The Week in Business: Let’s Go Shopping

Good morning. The economy is showing more signs of recovery — jobs are coming back, the stock market is up (again) and people are spending money. Here’s the latest in business and tech news for the week ahead. Stay safe out there. — Charlotte Cowles

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

So, what did you buy with your stimulus check? Retail sales in March blew past expectations, soaring nearly 10 percent as the latest round of federal relief funds trickled into bank accounts. Restaurants and bars saw a 13 percent bump in business, and sales of clothing and accessories rose 18 percent — people are getting out and about and need new clothes after a year of sweatpants. Another sign of better times ahead: Last week’s jobless claims dropped to their lowest level since the pandemic began.

With much fanfare, Coinbase — a marketplace where people buy and sell digital currencies like Bitcoin — went public on Wednesday, becoming the first major cryptocurrency company to do so. Its first day of trading made early investors, including the basketball star Kevin Durant, very rich (well, even more than they already were). It also encouraged the crypto-curious to dip a toe — or take a plunge — into what has become an increasingly hot market. Digital currencies have boomed this past year as investors pushed their prices to new highs, bringing related businesses (like Coinbase) along for the ride.

announced a flurry of sanctions against Russia last Thursday and barred American banks from purchasing any new Russian government debt. The measure targeted 32 individuals and entities involved in Moscow’s disinformation campaigns and interference in the 2020 presidential election. Mr. Biden also formally blamed Russia’s top intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation that breached American government agencies and dozens of large companies last year. By squeezing access to international finance, the Biden administration aims to pressure Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, into negotiating a more stable relationship with the United States.

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

Apple’s first product unveiling of the year, titled “Spring Loaded,” will be streamed on the brand’s website this Tuesday. Anticipated gadgets include a new iPad Pro line (face it, your old iPad is out of storage space) and new iMac desktops (to improve your work-from-home setup, which you might need for the long haul). The company is also reportedly developing a small tracking device called an AirTag that can be stuck to items like keys and wallets, allowing you to find them with an app (now that you need them to go places again!). But it’s unclear if they will make their debut this week. Stay tuned.

For years, Instagram has been planning a special version of its app for users under age 13. The children’s version would supposedly include stronger measures to protect them from sexual predators and bullying. But it faces an uphill battle. Last week, an international coalition of 35 children’s and consumer groups called on Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, to scrap plans for the app. Among their reasons: It “will likely increase the use of Instagram by young children who are particularly vulnerable to the platform’s manipulative and exploitative features.”

What does a global shortage of tiny semiconductors — also known as chips — have to do with you? Well, they’re used for everything from cars to computers to kitchen appliances. And the companies that make them are reeling from pandemic-fueled production snafus, causing trickledown problems in the auto industry and many other sectors. Mr. Biden wants to fund more domestic chip manufacturing with his infrastructure plan and signed an executive order to bolster supply chains in the meantime. But that may not be enough to fix what has already become a big problem.

masterminded the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, died in prison at age 82. Nearly four years after the infamous Fyre Festival left its attendees scrambling for shelter and water in the Bahamas, ticket holders — many of whom shelled out thousands for what was billed as an ultraluxury experience — will receive settlement payments of about $7,220 apiece. And China’s post-pandemic recovery is booming. Its economy grew by a whopping 18.3 percent in the first three months of the year to last year’s low.

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Czechs Blame 2014 Blasts at Ammunition Depots on Elite Russian Spy Unit

The Czech Republic on Saturday blamed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions at Czech ammunition depots on an elite unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said at a Prague news conference that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom it had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence,” assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicion” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the blasts in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.

The announcement underscored the breadth of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and pursue aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyberattacks.

The elite Russian unit has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first came to light after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a turncoat Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell gravely ill but later recovered.

The Czech police also released photographs of the two men, who looked like the men shown in photographs released in 2018 by Britain. The police said the men had used at least two different identities and asked anyone who had seen them or knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.

Mr. Babis, the prime minister, did not accuse the two Russians directly of involvement in the arms warehouse explosions, but he said there was “unequivocal evidence” that agents working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.

“Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” Mr. Babis added.

The Czech Republic, a member of NATO, has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but has never ordered as many out as it did on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats over interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the hacking of computer systems used by government agencies.

Poland, another NATO member, also expelled Russia diplomats in recent days, ordering three to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw said was a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.

The Czech action, however, was more severe and unusually sweeping.

“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations will suffer, however, the Czech Republic must react,” the acting foreign minister, Jan Hamacek, said in Prague.

What caused the ammunition depot blasts, which began in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.

They coincided with efforts by Ukraine to increase its supply of weapons from abroad as it struggled to recover eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.

Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the blasts to what they said may have been a Russian drive to halt the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

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In Russia, a Military Buildup That Can’t be Missed

MASLOVKA, Russia — Deep in a pine forest in southern Russia, military trucks, their silhouettes blurred by camouflage netting, appear through the trees. Soldiers in four-wheel-drive vehicles creep along rutted dirt roads. And outside a newly pitched tent camp, sentries, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, pace back and forth.

Over the past month or so, Russia has deployed what analysts are calling the largest military buildup along the border with Ukraine since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.

It is far from a clandestine operation: During a trip to southern Russia by a New York Times journalist, evidence of the buildup was everywhere to be seen.

The mobilization is setting off alarms in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European capitals and Washington, and is increasingly seen as an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, which just hit Moscow with a new round of sanctions. Russia responded almost immediately, announcing on Friday that it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats.

“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and the annexation of Crimea.

told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is now garrisoning about 110,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border. In Washington, the director of the C.I.A. told Congress that it remains unclear whether the buildup is a show of force or preparation for something more ominous.

Even if the goal of the buildup remains unclear, military analysts say it was most certainly meant to be seen. A show of force is hardly a good show if nobody watches.

“They are deploying in a very visible way,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., who has been monitoring the military activity. “They are doing it overtly, so we can see it. It is intentional.”

foreign reporters have been showing up daily to watch the buzz of activity.

Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.

Gigantic military trucks are parked within sight of the roads, which have, strangely, remained open to public traffic.

news release to announce the redeployment of the naval landing craft closer to Ukraine, in case anybody was curious. The vessels sailed along rivers and canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The ministry posted pictures.

forces for a possible incursion.

But Mr. Burns said U.S. officials were still trying to determine if the Kremlin was preparing for military action or merely sending a signal.

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White House Warns Russia on Bounties, but Stops Short of Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.

But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.

The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”

The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.

financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.

But, it also reported, the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun electronic intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.

Former intelligence officials, including in testimony about the issue before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.

The re-scrub of available evidence by President Biden’s administration had not uncovered anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remained, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.

The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.

Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment, in Afghanistan.”

fled to Russia — possibly while using a passport linked to a Russian spy agency.

As a result, the detainees who recounted to interrogators what they were told about the purported arrangement were not themselves in the room for conversations with Russian intelligence officials. Without an electronic intercept, either, there was a pattern of evidence that fit the C.I.A.’s assessment but no explicit eyewitness account of the interactions.

The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The public disclosure of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the White House’s months of inaction in response — prompted a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Defending the inaction, President Donald J. Trump labeled the reporting “a hoax” and his White House denied that he had been told about it, seeking to dismiss the intelligence assessment as too weak to be taken seriously.

In fact, it had been included in his written intelligence briefing in late February 2020 and disseminated more broadly to the intelligence community in early May.

But it was also true that analysts at the National Security Agency disagreed with the C.I.A. over how much confidence to place in the agency’s conclusion, based on the imperfect array of available evidence. The Trump administration played up that split.

In testimony before Congress about the issue, Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, disputed the White House’s suggestion that such an assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously.

In previous administrations, he said last July, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-confidence assessment would most likely result in a response.

never raised the issue of the bounty intelligence in his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after the C.I.A.’s assessment became public, senior military and diplomatic officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, warned their counterparts after all.

“If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Mr. Pompeo said in August during a trip to the Czech Republic. “I know our military has talked to their senior leaders, as well. We won’t brook that. We won’t tolerate that.”

Still, in testimony before Congress and in other remarks, senior Pentagon officials — caught between not wanting to aggravate the White House and not wanting to appear indifferent about the safety of troops — said they would be outraged if the C.I.A. assessment was correct, but also had yet to see definitive proof.

“It is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said late last year when asked about the status of the inquiry. “We’re looking at it very hard.”

Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for failing to do anything about the C.I.A. assessment, portraying it as part of a strange pattern of deference he said Mr. Trump had shown toward Russia. Mr. Biden mentioning the matter in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and brought it up in his first call as president with Mr. Putin.

While the sanctions imposed on Thursday were based on alleged Russian misdeeds other than the suspected bounties, the senior administration official said the diplomatic action about the available information “puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions, and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.”

The official added, “We cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this.”

Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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U.S. Imposes Stiff Sanctions on Russia, Blaming It for Major Hacking Operation

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced tough new sanctions on Russia and formally blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation that breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.

In the broadest effort yet to give more teeth to financial sanctions — which in the past have failed to deter Russian activity — the sanctions are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government.

In an executive order, President Biden announced a series of additional steps — sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out the Russian government’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats, most of them identified as intelligence operatives, were expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington. The country also joined with European partners to sanction eight people and entities associated with Russia’s occupation in Crimea.

The announcement is the first time that the U.S. government had placed the blame for the “SolarWinds” hacking attack right at the Kremlin’s feet, saying it was masterminded by the SVR, one of the Russian intelligence agencies that was also involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee six years ago. The finding comports with the findings of private cybersecurity firms.

SolarWinds; to the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia offered bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan; and to Russia’s longstanding effort to interfere in U.S. elections on behalf of Donald J. Trump. The key to the sanctions’ effectiveness, officials concede, will be whether European and Asian allies go along with that ban, and whether the United States decides to seek to extend the sanctions by threatening to cut off financial institutions around the world that deal in those Russian bonds, much as it has enforced “secondary sanctions” against those who do business with Iran.

In a conversation with President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday, Mr. Biden warned that the United States was going to act to protect its interests, but also raised the prospect of a summit meeting between the two leaders. It is unclear whether Russia will now feel the need to retaliate for the sanctions and expulsions. American officials are already alarmed by a troop buildup along the border of Ukraine and Russian naval activity in the Black Sea.

And inside American intelligence agencies there have been warnings that the SolarWinds attack — which enabled the SVR to place “back doors” in the computer networks — could give Russia a pathway for malicious cyber activity against government agencies and corporations.

Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, has often said that sanctions alone will not be sufficient, and said there would be “seen and unseen” actions against Russia. Mr. Biden, before his inauguration, suggested the United States would respond in kind to the hack, which seemed to suggest some kind of clandestine cyber response. But it may take weeks or months for any evidence that activity to come to light, if it ever does.

SolarWinds attack because that was the name of the Texas-based company whose network management software was subtlety altered by the SVR before the firms customers downloaded updated version. But the presidential statement alludes to the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia offered bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan and explicitly links the sanctions to Russia’s longstanding effort to interfere in U.S. elections on behalf of Donald J. Trump.

In the SolarWinds breach, Russian government hackers infected network-management software used by thousands of government entities and private firms in what officials believe was, at least in its opening stages, an intelligence-gathering mission.

The SVR, also known as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is primarily known for espionage operations. The statement said American intelligence agencies have “high confidence in its assessment of attribution” of responsibility to Russia.

In an advisory, the United States described for private companies specific details about the software vulnerabilities that the Russian intelligence agencies used to hack into the systems of companies and governments. Most of those have been widely known since FireEye, a private security firm, first found evidence of the hack in December. Until FireEye’s discovery, the actions had been entirely missed by the U.S. government, largely because the attack was launched from inside the United States — where, as the Russians know well, American intelligence agencies are prohibited from operating.

Previous sanctions against Russia have been more narrowly drawn and have largely affected individuals. As such, the Kremlin has largely appeared to absorb or shrug off the penalties without changing its behavior.

trading in Moscow before the announcement, the ruble’s exchange rate to the dollar dropped about 1 percent, reflecting nervousness over how the sanctions would play out. The main stock index, Mosbirzhi, also fell just over 1 percent.

The fallout so far reflects years of Russian government policy to harden its financial defenses against sanctions and low oil prices by running budget surpluses and salting away billions of dollars in sovereign wealth funds.

Balanced budgets have been a core economic policy principle of Mr. Putin, who came to power more than 20 years ago during a post-Soviet debt crisis that he saw as humiliating for Russia and vowed not to repeat.

Still, analysts say strains from the past year of pandemic and the drop in the global price of oil, a major Russian export commodity, have left Russia more vulnerable to sanctions targeting sovereign debt. By the first quarter of this year, however, a recovery in oil prices had helped return the federal budget to surplus.

reported.

Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger reported from Washington, Steven Erlanger from Brussels, and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow.

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Biden Administration to Impose Tough Sanctions on Russia

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden spoke with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, warning Mr. Putin about the Russian troop buildup on Ukraine’s border and in Crimea. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the call was meant to emphasize the consequences of Russia’s activities, but it was unclear if Mr. Biden telegraphed any of his administration’s pending moves.

The Biden administration has already carried out one round of sanctions against Russia, for the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

Those sanctions were similar to a series of actions that European nations and Britain took in October and expanded in March. Allied officials said that while the American response on Mr. Navalny was closely coordinated, the sanctions imposed for the election interference, bounties and hacking were meant to be more unilateral.

While Biden administration officials were for a while considering taking action only in response to the hacking, they decided to join that move with retaliations for other Russian actions, according to officials. Additionally, penalties coordinated with allies for Russia’s increased threat to Ukraine were expected, said one person familiar with the announcement.

The C.I.A. presented the Trump administration with an intelligence assessment that Russia had covertly offered to pay bounties to militant fighters to incentivize more killings of Americans in Afghanistan. But while the National Security Council at the Trump White House initially led an interagency effort to come up with response options, months passed and the White House did not authorize anything — not even the mildest option, delivering a diplomatic warning.

After the existence of the C.I.A. assessment and the White House’s inaction on it became public, there was bipartisan outrage in Congress. As a candidate, Mr. Biden raised the issue of the suspected bounties, and once in office, he ordered his intelligence officials to put together a full report on Russian efforts against Americans.

While the Biden administration has not released any new information on the suspected bounties, it did make public a report on Russian election interference. That report said that Mr. Putin had authorized extensive efforts to hurt Mr. Biden’s candidacy during the 2020 election, including by mounting covert operations to influence people close to President Donald J. Trump.

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Intelligence Chiefs Warn of Russian Troops Near Ukraine and Other Threats

WASHINGTON — The Russian military buildup at the Ukraine border and in Crimea could provide enough forces for a limited military incursion, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told senators on Wednesday as he and other senior officials outlined a range of threats facing the United States.

Russia could simply be sending a signal to the United States or trying to intimidate the Ukrainian government, but it had the abilities in place to do more, Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“That buildup has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion, as well,” Mr. Burns said. “It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.”

Mr. Burns testified alongside Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other officials about an array of threats from global powers like Russia and China as well as challenges that have been less of a focus of intelligence agencies in the past, including domestic extremism and climate change.

annual threat assessment report, released Tuesday ahead of the hearing, the intelligence community said that China’s push for global power posed a threat to the United States through its aggression in its region, its expansion of its surveillance abilities and its attempts to dominate technological advances.

Russia has also pushed for a sphere of influence that includes countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, the report said.

Both China and Russia, however, wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, the report said.

Mr. Burns said the Russian actions have prompted internal briefings as well as consultations with allies. President Biden’s call on Tuesday to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was intended to “register very clearly the seriousness of our concern,” Mr. Burns said.

The United States has been tracking the Russian troops for some time, at least since late March. American officials have said privately that the Russians have done little to hide their troop buildup, unlike in 2014 when they first attacked Ukraine. That has convinced some, but not all, officials briefed on the intelligence that the Russian activities may be mostly for show.

penetrated nine federal agencies, and another by China that compromised Microsoft Exchange servers. The Biden administration is expected to respond to the Russian hacking soon, most likely with sanctions and other measures.

Ms. Haines said Russia used hackings to sow discord and threaten the United States and its allies. “Russia is becoming increasingly adept at leveraging its technological prowess to develop asymmetric options in both the military and cyberspheres in order to give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate its interests,” she said.

Lawmakers also raised the issue of a series of mysterious episodes that have injured diplomats and C.I.A. officers overseas. Some former officials believe Russia is behind the episodes, which they have called attacks.

Mr. Burns said he was working with his colleagues to ensure better medical care for C.I.A. officers. He also said he was working to “get to the bottom of the question of what caused these incidents and who might have been responsible.”

Questions on China dominated the earlier Senate confirmation hearings for Ms. Haines and Mr. Burns, and lawmakers again pressed on Wednesday for assessments on China and its efforts to steal American technology. Ms. Haines outlined how China uses technological might, economic influence and other levers of power to intimidate its neighbors.

“China is employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences,” she told senators.

another recent intelligence report, on global trends, highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, along with technological change, were testing “the resilience and adaptability” of society. The “looming disequilibrium,” she said, compels intelligence agencies to broaden their definition of national security.

But at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, also asked a more practical question: How many intelligence officers have received coronavirus vaccines?

Mr. Burns said 80 percent of the C.I.A. work force was fully vaccinated and another 10 percent have had their first shot. He said all C.I.A. officers serving overseas “have the vaccine available to them directly.”

Mr. Wray was unable to give an estimate of how many of his agents had received a shot, saying that the vaccination rates varied in field offices in different states. Ms. Haines said 86 percent of her work force had had at least one shot, with a “fair percentage” being fully vaccinated. General Nakasone also had no estimate but said a vaccination center had been set up at Fort Meade, Md., where the National Security Agency’s headquarters is.

Lawmakers have also been pressing intelligence agencies to help examine the problem of domestic extremism. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the intelligence committee, linked the rise of domestic extremism to the same trends promoting disinformation produced by Russia and others. And he said he wanted the intelligence chiefs to outline how they could help provide better warnings of potential violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“go back to school.” Mr. Trump’s last director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, chose not to release a threat assessment or testify before Congress last year.

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The Lawyer Behind the Throne at Fox

LOS ANGELES — In early 2019, as the Murdoch family completed the $71 billion sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, executives at the movie studio learned that someone was reading all their emails.

And not just anyone: Viet Dinh, the Fox Corporation’s chief legal officer and close friend of Fox’s chief executive, Lachlan Murdoch, had brought on a team of lawyers to investigatethe potential improper use of Fox data” by top 21st Century Fox executives he suspected of leaking to Disney while the terms were still being hammered out, a Fox spokeswoman said. The studio’s president, Peter Rice, and the company’s general counsel, Gerson Zweifach, protested that they were merely conducting normal transition planning — and that Mr. Dinh was being so paranoid he might blow up the transaction.

The episode didn’t scuttle the deal. But the previously unreported conflict between the studio executives and Mr. Dinh, a sociable and relentless Republican lawyer who was the chief architect in 2001 of the antiterrorism legislation known as the Patriot Act, offers a rare glimpse into the opaque power structure of Rupert Murdoch’s world. The nonagenarian mogul exercises immense power, through News Corp and the Fox Corporation, in driving a global wave of right-wing populism. But basic elements of how his media companies run remain shrouded in mystery.

In the case of the Fox Corporation, the questions of who is in charge and what the future holds are particularly hazy. The company, minus its studio, is now a midsize TV company adrift in a landscape of giants like Disney and AT&T that control everything from cellular phone networks to streaming platforms, film and television. Fox’s profits are dominated by Fox News. Lachlan Murdoch’s more liberal brother, James, who no longer holds an operational role in the family businesses, has made clear he’d like to see a change.

complained to The Financial Times about “outlets that propagate lies to their audience.”

Last month, Lachlan Murdoch moved his family to Sydney, Australia, an unlikely base for a company whose main assets are American. The move has intensified the perception — heightened when he stood by as Fox News hosts misinformed their audience about Covid-19 last year — that Mr. Murdoch does not have a tight grip on the reins. The company takes pains to rebut that perception: The Fox spokeswoman told me that Mr. Murdoch is so committed that he has adopted a nocturnal lifestyle, working midnight to 10 a.m. Sydney time. (She also said it would be “false and malicious” to suggest that Mr. Dinh is exercising operational control over Fox’s business units.) It’s such a disorienting situation that one senior Fox employee went so far as to call me last week to ask if I knew anything about succession plans. I promised I’d tell him if I figured it out.

But Mr. Dinh, 53, was ready to step in, and indeed has been seen internally as the company’s power center since before Mr. Murdoch headed across the globe. Mr. Dinh’s ascent caps an unlikely turn in his career that began when he met Lachlan Murdoch at an Aspen Institute event in 2003. The Murdoch heir later asked him to both fill a seat on the company’s board and to be godfather to his son. (“He couldn’t find any other Catholics,” Mr. Dinh joked to The New York Observer in 2006.)

Two former Fox employees and one current and one former Fox News employee familiar with his role painted him as the omnipresent and decisive right hand of a chief executive who is not particularly hands-on. (They spoke only on the condition they not be named because Fox keeps a tight grip on its public relations.) While Mr. Dinh is not running day-to-day programming, he manages the political operation of a company that is the central pillar of Republican politics, and he’s a key voice on corporate strategy who has played a role in Fox’s drive to acquire and partner its way into the global online gambling industry.

In a recent interview with the legal writer David Lat — headlined “Is Viet Dinh the Most Powerful Lawyer in America?” — Mr. Dinh called suggestions in this column and in The Financial Times that he’s more than a humble in-house counsel “flat-out false.”

once told VietLife magazine that he worked jobs including “cleaning toilets, busing tables, pumping gas, picking berries, fixing cars” to help his family make ends meet. He attended Harvard and Harvard Law School. As a student, he wrote a powerful Times Op-Ed about Vietnamese refugees — including his sister and nephew — stranded in Hong Kong. The piece helped win them refugee status, and eventually allowed them to immigrate to the United States.

Mr. Dinh arrived with the conservative politics of many refugees from Communism, and followed a pipeline from a Supreme Court clerkship with Sandra Day O’Connor to a role in the congressional investigations of Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

He was assistant attorney general for legal policy on 9/11, and he was “the fifth likeliest person” to wind up quarterbacking what would become the Patriot Act, said his old friend and colleague Paul Clement, who currently represents Fox in defamation lawsuits brought by two election technology companies. Mr. Dinh “led the effort to pull it all together, package it, present it to the Hill and get it passed,” said a former Bush White House homeland security adviser, Ken Wainstein. The package of legislation transformed the American security state, vastly expanding domestic surveillance and law enforcement powers. It allowed the F.B.I. to conduct secret and intrusive investigations of people and groups swept in by an expanded definition of terrorism.

Mr. Dinh was often mentioned at the time as a brilliant young lawyer who could easily wind up the first Asian-American on the Supreme Court. He was also notably image-conscious, and “worked the media like crazy,” recalled Jill Abramson, a former Times Washington bureau chief and later executive editor. He’s also a master Washington networker whose relationships cross party lines. His best college friend is a Democratic former U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara. Through the pandemic, Mr. Dinh left chipper comments on other lawyers’ job announcements on LinkedIn.

hiring a top Republican opposition researcher, Raj Shah, to monitor online criticism of the company and develop strategies for countering it.

Now, Mr. Dinh finds himself in the strange position of many of Rupert Murdoch’s top lieutenants: He is paid like a chief executive, and fills much of the larger strategic role that comes with that job. He also has the sort of leverage you need in a family business, a personal relationship with Lachlan Murdoch that allowed him to take on Mr. Rice, who is himself the son of a close Rupert Murdoch ally. But Mr. Dinh is still working for a business dominated by the need to follow Mr. Trump and Fox’s audience wherever they lead, lest they be overtaken by networks further to the right, like Newsmax. And the family ultimately retains control.

And Mr. Dinh’s own agenda can be hard to divine. In the interview with Mr. Lat, he largely repeated Fox News talking points about the quality and fairness of the network’s coverage. He did also express pride at Fox’s fleeting willingness to cross the president last fall, even though the network subsequently fired the political analysts who most angered Mr. Trump.

“There is no better historical record of Fox News’s excellent journalism than to see how the former president tweeted against Fox,” Mr. Dinh said.

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Suspected Russian hackers gained access to US homeland security emails

Suspected Russian hackers gained access to email accounts belonging to the Trump administration’s head of homeland security (DHS) and members of cybersecurity staff whose jobs included hunting threats from foreign countries, the Associated Press (AP) has learned.

The intelligence value of the hacking of then acting secretary Chad Wolf and his staff is not publicly known but the symbolism is stark. Their accounts were accessed in what is known as the SolarWinds intrusion, throwing into question how the US government can protect individuals, companies and institutions if it can’t protect itself.

“The SolarWinds hack was a victory for our foreign adversaries and a failure for DHS,” said Rob Portman, top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee. “We are talking about DHS’s crown jewels.”

The Biden administration has tried to keep a tight lid on the scope of the SolarWinds attack as it weighs retaliatory measures against Russia. But an inquiry by the AP found new details about the breach at DHS and other agencies, including the energy department, where hackers accessed top officials’ private schedules.

The AP interviewed more than a dozen current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The vulnerabilities at homeland security in particular intensify the worries following the SolarWinds attack and an even more widespread hack affecting Microsoft Exchange’s email program, especially because in both cases the hackers were detected not by the government but by a private company.

In December, officials discovered a sprawling, months-long cyber-espionage effort done largely through a hack of widely used software from Texas-based SolarWinds. At least nine federal agencies were hacked, and dozens of private-sector companies.

US authorities have said the breach appears to be the work of Russian hackers. Gen Paul Nakasone, who leads the Pentagon’s cyber force, said last week the Biden administration was considering a “range of options” in response. Russia has denied any role.

Since then, a series of headline-grabbing hacks has further highlighted vulnerabilities. A hacker tried to poison the water supply of a small town in Florida in February and this month a breach was announced, involving thousands of Microsoft Exchange email servers, the company says was carried out by Chinese state hackers. China has denied involvement.

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and head of the Senate intelligence committee, said the government’s initial response to SolarWinds was disjointed.

“What struck me was how much we were in the dark for as long as we were in the dark,” Warner said.

One former administration official, who confirmed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was among agencies affected by the breach, said the response was hampered by outdated technology. The FAA initially told the AP it had not been affected by the SolarWinds hack, only to then say it was continuing to investigate.

At least one other cabinet member was affected. The hackers were able to obtain the private schedules of officials at the energy department, including then secretary Dan Brouillette, one former official said.

DHS spokeswoman Sarah Peck said “a small number of employees’ accounts were targeted in the breach” and the agency “no longer sees indicators of compromise on our networks”.

The Biden administration has pledged to issue an executive order to address “significant gaps in modernization and in technology of cybersecurity across the federal government”. But it faces highly capable foreign hackers backed by governments that aren’t afraid of US reprisals, outdated technology, a shortage of cybersecurity professionals and a complex leadership and oversight structure.

The recently approved stimulus package includes $650m for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to harden cyber defenses. Federal officials said that amount is only a down payment on much bigger planned spending.

“We must raise our game,” Brandon Wales, who leads the cybersecurity agency, told a recent House hearing.

The Biden administration tapped Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emergency technology, to respond to the SolarWinds and Microsoft breaches. It hasn’t appointed a national cyber director, frustrating some members of Congress.

“We’re trying to fight a multi-front war without anybody in charge,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine.

The administration says it’s reviewing how to set up the position.

“Cybersecurity is a top priority,” said White House spokeswoman Emily Horne.

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