News Brief: Hanukkah Stabbing, China Threat, Australian Wildfires

Dec 31, 2019
Originally published on December 31, 2019 8:37 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In retrospect, the Internet search history of a New York state man pointed the way to his alleged crime.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. The FBI has given more information about Grafton Thomas. He's the man who was arrested after a knife attack on a rabbi's home. Now federal agents have gotten a look at what was on his phone.

INSKEEP: What's that say about him? Gwynne Hogan joins us. She reports from member station WNYC. Good morning.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was Grafton Thomas searching for online?

HOGAN: Federal prosecutors say that they searched his phone history. And they found he'd run searches on Google for things like, why did Hitler hate Jews, German Jewish temples near me, prominent companies founded by Jews in America and other things like that. They also found journals of his writing that contained - they refer to Hitler, Nazi culture and had the Star of David and swastika drawn in it.

INSKEEP: So a lot of clues to what might have been on his mind. That's the search history anyway. Who is the person who allegedly was entering those searches on his phone and later was holding a knife?

HOGAN: Yeah, that's this man named Grafton Thomas. His family has said that he has a long history of severe mental illness. He was in and out of hospitals for it for the last decade or so. He was on disability for it. His attorney Michael Sussman is calling for a psychiatric evaluation.

INSKEEP: Psychiatric evaluation - suggesting that his own defense is saying this is a mentally ill person rather than some committed anti-Semite. Is that the point there?

HOGAN: That's correct. Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: Well, how are people in Rockland County, which is the upstate New York County where this attack took place - how are they responding to all of this?

HOGAN: You know, there is a lot of fear and shock about this latest attack. This is the latest in a string of violent incidents perpetrated against Hasidic Orthodox Jews, who are often more visibly Jewish than other people. Here is Rockland County legislator Aron Wieder.

ARON WIEDER: People have a lot of questions. They don't feel safe. Parents are scared to send their children to school. I know my wife is very scared. I've been looking over my shoulder for quite some time.

HOGAN: Wieder and others I talked to mentioned that this is just part of a trend. They first started noticing more hate speech online, more anti-Semitism there. Then there were swastikas that they would find in the area. And now it's manifested itself in physical attacks.

INSKEEP: This has to be particularly disturbing because, well, if you look around Rockland County, N.Y., it's a nice place. It's suburbia. It's mountainous. It's pleasant, and it's also diverse. It's not like there haven't been different kinds of people there for a very long time. To be looking over your shoulder, as that person said, must be disturbing.

HOGAN: Yes, of course. I think that especially for Orthodox Jews who, like I mentioned, are - you know, they wear traditional dress. There's this feeling of being a target, you know? And it - there's a fear when you get together for collective gatherings that you might be the next attack, especially in schools. There was a lot of talk about protecting schools.

INSKEEP: Gwynne Hogan, thanks very much for your reporting.

HOGAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's with our member station WNYC.

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INSKEEP: Australia, the country that covers an entire continent, is divided into six states.

KING: And four of those states are dealing with bushfires, hundreds of bushfires. There's smoke in the air even in major cities and there is no end to this in sight. Lisa Neville is the state emergency services minister for the state of Victoria.

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LISA NEVILLE: It is too dangerous to be driving not only just from smoke but because of the erratic nature and the fast-moving nature of these fires in East Gippsland. But this is a warning to all Victorians. This is not yet over.

INSKEEP: Alex White is a reporter for the Herald Sun and is on the line. Can you tell us where you are and what it's been like where you are?

ALEX WHITE: Hi. I'm in Melbourne, which, thankfully, is not as close to the fire as a lot of other small towns. But we still have been experiencing smoke over the last couple of days. But last night was very hard for East Gippsland for sure.

INSKEEP: We have been reading quite dramatic stories of what people have to do to survive these fast-moving fires. Is it correct that there was a town in which people were told, run into the water - there's no place on land that is going to be safe?

WHITE: Yes, it was. It is very rare. Obviously, in Australia, we do get bushfires all the time. And ever since - this year marks the 10-year anniversary of our most deadly fires on Black Saturday, which 173 people were killed. And so people are very aware. So usually, the message is leave early. Get away from the flames as soon as possible. But unfortunately, this part of Australia is extremely remote. And there's so many bushfires going on at the moment that the roads in and out of this town are actually already cut off and the fires are moving so radically that they don't want people on the roads because you can get into car accidents or face another fire on your way out.

So they told everyone to bunker down in Mallacoota. And that came under attack this morning. People reported embers as large as mobile phones falling on them. The heat was 49 degrees Celsius, which is horrific. And so a lot of people had to get onto boats and head out to the water because, of course, the radiant heat from fire is often the biggest risk.

INSKEEP: You know, the wildfires on this side of the Pacific - in California - have called attention to the reality that in the United States, a lot of communities are not built to - not built sustainably for wildfires. Homes are built in the wilderness. They're not built the right way. They're not maintained the right way. The escape routes are not proper. Is Australia built for this kind of disaster, given that it has happened before?

WHITE: Look. No. And the Australian bush naturally burns every couple of years, so it regenerates a lot of fuel. So when these fires get going, they're really strong. And, of course, the majority of our houses are within this vegetation, especially in rural areas. And we actually rely on thousands of volunteer firefighters to come out and help when these situations happen. So really, it's been our volunteers from the communities that have been keeping people safe and helping the losses of homes and lives stay as low as they are this time.

INSKEEP: How much pressure is there on the government to do more?

WHITE: Look. There's a lot of debate whether climate change is creating these unprecedented conditions. But the reality is, as most people know, that we live in an extremely hot, dry and windy country. We have some of the worst conditions when you look at fires with our wind changes. So a lot of people accept that we choose to live here, and it's just a reality that we have to get used to.

INSKEEP: Alex White of the Herald Sun in Australia, thank you so much.

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INSKEEP: Year after year when Barack Obama was president of the United States, the U.S. tried what was called a pivot to Asia.

KING: Right. Obama's administration tried to face the challenge of China's rise. But other events overshadowed that effort again and again. The Trump administration is dealing with China in its own way, including by starting a trade war. But in the meantime, there's this other conflict going on partly out of sight. The Justice Department is pursuing many allegations of espionage by China.

INSKEEP: And NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following that effort. Good morning.

KING: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing, Ryan?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So Chinese espionage is an issue that, in conversations that I have with folks at the Justice Department at the FBI and Capitol Hill, this repeatedly comes up. And we're talking about two things here - China's targeting of U.S. government secrets, which, basically, is traditional espionage, and then China's stealing of trade secrets, intellectual property, stuff like that from American companies, American labs, American universities. That's economic espionage. Both are obviously important. But national security officials say the economic side of this is really a huge problem. Here's FBI director Chris Wray talking about this earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: At the FBI, we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our 56 field offices. And they span just about every industry or sector.

INSKEEP: Almost invariably leading back to China, suggesting that there's very few other countries in the world doing this or at least doing it on this scale. So what kinds of cases has the Justice Department been pursuing in the year now ending?

LUCAS: So these cases take a long time to develop. A lot of the conduct here happened in the past, even several years ago in some cases. That said, in 2019, there were at least seven convictions or guilty pleas in cases related to China. Three of those guilty pleas are particularly noteworthy because they involve that traditional espionage - stealing of government secrets. Two of the individuals who pleaded guilty for spying for China were former U.S. intelligence officers. One had worked for the CIA, the other for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

INSKEEP: So they turned people who were inside the government, as you would say.

LUCAS: That's right. That's right. The third individual had worked at the State Department. Now, I sat down a couple of months ago with John Demers. He leads the National Security Division at the Justice Department. And he told me that having multiple cases going at the same time in which Americans are suspected of having been co-opted by a foreign intelligence service is unprecedented.

JOHN DEMERS: When you start to think that through, it gives you a glimpse into how pervasive the effort is. So there is significant Chinese intelligence activity occurring in the United States right now.

INSKEEP: And I think we imagine this being a case of hacking, remote hacking, Internet hacking.

LUCAS: Which does happen.

INSKEEP: Which does happen. But in this case, they've got human sources that they develop inside the U.S. government. So that's what's been resolved in the past year. What about 2020?

LUCAS: Well, 2020 - there's still the expectation that a lot of this is going to happen. But there are a lot of cases that were brought in 2019 that are going to continue to be pursued in 2020. And as for the cases that were brought in 2019, there were more than 20 people or companies charged that are in some way related to China.

INSKEEP: OK.

LUCAS: There are big ones that we've talked about that did get media coverage, such as the charges against the Chinese tech giant Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. But for me, it's the cases that don't get a lot of attention that are, in many ways, more interesting. Take the case against a Chinese national who worked at Monsanto, the big agrochemical company. He's accused of trying to steal an algorithm in Monsanto software that farmers use to increase their productivity.

There's another case in Tennessee in which two women - one Chinese, the other American - were charged with trying to steal the formula for BPA-free coatings in tin cans. These types of cases point to really the breadth and scope of what U.S. officials say China is trying to do through economic espionage, which is steal American technology, replicate it and then replace U.S. products and U.S. companies in the international marketplace. Once China gets its hands on this intellectual property, this technology, U.S. officials say, is gone. And this is a problem that the FBI, the Justice Department is going to be grappling with in 2020 and beyond.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks for your reporting.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.