fired because he was “an extremist,” according to Dominion’s court filing. Murdoch also said he thought it was “really bad” for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to be advising Trump because Giuliani’s “judgment was bad” and he was “an extreme partisan,” according to a deposition excerpt.     

Murdoch was asked whether he could have requested that Powell and Giuliani not be put on the air: “I could have. But I didn’t,” he replied.     

Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems, which sells electronic voting hardware and software, is suing both Fox News Network and parent company Fox Corp. for defamation. Dominion contends that some Fox News employees deliberately amplified false claims by supporters of Trump that Dominion machines had changed votes in the 2020 election, and that Fox provided a platform for guests to make false and defamatory statements about the company. 

Dominion attorneys contend that executives in the “chain of command” at both Fox News and Fox Corp. knew the network was broadcasting “known lies, had the power to stop it, but chose to let it continue. That was wrong, and for that, FC and FNN are both liable.”   

Attorneys for Fox Corp. note in their filing that Murdoch also testified that he never discussed Dominion or voter fraud with any of the accused Fox News hosts. They say Dominion has produced “zero evidentiary support” for the claim that high-level executives at Fox Corp. had any role in creating or publishing the statements at issue.     

They say Dominion’s contention that the company should be held liable because Murdoch might have had the power to step in and prevent the challenged statements from being aired “has no basis in defamation law, would obliterate the distinction between corporate parents and subsidiaries, and finds no support in the evidence.”     

The “handful of selective quotes” cited by Dominion have nothing to do with the statements that Dominion has challenged as defamatory, Fox’s attorney said: “Dominion repeatedly asked Fox News executives, hosts, and staff whether Fox Corporation employees played a role in the publication of the statements it challenges,” they wrote. “The answer — every single time, for every single witness — was no.”     

Meanwhile, Fox News attorneys note that when voting-technology companies denied the allegations being made by Trump and his surrogates, Fox News aired those denials, while some Fox News hosts offered protected opinion commentary about Trump’s allegations. 

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Pressure Grows on Kenyan President to Declare Drought a National Disaster

Pressure is growing on Kenya’s President William Ruto to declare a national disaster over a record drought in the country’s north that has affected five million people. The failure of a sixth consecutive rainy season is making hunger worse across the region. Ahmed Hussein reports from Wajir county, Kenya where more than half of the population is facing food insecurity. Camera: Ahmed Hussein

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Ghana’s Tax on Sanitary Pads Deprives Girls of Education

Ghana increased already high taxes on imported goods this year, making sanitary pads unaffordable to vulnerable women and girls who are then forced to skip school during their periods. Activists are calling for the taxes to be scrapped and are also producing locally made, biodegradable pads so girls and women don’t miss out on education. Senanu Tord reports from Kpong, Ghana.

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New US House Committee to Focus on Strategic Competition With China

U.S. lawmakers this week are launching a two-year effort to address strategic competition between the United States and China, with a prime-time hearing set for Tuesday that will include testimony from human rights activists and members of former President Donald Trump’s national security team.

Representative Mike Gallagher, who will chair the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition with China, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” earlier this week, “We may call this a strategic competition, but it’s not a tennis match. This is about what type of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in Xinjiang-lite, or do we want to live in the free world?”

He was characterizing Beijing’s treatment of the minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province.

Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi will serve as the top Democrat on the committee, which has been described by many of its 24 members as a serious opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

While the first hearing will focus on security concerns, the committee’s work is expected to address a wide range of issues in the relationship – from economic and agricultural competition to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Committee member Republican Representative Dusty Johnson recently told VOA the U.S.-China relationship is often compared incorrectly to the Cold War between the United States and the then-Soviet Union.

“It’s a very different environment,” Johnson said in an interview earlier in February. “We didn’t need to in a targeted way decouple our economy from that of the Soviet Union’s. The Soviet Union was a one-dimensional threat. It was a military threat. The Chinese Communist Party is a threat in a much more comprehensive way.”

While they were in the minority in the 117th Congress, Republicans formed a China Task Force. This bipartisan group of lawmakers said they will pursue their efforts with a spirit of cooperation.

Johnson said several themes emerged from the committee’s first planning meeting.

“Number one, our work should be bipartisan. Number two, that the Chinese people are the primary victims of the pattern of aggression from the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese people are not an adversary,” he said.

The recent U.S. shootdown of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast focused the attention of the American public on security concerns posed by China.

“It actually has elevated the formation — the reasons for the formation of the committee,” Republican Representative Dan Newhouse, a committee member, told VOA, adding that it was important to understand China’s pattern of behavior and what the U.S. should do to deter any potential action. “We need to be smart, smarter; we need to be wired, our eyes wide open about what’s going on in the world as it relates to China.”

Newhouse is a co-sponsor of legislation addressing concerns China is buying up U.S. agricultural land.

“These trends are concerning — that potentially our supply chain as it relates to our production of food is being compromised, that we’re losing control, that we’re ceding a very important aspect of our security,” Newhouse said, adding concerns that the U.S. is ceding that control to a nation that is “not someone that has demonstrated to us that deserves the same amount of trust as some of our other trading partners.”

Democratic Representative Andre Carson, who also serves on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told VOA that the surveillance balloons will keep security concerns at the forefront of their work. But the committee also plans to dig into other areas of strategic competition.

“We have to explore the production of semiconductors and how our allies are now working with us to thwart China’s expansion efforts,” said Carson. “And I think we have to look at ways in which our supply chain is compromised in this process.”

Carson also expressed concern about China’s investments in U.S. companies and fronting businesses in Indiana, the industrial Midwest and other places.

The committee is considering hearings outside Capitol Hill for a firsthand look at possible threats to critical infrastructure. Carson, however, emphasized the tone of the committee’s work is also important and will be heard around the country.

“We want to make sure without increasing anti-discrimination against Asian Americans in the process … that we are strengthening our national security apparatus, while at the same time we were not fanning the flames of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment,” he said.

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The Digital Front of Ukraine’s Fight Against Russia

Working from bomb shelters has become the norm for Ukrainians like Roman Osadchuk.

“At the beginning, there were a lot of air raids. Nowadays, there are maybe two a week,” said Osadchuk. “I mean, I was in the shelter today,” he said offhandedly when he spoke with VOA from Kyiv.

Most times Osadchuk still has a “solid internet connection” and sometimes he has Wi-Fi in the shelter so he can still work, “just underground.”

That work is part of the digital front of the war in Ukraine. Based in Ukraine’s capital, Osadchuk monitors Russian disinformation for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

His work is part of a broader international effort from open-source researchers, analysts and journalists to study Russian disinformation, debunk false claims, and document violations.

Russia has deployed propaganda about Ukraine for years. And with the full invasion in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed the war was necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide.

Some of those false narratives and tactics have changed in the past 12 months, but the omnipresence of Russian propaganda has remained constant, analysts said.

“This is the most digital conflict to ever occur,” and when it comes to the digital front, Russia has been on the back foot, said Nina Jankowicz, vice president in the U.S. for London’s independent nonprofit, the Center for Information Resilience.

“I think they expected, just like in the kinetic side of the war, to be really unmatched in the digital side of the war, and that absolutely has not been the case,” Jankowicz told VOA.

Open-source researchers have been working to “throw cold water on the lies coming out of Russia,” Jankowicz said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”

The Center for Information Resilience launched the Eyes on Russia Project in early 2022, as Russian troops amassed along the Ukraine border.

When troops crossed into Ukraine, the project worked to verify and geolocate incidents and attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Like detectives, researchers use everything from satellite imagery and shadows to street signs and license plates to help verify events, she said.

Those skills have helped the team to expose lies and debunk “everything from ‘Ukraine is full of neo-Nazis,’ to ‘Ukraine is attacking its own citizens,’” Jankowicz said.

The propaganda is mostly shared on social media, messaging platforms like Telegram, news sites and TV.

Initially the focus of propaganda was to justify the invasion, according to Ruslan Deynychenko, of the Ukrainian fact checking site and a journalist who previously contributed to VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

They created stories about de-Nazification and liberation, nuclear programs and secret laboratories where Ukrainians and Americans supposedly developed “combat mosquitoes” and other bioweapons, said Deynychenko. But about six months after the invasion, Deynychenko noticed that the rhetoric on Russian networks changed.

“They openly admit that they are fighting Ukraine and Ukrainians, and it’s not that they’re liberating Ukrainians from a neo-Nazi regime,” Deynychenko told VOA from Kyiv. “They basically [try to] justify Russian efforts to kill Ukrainians, to bomb Ukrainian cities.”

Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

The intensity of the work is a challenge, the researchers said.

“It became more difficult to figure out which case is more relevant,” said Nika Aleksejeva, who researches Russian disinformation about Ukraine at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

What would have been noteworthy before the war isn’t as important today, she said. “The baseline has moved.”

Her colleague Osadchuk agreed. “It’s kind of toxic when you eat a lot of it,” Osadchuk said about the volume of disinformation he has analyzed over the past year.

For Toma Istomina, deputy chief editor at the English-language online newspaper, The Kyiv Independent, reporting accurately on the war is one of the best ways to combat disinformation.

“Information is probably as big of a tool in this war as the traditional weapons used on the ground,” Istomina told VOA from Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kyiv.

“Information has really been weaponized by Russia for a while against Ukraine,” she added, but “Ukraine did a very good job during this war debunking Russia’s bullshit.”

The Kyiv Independent makes a point to not report on every lie that Russia tells, Istomina said, in part because there are just so many. But another reason is that reporting too much on Russian propaganda could risk legitimizing it.

Putin likely considers the Russian audience — inside the country and the diaspora — to be the most important target for disinformation, but Ukrainians are also in his sights, according to Osadchuk. The Global South has also become an increasingly important target, he said.

It’s always challenging to measure how effective disinformation is at influencing public opinion, Aleksejeva said, but propaganda probably helps the Russian domestic audience “cope with such an uncomfortable reality, basically escape it somehow.”

As for the West, she said, “it was much harder to win this battle from the very beginning.”

The fight against propaganda has extra relevance for Ukrainian researchers.

Exposing disinformation and documenting violations is a way for them to contribute to the war effort.

“Every Ukrainian on February 24 [2022] felt that there is a need to resist in some way, where you have some skills,” Osadchuk said.

For StopFake’s Deynychenko, he sees his work as a way to gather evidence that could be used to prosecute people “who used media as a powerful weapon” in the war. “We believe that those people should be held responsible,” he said.

And at The Kyiv Independent, Istomina said the mentality is that “when we work, we’re not victims — we’re fighters.”

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EU Defends Talks on Big Tech Helping Fund Networks

Europe’s existing telecom networks aren’t up to the job of handling surging amounts of internet data traffic, a top European Union official said Monday, as he defended a consultation on whether Big Tech companies should help pay for upgrades.

The telecom industry needs to reconsider its business models as it undergoes a “radical shift” fueled by a new wave of innovation such as immersive, data-hungry technologies like the metaverse, Thierry Breton, the European Commission’s official in charge of digital policy, said at a major industry expo in Barcelona called MWC, or Mobile World Congress.

Breton’s remarks came days after he announced a consultation on whether digital giants should help contribute to the billions needed to build the 27-nation bloc’s future communications infrastructure, including next-generation 5G wireless and fiber-optic cable connections, to keep up with surging demand for digital data.

“Yes, of course, we will need to find a financing model for the huge investments needed,” Breton said in a copy of a keynote speech at the MWC conference.

Telecommunications companies complain they have had to foot the substantial costs of building and operating network infrastructure only for big digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Facebook to benefit from the surging consumer demand for online services.

“The consultation has been described by many as the battle over fair share between Big Telco and Big Tech,” Breton said. “A binary choice between those who provide networks today and those who feed them with the traffic. That is not how I see things.”

Big tech companies say consumers could suffer because they’d end up paying twice, with extra fees for their online subscriptions.

Breton denied that the consultation was an attack on Big Tech or that he was siding with telecom companies.

“I’m proposing a new approach,” he later told reporters. Topics up for discussion include how much investment is needed and whether regulations need to be changed, he said.

“We will have zero taboo,” Breton said, referring to the conference’s approach that no topic is off limits. “Do we need to adapt it? Do we need to discuss who should pay for what? This is exactly what is the consultation today.”

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US Ambassador: China Should Be Candid About COVID Origins

The U.S. ambassador to China says Beijing needs to be more forthcoming about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, a day after reports that the U.S. Energy Department concluded the outbreak likely began because of a Chinese laboratory leak.

Nicholas Burns told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event by video link Monday that China needs to “be more honest about what happened three years ago in Wuhan with the origin of the COVID-19 crisis.” Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in December 2019.

His comments come a day after U.S. media reported that the Energy Department determined the pandemic likely arose from a laboratory leak in Wuhan.

The department made its judgment in a classified intelligence report provided to the White House and key members of Congress, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the development, citing people who read the report.

The WSJ said the Energy Department intelligence agency was now the second U.S. intelligence agency after the FBI to conclude a Chinese lab leak was the probable cause of the pandemic, although U.S. spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby echoed that sentiment.

“There has not been a definitive conclusion and consensus in the U.S. government on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kirby told reporters Monday when asked about the WSJ report.

The Energy Department assessment was made with “low confidence,” while the FBI conclusion was determined with “moderate confidence,” according to the WSJ. Four other U.S. agencies have reportedly determined with “low confidence” that the virus was transmitted naturally through animals, while an additional two agencies remain undecided.

The reports again bring national attention to the question of what caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Energy Department’s conclusion marks a change from its earlier position that it was undecided on how the virus began. U.S. officials did not disclose what new intelligence brought about the change. The Energy Department’s analysis came from its network of national laboratories, giving it a perspective different from more traditional intelligence assessments.

On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that “there is a variety of views in the intelligence community.”

“Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other,” he said.

Scientists have also been divided on the issue, with some pointing to the live animal market in Wuhan as the most probable place the virus emerged, noting that animal-to-human transmission has been the pathway for many previously unknown pathogens. Other scientists, however, have given credence to the lab leak theory, noting that no animal source has been found and that Wuhan is a major site of coronavirus research.

The question of how the virus began has also exacerbated political divisions in the U.S., with Republicans more likely to back the lab leak hypothesis.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton was one of the first high-profile politicians to voice the theory that the virus originated in a lab setting, commenting in February 2020, when the predominant view was the virus had been transmitted from bats and spread at a food market in Wuhan.

After a growing number of scientists urged for both hypotheses to be seriously considered, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence review into the origins of COVID-19 in May 2021.

A declassified intelligence assessment in October 2021 stated that both hypotheses were plausible but that intelligence agencies remained divided over which theory was correct. The report said there was consensus among intelligence agencies that the pandemic was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons program.

China has repeatedly denied that a lab leak occurred in Wuhan. It has placed limits on World Health Organization investigations to determine the origin of the virus.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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US Cybersecurity Official Calls Out Tech Companies for ‘Unsafe’ Software

A top U.S. cybersecurity official launched a warning shot at major technology companies, accusing them of “normalizing” the release of flawed and unsafe products while allowing the blame for safety issues, security breaches and cyberattacks to fall on their customers.

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly called Monday for new rules and legislation to hold technology and software companies accountable for selling products that she says are released despite known vulnerabilities.

While massive hacking campaigns by China and other adversaries, including Russia, Iran and North Korea, are a major problem, “cyber intrusions are a symptom rather than a cause,” Easterly told an audience at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“The cause, simply put, is unsafe technology products,” she said. “The risk introduced to all of us by unsafe technology is frankly much more dangerous and pervasive than the [Chinese] spy balloon, but somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to accept it.”

The push for regulation and legislation is not entirely new. Both Easterly and former National Cyber Director Chris Inglis, who stepped down earlier this month, warned during their confirmation hearings more than a year and a half ago that government action could be required if private companies refused to do more.

“Enlightened self-interest, that’s apparently not working. … Market forces, that’s apparently not working,” Inglis said at the time. 

Now, with China running a “massive and sophisticated” hacking program, and threats from other countries and from cyber criminals constantly growing, “we have to make a fundamental shift,” Easterly said.

CISA is in the process of laying out a set of core principles, Easterly said. Some of the most critical are to make sure that the burden for safety is never left solely to tech and software customers, that manufacturers be transparent about problems and how to fix them, and that products be “secure by design and secure by default.”

“Technology must be purposefully designed and developed and built and tested to significantly reduce the number of exploitable flaws before they’re introduced into the market for broad use,” Easterly said. 

“Ultimately such a transition to secure-by-design and secure-by-default products will help organizations and technology providers, because it’ll mean less time fixing problems, more time focusing on innovation and growth, and importantly it’ll make life much harder for our adversaries.”

Easterly said the U.S. government is already using its purchasing power to help make the change, requiring companies that want government contracts to meet higher security requirements.

She also praised a handful of companies, including Apple, Google, Mozilla and Amazon Web Services for moving to a more secure model but called efforts by others, including Twitter and Microsoft when it comes to the use of multifactor authentication, “disappointing.” 

VOA contacted Microsoft and Twitter for their reaction to Easterly’s specific criticism. Neither had provided a response as of the time of publication.

“We’ve normalized the fact that technology products are released to market with dozens, hundreds or thousands of defects when such poor construction would be unacceptable in any other critical field,” Easterly said, adding other industries have found ways to change.

“For the first half of the 20th century, conventional wisdom held that car accidents were solely the fault of bad drivers,” she said. “Cars today are designed to be as safe as possible. … Nobody would think of purchasing a car today that didn’t have seatbelts or airbags included as standard features, and no one would accept paying extra to have these basic security features installed.” 

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