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Iran claims secret recording about Flight PS752’s destruction is fake

Iran is pushing back at what it calls “fruitless sensationalization” of the Flight PS752 tragedy in the wake of a CBC News report about a secretly-recorded conversation that suggests the world may never know the truth of what happened.

As the regime celebrates the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the country’s monarchy, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif and his spokesperson today responded to CBC’s story by claiming the recording is a fake.

“The allegations made in this article are incorrect and baseless and many of the statements attributed to Dr. Zarif are fundamentally not compatible with the language that he commonly uses and the claim of the existence of such a tape is not true,” ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement in Farsi posted on the ministry’s webpage and translated by CBC News.

“We advise the Government of Canada to act professionally instead of its own fruitless sensationalism and to submit an expert report on the accident if it has an opinion.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Associated Press)

CBC News has confirmed the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment have had the recording of the private conversation in their custody for weeks. The security services are analyzing the recording’s authenticity and treating it with the “gravity it deserves,” said Ralph Goodale, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special advisor on the Flight PS752 file. 

Truth may never be exposed, according to recording

CBC News listened to the recording and had three people translate it from Farsi to English to capture nuances in the language.

Sources identified the voice on the audio as belonging to Zarif. The individual is heard saying on the recording that there are a “thousand possibilities” to explain the downing of the jet, including a deliberate attack involving two or three “infiltrators” — a scenario he said was “not at all unlikely.”

He is also heard saying in Farsi that the truth about the aircraft’s destruction likely will never be revealed by the highest levels of Iran’s government and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — an elite wing of the country’s military overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“There are reasons that they will never be revealed,” he says in Farsi. “They won’t tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say.”

CBC News has obtained a recording of a man sources have identified as Iran’s foreign minister acknowledging that the downing of Flight 752 could have been intentional. The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing the recording. 2:49

According to sources, the audio of the private conversation was captured in the months after the aircraft was destroyed on Jan. 8, 2020, shortly after takeoff in Tehran. All 176 people aboard were killed, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

After three days of denial, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated publicly that human error was to blame. He said the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.

Zarif tweeted Wednesday morning in response to CBC’s story, insisting Iran always believed there were many possible explanations for the downing but concluded human error was to blame.

“Following Flight #PS72 tragedy, I & many others insisted that ALL possibilities — including foreign infiltration or electronic interference — must be investigated (fake audio notwithstanding). Human error was finally judged as cause. Iran is committed to full justice for victims,” the minister wrote.

Zarif’s tweet and his spokesperson’s comments today are believed to be their first public confirmation that Iran looked into foreign infiltration or electronic interference as possible explanations for Flight PS752’s destruction.

In his statement, Khatibzadeh said “everyone knows” that Zarif stressed “the need to examine all possibilities” during official meetings in the weeks following the crash. He specifically cited “the meeting with the Foreign Minister of Canada” — an apparent reference to François-Philippe Champagne, the minister at the time.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh claims Canada is politicizing the destruction of Flight PS752. (CBC News)

Iranian official suggests Canada is spreading ‘rumours’

Khatibzadeh also accused Canada of politicizing Flight PS752 and upsetting families.

“Families who have lost loved ones in this unfortunate tragedy are enduring great grief that is not easy to alleviate,” he wrote.

“We call on Canada not to add to the grief of bereaved families every day with such actions and rumours.”

Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing victims’ families in Canada, says Zarif is the one causing grief for survivors.

“Javad Zarif, his actions and the whole Iranian regime is adding to the grief of the families,” said Esmaeilion. “Nothing is more valuable than human life. He says finding the truth can open doors to our defence system. What about human lives?”

Hamed Esmaeilion, his wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion in happier times. Both Parisa and Reera died aboard Flight PS752. (Submitted)

Thomas Juneau is an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who studies intelligence analysis and Canadian foreign policy. He said that while the public emergence of the recording is a “bad surprise” and  “embarassing” for Zarif, the aftermath of PS752 “has fallen lower on the list of priorities of the government of Iran right now.”

“Ultimately, I think what the spokesperson and the foreign minister were trying to do with the response was to try and bat it away, basically,” he said.

Multiple countries — including Ukraine, where the airline that operated PS752 is based — have until the end of the month to review Iran’s final report on the safety investigation. It’s not clear when that document will be released publicly.

The past four interim reports suggested that a long list of human errors and other issues resulted in the IRGC mistakenly firing the missile at the commercial plane.

Khatibzadeh said Iran’s final safety report will be written by “impartial and competent experts.”

“Investigation into air accidents is a completely specialized and technical issue, and by spreading rumours and politicizing work, it is not possible to impose a result on the public opinion in line with the poisonous political goals,” he said.

Goodale has said a forensic examination and analysis team is working independently to piece together what led to the catastrophe.

“What we want to do at the end of the day for the families is to put all of this together in a coherent statement, as strong and clear as we can make it, about what happened and why it happened,” said Goodale.

In a media statement, Global Affairs Canada said the federal government is committed to obtaining justice for the victims and the bereaved by holding Iran to account.

“Canada’s police and security agencies are examining the reported audio tape with great care to determine its authenticity and full meaning. We cannot comment on its content at this time because lives may be put at risk,” said Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand.

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Secret recording suggests Iranian official concedes truth about downing of Flight PS752 may never be revealed

The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing an audio recording in which a man — identified by sources as Iran’s foreign affairs minister — discusses the possibility that the destruction of Flight PS752 was an intentional act, CBC News has learned.

The individual, identified by sources as Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, is heard saying on the recording that there are a “thousand possibilities” to explain the downing of the jet, including a deliberate attack involving two or three “infiltrators” — a scenario he said was “not at all unlikely.”

He is also heard saying the truth will never be revealed by the highest levels of Iran’s government and military.

“There are reasons that they will never be revealed,” he says in Farsi. “They won’t tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say.”

On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in the skies over Tehran with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people aboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

CBC News has listened to the recording of the private conversation, which took place in the months immediately following the destruction of Flight PS752. CBC had three people translate the recording from Farsi to English to capture nuances in the language.

Security officials are studying the recording: Goodale

The details of the conversation, and the identities of the others involved, are not being released publicly due to concerns for individuals’ safety. CBC is not revealing the source of the recording in order to protect their identities.

Ralph Goodale, the prime minister’s special adviser on the Flight PS752 file, said the government is aware of the recording. Canada’s forensic examination and assessment team obtained a copy in November, he said.

Goodale said the audio file contains sensitive information and commenting publicly on its details could put lives at risk. 

He said the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment are evaluating the recording’s authenticity. A CSE spokesperson would not offer comment on the recording, saying the agency “does not comment on intelligence operations.”

“We’re treating all the evidence and all the potential evidence with the seriousness and the gravity that it deserves,” said Goodale.

“We understand in a very acute way the thirst among the families for the complete, plain, unvarnished truth and that’s what we will do our very best to get for them.”

On Jan.8, 2020 an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 minutes after taking off in Tehran, Iran. Everyone onboard died. (Associated Press)

‘They could have been infiltrators’

Zarif is Iran’s primary negotiator with the countries that lost citizens on Flight PS752, and is the voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the global stage.

Over the past year, Zarif has maintained the government’s official claim that human error was to blame for the disaster. Shortly after the crash, Zarif said it was “brave” of the military to claim responsibility — but added military officials kept him and the president in the dark for days.

Iran originally denied any involvement in the aircraft’s destruction. Three days after the crash, and in the face of mounting satellite evidence, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani admitted its military “unintentionally” shot down the plane. He blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.

Former foreign affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said he does not believe the destruction of the plane can be blamed on human error.

Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne wouldn’t say whether he believes Flight PS752 was shot down deliberately. 2:00

On the Farsi-language recording reviewed by CBC News, the individual identified as Zarif is heard suggesting the downing was accidental — but later says it’s possible “infiltrators” intentionally shot down the plane.

“Even if you assume that it was an organized intentional act, they would never tell us or anyone else,” says the individual. “There would have been two three people who did this. And it’s not at all unlikely. They could have been infiltrators. There are a thousand possibilities. Maybe it was really because of the war and it was the radar.”

The individual goes on to say that “these things are not going to be revealed easily” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or those higher up in the government.

The IRGC is an elite wing of the country’s military overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In the recording, the man identified as Zarif points to Russia as an example of a country that was accused of involvement in shooting down a plane (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014) but never admitted to it.

Push to compensate victims’ families

The individual also refers more than once during the recording to compensation as a means to close “the issue” and says Iran wants to compensate victims’ families to prevent other countries from turning the disaster into “an international crime.”

The individual says on the recording that while Iran would deliver the aircraft’s flight recorders to France for analysis, the data recovered wouldn’t show whether someone intentionally shot at the plane.

Despite international obligations stating the black boxes should be analyzed “without delay,” Iran didn’t move ahead with that process until six months after the crash. Goodale’s official report on Flight PS752, released in December, said Canada still hadn’t seen “full disclosure … on all relevant evidence.”

Iran proposed compensation of $ 150,000 for each of the victims’ families, but Canada rejected that offer. Goodale said Iran doesn’t have the right to offer compensation to victims’ families unilaterally.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized for his demeanour in photos and videos released by Iran in Feb. 2020 following a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. (Reuters TV)

Recording is ‘significant’ evidence

Payam Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor and member of the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague, said the recording now in the hands of Canada’s intelligence agencies is a “highly significant” piece of new evidence.

He said Zarif is not involved directly in military or intelligence operations, so the recording is not a “smoking gun” offering conclusive proof that the aircraft’s destruction was intentional.

Zarif understands the inner workings of the IRGC and is a “highly influential and well-informed member of the highest level of the Iranian government,” Akhavan said, adding the recording suggests Iran did not conduct a proper investigation.

“The fact that he would say in a conversation that it is not at all unlikely that the destruction of 752 could have been organized and intentional is highly significant,” said Akhavan, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

“The fact that he sees that as a real possibility, I think, should make us pause and really consider whether there’s not something far more diabolical at play.”

‘We do not want to see any scapegoats’

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko told CBC News that this is the first time Ukraine has heard about this recording, although the RCMP has been helping Ukraine with its own criminal investigation. He said he wants Ukraine to study this information carefully.

“I think it’s another reason for us not to accept anything smaller than the truth,” Shevchenko said. “We do not want to see any scapegoats instead of real wrongdoers. We do not want to see the truth being hidden behind state secrecy. We want to get to the bottom of this.”

When asked if he thinks the downing of the plane was intentional, Shevchenko wouldn’t rule it out.

“At this stage, we cannot exclude any possibilities,” he said. 

“I think we are still so far away from having a clear picture on what happened … We obviously lack trust in our conversation with Iran. I think we have a feeling that Iran shares as little information as possible.”

Special adviser to Canada’s response to Flight PS752 Ralph Goodale (left), Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko, then-transport minister Marc Garneau and then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne attend a Flight PS752 demonstration on Parliament Hill on Oct. 5. (Ashley Burke, CBC News)

Final report won’t ‘tell us who pushed the button’

Shevchenko said Ukraine has proposed to Canada several ways the two countries could legally exchange information and evidence about Flight PS752, but they haven’t yet settled on a mechanism. He said this recording shows the two countries need to establish a “legally flawless channel” of communication.

“It’s going to be very difficult to go ahead with the criminal investigation,” he said. “So I think every piece of information like that is very important.”

Ukraine has received the final report from Iran on its aviation safety investigation and has until the end of the month to provide feedback. It’s still not clear when Iran will release the report publicly.

“I think we should all realize that this report can confirm that the plane was hit by a missile, but it’s not going to tell us who pushed the button,” Shevchenko said.

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How an elite family’s decades-old secret sparked a reckoning about sexual abuse in France

A 30-year-old family secret has shaken the elite of France.

And it has nothing to do with the usual money scandals that rock the French establishment.

This is about alleged sexual abuse of a minor and the powerful people accused of staying silent.

The allegation, which was detailed in a bestselling book and is now under investigation by Paris prosecutors, involves an influential political scientist sexually abusing his teenage stepson.

A person holds the book La Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner in a Paris bookstore. The author is the stepdaughter of prominent French political expert Olivier Duhamel, whom she accuses of sexually abusing her twin brother during the late 1980s, when the siblings were teenagers. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

Investigators have yet to finish their work, but the case has already touched off a huge national debate on the extent of incest and sexual crimes in families, and the culture of silence that has helped to hide the problem.

The debate is so intense, French President Emmanuel Macron felt obliged to jump in on Jan. 23. He issued a video, telling victims, “We are there, we hear you, we believe you. You will never be alone.”  

He promised tougher laws on sexual crimes. The French parliament is already debating them.

Book reveals dark secret

This began, and stayed for years, a family story. But not just any family. Olivier Duhamel, 70, was a high-flyer in the tight French elite, not a politician in public view but an adviser, a political scientist and constitutional expert. And friend to French presidents.

When the scandal erupted, he was the president of the powerful Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, which runs one of France’s most influential universities, the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

He was also the president of Le Siècle, a club of France’s political and intellectual elite. For good measure, he appeared weekly on radio and television.

That carefully constructed world collapsed in early January with the publication of a book. It’s called La Familia Grande and is written by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, 45. In it, she details the alleged sexual abuse of her twin brother, whom she calls Victor in the book to protect his privacy, by her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, when Victor was 13 and 14.

Duhamel immediately resigned all his posts and went to ground. He admitted nothing, simply saying he had been the target of personal attacks.

Olivier Duhamel, second from right, used to be an influential political scientist in France, seen here in 2007 with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Others also resigned, including a former justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou. She was a close friend of Duhamel and his family but, for the record, denied knowing of the allegations. Almost unbelievably, the post she resigned from was as chair of a government commission on incest.

According to Camille Kouchner, Duhamel’s family, and then others close to the family, had known for a dozen years of the alleged sexual abuse, but Victor had not wanted the facts to become public.

Her book unleashed a storm. The social media hashtag #MeTooInceste attracted thousands of testimonies from people saying they had been victims of incest. This reflected the shocking result of an opinion poll from Ipsos in November 2020 that surveyed a random sample of 1,033 French adults. In it, one in 10 people surveyed said they had been victims of incest. (In France, incest is defined more widely, and includes sexual abuse by a family member even if not related by blood.)

Change to the law

Camille Kouchner’s book has already had a print run of more than 300,000 copies. Two weeks after its publication, Victor was interviewed by French police. An investigation 10 years earlier had been dropped because the statute of limitations on incest and sexual aggression against minors was limited to 20 years. 

Two years ago, the statute of limitations was lengthened to 30 years from the age of majority of the minor. 

And, in response to the groundswell of outrage, Macron said, “We will go after the aggressors.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a protective face mask, has offered his support to victims of sexual abuse within families. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

On Jan. 26, Victor officially indicated that he considered his stepfather an aggressor. He made a criminal complaint against Olivier Duhamel.

Victor’s brother, Julien Kouchner, was quoted in the newspaper Le Parisien two days earlier saying, “In our circle, many people knew of the behaviour of my stepfather.” That circle was one of the highest in France. The father of Julien, Victor and Camille is Bernard Kouchner, a former French foreign minister and co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). His second wife is Christine Ockrent, a famous television anchor and journalist. 

According to Camille and Julien, Kouchner and Ockrent were horrified when Victor told them of Duhamel’s behaviour in 2008, but Victor didn’t want it made public because his mother, Evelyne Pisier, was still with Duhamel and refused to accept he had raped her son. But Kouchner and Ockrent allegedly told friends.

Bernard Kouchner, former foreign minister of France, is seen during the 2018 Iran Uprising Summit in Manhattan, New York. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Julien told Le Parisien: “Our world then divided into two, those who distanced themselves or even broke with [Duhamel], and others who stayed with him because of disbelief or opportunism…. But I’ve since discovered a third category, that of the accomplices who said things were only rumours which they knew to be exact facts.”

For 12 years, Olivier Duhamel carried on untouched. He lost none of his positions or clout.

Only after Evelyne Pisier died in 2017 did Camille, with Victor’s permission and support, decide to write about what happened.

Social reckoning 

The detonation has been huge, but there was another bomb a year earlier. It, too, took the form of a book, this one called Le Consentement (Consent). The author, Vanessa Springora, told of being sexually pursued and possessed at age 14 in the 1980s by a man more than 30 years older. 

The man was Gabriel Matzneff, 84, a successful author whose works detailed the pursuit and conquest of teenage girls and boys. He was rewarded with editing jobs at a big publishing house and major French literary prizes.

The book Le Consentement by Vanessa Springora is displayed in a bookstore outside Paris. The literary editor alleges that she had a destructive underage sexual relationship with French author Gabriel Matzneff, now in his eighties. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)

Springora’s book, which sold more than 200,000 copies, brought about an abrupt change. Matzneff was stripped of his positions and charged with justifying aggravated rape.

He expressed “regret” for his sexual activities, but, in an interview with the New York Times in February 2020, seemed unrepentant. “Even the silly things I might have done in those euphoric days of freedom, I wasn’t the only one. What hypocrisy.”

“Those days of freedom” refers to the years after what in France are called “the events of 1968.” France was brought to a halt in May 1968 by massive strikes. The call was for revolution, and for sexual freedom in particular. 

For many elites in France, the 1970s and ’80s became an era of open marriages and open sex. The mother of Victor, Evelyne Pisier, after she divorced Bernard Kouchner, embraced this ethos with several lovers, including, for four years in the early ’80s, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s president.

Then she met and married Olivier Duhamel. Even when Victor told her of her husband’s behaviour, she refused to believe it, her children say.

There is now a sad reckoning in France.

“How do you resist the call of the flesh, liberated from all restraints? How do you say no when imposed sexuality is labelled as emancipation?” Malka Marcovich says in her book L’Autre Héritage de 1968: La Face Cachée de la Révolution Sexuelle (The Other Heritage of 1968: The Hidden Face of the Sexual Revolution), published in 2018. “So people, male and female, who were dragged into a premature sexuality, now seen as violent, preferred to keep quiet.”

Emmanuel Pierrat, lawyer of French writer Gabriel Matzneff, leaves Paris’s courthouse on Feb. 12, 2020. The legal woes of the once-celebrated writer, Matzneff, are mounting. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

Matzneff pushed the “call of the flesh” even further, drawing up an open letter in 1977 calling for sex with minors under 15 to be decriminalized. Sixty-nine French intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre signed. So did two future cabinet ministers. One of them was Bernard Kouchner, Victor’s father. 

After Springora’s book was published, Kouchner recanted in an interview with the French magazine Le Point in January 2020. “That was idiocy. I didn’t even read it. A friend said I should sign it.”

And in an interview with Le Nouvel Obs, a French magazine, on Jan. 17, author Camille Kouchner offered a harsh verdict on that time, a verdict that, along with her stepfather, finds her mother guilty.

“Liberty, women, the couple, joyous infidelity, intelligent modernity — I was brought up with these ideas. My mother more or less abandoned us. This book let me release my pent-up anger against her, and to love her. I don’t try to excuse her.”

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Microsoft Denies Cutting Secret Deal With Duracell Over Xbox Controllers

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Last week, a report surfaced claiming that Microsoft and Duracell have a secret agreement between them in which Microsoft agrees to keep AA batteries as the default power standard for its Xbox controllers. Microsoft denied the rumors, which began when Duracell UK’s marketing manager, Luke Anderson, referred to a deal between the two companies:

There’s always been this partnership with Duracell and Xbox… It’s a constant agreement that Duracell and Microsoft have in place… [The deal is] for OEM to supply the battery product for the Xbox consoles and also the controllers’ battery.

This has been broadly read across the internet to mean that Microsoft and Duracell have some kind of agreement in which Microsoft agrees to keep traditional AA batteries as the default solution for its controllers so that Duracell will… cut it a good deal on a couple of AA batteries + some console parts?

This objectively makes no sense, and Microsoft is far from the only company to ship Duracell batteries in its hardware. Since Microsoft doesn’t manufacture batteries, it needs to partner with a company if it wants to ship hardware with prepacked AAs. The company doesn’t send purchasing agents to Wal-Mart to grab whatever AA’s are the cheapest; it has a pre-existing agreement with Duracell to provide those products.

The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller and Controller Series 2 have built-in batteries.

When contacted, a Microsoft spokesperson released the following statement:

We intentionally offer consumers choice in their battery solutions for our standard Xbox Wireless Controllers. This includes the use of AA batteries from any brand, the Xbox Rechargeable Battery, charging solutions from our partners, or a USB-C cable, which can power the controller when plugged in to the console or PC.

Companies competing in the same market often use design choices to differentiate themselves. Microsoft emphasizes the flexibility of offering AA support. Sony’s DualShock 4 copy notes that you can charge its internal battery while playing. We’ve seen this kind of behavior in the PC market as well. When Nvidia emphasized 3-D gaming, AMD focused on its own Eyefinity displays. A few years later, when AMD was talking up DirectX 12, Nvidia was putting a much heavier emphasis on VR. In this case, Microsoft and Sony maintain a slight feature difference in what they offer and how they offer it.

As far as Microsoft’s controller is concerned, I can testify that the battery life from regular AAs isn’t great, and it gets a lot worse if you have rumble enabled in a rumble-heavy title. If you don’t play much, regular AAs are fine, but if you intend to game on a regular basis you’ll want to invest in some rechargeable batteries for the Xbox controller. They’ll pay for themselves in fairly short order.

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ExtremeTechGaming – ExtremeTech

Secret recordings reveal political directives, tension over Alberta’s pandemic response

On the morning of June 4, a team of Alberta civil servants gathered — as it had nearly every day since the COVID-19 pandemic began — to co-ordinate the province’s response to the crisis.

A few minutes into the meeting in a boardroom in downtown Edmonton, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw weighed in.

The cabinet committee, to which she and the group reported, was pressuring her to broadly expand serology testing, which is used to detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in the blood.

The problem was that the tests had limited large-scale clinical value and Hinshaw believed it would overestimate the virus’s presence in the population. 

“Honestly, after the battle that we had about molecular testing, I don’t have a lot of fight left in me,” Hinshaw said during that meeting. The province had introduced rapid molecular testing kits at the start of the pandemic to help testing in rural and remote communities. The recordings reveal some tensions about that decision. 

“I think we need to draw on our experience from the molecular testing battle that we ultimately lost, after a bloody and excruciating campaign, and think about, how do we limit the worst possible implications of this without wearing ourselves down?,” Hinshaw said. 

A few weeks later, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Hinshaw announced the province would pour $ 10 million into targeted serology testing, the first in Canada to do so.

The level of political direction — and, at times, interference — in Alberta’s pandemic response is revealed in 20 audio recordings of the daily planning meetings of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) obtained by CBC News, as well as in meeting minutes and interviews with staff directly involved in pandemic planning.

Taken together, they reveal how Premier Jason Kenney, Shandro and other cabinet ministers often micromanaged the actions of already overwhelmed civil servants; sometimes overruled their expert advice; and pushed an early relaunch strategy that seemed more focused on the economy and avoiding the appearance of curtailing Albertans’ freedoms than enforcing compliance to safeguard public health.

“What is there suggests to me that the pandemic response is in tatters,” said Ubaka Ogbogu, an associate law professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in public health law and policy. 

Premier Jason Kenney declared a second state of public health emergency on Tuesday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

“The story tells me that the chief medical officer of health doesn’t have control of the pandemic response [and] tells me that decisions are being made by persons who shouldn’t be making decisions,” said Ogbogu, who was given access by CBC News to transcripts of specific incidents from the recordings.

“It tells me that the atmosphere in which decisions are being made is combative, it is not collaborative and that they are not working towards a common goal — they are working at cross-purposes.” 

Ogbogu has been a staunch critic of the UCP government. In July, he publicly resigned from the Health Quality Council of Alberta, citing the potential for political interference in its work due to amendments to the Health Statutes Amendment Act.

Shandro did not respond to an interview request.

In a brief emailed statement that did not address specific issues raised by CBC News, a spokesperson for Kenney said it is the job of elected officials to make these sorts of decisions and he said there was no political interference.

Hinshaw also did not respond to an interview request.

But at the daily pandemic briefing Wednesday, as the province announced its 500th death, Hinshaw reiterated her belief that her job is to provide “a range of policy options to government officials outlining what I believe is the recommended approach and the strengths and weaknesses of any alternatives. 

 “The final decisions are made by the cabinet,” she said, adding that she has “always felt respected and listened to and that my recommendations have been respectfully considered by policy makers while making their decisions.”

Secret recordings reveal tension

The recordings provide a rare window into the relationship between the non-partisan civil servants working for the Emergency Operation Centre and political officials.

The EOC team, comprised of civil servants from Alberta Health and some seconded from other ministries, has been responsible for planning logistics and producing guidelines and recommendations for every aspect of Alberta’s pandemic response. 

The recordings also provide context for the recent public debate about the extent of Hinshaw’s authority to act independent of government. 

Even if Hinshaw had the authority to make unilateral decisions, the recordings confirm what she has repeatedly stated publicly: she believes her role is to advise, provide recommendations and implement decisions made by the politicians.

At the group’s meeting on June 8, the day before Kenney publicly announced Alberta’s move to Stage 2 of its economic relaunch plan, Hinshaw relayed the direction she was receiving from the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee (EMCC). That committee included Kenney, Shandro and nine other cabinet ministers.

“What the EMCC has been moving towards, I feel, is to say, ‘We need to be leading Albertans where they want to go, not forcing them where they don’t want to go,'” Hinshaw told the group.

The recordings confirm what Hinshaw has repeatedly stated publicly: she believes her role is to advise, provide recommendations and implement decisions made by the politicians. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Hinshaw said she didn’t know if the approach would work, but they were being asked to move away from punitive measures to simply telling people how to stay safe.

More of a “permissive model?” someone asked. Hinshaw agreed.

“I feel like we are starting to lose social licence for the restrictive model, and I think we are being asked to then move into the permissive model,” she said. “And worst-case scenario, we will need to come back and [be] restrictive.”

Soaring COVID-19 rates in Alberta

As a second wave of COVID-19 pummels the province, an increasing number of public-health experts say Alberta long ago reached that worst-case scenario.

The province has passed the grim milestone of more than 1,500 new cases reported in a day. To date, 500 people have died. Intensive care units across Alberta are overwhelmed, with COVID-19 patients spilling into other units as beds grow scarce.

On Tuesday, after weeks of pleading from doctors, academics and members of the public for a province-wide lockdown, Kenney declared another state of public health emergency. 

However, he pointedly refused to impose a lockdown, saying his government wouldn’t bow to “ideological pressure” that he said would cripple the economy. Instead, he announced targeted restrictions, including a ban on indoor social gatherings. 

WATCH | Premier Jason Kenney announces new pandemic restrictions:

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney bypassed a renewed lockdown as part of new COVID-19 restrictions, despite having more COVID-19 cases per capita than Ontario. Restaurants and retail can stay open with reduced capacity, though indoor private gatherings are banned and the school year has been altered again. 2:36

Kenney repeated many of the comments he made on Nov. 6.

Even as Alberta’s case count grew so high that the province could not sustain its contact tracing system, Kenney rejected calls for more stringent measures and downplayed the deaths related to COVID-19.

“What you describe as a lockdown, first of all, constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people’s fundamental rights and a massive impact on not only their personal liberties but their ability to put food on the table to sustain themselves financially,” Kenney said.

Kenney said it was projected, back in April, that COVID-19 would be the 11th-most common cause of death in the province. 

“And so currently, this represents a tiny proportion of the deaths in our province.”

High evidence threshold for restrictions

A source with direct knowledge of the daily planning meetings said the premier wants evidence-based thresholds for mandatory restrictions that are effectively impossible to meet, especially in an ever-changing pandemic.

As of Wednesday, no thresholds have been designated publicly. 

The source said Kenney’s attitude was that he wasn’t going to close down anything that affected the economy unless he was provided with specific evidence about how it would curtail the spread of COVID-19. 

“This is like nothing we have ever seen before. So [it is] very, very difficult to get specific evidence to implement specific restrictions,” said the source who, like the others interviewed by CBC News, spoke on condition of confidentiality for fear of losing their job.

Another planning meeting source said “there is kind of an understanding that we put our best public health advice forward and that Kenney is really more concerned about the economy and he doesn’t want it shut down again.”

The recordings suggest a desire by Health Minister Tyler Shandro to exert control over enforcement of public health orders. (CBC)

CBC News also interviewed a source close to Hinshaw who said she has indicated that, eight months into the pandemic, politicians are still often demanding a level of evidence that is effectively impossible to provide before they will act on restrictive recommendations.

The source said Hinshaw suggested politicians “have tended to basically go with the minimal acceptable recommendation from public health, because I actually think if they went below — if they pushed too far — that she probably would step down.” 

Ogbogu said it is clear politicians, who are not experts in pandemic response, are not focusing on what matters most to public health.

“The focus needs to be on the disease, on how you stop it,” he said. “Not the economy. Nothing is more important.”

‘I may have gotten in trouble with the minister’s office’: Hinshaw

The government has often used Hinshaw as a shield to deflect criticism of its pandemic strategy, suggesting she is directing the response. The government has at times appeared to recast any criticism of the strategy as a personal attack on her.

At her public COVID-19 updates, Hinshaw has refused to stray from government talking points or offer anything more than a hint of where her opinions may diverge.

Behind the scenes, however, there were clearly times when Hinshaw disagreed with the political direction — although it was also evident the politicians had the final say.

In April, for instance, the government introduced asymptomatic testing in some parts of the province, and later expanded it. 

Hinshaw told a May 22 meeting she had unintentionally started a conversation with Kenney in which she expressed concern about the value of large-scale asymptomatic testing as opposed to strategic testing.  

Kenney in turn asked for a slide presentation that would detail the pros and cons of each approach. 

“I didn’t intend to have that conversation, so I may have gotten in trouble with the [health] minister’s office today about that,” Hinshaw said at that meeting.

The presentation, she said, would include “how expensive it is to test people when we don’t actually get a lot of value, to go forward with a testing strategy that we can stand behind. So we will see if the minister’s office will allow us to put that [presentation] forward,” Hinshaw said. 

The premier, she said, had asked for the presentation for June 2.

But she cautioned the team, “Not to get all of our hopes up or anything.”

A week later, Hinshaw publicly announced the province had opened up asymptomatic testing to any Albertan who wanted it. At a news conference, she said that given the impending Stage 2 relaunch, it was an “opportune time” to expand testing.

‘They don’t want us to enforce anything’

The recordings suggest a desire by Health Minister Shandro to exert control over enforcement of public health orders.

Alberta Health Services (AHS), the province’s health authority, is responsible for enforcing public health orders. It is supposed to operate at arm’s length from government.

On June 9, the same day Kenney announced the Stage 2 economic relaunch, Hinshaw told the EOC meeting Shandro’s office wanted to be informed how AHS would consult with “us” before taking any action on COVID-19 public orders.

Alberta Health lawyers, working with the EOC, were responsible for writing the Stage 2 relaunch order that would outline restrictions on businesses and the public.

Hinshaw said she needed to verify with Shandro’s office, but she thought “they don’t want us to enforce anything. [They] just want us to educate, and no enforcement.”

But the group’s chief legal advisor was adamant.

“Under no circumstance will AHS check with the political minister’s office before undertaking an enforcement action under the Public Health Act,” he said

Hinshaw said Shandro’s office wanted AHS to check with her first, so she could report back to his office. 

The legal advisor challenged that, saying AHS was supposed to check with Hinshaw and a colleague “with respect to prosecutions, not enforcement generally.

“So what is going on?” he asked.

Shandro’s office was “mad that AHS has enforced things like no shaving in barber shops,” Hinshaw responded. 

Hinshaw said all local medical officers of health and environmental health officers were already expected to tell her and the team about any impending orders or prosecutions. 

But a week later, a senior health official told the meeting AHS was “struggling about what they should be doing” regarding enforcement. 

The official said AHS had been told: “Don’t turn a blind eye but don’t issue any orders.

“And then come to us, and if push comes to shove, I think it will be up to the ministry to figure out if we are going to do something.”

Ubaka Ogbogu, an associate law professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in public health law and policy, said ‘the atmosphere in which [COVID-19] decisions are being made is combative, it is not collaborative and [politicians and health officials] are not working towards a common goal.’  (CBC)

In mid-September, CBC News reported that AHS had received more than 29,000 complaints about COVID-19 public health order violations since the beginning of April.

A total of 62 enforcement orders, including closure orders, were issued in that period. As recently as last week, AHS has said that “every effort” is made to work with the public before issuing an enforcement order. 

‘Uphill battle’

In private conversations as recently as this month, Hinshaw has characterized her interactions with Kenney and cabinet as difficult, said a source close to her.

“I would say that she has used the phrase ‘uphill battle,'” they said.

The source said Hinshaw has been understanding of the reasons for the difficulty, “which I think we both see as being rooted in a completely different weighting of the risks of the disease and the risks of, for example, public-health restrictions.”

Hinshaw, however, “did allude to some of the meetings as being very distressing.”

But the source said Hinshaw worries about what could happen if she leaves her role.

“She sees her position, optimally, as trying to do the best she can from inside. And that if she wasn’t there, there would be a risk that things would be worse in terms of who else might end up taking that position and what their viewpoint was on the best direction.”

Ogbogu, the health law expert, said that while Hinshaw may be well-meaning, her willingness to allow politicians to subvert her authority is ultimately undermining the fight against COVID-19.

If the government is not following scientific advice, if it is not interested in measures that will effectively control a pandemic that is killing Albertans, then Hinshaw “owes us the responsibility of coming out and saying, ‘They are not letting me do my job,'” Ogbogu said.

“And if that comes at a risk of her job, that is the nature of public service.”

At the planning meeting on June 4, a civil servant told the team there was concern the province wasn’t giving businesses much time to adjust to shifting COVID-19 guidance. 

“I’ve been advocating everywhere I can to move it up, and they moved it back,” Hinshaw replied.

“So you can see I have a lot of influence,” she said sarcastically. “But I will keep trying.”

If you have information about this story, or for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

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Secret to her success: NWSL commissioner guiding league through pandemic

Just five months into her tenure, National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird navigated a return to sport during a pandemic, negotiated a landmark broadcast deal, secured big-name sponsors and announced a flashy new expansion team in Los Angeles. Now just imagine what she can do for the league in a regular year. 

Ahead of Sunday’s NWSL Challenge Cup final between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars in Sandy, Utah, Baird can almost take a deep sigh of relief (or maybe get some sleep). It’s certainly much different than those dire days of March. 

Baird officially took the commissioner’s role on March 10. The sports world came to halt two days later.

“What was remarkable to me was how quickly the entire sports industry shut down worldwide,” Baird told CBC Sports. “Once [commissioner] Adam Silver had started it with the NBA, around the world it was literally that quick. I think the rest of the industries maybe weren’t as quick as the sports industry to understand the sobering reality of what we were dealing with because of live sports, contact sports and fans.” 

When you look at Baird’s resume — executive and marketing leadership positions at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committees, the NFL and IBM, to name a few — perhaps it’s no surprise the NWSL’s return has gone safely and smoothly (aside from Orlando’s withdrawal due to positive COVID-19 tests before the tournament). 

What’s been the secret to her success? Just like soccer, a whole lot of teamwork and hustle. 

During the early days of the shutdown, Baird reached out to her contacts in the sports world. She pulled knowledge from more well-resourced leagues, like MLS (she says league commissioner Don Garber was of particular help). She and her team set goals and principles. 

Being a small, nimble league was also plus.

“I could pick up the phone and in a day contact any owner I needed,” Baird said. “I was able to do several Zoom calls with all athletes on the call, working through issues in real time as we were developing it.” 

WATCH | 1 on 1 with Lisa Baird

CBC Sports’ Signa Butler speaks with the NWSL’s new commissioner Lisa Baird about the league’s core values and its return to play. 4:45

Virtual calls

Sitting on one of those first nerve-wracking virtual calls was veteran Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson of the Utah Royals.

“That was a tough situation because she was fielding questions on a tournament people were very unsure about,” said Matheson, the two-time Olympic bronze medallist (you may remember her iconic winning goal from London 2012).

“I was very impressed that she held the call in the first place and also the way she conducted herself. She wasn’t afraid to take our questions, give answers when she had them or tell people when she didn’t have the answers and that she would go find them.”

After a one-month training camp, the teams arrived in Utah ready to play a month-long World Cup style tournament. The short turnaround didn’t hurt the quality of play and viewers took notice. The opening game between North Carolina and Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns drew an eye-popping record 572,000 total viewers on CBS, a +201 per cent increase from the previous best of 190,000 set back in 2014. CBS hasn’t given its numbers for its All Access digital service, which broadcasts most games. 

One of the main things that attracted Baird to take the NWSL’s reigns in its eighth season was its values, all which coincidentally have helped the league endure these pandemic times.

“We’re scrappy. We fight to the finish and I think you see that on the field with these players right now. These two teams that are going into the final are going to fight for the finish. We are scrappy, we have spirit and heart and we are not giving up,” she said. 

“We are humble, we are respectful. We, as a league. And I don’t think it’s just the fact that we’re women. We have male owners and coaches, We’re a very diverse league. We’re always going to be that league that’s appreciative of what we have.

“And the third thing is that we’re ambitious and we are leaders. When it’s a normal time, we would have 58 of the best players from around the world playing in our league. We want to own the mantle of being the best professional women’s soccer in the world. We’re grateful that we have some of the best and biggest names, but we have more ambition where that’s concerned.” 

Social issues

Also at its core, the NWSL and its players have always been at the forefront when it comes to social issues, whether it be pay equity or social justice. On June 27, the opening game of the tournament, on national television, they focused their awareness and support to Black Lives Matter. It’s continued through the tournament. 

“I think because we were the first league back there were a lot of people paying attention to what was going on,” Baird said. “It was a very intense time for the players, particularly because they’re in a new environment, they’re in the bubble, we were the first team out. I was so supportive of the freedom of expression, but I was so impressed by the courage of our players to do it. It’s not an easy time to make a stand on social justice. I think what they did was really important. I know our fans were very supportive.”

After last week’s dramatic quarter-finals, which saw the top three seeds ousted from the tournament, including the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage, there was more intrigue this week with expansion news. 

Los Angeles, with an ownership group featuring A-listers from Hollywood, sports, and the corporate world, will become the NWSL’s 11th franchise in 2022 after Racing Louisville FC joins the fray next year.

“LA is a sports city. The fans have wanted this franchise for a long time,” Baird said. “I’m really excited to be working with them.” 

Tentatively named Angel City FC, the Los Angeles ownership group includes former U.S. women’s national team stars Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy; celebrities like founder Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, America Fererra, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba; and business leaders including Kara Nortman, Julie Uhrman and Alexis Ohanian (and don’t forget the youngest owner, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., yes, the daughter of Serena Williams and Ohanian).  

“Everybody’s like ‘what do you think of a two-year-old in the owner’s room?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but I think we’re the most family-friendly professional league that I’ve ever seen, so she’s welcome,'” joked Baird, adding “I’ll give a shoutout to my colleague Cathy Engelbert of the WNBA, but we’re pretty family friendly here.”  

With 14 Canadians playing in the league, is there any potential for expansion north of the border? She won’t comment on that just yet, but said this: 

“Canadian fans, if you’re interested in having a team, reach out to us on social media, follow us, make sure that you’re watching us. At the end of the day we’re going to be driven for what’s right for the sport and what’s right for the players, but I pay attention to fans and if you guys are interested, keep that support coming and I’m taking calls.”

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Supreme Court blocks release of secret Mueller grand jury testimony to House of Representatives

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the disclosure to a Democratic-led House of Representatives committee of grand jury material redacted by President Donald Trump’s administration from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report documenting Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In a brief order, the justices put on hold a March ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which had decided that the material must be disclosed to lawmakers.

The order gave the administration until June 1 to formally appeal that ruling, meaning that if the justices decide to hear the case, a final resolution may not be reached until after the Nov. 3 election in which the Republican president is seeking a second four-year term. If the justices refuse to hear the appeal, the materials would need to be handed over.

Mueller submitted his report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr in March 2019 after a 22-month investigation that detailed Russia’s operation of hacking and propaganda to boost Trump’s candidacy as well as multiple contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Barr, a Trump appointee who Democrats have accused of trying to protect the president politically, released the 448-page report in April 2019 with some parts redacted. Some Democrats have expressed concern that Barr used the redaction process to keep potentially damaging information about Trump secret.

The House judiciary committee last year subpoenaed the redacted grand jury material as part of a bid by Democrats to build a case for removing Trump from office through impeachment. The Democratic-led House impeached Trump in December on two charges unrelated to Russian election meddling. The Republican-led Senate acquitted him and left him in office in February.

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