Days Before Germans Vote, Merkel Is Where She Didn’t Want to Be: On the Stump

STRALSUND, Germany — Only days before Germans cast their ballots for a new Parliament and with it a new government and leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week — further proof that her conservatives are in a perilous position.

Ms. Merkel, of course, is no longer a candidate. She is stepping down and had hoped to stay away from the race. But instead she spent Tuesday in her own district stumping for the struggling candidate for her Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet. She even quipped about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to convince voters that those shoes are best filled by Mr. Laschet.

The Green party, the unexpected early leaders in the race, are in third place at the moment.

The Social Democrats are running one of their strongest election campaign in years, marked by clear messaging on progressive issues from increasing the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their front-runner candidate, Olaf Scholz, has been selling himself as the best fit for Ms. Merkel’s shoes.

shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused the man service because he did not wear a mask.

Speaking to the several hundred people who had gathered late Tuesday on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this city on the Baltic Sea coast, which Ms. Merkel has represented since 1990, Mr. Laschet honored the victim, then chided the several dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators who had shown up to protest the government with shouts and whistles.

“We do not want this violence,” he said. But neither his condemnation nor his pledge to increase security elicited much applause. He also didn’t manage to silence the noise beyond the barriers.

The rally was meant to shore up support for Mr. Laschet, but for townspeople and tourists alike, it turned into an opportunity to catch a last glimpse of the woman whose outsize role in their country and in Europe has influenced their lives since November 2005.

Christine Braun, a member of the Christian Democrats in Stralsund, said that Mr. Laschet would be getting her vote, but he was not the reason she was standing in the driving rain on a chilly September night.

“I came to honor Ms. Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that throughout her 30 years representing the constituency, Ms. Merkel would visit regularly, attending meetings and engaging with the community. “She remained approachable and down-to-earth.”

Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both students in their early 20s, were vacationing in Stralsund and saw the posters advertising the event and Ms. Merkel’s attendance. They decided to attend more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than out of political interest.

They described their political leanings as “leftist-Green,” saying they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr. Laschet.

“I think it is good if the Christian Democrats go into opposition,” Mr. Taugnitz said.

That could happen. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls, though many may have already done so, with the pandemic resulting in an unusually high number of requests for mail-in ballots — a form of voting that has been around in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe.

Should the Social Democrats emerge as the strongest party, they would still need to find at least one partner to form a government. While that means that the roles could be reversed, with the Christian Democrats as the junior partners under Mr. Scholz, more likely is a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats together with the Greens and the business friendly Free Democrats.

Mr. Laschet has been warning against the threat posed by such an alliance, seeking to paint the other parties as a danger to the prosperity that Germans have enjoyed under Ms. Merkel.

“It’s completely wrong what the S.P.D. and the Left and the Greens are planning,” Mr. Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to increase taxes on the country’s highest earners. “They should invest and create jobs.”

Ms. Merkel instead sought to praise Mr. Laschet and Georg Günther, who hopes to win the seat in Parliament that she is vacating after 30 years, for their achievements. She expressed confidence that both men would continue the course that she had set and urged her supporters to back them.

“Several times today I have reported my shoe size,” Ms. Merkel told the crowd in Stralsund. Nodding to Mr. Günther and smiling, she said that he could “manage” to fill her shoes — European size 38, or U.S. 7 and a half. Then she turned to Mr. Laschet and added, “he is the one who can do it,” at the chancellery.

Listening from the sidelines, Thilo Haberstroh, a native of the southwestern city of Karlsruhe who was in Stralsund on business and only happened on the rally by chance, said he wasn’t convinced that anyone in the running had what it takes to be the next chancellor of Germany.

“This was interesting, but none of them have really made an impression on me,” he said. “I still don’t know who I will get my vote on Sunday.”

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Germany’s Far Right Is Nowhere in the Election. But It’s ‘Here to Stay.’

BERLIN — They promised they would “hunt” the elites. They questioned the need for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin and described Muslim immigrants as “head scarf girls” and “knife men.”

Four years ago the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, arrived in the German Parliament like a wrecking ball, the first far-right party to win a place at the heart of Germany’s democracy since World War II. It was a political earthquake in a country that had once seen Hitler’s Nazi party rise from the fringes to win power in free elections.

Founded eight years ago as nationalist free-market protest party against the Greek bailout and the euro, the AfD has sharply shifted to the right.

The party seized on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome over a million migrants to Germany in 2015 and 2016, actively fanning fears of Islamization and migrant crime. Its noisy nationalism and anti-immigrant stance were what first catapulted it into Parliament and instantly turned it into Germany’s main opposition party.

But the party has struggled to expand its early gains during the past 18 months, as the pandemic and, more recently, climate change have shot to the top of the list of voters’ concerns — while its core issue of immigration has barely featured in this year’s election campaign.

The AfD has tried to jump on the chaos in Afghanistan to fan fears of a new migrant crisis. “Cologne, Kassel or Konstanz can’t cope with more Kabul,” one of the party’s campaign posters asserted. “Save the world? Sure. But Germany first!” another read.

At a recent election rally north of Frankfurt, Mr. Chrupalla demanded that lawmakers “abolish” the constitutional right to asylum. He also told the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Germany should be prepared to protect its borders, “if need be with armed force.”

None of this rhetoric has shifted the race, particularly because voters seem to have more fundamental concerns about the party’s aura of extremism. Some AfD leaders have marched with extremists in the streets, while among the party’s supporters are an eclectic array of conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazi sympathizers.

shot dead on his front porch by a well-known neo-Nazi. The killer later told the court that he had attended a high-profile AfD protest a year earlier.

Since then, a far-right extremist has attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle during a Yom Kippur service, leaving two dead and only narrowly failing to commit a massacre. Another extremist shot dead 9 mostly young people with immigrant roots in the western city of Hanau.

The AfD’s earlier rise in the polls stalled almost instantly after the Hanau attack.

“After these three attacks, the wider German public and media realized for the first time that the rhetoric of the AfD leads to real violence,” said Hajo Funke of the Free University in Berlin, who has written extensively about the party and tracks its evolution.

“It was a turning point,” he said. “They have come to personify the notion that words lead to deeds.”

Shortly after the Hanau attack, Thomas Haldenwang, the chief of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, placed elements of the AfD under surveillance for far-right extremism — even as the party’s lawmakers continued to work in Parliament.

“We know from German history that far-right extremism didn’t just destroy human lives, it destroyed democracy,” Mr. Haldenwang warned after announcing his decision in March last year. “Far-right extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany.”

Today, the agency has classified about a third of all AfD members as extremist, including Mr. Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, the party’s other lead candidate. A court is reviewing whether the entire party can soon be placed under formal observation.

“The AfD is irrelevant in power-political terms,” said Mr. Funke. “But it is dangerous.”

Mr. Chrupalla, a decorator who occasionally takes the stage in his overalls, and Ms. Weidel, a suit-wearing former Goldman Sachs analyst and gay mother of two, have sought to counter that impression. As if to hammer home the point, the party’s main election slogan this year is: “Germany — but normal.”

A look through the party’s 207-page election program shows what “normal” means: The AfD demands Germany’s exit from the European Union. It calls for the abolition of any mandates to fight the coronavirus. It wants to return to the traditional German definition of citizenship based on blood ancestry. And it is the only party in Parliament that denies man-made climate change, while also calling for investment in coal and a departure from the Paris climate accord.

That the AfD’s polling numbers have barely budged for the past 18 months suggests that its supporters are not protest voters but Germans who subscribe to its ideas and ideology.

“The AfD has brought out into the open a small but very radical electorate that many thought we don’t have in this country,” said Mr. Quent, the sociologist. “Four years ago people were asking: ‘Where does this come from?’ In reality it was always there. It just needed a trigger.”

Mr. Quent and other experts estimate the nationwide ceiling of support for the party at around 14 percent. But in parts of the former Communist East, where the AfD has become a broad-based political force entrenched at the local level, it is often twice that — enough to make it the region’s second-strongest political force.

Among the under 60-year olds, Mr. Quent said, it has become No. 1.

“It’s only a question of time until AfD is the strongest party in the East,” Mr. Quent said.

That is why Mr. Chrupalla, whose constituency is in the eastern state of Saxony, the one state where the AfD already came first in 2017, predicts it will eventually become too big to bypass.

“In the East we are a people’s party, we are well-established at the local, city, regional and state level,” Mr. Chrupalla said. “In the East the middle class votes for the AfD. In the West, they vote for the Greens.”

Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.

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North Korea Fires 2 Ballistic Missiles as Arms Rivalry Mounts

SEOUL — North Korea launched two ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the country’s first ballistic missile test in six months and a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from conducting such tests.

Hours after the missiles were launched, South Korea announced that its president, Moon Jae-in, had just attended the test of the country’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, making South Korea ​the seventh country in the world to operate S.L.B.M.s, after the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and India.

​The missile tests by both Koreas on the same day dramatically highlighted the intensifying arms race on the Korean Peninsula as nuclear disarmament talks between Washington and North Korea remained stalled. They also underscored the growing concern over regional stability, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan calling the North Korean missile launch “outrageous” and a threat to peace.

In its announcement, South Korea revealed that it had successfully developed a supersonic cruise missile and a long-range air-to-land missile to be mounted on the KF-21, a South Korean supersonic fighter jet, and that it had developed a ballistic missile powerful enough to penetrate North Korea’s underground wartime bunkers.

test-fired what it called newly developed long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. But the United States has not imposed fresh sanctions against the North for weapons tests in recent years. When North Korea resumed testing short-range ballistic missiles in 2019, Donald J. Trump, then the president, dismissed them for being short range.

The Biden administration has said it would explore “practical” and “calibrated” diplomacy to achieve the goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But North Korea has yet to respond to the administration’s invitation to dialogue.

“Rather than strengthen sanctions and military exercises, the allies have emphasized a willingness for dialogue and humanitarian cooperation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The problem with less than robust responses to North Korea’s tests is that deterrence can be eroded while Pyongyang advances its capabilities and normalizes its provocations.”

The North Korean missiles on Wednesday — launched from Yangdok, in the central part of the country — flew 497 miles and reached an altitude of 37 miles before landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan, the South Korean military said. South Korean and United States defense officials were analyzing the data collected from the test to determine exactly what type of ballistic missiles were used, it said.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that it “assumed” the missile did not reach the country’s territorial waters or its exclusive economic zone.

The news of the North Korean missile test broke shortly after Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China, North Korea’s biggest supporter and only remaining major trading partner, finished a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, in Seoul.

“It’s not just North Korea, but other countries as well that engage in military activities,” Mr. Wang said when asked by reporters to comment on the North’s weekend cruise-missile test. “We must all work together to resume dialogue. We all hope to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr. Wang didn’t elaborate, but appeared to be referring to the joint military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea last month. North Korea has accused Washington and Seoul of preparing to invade the North, and usually counters joint military drills between the two allies with its own military exercise or weapons tests.

“The United States has no hostile intent toward” North Korea, Sung Kim, the Biden administration’s special envoy, said on Tuesday in Tokyo, where he met with representatives from Japan and South Korea to discuss the North’s arsenal. He said Washington hoped that North Korea would “respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions.”

The latest tests showed that North Korea continued to improve its arsenal of missiles despite a series of resolutions from the United Nations Security Council that banned North Korea from developing or testing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula rose sharply in 2017, when North Korea tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth underground nuclear test, leading to the sanctions from the United Nations. After the tests, the country claimed an ability to target the continental United States with a nuclear warhead.

Mr. Trump met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, three times between 2018 and 2019, but the leaders failed to reach an agreement on lifting sanctions or rolling back the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Kim has since vowed to boost his country’s weapons capabilities.

With the recent tests, “North Korea is seeking to increase its leverage in coming talks” with Washington, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

By timing its latest test to Mr. Wang’s visit to Seoul, North Korea also appeared to “express discontent with Beijing” that it was not providing enough economic assistance during the global health crisis, Mr. Lee said.

North Korea’s economy, already battered by years of devastating international sanctions, has suffered greatly as trade with China has plummeted in the coronavirus pandemic.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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North Korea Reports Test of New Cruise Missile as Arms Race Intensifies

SEOUL — North Korea said on Monday it​ had successfully launched newly developed long-range cruise missiles, its first missile test in six months and a new indication that an arms race between North and South Korea was heating up on the Korean Peninsula.

​In the tests that took place on Saturday and Sunday, the North Korean missiles hit targets 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away after flying more than two hours, said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. The missiles changed their trajectories and made circles before hitting their targets, it said.

A series of resolutions from the United Nations Security Council banned North Korea from developing or testing ballistic missiles, but not cruise missiles. A cruise missile test by the North usually does not raise as much alarm as its ballistic missile tests. The country’s state-run media also indicated that the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had not attended the weekend tests, though he has usually supervised all major weapons tests in recent years.

The latest tests showed that North Korea continued to improve its arsenal of missiles while nuclear disarmament talks with the United States remained stalled. North Korea said on Monday that the long-range cruise missile was “a strategic weapon of great significance” and part of an arms development goal announced by Mr. Kim during the party congress in January.

ramping up its own arms buildup.

Dosan Ahn Changho-class attack submarine. North Korea began testing its submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2015, reporting the “greatest success” the following year.

As international negotiations have made little progress in stopping North Korea from growing its weapons arsenal, South Korea has embarked on building more powerful missiles and missile-defense systems of its own to counter North Korean threats.

launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017, Donald J. Trump, then president, lifted the payload limit on South Korean ballistic missiles. During the summit meeting in May between President Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, the allies agreed to terminate the missile guidelines, leaving South Korea free to develop longer-range missiles.

North Korea reacted angrily to the removal of the missile restrictions, ​calling it “a stark reminder of the U.S. hostile policy.”

The removal of the limits allows South Korea to build ballistic missiles with larger warheads that hold destructive power and that can target underground bunkers where North Korea keeps its nuclear arsenal and where its leadership would hide at war, military analysts said.

When Mr. Moon visited his Defense Ministry’s Agency for Defense Development last year, he said South Korea had “developed a short-range ballistic missile with one of the largest warheads in the world,” an apparent reference to the Hyunmoo-4, which missile experts say can cover all of North Korea with a two-ton payload.

When North Korea last conducted a missile test, on March 25, it said it had launched a new ballistic missile that carried a 2.5-ton warhead. This month, reports emerged in South Korean news media that the South was developing an even more powerful weapon: a short-range ballistic missile with a payload of up to three tons.

The tit-for-tat weapons buildup signaled that the rival militaries were arming themselves with increasingly powerful missiles that can fly farther and carry more destructive power, and that are harder to intercept.

said this month.

last October and in January, North Korea unveiled what appeared to be newly developed intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said last month that the country appeared to have restarted a reactor in its main nuclear complex​.

But North Korea has refrained from​ testing an I.C.B.M. or a nuclear device since 2017. Its most recent military parade, held Thursday to mark the government’s 73rd anniversary, did not feature new weapons.

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Hedge Fund’s Insiders Agree to Pay as Much as $7 Billion to I.R.S.

A yearslong dispute between a pioneering hedge fund and the Internal Revenue Service ended Thursday with an enormous bill for taxes and penalties: as much as $7 billion.

James Simons, a mathematician whose algorithmic approach has been adopted by many other investment funds, and some of his former colleagues at Renaissance Technologies have settled a decade-long dispute with the government over the tax treatment of some of their investments, the firm said in letter to investors.

The settlement, which involves 10 years’ worth of trades made by the hedge fund, could be worth as much as $7 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the agreement. It is one of the largest federal tax disputes in history.

The deal ends a standoff that led to a congressional investigation and involved two politically connected financiers: Mr. Simons, a longtime patron of Democratic candidates with an estimated net worth of $25 billion, and Robert Mercer, a former Renaissance executive whose advocacy for conservative causes included helping to found Cambridge Analytica. After Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the now-defunct political consulting firm became embroiled in a scandal for harvesting Facebook data without users’ consent to assist his campaign.

$10 million in Breitbart News, and was a key supporter of Stephen K. Bannon, who was Breitbart’s chairman before becoming Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.

The billions in payments to the I.R.S. will be made by current and former investors in a small group of Renaissance funds, but principally its Medallion fund. Those investors include seven people who were members of the firm’s board between 2005 and 2015, as well as their spouses. Mr. Simons will make a payment of $670 million on top of his obligation as part of that group, according to the letter.

“Renaissance’s board ultimately concluded that the interests of our investors from the relevant period would be best served by agreeing to this resolution with the I.R.S., rather than risking a worse outcome, including harsher terms and penalties, that could result from litigation,” Peter Brown, the firm’s chief executive, wrote.

Renaissance is best known for pioneering a data-intensive form of stock trading called quantitative strategy, which has been adopted by many other hedge funds and trading platforms on Wall Street. The settlement centers on the firm’s Medallion fund, which manages about $15 billion, mostly for employees and former employees of the firm and their family members.

Mr. Simons founded the firm in 1982. Once the head of the math department at Stony Brook University on Long Island, he was a code-breaker for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. He stepped down from the firm’s day-to-day operations in 2010, handing the reins to Mr. Mercer and Mr. Brown as co-chief executives.

reported that contractors and employees of Cambridge Analytica, eager to sell psychological profiles of American voters to political campaigns, acquired the private Facebook data of tens of millions of users — the largest known leak in the company’s history. Facebook eventually said as many as 87 million users — mostly in the United States — had their data harvested by the firm.

Mr. Mercer’s decision to resign as co-chief of Renaissance shortly after Mr. Trump won the presidency came about in part because of his involvement in bankrolling Cambridge Analytica. Some of the hedge fund’s investors had voiced concerns about Mr. Mercer’s political activities.

The firm’s letter on Thursday said that aside from the board members and their spouses, other investors will be required to pay additional tax and interest owed, but no penalties. Renaissance’s outside clients, who include wealthy individuals, pensions and other investors, are not expected to be affected by the settlement.

The tax dispute involved Medallion’s fast-paced options trading and how those transactions should be taxed — a major consideration given that the firm’s rapid-fire trading had a history of generating big profits.

At the time of the transactions the federal tax rate on long-term capital gains was about half what it was for short-term capital gains. The hedge fund argued that many of its trades were eligible to be taxed at the lower rate because it had converted those options trades into longer-term holdings through the use of complex financial instruments.

These instruments involved baskets of stocks put together by a bank. But Medallion didn’t buy the actual basket of stocks; it instead bought an option on that basket and sometimes gave the banks instructions on how to trade those stocks. Basket options have been criticized for having allowed hedge funds to borrow money more easily and allowing them to make bigger and potentially riskier trades.

The I.R.S. argued that the basket option trades should have been taxed at the higher rate because they were mainly the result of short-term trading.

The disagreement drew the attention of Congress, and led to rule changes. Following a report from the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations, the I.R.S. issued new guidance in 2015 that sought to clamp down on this type of trading by making it more difficult and costly for hedge funds to buy basket options. Such investment vehicles had to be declared on the tax returns of any investor who used them, the agency said.

The I.R.S. had said its guidance on basket options would be retroactive, and applied to all transactions as far back as Jan. 1, 2011.

Still, some senators were critical of the I.R.S. for taking so long to change its rules and start investigating the trading practice, including at Renaissance.

Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who headed the Senate committee in 2014 and died in July, said the I.R.S. guidance would stop banks and hedge funds from using “dubious structured financial products” that had cost taxpayers billions.

Elise Bean, a former aide to Mr. Levin, said she wished her former boss had lived to see the settlement. “It’s good to see that, despite a yearslong, knock-down, bare-knuckles battle, the I.R.S. prevailed in compelling at least one set of billionaires to pay the taxes they owe,” she said.

Jesse Drucker contributed reporting.

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Afghanistan Collapse Accelerates as 2 Vital Cities Near Fall to Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two more major cities in western and southern Afghanistan were on the verge of collapse to the Taliban on Thursday night, as the insurgency’s race to seize control of the country accelerated.

With the Taliban’s sudden gains in Kandahar, in the country’s southern Pashtun heartland, and Herat, a vital cultural and economic hub, the insurgents appear to be nearing a complete military takeover. Only four major cities — including the capital, Kabul — remain under government control, and two of them are under siege by the Taliban.

Over the past week, the Taliban have toppled city after city in a stunning advance that has well positioned the insurgents to attack Kabul. It has also laid bare the Afghan security forces’ near complete collapse less than three weeks before the United States is set to completely withdraw. Some American officials fear the Afghan government will implode within 30 days, and are preparing for an evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The insurgents now control well over half of the country’s 400-odd districts. And with the fall of Kandahar and Herat, along with another provincial capital south of Kabul, Ghazni, and one in the northwest, Qala-e-Naw — all on Thursday — the insurgents will control 13 provincial capitals.

eeking assurances from the Taliban that they will not attack the embassy if the insurgents overrun the capital, two American officials said.

Afghan security forces, exhausted and overstretched by the Taliban’s advance, are giving up across the country. On Wednesday, an entire Afghan army corps in the northern city Kunduz surrendered to Taliban fighters, who had seized control of the city a few days before. They handed over their weapons and vehicles to the insurgents and ceded control of the city’s airport, officials said.

As the Taliban have pressed on their brutal offensive, thousands of displaced people have flocked to Kabul, one of the last islands of government control not yet under siege. Hundreds of thousands of others have been trapped between fighting in city streets and airstrikes from the sky.

“Every second here I am concerned, I am crying,” said Humaira Jahion, 47, who fled to Kabul from the northern city Kunduz hours before it fell to the Taliban on Sunday.

For two nights she sheltered in her home with her seven children, afraid to leave after a mortar landed half a block from her house. Now, thinking about her family’s future as she crowded in with hundreds of others in a makeshift shelter, a look of anguish washed over her face.

“There is no future here,” she said. “There is no future for me and there is no future for my children.”

Asadullah Timory, Najim Rahim, Jim Huylebroek and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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How China Transformed Into a Prime Cyber Threat to the U.S.

Nearly a decade ago, the United States began naming and shaming China for an onslaught of online espionage, the bulk of it conducted using low-level phishing emails against American companies for intellectual property theft.

On Monday, the United States again accused China of cyberattacks. But these attacks were highly aggressive, and they reveal that China has transformed into a far more sophisticated and mature digital adversary than the one that flummoxed U.S. officials a decade ago.

The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows that China has reorganized its hacking operations in the intervening years. While it once conducted relatively unsophisticated hacks of foreign companies, think tanks and government agencies, China is now perpetrating stealthy, decentralized digital assaults of American companies and interests around the world.

Hacks that were conducted via sloppily worded spearphishing emails by units of the People’s Liberation Army are now carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors at front companies and universities that work at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security, according to U.S. officials and the indictment.

like Microsoft’s Exchange email service and Pulse VPN security devices, which are harder to defend against and allow China’s hackers to operate undetected for longer periods.

“What we’ve seen over the past two or three years is an upleveling” by China, said George Kurtz, the chief executive of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “They operate more like a professional intelligence service than the smash-and-grab operators we saw in the past.”

China has long been one of the biggest digital threats to the United States. In a 2009 classified National Intelligence Estimate, a document that represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, China and Russia topped the list of America’s online adversaries. But China was deemed the more immediate threat because of the volume of its industrial trade theft.

But that threat is even more troubling now because of China’s revamping of its hacking operations. Furthermore, the Biden administration has turned cyberattacks — including ransomware attacks — into a major diplomatic front with superpowers like Russia, and U.S. relations with China have steadily deteriorated over issues including trade and tech supremacy.

China’s prominence in hacking first came to the fore in 2010 with attacks on Google and RSA, the security company, and again in 2013 with a hack of The New York Times.

breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In that attack, Chinese hackers made off with sensitive personal information, including more than 20 million fingerprints, for Americans who had been granted a security clearance.

White House officials soon struck a deal that China would cease its hacking of American companies and interests for its industrial benefit. For 18 months during the Obama administration, security researchers and intelligence officials observed a notable drop in Chinese hacking.

After President Donald J. Trump took office and accelerated trade conflicts and other tensions with China, the hacking resumed. By 2018, U.S. intelligence officials had noted a shift: People’s Liberation Army hackers had stood down and been replaced by operatives working at the behest of the Ministry of State Security, which handles China’s intelligence, security and secret police.

Hacks of intellectual property, that benefited China’s economic plans, originated not from the P.L.A. but from a looser network of front companies and contractors, including engineers who worked for some of the country’s leading technology companies, according to intelligence officials and researchers.

It was unclear how exactly China worked with these loosely affiliated hackers. Some cybersecurity experts speculated that the engineers were paid cash to moonlight for the state, while others said those in the network had no choice but to do whatever the state asked. In 2013, a classified U.S. National Security Agency memo said, “The exact affiliation with Chinese government entities is not known, but their activities indicate a probable intelligence requirement feed from China’s Ministry of State Security.”

announced a new policy requiring Chinese security researchers to notify the state within two days when they found security holes, such as the “zero-days” that the country relied on in the breach of Microsoft Exchange systems.

arrested its founder. Two years later, Chinese police announced that they would start enforcing laws banning the “unauthorized disclosure” of vulnerabilities. That same year, Chinese hackers, who were a regular presence at big Western hacking conventions, stopped showing up, on state orders.

“If they continue to maintain this level of access, with the control that they have, their intelligence community is going to benefit,” Mr. Kurtz said of China. “It’s an arms race in cyber.”

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Germany Floods: Merkel Visits Region as Toll Continues to Mount

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday met with survivors and thanked volunteers as she made her way through a village wrecked by the extraordinary floods that have killed at least 183 people in Germany and Belgium, calling the level of destruction “surreal and eerie.”

As rescue teams continued searching for victims amid the wreckage and debris, heavy rains in the southern German region of Bavaria caused still more flooding on Sunday. The authorities said they expected the number victims to rise, as many hundreds of people remained unaccounted for, though it was unclear how many were simply unreachable by friends or family amid the chaos of the calamity and lost communications.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as Ms. Merkel arrived in Schuld, a formerly quaint village of half-timbered homes and cobbled streets on the banks of the Ahr River, rendered an unrecognizable tangle of debris covered in sticky brown mud by gushing waters last week. German meteorologists called the flooding the worst in 500 years, if not a millennium.

“The German language has no words, I think, for the devastation,” Ms. Merkel told reporters after touring the village. She pledged that her government would organize aid, immediately and in the midterm, as well as help to rebuild infrastructure.

was in Washington when the worst of the flooding struck on Thursday. She held video conferences with the leaders of the worst-affected regions after she returned on Friday. Saturday was her 67th birthday.

Despite her relative absence, Ms. Merkel has been shielded from public criticism by the sudden timing of the floods, the significance of her trip to Washington — considered an important step to restoring ties with the United States after the tumultuous Trump administration — her formidable political stature well into her fourth term as chancellor, and now her status as a lame duck.

Instead, most of the German news media have focused on how the candidates to replace her in September’s election have responded to the tragedy. All three of the main candidates in the race visited the stricken areas last week.

Still, after 16 years of guiding Europe’s largest and most powerful country through one calamity after the other — including the global economic downturn in 2008, the European debt crisis that followed, the arrival of more than one million migrants six years ago and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic — Germans have become accustomed to her approach of analyzing and contemplating a situation before deciding to act.

Ms. Merkel’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said the government was working to organize several hundred million euros, or dollars, of immediate relief for those who lost their homes and their livelihoods in the floods.

On Saturday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany visited the city of Erftstadt, where the raging waters washed away several homes and triggered a landslide; at least 16 residents there remain unaccounted for. He was accompanied by Armin Laschet, 60, the head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the leading contender for the chancellery, who is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state.

in a message on Twitter.

“The fate of those affected, which we heard about in many conversations, is important to us,” he wrote, and he thanked Mr. Steinmeier for his visit. “So I regret all the more the impression that arose from a conversational situation. That was inappropriate and I am sorry.”

Even as the country struggled to come to terms with the extent of the damage to the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Schuld is, heavy rains caused more flooding in Germany’s east and south, killing at least one person, in addition to the 112 people pronounced dead in Rhineland-Palatinate.

In North-Rhine Westphalia, where the interior minister said 45 people had died, more storms ripped through the south of the country.

Flooding in Belgium killed at least 27 people, local news media reported the authorities as saying. Dozens remained missing there, and rescue workers spent much of the day going door to door looking for anyone who had not been able to escape the rising waters in time.

That the authorities still lacked clarity on Sunday over how many people were missing four days after the floods struck reflected the severity of the damage caused to local infrastructure in Rhineland-Palatinate, said Malu Dreyer, the state’s governor.

“The water was still flowing up until a couple of days ago, we have mud and debris,” Ms. Dreyer said. “Now we have the police, soldiers and firefighters who are systematically combing through the whole region searching for the missing.”

Ms. Merkel said that in addition to the financial support from the government, the German Army and other emergency assistance organizations would remain in the area as long as needed.

“Everything we have is being put to use,” she said, “and still it is unbelievably painful for those who have lost loved ones, for those who still don’t know what has happened and for those facing the destruction of their livelihoods.”

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Iranians Vote in Presidential Election, but Mood is Pessimistic

TEHRAN — The line outside the Tehran polling station was short and sedate on Friday morning, nothing like the energized down-the-block crowd that usually turns out for presidential elections in Iran.

But when Abdolnaser Hemmati, the moderate in the race, showed up to vote, the sidewalk outside the polling station, set up at the Hosseinieh Ershad religious institute, suddenly crackled to life.

“Your views are useless for this country,” one heckler shouted at Mr. Hemmati, the former governor of Iran’s central bank, holding up his phone to immortalize the moment.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, who is close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

death in a U.S. airstrike last year brought crowds of mourners onto the streets.)

“Despite all the shortages and shortcomings, we love our nation, and we will defend it to the last drop of blood,” said Marziyeh Gorji, 34, who works in a government office and said she had voted for Mr. Raisi because of his ties to revolutionary figures and his experience. “The people are upset, I understand that. But not voting is not the solution.”

She motioned to her 5-year-old twin sons, who wore buttons featuring General Suleimani’s face. “I will raise them to be like General Suleimani,” she said.

At Lorzadeh mosque in south Tehran, a poor and religiously conservative neighborhood, Muhammad Ehsani, 61, a retired government employee, said his ballot was an expression of faith in the ideals of the Islamic revolution that brought Iran’s current leadership to power.

Being a citizen was like riding a bus, he said. If things were not going well — as every voter agreed they were not — the problem was with the driver, not with the bus.

“What should we do?” he said. “It’s not logical to sit at home and not get on. It’s logical to get another company, another driver.”

Draped across the entrance of the mosque was a banner with a picture of General Suleimani next to the words, “The Islamic Republic is considered a shrine. Those who are voting are defending the shrine.”

The morning’s voting was marred by widespread reports of electronic voting systems malfunctioning and going offline from polling stations across Iran, according to Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. As polls opened Friday morning, voters showed up to hear that they could not vote, and multiple polling stations had to delay their opening by more than an hour, Tasnim reported.

“This is an epidemic of ballot boxes malfunctioning now,” said Kian Abdollahi, Tasnim’s editor in chief, during a live election report on Clubhouse, the audio-only social media app. “This is unacceptable given concerns about low election turnout.”

Tehran’s governor confirmed that there were technical problems with electronic voting systems at 79 polling stations across the capital.

It was not immediately clear what had caused the problems.

Outside the Hosseinieh Ershad polling station, Shabna, 40, a government employee who works in information technology and also gave just one name, was alternately throwing her fist in the air as she chanted “I support Hemmati” and tugging her colorful head scarf, which was slipping amid all the excitement, back into place.

“We want to stop this engineered election,” she said, explaining that she believed Mr. Hemmati, as an economist, was best qualified to turn the economy around. A minute later, she was locked in an argument with a Hemmati critic.

But most voters interviewed on Friday did not seem to have such strong views about any particular candidate. They were there to vote because they always had, or because they believed in the system.

Efat Rahmati, 54, a nurse, said it was strange that the Iranian authorities had excluded so many candidates from the race, a fact that many Iranians said had paved the way for Mr. Raisi to win. But she had still decided to vote, partly out of a personal liking for Mr. Raisi, and partly because the authorities “have more knowledge than me about this issue,” she said. “I think Raisi was better than the rest anyway.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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