While the space rock (2010 WC9) posed no danger to our planet, such a close pass is uncommon for asteroids of this size
On Tuesday May 15 our planet had a fleeting visitor: an asteroid about the size of a city block will pass by at about half the distance to the moon.
While there was no reason for concern about it hitting the Earth – NASA determined that it posed no threat – it was one of the closest passes of an asteroid this size yet observed.
The asteroid, which is officially named 2010 WC9, was at its closest to the Earth at 6:05 pm EDT Tuesday evening.
2010 WC9 is on the small side as far as asteroids go, measuring between 197 to 427 feet. But despite its unremarkable size, it’s quite notable in terms of its proximity.
As Eddie Irizarry reports for EarthSky, this flyby was the closest this particular asteroid has come to the Earth in over 300 years, whizzing past at a distance of 126,000 miles from our planet’s surface.
Though astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey discovered this asteroid back in November 2010, it disappeared from sight a month later. The asteroid remained hidden from view until just last week.
Finally able to track the space rock’s path, astronomers quickly predicted the asteroid’s path, finding it would pass by Earth at a close, but not catastrophic, distance.
2010 WC9 is one of nearly 10,000 asteroids classified in the Apollo group, which is a class of near-Earth space rocks that cross over our planet’s orbit in their trips around the sun.
NASA classifies roughly 1,900 of known space rocks as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PAH), based on their calculated to threaten Earth. Thankfully, 2010 WC9 does not fall in this category.
As NBC’s David Freeman writes, asteroids of 2010 WC9’s size shouldn’t be too much cause for concern as they’re only thought to make contact with our planet just once every 6,000 years.
If this asteroid were coming close enough to hit Earth, though, it could really wreak havoc.
WC9 is estimated to be larger than the Chelyabinsk meteor, which exploded in the skies over Russia in 2013, producing a large shock wave and many small meteorites. The blast caused 1,500 injuries, which were mainly due to shattered glass, Deborah Byrd reported for EarthSky in 2016.
And depending on WC9’s makeup, if it were to collide with our planet, it could be powerful enough to make a crater almost a mile wide, Erin Ryan, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells NBC.
For those who hoped to catch a glimpse of the space rock, WC9 proved elusive without a telescope. Given its small size and brisk pace of 28,655 miles per hour, the asteroid was not be visible to the naked eye when it passed by us.
But astronomy enthusiasts lacking telescopes were still be able to see it; Northholt Branch Observatories in London provided a look by livestreaming the event on Facebook.
There was no need to take cover – the odds of an asteroid strike remain vanishingly small.
But we did get the treat of taking a closer look at 2010 WC9 before it hurtled away on its orbit of the sun.
Amid a national epidemic of dishonesty, acting with integrity is more important than ever.
The following is an adaptation of an address by Michael R. Bloomberg to Rice University’s class of 2018.
When I was deciding what I wanted to say today, I kept thinking about a Rice tradition that’s an incredibly important part of student life here: I’m talking about the honor code.
When you first arrived on campus, you attended a presentation on the honor code. And your very first quiz tested your knowledge of the code. And so today, I thought it would be fitting for you as graduates to end your time here the same way you began it: by hearing a few words about the meaning of honor.
Don’t worry: There won’t be a quiz. But there will be a test when you leave this campus — one that will last for the rest of your life. And that’s what I want to explain today — and it actually starts with the opposite of honor.
As a New Yorker, I was surprised to learn that an act of dishonor in my hometown almost blocked Rice from coming into existence. William Marsh Rice was murdered at his home in Manhattan by two schemers who tried to re-write his will.
They were caught. His money went where he wanted it to go. The university was built. And fittingly, an honor code was created that has been central to student life here from the beginning. Ever since you arrived here on campus, on nearly every test and paper you submitted, you signed a statement that began, “On my honor.”
But have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means?
The concept of honor has taken on different meanings through the ages: chivalry, chastity, courage, strength. And when divorced from morality, or attached to prejudice, honor has been used to justify murder, and repression, and deceit.
But the essence of honor has always been found in the word itself.
As those of you who majored in linguistics probably know, the words “honor” and “honest” are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the Latin word “honestus” can mean both “honest” and “honorable.” To be honorable, you must be honest. And that means speaking honestly, and acting honestly even when it requires you to admit wrongdoing, and suffer the consequences.
That commitment to honesty is, I believe, a patriotic responsibility. As young children, one of the first things we learn about American history is the story of George Washington and the fallen cherry tree.
“I cannot tell a lie,” young George tells his father. “I cut it down.”
That story is a legend, of course. But legends are passed down from generation to generation because they carry some larger truth. The cherry tree legend has endured because it’s not really about Washington. It’s about us, as a nation. It’s about what we want from our children — and what we value in our leaders: honesty.
We have always lionized our two greatest presidents — Washington and Lincoln — not only for their accomplishments, but also for their honesty. We see their integrity and morals as a reflection of our honor as a nation.
However, today when we look at the city that bears Washington’s name, it’s hard not to wonder: What the hell happened?
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth.” And last year brought us the phrase “alternative facts.” In essence, they both mean: Up can be down. Black can be white. True can be false. Feelings can be facts.
A New York senator known for working across the aisle, my old friend Pat Moynihan, once said: “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” That wasn’t always a controversial statement.
Today, those in politics routinely dismiss inconvenient information, no matter how factual, as fake — and they routinely say things that are demonstrably false. When authoritarian regimes around the world did this, we scoffed at them. We thought: The American people would never stand for that.
For my generation, the plain truth about America — the freedom, opportunity and prosperity we enjoyed — was our most powerful advantage in the Cold War. The more communists had access to real news, the more they would demand freedom. We believed that, and we were right.
Today, though, many of those at the highest levels of power see the plain truth as a threat. They fear it, deny it, attack it — just as the communists once did. And so here we are, in the midst of an epidemic of dishonesty, and an endless barrage of lies.
The trend toward elected officials propagating alternate realities — or winking at those who do — is one of the most serious dangers facing democracies. Free societies depend on citizens who recognize that deceit in government isn’t something to shrug your shoulders at.
When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we will get criminality. Sometimes, it’s in the form of corruption. Sometimes, it’s abuse of power. And sometimes, it’s both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that preserve and protect our rights and freedoms and open the door to tyranny and fascism.
Now, you might say: There have always been dishonest politicians — in both parties. And that’s true. But there is now more tolerance for dishonesty in politics than I have seen in my lifetime. And I’ve been alive for one-third of the time the United States has existed. And as my generation can tell you: The only thing more dangerous than dishonest politicians with no respect for the law, is a chorus of enablers who defend their every lie.
Remember: The honor code here didn’t just require you to be honest. It required you to say something if you saw others acting dishonestly. That might be the most difficult part of an honor code, but it may also be the most important, because violations affect the whole community.
The same is true in our country. If we want elected officials to be honest, we have to hold them accountable when they are not or else suffer the consequences. Don’t get me wrong. Honest people can disagree. But productive debate requires an acceptance of basic reality.
For example: If 99 percent of scientists whose research has been peer-reviewed reach the same general conclusion about a theory, then we ought to accept it as the best available information — even if it’s not a 100 percent certainty.
Of course, it’s always good to be skeptical and ask questions. But we must be willing to place a certain amount of trust in the integrity of scientists.
If you aren’t willing to do that, don’t get on an airplane, don’t use a cell phone or microwave, don’t get treated in a hospital, and don’t even think about binge-watching Netflix.
The dishonesty in Washington isn’t just about science. We aren’t tackling so many of the biggest problems that affect your future — from the lack of good jobs in many communities, to the prevalence of gun violence, to the threats to the environment — because too many political leaders are being dishonest about facts and data, and too many people are letting them get away with it.
So how did we get here? How did we go from a president who could not tell a lie to politicians who cannot tell the truth? From a George Washington who embodied honesty to a Washington, D.C., defined by deceit?
It’s popular to blame social media for spreading false information. I, for one, am totally convinced that Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber are still dating.
But the problem isn’t just unreliable stories. It’s also the public’s willingness to believe anything that paints the other side in a bad light. That’s extreme partisanship, and it’s what’s fueling and excusing all this dishonesty.
Extreme partisanship is like an infectious disease. But instead of crippling the body, it cripples the mind. It blocks us from understanding the other side. It blinds us from seeing the strengths in their ideas and the weaknesses in our own.
And it leads us to defend or excuse lies and unethical actions when our own side commits them.
For example: In the 1990s, leading Democrats spent the decade defending the occupant of the Oval Office against charges of lying and personal immorality, and attempting to silence and discredit the women who spoke out. At the same time, leading Republicans spent that decade attacking the lack of ethics and honesty in the White House.
Today, the roles are exactly reversed — not because the parties have changed their beliefs — but because the party occupying the Oval Office has changed.
When someone’s judgment about an action depends on the party affiliation of the person who committed it, they’re being dishonest with themselves and with the public. And yet, those kinds of judgments have become so second nature that many people in both parties don’t even realize they are making them.
When people see the world as a battle between left and right, they become more loyal to their tribe than to our country. When power — not progress — becomes the object of the battle, truth and honesty become the first casualties.
You learned here at Rice that honesty leads to trust and trust leads to freedom (like the freedom to take tests outside the classroom). In democracy, it’s no different. If we aren’t honest with one another, we don’t trust one another. And if we don’t trust one another, we place limits on what we ourselves can do, and what we can do together as a country. It’s a formula for gridlock and national decline — but here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.
When I was in city government, I didn’t care which party proposed an idea. I never once asked someone his or her party affiliation during a job interview, or who they voted for. As a result, we had a dream team of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
That diversity made our debates sharper, our policies smarter, and our government better. Arguments were won and lost on facts and data — not parties and polls. That was why we had success. And it’s been great to see other mayors around the country taking that same kind of approach.
But at the national level, in Washington today, partisanship is everything, and I think the dishonesty it produces is one of the greatest challenges that your generation will have to confront.
Of course, partisanship is not a new problem. George Washington warned against it in his Farewell Address.
He referred to the “dangers of parties,” and called the passion that people have for them the, quote, “worst enemy” of democracy — a precursor to tyranny. Washington urged Americans to, quote, “discourage and restrain” partisanship. Sadly, in recent years, the opposite has happened. There is now unrestrained, rabid partisanship everywhere we look.
It’s not just on social media and cable news. It’s in the communities where we live, which are becoming more deeply red or more deeply blue. It’s in the groups and associations and churches we join, which increasingly attract like-minded people. It’s even in the people we marry.
Fifty years ago, most parents didn’t care whether their children married a member of another political party but they didn’t want them marrying outside their race or religion, or inside their gender.
Today, thankfully, polls show strong majority support for interracial, inter-religious, and same-sex marriage. That’s progress. But unfortunately, the percentage of parents who don’t want their children marrying outside of their political party has doubled.
The more people segregate themselves by party, the harder it becomes to understand the other side and the more extreme each party grows. Studies show that people become more extreme in their views when they are grouped together with like-minded people. That’s now happening in both parties. And as a result, it’s fair to say the country is more divided by party than it has been since the Civil War.
Bringing the country back together won’t be easy. But I believe it can be done — and if we are to continue as a true democracy, it must be done and it will be up to your generation to help lead it.
Graduates: You’re ready for this challenge. Because bringing the country back together starts with the first lesson you learned here: Honesty matters. And everyone must be held accountable for being honest.
So as you go out into the world, I urge you to do what honesty requires: Recognize that no one, nor either party, has a monopoly on good ideas. Judge events based on what happened, not who did it. Hold yourself and our leaders to the highest standards of ethics and morality. Respect the knowledge of scientists. Follow the data, wherever it leads.
Listen to people you disagree with — without trying to censor them or shout over them. And have the courage to say things that your own side does not want to hear.
I just came yesterday from visiting an old friend in Arizona, who has displayed that kind of courage throughout his life: Senator John McCain.
We often don’t see eye to eye on issues. But I have always admired his willingness to reach across the aisle, when others wouldn’t dare. He bucked party leaders, when his conscience demanded it. He defended the honor of his opponents, even if it cost him votes. And he owned up to his mistakes — just like that young kid with the cherry tree.
Imagine what our country would be like if more of our elected officials had the courage to serve with the honor that John has always shown.
Graduates: After today, you will no longer be bound by the Rice honor code. It will be up to you to decide how to live your life — and to follow your own honor code.
This university has given you a special opportunity to learn the true meaning of honor to base that code on, and now, I believe, you have a special obligation to carry it forward. The greatest threat to American democracy isn’t communism, jihadism, or any other external force or foreign power. It’s our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party, and in pursuit of power.
Let me leave you with one final thought: We can all recite the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
But remember that the Founding Fathers were able to bring those truths to life only because of the Declaration’s final words: “We mutually pledge to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
That pledge of honor — and that commitment to truth — is why we are here today. And in order to preserve those truths, and the rights they guarantee us, every generation must take that same pledge. Now it’s your turn.
…How Big?…..An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest.
The ONLY question is when.
When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku, Japan, Chris Goldfinger was two hundred miles away, in the city of Kashiwa, at an international meeting on seismology.
As the shaking started, everyone in the room began to laugh. Earthquakes are common in Japan—that one was the third of the week—and the participants were, after all, at a seismology conference. Then everyone in the room checked the time.
Seismologists know that how long an earthquake lasts is a decent proxy for its magnitude. The 1989 earthquake in Loma Prieta, California, which killed sixty-three people and caused six billion dollars’ worth of damage, lasted about fifteen seconds and had a magnitude of 6.9.
A thirty-second earthquake generally has a magnitude in the mid-sevens. A minute-long quake is in the high sevens, a two-minute quake has entered the eights, and a three-minute quake is in the high eights.
By four minutes, an earthquake has hit magnitude 9.0.
When Goldfinger looked at his watch, it was quarter to three. The conference was wrapping up for the day. He was thinking about sushi. The speaker at the lectern was wondering if he should carry on with his talk.
The earthquake was not particularly strong.
Then it ticked past the sixty-second mark, making it longer than the others that week. The shaking intensified.
The seats in the conference room were small plastic desks with wheels. Goldfinger, who is tall and solidly built, thought, No way am I crouching under one of those for cover.
At a minute and a half, everyone in the room got up and went outside.
It was March. There was a chill in the air, and snow flurries, but no snow on the ground. Nor, from the feel of it, was there ground on the ground. The earth snapped and popped and rippled.
It was, Goldfinger thought, like driving through rocky terrain in a vehicle with no shocks, if both the vehicle and the terrain were also on a raft in high seas.
The quake passed the two-minute mark. The trees, still hung with the previous autumn’s dead leaves, were making a strange rattling sound.
The flagpole atop the building he and his colleagues had just vacated was whipping through an arc of forty degrees.
The building itself was base-isolated, a seismic-safety technology in which the body of a structure rests on movable bearings rather than directly on its foundation. Goldfinger lurched over to take a look. The base was lurching, too, back and forth a foot at a time, digging a trench in the yard.
He thought better of it, and lurched away. His watch swept past the three-minute mark and kept going.
Oh, shit, Goldfinger thought, although not in dread, at first: in amazement. For decades, seismologists had believed that Japan could not experience an earthquake stronger than magnitude 8.4.
In 2005, however, at a conference in Hokudan, a Japanese geologist named Yasutaka Ikeda had argued that the nation should expect a magnitude 9.0 in the near future—with catastrophic consequences, because Japan’s famous earthquake-and-tsunami preparedness, including the height of its sea walls, was based on incorrect science.
The presentation was met with polite applause and thereafter largely ignored. Now, Goldfinger realized as the shaking hit the four-minute mark, the planet was proving the Japanese Cassandra right.
For a moment, that was pretty cool: a real-time revolution in earthquake science.
Almost immediately, though, it became extremely uncool, because Goldfinger and every other seismologist standing outside in Kashiwa knew what was coming.
One of them pulled out a cell phone and started streaming videos from the Japanese broadcasting station NHK, shot by helicopters that had flown out to sea soon after the shaking started. Thirty minutes after Goldfinger first stepped outside, he watched the tsunami roll in, in real time, on a two-inch screen.
In the end, the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people, devastated northeast Japan, triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, and cost an estimated two hundred and twenty billion dollars.
The shaking earlier in the week turned out to be the foreshocks of the largest earthquake in the nation’s recorded history.
But for Chris Goldfinger, a paleoseismologist at Oregon State University and one of the world’s leading experts on a little-known fault line, the main quake was itself a kind of foreshock: a preview of another earthquake still to come.
Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.”
That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.
Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.
The “Cascadia” part of its name comes from the Cascade Range, a chain of volcanic mountains that follow the same course a hundred or so miles inland.
The “subduction zone” part refers to a region of the planet where one tectonic plate is sliding underneath (subducting) another.
Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle.
Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone.
Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.
Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year.
It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely.
There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring.
If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6.
That’s the big one.
If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2.
That’s the very big one.
Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again.
When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.
Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.)
The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse.
One side will rush west, toward Japan.
The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins.
By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable.
Kenneth Murphy, who directs fema’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says,“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover* some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.
When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.
Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy.
fema projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says.
In fact, the science is robust, and one of the chief scientists behind it is Chris Goldfinger. Thanks to work done by him and his colleagues, we now know that the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three. The odds of the very big one are roughly one in ten.
Even those numbers do not fully reflect the danger—or, more to the point, how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it.
The truly worrisome figures in this story are these: Thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed.
In May of 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, together with their Corps of Discovery, set off from St. Louis on America’s first official cross-country expedition. Eighteen months later, they reached the Pacific Ocean and made camp near the present-day town of Astoria, Oregon.
The United States was, at the time, twenty-nine years old. Canada was not yet a country. The continent’s far expanses were so unknown to its white explorers that Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the journey, thought that the men would come across woolly mammoths.
Native Americans had lived in the Northwest for millennia, but they had no written language, and the many things to which the arriving Europeans subjected them did not include seismological inquiries. The newcomers took the land they encountered at face value, and at face value it was a find: vast, cheap, temperate, fertile, and, to all appearances, remarkably benign.
A century and a half elapsed before anyone had any inkling that the Pacific Northwest was not a quiet place but a place in a long period of quiet. It took another fifty years to uncover and interpret the region’s seismic history. Geology, as even geologists will tell you, is not normally the sexiest of disciplines; it hunkers down with earthly stuff while the glory accrues to the human and the cosmic—to genetics, neuroscience, physics.
But, sooner or later, every field has its field day, and the discovery of the Cascadia subduction zone stands as one of the greatest scientific detective stories of our time.
The first clue came from geography. Almost all of the world’s most powerful earthquakes occur in the Ring of Fire, the volcanically and seismically volatile swath of the Pacific that runs from New Zealand up through Indonesia and Japan, across the ocean to Alaska, and down the west coast of the Americas to Chile.
Japan, 2011, magnitude 9.0; Indonesia, 2004, magnitude 9.1; Alaska, 1964, magnitude 9.2; Chile, 1960, magnitude 9.5—not until the late nineteen-sixties, with the rise of the theory of plate tectonics, could geologists explain this pattern. The Ring of Fire, it turns out, is really a ring of subduction zones.
Nearly all the earthquakes in the region are caused by continental plates getting stuck on oceanic plates—as North America is stuck on Juan de Fuca—and then getting abruptly unstuck. And nearly all the volcanoes are caused by the oceanic plates sliding deep beneath the continental ones, eventually reaching temperatures and pressures so extreme that they melt the rock above them.
The Pacific Northwest sits squarely within the Ring of Fire.
Off its coast, an oceanic plate is slipping beneath a continental one. Inland, the Cascade volcanoes mark the line where, far below, the Juan de Fuca plate is heating up and melting everything above it. In other words, the Cascadia subduction zone has, as Goldfinger put it, “all the right anatomical parts.” Yet not once in recorded history has it caused a major earthquake—or, for that matter, any quake to speak of.
By contrast, other subduction zones produce major earthquakes occasionally and minor ones all the time: magnitude 5.0, magnitude 4.0, magnitude why are the neighbors moving their sofa at midnight. You can scarcely spend a week in Japan without feeling this sort of earthquake.You can spend a lifetime in many parts of the Northwest—several, in fact, if you had them to spend—and not feel so much as a quiver.
The question facing geologists in the nineteen-seventies was whether the Cascadia subduction zone had ever broken its eerie silence.
In the late nineteen-eighties, Brian Atwater, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey, and a graduate student named David Yamaguchi found the answer, and another major clue in the Cascadia puzzle. Their discovery is best illustrated in a place called the ghost forest, a grove of western red cedars on the banks of the Copalis River, near the Washington coast. When I paddled out to it last summer, with Atwater and Yamaguchi, it was easy to see how it got its name. The cedars are spread out across a low salt marsh on a wide northern bend in the river, long dead but still standing. Leafless, branchless, barkless, they are reduced to their trunks and worn to a smooth silver-gray, as if they had always carried their own tombstones inside them.
What killed the trees in the ghost forest was saltwater. It had long been assumed that they died slowly, as the sea level around them gradually rose and submerged their roots. But, by 1987, Atwater, who had found in soil layers evidence of sudden land subsidence along the Washington coast, suspected that that was backward—that the trees had died quickly when the ground beneath them plummeted. To find out, he teamed up with Yamaguchi, a specialist in dendrochronology, the study of growth-ring patterns in trees.
Yamaguchi took samples of the cedars and found that they had died simultaneously: in tree after tree, the final rings dated to the summer of 1699.
Since trees do not grow in the winter, he and Atwater concluded that sometime between August of 1699 and May of 1700 an earthquake had caused the land to drop and killed the cedars.
That time frame predated by more than a hundred years the written history of the Pacific Northwest—and so, by rights, the detective story should have ended there.
But it did not. If you travel five thousand miles due west from the ghost forest, you reach the northeast coast of Japan. As the events of 2011 made clear, that coast is vulnerable to tsunamis, and the Japanese have kept track of them since at least 599 A.D. In that fourteen-hundred-year history, one incident has long stood out for its strangeness. On the eighth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of the Genroku era, a six-hundred-mile-long wave struck the coast, leveling homes, breaching a castle moat, and causing an accident at sea.
The Japanese understood that tsunamis were the result of earthquakes, yet no one felt the ground shake before the Genroku event. The wave had no discernible origin. When scientists began studying it, they called it an orphan tsunami.
Finally, in a 1996 article in Nature, a seismologist named Kenji Satake and three colleagues, drawing on the work of Atwater and Yamaguchi, matched that orphan to its parent—and thereby filled in the blanks in the Cascadia story with uncanny specificity. At approximately nine o’ clock at night on January 26, 1700, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck the Pacific Northwest, causing sudden land subsidence, drowning coastal forests, and, out in the ocean, lifting up a wave half the length of a continent. It took roughly fifteen minutes for the Eastern half of that wave to strike the Northwest coast. It took ten hours for the other half to cross the ocean. It reached Japan on January 27, 1700: by the local calendar, the eighth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of Genroku.
Once scientists had reconstructed the 1700 earthquake, certain previously overlooked accounts also came to seem like clues. In 1964, Chief Louis Nookmis, of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, in British Columbia, told a story, passed down through seven generations, about the eradication of Vancouver Island’s Pachena Bay people.
“I think it was at nighttime that the land shook,” Nookmis recalled. According to another tribal history, “They sank at once, were all drowned; not one survived.”
A hundred years earlier, Billy Balch, a leader of the Makah tribe, recounted a similar story. Before his own time, he said, all the water had receded from Washington State’s Neah Bay, then suddenly poured back in, inundating the entire region. Those who survived later found canoes hanging from the trees.
In a 2005 study, Ruth Ludwin, then a seismologist at the University of Washington, together with nine colleagues, collected and analyzed Native American reports of earthquakes and saltwater floods. Some of those reports contained enough information to estimate a date range for the events they described. On average, the midpoint of that range was 1701.
It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved. Still, the reconstruction of the Cascadia earthquake of 1700 is one of those rare natural puzzles whose pieces fit together as tectonic plates do not: perfectly.
It is wonderful science. It was wonderful for science. And it was terrible news for the millions of inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. As Goldfinger put it, “In the late eighties and early nineties, the paradigm shifted to ‘uh-oh.’ ”
Goldfinger told me this in his lab at Oregon State, a low prefab building that a passing English major might reasonably mistake for the maintenance department. Inside the lab is a walk-in freezer. Inside the freezer are floor-to-ceiling racks filled with cryptically labelled tubes, four inches in diameter and five feet long. Each tube contains a core sample of the seafloor. Each sample contains the history, written in seafloorese, of the past ten thousand years.
During subduction-zone earthquakes, torrents of land rush off the continental slope, leaving a permanent deposit on the bottom of the ocean. By counting the number and the size of deposits in each sample, then comparing their extent and consistency along the length of the Cascadia subduction zone, Goldfinger and his colleagues were able to determine how much of the zone has ruptured, how often, and how drastically.
Thanks to that work, we now know that the Pacific Northwest has experienced forty-one subduction-zone earthquakes in the past ten thousand years. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval: the average amount of time that elapses between earthquakes. That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long—long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough.
Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle.
It is possible to quibble with that number. Recurrence intervals are averages, and averages are tricky: ten is the average of nine and eleven, but also of eighteen and two. It is not possible, however, to dispute the scale of the problem.
The devastation in Japan in 2011 was the result of a discrepancy between what the best science predicted and what the region was prepared to withstand. The same will hold true in the Pacific Northwest—but here the discrepancy is enormous. “The science part is fun,” Goldfinger says. “And I love doing it. But the gap between what we know and what we should do about it is getting bigger and bigger, and the action really needs to turn to responding.
Otherwise, we’re going to be hammered. I’ve been through one of these massive earthquakes in the most seismically prepared nation on earth.
If that was Portland”—Goldfinger finished the sentence with a shake of his head before he finished it with words. “Let’s just say I would rather not be here.”
The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line.
Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves.
That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover.
The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system.
When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond.
If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly.
So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
Across the region, other, larger structures will also start to fail. Until 1974, the state of Oregon had no seismic code, and few places in the Pacific Northwest had one appropriate to a magnitude-9.0 earthquake until 1994. The vast majority of buildings in the region were constructed before then. Ian Madin, who directs the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (dogami), estimates that seventy-five per cent of all structures in the state are not designed to withstand a major Cascadia quake.
fema calculates that, across the region, something on the order of a million buildings—more than three thousand of them schools—will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake. So will half of all highway bridges, fifteen of the seventeen bridges spanning Portland’s two rivers, and two-thirds of railways and airports; also, one-third of all fire stations, half of all police stations, and two-thirds of all hospitals.
Certain disasters stem from many small problems conspiring to cause one very large problem. For want of a nail, the war was lost; for fifteen independently insignificant errors, the jetliner was lost. Subduction-zone earthquakes operate on the opposite principle: one enormous problem causes many other enormous problems. The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region—up to thirty thousand of them in Seattle alone, the city’s emergency-management office estimates. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it. Fifteenper cent of Seattle is built on liquefiable land, including seventeen day-care centers and the homes of some thirty-four thousand five hundred people.
So is Oregon’s critical energy-infrastructure hub, a six-mile stretch of Portland through which flows ninety per cent of the state’s liquid fuel and which houses everything from electrical substations to natural-gas terminals. Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills.
Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will.
Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.
Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable.
The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.
For the seventy-one thousand people who live in Cascadia’s inundation zone, that will mean evacuating in the narrow window after one disaster ends and before another begins. They will be notified to do so only by the earthquake itself—“a vibrate-alert system,” Kevin Cupples, the city planner for the town of Seaside, Oregon, jokes—and they are urged to leave on foot, since the earthquake will render roads impassable. Depending on location, they will have between ten and thirty minutes to get out.
That time line does not allow for finding a flashlight, tending to an earthquake injury, hesitating amid the ruins of a home, searching for loved ones, or being a Good Samaritan.
“When that tsunami is coming, you run,” Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (osspac), says. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”
The time to save people from a tsunami is before it happens, but the region has not yet taken serious steps toward doing so.
Hotels and businesses are not required to post evacuation routes or to provide employees with evacuation training. In Oregon, it has been illegal since 1995 to build hospitals, schools, firehouses, and police stations in the inundation zone, but those which are already in it can stay, and any other new construction is permissible: energy facilities, hotels, retirement homes.
In those cases, builders are required only to consult with dogami about evacuation plans. “So you come in and sit down,” Ian Madin says. “And I say, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ And you say, ‘Thanks. Now we’ve consulted.’ ”
These lax safety policies guarantee that many people inside the inundation zone will not get out.Twenty-two per cent of Oregon’s coastal population is sixty-five or older. Twenty-nine per cent of the state’s population is disabled, and that figure rises in many coastal counties.
“We can’t save them,” Kevin Cupples says. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll go around and check on the elderly.’ No. We won’t.”
Nor will anyone save the tourists. Washington State Park properties within the inundation zone see an average of seventeen thousand and twenty-nine guests a day. Madin estimates that up to a hundred and fifty thousand people visit Oregon’s beaches on summer weekends. “Most of them won’t have a clue as to how to evacuate,” he says. “And the beaches are the hardest place to evacuate from.”
Those who cannot get out of the inundation zone under their own power will quickly be overtaken by a greater one.
A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6.7 miles an hour.
The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet.
It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land.
Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest.
To see the full scale of the devastation when that tsunami recedes, you would need to be in the international space station. The inundation zone will be scoured of structures from California to Canada. The earthquake will have wrought its worst havoc west of the Cascades but caused damage as far away as Sacramento, California—as distant from the worst-hit areas as Fort Wayne, Indiana, is from New York.
fema expects to coördinate search-and-rescue operations across a hundred thousand square miles and in the waters off four hundred and fifty-three miles of coastline.As for casualties: the figures I cited earlier—twenty-seven thousand injured, almost thirteen thousand dead—are based on the agency’s official planning scenario, which has the earthquake striking at 9:41 a.m. on February 6th. If, instead, it strikes in the summer, when the beaches are full, those numbers could be off by a horrifying margin.
Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all.
osspac estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities. On the coast, those numbers go up. Whoever chooses or has no choice but to stay there will spend three to six months without electricity, one to three years without drinking water and sewage systems, and three or more years without hospitals. Those estimates do not apply to the tsunami-inundation zone, which will remain all but uninhabitable for years.
How much all this will cost is anyone’s guess; fema puts every number on its relief-and-recovery plan except a price. But whatever the ultimate figure—and even though U.S. taxpayers will cover seventy-five to a hundred per cent of the damage, as happens in declared disasters—the economy of the Pacific Northwest will collapse. Crippled by a lack of basic services, businesses will fail or move away. Many residents will flee as well. osspac predicts a mass-displacement event and a long-term population downturn. Chris Goldfinger didn’t want to be there when it happened. But, by many metrics, it will be as bad or worse to be there afterward.
On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten.
The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.
This problem is bidirectional. The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past.
It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future.
That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination.
If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.
That problem is not specific to earthquakes, of course. The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning, and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face.
How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?
The last person I met with in the Pacific Northwest was Doug Dougherty, the superintendent of schools for Seaside, which lies almost entirely within the tsunami-inundation zone. Of the four schools that Dougherty oversees, with a total student population of sixteen hundred, one is relatively safe. The others sit five to fifteen feet above sea level. When the tsunami comes, they will be as much as forty-five feet below it.
In 2009, Dougherty told me, he found some land for sale outside the inundation zone, and proposed building a new K-12 campus there. Four years later, to foot the hundred-and-twenty-eight-million-dollar bill, the district put up a bond measure. The tax increase for residents amounted to two dollars and sixteen cents per thousand dollars of property value.
The measure failed by sixty-two per cent. Dougherty tried seeking help from Oregon’s congressional delegation but came up empty. The state makes money available for seismic upgrades, but buildings within the inundation zone cannot apply.
At present, all Dougherty can do is make sure that his students know how to evacuate.
Some of them, however, will not be able to do so. At an elementary school in the community of Gearhart, the children will be trapped. “They can’t make it out from that school,” Dougherty said. “They have no place to go.” On one side lies the ocean; on the other, a wide, roadless bog. When the tsunami comes, the only place to go in Gearhart is a small ridge just behind the school. At its tallest, it is forty-five feet high—lower than the expected wave in a full-margin earthquake.
For now, the route to the ridge is marked by signs that say “Temporary Tsunami Assembly Area.” I asked Dougherty about the state’s long-range plan. “There is no long-range plan,” he said.
Dougherty’s office is deep inside the inundation zone, a few blocks from the beach. All day long, just out of sight, the ocean rises up and collapses, spilling foamy overlapping ovals onto the shore.
Eighty miles farther out, ten thousand feet below the surface of the sea, the hand of a geological clock is somewhere in its slow sweep. All across the region, seismologists are looking at their watches, wondering how long we have, and what we will do, before geological time catches up to our own.
Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked.
One night in the autumn of 1944, two Frenchwomen—Loulou Le Porz, a doctor, and Violette Lecoq, a nurse—watched as a truck drove in through the main gates of Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women. “There was a lorry,” Le Porz recalled, “that suddenly arrives and it turns around and reverses towards us. And it lifts up and it tips out a whole pile of corpses.” These were the bodies of Ravensbrück inmates who had died doing slave labor in the many satellite camps, and they were now being returned for cremation.
Talking, decades later, to the historian and journalist Sarah Helm, whose new book, “Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women” (Doubleday), recounts the stories of dozens of the camp’s inmates, Le Porz says that her reaction was simple disbelief. The sight of a truck full of dead bodies was so outrageous, so out of scale with ordinary experience, that “if we recount that one day, we said to each other, nobody would believe us.” The only way to make the scene credible would be to record it: “If one day someone makes a film they must film this scene. This night. This moment.”
Le Porz’s remark was prophetic. The true extent of Nazi barbarity became known to the world in part through the documentary films made by Allied forces after the liberation of other German camps. There have been many atrocities committed before and since, yet to this day, thanks to those images, the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate symbol of evil. The very names of the camps—Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz—have the sound of a malevolent incantation. They have ceased to be ordinary place names—Buchenwald, after all, means simply “beech wood”—and become portals to a terrible other dimension.
To write the history of such an institution, as Nikolaus Wachsmann sets out to do in another new book, “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), might seem impossible, like writing the history of Hell. And, certainly, both his book and Helm’s are full of the kind of details that ordinarily appear only in Dantesque visions. Helm devotes a chapter to Ravensbrück’s Kinderzimmer, or “children’s room,” where inmates who came to the camp pregnant were forced to abandon their babies; the newborns were left to die of starvation or be eaten alive by rats.
Wachsmann quotes a prisoner at Dachau who saw a transport of men afflicted by dysentery arrive at the camp: “We saw dozens . . . with excrement running out of their trousers. Their hands, too, were full of excrement and they screamed and rubbed their dirty hands across their faces.”
These sights, like the truck full of bodies, are not beyond belief—we know that they were true—but they are, in some sense, beyond imagination. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to imagine being one of those men, still less one of those infants. And such sights raise the question of why, exactly, we read about the camps. If it is merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead.
If it is to exercise sympathy or pay a debt to memory, then it quickly becomes clear that the exercise is hopeless, the debt overwhelming: there is no way to feel as much, remember as much, imagine as much as the dead justly demand. What remains as a justification is the future: the determination never again to allow something like the Nazi camps to exist.
And for that purpose it is necessary not to think of the camps simply as a hellscape. Reading Wachsmann’s deeply researched, groundbreaking history of the entire camp system makes clear that Dachau and Buchenwald were the products of institutional and ideological forces that we can understand, perhaps all too well. Indeed, it’s possible to think of the camps as what happens when you cross three disciplinary institutions that all societies possess—the prison, the army, and the factory.
Over the several phases of their existence, the Nazi camps took on the aspects of all of these, so that prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combatted, and workers to be exploited. When these forms of dehumanization were combined, and amplified to the maximum by ideology and war, the result was the Konzentrationlager, or K.L.
Though we tend to think of Hitler’s Germany as a highly regimented dictatorship, in practice Nazi rule was chaotic and improvisatory. Rival power bases in the Party and the German state competed to carry out what they believed to be Hitler’s wishes. This system of “working towards the Fuhrer,” as it was called by Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, was clearly in evidence when it came to the concentration camps. The K.L. system, during its twelve years of existence, included twenty-seven main camps and more than a thousand subcamps.
At its peak, in early 1945, it housed more than seven hundred thousand inmates. In addition to being a major penal and economic institution, it was a central symbol of Hitler’s rule. Yet Hitler plays almost no role in Wachsmann’s book, and Wachsmann writes that Hitler was never seen to visit a camp. It was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the S.S., who was in charge of the camp system, and its growth was due in part to his ambition to make the S.S. the most powerful force in Germany.
Long before the Nazis took power, concentration camps had featured in their imagination. Wachsmann finds Hitler threatening to put Jews in camps as early as 1921. But there were no detailed plans for building such camps when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, in January, 1933. A few weeks later, on February 27th, he seized on the burning of the Reichstag—by Communists, he alleged—to launch a full-scale crackdown on his political opponents. The next day, he implemented a decree, “For the Protection of People and State,” that authorized the government to place just about anyone in “protective custody,” a euphemism for indefinite detention. (Euphemism, too, was to be a durable feature of the K.L. universe: the killing of prisoners was referred to as Sonderbehandlung, “special treatment.”)
During the next two months, some fifty thousand people were arrested on this basis, in what turned into a “frenzy” of political purges and score-settling. In the legal murk of the early Nazi regime, it was unclear who had the power to make such arrests, and so it was claimed by everyone: national, state, and local officials, police and civilians, Party leaders. “Everybody is arresting everybody,” a Nazi official complained in the summer of 1933. “Everybody threatens everybody with Dachau.”
As this suggests, it was already clear that the most notorious and frightening destination for political detainees was the concentration camp built by Himmler at Dachau, in Bavaria. The prisoners were originally housed in an old munitions factory, but soon Himmler constructed a “model camp,” the architecture and organization of which provided the pattern for most of the later K.L. The camp was guarded not by police but by members of the S.S.—a Nazi Party entity rather than a state force.
These guards were the core of what became, a few years later, the much feared Death’s-Head S.S. The name, along with the skull-and-crossbones insignia, was meant to reinforce the idea that the men who bore it were not mere prison guards but front-line soldiers in the Nazi war against enemies of the people. Himmler declared, “No other service is more devastating and strenuous for the troops than just that of guarding villains and criminals.”
The ideology of combat had been part of the DNA of Nazism from its origin, as a movement of First World War veterans, through the years of street battles against Communists, which established the Party’s reputation for violence. Now, in the years before actual war came, the K.L. was imagined as the site of virtual combat—against Communists, criminals, dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews, all forces working to undermine the German nation.
The metaphor of war encouraged the inhumanity of the S.S. officers, which they called toughness; licensed physical violence against prisoners; and accounted for the military discipline that made everyday life in the K.L. unbearable. Particularly hated was the roll call, or Appell, which forced inmates to wake before dawn and stand outside, in all weather, to be counted and recounted. The process could go on for hours, Wachsmann writes, during which the S.S. guards were constantly on the move, punishing “infractions such as poor posture and dirty shoes.”
The K.L. was defined from the beginning by its legal ambiguity. The camps were outside ordinary law, answerable not to judges and courts but to the S.S. and Himmler. At the same time, they were governed by an extensive set of regulations, which covered everything from their layout (including decorative flower beds) to the whipping of prisoners, which in theory had to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Himmler personally.
Yet these regulations were often ignored by the camp S.S.—physical violence, for instance, was endemic, and the idea that a guard would have to ask permission before beating or even killing a prisoner was laughable. Strangely, however, it was possible, in the prewar years, at least, for a guard to be prosecuted for such a killing. In 1937, Paul Zeidler was among a group of guards who strangled a prisoner who had been a prominent churchman and judge; when the case attracted publicity, the S.S. allowed Zeidler to be charged and convicted. (He was sentenced to a year in jail.)
In “Ravensbrück,” Helm gives a further example of the erratic way the Nazis treated their own regulations, even late in the war. In 1943, Himmler agreed to allow the Red Cross to deliver food parcels to some prisoners in the camps. To send a parcel, however, the Red Cross had to mark it with the name, number, and camp location of the recipient; requests for these details were always refused, so that there was no way to get desperately needed supplies into the camps.
Yet when Wanda Hjort, a young Norwegian woman living in Germany, got hold of some prisoners’ names and numbers—thanks to inmates who smuggled the information to her when she visited the camp at Sachsenhausen—she was able to pass them on to the Norwegian Red Cross, whose packages were duly delivered. This game of hide-and-seek with the rules, this combination of hyper-regimentation and anarchy, is what makes Kafka’s “The Trial” seem to foretell the Nazi regime.
Even the distinction between guard and prisoner could become blurred. From early on, the S.S. delegated much of the day-to-day control of camp life to chosen prisoners known as Kapos. This system spared the S.S. the need to interact too closely with prisoners, whom they regarded as bearers of filth and disease, and also helped to divide the inmate population against itself. Helm shows that, in Ravensbrück, where the term “Blockova” was used, rather than Kapo, power struggles took place among prisoner factions over who would occupy the Blockova position in each barrack.
Political prisoners favored fellow-activists over criminals and “asocials”—a category that included the homeless, the mentally ill, and prostitutes—whom they regarded as practically subhuman. In some cases, Kapos became almost as privileged, as violent, and as hated as the S.S. officers.
In Ravensbrück, the most feared Blockova was the Swiss ex-spy Carmen Mory, who was known as the Black Angel. She was in charge of the infirmary, where, Helm writes, she “would lash out at the sick with the whip or her fists.” After the war, she was one of the defendants tried for crimes at Ravensbrück, along with S.S. leaders and doctors. Mory was sentenced to death but managed to commit suicide first.
At the bottom of the K.L. hierarchy, even below the criminals, were the Jews.
Today, the words “concentration camp” immediately summon up the idea of the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis; and we tend to think of the camps as the primary sites of that genocide. In fact, as Wachsmann writes, as late as 1942 “Jews made up fewer than five thousand of the eighty thousand KL inmates.” There had been a temporary spike in the Jewish inmate population in November, 1938, after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis rounded up tens of thousands of Jewish men. But, for most of the camps’ first decade, Jewish prisoners had usually been sent there not for their religion, per se, but for specific offenses, such as political dissent or illicit sexual relations with an Aryan.
Once there, however, they found themselves subject to special torments, ranging from running a gantlet of truncheons to heavy labor, like rock-breaking. As the chief enemies in the Nazi imagination, Jews were also the natural targets for spontaneous S.S. violence—blows, kicks, attacks by savage dogs.
The systematic extermination of Jews, however, took place largely outside the concentration camps. The death camps, in which more than one and a half million Jews were gassed—at Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka—were never officially part of the K.L. system. They had almost no inmates, since the Jews sent there seldom lived longer than a few hours. By contrast, Auschwitz, whose name has become practically a synonym for the Holocaust, was an official K.L., set up in June, 1940, to house Polish prisoners.
The first people to be gassed there, in September, 1941, were invalids and Soviet prisoners of war. It became the central site for the deportation and murder of European Jews in 1943, after other camps closed. The vast majority of Jews brought to Auschwitz never experienced the camp as prisoners; more than eight hundred thousand of them were gassed upon arrival, in the vast extension of the original camp known as Birkenau. Only those picked as capable of slave labor lived long enough to see Auschwitz from the inside.
Many of the horrors associated with Auschwitz—gas chambers, medical experiments, working prisoners to death—had been pioneered in earlier concentration camps. In the late thirties, driven largely by Himmler’s ambition to make the S.S. an independent economic and military power within the state, the K.L. began a transformation from a site of punishment to a site of production.
The two missions were connected: the “work-shy” and other unproductive elements were seen as “useless mouths,” and forced labor was a way of making them contribute to the community. Oswald Pohl, the S.S. bureaucrat in charge of economic affairs, had gained control of the camps by 1938, and began a series of grandiose building projects. The most ambitious was the construction of a brick factory near Sachsenhausen, which was intended to produce a hundred and fifty million bricks a year, using cutting-edge equipment and camp labor.
The failure of the factory, as Wachsmann describes it, was indicative of the incompetence of the S.S. and the inconsistency of its vision for the camps. To turn prisoners into effective laborers would have required giving them adequate food and rest, not to mention training and equipment. It would have meant treating them like employees rather than like enemies. But the ideological momentum of the camps made this inconceivable. Labor was seen as a punishment and a weapon, which meant that it had to be extorted under the worst possible circumstances.
Prisoners were made to build the factory in the depths of winter, with no coats or gloves, and no tools. “Inmates carried piles of sand in their uniforms,” Wachsmann writes, while others “moved large mounds of earth on rickety wooden stretchers or shifted sacks of cement on their shoulders.” Four hundred and twenty-nine prisoners died and countless more were injured, yet in the end not a single brick was produced.
This debacle did not discourage Himmler and Pohl. On the contrary, with the coming of war, in 1939, S.S. ambitions for the camps grew rapidly, along with their prisoner population. On the eve of the war, the entire K.L. system contained only about twenty-one thousand prisoners; three years later, the number had grown to a hundred and ten thousand, and by January, 1945, it was more than seven hundred thousand.
New camps were built to accommodate the influx of prisoners from conquered countries and then the tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers taken prisoner in the first months after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the U.S.S.R.
The enormous expansion of the camps resulted in an exponential increase in the misery of the prisoners. Food rations, always meagre, were cut to less than minimal: a bowl of rutabaga soup and some ersatz bread would have to sustain a prisoner doing heavy labor. The result was desperate black marketing and theft. Wachsmann writes, “In Sachsenhausen, a young French prisoner was battered to death in 1941 by an SS block leader for taking two carrots from a sheep pen.”
Starvation was endemic and rendered prisoners easy prey for typhus and dysentery. At the same time, the need to keep control of so many prisoners made the S.S. even more brutal, and sadistic new punishments were invented. The “standing commando” forced prisoners to stand absolutely still for eight hours at a time; any movement or noise was punished by beatings. The murder of prisoners by guards, formerly an exceptional event in the camps, now became unremarkable.
But individual deaths, by sickness or violence, were not enough to keep the number of prisoners within manageable limits. Accordingly, in early 1941 Himmler decided to begin the mass murder of prisoners in gas chambers, building on a program that the Nazis had developed earlier for euthanizing the disabled. Here, again, the camps’ sinister combination of bureaucratic rationalism and anarchic violence was on display.
During the following months, teams of S.S. doctors visited the major camps in turn, inspecting prisoners in order to select the “infirm” for gassing. Everything was done with an appearance of medical rigor. The doctors filled out a form for each inmate, with headings for “Diagnosis” and “Incurable Physical Ailments.” But it was all mere theatre.
Helm’s description of the visit of Dr. Friedrich Mennecke to Ravensbrück, in November, 1941, shows that inspections of prisoners—whom he referred to in letters home as “forms” or “portions”—were cursory at best, with the victims parading naked in front of the doctors at a distance of twenty feet. (Jewish prisoners were automatically “selected,” without an examination.) In one letter, Mennecke brags of having disposed of fifty-six “forms” before noon.
Those selected were taken to an undisclosed location for gassing; their fate became clear to the remaining Ravensbrück prisoners when the dead women’s clothes and personal effects arrived back at the camp by truck.
Under this extermination program, known to S.S. bureaucrats by the code Action 14f13, some sixty-five hundred prisoners were killed in the course of a year. By early 1942, it had become obsolete, as the scale of death in the camps increased. Now the killing of weak and sick prisoners was carried out by guards or camp doctors, sometimes in gas chambers built on site. Those who were still able to work were increasingly auctioned off to private industry for use as slave labor, in the many subcamps that began to spring up around the main K.L. At Ravensbrück, the Siemens corporation established a factory where six hundred women worked twelve-hour shifts building electrical components.
The work was brutally demanding, especially for women who were sick, starved, and exhausted. Helm writes that “Siemens women suffered severely from boils, swollen legs, diarrhea and TB,” and also from an epidemic of nervous twitching. When a worker reached the end of her usefulness, she was sent back to the camp, most likely to be killed. It was in this phase of the camp’s life that sights like the one Loulou Le Porz saw at Ravensbrück—a truck full of prisoners’ corpses—became commonplace.
By the end of the war, the number of people who had died in the concentration camps, from all causes—starvation, sickness, exhaustion, beating, shooting, gassing—was more than eight hundred thousand. The figure does not include the hundreds of thousands of Jews gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. If the K.L. were indeed a battlefront, as the Death’s-Head S.S. liked to believe, the deaths, in the course of twelve years, roughly equalled the casualties sustained by the Axis during the Battle of Stalingrad, among the deadliest actual engagements of the war.
But in the camps the Nazis fought against helpless enemies. Considered as prisons, too, the K.L. were paradoxical: it was impossible to correct or rehabilitate people whose very nature, according to Nazi propaganda, was criminal or sick. And as economic institutions they were utterly counterproductive, wasting huge numbers of lives even as the need for workers in Germany became more and more acute.
The concentration camps make sense only if they are understood as products not of reason but of ideology, which is to say, of fantasy. Nazism taught the Germans to see themselves as a beleaguered nation, constantly set upon by enemies external and internal. Metaphors of infection and disease, of betrayal and stabs in the back, were central to Nazi discourse.
The concentration camp became the place where those metaphorical evils could be rendered concrete and visible. Here, behind barbed wire, were the traitors, Bolsheviks, parasites, and Jews who were intent on destroying the Fatherland.
And if existence was a struggle, a war, then it made no sense to show mercy to the enemy. Like many Nazi institutions, the K.L. embodied conflicting impulses: to reform the criminal, to extort labor from the unproductive, to quarantine the contagious. But most fundamental was the impulse to dehumanize the enemy, which ended up confounding and overriding all the others.
Once a prisoner ceased to be human, he could be brutalized, enslaved, experimented on, or gassed at will, because he was no longer a being with a soul or a self but a biological machine. The Muselmänner, the living dead of the camps, stripped of any capacity to think or feel, were the true product of the K.L., the ultimate expression of the Nazi world view.
The impulse to separate some groups of people from the category of the human is, however, a universal one. The enemies we kill in war, the convicted prisoners we lock up for life, even the distant workers who manufacture our clothes and toys—how could any society function if the full humanity of all these were taken into account?
In a decent society, there are laws to resist such dehumanization, and institutional and moral forces to protest it. When guards at Rikers Island beat a prisoner to death, or when workers in China making iPhones begin to commit suicide out of despair, we regard these as intolerable evils that must be cured.
It is when a society decides that some people deserve to be treated this way—that it is not just inevitable but right to deprive whole categories of people of their humanity—that a crime on the scale of the K.L. becomes a possibility. It is a crime that has been repeated too many times, in too many places, for us to dismiss it with the simple promise of never again. ♦
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., remembers the thousands of victims of lynchings. Photo Credit Audra Melton for The New York Times
A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., is dedicated to victims of white supremacy.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse.
Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opens Thursday on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama state capital, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. And it demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.
At the center is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.
The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point. “Just seeing the names of all these people,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial.
Many of them, he said, “have never been named in public
Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Mr. Stevenson decided that a single memorial was the most powerful way to give a sense of the scale of the bloodshed. But also at the site are duplicates of each steel column, lined up in rows like coffins, intended to be disseminated around the country to the counties where lynchings were carried out. People in these counties can request them — dozens of such requests have already been made — but they must show that they have made efforts locally to “address racial and economic injustice.”
For Mr. Stevenson, the plans for the memorial and an accompanying museum were rooted in decades spent in Alabama courtrooms, witnessing a criminal justice system that treats African-Americans with particular cruelty, or indifference.
Since 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative has offered legal services to poor people in prison, toiling away in a city awash in Confederate commemorations (Monday was Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama), in a state with the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing rate. Nearly every staff member is a lawyer with clients in the prison system, and they have continued to work a full schedule of legal defense work even as they painstakingly compiled the names of the lynched and planned the memorial.
Mr. Stevenson, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Virginia, has written about “just mercy,” the belief that those who have committed serious wrongs should be allowed a chance at redemption. It is a conviction he has spent a career arguing for on behalf of clients, and he believes it is true even for the white America whose brutality is chronicled by the memorial.
“If I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing he’s ever done,” he said, “I have to believe that for everybody.”
But the history has to be acknowledged and its destructive legacy faced, he said. And this is particularly hard in “the most punitive society on the planet.”
People do not want to admit wrongdoing in America, Mr. Stevenson said, because they expect only punishment.
“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” Mr. Stevenson continued. “I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.”
The initiative’s headquarters are a few blocks away in a building that was once a warehouse in Montgomery’s sprawling slave market. It is now the site of the Legacy Museum, a companion piece to the memorial.
It is not a conventional museum, heavy on artifacts and detached commentary. It is perhaps better described as the presentation of an argument, supported by firsthand accounts and contemporary documents, that the slavery system did not end but evolved: from the family-shattering domestic slave trade to the decades of lynching terror, to the suffocating segregation of Jim Crow to the age of mass incarceration in which we now live.
The museum ends with a nod toward the future. By the exit is a section with a voter registration kiosk, information on volunteer opportunities and suggestions on how to discuss all of this with students. Given what has come before, it seems a jarring expression of confidence in the possibility of change. But there are good reasons for it.
Among the accounts given at the museum is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongly convicted of two murders by an all-white jury. The case for his innocence seemed straightforward, but lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative spent 16 years working for his freedom, appealing the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Hinton knows firsthand how stubborn injustice can be, but he is blunt: If people just gave up in despair, he would be dead.
“I refuse to believe that it’s hopeless because I am a product of what can happen when you fight,” he said. “If we don’t fight, who’s going to fight?”
Optimists say Kim Jong Un’s meeting with Xi Jinping may signal that North Korea wants China’s coöperation as it prepares for larger economic reforms. Pessimists call that reading naïve.
As a signpost along the course of history, there is no ritual more pregnant with uncertainty than the handshake portrait. At some points, it has proved to be a marker of renewal: Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, in 1865.
At others, it has been the prelude to disaster: a smiling Neville Chamberlain extending his hand to Adolf Hitler, in 1938. The medium and the wardrobe change, but the essential dynamic stays the same: powerful, sometimes villainous, figures balancing the weight of self-interest, dignity, and mutual suspicion.
When the history of Asia in the twenty-first century is written, the portrait of Kim Jong Un’s surprise encounter with Xi Jinping this week may take its place in the pantheon. Kim had not left the country or met with another head of state since coming to power, more than six years ago.
But, on Sunday, Kim secretly boarded his armored train and chugged across the border with China to meet the most powerful leader in Asia, a man whose decision-making about North Korea may well shape whether the recent, fragile steps toward negotiation end in peace or in recrimination.
Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were treated to full pomp and ceremony, including an honor guard, a banquet, and talks with Xi at the Great Hall of the People.
Among the photos of the leaders’ encounter, one portrait invites closer inspection: an outdoor grip-and-grin, in a classical Chinese courtyard of vermillion lacquer and gray brick.
Xi, a portly sixty-four, wears a tight, faintly irritated smile and a deep-navy Western business suit, the uniform favored by Chinese leaders in the forty years since they started opening, haltingly, to the world economy, without giving up the Communist Party’s monopoly on power—a hybrid model that China has tried in vain to persuade North Korea to adopt.
By inviting Kim to China, Xi had to put aside his own pique and frustration in order to re-inject himself into a process of negotiation that was rapidly slipping out of China’s control. “Xi Jinping is not a leader who wants to sit back and wait and see what happens,” Bonnie Glaser, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me.
“Having emerged as the twenty-first-century emperor of China, he is vulnerable on this issue, so he has to be proactive and not only try to get China back in the game as the ground begins to shift on the Korean Peninsula but also promote Chinese interests.”
Standing to Xi’s right, Kim, thirty years younger, is a man out of time, with a white-wall pompadour from the nineteen-fifties and a pinstripe outfit of no easy description, a broad-collared North Korean take on a Sun Yat-sen suit. (In Pyongyang, I once asked what to call that style of dress and was told, “We call it ‘a suit.’ ”) Kim is square to the camera, impassive, except for the gentlest trace of a smirk.
The North Korean crisis has morphed faster and more surprisingly in the first three months of 2018 than at any time since the death of Kim Jong Il, in 2011.
Having spent much of the past two years taunting and defying the outside world, Kim, since New Year’s Day, has dispatched a delegation (including his sister) to the Winter Olympics in South Korea; pursued talks with President Moon Jae-in; received envoys in Pyongyang; proposed a summit with Donald Trump and a pause in his weapons-testing; and, most recently, agreed to Xi’s invitation to patch up tattered ties with China.
To Korea specialists in Seoul, Washington, and elsewhere, the motives behind Kim’s turn are opaque but important to divine. The optimistic view holds that, now that Kim has achieved a nuclear arsenal that puts the world on edge, he can turn his attention to economic growth, the other branch of his “byungjin” (or “parallel development”) policy.
The details of Kim’s meetings with Xi are unknown, but the official Chinese report included a mention that “the DPRK’s socialist construction has also ushered in a new historical period. We are ready to make joint efforts with the DPRK side, conform to the trend of the times.” That could mean nothing, or it could be a sign that North Korea is preparing for larger economic reforms that would benefit from Chinese coöperation.
Pessimists call that reading naïve, arguing that Kim’s overtures are primarily intended to lure South Korea into shedding its reliance on American security and maneuvering the United States off the Korean Peninsula. For now, the most reliable analysis needs to permit both prospects, acknowledging that North Korea’s zigzagging may be the product of a strange alchemy of its own strategy and the uniquely unsettling effects of Trump’s threats.
“They’ve probably reached a point in their weapons program where they feel a pause is fine. They don’t need to test, and they could still advance and progress without these big demonstrations,” Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs in the National Security Council who is now a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “But the other piece of it is, I think, they’re feeling a lot of pressure from the sanctions. The last U.N. Security Council resolution basically sanctioned a hundred per cent of North Korea’s external trade. So this is unprecedented. And then the other thing is, I think, they are worried that the U.S. might do something crazy. I think they are genuinely worried about that.”
Whatever the precise parameters of Kim’s motivation, his China play has made it more difficult for Trump, who would have preferred that Beijing remain at odds with Pyongyang. Kim and Xi have re-scrambled the perceived loyalties and suspicions that will shape any potential encounter between North Korea and the United States—at the negotiating table or on the battlefield. This game is in the early stage. There may yet be more handshakes to come.
Cambridge Analytica probably didn’t win the election for Donald Trump.
Why did Cambridge Analytica — the analytics and marketing firm that worked for the Trump presidential campaign — want to know what 50 million people “liked” on Facebook?
The answer, as we’ve learned, is that the firm, which obtained the personal data of tenes of millions of users without their consent, sought to develop “psychographic” profiles of them. In simpler terms, Cambridge Analytica hoped to leverage Facebook data to understand the personalities of its users and then, in turn, use that information to match advertisements with the people most likely to respond to them.
As the New York Times reports, it’s unclear to what extent the company used this “psychographic” targeting to influence the 2016 general election campaign. And it’s even more unclear if this approach is effective.
But still, we might be left wondering: Is it plausible that personality data could be used to influence an election?
The research from psychology and political science actually has a few hints for us here. Overall, the story is this: Our digital footprints do paint a somewhat accurate picture of our personalities. However, it remains to be seen how political campaigns can leverage this information to actually influence elections.
Here are the four takeaways from psychological and political science research.
1) It is entirely plausible that people can build a psychological profile of you from your online activity
We all have personalities; they are the stable personal traits that inform how a person interacts with the world. For instance, a neurotic person may be more swayed by an ad depicting a home break-in, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nixonce explained to potential clients. A more agreeable person may respond better to an ad that emphasizes family values. (The German Das Magazin first reported on Cambridge Analytica’s tactics in 2016. You can read the English version of the article at Vice.)
Personality is most commonly measured on a scale known as the “Big Five.” It’s based on five well-established traits: agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, extroversion, and conscientiousness. Our levels on these traits tend to be relatively stable throughout our lifetime (with someexceptions).
And it’s no big mystery how levels of these traits are related to the things we like, buy, and spend time with.
In 2013, psychological researchers Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel, who were all researchers at Cambridge University in the UK at the time, published a paper that showed the things we “like” on Facebook can be used to predict our personality traits.
“For example,” they write in the paper, “users who liked the ‘Hello Kitty’ brand tended to be high on ‘Openness’ and low on ‘Conscientiousness,’ ‘Agreeableness,’ and ‘Emotional Stability [i.e., neuroticism].’”
Kosinski and his colleagues had come to these conclusions by deploying an app on Facebook. Once users opted in, the app assessed their personality traits (via a quiz) and other personal characteristics. It then correlated those answers with that they “liked.” The analysis also found that Facebook activity could be useful in predicting intelligence, sexual orientation, and other personal factors.
This is the model that Cambridge Analytica copied. As has been reported, Aleksandr Kogan, a fellow Cambridge academic, copied the methods Kosinski and his colleagues used and then turned around and sold that data to the company that would come to spawn Cambridge Analytica. Users did not consent to this.
And making matters worse, at the time, Facebook allowed apps like these to collect data on users’ friends as well. This is how Cambridge Analytica acquired data on millions of people.
The bottom line here is that our digital footprints leave impressions of ourselves. And as David Stillwell, who co-wrote the 2013 paper, warns on Twitter, Facebook is hardly the only source of this information. The programs that can collect it, and analyze what it all means, are only going to grow more sophisticated.
2) There’s some limited evidence that personality info can be used to serve you ads you find to be more engaging
So it makes sense that our Facebook data can be used to predict personal information about ourselves. But what about Cambridge Analytica’s pitch that this data could be useful for political campaigns?
The evidence here is very mixed and mostly is in the domain of consumer product research.
One study (also via Kosinski and Stillwell) found that ads could result in 40 percent more clicks if they targeted particular personality types. For a beauty advertisement, extroverts were targeted with the message “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Introverts saw the message “Beauty doesn’t have to shout.” These extra clicks led to more purchases for the retailer.
But making decisions in presidential campaigns is very different from buying makeup. It’s informed not just by our personalities, but by our partisan identities, our ideologies, and our personal history. (And yes, it’s true all these factors may be interrelated.)
Very few papers have addressed whether personality targeting works for political campaigns. Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist at NYU, pointed me to one unpublished PhD dissertation that addresses the question. It finds mixed evidence on the ability of personality traits to predict who is most likely to turn out to vote and mixed evidence over whether personality traits can predict who is most likely to be persuaded by advertisements.
Other research has shown personality traits are only somewhat useful in predicting voting preferences. A 2009 paper from NYU found parents’ political orientation was much more predictive of voting behavior in the 2008 election than any of the Big Five personality traits. And no factor was more predictive than simply asking people if they were liberal or conservative.
It’s also worth noting: The American public was subjected to an enormous, Russian-backed misinformation campaign in the runup to the 2016 election. And even there, it’s very unclear what impact (if at all)it had on the election results. Likewise, it’s very hard to assess the impact of microtargeting.
3) There’s nearly no evidence these ads could change your voting preferences or behavior
So it’s plausible that personality-matched ads could be more engaging. But what use is that? It’s much, much more likely that microtargeted ads work on reinforcing people’s preconceived notions. It’s very unlikely that they actually changed anyone’s minds on whether to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Overall, there’s nearly no evidence that political campaigns have any power to persuade voters. Recently, political scientists Josh Kalla and David Broockman conducted a meta-analysis of 49 experiments that were designed to test whether voters are persuadable. The result: “These experiments’ average effect is also zero.”
Their study did find an important nuance, though. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained here, they turned up evidence that voters are persuadable when it comes to primary campaigns and ballot measures. But by the time a general election comes along, people are pretty much set in their preferences.
Furthermore, there’s potential for a microtargeting scheme to backfire. If a person is wrongly targeted with an ad, they may be offended. And there’s some reason to doubt the whole notion that voters respond better to ads tailored to personality traits.
A 2012 experiment out of the University of Massachusetts found that “voters rarely prefer targeted pandering to general messages.” The pandering in this study was on the basis of personal identities (like Latino, gun owner, born-again Christian), and not personalities. But still, it’s important to note that microtargeting’s effectiveness is not a given.
4) Just because you understand a personality type doesn’t mean you’ll be good at making ads to suit it. Our intuitions are often wrong about what we think others will find convincing.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that advertising can be more of an art than a science. Just because you know a person’s personality, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to craft the perfect ad to pull at their heartstrings.
Here’s an instructive example of that. Last year, I wrote about a research effort focused on trying to persuade people to be less prejudiced against Muslims. The researchers here tested eight videos on around 2,000 study participants and found that only one video was able to move the needle a bit on a measure of collective blame (the tendency to blame all Muslims for the actions of a few terrorists). That’s no small effort.
The authors of the paper did one final, very interesting thing in their experiments. Before they ran the test with the eight videos, they showed them to a wholly different group of 938 participants and basically asked: What do you think will work to change somebody’s mind about collectively blaming Muslims for terror attacks?
Overall, these participants didn’t pick the winning video. Which shows our intuitions about what might convince another person are often wrong.
This finding is common: We often are mistaken about what arguments other people will find convincing. People who design ads for a living are arguably better at this than the average person. Still, this work is hard. And success is not guaranteed.
Though the famed physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking could speak only through a device in his cheek muscle, he had plenty of intriguing, and sometimes scary, things to say during his lifetime — cut short by ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Hawking died peacefully today (March 14) at his home in Cambridge, England. As his family, colleagues and the many who were and are inspired by him mourn his death and celebrate his life, we look back at his most memorable and intriguing words, including his most prescient predictions for the future of humanity. [Stephen Hawking, Famed Physicist Who Defied ALS Odds, Dies at 76]
During a video presentation Nov. 5, 2017, at the Tencent Web Summit in Beijing, the famed cosmologist warned that the ever-rising human population, and its mounting energy needs, could render Earth uninhabitable by the year 2600, according to the British newspaper The Sun.
“Shouldn’t we be content to be cosmic sloths, enjoying the universe from the comfort of Earth? The answer is, no,” Hawking said June 20, 2017, during a talk at Starmus, an arts and science festival in Norway whose advisory board he sat on. “The Earth is under threat from so many areas that it is difficult for me to be positive.”
“One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this,” Hawking said, referring to the potentially habitable alien planet Gliese 832c. “But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” he added in 2016 during the documentary “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places,” which streamed on the CuriosityStream video service.
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression,” Hawking said, according to The Independent. “It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.” — February 2015, during a tour of London’s Science Museum.
“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or 10 thousand years,” Hawking told the audience during a public Q&A session after the BBC Reith lecture in England in 2016.
On April 16, 2013, during a lecture entitled “The Origin of the Universe,” Hawking mentioned the idea that people continue to seek divine solutions to counter physicist’s theories, quipping, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?”
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in December 2014.
“If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” Hawking said in 2010 during an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” a show hosted by the Discovery Channel, reported The Times, a U.K.-based newspaper.
“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired,” Hawking wrote in his popular physics best-seller “A Brief History of Time.”
During a Reddit AMA in 2015, Hawking was asked: “What mystery do you find most intriguing, and why?” His answer? “Women. My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics, women should remain a mystery.”
As for his mortality, Hawking was remarkably blunt.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” Hawking said in The Guardian interview. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Before becoming managing editor, Jeanna served as a reporter for Live Science and SPACE.com for about three years. Previously she was an assistant editor at Scholastic’s Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a Master’s degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a science journalism degree from New York University.
Russia’s Population Set to Decline From 143 Million Today to 111 Million in 2050
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently directed his nation’s parliament to develop a plan to reduce the country’s falling birthrate. In a speech to parliament on May 10, 2006, Putin called the problem of Russia’s dramatically declining population, “The most acute problem of contemporary Russia.”
The president called on parliament to provide incentives for couples to have a second child to increase the birth rate in order to stop the country’s plummeting population.
Russia’s population peaked in the early 1990s (at the time of the end of the Soviet Union) with about 148 million people in the country. Today, Russia’s population is approximately 143 million. The United States Census Bureauestimates that Russia’s population will decline from the current 143 million to a mere 111 million by 2050, a loss of more than 30 million people and a decrease of more than 20%.
The primary causes of Russia’s population decrease and loss of about 700,000 to 800,000 citizens each year are a high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, and a low level of immigration.
High Death Rate
Russia has a very high death rate of 15 deaths per 1000 people per year. This is far higher than the world’s average death rateof just under 9. The death rate in the U.S. is 8 per 1000 and for the United Kingdom it’s 10 per 1000. Alcohol-related deaths in Russia are very high and alcohol-related emergencies represent the bulk of emergency room visits in the country.
With this high death rate, Russian life expectancy is low – the World Health Organization estimates the life expectancy of Russian men at 59 years while women’s life expectancy is considerably better at 72 years. This difference is primarily a result of high rates of alcoholism among males.
Low Birth Rate
Understandably, due these high rates of alcoholism and economic hardship, women feel less than encouraged to have children in Russia.
Russia’s total fertility rate is low at 1.3 births per woman. This number represents the number of children each Russian woman has during her lifetime. A replacement total fertility rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1 births per woman. Obviously, with such a low total fertility rateRussian women are contributing to a declining population.
The birth rate in the country is also quite low; the crude birth rate is 10 births per 1000 people. The world average is just over 20 per 1000 and in the U.S. the rate is 14 per 1000.
During the Soviet era, abortion was quite common and was utilized as a method of birth control. That technique remains common and quite popular today, keeping the country’s birth rate exceptionally low. According to a Russian news source, there are more abortions than births in Russia.
The online news source mosnews.com reported that in 2004 1.6 million women had abortions in Russia while 1.5 million gave birth. In 2003, the BBC reported that Russia had, “13 terminations for every 10 live births.”
Additionally, immigration into Russia is low – immigrants are primarily a trickle of ethnic Russians moving out of former republics (but now independent countries) of the Soviet Union.
Brain drain and emigration from Russia to Western Europe and other parts of the world is high as native Russians seek to better their economic situation.
Putin himself explored the issues surrounding the low birth rate during his speech, asking “What has prevented a young family, a young woman, from making this decision?
The answers are obvious: low incomes, a lack of normal housing, doubts about the level of medical services and quality education. At times, there are doubts about the ability to provide enough food.”
Steele told friends that Trump supporters were using him as a “battering ram” to “take down the whole intelligence community.”
In January, after a long day at his London office, Christopher Steele, the former spy turned private investigator, was stepping off a commuter train in Farnham, where he lives, when one of his two phones rang. He’d been looking forward to dinner at home with his wife, and perhaps a glass of wine. It had been their dream to live in Farnham, a town in Surrey with a beautiful Georgian high street, where they could afford a house big enough to accommodate their four children, on nearly an acre of land. Steele, who is fifty-three, looked much like the other businessmen heading home, except for the fact that he kept his phones in a Faraday bag—a pouch, of military-tested double-grade fabric, designed to block signal detection.
A friend in Washington, D.C., was calling with bad news: two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley, had just referred Steele’s name to the Department of Justice, for a possible criminal investigation. They were accusing Steele—the author of a secret Steele that helped trigger the current federal investigation into President Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russia—of having lied to the very F.B.I. officers he’d alerted about his findings. The details of the criminal referral were classified, so Steele could not know the nature of the allegations, let alone rebut them, but they had something to do with his having misled the Bureau about contacts that he’d had with the press. For nearly thirty years, Steele had worked as a close ally of the United States, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone would believe that he had been deceptive. But lying to an F.B.I. officer is a felony, an offense that can be punished by up to five years in prison.
The accusations would only increase doubts about Steele’s reputation that had clung to him since BuzzFeed published the dossier, in January, 2017. The dossier painted a damning picture of collusion between Trump and Russia, suggesting that his campaign had “accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It also alleged that Russian officials had been “cultivating” Trump as an asset for five years, and had obtained leverage over him, in part by recording videos of him while he engaged in compromising sexual acts, including consorting with Moscow prostitutes who, at his request, urinated on a bed.
In the spring of 2016, Orbis Business Intelligence—a small investigative-research firm that Steele and a partner had founded, in 2009, after leaving M.I.6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service—had agreed to do opposition research on Trump’s murky relationship with Russia. Under the arrangement, Orbis was a subcontractor working for Fusion GPS, a private research firm in Washington. Fusion, in turn, had been contracted by a law firm, Perkins Coie, which represented both Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Several months after Steele signed the deal, he learned that, through this chain, his research was being jointly subsidized by the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. In all, Steele was paid a hundred and sixty-eight thousand dollars for his work.
Steele had spent more than twenty years in M.I.6, most of it focussing on Russia. For three years, in the nineties, he spied in Moscow under diplomatic cover. Between 2006 and 2009, he ran the service’s Russia desk, at its headquarters, in London. He was fluent in Russian, and widely considered to be an expert on the country. He’d also advised on nation-building in Iraq. As a British citizen, however, he was not especially knowledgeable about American politics. Peter Fritsch, a co-founder at Fusion who has worked closely with Steele, said of him, “He’s a career public-service officer, and in England civil servants haven’t been drawn into politics in quite the same way they have here. He’s a little naïve about the public square.”
And so Steele, on that January night, was stunned to learn that U.S. politicians were calling him a criminal. He told Christopher Burrows, with whom he co-founded Orbis, that the sensation was “a feeling like vertigo.” Burrows, in his first public interview on the dossier controversy, recalled Steele telling him, “You have this thudding headache—you can’t think straight, you have no appetite, you feel ill.” Steele compared it to the disorientation that he had felt in 2009, when his first wife, Laura, had died, after a long illness, leaving him to care for their three young children.
That night, Burrows said, Steele and his second wife, Katherine, who have been married since 2012, sat in their living room, wondering what would become of them. Would they be financially ruined by legal costs? (In addition to the criminal referral in the U.S., a Russian businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, had filed a libel lawsuit against Steele, saying that the dossier had falsely accused his company of helping the Russian government hack into the Democratic Party’s internal e-mail system.) Would Steele end up in a U.S. federal penitentiary? Would a Putin emissary knife him in a dark alley somewhere?
In conversations with friends, Steele said he hoped that in five years he’d look back and laugh at the whole experience. But he tended toward pessimism. No matter how the drama turned out, “I will take this to my grave,” he often predicted. A longtime friend of Steele’s pointed out to me that Steele was in a singularly unenviable predicament. The dossier had infuriated both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump by divulging allegedly corrupt dealings between them. “You’ve got oligarchs running both superpowers,” the friend said. “And, incredibly, they both hate this same guy.”
Legal experts soon assured Steele that the criminal referral was merely a political stunt. Nevertheless, it marked a tense new phase in the investigation into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. The initial bipartisan support in Congress for a serious inquiry into foreign meddling in America’s democracy had given way to a partisan brawl. Trump’s defenders argued that Steele was not a whistle-blower but a villain—a dishonest Clinton apparatchik who had collaborated with American intelligence and law-enforcement officials to fabricate false charges against Trump and his associates, in a dastardly attempt to nullify the 2016 election. According to this story line, it was not the President who needed to be investigated but the investigators themselves, starting with Steele. “They’re trying to take down the whole intelligence community!” Steele exclaimed one day to friends. “And they’re using me as the battering ram to do it.”
It was not the first time that a congressional investigation had been used as a tool for destroying someone’s reputation. Whenever a scandal hit Washington, opponents used subpoenas, classified evidence, and theatrical public hearings to spread innuendo, confusion, and lies. Senators Grassley and Graham declined to be interviewed for this article, but in January Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, gave a speech on the Senate floor defending the criminal referral. He noted that Steele had drawn on Russian contacts to amass the dossier. “Who was actually colluding with Russians?” Grassley asked. “It’s becoming more clear.”
Democratic members of the committee, who had not been consulted by Republicans about the criminal referral against Steele, were enraged. The California senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking minority member on the committee, declared that the Republicans’ goals were “undermining the F.B.I. and Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation” and “deflecting attention” from it. Feinstein said that the criminal referral provided no evidence that Steele had lied, and, she added, “not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted.”
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, is a former prosecutor who also serves on the Judiciary Committee. “To impeach Steele’s dossier is to impeach Mueller’s investigation,” he told me. “It’s to recast the focus back on Hillary.” The Republicans’ aim, he believed, was to “create a false narrative saying this is all a political witch hunt.”
Indeed, on January 18th, the staff of Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, produced a report purporting to show that the real conspiracy revolved around Hillary Clinton. “The truth,” Nunes said, is that Clinton “colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Trump, to feed it to the F.B.I. to open up an investigation into the other campaign.” Glenn Kessler, who writes the nonpartisan Fact Checker blog at the Washington Post, awarded Nunes’s statement four Pinocchios—his rating for an outright lie. “There is no evidence that Clinton was involved in Steele’s reports or worked with Russian entities to feed information to Steele,” Kessler wrote.
Nonetheless, conservative talk-show hosts amplified Nunes’s message. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson denounced Steele as “an intense partisan with passionately left-wing views about American politics,” and said, inaccurately, that his “sloppy and reckless” research “appears to form the basis” of the entire Mueller investigation. Sean Hannity charged that Steele’s dossier was “claptrap” filled with “Russian lies” that were intended to poison “our own intelligence and law-enforcement network” against Trump. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journalaccused Steele of turning the F.B.I. into “a tool of anti-Trump political actors.” Rush Limbaugh warned his radio listeners, “The battle is between people like us and the Deep State who are trying to keep hidden what they did.”
President Trump had mocked “the dirty dossier,” suggesting that a “failed spy” had relied on “made-up facts by sleazebag political operatives.” But on February 8th the President denounced Steele by name for the first time. “Steele of fraudulent Dossier fame,” he tweeted, was “all tied into Crooked Hillary.”
Two days later, Burrows, of Orbis, was at his home, in Winchester, southwest of London, struggling to express to me how odd and disturbing it was to have his business partner targeted by the President of the United States. A tight-lipped fifty-nine-year-old who is conservative in politics and in manner, Burrows, like Steele, had spent decades as a British intelligence officer. “This whole thing has been quite surreal,” he said. “We are being made into a political football, in U.S. terms, which we really regret. Chris is being accused of being the heart of some Deep State conspiracy, and he’s not even in your state.”
Steele’s lawyers have advised him not to speak publicly about the controversy, and, because he is a former intelligence officer, much of his life must remain secret. His accusers know this, and, as Senator Whitehouse explained, “they are using selective declassification as a tactic—they use declassified information to tell their side, and then the rebuttal is classified.” Both the criminal referral and Nunes’s report used secret evidence to malign Steele while providing no means for his defenders to respond without breaching national-security secrets. But interviews with Steele’s friends, colleagues, and business associates tell a very different story about how a British citizen became enmeshed in one of America’s most consequential political battles.
Steele was born in 1964 in Aden, then the capital of Yemen. His father worked for the U.K.’s national weather service, and had postings overseas and in Great Britain. Steele’s family was middle class, but its roots were blue-collar: one of Steele’s grandfathers was a Welsh coal miner. An outstanding student, Steele was accepted at Cambridge University in 1982. He soon set his sights on becoming the president of the Cambridge Union, the prestigious debating society. It is such a common path for ambitious future leaders that, according to one former member, its motto should be “The Egos Have Landed.” Getting elected president requires shrewd political skills, and Steele secured the position, in part, by muscling the university newspaper, for which he had been writing, into endorsing his candidacy. His jockeying created enemies. One anonymous rival recently told the Daily Mail that Steele used to be a “little creep.”
Steele was a middle-of-the-road Labour Party supporter, and at the Cambridge Union his allies, known as the Anti-Establishment Faction, were state-schooled, middle-class students. Steele’s camp competed against a blue-blooded Establishment Faction and a right-wing Libertarian Faction. His longtime friend, who was part of a like-minded society at Oxford, said, “Almost all of us had come from less posh families, and suffered a bit from the impostor syndrome that made us doubt we belonged there, so we worked many times harder to prove ourselves.” He recalled Steele as an “astoundingly diligent” student with “huge integrity,” adding, “He just puts the bit in his teeth and charges the hill. He’s almost like a cyborg.”
Graham Davies, now a well-known public-speaking coach in the U.K., became friends with Steele in the Cambridge Union. He described him as “ultra low-key but ultra high-intensity,” adding, “He’s a very quiet guy who listens more than he talks, which made him stand out.” Davies went on, “Most of us like a bit of the spotlight, but Chris has always been the opposite. That’s been part of his integrity. He’s quietly in control.” Davies, who is a conservative, told me that Steele has many conservative friends. (Steele supported the Labour government of Tony Blair until the Iraq War, but he voted for a local Conservative official in his home county.) “He’s not an ideologue,” Davies said. “He’s got his political views, but he’s a pragmatic thinker. Fairness, integrity, and truth, for him, trump any ideology.”
Steele is said to be the first president of the Cambridge Union to invite a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization to speak. And he presided over numerous high-profile political debates, including one in which the proposition that President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies had hurt the U.K. carried the house.
Tellingly, none of Steele’s old friends seem to remember the first time they met him. Of average height and build, with pleasant features, a clean-cut style of dress, and a cool, neutral gaze, he didn’t draw attention to himself. He was a natural candidate to become professionally unnoticeable. Davies, who dines several times a year with Steele and other schoolmates, said, “He’s more low-key than Smiley”—the John le Carré character. But, he noted, whenever Steele took on a task “he was like a terrier with a bone—when something needs investigating, he applies the most intense intellect I’ve ever seen.”
Steele graduated in 1986, with a degree in social and political science, and initially thought that he might go into journalism or the law. One day, though, he answered a newspaper ad seeking people interested in working abroad. The advertiser turned out to be M.I.6, which, after a battery of tests, recruited Steele into its Russian-language program. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he was living in Moscow.
Steele worked out of the British Embassy for M.I.6, under diplomatic cover. His years in Moscow, 1990 to 1993, were among the most dramatic in Russian history, a period that included the collapse of the Communist Party; nationalist uprisings in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltic states; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin gained ultimate power in Russia, and a moment of democratic promise faded as the K.G.B.—now called the F.S.B.—reasserted its influence, oligarchs snapped up state assets, and nationalist political forces began to emerge. Vladimir Putin, a K.G.B. operative returning from East Germany, reinvented himself in the shadowy world of St. Petersburg politics. By the time Steele left the country, optimism was souring, and a politics of resentment—against the oligarchs, against an increasing gap between rich and poor, and against the West—was taking hold.
After leaving Moscow, Steele was assigned an undercover posting with the British Embassy in Paris, but he and a hundred and sixteen other British spies had their cover blown by an anonymously published list. Steele came in from the cold and returned to London, and in 2006 he began running its Russia desk, growing increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the Russian Federation.
Steele’s already dim view of the Kremlin darkened in November, 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian K.G.B. officer and a Putin critic who had been recruited by M.I.6, suffered an agonizing death in a London hospital, after drinking a cup of tea poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. Moscow had evidently sanctioned a brazen murder in his own country. Steele was put in charge of M.I.6’s investigation. Authorities initially planned to indict one suspect in the murder, but Steele’s investigative work persuaded them to indict a second suspect as well. Nine years later, the U.K.’s official inquiry report was finally released, and it confirmed Steele’s view: the murder was an operation by the F.S.B., and it was “probably approved” by Vladimir Putin.
Steele has never commented on the case, or on any other aspect of his intelligence work, but Richard Dearlove, who led M.I.6 from 1999 to 2004, has described his reputation as “superb.” A former senior officer recalls him as “a Russia-area expert whose knowledge I and others respected—he was very careful, and very savvy.” Another former M.I.6 officer described him as having a “Marmite” personality—a reference to the salty British spread, which people either love or hate. He suggested that Steele didn’t appear to be “going places in the service,” noting that, after the Cold War, Russia had become a backwater at M.I.6. But he acknowledged that Steele “knew Russia well,” and that running the Russia desk was “a proper job that you don’t give to an idiot.”
The British Secret Intelligence Service is highly regarded by the United States, particularly for its ability to harvest information from face-to-face sources, rather than from signals intelligence, such as electronic surveillance, as the U.S. often does. British and American intelligence services work closely together, and, while Steele was at M.I.6, British intelligence was often included in the U.S. President’s daily-briefing reports. In 2008, Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, visited the U.K., and Steele briefed him on Russian developments. The following year, President Obama visited the U.K., and was briefed on a report that Steele had written about Russia. Steve Hall, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Central Eurasia Division, which includes Russia, the former Soviet states, and the Balkans, told me, “M.I.6 is second only perhaps to the U.S. in its ability to collect intelligence from Russia.” He added, “We’ve always coördinated closely with them because they did such a great job. We’re playing in the Yankee Stadium of espionage here. This isn’t Guatemala.”
In 2008, Steele informed M.I.6 that he planned to leave the service and open a commercial intelligence firm with Burrows. He left in good standing, but his exit was hastened, because M.I.6 regarded his plans as a potential conflict of interest. Launching the business was a risky move: London was filled with companies run by former intelligence officers selling their contacts and inside knowledge. To differentiate itself, Orbis, which opened its office in Mayfair, attempted to exploit Steele’s Russian expertise. The strategy appears to have paid off. According to people with knowledge of the company, Orbis grossed approximately twenty million dollars in its first nine years. Steele now drives a Land Rover Discovery Sport, and belongs to a golf club. He also runs a bit, but the feats that kept him in shape while he was a spy—he ran six marathons and twenty-five half-marathons, and competed in a dozen Olympic-length triathlon events—have been replaced by the carrying of a briefcase. His free time is devoted largely to his family, which includes three cats, one of whom not long ago replicated the most infamous allegation in the Steele dossier by peeing on a family member’s bed.
Orbis’s clients are mostly businesses or law firms representing corporations. Burrows said that although the company has fewer than ten full-time employees, “we’re a bit like the bridge on the Starship Enterprise—we’re a small group but we manage an enormous ship.” To serve its clients, Orbis employs dozens of confidential “collectors” around the world, whom it pays as contract associates. Some of the collectors are private investigators at smaller firms; others are investigative reporters or highly placed experts in strategically useful jobs. Depending on the task and the length of engagement, the fee for collectors can be as much as two thousand dollars a day. The collectors harvest intelligence from a much larger network of unpaid sources, some of whom don’t even realize they are being treated as informants. These sources occasionally receive favors—such as help in getting their children into Western schools—but money doesn’t change hands, because it could risk violating laws against, say, bribing government officials or insider trading. Paying sources might also encourage them to embellish.
Steele has not been to Russia, or visited any former Soviet states, since 2009. Unlike some of his former M.I.6 colleagues, he has not been declared persona non grata by Putin’s regime, but, in 2012, an Orbis informant quoted an F.S.B. agent describing him as “an enemy of Mother Russia.” Steele concluded that it would be difficult for him to work in the country unnoticed. The firm guards the identities of its sources, but it’s clear that many Russian contacts can be interviewed elsewhere, and London is the center of the post-Soviet Russian diaspora.
Orbis often performs anti-corruption investigations for clients attempting internal reviews, and helps hedge funds and other financial companies perform due diligence or obtain strategic information. One Orbis client who agreed to talk to me, a Western businessman with interests in Russia and Ukraine, described Steele to me as “very efficient, very professional, and very credible.” He said that his company had successfully cross-checked Steele’s research with other people, adding, “I don’t know anyone who’s been critical of his work. His reports are very good. It’s an absolute no-brainer that he’s just a political target. They’re trying to shoot the messenger.”
Orbis promises confidentiality, and releases no information on its clientele. Some of its purported clients, such as a major Western oil company, are conventional corporations. Others are controversial, including a London law firm representing the interests of Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire victor of Russia’s aluminum wars, a notoriously violent battle. He has been described as Putin’s favorite oligarch. Steele’s possible financial ties to Deripaska recently prompted Senator Grassley to demand more information from the London law firm. If a financial trail between Deripaska and Orbis can be established, it is likely to raise even more questions about Steele, because Deripaska has already figured in the Russia investigation, in an unsavory light. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, has been accused of defrauding Deripaska’s company while working for it in Ukraine. (Manafort has been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of money laundering and other financial crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.) Even if Steele’s rumored work for Deripaska is aboveboard, it illustrates the transition that he has made from the world of government service to the ethically gray world of commerce. Oligarchs battling other oligarchs provide some of the most lucrative work for investigators with expertise in Russia. Orbis maintains that, as long as its activities are limited to providing litigation support for Western law firms acting in Western courts, it is helping to settle disputes in a more civilized way than they would be in Russia. But Steele stepped into a murkier realm when he left M.I.6.
Republican claims to the contrary, Steele’s interest in Trump did not spring from his work for the Clinton campaign. He ran across Trump’s name almost as soon as he went into private business, many years before the 2016 election. Two of his earliest cases at Orbis involved investigating international crime rings whose leaders, coincidentally, were based in New York’s Trump Tower.
Steele’s first client after leaving M.I.6 was England’s Football Association, which hoped to host the World Cup in 2018, but suspected dirty dealings by the governing body, fifa. England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes. According to Ken Bensinger’s “Red Card,” an upcoming book about the scandal, “one of Steele’s best sources” informed him that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin—now the C.E.O. of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft—is suspected of having travelled to Qatar “to swap World Cup votes.”
Steele appears to have spoken anonymously to the Sunday Times of Londonabout the case. An “ex-M.I.6 source” who investigated the bidding process told the paper, “The key thing with Russia was six months before the bid, it got to the point where the country feared the humiliation of being beaten and had to do something. . . . Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities.” He added, “Don’t expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin’s signature saying ‘Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.’ He’s not going to do that.”
Steele might have been expected to move on once his investigation of the bidding was concluded. But he had discovered that the corruption at fifa was global, and he felt that it should be addressed. The only organization that could handle an investigation of such scope, he felt, was the F.B.I. In 2011, Steele contacted an American agent he’d met who headed the Bureau’s division for serious crimes in Eurasia. Steele introduced him to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation. In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks. One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top fifa official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump’s residence.
Nobody had alleged that Trump knew of any fifa crimes, but Steele soon came across Trump Tower again. Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower. Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes. Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive. Interpol issued a “red notice” calling for his arrest. But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—and sat near the pageant’s owner, Donald Trump.
“It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower,” Steele told friends.
Burrows told me that he and Steele made a pact when they left M.I.6: “We both agreed it was a duty to alert U.K. and allied authorities if we came across anything with national-security dimensions. It comes from a very long government service. We still have that ethos of wanting to do the right thing by our authorities.”
By working with law-enforcement authorities on investigations, Steele has kept a foot in his former life. Some critics have questioned the propriety of this. Lindsey Graham recently argued, in the Washington Post, “You can be an F.B.I. informant. You can be a political operative. But you can’t be both, particularly at the same time.”
Burrows said that on several occasions Orbis had warned authorities about major security threats. Three years ago, a trusted Middle Eastern source told Orbis that a group of isis militants were using the flow of refugees from Syria to infiltrate Europe. Orbis shared the information with associates who relayed the intelligence to German security officials. Several months later, when a concert hall in Paris, the Bataclan, was attacked by terrorists, Burrows and Steele felt remorse at not having notified French authorities as well. When Steele took his suspicions about Trump to the F.B.I. in the summer of 2016, it was in keeping with Orbis protocol, rather than a politically driven aberration.
Even before Steele became involved in the U.S. Presidential campaign, he was convinced that the Kremlin was interfering in Western elections. In April of 2016, not long before he took on the Fusion assignment, he finished a secret investigation, which he called Project Charlemagne, for a private client. It involved a survey of Russian interference in the politics of four members of the European Union—France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany—along with Turkey, a candidate for membership. The report chronicles persistent, aggressive political interference by the Kremlin: social-media warfare aimed at inflaming fear and prejudice, and “opaque financial support” given to favored politicians in the form of bank loans, gifts, and other kinds of support. The report discusses the Kremlin’s entanglement with the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen. (Le Pen and Berlusconi deny having had such ties.) It also suggests that Russian aid was likely given to lesser-known right-wing nationalists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Kremlin’s long-term aim, the report concludes, was to boost extremist groups and politicians at the expense of Europe’s liberal democracies. The more immediate goal was to “destroy” the E.U., in order to end the punishing economic sanctions that the E.U. and the U.S. had imposed on Russia after its 2014 political and military interference in Ukraine.
Although the report’s language was dry, and many of the details familiar to anyone who had been watching Russia closely, Project Charlemagne was the equivalent of a flashing red light. It warned that Russian intelligence services were becoming more strategic and increasingly disruptive. Russian interference in foreign elections, it cautioned, was only “likely to grow in size and reach over time.”
In the spring of 2016, Steele got a call from Glenn Simpson, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal who, in 2011, had left journalism to co-found Fusion GPS. Simpson was hoping that Steele could help Fusion follow some difficult leads on Trump’s ties to Russia. Simpson said that he was working for a law firm, but didn’t name the ultimate client.
The funding for the project originally came from an organization financed by the New York investor Paul Singer, a Republican who disliked Trump. But, after it became clear that Trump would win the Republican nomination, Singer dropped out. At that point, Fusion persuaded Marc Elias, the general counsel for the Clinton campaign, to subsidize the unfinished research. This bipartisan funding history belies the argument that the research was corrupted by its sponsorship.
Steele and Simpson had previously worked together, and they shared a mutual fascination with Russian oligarchs and international organized crime. They had symbiotic approaches. Fusion focussed on open-source research—mind-numbing dives into the fine print of public records. Steele’s specialty was gathering intelligence from informed sources, many of them Russian.
One question particularly gnawed at Simpson. Why had Trump repeatedly gone to Russia in search of business, yet returned empty-handed? Steele was tantalized, and took the job, thinking that he’d find evidence of a few dodgy deals, and not much else. He evidently didn’t consider the danger of poking into a Presidential candidate’s darkest secrets. “He’s just got blinkers,” Steele’s longtime friend told me. “He doesn’t put his head in the oven so much as not see the oven.”
Within a few weeks, two or three of Steele’s long-standing collectors came back with reports drawn from Orbis’s larger network of sources. Steele looked at the material and, according to people familiar with the matter, asked himself, “Oh, my God—what is this?” He called in Burrows, who was normally unflappable. Burrows realized that they had a problem. As Simpson later put it, “We threw out a line in the water, and Moby-Dick came back.”
Steele’s sources claimed that the F.S.B. could easily blackmail Trump, in part because it had videos of him engaging in “perverted sexual acts” in Russia. The sources said that when Trump had stayed in the Presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, in 2013, he had paid “a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him,” thereby defiling a bed that Barack and Michelle Obama had slept in during a state visit. The allegation was attributed to four sources, but their reports were secondhand—nobody had witnessed the event or tracked down a prostitute, and one spoke generally about “embarrassing material.” Two sources were unconnected to the others, but the remaining two could have spoken to each other. In the reports Steele had collected, the names of the sources were omitted, but they were described as “a former top-level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin,” a “member of the staff at the hotel,” a “female staffer at the hotel when trump had stayed there,” and “a close associate of trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow.”
More significant, in hindsight, than the sexual details were claims that the Kremlin and Trump were politically colluding in the 2016 campaign. The Russians were described as having cultivated Trump and traded favors with him “for at least 5 years.” Putin was described as backing Trump in order to “sow discord and disunity both within the U.S.” and within the transatlantic alliance. The report claimed that, although Trump had not signed any real-estate-development deals, he and his top associates had repeatedly accepted intelligence from the Kremlin on Hillary Clinton and other political rivals. The allegations were astounding—and improbable. They could constitute treason even if they were only partly true.
According to people familiar with the matter, as Steele began to assemble the first of seventeen memos, which became the dossier, Burrows expressed reservations about including the golden-showers allegation. He had a cautious temperament, and worried about the impact that the sensational item might have. But Steele argued that it would be dishonest and distorting to cherry-pick details, and that the possibility of a potential American President being subject to blackmail was too important to hide. “That’s classic Steele,” his longtime friend told me. “He’s so straight.”
In a fateful decision, Steele chose to include everything. People familiar with the matter say that Steele knew he could either shred the incendiary information or carry on. If he kept investigating, and then alerted officials who he thought should know about his findings, he feared that his life—and, indeed, the life of anyone who touched the dossier—would never be the same.
At the time, Steele figured that almost nobody would ever see the raw intelligence. The credibility of Steele’s dossier has been much debated, but few realize that it was a compilation of contemporaneous interviews rather than a finished product. Orbis was just a subcontractor, and Steele and Burrows reasoned that Fusion could, if it wished, process the findings into an edited report for the ultimate client. So Orbis left it up to Fusion to make the judgment calls about what to leave in, and to decide whether to add caveats and source notes of the kind that accompany most government intelligence reports.
John Sipher spent twenty-eight years as a clandestine officer in the C.I.A., and ran the agency’s Russia program before retiring, in 2014. He said of Steele’s memos, “This is source material, not expert opinion.” Sipher has described the dossier as “generally credible,” although not correct in every detail. He said, “People have misunderstood that it’s a collection of dots, not a connecting of the dots. But it provided the first narrative saying what Russia might be up to.” Alexander Vershbow, a U.S. Ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush, told me, “In intelligence, you evaluate your sources as best you can, but it’s not like journalism, where you try to get more than one source to confirm something. In the intelligence business, you don’t pretend you’re a hundred per cent accurate. If you’re seventy or eighty per cent accurate, that makes you one of the best.”
On June 24, 2016, Steele’s fifty-second birthday, Simpson called, asking him to submit the dossier. The previous day, the U.K. had voted to withdraw from the E.U., and Steele was feeling wretched about it. Few had thought that Brexit was possible. An upset victory by Trump no longer seemed out of the question. Steele was so nervous about maintaining secrecy and protecting his sources that he sent a courier by plane to Washington to hand-deliver a copy of the dossier. The courier’s copy left the sources redacted, providing instead descriptions of them that enabled Fusion to assess their basic credibility. Steele feared that, for some of his Russian sources, exposure would be a death sentence.
Steele also felt a duty to get the information to the F.B.I. Although Trump has tweeted that the dossier was “all cooked up by Hillary Clinton,” Steele approached the Bureau on his own. According to Simpson’s sworn testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Steele told him in June, 2016, that he wanted to alert the U.S. government, and explained, “I’m a former intelligence officer, and we’re your closest ally.” Simpson testified that he asked to think about it for a few days; when Steele brought it up again, Simpson relented. As Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Let’s be clear. This was not considered by me to be part of the work we were doing. This was like you’re driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911.” Steele, he said, felt “professionally obligated to do it.” Simpson went along, he testified, because Steele was the “national-security expert,” whereas he was merely “an ex-journalist.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow has questioned Steele’s motives in the Wall Street Journal, calling him a “paid operative” spreading “partisan gossip.” He told me that Steele’s whistle-blowing seemed “self-dramatizing,” adding, “We see Steele viewing himself as a historically important person. He believes he has unique knowledge that he must warn the world about.” As a historian who has written critically about the F.B.I.’s persecution of Martin Luther King, Jr., Garrow is troubled by Steele’s zealousness. “In this secret-agent world, there’s a desire to maximize their importance,” Garrow said. “It’s as if all these guys wanted to play themselves in the movies.”
But Mark Medish, a former director of Russian affairs at the National Security Council, told me that “if Steele had not shared his findings, he might have been accused of dereliction or a coverup.” He added, “It takes courage to deliver bad news, particularly when the stakes are so high.” And Senator Whitehouse described Steele’s actions as akin to warning the F.B.I. about a “physical detonation of some sort,” noting, “If it had gone off, and he or the F.B.I. had ignored it, heads would roll.”
Regardless of what others might think, it’s clear that Steele believed that his dossier was filled with important intelligence. Otherwise, he would never have subjected it, his firm, and his reputation to the harsh scrutiny of the F.B.I. “I’m impressed that he was willing to share it with the F.B.I.,” Sipher said. “That gives him real credibility to me, the notion that he’d give it to the best intelligence professionals in the world.”
On July 5, 2016, Steele went to his London office and met with the F.B.I. agent with whom he’d worked on the fifa case. The agent responded to the first memo in the dossier, Steele has said, with “shock and horror.” Simpson knew that Steele had informed the F.B.I., but he has said that, amid the tumult of the 2016 campaign, it more or less slipped his mind. (In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he recalled asking himself, “I wonder what the F.B.I. did? Whoops—haven’t heard from them.”) As the summer went on, there was little indication that the F.B.I. was paying much attention, either.
For all the Republicans’ talk of a top-down Democratic plot, Steele and Simpson appear never to have told their ultimate client—the Clinton campaign’s law firm—that Steele had gone to the F.B.I. Clinton’s campaign spent much of the summer of 2016 fending off stories about the Bureau’s investigation into her e-mails, without knowing that the F.B.I. had launched a counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia—one fuelled, in part, by the Clinton campaign’s own opposition research. As a top Clinton-campaign official told me, “If I’d known the F.B.I. was investigating Trump, I would have been shouting it from the rooftops!”
At virtually the same time that Steele told the F.B.I. about Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, the Kremlin was engaged—without his knowledge—in at least two other schemes to pass compromising information about Hillary Clinton to Trump’s inner circle.
The first scheme involved the Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos. In April, 2016, over drinks with an Australian diplomat at a London bar, he divulged that Russia had access to thousands of Clinton e-mails. The diplomat informed his supervisors of this bizarre-sounding claim, but Papadopoulos was young and inexperienced, and the Australians didn’t give it much weight.
The second scheme unfolded at Trump Tower in New York. On June 9, 2016, top members of Trump’s campaign—including Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner—had a private meeting on the twenty-fifth floor with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer. The attendees had been promised that she would present them with dirt Moscow had collected on Hillary Clinton. The meeting was set up after Donald, Jr., was approached by an emissary close to the Agalarov family—Azerbaijani oligarchs with whom Trump had partnered on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, in Moscow. In an e-mail, the emissary promised Donald, Jr., that the documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and described this gift as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Instead of going to the F.B.I., as Steele had, Trump’s older son responded giddily to the e-mail: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Donald, Jr., and the other participants insist that nothing of consequence happened at the Trump Tower meeting: Veselnitskaya expressed frustration with U.S. sanctions on Russia, but offered no information on Clinton. A number of former intelligence officers, however, believe that the meeting, which happened soon after Papadopoulos’s encounter with the Australian diplomat, enhances the dossier’s credibility. John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the C.I.A. from 2000 until 2004, told me, “I haven’t formed a final thought, but clearly parts of it are starting to resonate with what we know to be true about the Russians’ willingness to deliver information harmful to Hillary Clinton.”
Furthermore, Steele’s dossier had highlighted the Agalarov family’s connection with Trump. Ten months before the Times reported on the Trump Tower meeting, exposing the role of the Agalarov family’s emissary in setting it up, one of Steele’s memos had suggested that an “Azeri business associate of Trump, Araz agalarov, will know the details” of “bribes” and “sexual activities” that Trump had allegedly engaged in while visiting St. Petersburg. (A lawyer for the Agalarovs denies these claims.)
On June 14, 2016, five days after the Trump Tower meeting, the Washington Post broke the news that the Russians were believed to have hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail system. The first reports were remarkably blasé. D.N.C. officials admitted that they had learned about the hack months earlier. (It later surfaced that in November of 2014 Dutch intelligence officials had provided U.S. authorities with evidence that the Russians had broken into the Democratic Party’s computer system. U.S. officials reportedly thanked the Dutch for the tip, sending cake and flowers, but took little action.) When the infiltration of the D.N.C. finally became public, various officials were quoted as saying that the Russians were always trying to penetrate U.S. government systems, and were likely just trying to understand American politics better.
The attitudes of Democratic officials changed drastically when, three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks dumped twenty thousand stolen D.N.C. e-mails onto the Internet. The e-mails had been weaponized: what had seemed a passive form of spying was now “an active measure,” in the parlance of espionage. The leaked e-mails, some of which suggested that the D.N.C. had secretly favored Clinton’s candidacy over that of Bernie Sanders, appeared just when the Party was trying to unify its supporters. The Party’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign, and recriminations and demonstrations disrupted the Convention.
Trump’s response was exultant. He said, “If it is Russia—which it’s probably not, nobody knows who it is—but if it is . . . Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” His campaign later described these comments as a joke.
At this point, a Clinton foreign-policy adviser, Laura Rosenberger, who had held various positions at the National Security Council and at the State Department during the Bush and Obama Administrations, grew seriously alarmed. She’d already noticed that Trump had pro-Russian positions on many issues, which seemed to her to be inexplicably outside the Republican mainstream. She’d also been struck by Trump’s hiring of Paul Manafort, who had worked as a political consultant for pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine. Trump’s team then appeared to play a role in modifying the G.O.P. platform so that it better reflected Russia’s position on Ukraine policy. “It was all beginning to snowball,” she told me. “And then, with the e-mail leaks, it was, like, ‘Oh, fuck’—excuse my French—‘we are under attack!’ That was the moment when, as a national-security adviser, you break into sweats.”
Rosenberger, meanwhile, had no idea that the Clinton campaign had indirectly employed a Russia expert: Steele. Orbis’s work was sealed off, behind a legal barrier. Marc Elias, the attorney at Perkins Coie who was serving as the Clinton campaign’s general counsel, acted as a firewall between the campaign and the private investigators digging up information on Trump. It’s a common practice for law firms to hire investigators on behalf of clients, so that any details can be protected by attorney-client privilege. Fusion briefed only Elias on the reports. Simpson sent Elias nothing on paper—he was briefed orally. Elias, according to people familiar with the matter, was flabbergasted by the dossier but wasn’t sure what to do with the allegations. “Sex stuff is kind of worthless in a campaign,” Simpson told me. In the absence of live accusers or documentary evidence, such material is easy to dismiss, and can make the purveyor look sleazy.
At the same time, the financial machinations described in Steele’s reports were complex, and difficult to confirm: “yanukovych had confided in putin that he did authorise and order substantial kick-back payments to manafort as alleged but sought to reassure him that there was no documentary trail left behind.” (Manafort has denied this.) Elias broadly summarized some of the information to top campaign officials, including the campaign manager, Robby Mook, but Elias found much of the Kremlinology abstruse. He was more interested in finding actionable intelligence on the people who had exfiltrated the Democrats’ internal e-mails, and how to stop them.
Mook told me, “The problem with the Russia story is that people just weren’t buying it. Today, it’s, like, ‘Of course!’ But back then people thought that we were just desperately peddling conspiracy theories.” After the D.N.C.’s e-mails were hacked, Mook went on TV talk shows and pointed the finger at Russia, but, he says, his comments were often dismissed as “spin.” On Jake Tapper’s “State of the Union,” he declared, “What’s disturbing to us is that experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the D.N.C., stole these e-mails, and other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these e-mails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump.” Tapper then interviewed Donald Trump, Jr., who ridiculed Mook’s accusation as “disgusting” and “phony”—even though it’s now known that, just a few weeks earlier, he had met at Trump Tower with a Russian offering dirt on Clinton.
That summer, Steele noticed a few small news items further connecting Trump’s circle to Russia. On July 7, 2016, two days after Steele met in London with the F.B.I., Carter Page, a Trump foreign-policy adviser, travelled to Moscow, on a campaign-approved visit, and delivered a lecture at the prestigious New Economic School. Page’s remarks were head-turning. He criticized “Washington and other Western capitals” for “their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption, and regime change.”
Page was an odd choice for Trump. In New York in 2013, two Russian intelligence operatives had attempted to recruit Page, an oil-industry consultant, although wiretaps revealed that one of the operatives had described him as an “idiot.” The F.B.I. later indicted the two Russian spies, and warned Page that the Kremlin was trying to recruit him, but he continued to pursue oil-and-gas deals in Russia. Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a risk-consulting firm where Page had previously worked, said that Page had become a pro-Kremlin “wackadoodle.”
Steele didn’t know it, but U.S. authorities were independently monitoring Page. According to the recently released report by the Democratic minority on the House Intelligence Committee, the F.B.I. had interviewed Page about his contacts with Russian officials in March, 2016—the same month that Trump named him an adviser.
When Page gave his Moscow lecture, he declined to answer questions from the audience about whether he would be meeting Russian officials. Soon afterward, Steele filed another memo to Fusion, alleging that Page had indeed met with Russians close to Putin, as part of an ongoing effort by the Russians to cultivate sympathetic Trump aides. Steele’s sources claimed that one person Page had met with was Igor Sechin, the C.E.O. of the oil giant Rosneft. Sechin had purportedly proposed to Page increasing U.S.-Russian energy coöperation in exchange for lifting the Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. Page, the dossier said, had “reacted positively” but had been “non-committal.” (Rosneft declined to comment. Page told me, “Steele got everything wrong as it relates to me.”)
A subsequent Steele memo claimed that Sechin was so eager to get U.S. sanctions lifted that, as an incentive, he offered Page the opportunity to help sell a stake of Rosneft to investors. Steele’s memo also alleged that while Page was in Russia he met with a top Kremlin official, Igor Diveykin, who floated the idea of leaking Russian kompromat on Clinton, in order to boost Trump’s candidacy. According to Steele’s memos, the damaging material on Clinton was political, not personal, and had been gathered partly from Russian intercepts.
Page has denied any wrongdoing. In a congressional interview in November, 2017, he initially said that he had not met with any Russian officials during his July trip. But, according to the Democrats’ recent Intelligence Committee report, when Page was confronted with evidence he was “forced to admit” that he had met with a top Kremlin official, after all, as well as with a Rosneft executive—Sechin’s close associate Andrey Baranov. The dossier may or may not have erred in its naming of specific officials, but it was clearly prescient in its revelation that during the Presidential campaign a covert relationship had been established between Page and powerful Russians who wanted U.S. sanctions lifted. Trump and his advisers have repeatedly denied having colluded with Russians. But, in Steele’s telling, the Russians were clearly offering Trump secret political help.
Steele’s memos describe two other Trump advisers as sympathetic to Russia: Paul Manafort, then the campaign manager, and Michael Flynn, an adviser whom Trump later appointed his national-security adviser. Flynn resigned from that post almost immediately, after it was revealed that he had engaged in conversations with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about U.S. sanctions that Obama had imposed before leaving office. Flynn has become a central figure in Mueller’s investigation, having pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with Kislyak.
On July 26, 2016, after WikiLeaks disseminated the D.N.C. e-mails, Steele filed yet another memo, this time claiming that the Kremlin was “behind” the hacking, which was part of a Russian cyber war against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Many of the details seemed far-fetched: Steele’s sources claimed that the digital attack involved agents “within the Democratic Party structure itself,” as well as Russian émigrés in the U.S. and “associated offensive cyber operators.”
Neither of these claims has been substantiated, and it’s hard to imagine that they will be. But one of the dossier’s other seemingly outlandish assertions—that the hack involved “state-sponsored cyber operatives working in Russia”—has been buttressed. According to Special Counsel Mueller’s recent indictment of thirteen Russian nationals, Kremlin-backed operatives, hiding behind fake and stolen identities, posed as Americans on Facebook and Twitter, spreading lies and fanning ethnic and religious hatred with the aim of damaging Clinton and helping Trump. The Kremlin apparently spent about a million dollars a month to fund Internet trolls working round-the-clock shifts in a run-down office building in St. Petersburg. Their tactics were similar to those outlined in Steele’s Charlemagne investigation, including spreading falsehoods designed to turn voters toward extremism. The Russian operation also involved political activism inside the U.S., including the organizing of bogus pro-Trump rallies.
In England, Steele kept cranking out memos, but he was growing anxious about the lack of response from the F.B.I. As the summer wore on, he confided in an American friend, Jonathan Winer, a Democratic lawyer and foreign-policy specialist who was working at the State Department. Steele told him that Orbis sources had come across unsettling information about Trump’s ties to Russia. Winer recalls Steele saying that he “was more certain of it than about any information he’d gotten before in his life.” Winer told me, “Chris was deeply disturbed that the Kremlin was infecting our country. By hacking our computers and using WikiLeaks to disseminate the information—it was an infection. He thought it would have really bad consequences for the U.S. and the U.K., for starters. He thought it would destabilize these countries. He wanted the U.S. government to know. He’s a very institution-oriented person.”
During the previous two years, Steele had been sending Winer informal reports, gratis, about raw intelligence that he’d picked up on Ukraine and related areas while working for commercial clients. Winer, who encouraged Steele to keep sending the reports, estimated that he had received more than a hundred and twenty of them by 2016. He and others at the State Department found the research full of insights. Winer recalls Victoria Nuland, the top official overseeing U.S. policy on Russia, expressing surprise at how timely Steele’s reports were. A former top State Department official who read them said, “We found the reports about eighty per cent consistent with other sources we had. Occasionally, his sources appeared to exaggerate their knowledge or influence. But Steele also highlighted some players and back channels between Russia and Ukraine who became important later. So the reports had value.
In September, 2016, Steele briefed Winer on the dossier at a Washington hotel. Winer prepared a two-page summary and shared it with a few senior State Department officials. Among them were Nuland and Jon Finer, the director of policy planning and the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry. For several days, Finer weighed whether or not to burden Kerry with the information. He’d found the summary highly disturbing, but he didn’t know how to assess its claims. Eventually, he decided that, since others knew, his boss should know, too.
When Kerry was briefed, though, he didn’t think there was any action that he could take. He asked if F.B.I. agents knew about the dossier, and, after being assured that they did, that was apparently the end of it. Finer agreed with Kerry’s assessment, and put the summary in his safe, and never took it out again. Nuland’s reaction was much the same. She told Winer to tell Steele to take his dossier to the F.B.I. The so-called Deep State, it seems, hardly jumped into action against Trump.
“No one wanted to touch it,” Winer said. Obama Administration officials were mindful of the Hatch Act, which forbids government employees to use their positions to influence political elections. The State Department officials didn’t know who was funding Steele’s research, but they could see how politically explosive it was. So they backed away.
Steele believed that the Russians were engaged in the biggest electoral crime in U.S. history, and wondered why the F.B.I. and the State Department didn’t seem to be taking the threat seriously. Likening it to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he felt that President Obama needed to make a speech to alert the country. He also thought that Obama should privately warn Putin that unless he stopped meddling the U.S. would retaliate with a cyberattack so devastating it would shut Russia down.
Steele wasn’t aware that by August, 2016, a similar debate was taking place inside the Obama White House and the U.S. intelligence agencies. According to an article by the Washington Post, that month the C.I.A. sent what the paper described as “an intelligence bombshell” to President Obama, warning him that Putin was directly involved in a Russian cyber campaign aimed at disrupting the Presidential election—and helping Trump win. Robert Hannigan, then the head of the U.K.’s intelligence service the G.C.H.Q., had recently flown to Washington and briefed the C.I.A.’s director, John Brennan, on a stream of illicit communications between Trump’s team and Moscow that had been intercepted. (The content of these intercepts has not become public.) But, as the Post noted, the C.I.A.’s assessment that the Russians were interfering specifically to boost Trump was not yet accepted by other intelligence agencies, and it wasn’t until days before the Inauguration that major U.S. intelligence agencies had unanimously endorsed this view.
In the meantime, the White House was unsure how to respond. Earlier this year, at the Council on Foreign Relations, former Vice-President Joe Biden revealed that, after Presidential daily briefings, he and Obama “would sit there” and ask each other, “What the hell are we going to do?” The U.S. eventually sent a series of stern messages to the Russians, the most pointed of which took place when Obama pulled Putin aside on September 5th, at a G20 summit in China, and reportedly warned him, “Better stop, or else.”
But Obama and his top advisers did not want to take any action against Russia that might provoke a cyber war. And because it was so close to the election, they were wary about doing anything that could be construed as a ploy to help Clinton. All along, Trump had dismissed talk of Russian interference as a hoax, claiming that no one really knew who had hacked the D.N.C.: it could have been China, he said, or a guy from New Jersey, or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” Trump had also warned his supporters that the election would be rigged against him, and Obama and his top aides were loath to further undermine the public’s faith.
In early September, 2016, Obama tried to get congressional leaders to issue a bipartisan statement condemning Russia’s meddling in the election. He reasoned that if both parties signed on the statement couldn’t be attacked as political. The intelligence community had recently informed the Gang of Eight—the leaders of both parties and the ranking representatives on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees—that Russia was acting on behalf of Trump. But one Gang of Eight member, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, expressed skepticism about the Russians’ role, and refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning Russia. After that, Obama, instead of issuing a statement himself, said nothing.
Steele anxiously asked his American counterparts what else could be done to alert the country. One option was to go to the press. Simpson wasn’t all that worried, though. As he recalled in his subsequent congressional testimony, “We were operating under the assumption at that time that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, and so there was no urgency to it.”
Contemporaneous F.B.I. text messages disclosed recently by the Wall Street Journal reflect a similar complacency. In August, 2016, two F.B.I. employees, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, texted about investigating possible collusion between Trump and the Russians. “omg i cannot believe we are seriously looking at these allegations and the pervasive connections,” Strzok wrote. Page suggested that they could take their time, because there was little reason to worry that Clinton would lose. But Strzok disagreed, warning that they should push ahead, anyway, as “an insurance policy” in case Trump was elected—like “the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
When excerpts of these texts first became public, Trump defenders such as Trey Gowdy seized on them as proof that the F.B.I. had schemed to devise “an insurance policy” to keep Trump from getting elected. But a reading of the full text chain makes it clear that the agents were discussing whether or not they needed to focus urgently on investigating collusion.
In late summer, Fusion set up a series of meetings, at the Tabard Inn, in Washington, between Steele and a handful of national-security reporters. These encounters were surely sanctioned in some way by Fusion’s client, the Clinton campaign. The sessions were off the record, but because Steele has since disclosed having participated in them I can confirm that I attended one of them. Despite Steele’s generally cool manner, he seemed distraught about the Russians’ role in the election. He did not distribute his dossier, provided no documentary evidence, and was so careful about guarding his sources that there was virtually no way to follow up. At the time, neither The New Yorker nor any other news organization ran a story about the allegations.
Inevitably, though, word of the dossier began to spread through Washington. A former State Department official recalls a social gathering where he danced around the subject with the British Ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch. After exchanging cryptic hints, to make sure that they were both in the know, he asked the Ambassador, “Is this guy Steele legit?” The Ambassador replied, “Absolutely.” Brennan, then the C.I.A. director, also heard the rumors. (Nunes reportedly plans to examine Steele’s interactions with the C.I.A. and the State Department next.) But Brennan said recently, on “Meet the Press,” that he heard just “snippets” about the dossier “in press circles,” emphasizing that he didn’t see the dossier until well after the election, and said that “it did not play any role whatsoever” in the intelligence community’s appraisal of Russian election meddling. Brennan said of the dossier, “It was up to the F.B.I. to see whether or not they could verify any of it.”
It wasn’t until October 7, 2016, that anyone in the Obama Administration spoke publicly about Russia’s interference. James Clapper, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. intelligence community was “confident” that Russia had directed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails. James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, had reportedly changed his mind about issuing a public statement, deciding that it was too close to the election to make such a politically charged assertion.
In a normal political climate, the U.S. government’s announcement that a foreign power had attacked one of the two dominant parties in the midst of a Presidential election would have received enormous attention. But it was almost instantly buried by two other shocking news events. Thirty minutes after the statement was released, the Washington Post brought to light the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump describes how his celebrity status had allowed him to “grab” women “by the pussy.” A few hours after that, WikiLeaks, evidently in an effort to bail out Trump by changing the subject, started posting the private e-mails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. The intelligence community’s assessment was barely noticed.
Steele finally met again with the F.B.I. in early October of 2016. This time, he went to Rome to speak with a team of agents, who avidly asked him for everything he had. The news generated by the publication of the D.N.C. e-mails had triggered the change. It had led the Australians to reconsider the importance of George Papadopoulos’s claims, and to alert American authorities. On July 31, 2016, the F.B.I. had launched a formal investigation.
The agents asked Steele about Papadopoulos, and he said that he hadn’t heard anything about him. After the meeting, Steele told Simpson that the Bureau had been amassing “other intelligence” about Russia’s scheme. As Simpson later told the Senate Judiciary Committee, F.B.I. agents now “believed Chris’s information might be credible.” Although the Bureau had paid Steele for past work, he was not paid for his help on the Trump investigation. Orbis remained under contract to Fusion, and Steele helped the F.B.I. voluntarily. (He did request compensation for travelling to Rome, but he never received any.)
Soon after the meeting in Rome, the F.B.I. successfully petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to spy on Carter Page. Trump’s defenders have accused the Bureau of relying on politically motivated smears to spy on Trump’s campaign, but by then Page was no longer an adviser to Trump, and the F.B.I. had collected information in addition to what had been supplied by Steele.
The Bureau encouraged Steele to send any relevant information he came across, and that October he passed on a questionable item—a bit of amateur sleuthing that had been done by someone he’d never met, a former journalist and self-styled investigator named Cody Shearer. Jonathan Winer, Steele’s friend at the State Department, had shared with him an unfinished memo written by Shearer. Not only did it claim that the F.S.B. had incriminating videotapes of Trump having sex in Moscow; it also made wild allegations that leaders of former Soviet states had given huge payments to Trump family members. Steele wasn’t aware that Shearer had longtime ties to the Clintons, as did Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton ally, who had given Shearer’s report to Winer. Steele had never met Blumenthal, either, but he dutifully jotted down the chain of custody on the cover of the report before sending it on to the F.B.I., with the caveat that he couldn’t vouch for its credibility. He noted, though, that some of the findings were “remarkably similar” to Orbis’s.
Trump’s defenders have seized on the Shearer memo, which Steele didn’t write, using it to argue that Steele’s research was politically tainted by the Clintons. Sean Hannity’s official Web sitecarried the inaccurate headline “christopher steele authored another dossier, used clinton contacts.”
As the election approached, the relationship between Steele and the F.B.I. grew increasingly tense. He couldn’t understand why the government wasn’t publicizing Trump’s ties to Russia. He was anguished that the American voting public remained in the dark. Steele confided in a longtime friend at the Justice Department, an Associate Deputy Attorney General, Bruce Ohr (whose wife, Nellie Ohr, was briefly a contractor for Fusion). In a memo to the F.B.I., Bruce Ohr recalled Steele saying that, given what he had discovered, he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being President.” According to people familiar with the matter, Ohr and other officials urged Steele not to be so upset about the F.B.I.’s secrecy, assuring him that, in the U.S., potentially prejudicial investigations of political figures were always kept quiet, especially when an election was imminent.
Steele was therefore shocked when, on October 28, 2016, Comey sent a letter to congressional leaders: the F.B.I. had come across new e-mails bearing on its previously closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as Secretary of State. He said that these e-mails required immediate review. The announcement plunged Clinton’s campaign into chaos. Two days before the election, Comey made a second announcement, clearing her of wrongdoing, but by that point her campaign’s momentum had stalled.
To Steele, the F.B.I., by making an incriminating statement so close to Election Day, seemed to be breaking a rule that he’d been told was inviolable. And, given what he—and very few others—knew about the F.B.I.’s Trump investigation, it also seemed that the Bureau had one standard for Clinton and another for her opponent. “Chris was concerned that something was happening at the F.B.I.,” Simpson later told the House Intelligence Committee. “We were very concerned that the information that we had about the Russians trying to interfere in the election was going to be covered up.” Simpson and Steele thought that “it would only be fair if the world knew that both candidates were under investigation.”
At Fusion’s urging, Steele decided to speak, on background, to the press. Identified only as a “former Western intelligence officer,” he told David Corn, of Mother Jones, that he had provided information to the F.B.I. as part of a “pretty substantial inquiry” into Trump’s ties to Russia. He noted, “This is something of huge significance, way above party politics.”
The F.B.I., which had hoped to protect its ongoing probe from public view, was furious. Nunes, in his memo, claimed that Steele was “suspended and then terminated” as a source. In reality, the break was mutual, precipitated by Steele’s act of conscience.
Inside the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, the chairman, was stunned by the news that the F.B.I. had launched a full-blown investigation into Trump, especially one that was informed by research underwritten by the Clinton campaign. Podesta had authorized Robby Mook, the campaign manager, to handle budget matters, and Mook had approved Perkins Coie’s budget request for opposition research without knowing who was producing it. Podesta and Mook have maintained that they had no idea a former foreign intelligence officer was on the Democrats’ payroll until the Mother Jones article appeared, and that they didn’t read the dossier until BuzzFeed posted it online. Far from a secret campaign weapon, Steele turned out to be a secret kept from the campaign.
On November 8, 2016, Steele stayed up all night, watching the U.S. election returns. Trump’s surprise victory hit Orbis hard. A staff memo went out forgiving anyone who wanted to stay home and hide under his duvet. The news had one immediate consequence for Steele. He believed that Trump now posed a national-security threat to his country, too. He soon shared his research with a senior British official. The official carefully went through the details with Steele, but it isn’t clear whether the British government acted on his information.
The election was over, but Steele kept trying to alert American authorities. Later that November, he authorized a trusted mentor—Sir Andrew Wood, a former British Ambassador to Moscow—to inform Senator John McCain of the existence of his dossier. Wood, an unpaid informal adviser to Orbis, and Steele agreed that McCain, the hawkish chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, should know what was going on. Wood told me, “It was simply a matter of duty.” Steele had gone to him before the election for counsel. They’d discussed the possibility that Steele’s sources in Russia were wrong, or spreading disinformation, but concluded that none of them had a motive to lie; moreover, they had taken considerable risks to themselves to get the truth out. “I sensed he was distinctly alarmed,” Wood told me. “I don’t doubt his good faith at all. It’s absurd for anyone to suggest he was engaged in political tricks.”
The week before Thanksgiving, Wood briefed McCain at the Halifax International Security Forum. McCain was deeply concerned. He asked a former aide, David Kramer, to go to England to meet Steele. Kramer, a Russia expert who had served at the State Department, went over the dossier with Steele for hours. After Kramer promised to share the document only with McCain, Steele arranged for Kramer to receive a copy in Washington. But a former national-security official who spoke with Kramer at the time told me that one of Kramer’s ideas was to have McCain confront Trump with the evidence, in the hope that Trump would resign. “He would tell Trump, ‘The Russians have got you,’ ” the former official told me. (A lawyer for Kramer maintains that Kramer never considered getting Trump to resign and never promised to show the dossier only to McCain.) Ultimately, though, McCain and Kramer agreed that McCain should take the dossier to the head of the F.B.I. On December 9th, McCain handed Comey a copy of the dossier. The meeting lasted less than ten minutes, because, to McCain’s surprise, the F.B.I. had possessed a copy since the summer. According to the former national-security official, when Kramer learned about the meeting his reaction was “Shit, if they’ve had it all this time, why didn’t they do something?” Kramer then heard that the dossier was an open secret among journalists, too. He asked, “Is there anyone in Washington who doesn’t know about this?”
On January 5, 2017, it became clear that at least two Washingtonians remained in the dark about the dossier: the President and the Vice-President. That day, in a top-secret Oval Office meeting, the chiefs of the nation’s top intelligence agencies briefed Obama and Biden and some national-security officials for the first time about the dossier’s allegation that Trump’s campaign team may have colluded with the Russians. As one person present later told me, “No one understands that at the White House we weren’t briefed about the F.B.I.’s investigations. We had no information on collusion. All we saw was what the Russians were doing. The F.B.I. puts anything about Americans in a lockbox.”
The main purpose of the Oval Office meeting was to run through a startling report that the U.S. intelligence chiefs were about to release to the public. It contained the agencies’ unanimous conclusion that, during the Presidential campaign, Putin had directed a cyber campaign aimed at getting Trump elected. But, before releasing the report, the intelligence chiefs—James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence; Admiral Mike Rogers, the N.S.A. director; Brennan; and Comey—shared a highly classified version with Obama, Biden, and the other officials.
The highly classified report included a two-page appendix about the dossier. Comey briefed the group on it. According to three former government officials familiar with the meeting, he didn’t name Steele but said that the appendix summarized information obtained by a former intelligence officer who had previously worked with the F.B.I. and had come forward with troubling information. Comey laid out the dossier’s allegations that there had been numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and that there may have been deals struck between them. Comey also mentioned some of the sexual details in the dossier, including the alleged golden-showers kompromat.
“It was chilling,” the meeting participant recalls.
Obama stayed silent. All through the campaign, he and others in his Administration had insisted on playing by the rules, and not interfering unduly in the election, to the point that, after Trump’s victory, some critics accused them of political negligence. The Democrats, far from being engaged in a political conspiracy with Steele, had been politically paralyzed by their high-mindedness.
Biden asked, “How seriously should we take this?” Comey responded that the F.B.I. had not corroborated the details in the dossier, but he said that portions of it were “consistent” with what the U.S. intelligence community had obtained from other channels. He also said that the F.B.I. had “confidence” in the dossier’s author—a careful but definite endorsement—because it had worked not only with him but with many of his sources and sub-sources, whose identities the Bureau knew. “He’s proven credible in the past, and so has his network,” Comey said.
“If this is true, this is huge!” Biden exclaimed.
Someone asked how intelligence officials planned to handle the dossier with Trump. Comey explained that he’d decided to brief the President-elect about it the next day. He would do it on his own, he said, to avoid unnecessary embarrassment. But he thought that Trump needed to know about the dossier, even if the allegations were false, for two reasons: it could prove “impactful” if the dossier became public, and the dossier could be used as leverage over the President-elect. Trump later suggested that Comey had actually used the dossier to get leverage over him, but, according to the officials familiar with the meeting, Comey’s motive was to protect the President-elect. In fact, if Comey had wanted to use the dossier as leverage, he could have done so months earlier, before Trump was elected, since it had been in the F.B.I.’s possession.
Comey’s meeting with the President-elect, in a conference room at Trump Tower, did not go well. Neither he nor Trump has disclosed details of their exchange, but Comey later released a public statement in which he said that as soon as he left the building he “felt compelled” to memorialize in writing what had occurred. He’d never felt the need to take such a legal step during the Obama years. Later, when he was questioned by a Senate panel, Comey explained that he had done so because of the “nature of the person,” adding, “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.” The briefing established a rocky dynamic that culminated in Trump’s dismissing Comey, and with Trump adopting a hostile posture toward the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies investigating him.
Republican critics have accused the intelligence agencies of having blended Steele’s work with their own investigations. But the F.B.I., by relegating the dossier to an appendix, deliberately separated it from the larger intelligence-community report. Steele has told friends that this approach left him exposed. The F.B.I. never asked his permission to do this. “They threw me under the bus,” Steele has complained to friends.
Unsurprisingly, the salacious news leaked in no time. Four days after Comey briefed Trump, CNN reported that the President-elect had been briefed on a scandalous dossier supplied by a former British intelligence operative. Almost instantly, BuzzFeed posted a copy of Steele’s dossier online, arguing that the high-level briefing made it a matter of public interest. BuzzFeed has declined to reveal its source for the dossier, but both Orbis and Fusion have denied supplying it. By a process of elimination, speculation has centered on McCain’s aide, Kramer, who has not responded to inquiries about it, and whose congressional testimony is sealed.
Trump immediately denounced CNN’s report as “fake news,” and BuzzFeed as “a failing pile of garbage.” He called the document “crap” compiled by “sick people,” and at a news conference at Trump Tower he insisted that the golden-showers episode couldn’t be true, because he was “very much of a germophobe.”
The day after BuzzFeed posted the dossier, the Wall Street Journalidentified Steele as its author. In England, reporters peered in his windows and tracked down his relatives, including the siblings of his deceased wife. Two reporters from RT, a Russian state news agency, seemed especially aggressive in staking out his house. In response, Steele and his family went into hiding. They reportedly left their three cats with neighbors, and Steele grew a beard.
The dossier’s publication caused a series of repercussions. Aleksej Gubarev, the Russian Internet entrepreneur, sued Steele and Orbis, and also BuzzFeed, for libel. He said the dossier falsely claimed that his companies, Webzilla and XBT Holding, had aided the Russian hacking of the D.N.C. (Steele’s lawyers have said that the dossier’s publication was unforeseen, so he shouldn’t be held responsible. BuzzFeed has argued that the content was not libelous.) Pretrial maneuvering in the libel case has resulted in a court ordering Gubarev to disclose whether he or his companies are under criminal investigation. His answer may shed some light on the dossier’s depiction of him as a questionable character.
In Russia, there were rumors of a more primitive kind of justice taking place. During Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, his lawyer asserted that “somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier.” Who that could be has been the subject of much media speculation. One possibility that has been mentioned is Oleg Erovinkin, a former F.S.B. officer and top aide to Igor Sechin, the Rosneft president. On December 26, 2016, Erovinkin was found dead in his car. No official cause of death has been cited. No evidence has emerged that Erovinkin was a Steele source, and in fact Special Counsel Mueller is believed to be investigating a different death that is possibly related to the dossier. (A representative for Mueller declined to answer questions for this article.) Meanwhile, around the same time that Erovinkin died, Russian authorities charged a cybersecurity expert and two F.S.B. officers with treason.
In the spring of 2017, after eight weeks in hiding, Steele gave a brief statement to the media, announcing his intention of getting back to work. On the advice of his lawyers, he hasn’t spoken publicly since. But Steele talked at length with Mueller’s investigators in September. It isn’t known what they discussed, but, given the seriousness with which Steele views the subject, those who know him suspect that he shared many of his sources, and much else, with the Mueller team.
One subject that Steele is believed to have discussed with Mueller’s investigators is a memo that he wrote in late November, 2016, after his contract with Fusion had ended. This memo, which did not surface publicly with the others, is shorter than the rest, and is based on one source, described as “a senior Russian official.” The official said that he was merely relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what he’d heard was astonishing: people were saying that the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney. (During Romney’s run for the White House in 2012, he was notably hawkish on Russia, calling it the single greatest threat to the U.S.) The memo said that the Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would coöperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria. If what the source heard was true, then a foreign power was exercising pivotal influence over U.S. foreign policy—and an incoming President.
As fantastical as the memo sounds, subsequent events could be said to support it. In a humiliating public spectacle, Trump dangled the post before Romney until early December, then rejected him. There are plenty of domestic political reasons that Trump may have turned against Romney. Trump loyalists, for instance, noted Romney’s public opposition to Trump during the campaign. Roger Stone, the longtime Trump aide, has suggested that Trump was vengefully tormenting Romney, and had never seriously considered him. (Romney declined to comment. The White House said that he was never a first choice for the role and declined to comment about any communications that the Trump team may have had with Russia on the subject.) In any case, on December 13, 2016, Trump gave Rex Tillerson, the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, the job. The choice was a surprise to most, and a happy one in Moscow, because Tillerson’s business ties with the Kremlin were long-standing and warm. (In 2011, he brokered a historic partnership between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.) After the election, Congress imposed additional sanctions on Russia, in retaliation for its interference, but Trump and Tillerson have resisted enacting them.
Eighteen months after the dossier’s publication, Steele has impassioned detractors on both the left and the right. On the left, Stephen Cohen, a Russia scholar and Nation contributor, has denied the existence of any collusion between Trump and Russia, and has accused Steele of being part of a powerful “fourth branch of government,” comprising intelligence agencies whose anti-Russia and anti-Trump biases have run amok. On the right, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York has championed Grassley and Graham’s criminal referral, arguing that Steele has a “credibility issue,” because he purportedly lied to the F.B.I. about talking to the press. But did Steele lie? The Justice Department has not filed charges against him. The most serious accusation these critics make is that the F.B.I. tricked the fisa Court into granting a warrant to spy on Trump associates on the basis of false and politically motivated opposition research. If true, this would be a major abuse of power. But the Bureau didn’t trick the court—it openly disclosed that Steele’s funding was political. Moreover, Steele’s dossier was only part of what the fisa warrant rested on. According to the Democrats’ Intelligence Committee report, the Justice Department obtained information “that corroborated Steele’s reporting” through “multiple independent sources.”
It’s too early to make a final judgment about how much of Steele’s dossier will be proved wrong, but a number of Steele’s major claims have been backed up by subsequent disclosures. His allegation that the Kremlin favored Trump in 2016 and was offering his campaign dirt on Hillary has been borne out. So has his claim that the Kremlin and WikiLeaks were working together to release the D.N.C.’s e-mails. Key elements of Steele’s memos on Carter Page have held up, too, including the claim that Page had secret meetings in Moscow with Rosneft and Kremlin officials. Steele may have named the wrong oil-company official, but, according to recent congressional disclosures, he was correct that a top Rosneft executive talked to Page about a payoff. According to the Democrats’ report, when Page was asked if a Rosneft executive had offered him a “potential sale of a significant percentage of Rosneft,” Page said, “He may have briefly mentioned it.”
And, just as the Kremlin allegedly feared, damaging financial details have surfaced about Manafort’s dealings with Ukraine officials. Further, his suggestion that Trump had “agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” seems to have been confirmed by the pro-Russia changes that Trump associates made to the Republican platform. Special Counsel Mueller’s various indictments of Manafort have also strengthened aspects of the dossier.
Indeed, it’s getting harder every day to claim that Steele was simply spreading lies, now that three former Trump campaign officials—Flynn, Papadopoulos, and Rick Gates, who served as deputy campaign chairman—have all pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and appear to be coöperating with the investigation. And, of course, Mueller has indicted thirteen Russian nationals for waging the kind of digital warfare that Steele had warned about.
On January 9th, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, filed a hundred-million-dollar defamation lawsuit against Fusion. He also sued BuzzFeed. Cohen tweeted, “Enough is enough of the #fake #RussianDossier.” Steele mentioned Cohen several times in the dossier, and claimed that Cohen met with Russian operatives in Prague, in the late summer of 2016, to pay them off and cover up the Russian hacking operation. Cohen denies that he’s ever set foot in Prague, and has produced his passport to prove it. A congressional official has told Politico, however, that an inquiry into the allegation is “still active.” And, since the dossier was published, several examples have surfaced of Cohen making secretive payments to cover up other potentially damaging stories. Cohen recently acknowledged to the Times that he personally paid Stephanie Clifford, a porn star who goes by the name Stormy Daniels, a hundred and thirty thousand dollars; it is widely believed that Trump and Clifford had a secret sexual relationship.
In London, Steele is back at work, attending to other cases. Orbis has landed several new clients as a result of the publicity surrounding the dossier. The week after it became public, the company received two thousand job applications.
John Sipher, the former C.I.A. officer, predicts that Mueller’s probe will render the final verdict on Steele’s dossier. “People who say it’s all garbage, or all true, are being politically biased,” Sipher said. “There’s enough there to be worthy of further study. Professionals need to look at travel records, phone records, bank records, foreign police-service cameras, and check it all out. It will take professional investigators to run it to ground.” He believes that Mueller, whose F.B.I. he worked with, “is a hundred per cent doing that.”
Until then, Sipher said, Steele, as a former English spook, is the perfect political foil: “The Trump supporters can attack the messenger, because no one knows him or understands him, so you can paint him any way you want.” Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert who served as Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, and who has known Steele professionally for ten years, has watched the spectacle in Washington with regret. Talbott regards Steele as a “smart, careful, professional, and congenial” colleague who “knows the post-Soviet space, and is exactly what he says he is.” Yet, Talbott said, “they’re trying to turn him into political polonium—touch him and you die.” ♦
A scientist reveals what being near the ocean actually does to your brain
There is something magical about a large body of water.
A stretch of ocean across the coastline with never ending waves; a large flat lake glistening in the early morning mist; a quiet, dark pool at the bottom of a waterfall. A river passing by on its way to the ocean. These are nature’s incredible tranquilizers.
We know intuitively from experience that it’s healthy to be near the ocean. Now science is demonstrating that the ocean inspires creative thinking, reduces anxiety and promotes compassionate thinking.
He writes: “We have a ‘blue mind’ — and it’s perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool.”
“Blue Mind” is defined as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.”
We experience this state when we sit near water and gaze out at it. It induces a mindful state in which the brain is relaxed but focused.
During one of his numerous TEDx Talks on the topic (see below) he explains that water holds vast cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits. “Nature is medicine – a walk on the beach; a surfing session; a stroll through the woods heals us. It fixes what broken inside of us. Nature can reduce our stress, it can make us more creative and bring us together.”
Nichols also speaks of the sense of awe we feel when we step out onto the beach towards the water — a common feeling confirmed by his research. “This sense of awe moves us from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ perspective. Awe and wonder, and passion takes over in water. There is a feeling of connection to others and something beyond the immediate.”
It is no wonder that being near the ocean is a natural choice for many of life’s meaningful events, celebrations and ceremonies. And it’s also no wonder that so many people dream their whole life of retiring at the seaside.
Researchers at the University of Exeter found that people are healthier when they live closer to the English coast. The researchers looked at data from 48 million people in England from the 2001 census, comparing how close people lived to the sea with how happy they said they were.
Even just a view of the ocean can boost a person’s mental health.
A study carried out by researchers at Canterbury University, Otago University, and Michigan State University in the USA, looked into the relationship between mental health and exposure to green and blue space. Blue space refers to the visibility of water. The study found that just being able to see the ocean contributes to wellbeing, and lower stress levels.
As so often is the case, scientists come up with research results that are not surprising at all. Most people intuitively seek water knowing that it holds something special for them.
…with plenty of reasons why tRumpy is soiling his diaper a lot these days……
PRESIDENT TRUMP CLAIMED in a tweet over the weekend that the controversial Nunes memo “totally vindicates” him, clearing him of the cloud of the Russia investigation that has hung over his administration for a year now.Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, if anything, the Mueller investigation appears to have been picking up steam in the past three weeks—and homing in on a series of targets.
Last summer, I wrote an analysis exploring the “known unknowns” of the Russia investigation—unanswered but knowable questions regarding Mueller’s probe. Today, given a week that saw immense sturm und drang over Devin Nunes’ memo—a document that seems purposefully designed to obfuscate and muddy the waters around Mueller’s investigation—it seems worth asking the opposite question: What are the known knowns of the Mueller investigation, and where might it be heading?
The first thing we know is that we know it is large.
We speak about the “Mueller probe” as a single entity, but it’s important to understand that there are no fewer than five (known) separate investigations under the broad umbrella of the special counsel’s office—some threads of these investigations may overlap or intersect, some may be completely free-standing, and some potential targets may be part of multiple threads. But it’s important to understand the different “buckets” of Mueller’s probe.
As special counsel, Mueller has broad authority to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” a catch-all phrase that allows him to pursue other criminality he may stumble across in the course of the investigation. As the acting attorney general overseeing Mueller, Rod Rosenstein has the ability to grant Mueller the ability to expand his investigation as necessary and has been briefed regularly on how the work is unfolding. Yet even without being privy to those conversations, we have a good sense of the purview of his investigation.
Right now, we know it involves at least five separate investigative angles:
1. Preexisting Business Deals and Money Laundering.Business dealings and money laundering related to Trump campaign staff, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former campaign aide Rick Gates, are a major target of the inquiry. While this phase of the investigation has already led to the indictment of Gates and Manafort, it almost certainly will continue to bear further fruit. Gates appears to be heading toward a plea deal with Mueller, and there is expected to be a so-called “superseding” indictment that may add to or refine the existing charges. Such indictments are common in federal prosecutions, particularly in complicated financial cases where additional evidence may surface. Mueller’s team is believed to have amassed more than 400,000 documents in this part of the investigation alone. There have also been reports—largely advanced through intriguing reporting by Buzzfeed—about suspicious payments flagged by Citibank that passed through the accounts of the Russian embassy in the United States, including an abnormal attempted $150,000 cash withdrawal by the embassy just days after the election.
2. Russian Information Operations. When we speak in shorthand about the “hacking of the election,” we are actually talking about unique and distinct efforts, with varying degrees of coordination, by different entities associated with the Russian government. One of these is the “information operations” (bots and trolls) that swirled around the 2016 election, focused on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, possibly with the coordination or involvement of the Trump campaign’s data team, Cambridge Analytica.
Presumably these so-called active measures were conducted by or with the coordination of what’s known colloquially as the Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, in St. Petersburg. The extent to which these social media efforts impacted the outcome of the election remains an open question, but according to Bloomberg these social media sites are a “red hot” focus of Mueller’s team, and he obtained search warrants to examine the records of companies like Facebook. In recent weeks, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have begun working to notify more than a million users they suspect interacted with Russian trolls and propaganda.
3. Active Cyber Intrusions. Separate from the trolls and bots on social media were a series of active operations and cyber intrusions carried out by Russian intelligence officers at the GRU and the FSB against political targets like John Podesta and the DNC. We know that Russian intelligence also penetrated the Republican National Committee, but none of those emails or documents were made public. This thread of the investigation may also involve unofficial or official campaign contacts with WikiLeaks or other campaign advisers, like Roger Stone, as well as the warning—via the Australian government—that former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos appeared to have foreknowledge of the hacking of Democratic emails.
Western intelligence, specifically the Dutch intelligence service AIVD, has evidently been monitoring for years the “Advanced Persistent Threats”—government-sponsored hackers who make up the Russia teams known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, which were responsible for the attacks on Democratic targets. AIVD even evidently managed to penetrate a security camera in the workspace of Cozy Bear, near Red Square in Moscow, and take screenshots of those working for the team. According to The Wall Street Journal, there are at least six Russian intelligence officers who may already be identified as personally responsible for at least some of these intrusions. Bringing criminal charges against these individuals would be consistent with the practices establishedover the past five years by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which indicted—and in some cases even arrested—specific government and military hackers from nation-states like Iran, China, and Russia.
4. Russian Campaign Contacts. This corner of the investigation remains perhaps the most mysterious aspect of Mueller’s probe, as questions continue to swirl about the links and contacts among Russian nationals and officials and Trump campaign staff, including Carter Page, the subject of the FISA warrant that was the focus of the Nunes memo. Numerous campaign (and now administration) officials have lied about or failed to disclose contacts with both Russian nationals and Russian government officials, from meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to government banker Sergey Gorkovto the infamous Trump Tower meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. with Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia V. Veselnitskaya.
At least two members of the campaign—Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn—have already pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigatorsabout these contacts. But many other Trump aides face scrutiny, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. Some of these contacts may go back years; Page himself originally surfaced in January 2015 as “Male #1” in the indictment of three Russian SVR agents, working undercover in New York City, who had tried to recruit Page, an oil and gas adviser, as an intelligence asset, only to decide that he was too scatterbrained to be a useful source.
5. Obstruction of Justice. This is the big kahuna—the question of whether President Trump obstructed justice by pressuring FBI director James Comey to “look past” the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn and whether his firing in May was in any way tied to Comey’s refusal to stop the investigation. This thread, as far as we know from public reporting, remains the only part of the investigation that stretches directly into the Oval Office. It likely focuses not only on the President and the FBI director but also on a handful of related questions about the FBI investigation of Flynn and the White House’s statements about the Trump Tower meeting. The president himself has said publicly that he fired Comey over “this Russia thing.”
There’s fresh reason to believe that this is an active criminal investigation; lost amid the news of the Nunes memo on Friday was a court ruling in a lawsuit where I and a handful of other reporters from outlets like CNN and Daily Caller are suing the Justice Department to release the “Comey memos”: The ruling held that, based on the FBI’s private testimony to the court—including evidence from Michael Dreeben, one of the leaders of the special counsel’s office—releasing the memos would compromise the investigation. “Having heard this, the Court is now fully convinced that disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to interfere’ with that ongoing investigation,” the judge wrote in our case.
The second thing that we know is that large parts of the investigation remain out of sight. While we’ve seen four indictments or guilty pleas, they only involve threads one (money laundering) and four (Russian campaign contacts). We haven’t seen any public moves or charges by Mueller’s team regarding the information operations, the active cyber intrusions, or the obstruction of justice investigation.
We also know there’s significant relevant evidence that’s not yet public: Both Flynn and Papadopoulos traded cooperation and information as part of their respective plea deals, and none of the information that they provided has become public yet.
We also know that, despite the relative period of quiet since Flynn’s guilty plea in December, Mueller is moving fast. While parts of the case will likely unfold and continue for years, particularly if some defendants head for trial, Mueller has in recent weeks been interviewing senior and central figures, like Comey and Sessions. He’s also begun working to interview President Trump himself. Given that standard procedure would be to interview the central figure in an investigation last—when all the evidence is gathered—it seems likely that such interest means that Mueller is confident he knows what he needs to know for the obstruction case, at least.
All of these pieces of public evidence, the “known knowns,” point to one conclusion: Bob Mueller has a busy few weeks ahead of him—and the sturm und drang of the last week will likely only intensify as more of the investigation comes into public view.
In 1936, Charles Lindbergh arrived in Berlin to inspect the Luftwaffe. The visit had been arranged by Truman Smith, an ingenious intelligence officer who knew that Herman Göring, the Nazi air marshal, would find the American aviator’s celebrity irresistible; Lindbergh flew to Berlin with his wife, Anne, as his co-pilot, and then, along with Smith and another officer, spent a few days meeting German pilots, inspecting operations, and even flying several German planes. (The group also had dinner at Göring’s house, where they met his pet lion cub, Augie.)
Lindbergh was impressed by what he saw; Göring so enjoyed impressing him that Smith was able to arrange four more visits over the next few years. Drawing on them, Lindbergh sent a dire warning to General Henry (Hap) Arnold, the commander of the U.S. Air Force, in 1938. “Germany is undoubtedly the most powerful nation in the world in military aviation,” he wrote, “and her margin of leadership is increasing with each month that passes.”
Lindbergh was right to sound the alarm about a German military buildup.
But he was wrong about the strength of the the Luftwaffe, which was not as good as he—or the Nazis—believed it to be. It was true that the Germans had more planes than anyone else. But, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson explains, in “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” the Luftwaffe had a number of weaknesses, some very fundamental.
A lack of four-engine bombers, for example, made it hard for Germany to conduct truly devastating long-range strategic-bombing campaigns against enemies overseas. (The Nazis never succeeded in mass-producing an equivalent to America’s B-17 Flying Fortress, which was in the air before the war.) The German Navy had no aircraft carriers, which made air supremacy during naval battles impossible. (In total, the Axis fielded only sixteen carriers; the Allies, a hundred and fifty-five.)
Germany had limited access to oil, and thus to aviation fuel, and this constrained the number of missions the Luftwaffe could fly. Unlike the Allies, who excelled at building tidy, concrete runways from scratch as the front shifted, the Germans relied on whatever slapdash rural runways they could find, resulting in more wear and tear on their planes.
The Nazis were slower than the Allies to replace downed aircraft (they had less experience with high-volume manufacturing); they were also slower to replace fallen pilots (their aircraft were harder to operate). Over time, this lower replacement rate eroded, then reversed, their initial numbers advantage.
They also lagged behind in various other areas of aviation technology: “navigation aids, drop tanks, self-sealing tanks, chaff, air-to-surface radar.” Some of these factors emerged only during the war. But others were clear beforehand, and analysts could have noticed them.
In truth, Hanson writes, Lindbergh and many others were “hypnotized by Nazi braggadocio and pageantry.” The Nazis were apparently hypnotized, too. As a land-based power with a small navy, they needed the Luftwaffe to perform miracles (for instance, bombing Britain into submission). They did not see the Luftwaffe realistically; they deluded themselves into believing it could do the impossible.
“The Second World Wars” takes an unusual approach to its subject. The book is not a chronological retelling of the conflict but a high-altitude, statistics-saturated overview of the dynamics and constraints that shaped it. Hanson is unusual, too: he is a classicist and a specialist in military history at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he edits Strategika, “an online journal that analyzes ongoing issues of national security in light of conflicts of the past”; he’s also an almond farmer and a conservative polemicist whose articles on race, immigration, and the decline of agrarian values appear regularly on National Review’s Web site and other places.
I’ve long found his political commentary tiresome—but his deeply researched and detailed military analyses are fascinating. “The Second World Wars” confines itself to the latter subject, with spectacular results. Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat.
The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?
Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past.
Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do.
Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because—obviously—bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change.
Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.
In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged.
Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because—even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg—many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.)
In general, Allied management was more flexible—British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example—while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.”
For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.
In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “
The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.”
Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded.
Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains.
Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.
The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military”:
Sober Germans, Italians, and Japanese, in the Allied way of thinking, had to be freed from their own hypnotic adherence to evil, even if by suffering along with their soldiers. . . . Death was commonplace in World War II because fascist zealotry and the overwhelming force required to extinguish it would logically lead to Allied self-justifications of violence and collective punishment of civilians unthinkable in World War I.
Hanson explores the specific decision-making processes behind the most merciless Allied decisions—“the firebombing of the major German and Japanese cities, the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Allied-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of millions of German-speaking civilians from Eastern Europe, the absolute end of the idea of Prussia”—while, from a higher altitude, pointing out that the delusional ideological fervor that shaped the beginning of the war shaped its end, too.
Could the Axis and Allied countries have performed a searching, clear-eyed inventory of their respective strengths and weaknesses and decided beforehand that there was no point in having a world war?
Could the Allies have done this on their own and decided to check Hitler’s aggression earlier? One of the tragic elements of war, in Hanson’s view, is that it often uncovers a reality that might have been comprehended in advance and by other means.
Unfortunately, in the years before the Second World War, confusion reigned. The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world—they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable.
The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests.
“Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions.
It took a world war to educate them all.”
In a general way, Hanson’s ideas are reminiscent of the thought of the Austrianeconomist Friedrich Hayek, who saw the market as a kind of information-producing machine. Buying and selling, Hayek wrote, were a “procedure for discovering facts which, if the procedure did not exist, would remain unknown or at least would not be used.”
In National Review Online, Hanson writes that “war is a horrific laboratory experiment that confirms or rejects vague and inexact prewar guesses about relative strength or weakness.” Seeing war as a tragically destructive form of information discovery makes Hanson think differently about peace.
The problem with peace is that it obscures the realities of relative military strength; it’s especially important, therefore, for countries to flex their muscles during peacetime. In the present, Hanson favors an aggressive response to North Korea, in large part because it might clear up mutual ignorance about everyone’s capabilities and intentions.
Sadly, a detailed examination of exactly when and how deterrence averts conflict is beyond the scope of “The Second World Wars.”
Instead, with an extraordinary array of facts and statistics, the book offers an account of the fatalism of war.
Until it begins, war is a matter of choice. After that, it’s shaped by forces and realities which dwarf the individuals who participate.
To be misquoted is an occupational hazard of political leadership; for this reason I should like to clarify my position in regard to the Palestinian issue. I have been charged with being rigidly insensitive to the question of the Palestinian Arabs. In evidence of this I am supposed to have said, “There are no Palestinians.” My actual words were: “There is no Palestinian people. There are Palestinian refugees.” The distinction is not semantic. My statement was based on a lifetime of debates with Arab nationalists who vehemently excluded a separatist Palestinian Arab nationalism from their formulations.
When in 1921 I came to Palestine – until the end of World War I a barren, sparsely inhabited Turkish province – we, the Jewish pioneers, were the avowed Palestinians. So we were named in the world. Arab nationalists, on the other hand, stridently rejected the designation. Arab spokesmen continued to insist that the land we had cherished for centuries was, like Lebanon, merely a fragment of Syria. On the grounds that it dismembered an ideal unitary Arab state, they fought before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and at the United Nations.
When the Arab historian Philip K. Hitti informed the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry that “there is no such thing as Palestine in history,” it was left to David Ben-Gurion to stress the central role of Palestine in Jewish, if not Arab, history.
As late as May 1956, Ahmed Shukairy, subsequently head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, declared to the United Nations Security Council, “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.” In view of this, I believe I may be forgiven if I took Arab spokesmen at their word.
Until the 1960’s, attention was focused on the Arab refugees for whose plight the Arab states would allow no solution though many constructive and far-reaching proposals were made by Israel and the world community.
I repeatedly expressed my sympathy for the needless sufferings of refugees whose abnormal situation was created and exploited by the Arab states as a tactic in their campaign against Israel. However, refugee status could not indefinitely be maintained for the original 550,000 Arabs who in 1948 joined the exodus from the battle areas during the Arab attack on the new state of Israel.
When the refugee card began to wear thin, the Palestinian terrorist appeared on the scene flourishing not the arguable claims of displaced refugees but of a ghoulish nationalism that could only be sated on the corpse of Israel.
I repeat again. We dispossessed no Arabs. Our toil in the deserts and marshes of Palestine created more habitable living space for both Arab and Jew. Until 1948 the Arabs of Palestine multiplied and flourished as the direct result of Zionist settlement. Whatever subsequent ills befell the Arabs were the inevitable result of the Arab design to drive us into the sea. Had Israel not repelled her would-be destroyers there would have been no Jewish refugees alive in the Middle East to concern the world.
Now, two years after the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War, I am well aware of the potency of Arab petrobillions and I have no illusions about the moral fiber of the United Nations, most of whose members hailed gun-toting Yasir Arafat and shamefully passed the anti-Semitic resolution that described Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, as racist.
But though Israel is small and beset, I am not prepared to accede to the easy formula that in the Arab-Israeli conflict we witness two equal contending rights that demand further “flexibility” from Israel. Justice was not violated when in the huge territories liberated by the Allies from the Sultan, 1 percent was set aside for the Jewish homeland on its ancestral site, while in a parallel settlement 99 percent of the area was allotted for the establishment of independent Arab states.
We successively accepted the truncation of Transjordan, three-fourths of the area of historic Palestine, and finally the painful compromise of the 1947 partition resolution in the hope for peace. Yet though Israel arose in only one-fifth of the territory originally assigned for the Jewish homeland, the Arabs invaded the young state.
I ask again, as I have often asked, why did the Arabs not set up a Palestine state in their portion instead of cannibalizing the country by Jordan’s seizure of the West Bank and Egypt’s capture of the Gaza Strip? And, since the question of the 1967 borders looms heavily in the present discussions, why did the Arabs converge upon us in June 1967, when the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, the Gaza Strip and old Jerusalem were in their hands?
These are not idle questions. They go to the heart of the matter – the Arab denial of Israel’s right to exist. This right is not subject to debate. That is why Israel cannot by its presence sanction the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the Security Council, a participation in direct violation of Resolutions 242 and 338.
We have no common language with exultant murderers of the innocent and with a terrorist movement ideologically committed to the liquidation of Jewish national independence.
At no point has the P.L.O. renounced its program for the “elimination of the Zionist entity.” With startling effrontery P.L.O. spokesmen admit that their proposed state on the West Bank would be merely a convenient “point of departure,” a tactical “first stage” and finally, a combatant “arsenal” strategically situated for the easier penetration of Israel.
I am often asked a hypothetical question: How would we react if the P.L.O. agreed to abandon its weapon, terror, and its goal, the destruction of Israel? The answer is simple. Any movement that forswore both its means and its end would by that fact become a different organization with a different leadership. There is no room for such speculation in the case of the P.L.O.
This does not mean that at this stage I disregard whatever national aspirations Palestinian Arabs have developed in recent years. However, these can be satisfied within the boundaries of historic Palestine.
The majority of the refugees never left Palestine; they are settled on the West Bank and in Jordan, the majority of whose population is Palestinian. Whatever nomenclature is used, both the people involved and the territory on which they live are Palestinian.
A mini-Palestine state, planted as a time bomb against Israel on the West Bank, would only serve as a focal point for the further exploitation of regional tensions by the Soviet Union.
But in a genuine peace settlement a viable Palestine-Jordan could flourish side by side with Israel within the original area of Mandatory Palestine.
On July 21, 1974, the Israeli Government passed the following resolution: “The peace will be founded on the existence of two independent states only – Israel, with united Jerusalem as its capital, and a Jordanian-Palestinian Arab state, east of Israel, within borders to be determined in negotiations between Israel and Jordan.”
All allied problems can be equitably solved. For this to happen the adversaries of Israel will have to stop devising overt schemes for her immediate or piecemeal extinction.
There are 21 Arab states, rich in oil, land and sovereignty. There is only one small state in which Jewish national independence has been dearly achieved. Surely it is not extravagant to demand that in the current power play the right of a small democracy to freedom and life not be betrayed.
Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from February 1969 to June 1974.