President Joe Biden on Friday told reporters he plans to move troops to Eastern Europe “in the near term” as Russia amasses forces along the border, positioned for a possible invasion into Ukraine.
“I’ll be moving troops to Eastern Europe and the NATO countries in the near term — not a lot,” Biden told reporters after returning to Joint Base Andrews. The president’s comments come as the Pentagon says it has notified as many as 8,500 troops to standby for a potential deployment.
The President’s remarks were slightly stronger than those he made at the White House on Tuesday, when he revealed, “I may be moving some of those troops in the nearer term” to Europe.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment when asked for more context on the president’s remarks.
The Pentagon placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on heightened alert earlier this week for possible deployment, a move that came as NATO weighs a possible activation of its 40,000-strong response force to deter a Russian invasion.
Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that the troops have been authorized to “increase our readiness in the event we have to reinforce or assist our NATO allies. War is not inevitable.”
The bulk of new U.S. forces would join the NATO Response Force, both Pentagon and White House officials have said, but the number of countries they could deploy to is unclear.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, and over the past week has started to deploy forces to neighboring Belarus for what it has described as military exercises.
The current Russian moves “feel[s] different in terms of what we’ve seen in the past,” Milley said Friday. “This is larger in scale and scope, and the massing of forces than anything we’ve seen in recent memory.”
Ukraine has a border with four NATO members — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Other alliance members in the north — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — have all indicated their willingness to base more U.S. troops.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with the defense ministers of France and Germany — NATO allies who would play leading roles in any military buildup in the Baltic or in Eastern Europe — and called his counterparts in Poland and Romania earlier in the week.
Some U.S. forces have already been on the move. Six U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets normally based at the Lakenheath Air Force Base in the U.K. arrived in Estonia this week to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission.
Any larger movement of ground troops would take days to muster and prepare to deploy from the U.S. Two Eastern European embassies confirmed to POLITICO on Friday that talks are underway on basing agreements, but said no decisions have been made.
HONOLULU — Waikiki might be one of the most famous beaches in the world, a synonym for surfing and sun-soaked vacations that draw millions of people annually. But for years, Honolulu and the State of Hawaii have been reckoning with a very uncomfortable fact: The beach is vanishing. Just below the infinity pool at the Sheraton Waikiki, an advancing shoreline claimed a walkway and set of concrete stairs, which now dangle above the water. At the Outrigger Reef hotel, ocean water laps directly against the wall of the new Monkeypod Kitchen restaurant, still under renovation.
Like many places buffeted by the ocean, Waikiki has swung into action — to a point. The hotels along the beach are worth north of a billion dollars, and to preserve that investment, hotel owners and other businesses fund the Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District Association as a kind of coastline-repair department. Near the pink, 94-year-old Royal Hawaiian hotel, the association (in partnership with the state) recently built a $1.8 million groin — an L-shaped finger of rock and concrete that juts into the water and holds sand in place — in addition to widening the beach by 30 feet with 20,000 cubic yards of sand vacuumed up from the bottom of the sea. The group’s next phase of work calls for more of the same: Spending at least $50 million, much of it likely from state and perhaps federal funding, on four more groins and the construction of an entirely new beach in the area fronting the Sheraton, Outrigger Reef and Halekulani hotels.
“People might be surprised by how much of a man-made beach this is,” says Dolan Eversole, a 51-year-old coastal geologist who represents the Special Improvement District Association. On a hot, sunny morning in December, Eversole stood on a narrow walkway above Waikiki’s turquoise waters, motioning toward the existing groin as a steady stream of people emerged from the Royal Hawaiian and onto the sand. “It literally collects the sand and holds the beach together.”
But reengineering the beach in the future is only going to get harder. Studies and modeling show that the combination of thermal expansion and melting polar ice will cause a global, 3.2-foot sea level increase sometime between 2050 and 2100, resulting in twice as much coastal erosion in Hawaii as there would be otherwise. When this happens, today’s projects will seem futile. “We’re buying time,” Eversole admits. “The beach won’t be here forever.”
Neither will the rest of Waikiki’s 1.5 square miles beyond the beach, at least not in their current form. As the ocean expands, water is expected to seep into Honolulu’s porous limestone geology, nudging up the water table and eventually inundating Waikiki’s dense thicket of roads, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and condo towers. At high tides, water already sloshes out of some storm drains and pools in below-ground parking garages. If no action is taken, 6 feet of sea level rise would put Waikiki permanently under water.
As a result, some in Honolulu are envisioning far more radical solutions than groins — hollowing out the first few floors of buildings, for example; creating a Venetian-style canal system; or turning Waikiki back into the wetlands it once was. These ideas, if implemented, seek to save Hawaii’s most popular attraction, located on the island of Oahu, by totally reimagining it. They also steer right into some of the thorniest questions cities face today as they try to plan for costly realities that lie years, not just decades, ahead.
Virtually no one here in this deep-blue state denies the serious risk climate change poses to the islands, and there is widespread acknowledgement about the need to the preserve the $7 billion in economic activity that Waikiki generates annually. Yet, little agreement exists about what this future adaptation should look like and who will pay for it. The resulting battles — playing out not between the political left and right, but among city and state officials, environmentalists, hotels, landowners and locals — foreshadows a new phase in the climate debate: No longer are coastal cities arguing about whether warming poses a monumental threat, but about the best way to respond.
In Waikiki, Eversole’s plans have faced resistance from community members who fear that dumping more sand on the beach and building more hardened structures in the water will benefit hotels and developers with beachfront property at the expense of Waikiki’s famed surf breaks and natural beauty. These and other advocates for bolder, longer-term solutions like a more natural shoreline and adapted wetlands are facing off against hotel owners, politicians and others whose agendas have far shorter time horizons.
“It used to be, ‘Oh, OK, we’ll think about it later,’” said State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, from her office in the Capitol building here, still largely deserted during the pandemic. “But now everyone knows that the science says you’re going to be underwater, and we have to figure out what to do about.” With nobody else stepping up to take action, last year Moriwaki assembled a working group, including Eversole, to design a comprehensive adaptation plan for Waikiki over the next two years that could serve as a model for other areas. This month, Moriwaki submitted legislation that, if passed, would provide $800,000 for the state to create the plan, which would then get implemented by the City and County of Honolulu.
Getting that money is likely to be the easy part. Those with a say and a stake in what happens to Waikiki include officials within the state government, which controls the beach and nearshore waters; leaders from the joint city-county government, which has jurisdiction over everything inland of the shoreline; the powerful tourism industry, including many hotels owned by companies outside the state; plus, Waikiki’s 30,000 residents. At this point, city and state officials have vowed to work together and solicit input from the community. But scientists and activists worry they won’t move quickly enough to make difficult decisions, while the debate over how to respond — short-term engineering fixes versus long-term adaptive measures, containing nature versus working with it — only festers.
Moriwaki acknowledges her team is still at the starting line. “There’s a lot of hands in the pot, but so far the pot isn’t cooking,” she says. “But at least now there’s interest. Before there wasn’t even that.”
For centuries, Waikiki was synonymous with water. With a name meaning “place of spouting water,” the area was fed by a dozen streams running down from the Ko’olau mountains to the northeast of Honolulu and into the ocean. In the 15th century, Native Hawaiians used this patchwork of wetlands to develop a productive agricultural system, growing flood-adapted crops like taro and raising fish in large stone-walled ponds. Later, Chinese and Japanese sugar cane and pineapple plantation workers used some of the land to plant rice and raise ducks. At the shoreline, generations of Hawaiian royals had their residences, and everybody — royalty, commoners, men, women, children — came to surf the waves, with both canoes and long, heavy wooden boards. Called “wave-sliding,” or he’e nalu, the pastime was about celebrating and connecting with the ocean.
The area’s transformation into a commercial center began around the turn of the 20th century, shortly after Hawaii became a U.S. territory. In 1906, Lucius Pinkham, a businessman from Massachusetts who became president of Hawaii’s Board of Health, concluded that Waikiki’s drainage and mosquito issues were “deleterious to public health.” In a letter to the rest of the board, he argued that the population of impoverished Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese farmers wasn’t the best option for the area, describing them as “a class of population that limited means force onto undesirable and unsanitary land.” Instead, he wrote, Waikiki needed a population like the one that had emerged in Los Angeles and other Southern California towns — people “of private fortune, who seek an agreeable climate and surroundings, and who expend large, already-acquired incomes.” In Pinkham’s view, these wealthier (and, yes, whiter) people from the mainland would allow Waikiki to become an “absolutely sanitary, beautiful and unique district.”
After President Woodrow Wilson appointed Pinkham as Hawaii’s territorial governor in 1913, Pinkham used a preexisting law to allow the Board of Health to declare any parcel of land unsanitary and then place a lien on it if the owner was unable to afford the necessary improvements. In a move that today rings with exploitation and discrimination, Pinkham then started auctioning off properties. To create stable real estate on which to build homes, he initiated plans for the developer Walter Dillingham to build a 2-mile canal. Completed in 1927, the Ala Wai Canal, which serves as Waikiki’s northern border, drained the wetlands and provided dredge material to fill in the swamps. It also simplified the watershed by redirecting streams from higher elevations into one major input that fed into the ocean at one end.
With plenty of solid land for development, homes quickly began popping up. When passenger air travel to Honolulu was made widely available in the post-World War II era, high-rise hotels to house Waikiki’s growing numbers of visitors became a fixture of the skyline. Amid these changes, Waikiki’s surfing culture endured and was exported to the rest of the world by gold medal Olympic swimmer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, who grew up in Waikiki and mentored a generation of “beach boys.”
One of them was the late George Downing, a pioneer in big-wave surfing and the design of surfboards. “My dad literally grew up on this beach and spent much of his life working to protect Mamala Bay,” said his son Keone on a recent afternoon, a view of Diamond Head Crater rising in the background.
A tanned 68-year-old and former professional surfer, Downing has become one of Waikiki’s most prominent voices arguing that the state’s current climate adaptation efforts favor hotels, tourists and wealthy property owners, not the natural environment once cultivated by Native Hawaiians and beloved by locals. In Downing’s view, Eversole’s plans to build four new T-shaped groins in front of the Sheraton, Halekulani and Outrigger hotels threatens several of Waikiki’s most popular surf breaks; when waves hit the groins, energy refracts back out into the ocean, leading to smaller, weaker breaks. He claims that after the Royal Hawaiian groin was built 18 months ago, it turned the nearby Canoes break into a “mush burger.” Downing believes that instead of “throwing rocks in the water” to hold in sand and slow erosion, the state and Special Improvement District Association should replenish the beach with regular, small-scale pumping of sand back to shore as it naturally washes out in the waves, perhaps monthly and at night, when it won’t be intrusive.
“I really like Dolan — he has a conscience,” says Downing, who runs Save Our Surf, a small but well-connected advocacy organization he took over after his father’s death. “[But] if he’s successful in building these groins, the hotels are the only ones that will benefit, creating a higher value for their properties when they get ready to sell.” (Eversole, himself a surfer, readily admits Waikiki’s visitor destinations are a priority — “We can’t kill the golden goose,” he says — and while he has heard concerns about the Canoes break generating shorter rides, he considers such changes subtle and short term.)
On Maui, a similar proposal for beach widening by the State of Hawaii and the hotel industry also is encountering opposition from community members, many of them Native Hawaiians who worry about long-term impacts on coral reefs and fishing, as well as short-term disruptions to canoe racing. Several people have promised to “stand in front of bulldozers” to stop the project, arguing that hotels and condos should start making plans to retreat inland. For now, Downing isn’t calling for a similar exodus in Waikiki, in part because the hotels have nowhere to go; slightly smaller than Maui, Oahu houses more than six times its population, a total of just over 1 million people, 350,000 of them in Honolulu. Longer-term, though, he wants to see policymakers and industry leaders adopt strategies that seek to work with the ocean, rather than hold it back.
“Just because we’ve screwed up Waikiki with all these man-made structures doesn’t mean we have to keep screwing it up,” says Downing, a former land board member at the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and current member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority board, who says he has the ear of Gov. David Ige. Eversole says the state has received north of 150 negative comments about the upcoming groin project from community members and various groups. The influential Surfrider Foundation, for example, said in its comments that because T-head groins have “significant impacts” on ecosystems, marine life and surf breaks, it prefers “less intrusive” designs.
When I met up with Downing last month, he was eager for me to see a recent project he considered to be a lost opportunity. On Waikiki’s quieter Diamond Head side, past the strip of oceanfront hotels and along a pedestrian path abutting a public park, we stood on a newly installed platform of concrete pavers. Part of a walled structure originally built as public baths in the early 1900s, this rectangular extension from the walkway had been damaged by decades of pummeling from the waves.
“This was a perfect place to experiment with what happens when you let the water go where it wants to,” Downing said. “You’ve got no hotels or buildings in the way. Take out the wall and let the water bring the sand and the beach up into the park.” Instead, the City and County of Honolulu hired a contractor to rebuild the walls, place additional sand inside and lay the concrete pavers on top, creating the visual effect of a short, sloping sidewalk to nowhere.
A person with knowledge of the project said there were several roadblocks preventing serious consideration of a beach cove. The city, this person said, didn’t want to lose its investment in the rebuilt pedestrian promenade on top of the wall, while the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, which protects the large public park nearby, does not want to see any park land lost, the group’s president told me. The city’s Department of Design and Construction did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
For Downing, this so-called Queen’s Beach project — in which multiple entities clung to the status quo instead of looking at the bigger picture — is the kind of business-as-usual, quick-fix solution he believes is all too common in Hawaii and that has left the entire stretch of Waikiki Beach pockmarked with crumbling pieces of groins, walls, semi-exposed drainage pipes, century-old foundations and useless stairs — all eyesores on this once untouched land. “Nothing ever gets removed, and there’s no long-term vision,” he says. “We’ve got to start doing things differently.”
The stench was overpowering as Judith Stilgenbauer stood along the banks of the Ala Wai Canal at the northern edge of Waikiki last month. “That’s awful,” she said, quickly walking in search of a less pungent spot on the sidewalk. “Smells like it might be coming from the sewer.”
Stilgenbauer, director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, eventually concluded that the smell was likely due to the city’s recent dredging of trash, muck and sediment from the bottom of the canal. In Pinkham’s original design, the Ala Wai had two outlets to the ocean. Budget shortfalls and concerns that the current might transport debris toward the hotels prevented the second outlet from ever being built, resulting in still, fetid water that requires periodic cleaning. “This whole canal could be something really beautiful and interesting if we do this right, something that appeals to both tourists and locals. People could feel good about coming here,” she says.
If anyone has offered the kind of long-term vision Downing and others have called for, it’s Stilgenbauer. While Downing and Eversole are focused on the best way to preserve Waikiki Beach largely as it is, Stilgenbauer, another member of Moriwaki’s working group, is an advocate for what would perhaps be the most radical way of dealing with climate change here and elsewhere: nature-based solutions, an approach gaining traction in cities like Boston, New York and Norfolk, Va.
In a 2020 report, conducted in partnership with Hawaii’s state planning office, Stilgenbauer and a team from the university envisioned a phased approach for turning the Ala Wai and an adjoining golf course back into a version of the wetlands they once were. Sketches show people strolling and jogging along promenades elevated over marshlands. Families take photos from rectangular viewing platforms, while birds flutter overhead. At the city-owned, decreasingly used Ala Wai golf course on the northern edge of the canal are basins to collect stormwater for irrigation, a wetland education center, facilities for basketball and beach volleyball and a restoration of the agricultural practices Pinkham did away with: fishponds, taro fields and breadfruit orchards.
“You have to start thinking beyond the beach and shopping malls and have a discussion about how we undo some of the colonial damage that’s been done here,” says Stilgenbauer, a German native who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to Hawaii. “We have to get over this idea that we can play God and engineer our way out of all of these problems.”
Not included in the report are Stilgenbauer’s ideas for a series of soft-shored, Venetian-style canals that would replace selected streets and a floodable, “living shoreline” at Fort DeRussy, a large, grassy, oceanfront beach park owned by the Army and located between the Outrigger Reef hotel and Hilton Hawaiian Village. Such “green infrastructure,” she says, would allow water to flow through safely, increase biodiversity, and help Waikiki live with periodic or even constant flooding. Moriwaki, at least, has offered provisional buy-in. “Judith is really hot to trot on this, and she sort of scares everyone. But I think we do need to start 50 years out, then work backwards,” says the state senator. After years of joking about the idea, Eversole, too, is an advocate for a canal system, albeit a more limited version.
But whether any of Stilgenbauer’s dramatic concepts will get adopted and paid for, at a time when Moriwaki’s adaptation bill has yet to receive even bare-bones funding, remains a wide-open question. As evidenced by the Queen’s Beach baths project, even small projects face an array of obstacles, and require state, city and oftentimes federal approvals. Moriwaki said this week that, amid increased attention on climate change in the current state legislative session, the prospects look good for her bill to create an adaptation plan — though Hawaii still faces other, more immediate issues, including a lack of affordable housing, homelessness, traffic, a beleaguered light rail system and stalled plans to boost local food production.
On Honolulu’s City Council, political will exists, at least at the moment, to take on these challenges. “It’s up to political leadership to do the hard, long-term thinking,” says Tommy Waters, the council chair, whose district includes Waikiki. “I want my kids to be able to enjoy a beautiful Waikiki, to be able to paddle out there and surf, so I have a vested interest.” For the first time, four Native Hawaiians sit on the City Council, Waters being one of them. He envisions the area becoming gradually more elevated as hotels are rebuilt or undergo renovations in accordance with new flood-resilient building codes, which are under development at the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, though at a slower pace than he and others would like. Structures in the lowest-lying areas, or those that can’t move up or don’t have the financial resources necessary to do so, such as residential condos, Waters says, should be repurposed as some version of Stilgenbauer’s floodable green spaces, with buyouts and other assistance given for relocation.
He knows such ideas won’t be an easy sell among his constituents, however. Honolulu’s community boards have proven themselves vocal and well-organized. In late 2019, a group of residents in neighborhoods directly inland of Waikiki successfully fought an Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to address what is effectively Waikiki’s third source of potential flooding. Along with an advancing shoreline and groundwater inundation, a possible 100-year storm in the upland valleys would send water rushing into Waikiki, causing an overtopping of the Ala Wai Canal. The Army Corps plan, which had been in the works for nearly two decades, faced opposition because it lacked community input and included large detention basins in residential neighborhoods and 4-foot, view-spoiling wall extensions along the canal.
“People generally don’t like change,” says Katherine Hensky, a member of the Waikiki community board. “The attitude of a lot of people is: ‘Nothing is going to happen to me, and if it does, I’ll deal with it then.’”
Perhaps the biggest player in the politics of climate adaptation in Waikiki, which represents 8 percent of the state’s economy, is its tourism industry. Its contribution came into particularly sharp relief during the early days of the Covid pandemic when tourists disappeared and Hawaii’s unemployment rate surged to almost 30 percent, among the worst in the nation. Hotel owners and operators, for the most part, have not spoken publicly about sea level rise in Waikiki, and nearly every one of the nine companies I contacted for this article declined to comment. The real estate company Park Hotels & Resorts recently had an extensive report completed about how an advancing shoreline will affect its large, oceanfront Hilton Hawaiian Village property, but Moriwaki says the company has opted not to share it with her. (A Hilton representative said the hotel is “committed to operating and growing sustainably.”)
If recent events are any guide, the industry’s appetite for making — and paying for — decisive change might not be particularly high. Those defunct and dangling stairs at the Sheraton and the walkway leading to them have been blocked with an unsightly “Closed” sign for more than five years because of a stalemate over who should be responsible for repairs, Eversole says. The Sheraton, which owns the walkway, and the state, which has an agreement for public use of it, remain at loggerheads about both the funds and the assumption of liability in the event of a lawsuit. The walkway closed in 2016 after a visitor broke both her ankles (then sued) while trying to negotiate the makeshift sandbags placed between the sand and stairs. Now, anyone wanting to traverse the beach has to wind around the Sheraton’s infinity pool to bypass that section of the walkway.
Next door, the upscale Halekulani hotel has its own walkway problems. Although functional, the path leading across the beach, toward the Hilton Hawaiian Village, involves a circuitous walk around and across a mini-beach and then, at the end of the walkway, the navigation of a precipitous drop. Over the summer, the erosion of sand caused pieces of the public-access sidewalk connected to the walkway to shear off. On my visit in December, I watched people of all ages and athletic abilities as they attempted to scramble over wet, sandy, steep-angled slabs of concrete on their journeys across the beach.
In an interview at an open-air dining area at the recently renovated hotel he runs, Halekulani Corporation Chief Operating Officer Peter Shaindlin said he views it as the state’s responsibility (or the city’s, in the case of the sidewalk) to fix the walkways because of the terms of a public use agreement signed with the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources in the 1960s. He also favors a comprehensive, multi-hotel solution, something Eversole says he is working on and which he hopes will be funded jointly by his employer, the Special Improvement District Association, and the state. “We don’t want to do anything that becomes a band-aid solution. We’re waiting to see what happens with the entire stretch,” Shaindlin says.
Although roughly half of the $5.8 million total cost of the recently completed Royal Hawaiian groin and beach widening projects that Eversole showed me came from hotels via the Special Improvement District Association, the state will likely need to step in as the leading contributor for future projects. Currently, the business association group collects just $1 million a year in assessments.
A longtime Waikiki real estate lawyer who didn’t want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak about clients said he is concerned about an incompatibility between the interests of local community members, whose children and grandchildren will live on Oahu’s south shore for decades, and hotel owners, many of whom are short-term, mainland-based or international real estate or private equity firms. “These are people who are generally not going to hold the asset for more than 15 years, so they don’t need to necessarily think long-term,” he said. “My big concern is that one day the risk profile will become too high, and people will say, ‘I’m not going to invest in Waikiki anymore.’ When that happens, a lot of people will be left behind.”
Shaindlin says that the Halekulani Corporation, as an owner of multiple Waikiki properties for more than 30 years, is committed to the destination’s long-term vitality and interested in supporting innovative ideas. “For our guests, it’s already more about culture than sunbathing,” he says. “Some of them will actually call up the hotel and ask what we do with sustainability initiatives.”
In Stilgenbauer’s experience, support from the industry, though welcome, tends to be theoretical. She says when she meets with hotels, often on properties with critical infrastructure on lower levels and ground-floor lobbies bustling with shops and restaurants, there is little sense of urgency. “They say, ‘These nature-based solutions are fine, but not on our property,’” she says.
At some point in the not-so-distant future, these wait-and-see postures will no longer be viable. With the ocean advancing and the water Pinkham and Dillingham tamed a century ago now threatening to reclaim the landscape, Waters, the city council member, says he wants to see human ingenuity adapt Waikiki’s urban topography before nature does it first. Inevitably though, this will mean difficult and uncomfortable choices, especially for the tourism industry. “The hotels that don’t want to go along with the plan will just have to be dragged along,” he says, adding, “If we’re going to end up making hotels and the multinational corporations that own them angry, I’m OK with that.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic approaches its third year in the United States, governors are forced to grapple with its long-term effects on society while still grappling with its evolving nature and maintain an eye on a coterie of other challenges.
Reporters from POLITICO’s newsroom interviewed five governors as part of Friday’s “The Fifty: America’s Governors” live event, to discuss the issues in their states and their administrations’ relationship to the federal government.
Here’s what the governors had to say:
Covid remains omnipresent
Though effective vaccines have been widely available throughout the country for most of last year, the virus continues to disrupt society — particularly with the emergence of the Omicron variant in recent months.
The five governors — three Democrats and two Republicans — have each taken different approaches, and each acknowledged the evolving balance of weighing available options with what constituents and elected officials will accept.
Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defended his refusal to institute a statewide mask mandate and noted that localities were allowed to impose their own rules. Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox likewise stood by his decision this month to exempt state facilities from local mask requirements even as case numbers spike.
Cox said he’s long been a proponent of high-quality masks, but said mandates haven’t proven sufficient to curb case surges elsewhere and the focus should instead be on other tools.
“Everyone gets their turn in the top 10 when it comes to Omicron,” Cox said.
Cox said hospitalizations is a more critical metric for policymakers and health officials to closely monitor than raw case numbers. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, made a similar point, noting that not all at-home tests are reported to the government — even if the results are positive — among other considerations.
Schools are in a sensitive position
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it’s “vitally important” to keep schools open safely through public safety measures such as masking, testing and vaccinations.
“We know we can keep our schools open,” said Pritzker, a Democrat whose largest school district — Chicago — recently faced a crisis over this very issue.
Sununu said the pandemic’s disruption to schools, and society more generally, has weighed heavily on children’s educational development and well-being.
“The biggest issue with kids is mental health,” the GOP governor said.
Climate concerns an increased emphasis
Democratic Hawaii Gov. David Ige said his state has been on the “forefront” of climate change and resiliency issues, particularly given the archipelago’s “unique” situation in the middle of the Pacific.
He touted his state’s commitment to transition entirely to renewable energy and establish a commission tasked with studying adaptation strategies. Ige said that if action is not taken in the coming years, it would necessitate putting even more drastic actions on the table.
Cox said his state, like other parts of the West, have been wrestling with severe droughts and water shortages.
The Utah governor said he believes it will be important to try to combat the problem along multiple fronts — including efforts to ensure places are “conserving water and storing water for future generations.”
Cox said such preparations are particularly needed in fast-growing parts of the region, so as to meet that demand while not stifling economic development.
Washington is not a draw
Late last year Sununu spurned a concerted campaign from national Republicans to run for the Senate and instead opted to seek another term in the Concord governor’s mansion. But he did make an appeal to term-limited GOP Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who faces similar pressure to mount a Senate bid, to consider the idea and said the Senate would be better overall if it had more former governors in its ranks.
Still, none of the governors Friday expressed interest in any future runs for office.
“No I would not,” Louisiana’s Edwards said when asked if he would run for another position. “I have no interest in being in Washington, D.C., in elective office. … I look forward to getting back in the private sector.”
Pritzker, who is up for reelection, deflected a question about a potential presidential campaign by saying he’s “focused on being governor of Illinois.”
NEW YORK — Retired NYPD captain-turned-mayor Eric Adams handed in his gun and badge 15 years ago. But he never fully left the job.
During his first month as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Adams — often clad in an NYPD jacket — has routinely rushed to crime scenes like the beat cop he once was.
Adams began his first day in office on Jan. 1 with a 911 call to report a street fight he witnessed on his commute to the office, accompanied by TV cameras but no security detail.
“I have an assault in progress,” he flatly told the 911 operator. “Three males.” He ended the call by giving his name: “Adams. Mayor Adams.”
Later that day, the Democrat delivered his first speech to New Yorkers and then bounded out of City Hall for an unscheduled press conference at a Manhattan hospital where a police officer was being treated for a gunshot wound.
It was just a sign of what would follow during his first month in office. The events of recent weeks have already turned crime — and the question of what to do about it — into the single biggest issue facing his administration and has drawn in President Joe Biden, who will visit New York next week to discuss gun violence with Adams.
The incidents and Adams’ response are also stirring up fears that some criminal justice reforms of the past decade could soon unravel.
It was inevitable that the new mayor would be focused on policing. He made combating crime a cornerstone of his campaign last year, winning over moderate Democrats by addressing the wave of violence the pandemic seemed to be bringing. But it’s been a series of high-profile and deadly incidents this year that have grabbed headlines and given momentum to Adams’ policy platform.
By Jan. 14, Adams seemed to be consumed by the issue as he headed to police headquarters to announce the arrest of an armed robber who fatally shot a 19-year-old Burger King cashier. Four days later, he spoke at the vigil of a woman who was shoved to her death in front of a Times Square subway train in a random attack. And just 24 hours after that vigil, Adams attended a late-night briefing in the Bronx after an infant was struck in the face with a stray bullet.
“Doesn’t matter to me if it’s a police officer shot, or if it’s a baby shot. I’m going to stay in these streets until this city is safe,” the mayor vowed, days before two police officers were shot and killed this past weekend.
The former 22-year NYPD veteran has likened himself to a “general” tackling the city’s crime wave head-on — an approach that supporters say is critical to showing the public he’ll make good on his campaign mantra that the “prerequisite to prosperity is public safety.”
But detractors fear his tough-on-crime persona and pro-police policies are a sign that years of hard-won reforms starting in 2013 when Michael Bloomberg was the mayor are at risk of being reversed. That year a landmark ruling found the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk was unconstitutional. Now, nearly two years after the murder of George Floyd forced a national reckoning on race and policing, the city is talking about putting more officers on the streets, protecting the police department from budget cuts and possibly even reinstating a legal version of stop and frisk.
Some say New Yorkers elected Adams because they trust that his background will enable him to achieve the challenging balance between justice and safety.
“He has a unique position where he’s lived it. So he’s not going to be brought up to speed by police chiefs, nor is he going to be lectured by advocates,” Republican City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli said in an interview. “And I think that’s what made him a popular choice for a large segment of New Yorkers.”
One of the mayor’s most controversial plans is his decision to revive the NYPD’s plainclothes unit that was disbanded by former Mayor Bill deBlasio after the division was implicated in multiple police-involved shootings and the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner.
This week, Adams delivered a major speech outlining his plan to combat gun violence, days after two NYPD officers were fatally shot in Harlem. One officer died on Friday, and the second officer died Tuesday. They were the fourth and fifth cops shot this month.
Adams has pledged to improve the plainclothes unit by hiring better-trained cops, but he says deBlasio was mistaken to dismantle the division, whose mission was to take illegal guns off city streets.
“One shooting is too many. Don’t get me wrong, this is a crisis, and we have to address it. But this has been historically the most violent of police units,” said City Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a progressive Democrat, casting doubt on Adams’claims that his plainclothes cops could avoid the abuses of the past. “We always see a call for increased training, and there is zero empirical evidence that any form of increased training reduces the violence.”
The one aspect of the blueprint that Cabán and other criminal justice reform advocates applaud is an expansion of summer jobs for youth and stepping up community-based “cure violence” programs.
But they disagree with other major elements, like Adams’ plan to rollback aspects of the bail reforms passed in New York in 2019. He argues that judges should be able to keep defendants in jail before trial if they believe they are dangerous. And he is pushing to be able to charge 16- and 17-year- olds caught with guns as adults in some circumstances. Both changes would require state legislation.
Police Benevolent Association president, Pat Lynch, welcomed the platform.
“Mayor Adams has acknowledged the problem and outlined the beginnings of a plan. Now that police officers and crime victims have an advocate in City Hall, the real work begins,” Lynch, whose union represents 24,000 rank-and-file NYPD officers, said after Adams’ crime speech on Monday.
Another ally, Democratic Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, said Adams was sending an important message to New Yorkers by crisscrossing the city to attend vigils, visiting hospitals and giving after-dark briefings at the scenes of shootings.
“Showing up is a critical part of the job,” Richards said. “It signals to folks that this is a mayor who’s not going to tolerate the Wild Wild West in our city.”
As a former cop, Richards said Adams might have more success than his predecessor exerting pressure on the NYPD, particularly deBlasio.
“People in the police department would say [of deBlasio], ‘The guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. ’ It’s hard to say that when you have a guy who served for 22 years in the department and frankly worked to hold the department accountable as well.”
The murder of two NYPD officers responding to a domestic dispute call last week echoed an incident in deBlasio’s first year in office, when two cops were killed in an ambush in Brooklyn.
Yet the ramifications for the two freshman mayors have been starkly different: In 2014, police officers turned their backs on deBlasio after the killings, as the president of the Police Benevolent Association declared that he had blood on his hands. The dispute, which stemmed from deBlasio’s response to the police killing of Eric Garner, sparked a lasting rift that dogged de Blasio throughout his time in office.
Last week, Lynch, the PBA president, stood next to Adams as he briefed the city at Harlem Hospital following the shooting last week.
Adams joined the NYPD as a transit officer in 1984 at the behest of a Brooklyn reverend and civil rights leader who motivated young Black men to become police officers to change the department from the inside. He rose to the rank of captain, while also becoming a leading public critic of the department as the head of the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. The group even handed out report cards to its superiors, often giving the NYPD a failing grade on diversity issues. Adams has claimed he was so hated by an old, racist guard in the department that in 1996 someone shot out the back window of his car in an effort to scare him away from his advocacy work.
He retired in 2006 and won a seat in the state Senate.
“Once a transit cop, always a transit cop,” Adams said as he placed the 911 call to report the fight he witnessed on the first day of the year, standing on a subway platform as he did so.
Adams’ approach marks a sharp contrast to deBlasio, who often downplayed spikes in crime, arguing they were driven by a pandemic “perfect storm” that would fade with time.
“Generals don’t lead their troops from the rear. They lead from the front,” Adams said Tuesday in a morning appearance on NY1 when asked about his relentless focus on violent crime. “I’m going to be on the ground and talk to those residents who are feeling a feeling of apprehension and fear. I’m going to walk into shops and speak with people. I’m going to let them know: Your mayor sees you.”
Adams is facing pressure to deliver on his campaign promise of public safety and prosperity: So far, shootings have risen by more than 15 percent in 2022 compared to the same time last year, on top of a previous surge that began early in the coronavirus pandemic. The city’s unemployment rate is still double the national average.
Adams has said he might exempt the NYPD from a 3 percent budget cut he is imposing on other city agencies. Only health agencies running the city’s Covid-19 response and the Department of Correction have been exempted so far.
And he plans to deploy more cops and outreach workers to tackle the problem of homelessness on the city’s subway system. Adams believes more riders will return to mass transit if there’s a visible presence of officers in the system coupled with cleaning up what he sees as the quality of life issues with homeless people living underground.
But Jeremy Saunders of the progressive social advocacy group VOCAL-NY said, while the cops have been out in force, the increased services for homeless New Yorkers have not materialized.
“He’s publicly talking about investing money in police and investing his personal time in police, while cutting these services,” Saunders said. “We don’t need big investments in law enforcement. We have a massive police force. We have an army of cops. We barely have a platoon of care providers.”
Richards said the mayor would have to back up his bolstering of the NYPD with funding in his upcoming first budget for housing, social services, and neighborhood crisis management teams that intervene to prevent violence. “Without these things, we can have all the rhetoric in the world, but you’ll still continue to see shootings,” he said.
Joe Anuta and Julia Marsh contributed to this report.
Billionaire mega-donor George Soros is seeding a super PAC with $125 million, an enormous investment that will aid Democratic groups and candidates for the 2022 election cycle and beyond.
The group, Democracy PAC, has served as Soros’ campaign spending vehicle since 2019, channeling more than $80 million to other Democratic groups and candidates during the 2020 election cycle. The new, nine-figure investment from Soros is aimed at supporting pro-democracy “causes and candidates, regardless of political party” who are invested in “strengthening the infrastructure of American democracy: voting rights and civic participation, civil rights and liberties, and the rule of law,” Soros said in a statement shared first with POLITICO.
Soros added that the donation to the super PAC is a “long-term investment,” intended to support political work beyond this year.
Alexander Soros, George Soros’ son, will serve as the PAC’s president. In his own statement, Alexander Soros cited the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and “ongoing efforts to discredit and undermine our electoral process, reveal the magnitude of the threat to our democracy,” adding that this “is a generational threat that cannot be addressed in just one or two election cycles.”
The donation is sure to place Soros among the biggest political givers of the midterms. Only a handful of major donors have contributed nine figures to federal groups and candidates in recent years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political giving.
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Democracy PAC has already cut big checks to two major Democratic super PACs aligned with the party’s congressional leadership: $2.5 million to Senate Majority PAC and $1 million to House Majority PAC.
Another $1 million went to the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, the group dedicated to electing Democrats to statewide administration offices. These wonky, once little-known posts play a key role in administering elections, which have come under siege since former President Donald Trump and his followers tried to subvert the results of the 2020 election.
Trump has since endorsed candidates for secretary of state in several battleground states he lost in 2020, and DASS has stepped up its fundraising in response. Soros’ contribution helped fuel a record year for the Democratic group, which raised $4.5 million in 2021 to prepare for this year’s elections.
Several groups focused on field operations also got six- and seven-figure donations. BlackPAC, a group focused on turning out Black voters, received $250,000 to support its efforts during the Virginia gubernatorial and legislative races in 2021, while Vote Rev (formerly called VoteTripling.org) received $1 million. That group is focused on canvassing voters at polling places to then reach out to their family and friends, urging them to vote.
Democracy PAC’s spending will be posted publicly on Monday, after filing with the Federal Elections Commission.
Crisis Text Line is one of the world’s most prominent mental health support lines, a tech-driven nonprofit that uses big data and artificial intelligence to help people cope with traumas such as self-harm, emotional abuse and thoughts of suicide.
But the data the charity collects from its online text conversations with people in their darkest moments does not end there: The organization’s for-profit spinoff uses a sliced and repackaged version of that information to create and market customer service software.
Crisis Text Line says any data it shares with that company, Loris.ai, has been wholly “anonymized,” stripped of any details that could be used to identify people who contacted the helpline in distress. Both entities say their goal is to improve the world — in Loris’ case, by making “customer support more human, empathetic, and scalable.”
In turn, Loris has pledged to share some of its revenue with Crisis Text Line. The nonprofit also holds an ownership stake in the company, and the two entities shared the same CEO for at least a year and a half. The two call their relationship a model for how commercial enterprises can help charitable endeavors thrive.
For Crisis Text Line, an organization with financial backing from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players, its control of what it has called “the largest mental health data set in the world” highlights new dimensions of the tech privacy debates roiling Washington: Giant companies like Facebook and Google have built great fortunes based on masses of deeply personal data. But information of equal or greater sensitivity is also in the hands of nonprofit groups that fall outside federal regulations on commercial businesses — with little outside control over where that data ends up.
Ethics and privacy experts contacted by POLITICO saw several potential problems with the arrangement.
Some noted that studies of other types of anonymized datasets have shown that it can sometimes be easy to trace the records back to specific individuals, citing past examples involving health records, genetics data and even passengers in New York City taxis.
Others questioned whether the people who text their pleas for help are actually consenting to having their data shared, despite the approximately 50-paragraph disclosure the helpline offers a link to when individuals first reach out.
The nonprofit “may have legal consent, but do they have actual meaningful, emotional, fully understood consent?” asked Jennifer King, the privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford University Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
Those disclosure terms also note that Meta’s Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp services can access the content of conversations taking place through those platforms. (Meta confirmed that it has access to that data but says it does not use any of it, except for cases involving risk of imminent harm.)
Former federal regulator Jessica Rich said she thought it would be “problematic” for third-party companies to have access even to anonymized data, though she cautioned that she was unfamiliar with the companies involved.
“It would be contrary to what the expectations are when distressed consumers are reaching out to this nonprofit,” said Rich, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. She later added: “The fact that the data is transferred to a for-profit company makes this much more troubling and could give the FTC an angle for asserting jurisdiction.”
In an earlier exchange, he emphasized that Crisis Text Line’s relationship with its for-profit subsidiary is “ethically sound.”
“We view the relationship with Loris.ai as a valuable way to put more empathy into the world, while rigorously upholding our commitment to protecting the safety and anonymity of our texters,” Rodriguez wrote. He added that “sensitive data from conversations is not commercialized, full stop.”
Loris’ CEO since 2019, Etie Hertz, wrote in an email to POLITICO that Loris has maintained “a necessary and important church and state boundary” between its business interests and Crisis Text Line.
After POLITICO began asking questions about its relationship with Loris, the nonprofit changed wording on its website to emphasize that “Loris does not have open-ended access to our data; it has limited contractual rights to periodically ask us for certain anonymized data.” Rodriguez said such sharing may happen every few months.
A ‘tech startup’ for mental health crises
Since its launch in 2013, Crisis Text Line says it has exchanged 219 million messages in more than 6.7 million conversations over text, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp — channels that it says allow it to meet its often youthful client base “where they are.” It has spread beyond the U.S. to open operations in Canada, the U.K. and Ireland.
The New York-based nonprofit says it knows how “deeply personal and urgent” these silent conversations are for those reaching out, many of them young, people of color, LGBTQ or living in rural areas: “68% of our texters share something with us that they have never shared with anyone else,” the helpline wrote in one government filing.
In a little less than 1 percent of cases, the group says, the conversation becomes so dire that it contacts emergency services to “initiate an active rescue.” Two to three times a week, it wrote in one 2020 report, the discussion turns to thoughts of homicide, “most often a school shooting or partner murder.”
Data science and AI are at the heart of the organization — ensuring, it says, that those in the highest-stakes situations wait no more than 30 seconds before they start messaging with one of its thousands of volunteer counselors. It says it combs the data it collects for insights that can help identify the neediest cases or zero in on people’s troubles, in much the same way that Amazon, Facebook and Google mine trends from likes and searches.
“We know that if you text the words ‘numbs’ and ‘sleeve,’ there’s a 99 percent match for cutting,” the nonprofit’s co-founder and former CEO, Nancy Lublin, said in a 2015 TED talk. “We know that if you text in the words ‘mg’ and ‘rubber band,’ there’s a 99 percent match for substance abuse. And we know that if you text in ‘sex,’ ‘oral’ and ‘Mormon,’ you’re questioning if you’re gay.”
“I love data,” added Lublin, who has also described the helpline as “a tech startup.” She had previously founded the group Dress for Success, which provides business clothing and job training to women in need. (This month, Lublin referred questions about the relationship between the help line and Loris to Hertz, the current Loris CEO.)
Crisis Text Line has partnered with local governments and more than a dozen school systems across the country and has expanded its reach by teaming up with tech titans like Google, Meta and TikTok. The organization also allows access to its data for research purposes.
But it also came to view texters’ data as valuable for another purpose: helping corporations deal with their customer service problems.
So in 2018, Lublin created Loris, with backing from investors including former LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and the Omidyar Network of billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Its purpose, the company outlined, was to use Crisis Text Line’s “de-escalation techniques, emotional intelligence strategies, and training experience” to develop AI software that helps guide customer service agents through live chats with customers.
“We’ve baked all of our learning into enterprise software that helps companies boost empathy AND bottom line,” says Loris’ website, which features testimonials from clients such as the ride-hailing company Lyft and the meal-subscription service Freshly.
The “core” of its artificial intelligence, Loris said in a news release last year, comes from the insights “drawn from analyzing nearly 200 million messages” at Crisis Text Line. (Hertz, the Loris CEO, said in an email that its AI has evolved and now includes data from e-commerce and other industries.)
Loris’ website says a portion of the company’s revenue would go toward supporting the nonprofit, calling the arrangement “a blueprint for ways for-profit companies can infuse social good into their culture and operations, and for nonprofits to prosper.” In practice, Crisis Text Line’s Rodriguez said, the company “has not yet reached the contractual threshold” where such revenue-sharing would occur, although he said Loris paid Crisis Text Line $21,000 in 2020 for office space.
“Simply put, why sell t-shirts when you can sell the thing your organization does best?” reads Crisis Text Line’s description of the data-sharing partnership.
Volunteers speak out
Former Crisis Text Line volunteer Tim Reierson has a different term for Loris’ use of the crisis line’s data: “disrespectful.”
“When you’re in conversation with someone, and you don’t know how it’s going to end … it’s a very delicate and tender and fragile space,” said Reierson, who has started a public campaign to try to change the nonprofit’s data practices. He said the people who contact the text line — many of them teens or younger — include “somebody staring at blades on their table in front of them, or somebody hiding from a parent who’s on a rampage, or someone who’s struggling with an eating disorder, somebody who’s ready to end their life.”
In his experience as a volunteer, he said he believed those individuals “definitely have an expectation that the conversation is between just the two people that are talking.”
Reierson said the organization terminated him in August after he began raising concerns internally about its handling of data. Rodriguez, the Crisis Text Line general counsel, disputed this, saying Reierson “was dismissed from the volunteer community because he violated Code of Conduct.” Despite repeated requests, Rodriguez declined to specify what the alleged violations were.
“I absolutely did not ever violate the code of conduct, not even close, and they know that,” Reierson said. “There is a process that is followed for code of conduct violations and it was never invoked. … The organization encourages volunteers and staff to use their internal system for expressing any concerns, and that’s what I did.”
Former volunteer Alison Diver — who described talking one texter out of jumping off a freeway bridge and another off a hotel balcony — left Crisis Text Line in July. She said she has since signed onto a Change.org petition that Reierson started that urges the nonprofit “to phase out its practice of monetizing crisis conversations as data, as soon as possible.” Diver expressed alarm after hearing Reierson describe the nonprofit’s data practices.
“That makes me feel betrayed,” she said, contending that volunteers should have a say in whether the data is used for other purposes. “They wouldn’t even have a Crisis Text Line if it wasn’t for us.”
Beck Bamberger, a current volunteer in California who has logged nearly 300 hours during her three years with the hotline, said she was not aware that data from those conversations was being used for customer service applications until POLITICO reached out for this story.
“Mental health and people cutting themselves adapted to customer service?” she said. “That sounds ridiculous. Wow.”
She added: “If your volunteers, staff and the users themselves are not aware of that use, then that’s a problem.”
Reierson launched a website in January calling for “reform of data ethics” at Crisis Text Line, and his petition, started last fall, also asks the group to “create a safe space” for workers to discuss ethical issues around data and consent.
Crisis Text Line’s Rodriguez disputed the accuracy of Reierson’s complaints, while asserting that “Loris’s access and use of anonymized data is not a privacy issue.”
Crisis Text Line also has a data, ethics and research advisory board that includes Reddit’s vice president of data, Jack Hanlon, and medical experts affiliated with Harvard, Yale, Brown and other health-focused institutions. (None are volunteer crisis counselors.) Until recently, the chief data scientist in charge of that committee was Crisis Text Line co-founder Bob Filbin, who left for Meta last fall.
‘People at their worst moments’
Data ethics experts contacted about the nonprofit helpline, its for-profit spinoff and their data-sharing practices said the setup raised various possible issues.
One is the issue of whether the data being shared is truly anonymous, despite Rodriguez’s assurance that “[s]haring personally identifiable information is strictly forbidden under the contracts between Crisis Text Line and Loris.”
“The re-personalization [of data] is perhaps esoteric but not completely beyond the means of some nefarious operator,” said health tech expert John Nosta, founder of the think tank NostaLab.
Rich, the former FTC consumer protection chief, agreed. “Anonymizing the data could decrease the likelihood of harm, but we don’t know whether that could be reverse-engineered,” she said.
And should someone manage to trace the data back to specific individuals, the people who sought help could find their autonomy and choices compromised, said Eric Perakslis, the chief science and digital officer at the Duke Clinical Research Institute.
If that were to happen with the Crisis Text Line’s data, “your name could be associated with a suicide hotline,” he said, noting how disclosures about a person’s HIV status in the 1980s, or involvement with Planned Parenthood today, could put a person at risk. “It’s a lot different than someone just understanding your cholesterol,” Perakslis said.
Asked how texters’ data is scrubbed to ensure anonymity, Rodriguez from Crisis Text Line said it’s done “via an automated process” that removes information including names, phone numbers and social media handles. “This is done in order to strongly and responsibly reinforce that anonymized data cannot reveal the identity of a texter,” he said.
But King, the Stanford fellow, called it “ethically questionable” to make commercial use of this kind of data — even if it’s anonymized — given the emotional stress that people are under when presented with a link to terms of service they may never open. (“By texting further with us, you agree to our Terms,” says the automated first message.)
“We’re seeing more and more how often data online is not just my shopping history; it’s a real glimpse into my psyche,” King said. “These are people at their worst moments. Using that data to help other people is one thing, but commercializing it just seems like a real ethical line for a nonprofit to cross.”
She added: “It probably passes legal muster, but does it pass the ‘feel-good’ muster? A lot less certain.”
A miss for Washington
As a nonprofit, Crisis Text Line falls into a gap in the federal government’s approach to data privacy.
Washington has spent more than a decade debating how to regulate the way companies collect and sell individuals’ sensitive personal information, an ever more valuable source of revenue for tech giants and smaller startups alike. But that debate has largely overlooked nonprofits, which are chiefly regulated by states and fall outside the jurisdiction of the FTC’s consumer protection rules.
Nonprofits are “a really significant missing piece” of federal regulators’ authority, said Rich, the former FTC consumer protection director. She noted that even nonprofits — from educational institutions to hospitals — have mishandled highly sensitive data.
“It’s tricky to cover nonprofits because in general, they aren’t in the business of monetizing their data the way profit-making companies are — but this is a gap that should be filled, and Congress hasn’t filled it,” she said in an interview.
Numerous congressional proposals on privacy — including a leading bill from Senate Republicans, S. 2499 — would expand the FTC’s jurisdiction to include nonprofits, but passage of that legislation is unlikely anytime soon.
Crisis Text Line is not the only nonprofit support line that collects and shares data as part of its operations. For example, the Trevor Project, a 23-year-old group that provides suicide prevention services to young LGBTQ people, discloses that it passes along users’ information to third parties like Meta and Google for targeting of online ads or other purposes, and the content of their conversations to partners for research.
Nosta, the tech think tank founder, noted that it’s also not uncommon in the digital health space for businesses to share data in exchange for services, describing it as “the nature of the beast” — with one “classic example” being the genetics testing company 23andMe.
“It’s definitely not unusual in the life sciences industry,” Nosta said, “and I think in many instances, it’s looked at as almost a cornerstone of revenue generation: If we’re generating data, we could use the data to enhance our product or our offering, but we can also sell the data to supplement our income.”
But Duke’s Perakslis argued that Crisis Text Line’s arrangement with a for-profit company is still unusual.
“For self-improvement of the services, I think that’s an expected use of their data,” he said. “But the fact that that improvement then goes to a for-profit company that sells it for other uses — that’s where you have to kind of look at and see: Is this simply exploiting people with mental health crises?”
The potential Russian invasion of Ukraine could give the world its first experience of a true cyber war.
Ukraine was beset by attacks earlier this month when hackers defaced and disabled more than 70 government websites, and Microsoft discovered malware planted in Ukrainian government systems that could be triggered at any moment.
While these instances raised concerns, they were only a hint of Russian cyber capabilities. In a full-scale cyber assault, Russia could take down the power grid, turn the heat off in the middle of winter and shut down Ukraine’s military command centers and cellular communications systems. A communications blackout could also provide opportunities for a massive disinformation campaign to undermine the Ukrainian government.
Such a nightmare for Ukraine could not only give Russian President Vladimir Putin an avenue to victory, but also provide a sneak peek into the future of warfare. That future also holds implications for Washington if Putin launches cyberattacks against the U.S. to retaliate against any sanctions President Joe Biden may impose.
“We need to keep in mind who we are dealing with. These guys are not Boy Scouts. They are absolutely ruthless,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe, said in an interview. “They will do things that will ruin people and cause great harm. This is a serious thing. It’s not just about making the lights go on and off.”
Russia has honed its cyberattack strategy for more than two decades. Russian hackers turned out the lights in portions of Ukraine in 2015 and 2016, and unleashed a virus called NotPetya in 2017 that disabled Ukrainian government agencies, banking groups and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before spreading unchecked to companies around the world.
Criminal hackers based in Russia have also been linked to attacks in the U.S., including the ransomware attacks last year on Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS. As far back as 2018, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that the Russian government was actively targeting the U.S. energy, nuclear, water and other critical sectors.
Russia launched cyberattacks that overwhelmed the websites of Estonian government agencies and other national institutions in 2007 over disagreements around Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet-era World War II statue. In 2008, the Russian invasion of Georgia was preceded by a swarm of digital attacks that overwhelmed Georgia government websites with traffic and temporarily disabled them, including the website of the country’s president. During the invasion and seizure of Crimea in 2014, Russian hackers shut down telecommunications systems in the region, including through jamming the mobile phones of Ukrainian members of parliament. While intelligence agencies around the world have pinned these attacks on Russia, Moscow historically has either denied the incidents or avoided comment.
But these attacks are nothing compared to what a full-blown physical invasion coupled with cyber warfare would look like on a scale the world hasn’t fully reckoned with.
“This may end up being the first declared hostility where cyberspace operations are a part of an integrated offensive military invasion,” said Jonathan Reiber, the former chief strategy officer for cyber policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration.
“We could see a coordinated campaign of cyberspace operations targeting the Ukrainian government’s senior leader communications, military critical infrastructure and communications, and aspects of Ukrainian national critical infrastructure, to include the energy, manufacturing, and media sectors,” Reiber said. “Such a coordinated campaign could extend far beyond what the Russian government has done to Ukraine in the past.”
Water systems are also likely to be at risk. Rob Caldwell, the director of industrial control systems and operational technology at cyber firm Mandiant, said that security for the water and wastewater sectors was “lagging behind” the security of other critical systems.
Other Russian ground invasions of Georgia and Crimea used cyberattacks as an element of the strategy, but stopped short of taking down heating and power and putting pressure on civilians.
Reiber added that Russian hackers could also make incursions into networks similar to the 2017 NotPetya attack. In NotPetya, Russian hackers infiltrated software from a tax preparation program that was widely used in businesses across Ukraine, enabling the attackers to use the malware to take down the systems of hundreds of companies and some government agencies.
The Ukrainian military would also be a target. Hackers could disable computer systems used by trains to move troops to the front and jam phone lines used by military leaders, making it difficult to respond to Russian attacks.
“Most if not all of the headquarters at the different levels and the different places will be targeted to make it difficult for commanders to understand what’s going on, to issue orders,” Hodges said.
Underlying it all would be disinformation operations aimed at undermining and overthrowing the Ukrainian government and breaking the will of the people to fight back, which would be made easier if government communications channels — including phone lines, email and internet access — are taken out.
“How do the senior leaders of Ukraine communicate to the population to sustain national hope and resilience in the event of something like this? That is the hardest challenge they are going to face,” Reiber said. “It’s going to be a very dark day. The Ukrainian government is going to have a very hard time resisting the forces of Russia.”
And Russian hackers have likely been inside Ukrainian networks for months or even years — making it easier to attack the electric grid or telecommunications systems and coordinate those strikes with a ground assault, said Mark Montgomery, the director of the congressionally chartered Cyberspace Solarium Commission and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“They will have gone in and inserted tools so that they can cause an effect at a specific time,” Montgomery said. He said they could use those tools, for example, to disable cell phone networks in areas where Ukrainian troops are deployed.
Russia demonstrated its ability to quietly infiltrate government networks in 2020 when experts concluded that Russian hackers had used vulnerabilities in software from IT company SolarWinds to infiltrate government agencies and companies in dozens of countries, including the U.S., and snoop inside of those systems for at least a year undetected.
“Does the cyber component help them do this quicker and more efficiently and maybe even create this narrative that they want? Yes,” said Christopher Painter, the former coordinator for cyber issues at the State Department under the Obama and Trump administrations. “I don’t want to see these tools being used in this way, but I think it’s inevitable they will be.”
Ukraine has taken steps to strengthen its cyber defenses, with help from the international community. The U.S. and Ukraine agreed to collaborate on cybersecurity as part of a larger strategic partnership announced in September, and the European Union committed €31 million to Ukraine for issues including cybersecurity late last year. But against Russia, widely recognized as having some of the most sophisticated cyber operations in the world, Ukraine is still extremely vulnerable.
“We’ve been working long-term on improving their cyber protection teams for several years… but unless there was direct action by Western cyber protection teams on behalf of Ukrainian infrastructure, I don’t think they’re in a position to hold off the Russians,” Montgomery said.
IT supply chain vulnerabilities may prove to be one of the most acute dangers to Ukraine. The nation’s Computer Emergency Response Team concluded this week that the website defacements in Ukraine were likely made possible by a compromise of software or another third party group related to automated systems used by the agencies. The hackers may also have exploited a vulnerability in software called Log4J that was discovered late last year and impacts millions of devices worldwide.
And attacks in Ukraine could reverberate across the business world. While NotPetya was aimed at Ukraine, it hit foreign companies as well. These included Danish shipping giant Maersk — which suffered the destruction of thousands of laptops and other user devices — and FedEx, causing some $10 billion in damage, according to Trump administration estimates.
Biden earlier this month pledged that the U.S. will “respond the same way” Russia targets Ukraine in cyberspace, and the U.S. has its own immense cyber capabilities.The Stuxnet computer worm that damaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 has been widely attributed to the U.S. and Israel, though neither have claimed responsibility, and The Washington Post reported that U.S. Cyber Command took down a Russian troll farm on the day of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.
U.S. cyberattacks or punishing sanctions could prompt Moscow to strike back directly at the U.S.. The Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to critical infrastructure companies and state and local governments this week warning them Russia may hack American infrastructure in retaliation, according to CNN.
The past year alone has made it clear how vulnerable key aspects of life in the U.S. are to being disabled by hackers. The ransomware attacks against Colonial Pipeline and JBS disrupted key supply chains, and an unsuccessful attempt by a hacker to poison the water supply in Oldsmar, Fla., illustrated the ability for cyberattacks to cause harm to thousands. If Russia launched massive attacks on the U.S. or other Ukraine allies, it would mark a turning point in cyber warfare and challenge the idea that cyberattacks are less serious than physical assaults.
“This would be an evolution,” Painter said. “It would certainly advance the understanding of how cyber can be a threat in conventional war.”
As Russian troops bear down on Ukraine and the United States prepares its own military buildup in Eastern Europe, concerns are growing across the ideological spectrum that the standoff could inadvertently escalate into the unthinkable: nuclear war.
President Joe Biden has insisted that he will not use American forces to directly defend Ukrainian territory against a possible Russian invasion. But that is no guarantee that the two sides won’t come to blows.
The world’s two largest nuclear powers could even stumble into nuclear confrontation if the situation spins out of control, current and former officials and experts on both sides of the Atlantic worry.
“At the point you unleash war in the modern environment, the one thing that is certain is the law of unintended consequences,” Des Browne, a member of the British Parliament and a former secretary of state for defense, told POLITICO. “If you are talking about a nuclear-armed environment, which is already fragile … then you are living in an environment [where] things could escalate quite quickly, by accident or miscalculation.”
“Nobody thinks any of these weapons are going to be used deliberately, but miscalculation is a significant chance,” added Browne, who chairs the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group.
It’s a concern shared by current and former nuclear security officials who usually don’t agree on much — from disarmament advocates to nuclear hawks.
“I think the Ukraine conflict is demonstrating that the nuclear escalation scenario we’re worried about is not out of sight,” said Patty-Jane Geller, an expert on nuclear strategy at the hawkish Heritage Foundation.
Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists cited the Ukraine conflict as contributing to its decision to keep the “Doomsday Clock” at 100 seconds to midnight, an indication of how close it assesses that the human race is to potential self-annihilation.
“Ukraine remains a potential flashpoint, and Russian troop deployments to the Ukrainian border heighten day-to-day tension,” it noted in citing the threat of a nuclear conflict.
A primary concern, according to Geller and others, is Russia’s arsenal of thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons, which are central to its military strategy.
“The Russians have something like 4,000 [tactical nuclear weapons] and they have an ‘escalate to win’ nuclear doctrine, which says ‘we use nuclear weapons first if the conventional conflict starts to spin out of our favor,’” said a former senior GOP government official who still works on nuclear security issues.
One Russian diplomat last month went so far as to publicly threaten the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the crisis.
The weapons have a lower “yield” than traditional atomic bombs and are designed to be used against conventional forces in battle. But they still have enormous explosive power and are considered particularly destabilizing to deterrent strategy.
The United States has reportedly been flying dedicated spy missions over in recent weeks to determine if Russia has deployed any of its tactical nuclear weapons along the border with Ukraine.
There’s also concern among Russian nuclear experts about the potential that the Ukraine crisis could escalate, according to former U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt, who negotiated arms control treaties with the Soviet Union.
He told POLITICO he was on a conference call Wednesday with European and Russian security officials and experts who discussed just such a scenario.
“People are worried about the possibility … through some process of escalation this somehow gets out of control — misreading, misunderstanding signals, or technical mistakes — [and] that nuclear weapons in one form or another could become a factor in this crisis,” he said.
The situation is exacerbated by the growing number of U.S., NATO, and Russian military forces in close proximity, Burt said.
“One thing I think is useful to remember is people are not just putting their forces on alert in and around Ukraine, but you’ve got nuclear-capable naval forces in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean,” he said. “In the Baltic Sea there also has been an intensification of activity as well. You have a lot more aircraft flying overflights.”
Russia has also been nuclear saber-rattling in recent days, threatening that if NATO doesn’t meet its demands for halting the alliance’s expansion east it could deploy its tactical nuclear weapons closer to American borders.
“What we should be worried about is their doctrine and their 4,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons,” the former official added.
Another concern is that many of its military aircraft and missiles are also designed to carry both non-nuclear and nuclear weapons, a circumstance that could sow even more confusion during hostilities.
“It is very difficult for the West to know, ‘that conventional or nuclear,’ until it’s used,” the former nuclear official said, citing in particular air defense systems.
Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian Foreign Ministry official, said he considers the risk of a conflict over Ukraine spilling over into the nuclear arena as “extremely remote.”
But even he says it’s conceivable that one or both sides could dangerously miscalculate. For example, an accidental clash between Russian and NATO aircraft or warships, he said, “may trigger direct confrontation and then it could roll.”
For leading advocates of reducing nuclear arms, the Ukraine crisis highlights the hugely destabilizing role they play.
“What are nuclear weapons doing for us?” asked Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund. “We only kind of think about them when we get into these crises, where really all they become is a liability.
“It’s hard to argue that nuclear weapons are adding to anybody’s security in this situation, but they seem to be the thing you can stumble into by mistake,” he added.
Also looming over the crisis is Russia’s history of using cyber-attacks as a key element of its military strategy, which could potentially disrupt or confuse nuclear command and control systems.
Chris Painter, a former top government cyber official, warned this week of the risk of a nuclear escalation caused by a cyber attack impacting nuclear forces.
“We do know that Russia and other services are intent on intruding into U.S. systems,” he told an event hosted by the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Obviously, nuclear command and control would be a target they’d want to go after and get a foothold in. This is a really dangerous thing … if those systems are seen to be unreliable … that does have a real effect on deterrence. It’s hugely escalatory.”
Others have taken issue with American rhetoric that they see as sowing unnecessary confusion about what military options might be under consideration to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Repeated assertions that “all options are on the table” to punish Moscow should it reinvade Ukraine are seen as particularly troubling.
“In the nuclear age, ‘all options on the table’ in a conflict involving nuclear powers could be understood to mean the potential use of nuclear weapons, even if that wasn’t the intention in this instance,” two leading arms control advocates wrote last week.
“U.S. and Russian leaders must consider the use of such weapons off the table — there are no winners in a nuclear war,” they added.
Written responses from the United States and NATO addressing Russia’s security demands have left “little ground for optimism,” the Kremlin said on Thursday, suggesting the West’s latest diplomatic effort was unlikely to deescalate tensions along Ukraine’s border.
“We can’t say that they took our concerns into account or showed any readiness to take our concerns into consideration,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to the Russian government-owned news agency TASS.
Still, Peskov said that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue” about the ongoing security situation because “it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans,” according to additional remarks reported by the Associated Press.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said that although the U.S. written response could result in “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues,” the document “contains no positive response on the main issue.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has received the written response, Lavrov added, and Russian officials will now present their proposals to him.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that he would not make public the details of the written response, but he insisted that Washington had not reversed its positions on Moscow’s major requests: that NATO pull back its presence in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, and that Ukraine and Georgia be permanently barred from joining the military alliance.
“Without going into the specifics of the document, I can tell you that it reiterates what we’ve said publicly for many weeks and, in a sense, for many years,” Blinken said at a news conference. “That we will uphold the principle of NATO’s ‘open door,’ and that’s … a commitment that we’re bound to.”
Blinken also said the written response was “fully coordinated” with Ukraine and European allies — a point Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reinforced on Thursday.
“We had seen the written response of the U.S. before it was handed over to Russia,” Kuleba tweeted. “No objections on the Ukrainian side. Important that the U.S. remains in close contact with Ukraine before and after all contacts with Russia. No decisions on Ukraine without Ukraine. Golden rule.”
Following a meeting with Lavrov in Geneva last Friday, Blinken pledged to present Russia with a written record of Washington’s concerns about Moscow’s behavior and proposals to end the security situation sometime this week. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered the document to Moscow on Wednesday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responding to the Russian officials’ remarks about the document, said at a news briefing on Thursday that “they have conveyed they’re reviewing what was sent to them, and that’s a part of the diplomatic process.”
“We don’t know if the Russians are playing games on diplomacy,” Psaki said. “We hope not. … We are certainly pursuing diplomacy with a level of seriousness and an intention in leaving that door open and pursuing that path, should they be open to it.”
Psaki also told reporters that U.S. officials still believed a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent.
“We have said since last week that we have seen preparations and buildup at the border and that an invasion could come at any time. Our assessment has not changed since that point,” she said.
Elaborating on the written response, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told CNN on Thursday that the United States “laid out some ideas … that we think would be effective, would be constructive and would address our mutual concerns” with Russia.
But Price acknowledged that U.S. officials “have not seen tangible signs just yet that the Russians are in the process of deescalation.” He also repeated the United States’ latest threat that it will halt the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline should Moscow mount an invasion of Ukraine.
Pressed on whether the United States is coordinating with Germany on potentially shutting down the project, Price said he was “not going to get into the specifics,” but that U.S. officials “will work with Germany to ensure Nord Stream 2 does not move forward.”
Berlin has long advocated for the completion of the pipeline — which would transport inexpensive natural gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea — and among the European allies, Germany has at times appeared reluctant to respond to Moscow’s continued aggression against Ukraine.
As U.S. diplomats work to galvanize support for Ukraine across Europe and among the broader international community, the White House announced on Thursday that President Joe Biden will welcome German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Washington on Feb. 7.
As part of their conversation, the leaders “will discuss their shared commitment to both ongoing diplomacy and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” Psaki said in a statement.