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At UN: US, Partners Call for North Korea Sanctions Enforcement 

The United States and several allies on Thursday issued a joint condemnation of North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile launches and urged the thorough implementation of U.N. sanctions. 

“It is extremely important that member states take the necessary steps to implement the sanctions in their jurisdictions or risk providing a blank check for the DPRK regime to advance a weapons program,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name. 

She spoke to reporters at the United Nations flanked by her counterparts from Albania, Brazil, Britain, France, Ireland, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. All but Japan are current security council members. 

This is the second time in 10 days that the council has met behind closed doors to discuss North Korea’s missile launches. 

Since the start of the year, North Korea has conducted two tests of what it described as a hypersonic missile, launched a pair of ballistic missiles from a train, and fired a pair of tactical guided missiles from an airport in Pyongyang. 

“We will continue to speak out against the DPRK’s destabilizing actions as affronts to regional and international peace and security,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We call on the DPRK to cease these unlawful actions and return to dialogue.” 

North Korea has ignored repeated offers by the United States to restart negotiations, saying Washington must first drop its “hostile policy.” 

Thomas-Greenfield also called on the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea to support sanctions designations on individuals and entities contributing to Pyongyang’s illicit weapons programs, including five individuals whom the U.S. proposed to be sanctioned last week. 

Diplomats said Thursday that China and Russia were holding up the designations. The committee must unanimously agree to new designations. 

US Travel Advisory Dismays Canadians Amid Omicron Wave

Canadians, quietly prideful about their relatively high rates of COVID-19 vaccination and face mask compliance, were taken aback last week when the United States declared the country unsafe and advised Americans not to travel across their northern border.

“That the U.S. government … has placed Canada at the top COVID threat level for Americans to travel is baffling to me,” said Grant Perry, who worked with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on Canada’s H1N1 response.

“COVID is rampant across the continent, but Canada is not the worrying location,” Perry said in an interview.

The January 10 advisory on the U.S. State Department website, saying bluntly, “Do not travel to Canada due to COVID-19,” marked a sharp reversal of fortune after months in which Canada had fared much better than its southern neighbor against the virus.

With 78% of the population fully vaccinated compared with 63% in the U.S. and far less resistance to the use of face masks, a certain complacency — even smugness — had set in in some quarters before the arrival of omicron.

Even today, per capita caseloads and hospitalizations are lower than in the United States, but medical experts are no less alarmed by a surge of cases that is now straining the country’s government-run health care system.

‘Neck deep,’ but promising signs

“Canada is currently neck deep in omicron right now and our health care system is stretched,” said Isaac Bogoch, a medical expert with the University of Toronto department of medicine who is frequently interviewed by Canadian news outlets.

“There may be some very early signs that this wave is peaking in some regions,” Bogoch added. “All parts of the country have some form of mitigation effort, ranging from mask use indoors to vaccine certificate required for nonessential businesses.”

Canada’s seven-day average of new cases peaked at more than 46,000 on January 10, the day of the U.S. advisory, and currently stands at more than 26,000. Those figures compare with previous peaks of fewer than 9,000 daily new cases in January and April 2021, according to a Google database.

The same database shows hospitalizations at about 9,700 and rising, compared with a previous peak of fewer than 4,800.

The strain has led to calls for systemic reform of the health care system, which was struggling in some regions even before the pandemic.

In the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, there has been a crushing doctor shortage for years. Provincial Premier Tim Houston led his Conservative Party to an upset victory last year, at least in part on promises to address the health care crisis, even though the province was experiencing few COVID-19 cases at the time.

Nigel Rawson, a senior fellow at the pro-market Fraser Institute think tank, told VOA: “The current COVID situation yet again demonstrates the fragility of the health system, which normally runs at full capacity because governments insist on paring the numbers of health care providers, hospital beds and most other services to the bone, while being overburdened with administrators.”

‘They are doing their best’

Taylor James, a recovering COVID-19 sufferer living in the western city of Calgary, has a more forgiving view of the government’s dilemma.

“As much as I am not a fan of any of our current elected leaders, I do think for the most part they are doing their best,” said James, a truck driver who gave up his previous job as a city transit driver to reduce his exposure to the coronavirus. “The problem comes in when they try and please both sides. You have anti-mask, anti-vax on one side and pro-mask, pro-vax on the other.

“They can’t win,” he said. “Go all out and shut everything down and you make one group rebel. Or do the opposite and have an overloaded health care system and cause the professionals running that to leave or worse.”

James believes, ironically, that he contracted the disease on a work trip to the United States.

“Can’t say 100% that I caught it in the USA. However, it is very likely, seeing as how everywhere I was in Canada still had mandatory mask and vaccination mandates to enter,” he said.

US Air Travel Safety Questions Linger Amid 5G Rollout

An unresolved disagreement between U.S. wireless communications carriers and commercial airlines over the rollout of new 5G networks continues to generate confusion about whether air travel is safe in the United States. 

On Wednesday, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest providers of mobile voice and internet service in the U.S., began turning on new wireless towers across the United States, making the ultra-fast 5G spectrum available to consumers, primarily in the more densely populated parts of the country.

Up until the last moment, there was a dispute between the carriers and major U.S. airlines over whether or not the new service would be deployed near airports. This caused a handful of international carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, All Nippon, Japan Airlines and Emirates, to announce that they would suspend some service to the United States until the issue was resolved.

Emirates President Tim Clark described the situation as “utterly irresponsible,” speaking earlier this week on CNN.

By Thursday morning, most of the concern about international flights had been resolved, but lingering questions remain for the United States’ vast system or regional air travel.

Interference with landing instruments possible

The 5G C-band spectrum signal used for mobile communications – for which mobile carriers paid more than $80 billion in an auction last year – is similar to the signal that commercial airlines use to measure the altitude of planes landing during inclement weather. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern that some aircraft devices, called radar altimeters, could experience interference from the new 5G signals, creating dangerous conditions.

On Wednesday, in a deal brokered by the Biden administration, mobile carriers said they would delay activating 5G towers near airport runways, leaving about 10% of the planned rollout inactive. In addition, the FAA specifically cleared several kinds of radar altimeters, including those commonly used in the Boeing 777, saying the data shows that 5G signals do not interfere with their systems.

In a press release Wednesday, the FAA said its new approvals “allow an estimated 62 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.”

Regional airports waiting for answers

While the FAA’s steps to clear large passenger planes for continued use following the 5G rollout have helped prevent problems at large airports, the new technology is causing concern about safety at regional airports across the country, which are served by a wide variety of passenger planes, typically smaller than those that fly into major hub airports.

As of Wednesday, the FAA had not updated guidance for many smaller planes. Because there were relatively few severe weather systems in the U.S. on Wednesday, that did not translate into major delays. However, industry representatives said that it was only a matter of time before challenging weather conditions would begin causing problems.

Faye Malarkey Black, the president and CEO of the regional Airline Association, used Twitter to air her concerns about the situation, saying, “Situational update: 0% of the regional airline fleet has been cleared to perform low visibility landings at #5G impacted airports if/when weather drops below minimums. Today’s fair weather is saving rural America from severe air service disruption.”

Not a new problem

The battle between the airlines and mobile carriers is particularly frustrating to many in the U.S., because it is a problem that has been successfully resolved in other countries around the world. China, the U.K., and France, for example, have managed to roll out 5G service without any significant impact on air travel. That was achieved by agreements between the parties that limited the number of cell towers near airports and the power levels at which they operate.

In a warning to its members, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations noted that, in the U.S., “The power levels and proximities of the 5G signals are at higher power levels than any other deployment currently in use elsewhere in the world.”

The situation in the U.S. was complicated by the fact that the slice of spectrum being used for 5G services is slightly different here than it is in Europe. In the U.S., mobile carriers bought the rights to the band between 3.7 and 3.98 gigahertz, putting their signals somewhat closer to the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz being used by airlines than the European mobile carriers, which are limited to a range of 3.4 to 3.8 GHz.

The issue was raised during a press conference that U.S.President Joe Biden held at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. After being asked whether his administration bore part of the blame for confusion about flight safety, Biden characterized it as a fight between two private entities, over which the federal government exerts limited control.

“The fact is that you had two enterprises — two private enterprises — that had one promoting 5G and the other one are airlines,” Biden said. “They’re private enterprises. They have government regulation, admittedly.”

“And so, what I’ve done is pushed as hard as I can to have 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over the years so that 5G would not interfere with the potential of the landing,” he said. “So, any tower — any 5G tower within a certain number of miles from the airport should not be operative.”

Bureaucratic dysfunction

The confusion resulting from the 5G rollout this week is at least partly attributable to dysfunction within the federal bureaucracy. Analysts say lines of authority between agencies responsible for auctioning off the rights to the wireless spectrum and those charged with managing conflicts are unclear. 

The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for spectrum auctions, but it is the Federal Aviation Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, which makes decisions about airline safety. Further complicating matters is that the agency in charge of mediating spectrum disputes, which is located within the Commerce Department, was without a director for two-and-a-half-years, until President Biden’s nominee was confirmed last week.

That situation has led to multiple problems in the rollout of new communications technology over the years, including a recent battle during the Trump administration over whether new spectrum auctions would interfere with the satellite-based Global Positioning System

US Jobless Benefit Claims Increase Sharply

First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation increased sharply last week to their highest level since October 2021, suggesting that some employers may be laying off workers as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges throughout the country and curtails business operations. 

The Labor Department said Thursday that 286,000 jobless workers filed for benefits, up 55,000 from the week before, surpassing the 256,000 figure recorded in mid-March, 2020, when the coronavirus first swept into the United States and businesses started laying off workers by the hundreds of thousands.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has been recording 750,000 or more new cases of the coronavirus every day, largely because of the highly transmissible omicron variant. In some instances, that has played havoc with sectors of the world’s biggest economy.

For the most part, employers have been retaining their workers and searching for more as the United States continues its rapid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate dropped in December to 3.9%, not far above the five-decade low of 3.5% recorded before the pandemic took hold.  

Many employers are looking for more workers, despite about 6.9 million workers remaining unemployed in the United States.  

At the end of November, there were 10.4 million job openings in the U.S., but the skills of available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live. In addition, many of the available jobs are low-wage service positions that the jobless are shunning.  

U.S. employers added only 199,000 new jobs in December, a lower-than-expected figure. But overall, 6.3 million jobs were created through 2021 in a much quicker recovery than many economists had originally forecast a year ago.  

The U.S. economic advance is occurring even as President Joe Biden and Washington policymakers, along with consumers, are expressing concerns about the biggest increase in consumer prices in four decades — 7% at an annualized rate in December. 

The surging inflation rate has pushed policymakers at the country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, to move more quickly to end the asset purchases they had used to boost the country’s economic recovery, by March rather than in mid-2022 as originally planned.  

Minutes of the Fed board’s most recent meeting showed that policymakers are eyeing a faster pace for raising the benchmark interest rate that they have kept at near 0% since the pandemic started. 

The Federal Reserve has said it could raise the rate, which influences the borrowing costs of loans made to businesses and consumers, by a 0.25 percentage point three times this year to tamp down inflationary pressures. 

Meanwhile, government statistics show U.S. consumers are paying sharply higher prices for food, meals at restaurants, gasoline and for new and used vehicles.

Explainer: What Are US Military Options to Help Ukraine?

President Joe Biden is not planning to answer a further Russian invasion of Ukraine by sending combat troops. But he could pursue a range of less dramatic yet still risky military options, including supporting a post-invasion Ukrainian resistance.

The rationale for not directly joining a Russia-Ukraine war is simple. The United States has no treaty obligation to Ukraine, and war with Russia would be an enormous gamble, given its potential for expanding in Europe, destabilizing the region, and escalating to the frightening point of risking a nuclear exchange.

Doing too little has its risks, too. It might suggest an acquiescence to future Russian moves against other countries in eastern Europe, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, although as NATO members those three have security assurances from the United States and the rest of the alliance.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Europe this week to speak with officials in Ukraine, consult NATO allies and then meet Friday with his Russian counterpart, has asserted “an unshakable U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But he has not publicly defined the limits of that commitment.

How far, then, might the United States and its allies go to help Ukraine defend itself if the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders leads to an invasion?

 

WHY NOT CONTEST A RUSSIAN INVASION?

Going to war against Russia in Ukraine could tie up U.S. forces and resources for years and take a heavy toll in lives with an uncertain outcome at a time when the Biden administration is trying to focus on China as the chief security threat.

On Wednesday, Biden said it was his “guess” that Russian President Vladimir Putin will end up sending forces into Ukraine, although he also said he doesn’t think Putin wants all-out war. Biden did not address the possibility of putting U.S. ground troops in Ukraine to stop an invasion, but he previously had ruled that out.

Biden said he is uncertain how Putin will use the forces he has assembled near Ukraine’s border, but the United States and NATO have rejected what Moscow calls its main demand — a guarantee that the Western alliance will not expand further eastward. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also intervened in eastern Ukraine that year to support a separatist insurgency. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting there.

The stakes in Ukraine are high — militarily and politically. Lawmakers have intensified their criticism of Biden’s approach to Putin. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Biden of “handwringing and appeasement,” but he has not urged sending combat troops. Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, called for an urgent “nonstop airlift” of military equipment and trainers into Ukraine.

Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as the top NATO commander in Europe from 2013 to 2016, said in an interview he does not expect or recommend that the United States send combat troops into Ukraine. Instead, Washington and its allies should be looking for ways to help Ukraine defend its own airspace and territorial waters, where it faces overwhelming Russian superiority, he said.

“Those are things we should be considering as an alliance and as a nation,” he said. “If Mr. Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine and there were to be little or no consequence, we will see more of the same.”

 

WHAT ARE BIDEN’S OTHER OPTIONS?

Given its clear military inferiority, Ukraine could not prevent Russian forces from invading. But with help from the United States and others, Ukraine might deter Putin from acting if he were convinced that the costs would be too high.

“The key to thwarting Russian ambitions is to prevent Moscow from having a quick victory and to raise the economic, political, and military costs by imposing economic sanctions, ensuring political isolation from the West, and raising the prospect of a prolonged insurgency that grinds away the Russian military,” Seth Jones, a political scientist, and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary officer, wrote in a Jan. 13 analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Biden administration has suggested it is thinking along similar lines.

 

HOW IS THE U.S. SUPPORTING UKRAINE’S MILITARY NOW?

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby says there are about 200 National Guard soldiers in Ukraine to train and advise local forces, and on Tuesday he said there are no plans to augment their number. There also are an undisclosed number of U.S. special operations troops providing training in Ukraine. Kirby wouldn’t say whether the U.S. soldiers would pull out in the event of a Russian invasion, but he said the Pentagon would “make all the appropriate and proper decisions to make sure our people are safe in any event.”

The administration said Wednesday it is providing a further $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Since 2014 the United States has provided Ukraine with about $2.5 billion in defense assistance, including anti-tank missiles and radars.

 

HOW MIGHT THE U.S. HELP UKRAINE AFTER AN INVASION?

It’s not clear. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that the U.S. would “dramatically ramp up” support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty.” But he did not spell out how that might be done.

The administration says it also is open to sending military reinforcements to NATO allies on the eastern front who want American reassurance.

Jones and Wasielewski say that in addition to implementing severe sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion, the United States should provide Ukraine with a broad range of military assistance at no cost. This would include air defense, anti-tank and anti-ship systems; electronic warfare and cyber defense systems; small arms and artillery ammunition, and other items.

“The United States and NATO should be prepared to offer long-term support to Ukraine’s resistance no matter what form it ends up taking,” they wrote. This aid could be delivered overtly with the help of U.S. troops, including special operations forces, or it could be a CIA-led covert action authorized by President Biden, they added.

That would carry the risk of putting U.S. personnel in the line of fire — and drawing the United States into the very combat it’s determined to avoid.

British Police Arrest 2 in Texas Synagogue Attack Investigation

British police on Thursday arrested two men as part of an investigation into a hostage taking at a synagogue in Texas.

“Two men have been arrested this morning in Birmingham and Manchester,” counter terrorism police said.

The daylong siege at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, about 16 miles northeast of Fort Worth, Texas, ended in gunfire on Saturday night with all four hostages released unharmed and the death of the suspect.

 

 

Security Scanners Across Europe Tied to China Government, Military

At some of the world’s most sensitive spots, authorities have installed security screening devices made by a single Chinese company with deep ties to China’s military and the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party.

The World Economic Forum in Davos. Europe’s largest ports. Airports from Amsterdam to Athens. NATO’s borders with Russia. All depend on equipment manufactured by Nuctech, which has quickly become the world’s leading company, by revenue, for cargo and vehicle scanners.

Nuctech has been frozen out of the U.S. for years due to national security concerns, but it has made deep inroads across Europe, installing its devices in 26 of 27 EU member states, according to public procurement, government and corporate records reviewed by The Associated Press.

The complexity of Nuctech’s ownership structure and its expanding global footprint have raised alarms on both sides of the Atlantic.

A growing number of Western security officials and policymakers fear that China could exploit Nuctech equipment to sabotage key transit points or get illicit access to government, industrial or personal data from the items that pass through its devices.

Nuctech’s critics allege the Chinese government has effectively subsidized the company so it can undercut competitors and give Beijing potential sway over critical infrastructure in the West as China seeks to establish itself as a global technology superpower.

“The data being processed by these devices is very sensitive. It’s personal data, military data, cargo data. It might be trade secrets at stake. You want to make sure it’s in right hands,” said Bart Groothuis, director of cybersecurity at the Dutch Ministry of Defense before becoming a member of the European Parliament. “You’re dependent on a foreign actor which is a geopolitical adversary and strategic rival.”

He and others say Europe doesn’t have tools in place to monitor and resist such potential encroachment. Different member states have taken opposing views on Nuctech’s security risks. No one has even been able to make a comprehensive public tally of where and how many Nuctech devices have been installed across the continent.

Nuctech dismisses those concerns, countering that Nuctech’s European operations comply with local laws, including strict security checks and data privacy rules.

“It’s our equipment, but it’s your data. Our customer decides what happens with the data,” said Robert Bos, deputy general manager of Nuctech in the Netherlands, where the company has a research and development center.

He said Nuctech is a victim of unfounded allegations that have cut its market share in Europe nearly in half since 2019.

“It’s quite frustrating to be honest,” Bos told AP. “In the 20 years we delivered this equipment we never had issues of breaches or data leaks. Till today we never had any proof of it.”

‘It’s not really a company’

As security screening becomes increasingly interconnected and data-driven, Nuctech has found itself on the front lines of the U.S.-China battle for technology dominance now playing out across Europe.

In addition to scanning systems for people, baggage and cargo, the company makes explosives detectors and interconnected devices capable of facial recognition, body temperature measurement and ID card or ticket identification.

On its website, Nuctech’s parent company explains that Nuctech does more than just provide hardware, integrating “cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things with safety inspection technologies and products to supply the clients with hi-tech safety inspection solution.”

Critics fear that under China’s national intelligence laws, which require Chinese companies to surrender data requested by state security agencies, Nuctech would be unable to resist calls from Beijing to hand over sensitive data about the cargo, people and devices that pass through its scanners. They say there is a risk Beijing could use Nuctech’s presence across Europe to gather big data about cross-border trade flows, pull information from local networks, like shipping manifests or passenger information, or sabotage trade flows in a conflict.

A July 2020 Canadian government security review of Nuctech found that X-ray security scanners could potentially be used to covertly collect and transmit information, compromise portable electronic devices as they pass through the scanner or alter results to allow transit of “nefarious” devices.

The European Union put measures in place in late 2020 that can be used to vet Chinese foreign direct investment. But policymakers in Brussels say there are currently no EU-wide systems in place to evaluate Chinese procurement, despite growing concerns about unfair state subsidies, lack of reciprocity, national security and human rights.

“This is becoming more and more dangerous. I wouldn’t mind if one or two airports had Nuctech systems, but with dumping prices a lot of regions are taking it,” said Axel Voss, a German member of the European Parliament who works on data protection. “This is becoming more and more a security question. You might think it’s a strategic investment of the Chinese government.”

The U.S. — home to OSI Systems, one of Nuctech’s most important commercial rivals — has come down hard against Nuctech. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security all have raised concerns about Nuctech.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration told AP in an email that Nuctech was found ineligible to receive sensitive security information. Nuctech products, TSA said, “are not authorized to be used for the screening of passengers, baggage, accessible property or air cargo in the United States.”

In December 2020, the U.S. added Nuctech to the Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, restricting exports to them on national security grounds.

“It’s not just commercial,” said a U.S. government official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s using state-backed companies, with state subsidies, low-ball bids to get into European critical infrastructure, which is civil airports, passenger screening, seaport and cargo screening.”

 

In Europe, Nuctech’s bids can be 30-50% below their rivals’, according to the company’s competitors, U.S. and European officials and researchers who study China. Sometimes they include other sweeteners like extended maintenance contracts and favorable loans.

In 2009, Nuctech’s main European competitor, Smiths Detection, complained that it was being squeezed out of the market by such practices, and the EU imposed an anti-dumping duty of 36.6% on Nuctech cargo scanners.

“Nuctech comes in with below market bids no one can match. It’s not a normal price, it’s an economic statecraft price,” said Didi Kirsten Tatlow, and co-editor of the book, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology. “It’s not really a company. They are more like a wing of a state development drive.”

Nuctech’s Bos said the company keeps prices low by manufacturing in Europe. “We don’t have to import goods from the U.S. or other countries,” he said. “Our supply chain is very efficient with local suppliers, that’s the main reason we can be very competitive.”

Nuctech’s successes abound. The company, which is opening offices in Brussels, Madrid and Rome, says it has supplied customers in more than 170 countries and regions. Nuctech said in 2019 that it had installed more than 1,000 security check devices in Europe for customs, civil aviation, ports and government organizations.

In November 2020, Norwegian Customs put out a call to buy a new cargo scanner for the Svinesund checkpoint, a complex of squat, grey buildings at the Swedish border. An American rival and two other companies complained that the terms as written gave Nuctech a leg up.

The specifications were rewritten, but Nuctech won the deal anyway. The Chinese company beat its rivals on both price and quality, said Jostein Engen, the customs agency’s director of procurement, and none of Norway’s government ministries raised red flags that would have disqualified Nuctech.

“We in Norwegian Customs must treat Nuctech like everybody else in our competition,” Engen said. “We can’t do anything else following EU rules on public tenders.”

Four of five NATO member states that border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland — have purchased Nuctech equipment for their border crossings with Russia. So has Finland.

Europe’s two largest ports — Rotterdam and Antwerp, which together handled more than a third of goods, by weight, entering and leaving the EU’s main ports in 2020 — use Nuctech devices, according to parliamentary testimony.

Other key states at the edges of the EU, including the U.K., Turkey, Ukraine, Albania, Belarus and Serbia have also purchased Nuctech scanners, some of which were donated or financed with low-interest loans from Chinese state banks, according to public procurement documents and government announcements.

Airports in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Zurich, Geneva and more than a dozen across Spain have all signed deals for Nuctech equipment, procurement and government documents, and corporate announcements show.

Nuctech says it provided security equipment for the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, then President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017 and the World Economic Forum in 2020. It has also provided equipment to some U.N. organizations, procurement records show.

Rising concerns

As Nuctech’s market share has grown, so too has skepticism about the company.

Canadian authorities dropped a standing offer from Nuctech to provide X-ray scanning equipment at more than 170 Canadian diplomatic missions around the world after a government assessment found an “elevated threat” of espionage.

Lithuania, which is involved in a diplomatic feud with China over Taiwan, blocked Nuctech from providing airport scanners earlier this year after a national security review found that it wasn’t possible for the equipment to operate in isolation and there was a risk information could leak back to China, according to Margiris Abukevicius, vice minister for international cooperation and cybersecurity at Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defense.

Then, in August, Lithuania approved a deal for a Nuctech scanner on its border with Belarus. There were only two bidders, Nuctech and a Russian company — both of which presented national security concerns — and there wasn’t time to reissue the tender, two Lithuanian officials told AP.

“It’s just an ad hoc decision choosing between bad and worse options,” Abukevicius said. He added that the government is developing a road map to replace all Nuctech scanners currently in use in Lithuania as well as a legal framework to ban purchases of untrusted equipment by government institutions and in critical sectors.

Human rights concerns are also generating headwinds for Nuctech. The company does business with police and other authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of genocide for mass incarceration and abuse of minority Uyghur Muslims.

Despite pressure from U.S. and European policymakers on companies to stop doing business in Xinjiang, European governments have continued to award tens of millions of dollars in contracts — sometimes backed by European Union funds — to Nuctech.

Nuctech says on its Chinese website that China’s western regions, including Xinjiang, are “are important business areas” for the company. It has signed multiple contracts to provide X-ray equipment to Xinjiang’s Department of Transportation and Public Security Department.

It has provided license plate recognition devices for a police checkpoint in Xinjiang, Chinese government records show, and an integrated security system for the subway in Urumqi, the region’s capital city. It regularly showcases its security equipment at trade fairs in Xinjiang.

“Companies like Nuctech directly enable Xinjiang’s high-tech police state and its intrusive ways of suppressing ethnic minorities. This should be taken into account when Western governments and corporations interface with Nuctech,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has documented abuses in Xinjiang and compiled evidence of the company’s activities in the region.

Nuctech’s Bos said he can understand those views, but that the company tries to steer clear of politics. “Our daily goal is to have equipment to secure the world more and better,” he said. “We don’t interfere with politics.”

Complex web of ownership

Nuctech opened a factory in Poland in 2018 with the tagline “Designed in China and manufactured in Europe.” But ultimate responsibility for the company lies far from Warsaw, with the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council in Beijing, China’s top governing body.

Nuctech’s ownership structure is so complex that it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the true lines of influence and accountability.

Scott Kennedy, a Chinese economic policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the ambiguous boundaries between the Communist Party, state companies and financial institutions in China — which have only grown murkier under China’s leader, Xi Jinping — can make it difficult to grasp how companies like Nuctech are structured and operate.

“Consider if the roles were reversed. If the Chinese were acquiring this equipment for their airports they’d want a whole variety of assurances,” Kennedy said. “China has launched a high-tech self-sufficiency drive because they don’t feel safe with foreign technology in their supply chain.”

What is clear is that Nuctech, from its very origins, has been tied to Chinese government, academic and military interests.

Nuctech was founded as an offshoot of Tsinghua University, an elite public research university in Beijing. It grew with backing from the Chinese government and for years was run by the son of China’s former leader, Hu Jintao.

Datenna, a Dutch economic intelligence company focused on China, mapped the ownership structure of Nuctech and found a dozen major entities across four layers of shareholding, including four state-owned enterprises and three government entities.

Today the majority shareholder in Nuctech is Tongfang Co., which has a 71% stake. The largest shareholder in Tongfang, in turn, is the investment arm of the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), a state-run energy and defense conglomerate controlled by China’s State Council. The U.S. Defense Department classifies CNNC as a Chinese military company because it shares advanced technologies and expertise with the People’s Liberation Army.

Xi has further blurred the lines between China’s civilian and military activities and deepened the power of the ruling Communist Party within private enterprises. One way: the creation of dozens of government-backed financing vehicles designed to speed the development of technologies that have both military and commercial applications.

In fact, one of those vehicles, the National Military-Civil Fusion Industry Investment Fund, announced in June 2020 that it wanted to take a 4.4% stake in Nuctech’s majority shareholder, along with the right to appoint a director to the Tongfang board. It never happened — “changes in the market environment,” Tongfeng explained in a Chinese stock exchange filing.

But there are other links between Nuctech’s ownership structure and the fusion fund.

CNNC, which has a 21% interest in Nuctech, holds a stake of more than 7% in the fund, according to Qichacha, a Chinese corporate information platform. They also share personnel: Chen Shutang, a member of CNNC’s Party Leadership Group and the company’s chief accountant serves as a director of the fund, records show.

“The question here is whether or not we want to allow Nuctech, which is controlled by the Chinese state and linked to the Chinese military, to be involved in crucial parts of our border security and infrastructure,” said Jaap van Etten, a former Dutch diplomat and CEO of Datenna.

Nuctech maintains that its operations are shaped by market forces, not politics, and says CNNC doesn’t control its corporate management or decision-making.

“We are a normal commercial operator here in Europe which has to obey the laws,” said Nuctech’s Bos. “We work here with local staff members, we pay tax, contribute to the social community and have local suppliers.”

But experts say these touchpoints are further evidence of the government and military interests encircling the company and show its strategic interest to Beijing.

“Under Xi Jinping, the national security elements of the state are being fused with the technological and innovation dimensions of the state,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

“Military-civil fusion is one of the key battlegrounds between the U.S. and China. The Europeans will have to figure out where they stand.” 

 

 

Republican Filibuster Blocks US Voting Bill

Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights groups argued is vital for protecting democracy was blocked Wednesday by a Republican filibuster, a setback for President Joe Biden and his party after a raw, emotional debate.

Democrats were poised to immediately pivot to voting on a Senate rules change as a way to overcome the filibuster and approve the bill with a simple majority. But the rules change was also headed toward defeat, as Biden has been unable to persuade two holdout senators in his own party, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to change the Senate procedures for this one bill.

“This is not just another routine day in the Senate, this is a moral moment,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

The initial vote was 49-51, short of the 60 votes needed to advance over the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voted no for procedural reasons so Democrats can revisit the legislation.

The nighttime voting capped a day of piercing debate that carried echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation.

Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws to make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.

Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to cast a potentially tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate.

Democrats decided to press ahead despite the potential for defeat at a tumultuous time for Biden and his party. Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats’ inability to unite around their own goals. But the Democrats wanted to force senators on the record — even their own party’s holdouts — to show voters where they stand.

“I haven’t given up,” Biden said earlier at a White House news conference.

Sinema and Manchin have withstood an onslaught of criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations, and they risk further political fallout as other groups and even their own colleagues threaten to withdraw campaign support.

Schumer contended the fight is not over and he ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not end up hurting voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 presidential election.

The Democrats’ bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic — and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. It has passed the House.

Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation but are unwilling to change Senate rules. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority — Harris can break a tie — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.

Instead, Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this one bill. It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.

But even that is expected to fail because Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone. 

Europe, US Aim to Ensure Mali Doesn’t Become First of Many Dominoes

Frustrations are growing in and around Mali, where regional and international efforts to speed up the interim government’s transition to democratic elections appear to be at a dead end. Still, key players from Europe and the United States are refusing to give up, warning what is at stake goes much beyond Mali itself. More from VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin.

Biden Confirms Harris Would Be Running Mate in 2024 

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate in the 2024 presidential election if he stood for office again.

“She’s going to be my running mate,” Biden said of Harris during a press conference held to mark the first year of his presidency.

In mid-December, Harris said she and Biden had not yet discussed the 2024 election, amid speculation she might not be in the running for the White House if Biden chose not to stand again.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, when asked about the possibility of Biden, 79, running again, Harris said: “I don’t think about it, nor have we talked about it.”

Harris, the first woman and first Black and Asian American person ever sworn in as vice president, initially seemed to be the heir apparent.

But her halo has slipped amid negative press alleging dysfunction among her staff, doubt on her standing within the administration and her frustrations over thorny assignments, such as minority voting access and the migration crisis at the southern border.

Biden defended Harris’ record on tackling voting rights, saying, “I did put her in charge. I think she’s doing a good job.” 

Biden is pressing Congress to pass two major bills broadening access to the ballot box, placing more onerous conditions on states attempting to change voting laws and protecting election officials from undue influence.

Democrats and voting rights activists have championed the measures as a necessary response to Republican efforts to restrict voting, especially among Black and Latino Americans.

State Department Recap: January 13-19, 2022

Here’s a look at what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats have been doing this week:

US, Russia, Ukraine

The United States will continue relentless diplomatic efforts to prevent Russia from further military aggression against Ukraine while providing defensive security assistance to Kyiv, Blinken said Wednesday.

“We’ve offered Russia a clear choice, a choice between pursuing dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand or confrontation and consequences on the other hand,” Blinken told VOA in an interview.

Standing with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at a press conference, Blinken added that U.S. security assistance deliveries to Ukraine were ongoing and that more were scheduled “in the coming weeks.”  

VOA Interview: Blinken Warns Russia of Action Should Moscow Invade Ukraine

After Ukraine, Blinken heads to Berlin on Thursday and then to Geneva, where he will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday. Blinken will urge Russia to “take immediate steps to de-escalate” tensions along its border with Ukraine. The hastily arranged trip for the top U.S. diplomat comes one week after U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva reached an impasse.

Blinken, Lavrov to Meet in Geneva Friday to Continue Diplomacy Over Ukraine

US-North Korea

In response to North Korea’s recent missile launches, the United States called on Pyongyang to “cease its unlawful and destabilizing activities.”

In a call with South Korean and Japanese officials, Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, “expressed concern” about the missile launches and urged Pyongyang to return to dialogue “without preconditions.”

North Korea’s launch on Monday, which South Korea said involved short-range ballistic missiles, marked North Korea’s fourth weapons test this month as Pyongyang flexes its military muscle while ignoring the United States’ offers of talks. 

North Korea Confirms Latest Missile Test

US-Iran 

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley will meet with Barry Rosen, an American who was taken hostage in Iran in 1979, while giving “full attention” to and seeking the release of all wrongfully detained American citizens in Iran, a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

Rosen began a hunger strike in Vienna on Wednesday to press U.S. and Iranian officials to come to an agreement about the release of Americans and other Westerners of Iranian origin jailed by Tehran. He hopes the move will help to break a monthslong stalemate in indirect talks between the two sides.

Former US Hostage in Iran to Begin Hunger Strike to Press for Prisoner Deal

Humanitarian assistance to Afghans 

The United States said it would continue to support the people of Afghanistan, as Washington delivers more doses of COVID-19 vaccine and provides humanitarian funds.

He highlighted the United States’ latest contribution of more than $308 million toward humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people during a virtual meeting with U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths. The U.N. said it is “in a race against time” to prevent millions of Afghans from falling deeper into a severe economic and humanitarian crisis.

UN Chief: ‘Race Against Time’ to Save Afghan Economy

University of Michigan to Pay Victims of Doctor’s Sexual Assaults

School officials and those close to the agreement say the University of Michigan has agreed to a $490 million settlement with more than 1,000 former athletes and students, who say they were sexually assaulted by the school’s former sports doctor. 

 

An attorney for the plaintiffs told the Associated Press all 1,050 of those joining the lawsuit against former university doctor Robert Anderson will share the settlement. The claimants — many of whom were men who filed their suits anonymously — say the university knew what Anderson was doing but failed to act.

 

Anderson worked at the university for 37 years, from 1968 to 2003 and was the director of the university’s health center and the physician for several sports teams.

 

Many of those who came forward were football players and other athletes who say Anderson touched their genitals inappropriately during routine examinations. Some of his accusers say his activities had become so well known among Michigan athletes, he became known to many of them as “Dr. Drop Your Drawers” and “Dr. Glove.”

 

The Detroit Free Press reports some of the accusations go as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s, when some accusers allege Anderson traded sexual favors for letters to draft boards establishing men as homosexual and thus making them eligible for a draft deferment. 

 

After a number of football players and other athletes came forward to accuse Anderson, who died in 2008, of sexually abusing them, the school hired an independent firm to investigate the allegations and its report was released last May. 

 

The independent firm reported, based on the evidence, there was no doubt Anderson “engaged in a pervasive, decades-long, destructive pattern of sexual misconduct.” It went on to say the school missed many opportunities to stop Anderson, but it failed to do so during his career. 

 

The Free Press reports a portion of the settlement money will be set aside for future settlements. 

 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 

US Government to Distribute 400 Million High-Quality Face Masks

U.S. news outlets said Wednesday that the Biden administration will distribute 400 million high-quality face masks free of charge to the American people beginning next week.

A White House official, speaking anonymously, said the N95 masks will be shipped to thousands of local pharmacies and community health centers across the United States beginning later this week, with three masks available per adult. The program will be fully operational by early February.

The N95 masks are part of the 750 million masks housed in the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which stores critical medicines and medical supplies for use during a public health emergency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that N95 masks, which are designed to fit tightly on a person’s face, “offer the highest level of protection” against COVID-19, compared to other face masks.

The officials say the distribution of the N95 masks will be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

Announcement of the free N95 face masks comes on the same day as the official debut of the federal government’s new website that allows Americans to request free rapid coronavirus test kits. Millions of households began placing orders for the test kits Tuesday during a soft launch of Covidtests.gov. The website allows each household to order a maximum of four tests after clicking on a link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.

Some occupants of apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, however, complained on social media that the website’s address verification tool was enforcing the four-per-person household, only allowing one family per building to request the tests.

The two programs are part of an aggressive new effort by the Biden administration to combat a surge of new COVID-19 infections largely driven by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

A high-ranking official with the World Health Organization says the world could turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic this year through a more equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told the World Economic Forum Tuesday that COVID-19 may never be eradicated, but stressed the current public health emergency could finally come to an end if more vaccines finally reach the world’s poorest countries.

The U.N. health agency has repeatedly criticized the world’s richest countries for building up huge stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccines and using them to administer booster shots to its citizens, while poorer nations have barely received even a first dose of a vaccine.

More than 334,469,000 people around the globe have been sickened since COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, according to figures compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The center reports more than 5.5. million deaths globally.

Germany announced Wednesday that it had recorded 112,323 new COVID-19 cases, the country’s highest-ever daily figure and the first time it had broken the 100,000 mark for a single day. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control and prevention agency, said 70 percent of the new cases were driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. The surge of new infections has prompted the government of new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to consider imposing mandatory vaccinations.

Tokyo and 12 other Japanese prefectures will be placed under new COVID-19 restrictions effective Friday as Japan struggles with an omicron-driven surge. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday in the Japanese capital the new decree will allow local governors to limit the operating hours of bars and restaurants and ban the sale of alcohol. The restrictions will remain in effect until February 13.

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

Mali Textile Artisans Bemoan Loss of AGOA Trade With US

As of January 1, a U.S. trade program that allows African countries to export many items duty-free to the American market delisted Mali because of what the U.S. cited as “unconstitutional” developments in the country. But artisans in Mali’s capital say they’re the ones paying for the bad actions of the country’s leaders. Moctar Barry reports for VOA from Bamako.

Blinken Visits Ukraine as He Urges Russia to De-escalate Border Tensions

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv for talks Wednesday with Ukrainian leaders as part of what he called a “diplomatic effort to de-escalate tensions surrounding unprovoked Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.” 

The stop in Kyiv includes meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, as well as visiting with personnel at the U.S. Embassy. 

“We are now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a call briefing on Tuesday, adding that the United States continues to “prepare for a different outcome” if Moscow does decide to pursue further military aggression against Ukraine.  

Russia has continued its troop buildup and its harsh rhetoric against Ukraine, moving Russian forces into Belarus over the weekend.  

“Diplomacy is not dead,” the senior State Department official said, adding that “the U.S. side believes the only way to solve this conflict successfully is through diplomacy.”

Wednesday’s visit to Ukraine is the first leg of a quickly arranged trip that will take Blinken to Berlin on Thursday to meet with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock “to discuss recent diplomatic engagements with Russia and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said. 

Blinken is then set to urge Russia to “take immediate steps to de-escalate” tensions along the border as he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. 

Blinken spoke with Lavrov on Tuesday to stress “the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions surrounding the deeply troubling Russian military buildup in and near Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement about the conversation.    

“The secretary reiterated the unshakable U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscored that any discussion of European security must include NATO Allies and European partners, including Ukraine,” the statement added.       

The buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears that Moscow is planning military action against its neighbor, which was once part of the Russian-led Soviet Union.  Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.      

Blinken’s trip follows talks in Geneva last week between Russian and U.S. officials aimed at settling differences over Ukraine and other security issues. No progress was reported. 

Russia has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.      

Last week, the Biden administration accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag operation” for use as a ploy for intervention in Ukraine, a charge Russia has angrily denied.       

A U.S. delegation visited Kyiv on Monday to show support for Ukraine amid the standoff with Russia.      

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service, “We have Democrats and Republicans of very different political views here to say we stand with Ukraine. And if Vladimir Putin chooses to take this treacherous anti-democratic path of invading this country, there will be severe and swift sanctions.”          

U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told VOA, “The United States won’t just sit idly by and be a bystander if something happens. What we would like to do is prevent it from happening. We want to be a deterrent. We want to be part of the solution before fighting commences.”    

Chris Hannas contributed to this report. Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press. 

US President Biden Marks First Year in White House with First News Conference of 2022 

On the eve of his first anniversary in office, U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a news conference at the White House Wednesday with two key parts of his agenda stalled in Congress and the COVID-19 pandemic still wreaking havoc at home and abroad. 

President Biden’s first news conference of 2022 comes as his standing in voter opinion surveys has steadily fallen since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last September. His average approval ratings have been stuck just above 40%, with a poll released last week by Quinnipiac University giving him a dismal 33% approval rating. 

The president’s low approval ratings have been aggravated by perception of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which is heading into its third year despite the administration’s intense vaccination campaign. Public health experts have criticized the administration for failing to anticipate the emergence of the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus, as well as failing to increase COVID-19 testing capacity, including making rapid testing kits available for all Americans. 

Although Biden managed to steer a massive $1 trillion package to shore up the nation’s crumbling infrastructure through Congress, his attempts to secure final passage of his $1.8 trillion “Build Back Better” social safety net and climate change package in the U.S. Senate has been opposed by a member of his own Democratic party, moderate Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who holds a critical vote in the evenly-divided Senate. 

Reuters is reporting the White House is preparing a new stripped down version of Build Back Better that may cut some items such as the child tax credit and paid family leave in order to gain Manchin’s support.   

Manchin and another moderate Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are also blocking Senate passage of two voting rights bills supported by Biden, because of their opposition to changing the long-standing Senate rule that requires 60 members of the 100-member body to vote to advance the bills to a final vote. 

Wednesday’s news conference is just the 10th of Biden’s presidency, far less than his most recent predecessors going back to George H.W. Bush, according to data compiled by the University of California at Santa Barbara. 

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

A Year in, Biden’s Legislative Agenda Is a Mixed Bag

President Joe Biden is ending his first year in office with low approval ratings largely due to an economic recovery dragged down by inflation and a pandemic that is surging yet again. This, despite reaching a bipartisan consensus to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan and a $1 trillion infrastructure package. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this recap.

Produced by: Barry Unger      

Americans Begin Ordering Free At-Home COVID Tests

The U.S. government quietly conducted a soft launch Tuesday of its website where Americans can request free rapid coronavirus tests — a day ahead of the scheduled rollout.  

Covidtests.gov quickly became the most accessed federal government website as millions of households began placing orders for test kits. 

“COVIDtests.gov is up and running to help prepare for the full launch tomorrow. We have tests for every residential address in the U.S. Please check back tomorrow if you run into any unexpected issues,” said a notice at the top of the government website.  

This reporter mid-Tuesday was able to complete an order within about a minute after clicking on the link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.  

Some occupants of apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, however, complained on social media that the website’s address verification tool was enforcing the four-per-person household, only allowing one family per building to request the tests.

A member of Congress from the state of New York, Carolyn Maloney, tweeted advice on how apartment residents might avoid the glitch.

“Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during Tuesday’s White House briefing. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two, but the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.”  

An administration official last week promised reporters, “we’re ready for this,” explaining that four individual rapid antigen tests would be shipped in seven to 12 days via the Postal Service after a completed online order.  

“The 650,000 women and men of the United States Postal Service are ready to deliver and proud to play a critical role in supporting the health needs of the American public,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement last week. “We have been working closely with the Administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches.” 

President Joe Biden last week announced the government will purchase another 500 million at-home tests for the public, in addition to the order made last month for half a billion tests.  

The Biden administration’s plan is a classic case of big government seeming to be “needed” because it is difficult for private forces to address the problem, according to Jeffrey Miron, director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and a Harvard University economist. 

Americans have the option to purchase tests at pharmacies and other stores. New federal rules went into effect Saturday requiring private medical insurance companies to cover the cost of those at-home tests, but insurers say it could take weeks to sort out the reimbursement procedures, adding another headache to the process.    

“This federal intervention would never have been necessary had the private sector been free to develop, test, and sell test kits without interference from the Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control,” Miron told VOA. “Other countries had rapid tests widely available many months ago; so, the technology was clearly available.”  

Given the existing rules and regulations about private production and sale of test kits, however, “federal distribution is perhaps a useful step that will reduce the delays and bottlenecks that many people are experiencing in purchasing kits from private suppliers,” Miron said.  

White House Launches Website to Order Free At-Home COVID-19 Tests

The White House on Tuesday launched a website for U.S. citizens to order free at-home COVID-19 tests one day earlier than the launch was set to go online.

Americans can now go to COVIDTests.gov and request four at-home tests per household that will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters the website was in “beta testing” and functioning at a “limited capacity” before it officially launches Wednesday morning.

The preliminary launch is part of a Biden administration effort to tackle inventory problems and long lines for testing as the omicron variant pushes coronavirus infections in the U.S. to record high levels.

After saying in December the federal government would buy 500 million at-home tests for the online program, President Joe Biden announced Thursday he was increasing the order to 1 billion tests.

The tests will typically be shipped within 7-12 days of ordering through the USPS. Shipping times could be between 1-3 days within the continental U.S.

The Biden administration has also ordered private insurance companies to cover the cost of eight at-home rapid tests per month, starting January 15, enabling Americans to be reimbursed for tests they bought from retailers.

Racist Comment Results in Growing Awareness of Anti-Asian Sentiment in US

When a Korean American TV news anchor in St. Louis, Missouri, told the story of her traditional holiday meal of noodles, she received a racist message in response. That message, and the anchor’s reaction have sparked a viral conversation about anti-Asian racism. VOA’s Chris Casquejo reports.

US Airlines, Telecom Carriers Feuding Over Rollout of 5G Technology

Major U.S. air carriers are warning that the country’s “commerce will grind to a halt” if Verizon and AT&T go ahead with plans to deploy their new 5G mobile internet technology on Wednesday.

The airlines say the new technology will interfere with safe flight operations. 

The dispute between two major segments of the U.S. economy has been waged for months in Washington regulatory agencies, with the airline industry contending that the mobile carriers’ technology upgrade could disrupt global passenger service and cargo shipping, while the mobile carriers claim the airlines failed to upgrade equipment on their aircraft to prevent flight problems.

The new high-speed 5G mobile service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by altimeters — devices in cockpits that measure the height of aircraft above the ground. 

AT&T and Verizon argue that their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries. 

In a letter Monday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, chief executives at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and seven other passenger and cargo carriers protested the mobile carriers’ plan to roll out their upgraded service on Wednesday. 

While the Federal Aviation Administration previously said it would not object to deployment of the 5G technology because the mobile carriers said they would address safety concerns, the airline executives said aircraft manufacturers have subsequently warned them that the Verizon and AT&T measures were not sufficient to allay safety concerns.

The mobile companies said they would reduce power at 5G transmitters near airports, but the airlines have asked that the 5G technology not be activated within 3.2 kilometers of 50 major airports. 

The airline executives contended that if the 5G technology is used, “Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable. Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.” 

The airline industry executives argued that “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.” 

After the airlines’ latest protests, AT&T said Tuesday it would postpone its new wireless service near some airports but did not say at how many or where. Verizon had no immediate comment. 

In a statement Monday, the FAA said it “will continue to keep the traveling public safe as wireless companies deploy 5G” and “continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try and limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations.” 

The White House said Tuesday that the Biden administration is continuing discussions with the airline and telecommunications companies about the dispute.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

Blinken to Visit Ukraine, Germany to Discuss Russian Military Buildup

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Ukraine for talks with the country’s president, amid continued fears that Russia is planning to invade its neighbor. 

The State Department said Tuesday the quicky arranged trip has Blinken scheduled to meet Wednesday in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.  It said the visit is meant “to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Blinken will then travel on to Berlin to with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock “to discuss recent diplomatic engagements with Russia and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said.

The buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears Moscow is planning military action against its neighbor, which was once part of the Russian-led Soviet Union.  Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Blinken’s trip follows talks in Geneva last week between Russian and U.S. officials aimed at settling differences over Ukraine and other security issues.  No progress was reported. 

 

Russia has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.

Last week the Biden administration accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag operation” for use as a ploy for intervention in Ukraine, a charge Russia has angrily denied. 

 

A U.S. delegation visited Kyiv on Monday to show support for Ukraine amid the standoff with Russia.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service, “We have Democrats and Republicans of very different political views here to say we stand with Ukraine, and if Vladimir Putin chooses to take this treacherous anti-democratic path of invading this country, there will be severe and swift sanctions.”

U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told VOA, “The United States won’t just sit idly by and be a bystander if something happens. What we would like to do is prevent it from happening. We want to be a deterrent. We want to be part of the solution before fighting commences.”

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.

Republicans Mull Trump’s Continuing Grip on Their Party 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump recently addressed 15,000 ardent supporters in Arizona, making his first major public appearance since the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that sought to keep him in office despite having lost the 2020 presidential election. 

 

In 93 minutes of remarks late Saturday, Trump repeated the false claim that the election had been stolen from him and predicted a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential contest, hinting at what political observers already assume: that he is planning a bid to return to the White House. 

 

Trump is expected to hold more rallies in the months leading up to midterm elections in November that will determine control of Congress for the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term in office. In state after state, Trump aims to boost the fortunes of Republicans seeking office who are loyal to him and repeat his claims. 

Voters are taking notice. 

 

“He’s going to remain a factor in American politics for the next several presidential terms,” Robert Ellis, a New Orleans-based lawyer who voted for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, told VOA. “And he should remain a factor. He got results while president, and the more we see Biden’s failures, the more we see Donald Trump was correct.” 

 

By contrast, many moderate Republicans and independent voters – who are often pivotal in close elections – aren’t sure the former president’s continued politicking is good for the country or the Republican Party. 

 

Chelsea Jaramillo, an entrepreneur in Denver, is one such independent voter. 

 

“Honestly, I believe his presence hurts the Republican party,” she said. “Even many Republicans seem tired of his bull—- all the hate and blame that don’t benefit anyone but him.” 

 

Trump’s supporters 

In his remarks Saturday, the former president attacked his Democratic successor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy and international affairs. He also took gleeful aim at the handful of Republican lawmakers who voted with Democrats to impeach him after the Capitol riot and have either announced they will not seek reelection or face a bumpy road to remain in office. 

 

“They’re falling fast and furious. The ones that voted to impeach, we’re getting rid of them fast,” Trump said.

 

Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans, said there wasn’t much in the speech he found surprising. 

 

“It was a lot of the same stuff from him,” he said. “But where it got interesting to me, is you could hear the crowd get excited when they perceived Trump was talking about running for president again in 2024.” 

 

A recent Marquette Law School Poll found that 60% of Republican voters believe he should run for president again in 2024.

 

“That’s more than enough voters to win the Republican nomination,” Collins said, “so it’s a real possibility should he decide to run.” 

 

Brandon Legnion, a New Orleans-based nurse, is open to the idea. His priorities, he said, include the issue of abortion and how America handles the pandemic. 

 “I don’t believe vaccines and masking are ‘anti-freedom’ like a lot of other conservatives seem to believe,” he told VOA, “but I do think Republican voters are more likely to listen to Trump instead of Biden when it comes to unifying around fighting COVID-19. I’d probably vote for him if he ran in 2024.” 

 

Turning the page 

While the large majority of Republican voters say they would vote for Donald Trump if he secured the party’s presidential nomination, some say they hope a different candidate emerges to lead the party. 

 

“Trump’s independent, patriotic attitude, and his work on border control, jobs and our economy, have all earned him a leading voice in our party,” said Republican voter Jerry Bell of Indiana, “but I do feel there should be a new presidential torchbearer in 2024. New blood to repatriate our conservative vision of governance so we can ‘Make America Great!’” 

 

A University of Massachusetts at Amherst poll conducted December 14-20 showed that 71% of Republicans falsely believe Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate – a contention Trump’s critics often refer to as “The Big Lie.” 

 

Trump addressed the label head-on in Arizona on Saturday, opening the rally by declaring, “The Big Lie is a lot of bull—-,” to wild applause from raucous crowd.

 

Legnion sees the focus on the past as counterproductive. 

 

“It’s time to move on,” he said. “To continue to beat past elections to death is not at all unifying for America.” 

 

Helping or hurting? 

Whether the former president and his obsession with the 2020 election helps the Republican Party in the midterms and in the next presidential election is a matter of ongoing debate among experts, politicians and voters. 

 

“The sitting president’s political party almost always loses the House of Representatives in the midterm elections during their first term,” explained Robert Collins of Dillard University. “So regardless of Trump’s involvement, you can pretty much bet everything you’ve got that that will happen this year.” 

 

The Senate is less of a certainty, he said.

 

“While every seat in the House is up for election every two years, only one third of the Senate is,” Collins said. “And among those, probably only five to eight of those seats will be competitive elections. Trump’s impact is more likely to be felt there.” 

 

The prevailing thought among experts such as Collins is that while Trump can generate excitement and voter turnout for Republican candidates who are loyal to him, some of those candidates – including several he lauded at the rally in Arizona – could struggle to win in swing states and districts with a more moderate electorate. 

 

“I’m not opposed to Donald Trump supporting midterm candidates,” said Ronald Robichaux of Tampa, Florida, who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, “but I am fearful he’ll bring up voting irregularities that have thus far been unfounded and that that might turn some voters off. He can’t seem to bury the hatchet.” 

 

Collins suggested less bombast from Trump would be helpful for his political fortunes and those of Republicans more broadly. 

 

“People seem to forget that when Trump’s involved, elections tend to be an up or down vote on Trump,” he explained. “If I was working on his campaign, I’d spend time trying to rehabilitate his image and reign him in. But based on Saturday’s speech, that doesn’t seem to be their strategy,” he said. 

 

Collins added, “So if you’re a candidate running for office in the midterms, all that can be done now is decide if you want to keep your distance from Trump, or if you want to embrace him.”

Tornado Victim’s Family Sues Amazon Over Warehouse Collapse

The family of a delivery driver who died last month when a tornado collapsed the central Illinois Amazon facility where he worked filed a wrongful death lawsuit Monday in Madison County.

The action on behalf of Austin McEwen, 26, claims that Amazon failed to warn employees of dangerous weather or provide safe shelter before a tornado slammed the Edwardsville facility on December 10, killing McEwen and five others.

It is believed to be the first legal action taken in response to the deaths. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has opened an investigation.

McEwen’s parents, Randy and Alice McEwen, allege that Amazon administrators knew severe weather was imminent but had no emergency plan nor evacuated employees from the fulfillment center.

“Sadly, it appears that Amazon placed profits first during this holiday season instead of the safety of our son and the other five,” Alice McEwen said at a news conference on Monday.

Amazon “carelessly required individuals … to continue working up until the moments before the tornado struck,” the lawsuit says, and “improperly directed” McEwen and colleagues to shelter in a rest room, which it says the company knew or should have known wasn’t safe.

“They had people working up to the point of no return,” the McEwens’ lawyer, Jack Casciato, said. 

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel released a statement that countered that the lawsuit “misunderstands key facts,” including the differences among severe weather alerts and the condition and safety of the building.

“This was a new building less than four years old, built-in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” Nantel said. “Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country, and while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down. We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued.” 

The lawsuit seeks more than $50,000 from each of the four defendants named in the suit, which includes Amazon.com, the construction company that built the facility and the project’s developer. 

Nantel said the company would defend itself against the lawsuit but would continue to focus on “supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes.”