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Biden, Putin Trade Frank Talk As Alarm Rises Over Ukraine




WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke frankly for nearly an hour late Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a crisis that has deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its insistence on border security guarantees and test fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.

“It would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov, who briefed reporters in Moscow after the Biden-Putin phone conversation. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders.

White House officials offered a far more muted post-call readout, suggesting the leaders agreed there are areas where the two sides can make meaningful progress but also differences that might be impossible to resolve.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials Jan. 9 and 10 in Geneva. The Geneva talks will be followed by a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Jan. 12 and negotiations at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna on Jan. 13,

White House officials said Thursday’s call lasted 50 minutes, ending after midnight in Moscow.

Biden told Putin the two powers now face “two paths”: diplomacy or American deterrence through sanctions, according to a senior administration official. Biden said the route taken, according to the official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, will “depend on Russia’s actions in the period ahead.”

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has rejected.

Biden told Putin that a diplomatic path remains open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on their demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO.

White House officials said Biden made clear that the U.S. stands ready to exact substantial economic pain through sanctions should Putin decide to take military action in Ukraine.

Putin reacted strongly.

Putin “noted that it would be a mistake that our ancestors would see as a grave error. A lot of mistakes have been made over the past 30 years, and we would better avoid more such mistakes in this situation,” Ushakov said.

Russia’s demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns.

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.

Meanwhile, key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance in the near future. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia.

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks.

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a move that Russian officials said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines.

U.S. intelligence earlier this month determined that Russian planning was underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, but that Putin had yet to determine whether to move forward with it.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday his country believes there is no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion.

“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.”

The U.S. military has flown surveillance flights in Ukrainian airspace this week, including a flight Thursday by an Air Force E-8C JSTARS aircraft, according to Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. That plane is equipped to provide intelligence on ground forces.

Russia has denied any intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, has accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim.

At the same time, Putin has warned that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.”

Last month, Putin voiced concern that NATO could potentially use the Ukrainian territory for the deployment of missiles that would be capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes and said that Zircon would give Russia a comparable capability.

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight its commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Past military incursions by Putin loom large.

In 2014, Russian troops marched into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and seized the territory from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darker moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.

The U.S.-Russia relationship was badly damaged near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration after Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos.



Ex-rebel Takes Oath As Colombian President in Historic Shift




BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s first leftist president was sworn into office Sunday, promising to fight inequality and bring peace to a country long haunted by bloody feuds between the government, drug traffickers and rebel groups.

Gustavo Petro, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, won the presidential election in June by beating conservative parties that offered moderate changes to the market-friendly economy, but failed to connect with voters frustrated by rising poverty and violence against human rights leaders and environmental groups in rural areas.

On Sunday, he said Colombia was getting a “second chance” to tackle violence and poverty and promised that his government would implement economic policies that seek to end longstanding inequalities and ensure “solidarity” with the nation’s most vulnerable.

The incoming president said he was willing to start peace talks with armed groups across the country and also called on the United States and other developed nations to change drug policies that have focused on the prohibition of substances like cocaine, and fed violent conflicts across Colombia and other Latin American nations.

“It’s time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” he said. “Of course peace is possible. But it depends on current drug policies being substituted with strong measures that prevent consumption in developed societies.”

Petro is part of a growing group of leftist politicians and political outsiders who have been winning elections in Latin America since the pandemic broke out and hurt incumbents who struggled with its economic aftershocks.

The ex-rebel’s victory was also exceptional for Colombia, where voters had been historically reluctant to back leftist politicians who were often accused of being soft on crime or allied with guerrillas.

A 2016 peace deal between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia turned the focus of voters away from the violent conflicts playing out in rural areas and gave prominence to problems like poverty and corruption, fueling the popularity of leftist parties in national elections. However, smaller rebel groups like the National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal gold mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC.

Petro, 62, has described U.S.-led antinarcotics policies as a failure but has also said he would like to work with Washington “as equals,” building schemes to combat climate change or bring infrastructure to rural areas where many farmers say coca leaves are the only viable crop.

Petro also formed alliances with environmentalists during his presidential campaign and has promised to turn Colombia into a “global powerhouse for life” by slowing deforestation and reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

He has said Colombia will stop granting new licenses for oil exploration and will ban fracking projects, even though the oil industry makes up almost 50% of the nation’s legal exports. He plans to finance social spending with a $10 billion a year tax reform that would boost taxes on the rich and do away with corporate tax breaks.

“He’s got a very ambitious agenda,” said Yan Basset, a political scientist at Bogota’s Rosario University. “But he will have to prioritize. The risk Petro faces is that he goes after too many reforms at once and gets nothing” through Colombia’s congress.

Analysts expect Petro’s foreign policy to be markedly different from that of his predecessor Iván Duque, a conservative who backed Washington’s drug policies and worked with the U.S. government to isolate the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in an attempt to force the authoritarian leader into holding free elections.

Petro has instead said he will recognize Maduro’s government and try to work with the Venezuelan president on several issues, including fighting rebel groups along the porous border between the countries. Some border residents are hoping that improved relations will generate more commerce and job opportunities.

Hours before Petro took office, at the most important border crossing bridge with Venezuela, a group of people carried a Colombian flag as they walked toward Venezuela chanting “Viva Colombia, Viva Venezuela!” Supporters of Maduro held a concert on the Venezuelan side of the border.

In Cúcuta, a city just a few miles from the Venezuelan border, trade school student Daniela Cárdenas is hoping Petro will carry out an educational reform that includes free tuition for college students.

“He has promised so many things,” Cardenas, 19, said after traveling 90 minutes from her rural community to the city. “We must work to be able to pay our student fees, which are quite expensive and, well, that makes many things difficult for us.”

Eight heads of state attended Petro’s inauguration, which was held at a large colonial-era square in front of Colombia’s Congress. Stages with live music and big screens were also placed in parks across Bogota’s city center so that tens of thousands of citizens without invitations to the main event could join the festivities. That marked a big change for Colombia where previous presidential inaugurations were more somber events limited to a few hundred VIP guests.

“It’s the first time that people from the base can come here to be part of a presidential inauguration,” said Luis Alberto Tombe, a member of the Guambiano tribe wearing a traditional blue poncho. “We feel honored to be here.”

But not everyone is feeling so hopeful about Petro’s victory. In Medellin Stefan Bravo, a conservative activist, organized an anti-Petro march on Saturday that was joined by around 500 people. He’s worried Colombia’s new president will erode the separation of powers in the South American country, and follow the policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

“Petro does not represent us,” Bravo said. “This government will be a threat to family values, private property and foreign investment.”

Petro won the election by just 2 percentage points, and is still a polarizing figure in Colombia, where many have been wary of having former guerrillas participate in politics.

His Cabinet appointments have also been highly scrutinized: The new president picked an internationally renown economics professor as his finance minister, while also choosing an academic who researches the negative impacts of extractive industries as his minister for mining, and giving the labor ministry to the head of Colombia’s communist party.

“I think he’s trying to forge a balance,” said Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota. “He has included the activists who he promised to make an integral part of his government, the centrist technocrats who give the markets confidence, and the different political parties with whom he has to govern to pass anything in congress.”


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Former Theranos COO Found Guilty of Federal Fraud




(CNN) — Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the former COO of failed blood testing startup Theranos and ex-boyfriend of founder Elizabeth Holmes, was found guilty of defrauding investors and patients.

Jury deliberations stretched for four full days following a lengthy trial that got underway in March with opening statements. A jury of five men and seven women determined that Balwani had defrauded both patients and investors, finding him guilty on all 12 charges he faced, which included ten counts of federal wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

During Holmes’ trial, a separate jury acquitted her on charges pertaining to defrauding patients, and were not able to reach a unanimous verdict on three of the charges concerning defrauding investors. She was found guilty on four charges relating to investors.

Balwani, the former president and COO at the failed blood testing startup, was indicted four years ago alongside Holmes, the founder and former CEO, for allegedly defrauding investors and patients. Their trials were severed after Holmes’ legal team outlined in legal filings that she planned to make accusations about their relationship as part of her defense.

Balwani showed little emotion as his fate was read aloud. Afterward, he briefly huddled with a small support system present in the courtroom. The verdict comes roughly six months after Holmes’ trial concluded.

In a statement read outside the courthouse Thursday, US Attorney Stephanie Hinds thanked jurors for “dutifully navigating through the complex issues presented by this case.”

“We appreciate the verdict and look forward to sentencing proceedings,” Hinds said.

In a written statement to CNN Business, Balwani defense attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe said: “We are obviously disappointed with the verdicts. We plan to study and consider all of Mr. Balwani’s options including an appeal.”

Balwani’s verdict marks an end to a rare criminal fraud case against two Silicon Valley startup executives and the final chapter of a company, and a founder, once viewed as a posterchild for the entrepreneurial dream of building a disruptive product with the potential to change the world.

“Balwani is a reminder that she, like everyone, didn’t do it by herself,” Margaret O’Mara, a historian of the tech industry and professor at the University of Washington told CNN Business. “He still had a significant role running the company.”

Holmes founded Theranos when she was 19 years old in an effort to create a cheaper, more efficient alternative to traditional blood testing, a goal she said was inspired by her own fear of needles. The startup later claimed to have developed technology capable of testing for a range of conditions, including cancer and diabetes, using just a few drops of blood. Theranos ultimately raised $945 million from investors, including well-known figures such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Walmart’s Walton family. It also struck up partnerships with prominent retailers.

Then it all came crashing down, beginning with a 2015 Wall Street Journal investigation into the startup that revealed holes in its testing methods and technological capabilities.

Balwani’s trial took place in the same San Jose, California courtroom where Holmes was convicted. His case, also presided over by Judge Edward Davila, was pushed back several times due to delays in Holmes’ trial and later by a surge in Covid-19.

To make its case against Balwani, the government called two dozen witnesses as it sought to convince jurors that he knowingly and intentionally lied to and deceived investors and patients in order to get money for Theranos. As with Holmes’ case, the government sought to untangle the layers of the alleged fraud for jurors, including concealing use of third-party manufactured machines, overstating financials, misrepresenting work with pharmaceutical companies and the military, and leveraging the media to perpetuate the scheme.

The defense, on the other hand, called two witnesses to testify. During opening and closing arguments, it portrayed Balwani as having acted in good faith and having believed in the company’s technology. It also argued prosecutors cherry-picked information to prove its case and cast doubt on whether the government had enough evidence for the jury to find Balwani guilty.

Balwani, 57, faces up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each count of wire fraud and each conspiracy count.

Holmes, 38, is slated to be sentenced in late September. Balwani is scheduled to be sentenced in November.

Balwani’s road to Holmes, and Theranos

While Holmes’ stunning rise and fall is likely what most will remember about the story of Theranos in years to come, O’Mara said Balwani is actually “more representative of the Valley in terms of his career.”

Balwani and Holmes first crossed paths in the summer of 2002. The two met while attending a summer program in Beijing to learn Mandarin. Balwani, nearly 20 years older than Holmes, had already had a successful career in the software industry and as an entrepreneur.

Originally from South Asia, Balwani moved to the United States on a student visa in 1986 to attend college in Texas. After graduating, he came to Silicon Valley and worked for tech companies such as Lotus and Microsoft. He went on to start an e-commerce company, which he eventually sold. By 2002, he was back in school to get his MBA.

As Holmes testified in her own defense in her trial, the two forged a friendship. They kept in touch and their relationship ultimately turned romantic. By 2005, the year after Holmes dropped out of Stanford to work full-time on Theranos, the pair were living together.

Balwani took a formal role at Theranos in 2009, shortly after guaranteeing a $10 million loan to the company. At the recommendation of Theranos’ board, according to Balwani’s defense, he would eventually take on the role of COO and president. Their romantic relationship, however, was largely kept private from investors, employees and business partners.

Under the leadership of Holmes and Balwani, Theranos struck a major retail partnership with Walgreens, hit a $9 billion valuation and received glowing coverage in the press. Holmes was featured on multiple magazine covers and hailed as the rare female founder of a billion-dollar business, not to mention one said to be a paper billionaire.

But in 2015, the Journal reported that Theranos had only ever performed roughly a dozen of the hundreds of tests it offered using its proprietary blood testing device, and with questionable accuracy. The Journal also revealed Theranos was relying on third-party manufactured devices from traditional blood-testing companies rather than its own proprietary technology.

Balwani, who had been overseeing the lab that processed patient samples, departed the company in May 2016. (Their personal relationship also ended at that time.) Theranos voided two years of blood test results.

In 2018, following nearly two years of turmoil, Holmes and Theranos settled “massive fraud” charges with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, but did not admit to or deny any of the allegations as part of the deal. Balwani, on the other hand, is fighting the charges. Coopersmith, the attorney also representing him in his criminal trial, said in a statement at the time that he “accurately represented Theranos to investors to the best of his ability.”

Theranos dissolved soon after.

“Partners in everything”

While their trials were separated, each featured prominently in the other’s court proceedings.

As assistant US attorney Robert Leach told jurors during the prosecution’s opening arguments in Balwani’s trial, the government believes he and Holmes “were partners in everything, including their crimes.”

While Balwani was an integral part of Theranos and a confidante to Holmes throughout her time running the company, he was more of a behind-the-scenes force. In addition to the critical role of overseeing its patient lab, he also oversaw its key retail partnership with Walgreens and managing Theranos’ financial projections. Balwani, at times, also communicated directly with some investors to secure deals.

During her criminal trial, Holmes suggested that Balwani wielded even more power than she did at her own company in some ways. Taking the stand in her own defense, she testified that she was the victim of a decade-long abusive relationship with Balwani. She claimed Balwani exerted tremendous control over her, prescribing a restrictive lifestyle and image to become successful in the business world. At times, she alleged in testimony, he forced her to have sex with him. Balwani’s attorneys have strongly denied the allegations.

Holmes stopped short of saying Balwani directed her to mislead anyone. “He impacted everything about who I was, and I don’t fully understand that,” she testified.

Mark MacDougall, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said both the prosecution and the defense likely benefited by being able to see how evidence and witness testimony fared with jurors in Holmes’ trial. “Each side in Sunny’s trial would have made adjustments based on the outcome of the Holmes case, which could account for a different verdict,” he said.

While Balwani did not take the stand, his defense team’s strategy included pointing the finger back at Holmes. The defense highlighted to jurors that he, too, was a believer in Holmes and in Theranos, just as numerous other notable investors, business partners and employees had been.

The list of people who believed in Holmes and Theranos included Stanford University chemical engineering professor Channing Robertson, who served as the company’s first board member; former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Secretary of State George Shultz, who also once served on the board.

“That was the board at Theranos that the investors were understandably impressed with, as was Mr. Balwani no doubt,” said Coopersmith, during closing arguments.

The caliber of Theranos’ backers was reflected in the witnesses called by the government. Among those who testified in both trials were investor Chris Lucas, whose uncle Don Lucas was a well-known Silicon Valley investor and onetime chairman of Theranos’ board; Lisa Peterson, who helped vet a deal for the billionaire family of former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Daniel Mosley, a prominent lawyer who was introduced to Theranos through his longtime client Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State who once served on the board of the company. (Mosley went on to introduce several of his clients to Holmes and Theranos, including the DeVos family.)

“This is what Elizabeth was able to do…the charisma, the drive, the vision, the goal to change diagnostic testing, and he bought into that vision,” added Coopersmith.

Balwani’s attorneys also emphasized a missing database as reason for jurors to be skeptical of the prosecution’s case. The database contained the company’s testing records but the prosecution was never ultimately able to retrieve access before it was destroyed.

“It’s important to the process and to your deliberations that you focus on what actually is in evidence and not speculate about things that are not before you,” said assistant US attorney John Bostic in the prosecution’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments shortly before case went to jurors.


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Top Scientist Admits ‘space Telescope Image’ Was Actually a Slice of Chorizo




 (CNN) — A French scientist has apologized after tweeting a photo of a slice of chorizo, claiming it was an image of a distant star taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Étienne Klein, a celebrated physicist and director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, shared the image of the spicy Spanish sausage on Twitter last week, praising the “level of detail” it provided.

“Picture of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, located 4.2 light years away from us. It was taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. This level of detail… A new world is unveiled everyday,” he told his more than 91,000 followers on Sunday.

The post was retweeted and commented upon by thousands of users, who took the scientist by his word.

Things, however, were not quite as they seemed.

Klein admitted later in a series of follow-up tweets that the image was, in fact, a close-up of a slice of chorizo taken against a black background.

“Well, when it’s cocktail hour, cognitive bias seem to find plenty to enjoy… Beware of it. According to contemporary cosmology, no object related to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere else other than on Earth”

After facing a backlash from members of the online community for the prank, he wrote: “In view of certain comments, I feel obliged to specify that this tweet showing an alleged picture of Proxima Centauri was a joke. Let’s learn to be wary of the arguments from positions of authority as much as the spontaneous eloquence of certain images.”

On Wednesday, Klein apologized for the hoax, saying his intention was “to urge caution regarding images that seem to speak for themselves.”

In a bid to make amends, he posted an image of the spectacular Cartwheel galaxy, assuring followers that this time the photo was genuine.

The Webb telescope, the most powerful telescope ever launched into space, officially began scientific operations on July 12. It will be able to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and observe some of the first galaxies created after the universe began by viewing them through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

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