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Covering Gorbachev: AP remembers his wit, wisdom, warmth

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Covering Gorbachev: AP remembers his wit, wisdom, warmth

When news hit that Mikhail Gorbachev had died at age 91, Associated Press journalists around the world began sharing their “Gorby” stories from covering the last Soviet leader or interviewing him in Russia or abroad in the three decades that followed. They remember his temper and sense of humor, his sharp intellect even in his later years, when he was willing to talk at length about his hopes and his regrets.

That is if you could follow his long, rambling sentences in his southern Russian accent and his annoying tendency to refer to himself in the third person. For some of them, though, it was the warmth of an aging Gorbachev that they remember. The shared tea, the arm around the shoulder. Gorbachev was a man who changed the world, and the AP was there.

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Gorbachev came to power in 1985 with no less of a goal than to transform the Soviet Union and the lives of his fellow citizens, many still desperately poor. The obstacles he faced were monumental.

For AP correspondents in Moscow at the time, “it was like covering sports,” remembers Andrew Katell. “What was the score? Was the development we were reporting good or bad for Gorbachev, a win or a loss?”

It was hard for reporters in Moscow to get close enough to Gorbachev to ask those questions. When he traveled abroad, however, he was usually eager to press the flesh and talk to the press. So, when Katell was covering Gorbachev’s official trip to Madrid in 1989, he thought his chance had come.

He raised his hand repeatedly at a news conference, but was ignored. Afterward, he rushed the stage and asked the Soviet leader if he could ask one more question. Gorbachev “smiled, said nothing, extended his hand for a shake, then walked away.”

AP correspondent Brian Friedman also got the Gorbachev treatment. In summer 1992, less than a year after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Friedman trailed him as he left the Fourth of July party at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. Shorn of his security detail and big limousine, Gorbachev was carrying his suit coat over his shoulder as he walked back to a simple Volga sedan.

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“I tried to politely ask him a question about the upcoming court case the following week over the legacy of the banned Communist Party. I then extended my tape recorder to get his response,” Friedman said. “Gorbachev, the former president of the USSR, looked at me, looked at my tape recorder and said, ‘This we don’t need!’ and knocked my recorder out of my hand to the ground. He then stormed off.”

Friedman had seen a more amiable, if wistful, Gorbachev at a going-away party for his staff on Dec. 26, 1991, the day after his nationally televised address in which he announced his resignation as president.

“He held a small glass of lemon-flavored vodka. Known in his career as a teetotaler and for his anti-alcohol campaigns, Gorbachev said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You think I can’t do it? Now I can afford to!’ And he then gulped it down.”

It was mostly the amiable Gorbachev who greeted correspondents in his years out of power.

In the early 1990s, he sent out a press release inviting journalists to a news conference at the airport before he embarked on one of his many international speaking tours. Larry Ryckman remembers that most everyone in the AP’s Moscow bureau rolled their eyes, busy with covering the emergence of a new chaotic Russia. But he was game and headed out to the airport. He was one of only a couple of journalists.

“Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, gave me a look that seemed to be a mix of gratitude that I had bothered to show up and embarrassment at the pitiful turnout,” Ryckman said. “We ended up sitting around a small table in the airport lounge chatting for a few minutes — with just Gorbachev, his wife and a couple of aides. He didn’t end up saying anything particularly newsworthy, but it’s one of my favorite memories from my time in Moscow.”

During the next few years, Gorbachev built his foundation, a think tank designed to defend his legacy, and he toured the world, often drawing huge enthusiastic crowds. At home he struggled to stay relevant.

For journalists working in Moscow, Gorbachev was of interest mainly as the anniversaries of the 1991 pivotal events rolled around. But even in August 1996, only five years after a failed coup mounted by a group of communist hardliners, the AP story quoted only two sentences from an interview with him.

“These five years have proved all that I said — that the breakup of the Soviet Union would bring grave calamity for Russia and all the other republics,” Gorbachev said. “I find myself in the role of a Cassandra.”

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His long-shot, comeback candidacy for the presidency had been crushed earlier that year. Julia Rubin, who interviewed him then, remembers him as genial and friendly, joking with the AP’s television camera operators about getting the angles right. But he was also a little testy about being sidelined politically. “He had strong opinions and still wanted to be part of the conversation” about where the countries of the former Soviet Union were headed.

He also wanted his voice heard on the dangers posed by the steadily deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Russians called him the American Gorbachev because of his promises to bring change. Interested to hear what the real Gorbachev had to say, the AP sat down with him one evening at his foundation. And, yes, he agreed that America was ready for its own perestroika.

What interested him more was whether Obama would “muster his courage” to ease tensions with the Kremlin. Gorbachev was proud of his part in bringing an end to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and wanted that legacy preserved. At the end of the interview, Lynn Berry remembers that he mused about the possibility of a feature film to tell his story to coming generations. Perhaps he could be played by Leonardo DiCaprio?

“When we posed for a photograph before leaving, Gorbachev linked his arm around mine,” Berry said. “It was awkward and the picture shows my arm hanging limply by my side. Later, though, I really wished I had returned the kind gesture.”

While largely ignored in Russia, Gorbachev remained a figure of historical importance to the rest of the world. When he traveled to Berlin in 2011, David Rising leapt at the opportunity to interview him.

Gorbachev, then 80, talked animatedly about the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In a break with the Kremlin, he said the demonstrations seeking democratic reforms in Egypt and across the region were of “vital importance.” At the same time, he lamented the backsliding of democracy in his own country under Vladimir Putin.

“As genial as he was thoughtful, after our formal interview was over Gorbachev seemed in no hurry to wrap up, putting his arm warmly over my shoulder and continued to share his thoughts on the end of the Cold War and the current state of democracy in Russia,” Rising said.

Rising was struck that he was speaking to the last Soviet leader in an office in former East Berlin not far from where President Ronald Reagan in 1987 stood on the other side of the Berlin Wall and implored him to “tear down this wall.”

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“The privilege of talking with the man whose policies of perestroika and glasnost helped lead to the fall of that wall only two years later is one I’ll never forget,” Rising said.

The AP caught up with Gorbachev again in February 2014 in the city of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, where he was speaking at a conference. For Adam Schreck, as for Rising, this was a chance to talk to a man who had “earned a place solidly in the history books.”

The Moscow-friendly president of Ukraine had just been ousted after months of protests, which Gorbachev attributed to the president’s failure “to act democratically.” Over tea served with lemon in a darkened and ornate hotel room, Gorbachev shared his fears for Ukraine. He said the situation was “a real mess” and it was “important not to tear it apart.”

Schreck remembers thinking at the time that Gorbachev was hinting at something deeper, “that Ukraine’s future as an independent, democratic state might not be smooth. I’d return to those words on my way to Kyiv to cover the war earlier this year.”

Within days of the interview, Russia seized control of the Crimean Peninsula, helping lay the groundwork for the current conflict.

In December 2016, the 25th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev spoke bitterly of the West’s failure to provide vital aid in the 1990s, calling it a wasted chance to build a safer world. In a lengthy interview with the AP in Moscow, he made an urgent plea for Russia and the U.S. to work together. “Together, they could lead the world to a new path.”

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, Gorbachev’s health was too poor for him to tell the world what he thought.

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

LONDON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t find out until next month at the earliest whether he can challenge extradition to the U.S. on spying charges, or if his long legal battle in Britain has run out of road.

Two High Court judges said Wednesday they would take time to consider their verdict after a two-day hearing in which Assange’s lawyers argued sending him to the United States would risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

Attorneys for the U.S., where Assange has been indicted on espionage charges, said he put innocent lives at risk and went beyond journalism in his bid to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified U.S. government documents.

Assange’s lawyers asked the High Court to grant him a new appeal — his last roll of the legal dice in the saga that has kept him in a British high-security prison for the past five years.

The judges overseeing the case reserved their decision, and a ruling on Assange’s future is not expected until March at the earliest.

If judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.

The 52-year-old Australian has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege Assange encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.

Lawyer Clair Dobbin, representing the U.S. government, said Wednesday that Assange damaged U.S. security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” by releasing the hundreds of thousands of documents — risks that could harm and lead to the arbitrary detention of innocent people, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes.

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Dobbin added that in encouraging Manning and others to hack into government computers and steal from them, Assange was “going a very considerable way beyond” a journalist gathering information.

Assange was “not someone who has just set up an online box to which people can provide classified information,” she said. “The allegations are that he sought to encourage theft and hacking that would benefit WikiLeaks.”

Assange’s supporters maintain he is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have long argued that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers argued on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday that American authorities are seeking to punish him for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said there is “a real risk he may suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the U.S.

Dobbin said the prosecution is based on law and evidence, and has remained consistent despite the changes of government in the U.S. during the legal battle.

She added that the First Amendment does not confer immunity on journalists who break the law. Media outlets that went through the process of redacting the documents before publishing them are not being prosecuted, she said.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.

Assange was absent from court on both days because he is unwell, WikiLeaks said. Stella Assange, his wife, said he had wanted to attend, but was “not in good condition.”

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Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

“Julian is a political prisoner and he has to be released,” said Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022.

“They’re putting Julian into the hands of the country and of the people who plotted his assassination,” she added, referring to unproven claims by Assange’s lawyers that he was a target of a CIA plot to kidnap or kill him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” protested outside the High Court building for a second day.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

Andrew Wilkie, an Australian lawmaker who attended the hearing, said he hoped that sent a strong message to the U.K. and U.S. governments to end the legal fight. “This has gone on long enough,” he said.

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Associated Press video journalists Kwiyeon Ha and Jo Kearney contributed to this report.

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order and created a federal rule aimed at better securing the nation’s ports from potential cyberattacks.

The administration is outlining a set of cybersecurity regulations that port operators must comply with across the country, not unlike standardized safety regulations that seek to prevent injury or damage to people and infrastructure.

“We want to ensure there are similar requirements for cyber, when a cyberattack can cause just as much if not more damage than a storm or another physical threat,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Nationwide, ports employ roughly 31 million people and contribute $5.4 trillion to the economy, and could be left vulnerable to a ransomware or other brand of cyberattack, Neuberger said. The standardized set of requirements is designed to help protect against that.

The new requirements are part of the federal government’s focus on modernizing how critical infrastructure like power grids, ports and pipelines are protected as they are increasingly managed and controlled online, often remotely. There is no set of nationwide standards that govern how operators should protect against potential attacks online.

The threat continues to grow. Hostile activity in cyberspace — from spying to the planting of malware to infect and disrupt a country’s infrastructure — has become a hallmark of modern geopolitical rivalry.

For example, in 2021, the operator of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline had to temporarily halt operations after it fell victim to a ransomware attack in which hackers hold a victim’s data or device hostage in exchange for money. The company, Colonial Pipeline, paid $4.4 million to a Russia-based hacker group, though Justice Department officials later recovered much of the money.

Ports, too, are vulnerable. In Australia last year, a cyber incident forced one of the country’s largest port operators to suspend operations for three days.

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In the U.S., roughly 80% of the giant cranes used to lift and haul cargo off ships onto U.S. docks come from China, and are controlled remotely, said Admiral John Vann, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s cyber command. That leaves them vulnerable to attack, he said.

Late last month, U.S. officials said they had disrupted a state-backed Chinese effort to plant malware that could be used to damage civilian infrastructure. Vann said this type of potential attack was a concern as officials pushed for new standards, but they are also worried about the possibility for criminal activity.

The new standards, which will be subject to a public comment period, will be required for any port operator and there will be enforcement actions for failing to comply with the standards, though the officials did not outline them. They require port operators to notify authorities when they have been victimized by a cyberattack. The actions also give the Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s ports, the ability to respond to cyberattacks.

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden on Wednesday announced $100 million in federal funding for research and development into women’s health as part of a new White House initiative that she is heading up.

The money is the first major deliverable of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, which was announced late last year. The money comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The first lady announced the ARPA-H Sprint for Women’s Health during an appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Biden has said women don’t know enough about their health because the research historically has been underfunded and lacking. The White House initiative aims to change the approach to and increase funding for women’s health research.

The $100 million will be used to invest early in “life-changing” work being done by women’s health researchers and startup companies that cannot get private support, Biden said.

“We will build a health care system that puts women and their lived experiences at its center,” she said. “Where no woman or girl has to hear that ‘it’s all in your head,’ or, ‘it’s just stress.’” Where women aren’t just an after-thought, but a first-thought. Where women don’t just survive with chronic conditions, but lead long and healthy lives.”

President Joe Biden created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in 2022 to work on advancing solutions to health issues. The agency is part of what he called his “ unity agenda.”

In the coming weeks, the agency will solicit ideas for groundbreaking research and development to address women’s health, according to the White House.

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The first lady said last year when the White House initiative was announced in November that it grew out of meeting she had had with Maria Shriver, a women’s health advocate and former California first lady. Shriver, Biden said, spoke of the need for a public-private effort to close the gaps in women’s health research. Shriver also participated in Wednesday’s announcement in Massachusetts.

The White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is led by Jill Biden and the White House Gender Policy Council.

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