Behind the global efforts to make a privacy-first coronavirus tracking app

65 0 07 Apr 2020

In a Google Doc that now stretches beyond 20 pages, software engineers and health experts are working out what they hope can be a way for the world to soon return to something resembling normal life.

“What’s the minimum duration of contact that we should consider important?” an engineer asked.

It’s one of many crucial questions from engineers who believe smartphone technology could be the key to creating a way to anonymously track the spread of the coronavirus — and by doing so help save lives and get people back to their jobs and social lives.

“There are people who have been waiting their entire lives for a problem that can be solved by exactly the right algorithm,” said Peter Eckersley, an artificial intelligence researcher who convened an informal group of like-minded experts called “And those people are springing to work.”

Versions of coronavirus tracking apps already exist in China, Singapore, Israel and elsewhere, but the lack of privacy protections worries many technologists in the U.S. and Europe, who are looking to build their own.

Eckersley, based in Australia, is helping to coordinate the far-flung efforts through the Google Doc. More than a dozen clusters of experts, scattered in cities including Seattle, London and Lausanne, Switzerland, are working on some form of voluntary smartphone-based tracking technology to provide app notifications to people who may have been exposed to the virus and need to isolate themselves.

The projects to trace contacts have names like COVID Watch, NextTrace and Corona Trace, and they’re conferring with one another and with epidemiologists online over Google Docs, Slack and the software repository GitHub.

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The semi-coordinated efforts come as there are some signs in Europe and the U.S. that social distancing has helped turn the tide against the coronavirus — but also evidence in parts of Asia that a second wave of the virus remains a risk.

The hope is that smartphone tracking — combined with widespread testing — can help create a framework for cities to let people resume their lives while keeping a close watch on a resurgence of the coronavirus. The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already expressed interest in using smartphone location data to track interactions and possible coronavirus spread.

The efforts are also the subject of growing scrutiny from privacy advocates and some health care experts who question the efficacy of such systems. To be effective, an app would need to be downloaded by a significant percentage of the population.

But tech experts remain optimistic about putting a new tool in the hands of everyday phone users with a voluntary app that would silently and anonymously use Bluetooth technology to ping phones nearby — without sharing personal data with the government or other third parties.

They say the progress of technology in recent decades could culminate in a tool that could help society avoid some of the worst health and economic impacts of the coronavirus while helping people get back to their lives in a way that still ensures privacy.

How it could work

The goals of most of the technologists volunteering their time are similar: create an app that would help trace where the virus is going while protecting the privacy of users and not creating a permanent surveillance tool for authorities.

The eventual aim is to answer a simple question that requires massive amounts of data to answer.

“You’d like to be able to ask: Am I in a good situation or a bad situation?” said Alex Pentland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s helping to lead one of the research efforts, called Safe Paths.

Pentland said that public health authorities have a growing number of software tools to track how the virus is spreading and that a voluntary smartphone app would give people more information if they want it.

Other apps and websites from tech companies such as Verily and engineers at Pinterest have so far been more limited, relying on people to enter symptoms and demographic information. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday that the social network would begin showing a voluntary symptoms tracker run by Carnegie Mellon University.

The science behind many of the apps isn’t new. An app could remember which other phones have been nearby. If someone you had coffee with two days ago tests positive for the coronavirus, you would get a notification along the lines of “you may have recently been exposed” — and advising temporary isolation. Passing someone on the sidewalk wouldn’t be enough to trigger a notification, but sitting next to each other for 10 or 15 minutes might.

There is some disagreement on key details. Should a smartphone app use Bluetooth technology, which senses the proximity of nearby phones, or cellular network and GPS data?

What they do agree on is that it should be a voluntary app — something that people willingly agree to. In Israel and China, a technological approach to fighting COVID-19 has meant surveillance by the government and the central collection of mass amounts of personal location data.

The projects surveyed by NBC News would avoid that by making sure any data would stay on users’ phones. The data would be encrypted, and no government could access it at a later point.

“Our one and only goal was to build a system where the server knows absolutely nothing,” said Carmela Troncoso, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who is designing an app that would use Bluetooth proximity data.

Eckersley compared the idea to Apple’s Find My iPhone software, which uses anonymous, encrypted Bluetooth technology.

“That could happen without revealing the identity of any of the parties involved,” he said. “Your phone talks to my phone.”

It isn’t clear how federal health authorities will respond. App developers said they haven’t gotten clear guidance from the CDC or elsewhere. The CDC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘A better way’

Versions of coronavirus tracking apps already exist in parts of Asia.

Singapore has launched a contact tracing mobile app, called TraceTogether, and said it would provide the computer code openly to others, although U.S. researchers said that Singapore hadn’t yet published the underlying code and that the app wasn’t designed to minimize data collection.

“Their privacy model doesn’t fit with the way we would like things to be done, and I would hope things would be done in the U.S. in a better way,” said Tina White, a doctoral candidate researching machine learning at Stanford University, who has helped organize COVID Watch.

In Israel, around 1.5 million people had signed up by last week for an app called HaMagen — Hebrew for “The Shield.” Personal data doesn’t leave the phone, developers say, but the government publishes the movements of people diagnosed with the coronavirus using information from a counterterrorism database.

Surveillance in China is even more extreme, with the government using Alipay, a payments app, to provide people with a QR code that’s green, yellow or red depending on their status: green meaning healthy and free to move about, or yellow and red for different levels of quarantine restrictions.

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service, the country’s health care provider, is developing its own app with input from academics, corporations and officials.

The effort has already drawn a response from dozens of British academics and privacy advocates who have warned in an open letter that “far reaching data-gathering powers” from mobile phones, combined with newly expanded police power to detain people, could be used as a “means of social control.”

Waiting for launch

There are skeptics who think that the entire idea won’t work and that software can’t solve what’s primarily a medical emergency.

“There’s really never been a time in history where a clever app means the difference between widespread calamity and people being able to go about their lives,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies privacy. “It’s just not plausible. This is a serious emergency we’re in.”

Calo said an app could fail in multiple ways even if it’s designed well. For example, could a prankster visit several grocery stores and then sign up for the app as a false positive to cause trouble, sparking unnecessary panic?

Developers said they’ve anticipated such abuse and can prevent it — by allowing only hospital staff members to authorize someone to identify on the app as having tested positive — but Calo said there are too many other ways an app could go wrong.

“People will be reassured when they shouldn’t be, and they will panic when they shouldn’t panic,” Calo said.

In general, the use of proximity or location data has alarmed human rights advocates. Amnesty International and more than 100 other organizations have issued a statement calling for limits on how governments use surveillance, including mobile phone location data, to fight the coronavirus.

There’s no official launch date for an American app. Some developers said that one could, in theory, be ready for deployment in a couple of weeks, especially if health authorities signaled their support, but that the whole project depends on the widespread availability of cheap and easy testing — which isn’t available yet in the U.S. or many other countries.

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Even app developers believe their tools would need to be widely used to be truly useful. Eckersley said 20 percent might be a viable threshold depending on how an app is designed, but getting 1 in 5 smartphone users to download an app voluntarily is still a tall order.

Apple and Google, which together run the operating systems for the vast majority of smartphones in the U.S., could push people to adopt an app in the interest of public health, and 75 tech experts have asked in an open letter for the two companies to get involved.

Neither company responded to requests for comment, although they are taking other steps to respond to the pandemic.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at University College London, said the work being done shows it’s possible to use smartphones to slow the spread of the virus without giving more data to tech companies or the government.

“This needs to be an effort where there’s public buy-in, public trust, where people feel like they need to do this for the population, but also it’s safe for them to do this,” he said.

Every day is a crisis: Zoom boosts its security as scrutiny grows

73 0 07 Apr 2020

Every tech company’s dream is to become a verb. Think “Let me Google that,” or “I’ll just Uber over.”

But Zoom, the videoconferencing company that was until recently best known within the corporate world, has inspired a verb with decidedly more negative connotations: “Zoombombing,” in which the uninvited crash Zoom calls to harass users.

The Silicon Valley firm is now a part of the daily lives of millions of Americans as schools, companies and governments have embraced it amid coronavirus lockdowns. Zoom says that as of last week 200 million people now use the platform every day. That’s up from 10 million daily users before the pandemic.

But like many other tech platforms that were built on ease of use, Zoom is finding that life in the public eye can be challenging — particularly now that zoombombing has emerged as a new way for internet trolls to launch vicious attacks. That has suddenly made Zoom the focus of pranksters and racists, as well as hackers, attorneys general and cybersecurity experts.

“You know, lesson learned,” Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said in an interview through his company’s videoconferencing software. “We’ve got to double down on privacy, double down on security.”

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The company has already taken some action. On Saturday, Zoom said it would enable its “Waiting Room feature” as a default for all users (it had previously been the default for only paid users). It will also require additional password settings on all accounts in an effort to bolster privacy and security.

The practice of hijacking a videoconference had become so pervasive that the FBI’s Boston field office issued a formal warning late last month. Last Friday, federal prosecutors in Michigan warned that such actions could be considered crimes. That same day, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into the company, accusing it of engaging in “deceptive practices.” On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed Brown’s call to the regulatory agency.

The company currently faces three lawsuits in federal court — all filed within the last week — over privacy and security concerns.

Zoom’s problems also go beyond harassment. The Washington Post reported on April 3 that Zoom had even allowed thousands of recordings of video calls — many containing intimate details including nudity and personal financial information — to be easily discovered online.

Similarly, Zoom has been pilloried for describing its service until recently as “end-to-end encrypted,” — a technical term with a specific meaning. The company later admitted that the way it had been using the term was inaccurate, and said that it “never intended to deceive any of our customers.”

Zoom now says it’s cooperating with all legal inquiries and lawsuits. Yuan said he blames the recent spate of problems on his company transforming from a business tool to a widely adopted mass market communication platform virtually overnight.

“Nobody, you know, expected this,” Yuan said. “Our business was beautiful, serving the enterprise and business customers who normally have an IT team to help you to configure the security settings.”

Looking back, Yuan wishes he would have implemented more obvious, user-friendly security measures the moment he first made Zoom free to K-12 schools on March 13. “I think on Day One we should have done that,” he said.

The damage may already be done. New York City public schools are now beginning to “transition away” from Zoom, in favor of a competing product, Microsoft Teams and similar products from Google. Other districts in different parts of the country including Clark County, Nevada, have reportedly taken comparable measures.

Yuan was quick to defend his company as the problems piled up. He said Zoom is now talking directly with New York City public schools to create a more secure approach by developing what Yuan calls “a master account to manage every subaccount to make sure every school will have security settings.”

“Because we moved too fast and also added too many servers, there were also missteps,” Yuan said. “But we take it very, very seriously. We do all we can to quickly fix that problem.”

Changing a product this quickly is not easy. When asked how the engineers are doing, Yuan said, “Every day is a crisis.”

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Yuan said he feels like Zoom has gone from playing on a high school varsity basketball team to suddenly playing in the NBA in just a week.

“For the first week, you got beaten so hard,” he said. “But guess what? Move forward. Learn the mistakes.”

Yuan began working in video conferencing in the late 1990s as an engineer for Webex, a videoconferencing company that was acquired by Cisco in 2007.

The Chinese-born engineer rose to become Cisco’s corporate vice president of engineering, but found himself increasingly frustrated with Webex, and sought to — as he told an interviewer in 2017 — “make customers happy.” So Yuan built a competitor: Zoom.

Since then, Yuan and Zoom have become one of the biggest success stories in Silicon Valley while also remaining out of the spotlight. The company’s stock started trading publicly in April 2019 and rose quickly, outperforming better-known consumer tech companies like Lyft and Pinterest, which also went public around that time.

Zoom’s stock jumped sharply in March as coronavirus lockdowns pushed millions of people to videoconferencing, though it has ticked down in recent days.

Security questions dogged Zoom well before the coronavirus pandemic. In July 2019, researchers detailed a vulnerability showing how an attacker could set up a malicious call designed to take over a computer’s webcam. Zoom quickly patched the problem.

As Zoom has faltered in these past few weeks, Cisco’s Webex video conferencing software has started to regain some ground. Webex has also not hesitated to take indirect or even direct potshots at Zoom and its approach.

Abhay Kulkarni, a Webex vice president, recently wrote a blog post pointedly titled: “Collaboration Without Compromise: A Security-First Approach to Remote Working,” writing that security concerns in Webex are never a “trade-off for convenience or speed.”

The sudden and unrelenting pressure of serving 200 million daily users has pushed Zoom to ramp up hiring in engineering, sales and customer support. Yuan said he doesn’t have time to check his own email.

Yuan said that Zoom remains focused on its business customers despite the sudden influx of users.

“I want it to go back to serving our business enterprise customers. And we know how to do that,” he said, “if we have a choice.”

At the moment, Yuan said Zoom is focused on getting through the next few months. As for what’s next, he says it’s too early to tell.

“At least we know one thing for sure: For the next three months, we double down, triple down on privacy and security,” he said.

But could there be a future for Zoom as a consumer product to rival giants such as Facebook?

Yuan looked tired just thinking about it.

“I have no idea for now,” he said.

Kayleigh McEnany expected to be next White House press secretary

65 0 07 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday is expected to name campaign aide Kayleigh McEnany as the White House press secretary, replacing Stephanie Grisham, who will return to work for first lady Melania Trump, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The reshuffling comes days after Trump’s new chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., began work amid a scramble within the administration to respond to the coronavirus crisis and increasing criticism that it was not prepared to combat the outbreak.

McEnany, who is currently a press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign, has been a fierce defender of the president on cable television, often making controversial statements like saying in February that “we will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.” Before joining the campaign, McEnany was a CNN contributor and spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

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Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pushed for McEnany to be named White House press secretary, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. The news was first reported by The New York Times.

McEnany will be Trump’s fourth press secretary.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham will leave the West Wing and return to work for First Lady Melania Trump. Tom Brenner / Reuters file

Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah is also expected to join the White House as director of strategic communications, said a senior White House official confirmed. Farah was previously a congressional aide to Meadows and a spokeswoman for the vice president.

Ben Williamson, who arrived at the White House as a top aide to Meadows, will become senior communications adviser, the official said.

The role of White House press secretary was once a high-profile job that helped shape the president’s narrative, but became a background role under Grisham, who rarely appeared on television and never formally briefed the press from the White House during her nine months in the job.

Since mid-March, Trump has appeared almost daily from the White House briefing room and delivered lengthy updates from the White House coronavirus task force. Grisham has not participated in these briefings.

Grisham will take on a new role as chief of staff and spokesperson for Melania Trump.

Grisham came to the White House from the Trump campaign, where she worked as a press wrangler with the traveling press. She joined the administration as a deputy press secretary, but quickly moved over in March 2017 to the East Wing where she was named director of communications for the first lady.

Grisham moved into the role of White House press secretary in June 2019 after Sarah Sanders left the administration.

“I am excited to welcome Stephanie back to the team in this new role,” the first lady said in a statement. “She has been a mainstay and true leader in the administration from even before day one, and I know she will excel as chief of staff.”

The last White House briefing was over a year ago, on March 11, 2019 — three months before Grisham took over the role as press secretary from Sanders.

“I continue to be honored to serve both the president and first lady in the administration,” Grisham said in the statement. “My replacements will be announced in the coming days, and I will stay in the West Wing to help with a smooth transition for as long as needed.”

Rebecca Shabad, Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker, Peter Alexander, Hans Nichols and Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner contributed.

An Illinois mayor had cops crack down on social gatherings. His wife was among the violators.

66 0 07 Apr 2020

The mayor of a southern Illinois city said his wife was among a group of people who violated the state’s stay-at-home order to hang out at a local bar.

On Sunday morning, police in Alton, near the Missouri border, broke up a gathering at Hiram’s Tavern that was “clearly disregarding the executive order and public pleas for compliance,” the department said in a press release.

Police did not say how many people were at the bar and did not name any of the violators. But Mayor Brant Walker said in a Facebook post on Monday that his wife, Shannon Walker, was among those who got in trouble.

“I was made aware that my wife was in attendance at this prohibited social gathering. I instructed the Police Chief to treat her as he would any citizen violating the ‘Stay At Home’ order and to ensure that she received no special treatment,” the mayor wrote in his post, saying he was embarrassed by the incident.

Mayor Brant Walker speaks at Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater in Alton, Ill., on April 29, 2014.John Badman / The Telegraph via AP file

“My wife is an adult capable of making her own decisions, and in this instance she exhibited a stunning lack of judgment,” he said. “She now faces the same consequences for her ill-advised decision as the other individuals who chose to violate the ‘Stay at Home’ order.”

Walker said he told police on Friday to begin more strictly enforcing the governor’s order after he received reports that people in Madison County were continuing to gather. The mayor apologized to the residents for his wife’s actions.

“My first and most important priority is the safety and well-being of the citizens of Alton. We are in the midst of a national public health crisis, and I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that your health is protected, including enforcing the Governor’s statewide ‘Stay At Home’ order,” Walker said.

Police said their department had received several complaints that Hiram’s Tavern was continuing to operate on the weekends. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order on March 20 and said all nonessential businesses must cease.

Officers previously conducted an investigation into the bar but found no unauthorized activity. On Sunday, a group of people had gathered inside the bar “in an area outside public view,” the department said.

Officers issued criminal complaints for misdemeanor reckless conduct. Each person at the bar on Sunday will be summoned to court at a later date, police said. Two of the individuals, including owner Hiram Lewis, had warrants.

Lewis, who had an arrest warrant stemming from a domestic battery incident, was arrested and taken to the local jail.

“If members of our community will not protect each other, and will be so brazen as to gather in public places, we will be forced to take action like we did this weekend without hesitation,” the police chief, Jason Simmons, said in a statement.

There are more than 12,200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Illinois, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. Madison County has 52 cases.

Acting Navy secretary apologizes for scathing rebuke of ousted captain

63 0 07 Apr 2020

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly on Monday delivered a scathing attack against the captain who sounded the alarm over the spread of the coronavirus on his ship.

Speaking in Guam to the crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Modly said Capt. Brett Crozier was guilty of a “betrayal of trust” in choosing to express his concerns to a broad audience in an email that ultimately was leaked to the media, according to a recording of the speech obtained by NBC News.

“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”

Crozier was relieved of his command last Thursday. In a news conference, Modly defended the decision as his own and insisted it was made because Crozier went outside the chain of command.

U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier.Nicholas Huynh / U.S. Navy via AP

But Modly used far more biting language in his speech to the Theodore Roosevelt crew members Monday.

“It was betrayal,” Modly said, according to the recording, which was first obtained by the online publication Task & Purpose. “And I can tell you one other thing: Because he did that, he put it in the public’s forum and it’s now become a big controversy in Washington, D.C., and across the country, about a martyr CO who wasn’t getting the help he needed and therefore had to go through the chain of command, a chain of command which includes the media.”

Modly, in a statement released after a purported transcript of the remarks was reported by several news outlets, said he stood by his words.

“The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them,” Modly said. “I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety.”

But several hours later, Modly reversed course and apologized for his remarks.

“Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid,” he said in a statement. “I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”

Modly went on to describe Crozier as “smart and passionate.”

“I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship,” Modly said. “I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused. I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused.”

Modly’s new statement came after President Donald Trump addressed the controversy at a news conference, saying he planned to intervene.

“The letter shouldn’t have been sent,” Trump said, referring to Crozier. “But all of that said, his career prior to that was very good, so I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

Modly had delivered the sharply-worded speech to the Theodore Roosevelt crew members two days after a video appeared on social media showing dozens of them cheering for Crozier in a rousing farewell as he walked off the ship in Guam.

Modly said the governor of the U.S. territory told him that the release of Crozier’s letter caused great alarm among local residents who feared an influx of sailors infected with the virus.

“So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that,” Modly said. “I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him.”

In justifying his decision to remove Crozier, Modly said the captain lost sight of the ship’s mission and “compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation.”

“This put you at great risk,” Modly said.

Nearly 4,900 crew members were aboard the vessel. According to the latest figures, tests have been performed on 61 percent of the crew.

Some 173 have tested positive for the virus. More than 800 others are in isolation at a base on Guam, many of them still awaiting test results. About 1,150 crew members who tested negative were moved off the ship and placed in hotels. Nearly 2,900 sailors remain on board.

Cardinal George Pell out of prison after Australias High Court overturns abuse convictions

65 0 07 Apr 2020

Australia’s highest court has overturned the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever to be convicted of child sex abuse.

He was sentenced to six years in prison in March 2019, but Monday’s ruling will free him.

The High Court found that the unanimous jury that convicted him in 2018 “ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted,” and it ordered that verdicts of acquittal be entered.

Pell was convicted in December 2018 of abusing two choirboys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.

The decision means he was released from Barwon Prison outside Melbourne after having served 13 months of the six-year sentence. Images captured the cardinal being driven from the prison, NBC News partner 7News in Australia reported.

Pell who has always maintained his innocence said Monday that he had suffered a “serious injustice.”

“I hold no ill toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” he said in a statement to Australian media after the high court’s ruling.

“However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church,” Pell said in the statement. “The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

The High Court found that the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria, which upheld Pell’s sentence last year, “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place.”

Pell was convicted of assaulting the 13-year-old boys after he caught them swigging sacramental wine in a rear room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in late 1996. The jury also found Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

He has denied the allegations.

Cardinal George Pell leaves Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on May 1, 2018.Michael Dodge / Getty Images file

Pell was largely convicted on the testimony of one of the choirboys, now in his 30s with a young family. He first went to police in 2015 after the second alleged victim died of a heroin overdose at age 31. Neither can be identified under state law.

Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd told the High Court last month that the surviving choirboy’s detailed knowledge of the layout of the priests’ sacristy supported his accusation that the boys were molested there.

Pell’s lawyers argued that Pell would have been standing on the cathedral steps chatting with churchgoers after Mass when his crimes were alleged to have occurred, that he was always with other clerics when dressed in his archbishop’s robes, that he could not have performed the sexual acts alleged while wearing the cumbersome garments and that he could not have abused the boys in the busy priests’ sacristy without being detected.

The High Court ruled that unchallenged evidence from a witness was inconsistent with the alleged victim’s account, including Pell’s practice of greeting congregants on the cathedral steps after Mass and the “continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy” for 10 to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Mass.

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The High Court found that even if it found the alleged victim’s account to be credible, the evidence from the other witness “nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.”

The Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected Pell’s appeal in August by a 2-1 majority ruling. The High Court decided in November to hear Pell’s appeal, which was his last chance to overturn his convictions.

Victoria Police said in a statement that it respected the decision of the High Court “and continue to provide support to those complainants involved.”

“Victoria Police remains committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed,” police said in the statement, adding that it acknowledged the “thorough work on this case” by task force investigators.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said in a statement that the court outcome would be welcomed by those who believed in Pell’s innocence, but that it will be “devastating” for others.

“The result today does not change the Church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse,” Coleridge said. “The safety of children remains supremely important not only for the bishops, but for the entire Catholic community.”

Coleridge said that anyone with allegations should go to the police.

Stephanie Grisham is out as White House press secretary, will rejoin first ladys team

63 0 07 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON — Stephanie Grisham is leaving her role as White House press secretary after serving in the position for less than a year and will return to her previous job as a spokesperson for first lady Melania Trump as well as her chief of staff, the first lady announced Tuesday.

“I am excited to welcome Stephanie back to the team in this new role,” the first lady said in a statement. “She has been a mainstay and true leader in the administration from even before day one, and I know she will excel as chief of staff.”

Grisham took over as President Donald Trump’s third White House press secretary last July, succeeding Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sean Spicer had the job for the first few months of Trump’s presidency.

“I continue to be honored to serve both the president and first lady in the administration,” Grisham said in the statement. “My replacements will be announced in the coming days, and I will stay in the West Wing to help with a smooth transition for as long as needed.”

During the more than nine months that Grisham served as Trump’s top spokesperson, she never briefed the press a formal briefing at the White House.

Her departure comes amid the coronavirus crisis and as the Trump administration faces increasing criticism that it was not prepared to combat the outbreak and has not provided states with adequate supplies for health care workers on the front lines.

For the last few weeks, Trump himself has come to the White House briefing room and has spoken directly to reporters from the podium along with other members of the White House coronavirus task force. Grisham has not participated in these briefings.

Grisham is also leaving just a few days after Mark Meadows took over as Trump’s White House chief of staff. Axios reported last week that Meadows had been privately discussing bringing on Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah or Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany as a new White House press secretary.

Grisham, however, told Axios, “Sounds like more palace intrigue to me, but I’ve also been in quarantine. If true, how ironic that the press secretary would hear about being replaced in the press.”

The 43-year-old self-quarantined after coming in contact with a Brazilian official who tested positive for coronavirus, but her test came back negative.

Grisham previously worked as communications director for the first lady. She had joined Trump’s campaign in 2015 and also worked on the 2012 presidential campaign for Mitt Romney.

Pompeo to Afghan leaders: Make a deal with the Taliban or risk full U.S. troop pullout

74 0 07 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON – While President Donald Trump remains fixated on the widening coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Kabul two weeks ago with a harsh message from his boss to try to save one of the only major foreign policy achievements he has after more than three years in the White House: a peace deal in Afghanistan.

Pompeo delivered a message from Trump to the feuding leadership of the Afghan government, telling them they should resolve their differences and broker a deal with the Taliban or the president could not only cut $1 billion in financial aid to Afghanistan but also could pull all U.S. troops out of the country, according to two current senior officials, one former senior official and a foreign diplomat.

The previously unreported troop withdrawal threat underscores Trump’s growing concern that the inability of Afghan leaders to form a unified government threatens to unravel his already-tenuous peace deal with the Taliban, which is the first step toward ending America’s longest war. Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were supposed to follow on March 10, but divisions in Kabul have delayed the effort.

Washington and its allies fear the absence of those talks will scuttle the peace deal, and that the Taliban will take advantage of the internal divisions in Kabul to bolster their position at the negotiating table and on the battlefield, officials said.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Officials said the impasse in Kabul has frustrated Trump, who has hoped to highlight an Afghanistan peace deal as an example of a 2016 campaign promise he kept when he faces voters this November. Before the coronavirus pandemic became a myopic focus for the president, Trump had privately pushed aides to come up with a high-profile way for him to showcase the deal that could end the war and even mused that it should win him a Nobel Peace Prize, according to two current and two former senior U.S. officials familiar with the president’s comments.

But even then, a senior administration official said, some of the president’s advisers were “telling him that this is a slow, winding and ugly road” and he does not want to be the face of the fragile deal.

Trump personally signed off on the new hardline message during a meeting with Pompeo before the latter arrived in Kabul on March 23, officials said.

The secretary of state delivered the message in small meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, who are trying to stand up parallel governments. In February, Ghani was declared the winner of the September election, but Abdullah disputed the results, claiming widespread fraud. Both men now claim the right to lead Afghanistan and even held separate, simultaneous inaugurations in Kabul on March 9.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Abdullah Abdullah at the Sepidar Palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020.Sepidar Palace via AP

Pompeo told Abdullah that he must support Ghani, according to officials. He said the president expects “one team, one fight” out of Kabul, according to the former senior U.S. official. Pompeo also said Ghani and Abdullah would be held responsible if the president’s peace deal fails, and noted that Trump has followed through on other threats to withdraw troops and pull financial aid.

A senior administration official said the White House is “hopeful” the president’s message that Pompeo delivered is effective.

But the two Afghan political rivals remain locked in a feud and have refused Washington’s suggestions for a possible compromise, according to a U.S. official and a foreign diplomat from the region. Afghan officials and the Taliban also have struggled to agree on the release of prisoners from both sides.

Last Tuesday, Pompeo said there has been some progress in Kabul since his visit, particularly on the formation of a team to negotiate with the Taliban and on the planned release of prisoners.

“So it’s good news,” he said.

On March 27, Ghani announced a 21-member delegation to negotiate with the Taliban. But the Taliban rejected the team. And after denouncing it as not inclusive, Abdullah on Tuesday embraced the team as “an important step toward facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations.”

“Although we have reached no satisfactory agreement to resolve the political crisis in the wake of the rigged presidential election, we are committed to making sure that it does not overshadow peace efforts,” Abdullah wrote on Twitter.

Yet, a U.S. official briefed on the Afghan political discussions said, “It looks like they are still far apart.”

The National Security Council declined to comment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials said the president’s expectations have been tempered in the weeks since the deal was signed.

At one point, Trump suggested to aides a possible rally with U.S. troops to mark the beginning of the drawdown, officials said, but the idea never gained traction.

“He likes the pomp and circumstance,“ a senior administration official said. But some officials disagreed, with another senior administration official saying a troop rally would have been “tone deaf” because “Afghanistan is still a very volatile place.”

The officials said Trump began talking about a Nobel Prize before a deal was even reached. His mentions of it picked up after a deal was reached in January. In one Oval Office meeting at the time, Trump complained that he hasn’t been awarded a Nobel Prize yet, and said if he’s not given one for ending the war in Afghanistan then the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s process is rigged, according to officials.

The Afghanistan peace deal joins a list of efforts for which the president has publicly said he should receive a Nobel Peace Prize. He’s pointed to his North Korea diplomacy, an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, his Syria policy and even a peace agreement in Africa that the U.S. had a minimal role in brokering.

The deal with the Taliban was different, officials said, because it was seen as having more potential for success than other initiatives, such as the denuclearization of North Korea.

Trump spoke with the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on the phone last month, which one senior administration official said was a “good will” step to encourage the Taliban to adhere to the deal.

His dispatching of Pompeo to Kabul to deliver blunt threats is seen as a sign of how much the president wants the deal to succeed.

Pompeo said in a statement two weeks ago that the U.S. was “disappointed” in Ghani and Abdullah and that “their failure has harmed U.S.-Afghan relations.”

His threat to cut $1 billion in aid if the Afghan leaders couldn’t reach a governing agreement would essentially mean cutting the lifeline for the Afghan government’s security forces. Pompeo also said he told the Afghan leaders that plans under the administration’s deal with the Taliban to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 in coming months would continue.

That drawdown began in early March. Several weeks later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a 60-day freeze on all Department of Defense personnel movements from overseas, but troops coming back from Afghanistan are exempt from the order.

New York coronavirus deaths effectively flat as U.S. braces for peak cases in hot spots

67 0 07 Apr 2020

The mounting number of New York’s coronavirus deaths has stayed “effectively flat” over the past two days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday, offering a glimmer of hope that the state may be at a peak even as the country braces for what the Trump administration is calling the “toughest week” yet in the fight against the pandemic.

While the state has recorded 4,758 total deaths, with an additional 599 from the day before, it’s only a slight uptick from the 594 added two days ago, Cuomo said, and shows a “possible flattening of the curve” that is “better than the increases we have seen.”

He added that total hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and intubations are down, crediting how people are largely adhering to social distancing guidelines in place over the past three weeks and are following a new way of life, which has upended the nation’s workforce. But he advised that “now is not the time to be lax,” and that even if New York does not see a continual spike in cases and is potentially at its apex, it could be stuck at this plateau for a painfully long time.

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“If we’re plateauing, we’re plateauing at a very high level,” the governor told reporters during his daily briefing from the state capital of Albany. “We are at a red line. People can’t work any harder. The staff can’t work any harder. Staying at this level is problematic.”

Cuomo said he is extending his executive order that has kept schools closed and nonessential workers at home through April 29.

New York remains at the center of the coronavirus outbreak with more than one-third of all cases in the United States and about half of the deaths, which has put a tremendous strain on the state’s health care system. Medical workers have complained about the lack of personal protective equipment and the need for more resources, including staffing, as the crisis deepens.

Two field hospitals in Manhattan — one in Central Park and the other at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center — have been operating in full swing to relieve overburdened hospitals.

Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warned Monday on “TODAY” that in addition to New York, other virus hot spots, including New Jersey and Detroit, are set to reach a peak number of hospitalizations and deaths this week.

Other places that have seen a swift spread of the coronavirus, including New Orleans, aren’t projected to see their highest point of cases until later.

“No one is immune from this virus. It is a brand new virus,” Dr. Giroir said. “Whether you live in small-town America or you live in the Big Apple, everyone is susceptible to this and everyone needs to follow the precautions we’ve laid,” he said referring to continued social distancing.

Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, asked all Americans to limit even essential trips to grocery stores and pharmacies in an effort to curb the virus’ spread and save lives. She declined to say how many people could die in the worst-hit places.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams also told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that this week will be a Pearl Harbor and 9/11-like moment in the face of an exponential growth in deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

That sentiment was echoed in a memo Sunday to the staff at Columbia University’s Department of Surgery, in which chief surgeon Dr. Craig Smith gave a blunt assessment about what they will be seeing in the coming days.

The fight against the virus, he wrote, is “our Gettysburg, our Somme, our Iwo Jima, our Khe Sanh, our Fallujah.”

“I do know that right now we are waist-deep in execution, in the fog of war,” Smith added.

Dr. Bret Rudy, the senior vice president at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn, said he anticipates this week will be bustling for the hospital, which already has one of the busiest emergency departments in the borough.

“We continue to see patients that require care in the intensive care units as we see those numbers change,” Rudy said Monday on MSNBC. “We already have plans in place for how we will care for increasing numbers should that need arise during the next week.”

But what remains unknown is whether New York can effectively marshal its resources and medical supplies as it grapples with additional cases during this peak week. Cuomo, who said Monday that “everybody is overcapacity,” expressed confidence that New York will be prepared.

Cuomo tweeted Monday evening that President Donald Trump has agreed to allow the 1,000-bed USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship temporarily docked in New York City, to begin accepting coronavirus patients.

The ship was initially brought in to admit non-COVID-19 cases in the city to help overwhelmed hospitals, but Cuomo said the shift is needed because there are fewer non-coronavirus trauma incidents occurring during the pandemic.

On Monday morning, the Javits Center reported caring for 36 patients, including some who don’t have the coronavirus. It has the capacity for 2,500 beds.

At the field hospital in Central Park, which was constructed in 48 hours and resembles a tent city, about 40 coronavirus patients were being treated Monday, including three in intensive care, Dr. Elliott Tenpenny said on MSNBC. The facility allows for nearly 70 beds and can take 10 patients who require ventilators. The youngest patient is 20 years old.

Patients “could be here weeks,” said Tenpenny, of Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical Christian organization that setup the field hospital. “Even two to three weeks for the sicker patients.”

During a news conference Monday at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio applauded local companies that have transformed their businesses to sew reusable hospital gowns and masks.

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He said 9,200 gowns would be created by the day’s end, with some 320,000 manufactured by the end of April. Last week, hospitals across the city used a total of 1.8 million surgical gowns, and another 2.5 million are expected to be needed this week.

“We will leave no stone unturned,” de Blasio said in the securing of more personal protective equipment for hospital workers. “We will be as creative as we need to be.”

But New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said resources remain desperately needed, and that America’s largest city requires about 1,000 to 1,500 ventilators to meet the capacity for the next week and that the 600,000 N95 masks it received from the federal government is “a fraction of what we need.”

Still, Cuomo on Monday said that no one in New York has died because of a ventilator or staffing shortage at a hospital.

U.S. Army Major Sean Shirley holds a meeting with staff in the Javits New York Medical Station intensive care unit bay monitoring coronavirus disease patients in New York City on April 4, 2020.Barry Riley / US Navy via Reuters

With the coronavirus showing no sign of abating in the long term, another concern remains — how New York City can keep pace with the number of burials.

Mark Levine, the chair of the New York City Council’s health committee, initially tweeted Monday that a city park will be needed to cover the surge because cemeteries cannot handle the volume of bodies. New York officials, he added, wanted to “avoid scenes like those in Italy, where the military was forced to collect bodies from churches and even off the streets.”

But the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner responded that it is not considering temporary burials in New York City parks, and Levine walked back his comments, tweeting that “if the death rate drops enough, it will not be necessary.”

De Blasio also told reporters that “if we need to do temporary burials, we have the ability to do that,” but the city is “not at the point where we’re going to go into that.”

Trumps use of medical stockpile veers from past administrations, leaving states in the lurch

68 0 07 Apr 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is telling state governors battling the coronavirus to get ventilators and protective gear on their own, but officials who helped build the national stockpile say the trove of medical material was designed for this moment.

Triggering confusion and competition among state governments, Trump has insisted that the more than $7 billion stockpile of medical supplies is not there simply to be deployed to states, but also for the federal government to use, adding states should have had their own reserves.

Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner summed it up when he said last week that it is “supposed to be our stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”

The Strategic National Stockpile was amassed for 22 years, and those involved in both the Bush and Obama administrations say its sole purpose is to be deployed to states in a moment like this.

“The idea the stockpile is ours and the governors have got to have their own stockpile, they are changing the narrative,” said Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who served as the Joint Taskforce commander during Hurricane Katrina. “That is bulls—, and Jared Kushner doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

In 1998, President Bill Clinton, growing increasingly concerned about how the U.S. would respond to a bioterrorism attack, signed a law allocating $51 million for the stockpiling of drugs and vaccines.

Subsequent administrations have built up the stockpile to respond to a range of medical emergencies the country could face, from a terrorist attack to a natural disaster, like a hurricane or tornado. In addition to drugs and vaccines to treat known pathogens, the stockpile has been expanded under each previous administration to include additional medical supplies and even the ability to set up a 250-bed hospital in a disaster zone.

Much about the stockpile has been kept secret, including the locations and number of warehouses storing supplies. Past reports have said there are at least six storage facilities spread across the country, packed with $7 billion to $8 billion worth of supplies in warehouses that look like those used by Amazon or Walmart to distribute merchandise.

The center are strategically placed to be able to get supplies to anywhere in the country within 12 hours, said Thomas Frieden, who was the director of the CDC in the Obama administration.

During the H1N1 pandemic, the stockpile released a quarter of its inventory of antiviral drugs, personal protective equipment, and respiratory protection devices to help every state respond. The stockpile was also used to assist with the response to Ebola cases in the U.S. and during the Zika virus outbreaks, Frieden said.

“There isn’t an ‘ours’ or a ‘theirs,’ it’s supposed to be considered as a single, centrally managed federal resource for rapid deployment to wherever it is needed,” Frieden said.

When Nicole Lurie was assistant secretary for preparedness and response during the Obama administration she said there would be a process across the government each year to look at what the priorities were and what needed to be replenished and how to get scarce resources.

“For some things it is a stopgap. For some things it is the only place that you can get those sorts of things, like an anthrax or smallpox vaccine,” Lurie said.

Under the Trump administration, the management of the stockpile was moved out of CDC and into the Department of Health and Human Services, something former CDC Director Thomas Frieden warned at the start of the coronavirus pandemic could make it more difficult for resources to be quickly and effectively allocated.

The Trump administration, after Kushner’s comments last week, went so far as to change the website description for the stockpile to downplay its use by the states, removing language saying that it was intended to be used by state, local, tribal and territorial responders who “request federal assistance.”

Under the Obama administration, when a state needed something, like during the H1N1 pandemic, they would put in a formal request to the federal government, which would review it and allocate what was needed to the states to then distribute to their local hospitals.

That appears to be what governors expected from the Trump administration, but instead are getting mixed results.

But as states have gone out on their own to get the supplies and equipment they need, it has created a Wild West-style system with governors competing against one another and FEMA, driving up the price and having contracts canceled when a higher bidder comes along.

While some states have received ventilators from the stockpile, New York is still short of the number needed and has continued to look elsewhere, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week.

The state got 1,000 ventilators over the weekend from China after the Chinese government facilitated a donation from billionaires Jack Ma and Joseph Tsai, the co-founders of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, Cuomo said. The state of Oregon volunteered to send 140 machines.

Yet Trump said on Sunday that the U.S. still had about 10,000 ventilators and was in need of accurate information from the states about the number of ventilators and other supplies they have so the federal government could determine where to send resources.

While the stockpile is massive, it wasn’t intended to have everything that would be needed for every part of the country. Instead, part of the stockpiling process during the Obama administration included developing plans for how to quickly obtain and manufacture what could be needed but wasn’t on hand, like having contracts in place to quickly scale-up manufacturing of masks, Lurie said.

“The stockpile is there as a reserve for the unfortunate times you need something that doesn’t exist anywhere else or something is in short supply in a state or local government,” Lurie said. “It was never intended to and it would be impossible to stockpile everything that one could need for any kind of contingency event that would be enough for the entire county. That is not practical or realistic.”