New Study Finds the Best Brain Exercises to Boost Memory
Korin Miller – January 28, 2023
Research has found exercise can have a positive impact on your memory and brain health.
A new study linked vigorous exercise to improved memory, planning, and organization.
Data suggests just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact.
Experts have known for years about the physical benefits of exercise, but research has been ongoing into how working out can impact your mind. Now, a new study reveals the best exercise for brain health—and it can help sharpen everything from your memory to your ability to get organized.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, tracked data from nearly 4,500 people in the UK who had activity monitors strapped to their thighs for 24 hours a day over the course of a week. Researchers analyzed how their activity levels impacted their short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and ability to process things.
The study found that doing moderate and vigorous exercise and activities—even those that were done in under 10 minutes—were linked to much higher cognition scores than people who spent most of their time sitting, sleeping, or doing gentle activities. (Vigorous exercise generally includes things like running, swimming, biking up an incline, and dancing; moderate exercise includes brisk walking and anything that gets your heart beating faster.)
The researchers specifically found that people who did these workouts had better working memory (the small amount of information that can be held in your mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks) and that the biggest impact was on executive processes like planning and organization.
On the flip side: People who spent more time sleeping, sitting, or only moved a little in place of doing moderate to vigorous exercise had a 1% to 2% drop in cognition.
“Efforts should be made to preserve moderate and vigorous physical activity time, or reinforce it in place of other behaviors,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion.
But the study wasn’t perfect—it used previously collected cohort data, so the researchers didn’t know extensive details of the participants’ health or their long-term cognitive health. The findings “may simply be that those individuals who move more tend to have higher cognition on average,” says lead study author John Mitchell, a doctoral training student in the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health at University College London. But, he adds, the findings could also “imply that even minimal changes to our daily lives can have downstream consequences for our cognition.”
So, why might there be a link between exercise and a good memory? Here’s what you need to know.
Why might exercise sharpen your memory and thinking?
This isn’t the first study to find a link between exercise and enhanced cognition. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states online that physical activity can help improve your cognitive health, improving memory, emotional balance, and problem-solving.
Working out regularly can also lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One scientific analysis of 128,925 people published in the journal Preventive Medicine in 2020 found that cognitive decline is almost twice as likely in adults who are inactive vs. their more active counterparts.
But, the “why” behind it all is “not entirely clear,” says Ryan Glatt, C.P.T., senior brain health coach and director of the FitBrain Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. However, Glatt says, previous research suggests that “it is possible that different levels of activity may affect brain blood flow and cognition.” Meaning, exercising at a harder clip can stimulate blood flow to your brain and enhance your ability to think well in the process.
“It could relate to a variety of factors related to brain growth and skeletal muscle,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Often, studies show the more aerobically fit individuals are, the more dense brain tissue is, suggesting better connectivity of tissue and health.”
Exercise also activates skeletal muscles (the muscles that connect to your bones) that are thought to release hormones that communicate with your brain to influence the health and function of your neurons, i.e. cells that act as information messengers, Malin says. “This could, in turn, promote growth and regeneration of brain cells that assist with memory and cognition,” he says.
Currently, the CDC recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.
The best exercises for your memory
Overall, the CDC suggests doing the following to squeeze more exercise into your life to enhance your brain health:
Do squats or march in place while watching TV
Start a walking routine
Use the stairs
Walk your dog, if you have one (one study found that dog owners walk, on average, 22 minutes more every day than people who don’t own dogs)
However, the latest study suggests that more vigorous activities are really what’s best for your brain. The study didn’t pinpoint which exercises, in particular, are best—“when wearing an accelerometer, we do not know what sorts of activities individuals are doing,” Glatt points out. However, getting your heart rate up is key.
Malin’s advice: “Take breaks in sitting throughout the day by doing activity ‘snacks.’” That could mean doing a minute or two of jumping jacks, climbing stairs at a brisk pace, or doing air squats or push-ups to try to replace about six to 10 minutes of sedentary behavior a day. “Alternatively, trying to get walks in for about 10 minutes could go a long way,” he says.
In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes
J. David Goodman – January 28, 2023
PECOS, Texas — The West Texas earth shook one day in November, shuddering through the two-story City Hall in downtown Pecos, swaying the ceiling fans at an old railroad station, rattling the walls at a popular taqueria.
The tremor registered as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake, among the largest recorded in the state. Then, a month later, another of similar magnitude struck not far away, near Odessa and Midland, twin oil country cities with relatively tall office buildings, some of them visible for miles around.
The earthquakes, arriving in close succession, were the latest in what has been several years of surging seismic activity in Texas, a state known for many types of natural disasters but not typically, until now, for major earth movements. In 2022, the state recorded more than 220 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher, up from 26 recorded in 2017, when the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas began close monitoring.
So unheard-of were strong earthquakes in the flat, oil-rich expanse about a six-hour drive west of Austin that some residents at first mistook the November quake for a powerful gust of wind. Lloyd Chappell, a retired propane deliveryperson who was in his recliner at the time, thought one of his grown sons was making a joke of shaking his chair. But no one was there. His water sloshed around in his glass for 30 long seconds.
“We’ve heard noises before — out there in the oil field, they drop big tanks, or things like that,” said Chappell, 66. “But I’d never felt that before.”
The vast majority of the temblors have been concentrated in the highly productive oil fields of the Permian Basin, particularly those in Reeves County, north and west of the city of Pecos. The county’s official population of 14,000 does not account for thousands of mostly male transient workers staying in austere “man camps” and RV parks, brought there by the promise of good pay in exchange for long hours, stark terrain and dangerous work.
Now earthquakes have become part of the same calculation.
“In West Texas, you love the smell of the oil and gas patch because it’s the smell of money,” said Rod Ponton, a former Pecos city attorney who once unintentionally attained international fame by appearing as a worried cat during a court hearing on Zoom. “If you have to have the ground shaking every two or three months to make sure you have a good paycheck coming in every month, you’re not going to think twice about it.”
The economy of Pecos and a handful of surrounding towns — some little more than sand-blown highway intersections and crowded gas station convenience stores — revolves around the oil fields.
John Briers moved several months ago to a man camp in Orla, in Reeves County, to take a job at one of two convenience stores because the pay was twice as much as he was getting in Houston. “It’s nice to have so much space,” he said of the area. “But it’s two hours from the nearest cardiologist.”
When the November earthquake struck, Briers, 55, was working at the store, whose central seating area acts as an informal workers cafeteria. The force was enough to shake the building, he said, and to push a large mobile crane, parked nearby, into a trailer. Briers likened it to the artillery he felt while serving in the military in Afghanistan.
On a recent weekday, a lunchtime crowd of mostly men in dusty work boots and shirts emblazoned with company logos streamed into the store from white pickup trucks, mostly uninterested in discussing earthquakes. Had they felt any of the quakes that seismic monitors showed striking across the oil fields?
“Nobody really cares while the money is there,” said Nick Granado, 31, stopping briefly before grabbing lunch. He said he had been at home in Pecos with his wife and 2-year-old child at the time of the November earthquake. “It was different,” he said of the shaking. “But I wasn’t scared.”
In Reeves County, oil and gas production has increasingly meant hydraulic fracturing, a process of extraction that produces, as a byproduct, a huge amount of wastewater. Some of that wastewater is reused in fracking operations, but most of it is injected back under the ground. It is that process of forcing tens of billions of gallons of water into the earth that, regulators and geoscientists agree, is to blame for many of the earthquakes.
The connection between wastewater disposal and earthquakes has been long understood. Other states with substantial fracking operations have also seen the ground shake as a result, including Oklahoma, where a similarly rapid increase in earthquakes more than a decade ago included a 5.6 magnitude quake in 2016 that forced the shutdown of several wastewater wells.
Getting rid of the “produced” water is an important business in West Texas, and locations labeled “SWD” — for saltwater disposal — dot the landscape of drilling rigs and truck-worn roads. Each of the past few years, about 168 billion gallons of wastewater have been disposed of in this way, according to data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil industry.
Texas only recently began its statewide program of monitoring for earthquakes, after a series of small quakes in North Texas rattled residents of Dallas and Fort Worth. The monitoring started in 2017 — just as petroleum development accelerated in the Permian Basin, particularly in and around Reeves County — and began to detect the increasing seismic activity.
“It was really very fortuitous,” said Peter Hennings, the principal investigator for the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research at the University of Texas.
Hennings said that while natural earthquakes can occur in West Texas, they can also be induced through human activity: the injection of a large amount of water in a short period of time adds fluid pressure under the earth, which essentially decreases the “clamping” between rocks along natural faults and allows them to slip, creating an earthquake.
And seismologists have established a relationship between smaller earthquakes and larger ones, Hennings said: The more small earthquakes you have, the greater the likelihood of a bigger one.
The problem can be addressed by cutting back on the amount of saltwater being injected back into the ground. Oklahoma, for example, did so in recent years and has seen a reduction in the number of earthquakes.
In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission noted “an unprecedented frequency of significant earthquakes” in and around Reeves County and asked companies to implement their own wastewater plans, hoping to decrease the number of 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes by the end of this year.
To address earthquakes outside Odessa and Midland, state regulators suspended permits for deep disposal wells. And just north of the border with Texas, New Mexico regulators have been taking their own steps to control saltwater disposal, including $2 million in fines to Exxon over compliance failures.
The fracking issue has been a big one for Texas environmental groups, which have raised concerns about pollution, climate change, social inequity — and now earthquakes. “It is past time for the Railroad Commission of Texas to update the rules on injection wells,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, adding that there should be limits on injecting “polluted fracking wastewater” in places impacted by seismic activity.
For local officials in West Texas, the earthquakes have presented new and unforeseen concerns about the structural integrity of buildings and buried pipes, as well as basic questions such as, what are you supposed to do in an earthquake?
“It brought to light that we need to do some safety training,” said the Pecos city manager, Charles Lino. He had been in a staff meeting on the second floor of City Hall — a building Lino described as “very old” — when the floor began to move for what felt like a minute during the November earthquake, whose epicenter was northwest of town.
“Most of the staff were a little shaken and were, like, what do we do?” he said. “I don’t know how to react either, because I’m from this area.” Lino said the city was just beginning to develop its earthquake training.
Months earlier, in March, the head of emergency management for the county, Jerry Bullard, began keeping track of earthquakes. “There were two yesterday and one today,” he said on a recent weekday, looking at his list. He presented his catalog to the county’s leaders at a meeting in December. “They were kind of surprised,” he said.
His concern has been focused on the area’s older infrastructure, including the three-story courthouse in Pecos. But the county has been traditionally hands-off when it comes to building codes in unincorporated areas. “This county does not even have a fire code out in the county,” Bullard said.
At the same time, storing additional wastewater — with its volatile mix of chemicals — above ground in order to avoid injecting too much into the earth has created a new hazard, Bullard said. There were two explosions this month at saltwater disposal facilities in the county, setting off fires and “a black stream of smoke” visible for miles around, he said.
So far, the earthquakes have not caused much notable damage. Some residents said they noticed new cracks in their walls or patios, or a roof that appeared to slant a little more than before. Earthquake insurance is not something people generally purchase in West Texas, although there has been talk of it now, particularly in the larger cities of Odessa and Midland.
“We have tall buildings — not a lot of tall buildings — but people are concerned about foundations,” said Javier Joven, the mayor of Odessa, who met with state regulators and Midland leaders about the issue in 2021. Most of the area’s taller buildings were constructed decades ago, without the requirements now common in earthquake-prone areas, officials said. (Several in Midland have long sat empty, with some recently demolished or slated to be.)
So far, he said, officials have not taken steps to change building codes to address earthquakes, which could add significant new costs to construction. In the meantime, each tremor has become a topic of conversation. The mayor said he had felt at least three.
“The big popular discussion out here is: Did you feel it? Did you feel it?” he said. “And everyone goes on Facebook: I felt it. I felt it.”
Transition into El Nino could lead to record heat around globe
Andrew Wulfeck – January 27, 2023
When the world’s largest and deepest ocean basin warms, satellites will be busy over the Pacific Ocean detecting analogous water temperatures but also, if history repeats itself, landmasses across the globe will have to deal with heat that could be record-breaking.
Since reliable technology started keeping track of world temperatures in the 1950s, the warmest year of any decade were periods dominated by an El Niño event, and the coldest were from La Niñas.
“During El Niño, unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the central/eastern tropical Pacific lead to increased evaporation and cooling of the ocean. At the same time, the increased cloudiness blocks more sunlight from entering the ocean. When water vapor condenses and forms clouds, heat is released into the atmosphere. So, during El Niño, there is less heating of the ocean and more heating of the atmosphere than normal,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts wrote in a 2022 ENSO blog.
The world’s last El Niño ended nearly four years ago, but it’s the event of 2015-16 that holds records for not only being one of the strongest El Niños on record but also causing the world’s warmest temperatures.
Also, during this phase, NOAA reported the world experienced some of its warmest temperatures ever, despite the pattern being known for its cooling effect.
The base mark of near-record heat has some climatologists concerned that once an El Niño is able to shake off the lagging effects of La Niña, temperatures could be off to the races and reach levels never seen before.
“The ongoing La Niña may prevent global average temperature from breaking the record in 2023, but greenhouse gas-induced global warming grows steadily in magnitude. In fact, it most likely helped 2020, a year of La Niña, to tie the all-time high of 2016, a year following a major El Niño,” Shang-Ping Xie, a climate dynamicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in an ENSO discussion.
Computer model guidance shows a trend towards the El Niño state, especially in the latter half of 2023 and possibly continuing into 2024.
If history repeats itself, a protracted El Niño episode could result in warm, if not record-breaking, temperatures.
Significant questions remain on exactly when the world reaches the neutral state and begins the trek through El Niño. Some climate models prematurely killed off the current La Niña during its three-year stretch, so the exact timeframe of transition is not set in stone.
The rarity of a stubborn La Niña state and global temperatures that haven’t declined as readily as during past events, has some experts pointing to climate change as playing an increasingly pivotal role in patterns.
NOAA experts admit what is complicating outlooks are climate change’s influences on Pacific wind and water temperature patterns or what is known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
“If temperatures warm faster in the western Pacific than in the eastern Pacific, the background tropical circulation could become more La Niña-like. But if the trend pattern changes as global temperatures continue to rise, meaning the east starts warming faster than the west in the future, the whole circulation across the tropical Pacific could become more El Niño-like,” Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, posted in a recent blog.
Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.
Nitasha Tiku – January 27, 2023
Three months before ChatGPT debuted in November, Facebook’s parent company Meta released a similar chatbot. But unlike the phenomenon that ChatGPT instantly became, with more than a million users in its first five days, Meta’s Blenderbot was boring, said Meta’s chief artificial intelligence scientist, Yann LeCun.
“The reason it was boring was because it was made safe,” LeCun said last week at a forum hosted by AI consulting company Collective[i]. He blamed the tepid public response on Meta being “overly careful about content moderation,” like directing the chatbot to change the subject if a user asked about religion. ChatGPT, on the other hand, will converse about the concept of falsehoods in the Quran, write a prayer for a rabbi to deliver to Congress and compare God to a flyswatter.
ChatGPT is quickly going mainstream now that Microsoft – which recently invested billions of dollars in the company behind the chatbot, OpenAI – is working to incorporate it into its popular office software and selling access to the tool to other businesses. The surge of attention around ChatGPT is prompting pressure inside tech giants including Meta and Google to move faster, potentially sweeping safety concerns aside, according to interviews with six current and former Google and Meta employees, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.
At Meta, employees have recently shared internal memos urging the company to speed up its AI approval process to take advantage of the latest technology, according to one of them. Google, which helped pioneer some of the technology underpinning ChatGPT, recently issued a “code red” around launching AI products and proposed a “green lane” to shorten the process of assessing and mitigating potential harms, according to a report in the New York Times.
ChatGPT, along with text-to-image tools such as DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, is part of a new wave of software called generative AI. They create works of their own by drawing on patterns they’ve identified in vast troves of existing, human-created content. This technology was pioneered at big tech companies like Google that in recent years have grown more secretive, announcing new models or offering demos but keeping the full product under lock and key. Meanwhile, research labs like OpenAI rapidly launched their latest versions, raising questions about how corporate offerings, like Google’s language model LaMDA, stack up.
Tech giants have been skittish since public debacles like Microsoft’s Tay, which it took down in less than a day in 2016 after trolls prompted the bot to call for a race war, suggest Hitler was right and tweet “Jews did 9/11.” Meta defended Blenderbot and left it up after it made racist comments in August, but pulled down another AI tool, called Galactica, in November after just three days amid criticism over its inaccurate and sometimes biased summaries of scientific research.
“People feel like OpenAI is newer, fresher, more exciting and has fewer sins to pay for than these incumbent companies, and they can get away with this for now,” said a Google employee who works in AI, referring to the public’s willingness to accept ChatGPT with less scrutiny. Some top talent has jumped ship to nimbler start-ups, like OpenAI and Stable Diffusion.
Some AI ethicists fear that Big Tech’s rush to market could expose billions of people to potential harms – such as sharing inaccurate information, generating fake photos or giving students the ability to cheat on school tests – before trust and safety experts have been able to study the risks. Others in the field share OpenAI’s philosophy that releasing the tools to the public, often nominally in a “beta” phase after mitigating some predictable risks, is the only way to assess real world harms.
“The pace of progress in AI is incredibly fast, and we are always keeping an eye on making sure we have efficient review processes, but the priority is to make the right decisions, and release AI models and products that best serve our community,” said Joelle Pineau, managing director of Fundamental AI Research at Meta.
“We believe that AI is foundational and transformative technology that is incredibly useful for individuals, businesses and communities,” said Lily Lin, a Google spokesperson. “We need to consider the broader societal impacts these innovations can have. We continue to test our AI technology internally to make sure it’s helpful and safe.”
Microsoft’s chief of communications, Frank Shaw, said his company works with OpenAI to build in extra safety mitigations when it uses AI tools like DALLE-2 in its products. “Microsoft has been working for years to both advance the field of AI and publicly guide how these technologies are created and used on our platforms in responsible and ethical ways,” Shaw said.
OpenAI declined to comment.
The technology underlying ChatGPT isn’t necessarily better than what Google and Meta have developed, said Mark Riedl, professor of computing at Georgia Tech and an expert on machine learning. But OpenAI’s practice of releasing its language models for public use has given it a real advantage.
“For the last two years they’ve been using a crowd of humans to provide feedback to GPT,” said Riedl, such as giving a “thumbs down” for an inappropriate or unsatisfactory answer, a process called “reinforcement learning from human feedback.”
Silicon Valley’s sudden willingness to consider taking more reputational risk arrives as tech stocks are tumbling. When Google laid off 12,000 employees last week, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the company had undertaken a rigorous review to focus on its highest priorities, twice referencing its early investments in AI.
A decade ago, Google was the undisputed leader in the field. It acquired the cutting edge AI lab DeepMind in 2014 and open-sourced its machine learning software TensorFlow in 2015. By 2016, Pichai pledged to transform Google into an “AI first” company.
The next year, Google released transformers – a pivotal piece of software architecture that made the current wave of generative AI possible.
The company kept rolling out state-of-the-art technology that propelled the entire field forward, deploying some AI breakthroughs in understanding language to improve Google search. Inside big tech companies, the system of checks and balances for vetting the ethical implications of cutting-edge AI isn’t as established as privacy or data security. Typically teams of AI researchers and engineers publish papers on their findings, incorporate their technology into the company’s existing infrastructure or develop new products, a process that can sometimes clash with other teams working on responsible AI over pressure to see innovation reach the public sooner.
Google released its AI principles in 2018, after facing employee protest over Project Maven, a contract to provide computer vision for Pentagon drones, and consumer backlash over a demo for Duplex, an AI system that would call restaurants and make a reservation without disclosing it was a bot. In August last year, Google began giving consumers access to a limited version of LaMDA through its app AI Test Kitchen. It has not yet released it fully to the general public, in spite of Google’s plans to do so at the end of 2022, according to former Google software engineer Blake Lemoine, who told The Washington Post that he had come to believe LaMDA was sentient.
But the top AI talent behind these developments grew restless.
In the past year or so, top AI researchers from Google have left to launch start-ups around large language models, including Character.AI, Cohere, Adept, Inflection.AI and Inworld AI, in addition to search start-ups using similar models to develop a chat interface, such as Neeva, run by former Google executive Sridhar Ramaswamy.
Character.AI founder Noam Shazeer, who helped invent the transformer and other core machine learning architecture, said the flywheel effect of user data has been invaluable. The first time he applied user feedback to Character.AI, which allows anyone to generate chatbots based on short descriptions of real people or imaginary figures, engagement rose by more than 30 percent.
Bigger companies like Google and Microsoft are generally focused on using AI to improve their massive existing business models, said Nick Frosst, who worked at Google Brain for three years before co-founding Cohere, a Toronto-based start-up building large language models that can be customized to help businesses. One of his co-founders, Aidan Gomez, also helped invent transformers when he worked at Google.
“The space moves so quickly, it’s not surprising to me that the people leading are smaller companies,” said Frosst.
AI has been through several hype cycles over the past decade, but the furor over DALL-E and ChatGPT has reached new heights.
Soon after OpenAI released ChatGPT, tech influencers on Twitter began to predict that generative AI would spell the demise of Google search. ChatGPT delivered simple answers in an accessible way and didn’t ask users to rifle through blue links. Besides, after a quarter of a century, Google’s search interface had grown bloated with ads and marketers trying to game the system.
“Thanks to their monopoly position, the folks over at Mountain View have [let] their once-incredible search experience degenerate into a spam-ridden, SEO-fueled hellscape,” technologist Can Duruk wrote in his newsletter Margins, referring to Google’s hometown.
On the anonymous app Blind, tech workers posted dozens of questions about whether the Silicon Valley giant could compete.
“If Google doesn’t get their act together and start shipping, they will go down in history as the company who nurtured and trained an entire generation of machine learning researchers and engineers who went on to deploy the technology at other companies,” tweeted David Ha, a renowned research scientist who recently left Google Brain for the open source text-to-image start-up Stable Diffusion.
AI engineers still inside Google shared his frustration, employees say. For years, employees had sent memos about incorporating chat functions into search, viewing it as an obvious evolution, according to employees. But they also understood that Google had justifiable reasons not to be hasty about switching up its search product, beyond the fact that responding to a query with one answer eliminates valuable real estate for online ads. A chatbot that pointed to one answer directly from Google could increase its liability if the response was found to be harmful or plagiarized.
Chatbots like OpenAI routinely make factual errors and often switch their answers depending on how a question is asked. Moving from providing a range of answers to queries that link directly to their source material, to using a chatbot to give a single, authoritative answer, would be a big shift that makes many inside Google nervous, said one former Google AI researcher. The company doesn’t want to take on the role or responsibility of providing single answers like that, the person said. Previous updates to search, such as adding Instant Answers, were done slowly and with great caution.
Inside Google, however, some of the frustration with the AI safety process came from the sense that cutting-edge technology was never released as a product because of fears of bad publicity – if, say, an AI model showed bias.
Meta employees have also had to deal with the company’s concerns about bad PR, according to a person familiar with the company’s internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Before launching new products or publishing research, Meta employees have to answer questions about the potential risks of publicizing their work, including how it could be misinterpreted, the person said. Some projects are reviewed by public relations staff, as well as internal compliance experts who ensure the company’s products comply with its 2011 Federal Trade Commission agreement on how it handles user data.
To Timnit Gebru, executive director of the nonprofit Distributed AI Research Institute, the prospect of Google sidelining its responsible AI team doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in power or safety concerns, because those warning of the potential harms were never empowered to begin with. “If we were lucky, we’d get invited to a meeting,” said Gebru, who helped lead Google’s Ethical AI team until she was fired for a paper criticizing large language models.
From Gebru’s perspective, Google was slow to release its AI tools because the company lacked a strong enough business incentive to risk a hit to its reputation.
After the release of ChatGPT, however, perhaps Google sees a change to its ability to make money from these models as a consumer product, not just to power search or online ads, Gebru said. “Now they might think it’s a threat to their core business, so maybe they should take a risk.”
Rumman Chowdhury, who led Twitter’s machine-learning ethics team until Elon Musk disbanded it in November, said she expects companies like Google to increasingly sideline internal critics and ethicists as they scramble to catch up with OpenAI.
“We thought it was going to be China pushing the U.S., but looks like it’s start-ups,” she said.
Travelers opting for rail again as Amtrak expands options
Peter Greenberg – January 27, 2023
In the post-pandemic world, while many travelers have been obsessed with airlines, ground stops, cancellations and delays, Amtrak’s ridership is bouncing back — more than doubling in the Northeast corridor, and 88% across the country. At the same time, Amtrak was strengthening its long-haul services, with trains like the Empire Builder, the Zephyr, the Sunset Limited and the Southern Crescent, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight, to name a few.
And while we don’t yet have true high-speed rail yet in this country — and may never have it — there are some improvements in the service. And why don’t we have high-speed rail? Because Amtrak doesn’t own its tracks. The freight lines do, and they have no interest in high-speed rail.
That may also explain why Amtrak doesn’t exactly own a great on-time service record — because their trains often have to pull over to a siding to let a 100-car-long freight train lumber through.
At the same time, Congress has never properly funded Amtrak to allow it to grow and upgrade and to be able to reinvest profits in its product.
In some cases, Amtrak has brought back the dining cars. But even more important, Amtrak has announced a major upgrade to its fleet, with the new “Amtrak Airo” trains — with more spacious interiors and modernized amenities will be rolling out across the U.S. in about three years. The cars will feature more table seating, better legroom and more room for all your electronic devices.
Until then, there’s some good news. Amtrak doesn’t promote it very well, and most passengers don’t know about it, but Amtrak actually sells a USA rail pass. For just $499, you get to travel Amtrak for 30 days and up to 10 rides. It’s a great deal — and children under 12 ride for $250.
And with new high-speed routes launching in several European countries in the past few months — Spain, in particular, has new options for travelers as train operators compete and prices fall — train travel in Europe is an increasingly attractive option.
The Eurail Pass has never been a better deal. It now enables rail travel in 33 European countries, an expansion from the initial 13 countries, with prices starting at $218. One Eurail pass for $473 gives you two months of train travel.
One caveat: you must buy your Eurail pass in conjunction with your roundtrip airline ticket from the U.S. to Europe. You can’t purchase it once you get there. And you can even get a Eurail pass that’s valid for three months.
3 Chicago-area oil refineries that dump toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan and other waterways are among worst polluters in US, study shows
Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune – January 27, 2023
Oil refineries are dumping massive amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the Great Lakes and the nation’s rivers with little, if any, oversight from government regulators, according to a new analysis that found some of the worst polluters are in the Chicago area.
During 2021 alone, 81 refineries in the United States that treat waste on-site released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids harmful to fish and other aquatic life, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project determined in its review of federal data.
The refineries also collectively discharged 60,000 pounds of selenium, an element that can mutate fish, and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, which contributes to water-fouling algae blooms and dead zones in important fisheries such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the refineries are in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities that face disproportionate health risks from industrial pollution.
Some refinery pollution is legal because federal and state officials have failed to limit it, despite requirements in the 1972 Clean Water Act mandating a review of standards for various chemicals and metals at least every five years based on the latest science and improvements in water treatment technology.
“You have refineries that may look like they are complying with the law, but the standards are decades old and really don’t require very much,” said Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director and former chief of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Three Chicago-area refineries — BP Whiting in Indiana, ExxonMobil Joliet and Citgo in Lemont — highlight the consequences of lax regulations and weak enforcement, Schaeffer said Thursday during an online news conference.
Even when limits are in place, oil companies often pay minimal fines for violating the law. Some aren’t penalized at all.
The Joliet refinery, on the Des Plaines River southwest of the city, exceeded its permitted levels of pollution 40 times between 2019 and 2021, federal records show. Neither federal nor state officials have sued ExxonMobil or fined the company for its repeated infractions.
Only three other refineries discharged more selenium than BP Whiting, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan about 8 miles from one of Chicago’s water intake cribs. Small doses of the element are healthy, but higher levels can cause hair and nail loss, gastrointestinal distress, dizziness and tremors.
Citgo Lemont and ExxonMobil Joliet ranked fifth and ninth for selenium pollution, respectively, the analysis showed.
A public beach near the Whiting refinery is a popular spot for surfers drawn by big waves when winter winds whip down Lake Michigan from Canada.
Mitch McNeil, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he and other surfers have suffered eye, ear and urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal illnesses after swimming in dark brown water that smells alternately like metal, sewage, petroleum and a used ashtray.
“People always ask us why we keep surfing in dirty water,” McNeil said. “Our response is we surf in it but you drink it, so you should be just as concerned as we are.”
BP routinely faces scrutiny about air pollution from the Whiting refinery. Water pollution hasn’t drawn as much attention since the Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Indiana regulators were planning to relax limits on the refinery’s discharges of ammonia, brain-damaging mercury and suspended solids — tiny particles of sewage sludge.
The company later backed down and vowed to abide by the terms of its existing permit.
Responding to the new analysis of federal data, BP said it will “continue to operate consistent with its permit as part of our commitment to safe, compliant and reliable operations, not just at Whiting refinery but at every facility BP operates around the world.”
Speaking on behalf of the oil industry in general, the American Petroleum Institute did not directly answer questions about the lack of standards for selenium and other pollutants.
“Our industry takes seriously its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and adheres to strict local, state and federal requirements to ensure water is properly treated and tested prior to leaving a facility,” Will Hupman, the trade group’s vice president of downstream policy said in a statement.
Schaeffer noted that federal pollution standards for refineries and several other industry sectors haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was president during the 1980s.
Federal judges are taking notice. Calling existing standards out of date is a “charitable understatement,” a federal appellate court concluded after the EPA in 2019 updated its 1982 limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Environmental groups asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan in 2021 why the agency had fallen so far behind in meeting its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act. The EPA acknowledged the letter but didn’t respond.
An EPA spokesman said the agency is aware of the new pollution analysis “and will review and respond accordingly.”
Most of the top polluting refineries are in California or along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Also in the top 10 is a Phillips 66 refinery on the Mississippi River in Wood River, a small, heavily industrialized Illinois city upstream from St. Louis.
The Wood River refinery released more fish-harming nickel than any of the other facilities reviewed. It also ranked among the top 10 for discharges of selenium, nitrogen and total dissolved solids.
For people who live near refineries, the new report reflects what they see, smell and breathe — and ingest when eating locally caught fish or while swimming.
Gina Ramirez grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side and often visits Whihala Beach in Whiting, 2 miles up the lakeshore from the BP refinery. Nowadays her son joins her.
“To think that we are recreating among some of the most polluted waters is terrifying,” said Ramirez, an outreach manager at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and senior adviser to the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “U.S. EPA needs to step up.”
John Beard, a former refinery worker who leads the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said communities like his rely on the EPA to enforce air and water laws because they can’t afford to fight for a cleaner environment.
“(Oil companies) don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills, or River Oaks (in Houston) or Madison Avenue,” Beard said. “They don’t build in communities of affluence that have the ways and means to go about seeking justice and correction.”
“Many people say we need the jobs and we need all these products (oil companies) produce,” Beard added. “That’s true. But we don’t need the pollution that comes with it, and they can do better.”
The Colorado River – once 40% of the state’s water supply – is dwindling. About 80% of Arizona and about 20% of its population has no rules on groundwater pumping, which is draining many of our rural aquifers.
Add in these troubles sprouting in metro Phoenix, an area covered by the state’s most stringent groundwater management rules, and we’ve got urgent issues that require urgent responses.
But the headlines make it sound as if we’re completely botching our jobs as water stewards.
Most metro Phoenix cities have spent decades storing water underground for a (non-)rainy day, for example. They have long recycled most of their wastewater, though we don’t yet drink it.
And while much of the coverage has focused on the fact that there isn’t enough water in parts of the far West Valley to support thousands of acres of future development, it glosses over why that growth may never occur:
Because we had the foresight decades ago to create an assured water supply program, which requires builders to prove they have secured enough water for the long haul before they can plat lots.
Homes were built solely on the promise of hauled water. The potential risk of such a deal was glossed over with homeowners. And despite all the negative coverage lately, people are still building in the area.
It doesn’t matter that these so-called wildcat lot splits encompass a fraction of the homes we build every year. Or that not all homes in Rio Verde Foothills are affected, just those that relied on Scottsdale for hauled water.
The headlines on repeat are that Arizona doesn’t have enough water to grow or even sustain existing residents.
The story is more nuanced than the headlines
The full story is more nuanced.
Water is still being hauled to Rio Verde Foothills, albeit from other spotty sources that are vastly more expensive. Residents haven’t lost water; they’ve lost access to cheap water.
That is unlikely to change if EPCOR, a private water provider, is given the green light in April to more permanently serve these residents. Solving the affordability problem won’t be easy.
Meanwhile, on the far west side of the Valley, developers either must find renewable water sources to build on large swaths of open desert or find affordable ways to grow closer in areas with the capacity to serve new residents.
Fixing the cracks through which some development has fallen would be a good start.
In Rio Verde Foothills, the solution cannot simply be to force Scottsdale to serve non-residents. We need to tackle the root problem, which means we need to rein in wildcat lot splits.
Lawmakers could change how we define “subdivisions” – that might be the cleanest fix. Or they could give counties more power to say no to homes that plan to haul water, particularly in areas like Rio Verde Foothills where groundwater is spotty.
In the West Valley, lawmakers must address a proliferation of “build-to-rent” homes, which are touted as a much-needed affordable housing alternative but also aren’t required to prove a long-term water supply before building.
If civic and elected leaders want to counter the narrative that Arizona is irresponsible, they need to get better at telling the full story – which, yes, means more clearly touting the things we’ve done well.
But because perception is reality in water, and virtually everyone else has similar success stories, they also need a clear plan – shared loudly and on repeat – for how they intend to up our game.
Rural resentment has become a central fact of American politics — in particular, a pillar of support for the rise of right-wing extremism. As the Republican Party has moved ever further into MAGAland, it has lost votes among educated suburban voters; but this has been offset by a drastic rightward shift in rural areas, which in some places has gone so far that the Democrats who remain face intimidation and are afraid to reveal their party affiliation.
But is this shift permanent? Can anything be done to assuage rural rage?
The answer will depend on two things: whether it’s possible to improve rural lives and restore rural communities, and whether the voters in these communities will give politicians credit for any improvements that do take place.
This week my colleague Thomas B. Edsall surveyed research on the rural Republican shift. I was struck by his summary of work by Katherine J. Cramer, who attributes rural resentment to perceptions that rural areas are ignored by policymakers, don’t get their fair share of resources and are disrespected by “city folks.”
As it happens, all three perceptions are largely wrong. I’m sure that my saying this will generate a tidal wave of hate mail, and lecturing rural Americans about policy reality isn’t going to move their votes. Nonetheless, it’s important to get our facts straight.
The truth is that ever since the New Deal rural America has received special treatment from policymakers. It’s not just farm subsidies, which ballooned under Donald Trump to the point where they accounted for around 40 percent of total farm income. Rural America also benefits from special programs that support housing, utilities and business in general.
In terms of resources, major federal programs disproportionately benefit rural areas, in part because such areas have a disproportionate number of seniors receiving Social Security and Medicare. But even means-tested programs — programs that Republicans often disparage as “welfare” — tilt rural. Notably, at this point rural Americans are more likely than urban Americans to be on Medicaid and receive food stamps.
And because rural America is poorer than urban America, it pays much less per person in federal taxes, so in practice major metropolitan areas hugely subsidize the countryside. These subsidies don’t just support incomes, they support economies: Government and the so-called health care and social assistance sector each employ more people in rural America than agriculture, and what do you think pays for those jobs?
What about rural perceptions of being disrespected? Well, many people have negative views about people with different lifestyles; that’s human nature. There is, however, an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to seek rural votes by insulting big cities and their residents, but it would be unforgivable for urban politicians to return the favor. “I have to go to New York City soon,” tweeted J.D. Vance during his senatorial campaign. “I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there.” Can you imagine, say, Chuck Schumer saying something similar about rural Ohio, even as a joke?
So the ostensible justifications for rural resentment don’t withstand scrutiny — but that doesn’t mean things are fine. A changing economy has increasingly favored metropolitan areas with large college-educated work forces over small towns. The rural working-age population has been declining, leaving seniors behind. Rural men in their prime working years are much more likely than their metropolitan counterparts to not be working. Rural woes are real.
Ironically, however, the policy agenda of the party most rural voters support would make things even worse, slashing the safety-net programs these voters depend on. And Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to point this out.
But can they also have a positive agenda for rural renewal? As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently pointed out, the infrastructure spending bills enacted under President Biden, while primarily intended to address climate change, will also create large numbers of blue-collar jobs in rural areas and small cities. They are, in practice, a form of the “place-based industrial policy” some economists have urged to fight America’s growing geographic disparities.
Will they work? The economic forces that have been hollowing out rural America are deep and not easily countered. But it’s certainly worth trying.
But even if these policies improve rural fortunes, will Democrats get any credit? It’s easy to be cynical. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new governor of Arkansas, has pledged to get the “bureaucratic tyrants” of Washington “out of your wallets”; in 2019 the federal government spent almost twice as much in Arkansas as it collected in taxes, de facto providing the average Arkansas resident with $5,500 in aid. So even if Democratic policies greatly improve rural lives, will rural voters notice?
Still, anything that helps reverse rural America’s decline would be a good thing in itself. And maybe, just maybe, reducing the heartland’s economic desperation will also help reverse its political radicalization.
How Barr’s Quest to Find Flaws in the Russia Inquiry Unraveled
The review by John Durham at one point veered into a criminal investigation related to Donald Trump himself, even as it failed to find wrongdoing in the origins of the Russia inquiry.
Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner – January 26, 2023
WASHINGTON — It became a regular litany of grievances from President Donald J. Trump and his supporters: The investigation into his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia was a witch hunt, they maintained, that had been opened without any solid basis, went on too long and found no proof of collusion.
Egged on by Mr. Trump, Attorney General William P. Barr set out in 2019 to dig into their shared theory that the Russia investigation likely stemmed from a conspiracy by intelligence or law enforcement agencies. To lead the inquiry, Mr. Barr turned to a hard-nosed prosecutor named John H. Durham, and later granted him special counsel status to carry on after Mr. Trump left office.
But after almost four years — far longer than the Russia investigation itself — Mr. Durham’s work is coming to an end without uncovering anything like the deep state plot alleged by Mr. Trump and suspected by Mr. Barr.
Moreover, a months long review by The New York Times found that the main thrust of the Durham inquiry was marked by some of the very same flaws — including a strained justification for opening it and its role in fueling partisan conspiracy theories that would never be charged in court — that Trump allies claim characterized the Russia investigation.
Interviews by The Times with more than a dozen current and former officials have revealed an array of previously unreported episodes that show how the Durham inquiry became roiled by internal dissent and ethical disputes as it went unsuccessfully down one path after another even as Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr promoted a misleading narrative of its progress.
Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham never disclosed that their inquiry expanded in the fall of 2019, based on a tip from Italian officials, to include a criminal investigation into suspicious financial dealings related to Mr. Trump. The specifics of the tip and how they handled the investigation remain unclear, but Mr. Durham brought no charges over it.
Mr. Durham used Russian intelligence memos — suspected by other U.S. officials of containing disinformation — to gain access to emails of an aide to George Soros, the financier and philanthropist who is a favorite target of the American right and Russian state media. Mr. Durham used grand jury powers to keep pursuing the emails even after a judge twice rejected his request for access to them. The emails yielded no evidence that Mr. Durham has cited in any case he pursued.
There were deeper internal fractures on the Durham team than previously known. The publicly unexplained resignation in 2020 of his No. 2 and longtime aide, Nora R. Dannehy, was the culmination of a series of disputes between them over prosecutorial ethics. A year later, two more prosecutors strongly objected to plans to indict a lawyer with ties to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign based on evidence they warned was too flimsy, and one left the team in protest of Mr. Durham’s decision to proceed anyway. (A jury swiftly acquitted the lawyer.)
Now, as Mr. Durham works on a final report, the interviews by The Times provide new details of how he and Mr. Barr sought to recast the scrutiny of the 2016 Trump campaign’s myriad if murky links to Russia as unjustified and itself a crime.
Mr. Barr, Mr. Durham and Ms. Dannehy declined to comment. The current and former officials who discussed the investigation all spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the legal, political and intelligence sensitivities surrounding the topic.
A year into the Durham inquiry, Mr. Barr declared that the attempt “to get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016 “cannot be, and it will not be, a tit-for-tat exercise. We are not going to lower the standards just to achieve a result.”
But Robert Luskin, a criminal defense lawyer and former Justice Department prosecutor who represented two witnesses Mr. Durham interviewed, said that he had a hard time squaring Mr. Durham’s prior reputation as an independent-minded straight shooter with his end-of-career conduct as Mr. Barr’s special counsel.
“This stuff has my head spinning,” Mr. Luskin said. “When did these guys drink the Kool-Aid, and who served it to them?”
An Odd Couple
A month after Mr. Barr was confirmed as attorney general in February 2019, the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III ended the Russia investigation and turned in his report without charging any Trump associates with engaging in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow over its covert operation to help Mr. Trump win the 2016 election.
That spring, Mr. Barr assigned Mr. Durham to scour the origins of the Russia investigation for wrongdoing, telling Fox News that he wanted to know if “officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale” in deciding to pursue the investigation. “A lot of the answers have been inadequate, and some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together,” he added.
While attorneys general overseeing politically sensitive inquiries tend to keep their distance from the investigators, Mr. Durham visited Mr. Barr in his office for at times weekly updates and consultations about his day-to-day work. They also sometimes dined and sipped Scotch together, people familiar with their work said.
In some ways, they were an odd match. Taciturn and media-averse, the goateed Mr. Durham had spent more than three decades as a prosecutor before Mr. Trump appointed him the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Administrations of both parties had assigned him to investigate potential official wrongdoing, like allegations of corrupt ties between mafia informants and F.B.I. agents, and the C.I.A.’s torture of terrorism detainees and destruction of evidence.
But the two shared a worldview: They are both Catholic conservatives and Republicans, born two months apart in 1950. As a career federal prosecutor, Mr. Durham already revered the office of the attorney general, people who know him say. And as he was drawn into Mr. Barr’s personal orbit, Mr. Durham came to embrace that particular attorney general’s intense feelings about the Russia investigation.
‘The Thinnest of Suspicions’
At the time Mr. Barr was confirmed, he told aides that he already suspected that intelligence abuses played a role in igniting the Russia investigation — and that unearthing any wrongdoing would be a priority.
In May 2019, soon after giving Mr. Durham his assignment, Mr. Barr summoned the head of the National Security Agency, Paul M. Nakasone, to his office. In front of several aides, Mr. Barr demanded that the N.S.A. cooperate with the Durham inquiry.
Referring to the C.I.A. and British spies, Mr. Barr also said he suspected that the N.S.A.’s “friends” had helped instigate the Russia investigation by targeting the Trump campaign, aides briefed on the meeting said. And repeating a sexual vulgarity, he warned that if the N.S.A. wronged him by not doing all it could to help Mr. Durham, Mr. Barr would do the same to the agency.
Mr. Barr’s insistence about what he had surmised bewildered intelligence officials. But Mr. Durham spent his first months looking for any evidence that the origin of the Russia investigation involved an intelligence operation targeting the Trump campaign.
Mr. Durham’s team spent long hours combing the C.I.A.’s files but found no way to support the allegation. Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham traveled abroad together to press British and Italian officials to reveal everything their agencies had gleaned about the Trump campaign and relayed to the United States, but both allied governments denied they had done any such thing. Top British intelligence officials expressed indignation to their U.S. counterparts about the accusation, three former U.S. officials said.
Mr. Durham and Mr. Barr had not yet given up when a new problem arose: In early December, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, completed his own report on the origins of the Russia investigation.
But the broader findings contradicted Mr. Trump’s accusations and the rationale for Mr. Durham’s inquiry. Mr. Horowitz found no evidence that F.B.I. actions were politically motivated. And he concluded that the investigation’s basis — an Australian diplomat’s tip that a Trump campaign adviser had seemed to disclose advance knowledge that Russia would release hacked Democratic emails — had been sufficient to lawfully open it.
The week before Mr. Horowitz released the report, he and aides came to Mr. Durham’s offices — nondescript suites on two floors of a building in northeast Washington — to go over it.
Mr. Durham lobbied Mr. Horowitz to drop his finding that the diplomat’s tip had been sufficient for the F.B.I. to open its “full” counterintelligence investigation, arguing that it was enough at most for a “preliminary” inquiry, according to officials. But Mr. Horowitz did not change his mind.
That weekend, Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham decided to weigh in publicly to shape the narrative on their terms.
Minutes before the inspector general’s report went online, Mr. Barr issued a statement contradicting Mr. Horowitz’s major finding, declaring that the F.B.I. opened the investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient.” He would later tell Fox News that the investigation began “without any basis,” as if the diplomat’s tip never happened.
Mr. Trump also weighed in, telling reporters that the details of the inspector general’s report were “far worse than anything I would have even imagined,” adding: “I look forward to the Durham report, which is coming out in the not-too-distant future. It’s got its own information, which is this information plus, plus, plus.”
And the Justice Department sent reporters a statement from Mr. Durham that clashed with both Justice Department principles about not discussing ongoing investigations and his personal reputation as particularly tight-lipped. He said he disagreed with Mr. Horowitz’s conclusions about the Russia investigation’s origins, citing his own access to more information and “evidence collected to date.”
But as Mr. Durham’s inquiry proceeded, he never presented any evidence contradicting Mr. Horowitz’s factual findings about the basis on which F.B.I. officials opened the investigation.
By summer 2020, it was clear that the hunt for evidence supporting Mr. Barr’s hunch about intelligence abuses had failed. But he waited until after the 2020 election to publicly concede that there had turned out to be no sign of “foreign government activity” and that the C.I.A. had “stayed in its lane” after all.
An Awkward Tip
On one of Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham’s trips to Europe, according to people familiar with the matter, Italian officials — while denying any role in setting off the Russia investigation — unexpectedly offered a potentially explosive tip linking Mr. Trump to certain suspected financial crimes.
Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham decided that the tip was too serious and credible to ignore. But rather than assign it to another prosecutor, Mr. Barr had Mr. Durham investigate the matter himself — giving him criminal prosecution powers for the first time — even though the possible wrongdoing by Mr. Trump did not fall squarely within Mr. Durham’s assignment to scrutinize the origins of the Russia inquiry, the people said.
Mr. Durham never filed charges, and it remains unclear what level of an investigation it was, what steps he took, what he learned and whether anyone at the White House ever found out. The extraordinary fact that Mr. Durham opened a criminal investigation that included scrutinizing Mr. Trump has remained secret.
But in October 2019, a garbled echo became public. The Times reported that Mr. Durham’s administrative review of the Russia inquiry had evolved to include a criminal investigation, while saying it was not clear what the suspected crime was. Citing their own sources, manyothernewsoutlets confirmed the development.
The news reports, however, were all framed around the erroneous assumption that the criminal investigation must mean Mr. Durham had found evidence of potential crimes by officials involved in the Russia inquiry. Mr. Barr, who weighed in publicly about the Durham inquiry at regular intervals in ways that advanced a pro-Trump narrative, chose in this instance not to clarify what was really happening.
By the spring and summer of 2020, with Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign in full swing, the Durham investigation’s “failure to deliver scalps in time for the election” began to erode Mr. Barr’s relationship with Mr. Trump, Mr. Barr wrote in his memoir.
Mr. Trump was stoking a belief among his supporters that Mr. Durham might charge former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. That proved too much for Mr. Barr, who in May 2020 clarified that “our concern of potential criminality is focused on others.”
Even so, in August, Mr. Trump lashed out in a Fox interview, asserting that Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, along with top F.B.I. and intelligence officials, had been caught in “the single biggest political crime in the history of our country” and the only thing stopping charges would be if Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham wanted to be “politically correct.”
Against that backdrop, Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham did not shut down their inquiry when the search for intelligence abuses hit a dead end. With the inspector general’s inquiry complete, they turned to a new rationale: a hunt for a basis to accuse the Clinton campaign of conspiring to defraud the government by manufacturing the suspicions that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia, along with scrutinizing what the F.B.I. and intelligence officials knew about the Clinton campaign’s actions.
Mr. Durham also developed an indirect method to impute political bias to law enforcement officials: comparing the Justice Department’s aggressive response to suspicions of links between Mr. Trump and Russia with its more cautious and skeptical reaction to various Clinton-related suspicions.
He examined an investigation into the Clinton Foundation’s finances in which the F.B.I.’s repeated requests for a subpoena were denied. He also scrutinized how the F.B.I. gave Mrs. Clinton a “defensive briefing” about suspicions that a foreign government might be trying to influence her campaign through donations, but did not inform Mr. Trump about suspicions that Russia might be conspiring with people associated with his campaign.
During the Russia investigation, the F.B.I. used claims from what turned out to be a dubious source, the Steele dossier — opposition research indirectly funded by the Clinton campaign — in its botched applications to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide.
The Durham investigation did something with parallels to that incident.
In Mr. Durham’s case, the dubious sources were memos, whose credibility the intelligence community doubted, written by Russian intelligence analysts and discussing purported conversations involving American victims of Russian hacking, according to people familiar with the matter.
The memos were part of a trove provided to the C.I.A. by a Dutch spy agency, which had infiltrated the servers of its Russian counterpart. The memos were said to make demonstrably inconsistent, inaccurate or exaggerated claims, and some U.S. analysts believed Russia may have deliberately seeded them with disinformation.
Mr. Durham wanted to use the memos, which included descriptions of Americans discussing a purported plan by Mrs. Clinton to attack Mr. Trump by linking him to Russia’s hacking and releasing in 2016 of Democratic emails, to pursue the theory that the Clinton campaign conspired to frame Mr. Trump. And in doing so, Mr. Durham sought to use the memos as justification to get access to the private communications of an American citizen.
One purported hacking victim identified in the memos was Leonard Benardo, the executive vice president of the Open Society Foundations, a pro-democracy organization whose Hungarian-born founder, Mr. Soros, has been vilified by the far right.
But Mr. Benardo and Ms. Wasserman Schultz said they had never even met, let alone communicated about Mrs. Clinton’s emails.
Mr. Durham set out to prove that the memos described real conversations, according to people familiar with the matter. He sent a prosecutor on his team, Andrew DeFilippis, to ask Judge Beryl A. Howell, the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Washington, for an order allowing them to seize information about Mr. Benardo’s emails.
But Judge Howell decided that the Russian memo was too weak a basis to intrude on Mr. Benardo’s privacy, they said. Mr. Durham then personally appeared before her and urged her to reconsider, but she again ruled against him.
Rather than dropping the idea, Mr. Durham sidestepped Judge Howell’s ruling by invoking grand-jury power to demand documents and testimony directly from Mr. Soros’s foundation and Mr. Benardo about his emails, the people said. (It is unclear whether Mr. Durham served them with a subpoena or instead threatened to do so if they did not cooperate.)
Rather than fighting in court, the foundation and Mr. Benardo quietly complied, according to people familiar with the matter. But for Mr. Durham, the result appears to have been another dead end.
In a statement provided to The Times by Mr. Soros’s foundation, Mr. Benardo reiterated that he never met or corresponded with Ms. Wasserman Schultz, and said that “if such documentation exists, it’s of course made up.”
As the focus of the Durham investigation shifted, cracks formed inside the team. Mr. Durham’s deputy, Ms. Dannehy, a longtime close colleague, increasingly argued with him in front of other prosecutors and F.B.I. agents about legal ethics.
Ms. Dannehy had independent standing as a respected prosecutor. In 2008, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey assigned her to investigate whether to charge senior Bush administration officials with crimes related to a scandal over the firing of U.S. attorneys; she decided in 2010 that no charges were warranted.
Now, Ms. Dannehy complained to Mr. Durham about how Mr. Barr kept hinting darkly in public about the direction of their investigation. In April 2020, for example, he suggested to Fox News that officials could be prosecuted, saying that “the evidence shows that we are not dealing with just mistakes or sloppiness. There is something far more troubling here.”
Ms. Dannehy urged Mr. Durham to ask the attorney general to adhere to Justice Department policy and not discuss the investigation publicly. But Mr. Durham proved unwilling to challenge him.
The strains grew when Mr. Durham used grand jury powers to go after Mr. Benardo’s emails. Ms. Dannehy opposed that tactic and told colleagues that Mr. Durham had taken that step without telling her.
By summer 2020, with Election Day approaching, Mr. Barr pressed Mr. Durham to draft a potential interim report centered on the Clinton campaign and F.B.I. gullibility or willful blindness.
On Sept. 10, 2020, Ms. Dannehy discovered that other members of the team had written a draft report that Mr. Durham had not told her about, according to people briefed on their ensuing argument.
Ms. Dannehy erupted, according to people familiar with the matter. She told Mr. Durham that no report should be issued before the investigation was complete and especially not just before an election — and denounced the draft for taking disputed information at face value. She sent colleagues a memo detailing those concerns and resigned.
Two people close to Mr. Barr said he had pressed for the draft to evaluate what a report on preliminary findings would look like and what evidence would need to be declassified. But they insisted that he intended any release to come during the summer or after the Nov. 3 election — not soon before Election Day.
In any case, in late September 2020, about two weeks after Ms. Dannehy quit, someone leaked to a Fox Business personality that Mr. Durham would not issue any interim report, disappointing Trump supporters hoping for a pre-Election Day bombshell.
Stymied by the decision not to issue an interim Durham report, John Ratcliffe, Mr. Trump’s national intelligence director, tried another way to inject some of the same information into the campaign.
Over the objections of Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, Mr. Ratcliffe declassified nearly 1,000 pages of intelligence material before the election for Mr. Durham to use. Notably, in that fight, Mr. Barr sided with Ms. Haspel on one matter that is said to be particularly sensitive and that remained classified, according to two people familiar with the dispute.
Mr. Ratcliffe also disclosed in a letter to a senator that “Russian intelligence analysis” claimed that on July 26, 2016, Mrs. Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal tying Mr. Trump to Russia.
The disclosure infuriated Dutch intelligence officials, who had provided the memos under strictest confidence.
‘Fanning the Flames’
Late in the summer of 2021, Mr. Durham prepared to indict Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer who had represented Democrats in their dealings with the F.B.I. about Russia’s hacking of their emails. Two prosecutors on Mr. Durham’s team — Anthony Scarpelli and Neeraj N. Patel — objected, according to people familiar with the matter.
Five years earlier, Mr. Sussmann had relayed a tip to the bureau about odd internet data that a group of data scientists contended could reflect hidden communications between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank of Russia. The F.B.I., which by then had already launched its Russia investigation, briefly looked at the allegation but dismissed it.
Mr. Durham accused Mr. Sussmann of lying to an F.B.I. official by saying he was not conveying the tip for a client; the prosecutor maintained Mr. Sussmann was there in part for the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Scarpelli and Mr. Patel argued to Mr. Durham that the evidence was too thin to charge Mr. Sussmann and that such a case would not normally be prosecuted, people familiar with the matter said. Given the intense scrutiny it would receive, they also warned that an acquittal would undermine public faith in their investigation and federal law enforcement.
When Mr. Durham did not change course, Mr. Scarpelli quit in protest, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Patel left soon after to take a different job. Both declined to comment.
The charge against Mr. Sussmann was narrow, but the Durham team used it to make public large amounts of information insinuating what Mr. Durham never charged: that Clinton campaign associates conspired to gin up an F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Trump based on a knowingly false allegation.
Trial testimony, however, showed that while Mrs. Clinton and her campaign manager hoped Mr. Sussmann would persuade reporters to write articles about Alfa Bank, they did not want him to take the information to the F.B.I. And prosecutors presented no evidence that he or campaign officials had believed the data scientists’ complex theory was false.
After Mr. Sussmann’s acquittal, Mr. Barr, by then out of office for more than a year, suggested that using the courts to advance a politically charged narrative was a goal in itself. Mr. Durham “accomplished something far more important” than a conviction, Mr. Barr told Fox News, asserting that the case had “crystallized the central role played by the Hillary campaign in launching as a dirty trick the whole Russiagate collusion narrative and fanning the flames of it.”
And he predicted that a subsequent trial, concerning a Russia analyst who was a researcher for the Steele dossier, would also “get the story out” and “further amplify these themes and the role the F.B.I. leadership played in this, which is increasingly looking fishy and inexplicable.”
That case involved Igor Danchenko, who had told the F.B.I. that the dossier exaggerated the credibility of gossip and speculation. Mr. Durham charged him with lying about two sources. He was acquitted, too.
The two failed cases are likely to be Mr. Durham’s last courtroom acts as a prosecutor. Bringing demonstrably weak cases stood in contrast to how he once talked about his prosecutorial philosophy.
James Farmer, a retired prosecutor who worked with Mr. Durham on several major investigations, recalled him as a neutral actor who said that if there were nothing to charge, they would not strain to prosecute. “That’s what I heard, time and again,” Mr. Farmer said.
Delivering the closing arguments in the Danchenko trial, Mr. Durham defended his investigation to the jury, denying that his appointment by Mr. Barr had been tainted by politics.
He asserted that Mr. Mueller had concluded “there’s no evidence of collusion here or conspiracy” — a formulation that echoed Mr. Trump’s distortion of the Russia investigation’s complex findings — and added: “Is it the wrong question to ask, well, then how did this get started? Respectfully, that’s not the case.”
US moves to protect Minnesota wilderness from planned mine
Steve Karnowski – January 26, 2023
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing over 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) of the Superior National Forest, in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.
The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights, and reaffirmed Tuesday that it’s not giving up despite its latest setback.
“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”
Critics of the project hailed the decision as a massive victory and called for permanent protections for the wilderness. But supporters of Twin Metals said the order runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of increasing domestic supplies of metals that are critical to the clean energy economy.
“The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.
Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” over the moratorium.
“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said in a statement. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”
Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. Twin Metals says its design would limit the exposure of the sulfide-bearing ore to the effects of air and water. And it says the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.
Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, condemned the decision as “an attack on our way of life” that will benefit only foreign suppliers such as China that have fewer labor and environmental protections. “America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs,” he said in a statement.
“Ultimately, this sends a chilling message to hardworking Minnesotans who need the widespread economic benefits of mining in our state and sends an even harsher message to the business community that they cannot expect fair treatment in Minnesota or the United States,” the Jobs for Minnesotans coalition of business and labor groups said in a statement.
While Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the St. Paul area, applauded the order, she also warned in a statement that a future administration could reverse the decision.
The 1,700 square mile (4,400 square kilometer) Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S. It draws more than 150,000 visitors from around the world who paddle its more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of canoe routes and over 1,100 lakes. According to the Interior Department, it contributes over $17 million annually to the outdoor recreation and tourism economy in northeastern Minnesota. Three Ojibwe tribes exercise treaty rights in the area covered by the moratorium.
The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.