Western Allies Look to Ukraine as a Testing Ground for Weapons

Though the battle for Ukraine remains largely a grinding artillery war, new advances in technology and training there are being closely monitored for the ways they are starting to shape combat.

Soldiers with Ukraine’s Carpathian Sich Battalion reviewing drone footage below the front line in May.
Soldiers with Ukraine’s Carpathian Sich Battalion reviewing drone footage below the front line in May.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Three months ago, as Ukrainian troops were struggling to advance against Russian forces in the south, the military’s headquarters in Kyiv quietly deployed a valuable new weapon to the battlefield.

It was not a rocket launcher, cannon or another kind of heavy arms from Western allies. Instead, it was a real-time information system known as Delta — an online network that military troops, civilian officials and even vetted bystanders could use to track and share desperately needed details about Russian forces.

The software, developed in coordination with NATO, had barely been tested in battle.

But as they moved across the Kherson region in a major counteroffensive, Ukraine’s forces employed Delta, as well as powerful weaponry supplied by the West, to push the Russians out of towns and villages they had occupied for months.

The big payoff came on Friday with the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson City — a major prize in the nearly nine-month war.

Delta is one example of how Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems, and new ways to use them, that Western political officials and military commanders predict could shape warfare for generations to come.

The battle for Ukraine, to be sure, remains largely a grinding war of attrition, with relentless artillery attacks and other World War II-era tactics. Both sides primarily rely on Soviet-era weapons, and Ukraine has reported running low on ammunition for them.

But even as the traditional warfare is underway, new advances in technology and training in Ukraine are being closely monitored for the ways they are changing the face of the fight. Beyond Delta, they include remote-controlled boats, anti-drone weapons known as SkyWipers and an updated version of an air-defense system built in Germany that the German military itself has yet to use.

“Ukraine is the best test ground, as we have the opportunity to test all hypotheses in battle and introduce revolutionary change in military tech and modern warfare,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation.

He was speaking in October at a NATO conference in Norfolk, Va., where he publicly discussed Delta for the first time.

He also emphasized the growing reliance on the remote-controlled aircraft and boats that officials and military experts said have become weapons of choice like those in no previous war.

“In the last two weeks, we have been convinced once again the wars of the future will be about maximum drones and minimal humans,” Mr. Federov said.

A Ukrainian drone operator changing batteries while hunting for Russian positions to target with artillery during a battle on the frontline near the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk in October.
A Ukrainian drone operator changing batteries while hunting for Russian positions to target with artillery during a battle on the frontline near the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk in October.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Since last summer, Ukraine and its allies have been testing remote-controlled boats packed with explosives in the Black Sea, culminating in a bold attack in October against Russia’s fleet off the coast of Sevastopol.

Military officials largely have declined to discuss the attack or provide details about the boats, but both the United States and Germany have supplied Ukraine with similar ships this year. Shaurav Gairola, a naval weapons analyst for Janes, a defense intelligence firm, said the Black Sea strike showed a sophisticated level of planning, given the apparent success of the small and relatively inexpensive boats against Russia’s mightier war ships.

The attack “has pushed the conflict envelope,” Mr. Gairola said. He said it “imposes a paradigm shift in naval war doctrines and symbolizes an expression of futuristic warfare tactics.”

The use of remote-controlled boats could become particularly important, military experts said, showing how warfare at sea might play out as the United States and its allies brace for potential future naval aggressions by China in the East and South China Seas, and against Taiwan.

Inevitably, the Russians’ increased use of drones has spurred Ukraine’s allies to send new technology to stop them.

Late last year, Ukraine’s military began using the newly developed drone-jamming guns known as SkyWipers to thwart Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. The SkyWipers, which can divert or disrupt drones by blocking their communication signals, were developed in Lithuania and had been on the market for only two years before they were given to Ukraine through a NATO security assistance program.

Nearly nine months into the war, the SkyWipers are now only one kind of drone jammer being used in Ukraine. But they have been singled out as a highly coveted battlefield asset — both for Ukrainian troops and enemy forces that hope to capture them.

Ukrainian service members holding anti-drone guns during a training exercise in the Mykolaiv region in August.
Ukrainian service members holding anti-drone guns during a training exercise in the Mykolaiv region in August.Credit…Anna Kudriavtseva/Reuters

It is not known how many SkyWipers have been sent to Ukraine, although Lithuania reportedly sent several dozen in October 2021. In a statement to The New York Times, Lithuania’s defense ministry said it sent 50 SkyWipers in August after Ukrainian officials called it “one of the top priorities.”

Dalia Grybauskaite, who was Lithuania’s president when the SkyWipers were being designed, said her country’s defense industry made a calculated turn toward producing high-tech equipment during her time in office, from 2009 to 2019, to update a stockpile of weapons that “were mainly Kalashnikovs” and other Soviet-era arms.

“We’re learning in Ukraine how to fight, and we’re learning how to use our NATO equipment,” Ms. Grybauskaite said in an interview last week. “And, yes, it is a teaching battleground.”

She paused, then added: “It is shameful for me because Ukrainians are paying with their lives for these exercises for us.”

The Western lethal aid that is being sent to Ukraine consists, for the most part, of recently updated versions of older weapons. That was the case with the German-made infrared, medium-range homing missiles and launchers known as IRIS-T, which protect against Russian rocket attacks.

They have a longer range than the previous generation of air-defense systems that debuted in 2015. Germany’s own military has not yet used the updated version of the systems, which were shipped to Ukraine last month. Additional missiles were delivered last week.

Rafael Loss, a weapons expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that by themselves the upgraded air defenses do not “represent a game-changer.” But he said their use in Ukraine showed how the government in Kyiv had evolved beyond Soviet-era warfare and brought it more in line with NATO.

Senior NATO and Ukrainian officials said the Delta network was a prime example.

More than an early alert system, Delta combines real-time maps and pictures of enemy assets, down to how many soldiers are on the move and what kinds of weapons they are carrying, officials said.

That is combined with intelligence — including from surveillance satellites, drones and other government sources — to decide where and how Ukrainian troops should attack.

The IRIS-T air-defense system displayed at an exhibition in Berlin in June.
The IRIS-T air-defense system displayed at an exhibition in Berlin in June.Credit…Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Ukraine and Western powers determined they needed the system after Russia instigated a separatist-backed war in Ukraine’s east in 2014. It was developed by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry with NATO assistance and first tested in 2017, in part to wean troops off Russian standards of siloing information among ground units instead of sharing it.

It has been included in training exercises between Ukraine’s military and other NATO planners in the years since.

Information sharing has long been a staple for American and other NATO forces. What NATO officials said was surprising about the Delta system was that the network was so broadly accessible to troops that it helped them make battlefield decisions even faster than some more modern militaries. In Kherson, Delta helped Ukrainian troops quickly identify Russian supply lines to attack, Inna Honchar, commander of the nongovernment group Aerorozvidka, which develops drones and other technology for Ukraine’s military, said in a statement on Sunday.

“Bridges were certainly key points,” Ms. Honchar added. “Warehouses and control points were damaged, and the provision of troops became critical” as Russians became increasingly isolated, she said.

Delta’s first real test had come in the weeks immediately after the February invasion as a Russian convoy stretching 40 miles long headed toward Kyiv. Ukrainian drones overhead tracked its advance, and troops assessed the best places to intercept it. Residents texted up-to-the-minute reports to the government with details that could have been seen only up close.

All the information was collected, analyzed and disseminated through Delta to help Ukraine’s military force a Russian retreat, Ukrainian officials said.

“That was the very first moment when Delta capabilities were realized at max,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement. It said Delta had since helped identify 1,500 confirmed Russian targets across the country on any given day — with “hundreds of them being eliminated” within 48 hours.

New York Times – November 15, 2022

Time Is Running Out for the Leap Second

To the world’s timekeepers, the leap second is a kludge, a bane, a pain in the little hand. Now they’re proposing to ditch it. Will our days ever be the same?

“The Astronomer,” a 1668 painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.Credit…DeAgostini/Getty Images

Roughly every four years, an extra day gets tacked onto the end of February, a time-keeping convention known as the leap year. The practice of adjusting the calendar with an extra day was established by Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago and modified in the 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII, bequeathing us the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

That extra day is a way of aligning the calendar year of 365 days with how long it actually takes Earth to make a trip around the sun, which is nearly one-quarter of a day longer. The added day ensures that the seasons stay put rather than shifting around the year as the mismatch lengthens.

Humanity struggles to impose order on the small end of the time scale, too. Lately the second is running into trouble. Traditionally the unit was defined in astronomical terms, as one-86,400th of the mean solar day (the time it takes Earth to rotate once on its axis). In 1967 the world’s metrologists instead began measuring time from the ground up, with atomic clocks. The official length of the basic unit, the second, was fixed at 9,192,631,770 vibrations of an atom of cesium 133. Eighty-six thousand four hundred such seconds compose one day.

But Earth’s rotation slows ever so slightly from year to year, and the astronomical second (like the astronomical day) has gradually grown longer than the atomic one. To compensate, starting in 1972, metrologists began occasionally inserting an extra second — a leap second — to the end of an atomic day. In effect, whenever atomic time is a full second ahead, it stops for a second to allow Earth to catch up. Ten leap seconds were added to the atomic time scale in 1972, and 27 more have been added since.

Adding that extra second is no small task. Moreover, Earth’s rotation is slightly erratic, so the leap second is both irregular and unpredictable. Fifty years ago, those qualities made inserting the leap second difficult. Today the endeavor is a technical nightmare, because precise timing has become integral to society’s highly computerized infrastructure.

“What was before just a way of measuring the flow of time is today essential for transportation, location, defense, finance, space competition,” said Felicitas Arias, former director of the time department of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, known as B.I.P.M. from its French name and based outside Paris. “Time is ruling the world.”

The process of squaring these two time scales has become so unruly that the world’s time mavens are making a bold proposal: to abandon the leap second by 2035. Civilization would wholly embrace atomic time; and the difference, or tolerance, between atomic time and Earth time would go unspecified until timekeepers come up with a better plan for reconciling the two. A vote, in the form of Resolution D, is expected on Nov. 18 at a meeting in Versailles of the Bureau’s member nations.

“From a technical point of view,” said Patrizia Tavella, the current director of B.I.P.M.’s time department, “all the colleagues all over the world agree that we have to do something.”

From left, a 16th-century French sundial with a calendar showing the dates that the sun enters each sign of the zodiac, calibrated with the Julian calendar; a likeness of Pope Gregory XIII on a 16th-century bronze medal; Earth, photographed by Apollo astronauts. Credit…MET/BOT, via Alamy; Artokoloro, via Alamy; NASA

If the resolution passes, it would sever the timekeeping of atoms from the timekeeping of the heavens, probably for generations to come. The change would be indiscernible for most of us, in practical terms. (It would take a few thousand years for atomic time to diverge as much as an hour from Earth time.)

But the second is a huge amount of time in the technology of the internet. Cellphone transmissions, power grids and computer networks are synchronized to minuscule fractions of a second. High-frequency traders in financial markets execute orders in thousandths and even billionths of a second. By international law, data packages related to these financial transactions must be time-stamped to that fine level of precision, recorded and made traceable back to Coordinated Universal Time, the universally agreed-upon standard managed by the timekeepers at the B.I.P.M.

Every additional leap second introduces the risk of confusion: that some digital networks won’t implement the change correctly, won’t know precisely what time it is with regard to the other systems, and will fail to synchronize properly. The leap second is a dollop of potential chaos in a soufflé that demands precision.

For that reason, discarding the leap second has wide support from nations across the world, including the United States. The result of the vote is not a foregone conclusion, however. The fate of the leap second has long been the stuff of high diplomatic drama, designated one of just four “hot topics” at the B.I.P.M. Getting Resolution D on the agenda has involved more than two decades of study, negotiation and compromise to resolve the issue.

“It should have happened 20 years ago, and if not for political maneuvering, it probably would have happened 20 years ago,” said Judah Levine, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, in Boulder, Colo. He is co-chair with Dr. Tavella of the B.I.P.M. committee that discusses hot topics, and he helped draft the resolution.

Russia, for instance, has tried to delay a shift away from the leap second because doing so would require extensive alterations to its GLONASS satellite system, which incorporates the extra second. As a result, the resolution has been phrased to postpone any change until 2035. The United Kingdom, historically and emotionally tethered to the astronomical standard, enshrined in Greenwich Mean Time, has been reluctant to commit publicly.

Two engineers in blue smocks and caps gaze up at the large and complicated machinery of the GLONASS satellite system in a very large lab space.
Engineers at work on a GLONASS navigational satellite in the Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, Russia, in 2011.Credit…Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
A 19th-century illustration shows a man in a suit and top hat with a woman with a dress, hat and walking stick at the gate of the Greenwich Observatory with its large magnetic clock built into the wall. In the distance, the city of London.
The Shepherd Gate Clock, showing Greenwich Mean Time, outside the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in London.Credit…Getty Images

The fate of the leap second is more than just the fate of the leap second. At stake is Coordinated Universal Time, the international standard for timekeeping, which the continued existence of the leap second is slowly undermining.

Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C., is tenderly constructed from readings made by atomic clocks kept at national laboratories around the world. These clocks tick off, or “realize,” their best seconds and send the measurements to the B.I.P.M. There, timekeepers painstakingly assemble the readings — averaging, weighting, adjusting for discrepancies — into an ideal second for everyone everywhere to agree on and employ, occasionally adding leap seconds as needed. This assembly process takes time. And so once a month the Bureau publishes the perfect time in the form of a newsletter, called Circular T, that tells each national clock how much it diverges from the international standard, to help it improve its aim the following month.

Coordinated Universal Time is the world’s official time scale, and will continue to be whether or not it incorporates leap seconds. Global time zones are described in reference to it. (New York time currently is U.T.C. minus five hours.) And the beating heart, the second, is the most important in the constellation of standard measurements overseen by the B.I.P.M., alongside the meter (length), kilogram (weight), kelvin (temperature), candela (intensity of light), ampere (electric current) and mole (amount of substance).

The idea, formalized a century and a half ago by national signatories to an international treaty called the Meter Convention, is that each unit of measurement should be identical everywhere in the world; one meter in Spain is precisely one meter in Singapore. The seven standard units are integral to fair commerce, reproducible science and reliable technology. The second is extra-special because it underpins all the other units except the mole. For instance, the meter is defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum during one-299,792,458ths of a second, and the kilogram was recently redefined in terms of the second.

In addition, the second is tethered to a time scale, or flow of seconds. A key tenet of modern life is that not only must the unit of time be identical no matter where it is measured, so must the flow of seconds of which the one is a part.

But the leap second is putting that tenet at risk. The kludge is so technically difficult for digital technology to incorporate that other, ersatz methods of timekeeping — unofficial, but free of leap seconds and easier to implement — have begun to displace U.T.C., according to a recent article in the journal Metrologia. To supporters of Resolution D, removing the leap second from U.T.C. would make the standard time scale friendlier to modern digital technology, at least in the century following 2035. Coordinated Universal Time would still be universal, just not coordinated with Earth time.

“There is this problem we want to stop, which is this proliferation of pseudo time scales, because they are not time scales in the metrological sense,” Dr. Arias said.

From left, scientists adjusting the first National Bureau of Standards atomic clock in 1949; a Gregorian calendar; and the NBS-3, the atomic clock that in 1967 helped define the second on the basis of vibrations of the cesium atom and ended the world’s reliance on astronomical timekeeping. Credit…NIST; BTEU/RKMLGE, via Alamy; NIST

The time scale most commonly used in place of U.T.C. is the American government’s global-positioning satellite system, or GPS. Each satellite in the GPS network, which is operated and maintained by the U.S. Space Force, carries atomic clocks that provide time data, along with information about longitude, latitude and altitude.

Users of GPS, which include cellphone and data networks, can determine the time of day to within 100 billionth of a second, and the information is free and widely available. But it is neither funneled through the B.I.P.M. nor adjusted for leap seconds. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union recently suggested that telecommunication networks make GPS, rather than U.T.C., their official time because it does not incorporate leap seconds and therefore is an uninterrupted flow of time.

To metrologists the implications are grave: Although GPS keeps good time, using it rather than U.T.C. would mean that time would no longer be overseen by an organization that must abide by international agreements.

“The increasing use of signals from the GPS satellites effectively means that the U.S. military controls a primary source of international time signals with almost no oversight nationally or internationally,” noted the Metrologia article, which was written by Dr. Levine, Dr. Tavella and Martin Milton, the director of the B.I.P.M.

Moreover, the clocks aboard satellites are inconsistent across systems. Russia’s GLONASS runs on U.T.C. (adjusted by three hours) and leap seconds, but the other satellite navigational systems do not, and they diverge from universal time by different amounts, depending on when they became operational. GPS and Galileo, the European system, are 18 seconds ahead of U.T.C. The Chinese system BeiDou is four seconds ahead. They each function well because they are internally consistent and because their divergence from U.T.C. can be tracked, but they are not traceable back to U.T.C.

Even computing systems that continue to insert the leap second do so in different ways. As a result, the time stamps required for commercial and financial transactions are sometimes out of whack during the adjustment period, risking system crashes and an occasional lack of traceability. Google smears the extra second across a whole day, while Meta, Alibaba and Microsoft each add the extra second in their own bespoke way. And according to the Metrologia paper, the number of errors in implementing the leap second is increasing over time.

“It is anarchy,” Dr. Tavella said.

An additional wrinkle looms. The leap second has been necessary because atomic time runs faster than Earth time. But that is changing: Earth’s rotation rate began speeding up right around the time the leap second was invented. This month or next, Earth time will catch up to atomic time. By about 2030, if the trend persists, Earth time will overtake atomic time by about a second — so metrologists will have to insert a negative leap second to keep the two time scales in sync.

In effect, a second will vanish. Such an experiment has never been tested on computer systems, and many metrologists fear a digital disaster. “The first time in the history of U.T.C. that a negative leap second occurs, and nobody knows what to do,” Dr. Arias said.

A long exposure photo shows three U.S. Capitol staff walking the halls of the U.S. Senate past a tall, stately clock, with Roman numerals on its face, and an eagle on top.
Earlier this year the U.S. Senate voted to permanently keep daylight saving time, but the act has stalled in the House of Representatives.Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

Time is fraught with emotion. Consider the messy debates that have erupted recently over whether to keep daylight saving time.

Last month, Mexico’s Senate voted to end the practice but only for parts of the country not sharing the border with the United States. In March, the U.S. Senate voted to permanently keep daylight saving time, but the motion is stalled in the House. In the European Union in 2018, Parliament voted to keep clocks the same year-round but has been flummoxed in how to do so or which setting to choose.

The leap second, though less visible to the public, also elicits strong opinions. The Vatican, for instance, has argued for keeping the leap second, on existential grounds. Time “is a constant reminder of our mortality,” wrote the Rev. Pavel Gabor, an astrophysicist and the vice director of the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson, Ariz., in “The Science of Time,” published in 2017.

“And perhaps because of this we want to believe that our time, our lifetime, somehow corresponds to the eternal cosmic cycles.”

Dr. Tavella and her colleagues consulted with Dr. Gabor recently as they sought to navigate the implications of suspending the leap second. He counseled them to remember that the “ancient and sacred” task of timekeeping has always been laden with compromise.

The Julian calendar, with its original leap year additions, was 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the actual year, adding up to an extra 10 days by the time Pope Gregory XIII restructured the calendar and removed the extra days. His fix was to subtract three leap days every 400 years — a formula that needs correction only every few thousand years. New information invites new solutions.

Dr. Tavella was adamant that whatever the outcome of Resolution D, time would retain its ancient link to the stars. “We are not abandoning the rotation of the Earth,” she said. “We know the relationship between atomic time and the rotation of the Earth.” The differences would continue to be calculated and made available, just not actively implemented.

Of course, even if Resolution D is passed, future generations of timekeepers will continue to try to reconcile atomic time with celestial time — perhaps with a leap minute, which will be called for in about a century, or eventually a leap hour, or something not yet imaginable.

On the other hand, failure or a delay of the resolution would usher in a perilous new era of international timekeeping, Dr. Arias said: “Not approving that, in a way, will be really like walking in the wrong direction.”

New York Times – November 14, 2022

Glassy fangs and glowing fins: amazing deep sea animals found near Cocos Islands

Discovered in the deep: Scientists exploring the uncharted waters of the Indian Ocean uncover a multitude of dazzling sea creatures around a remote Australian island group

A shipload of scientists has just returned from exploring the uncharted waters of the Indian Ocean, where they mapped giant underwater mountains and encountered a multitude of deep-sea animals decked out in twinkling lights, with velvety black skin and mouths full of needle-sharp, glassy fangs.

The team of biologists was the first to study the waters around the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory more than 600 miles off the coast of Sumatra. “It’s just a complete blank slate,” says the expedition’s chief scientist, Dr Tim O’Hara, from Museum Victoria Research Institute.

“That area of the world is so rarely studied,” says Dr Michelle Taylor from the University of Essex and president of the Deep-Sea Biology Society, who wasn’t involved in the expedition.

Few research expeditions make it to the Indian Ocean, chiefly because it’s so remote. It took the team six days to get to Cocos (Keeling) Islands from Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, on the research vessel Investigator, operated by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

A long dark-coloured fish with huge glassy fangs
The Sloane’s viperfish has huge fang-like teeth, visible even when the mouth is closed. It has light-producing organs on its belly and upper fin, which help disguise it from predators and lure prey. Photograph: Benjamin Healley

“The real stars of the show are the fish,” says O’Hara, who specialises in invertebrates. “There are blind eels and tripod fish, hatchetfish and dragonfish, with all of these bioluminescent organs on them and lures coming out of their heads. They’re just extraordinary.”

Among the huge variety of life they found, the deep-sea batfish was a highlight. It sits on the seabed like an ornate pancake and struts about on two stubby fins that act as legs. It wiggles a tiny lure tucked into a hollow on its snout, presumably hoping to trick prey into thinking it is a tasty worm.

A deep-sea batfish.
Side profile of a blind eel with translucent skin against a black background

Clockwise from top left: a deep-sea batfish; a voracious highfin lizard fish; tribute spiderfish on its ‘stilts’; a previously unknown blind eel. Photographs: Benjamin Healley

They spotted the tribute spiderfish, which has long lower fins it uses as stilts to perch above the seabed, catching passing morsels of food. They found a previously unknown blind eel, collected from 5,000m down, covered in jelly-like, transparent skin. And they saw stoplight loose jaws, a type of dragonfish, which have huge unfolding jaws with double hinges and the unusual habit of spying on other animals with red bioluminescent light, a colour which most deep-sea animals can’t see.

A sampling net dragged across the abyssal plain came up full of ancient shark teeth. “They were gigantic sharks that lived millions of years ago,” says O’Hara. Based on photographs, fossil experts think these came from “megalodon-like animals”. They’ll know more once they get their hands on the teeth, which are now being sent to museums along with all the rest of the collections.

Nelson Kuna from CSIRO and Tim O’Hara talking in front of a screen showing a map of the ocean floor
Scientists Nelson Kuna from CSIRO, left, and Tim O’Hara from Museums Victoria. Right, the RV Investigator. Photographs: Robert French and Mike Kuhn

As well as shining a light on the deep-sea life of this unstudied region, the team also uncovered a dramatic seascape, including huge submerged volcanoes, or seamounts, which at 5,000 metres high are more than twice as tall as Australia’s highest land mountain. “From the surface you wouldn’t know,” says O’Hara.

The slender snipe eel
The slender snipe eel, found at depths of up to 4,000m. With its long tail, it can reach a metre in length. Curved jaws, permanently open, are covered in tiny hooked teeth that snag their prey. Photograph: Yi-Kai Tea

Using high-resolution sonar, the team created detailed 3D maps of the deep seafloor, and discovered several smaller seamounts that were previously unknown.

Not only are many deep seamounts covered in rich habitats of corals, sponges and other wildlife, they play a crucial role in mixing the ocean. Deep currents sweep up the flanks of seamounts, bringing vital nutrients to the surface. “Some people call them the stirring rods of the oceans because they actually mix water at different levels,” says O’Hara.

One reason for going to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands was to provide baseline information to help manage and protect the newly established marine park there, set up in March 2022 with the nearby Christmas Island marine park, which the team visited last year.

A grey flatfish with both eyes on top of its head
A flatfish from the order Pleuronectiformes, left. Researchers also found ancient rocks and fossils, such as a tooth from a white shark, right. Photographs: Benjamin Healley

The area isn’t threatened by deep-sea mining because, as O’Hara says, geologists prospected for seafloor minerals and decided they weren’t worth exploiting. The main threat, according the team, was plastic pollution. “Even when you’re that far off the continent, at four kilometres deep, you’ll dredge up plastics,” he says. “You see it in the water, you see it on top of the water, and we saw it in our collections.”

It will take years for experts to work their way through all the specimens the expedition collected, but O’Hara estimates that between 10% and 30% will be species new to science. “I’m really excited about what new future science discoveries come out from this in the years to come,” says Taylor.

One thing the team already has planned is to match up DNA from the specimens with DNA snippets sifted from seawater, known as environmental or eDNA, which is shed by organisms in slime and skin cells. The idea is that in the future, scientists will be able to identify which species are present in the deep sea just from the genetic calling cards left behind in the seawater.

Deep-sea batfish
Deep-sea batfish move over the seafloor on their armlike fins. They have a tiny “fishing lure” in their snout which they wiggle about to help them attract prey. Photograph: Benjamin Healley

“Who knows what’s going to happen with those specimens in museums in 100 years’ time,” says Taylor. “Trying to maximise the science possible from each one of the specimens is so important, because it’s such a rare privilege to be able to visit these deep-sea areas.”


Putin can’t escape fallout from Russian retreat in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin speaks to crowds in Moscow, with the words "Together forever" at the top of the screen.
Image caption,Vladimir Putin celebrated his declared annexation of occupied Ukrainian regions in September

How the message has changed.

Right after Russia invaded Ukraine, TV talk show hosts here were confidently predicting that within days Russian troops would be marching through Kyiv.

That was nearly nine months ago.

This week the same presenters were grim faced as they announced the army’s “difficult decision” to withdraw Russian forces from Kherson – the only Ukrainian regional capital Russia had managed to capture and occupy since invading Ukraine on 24 February. Just six weeks ago, President Putin had claimed to have annexed Kherson region, along with three other Ukrainian territories, insisting that they would be part of Russia forever.

“I wanted our flag to be flying in Kyiv in March,” anchor man Vladimir Solovyov told viewers of his show Evening with Solovyov. “It was painful when our troops turned away from Kyiv and Chernihiv. But such are the laws of war…we are fighting Nato.”

That’s exactly how the Kremlin is trying to spin this: by blaming the West. The message from the Russian state media is that, in Ukraine, Russia is taking on the combined might of America, Britain, the EU and Nato. You name it, Russia’s fighting it. In other words, setbacks on the battlefield are not the Kremlin’s fault, but the handiwork of external enemies.

There’s another message, too: don’t criticise the Russian army or Russia’s president for what’s gone wrong in Ukraine. Instead, do your duty and rally round the flag.

It’s advice which, for now, prominent and powerful Russian voices seem to be following. The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of mercenary group Wagner, have been vocal critics of Russia’s military leadership. But on the withdrawal from Kherson, both have posted messages of support for the Russian Commander in Ukraine, General Surovikin, who had recommended the pull-back.

The same cannot be said of pro-war Russian military bloggers. They’ve been busy writing angry messages about the retreat, such as:

“I will never forget this murder of Russia hopes. This betrayal will be carved on my heart for centuries.” [‘Zastavny’]

“This is a massive geopolitical defeat for Putin and Russia…the defence ministry lost the trust of society long ago…now trust in the president will disappear.” [ ‘Zloi Zhurnalist’]

Not if the Kremlin can help it. It’s been trying hard to distance President Putin from the retreat, knowing that many here in Russia will view the withdrawal as a military setback and a blow to Russian prestige. Earlier this week it was the generals who made the announcement that Russian forces would be withdrawn from part of Kherson region. Russian TV showed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu issuing the order, following consultations with General Surovikin. Vladimir Putin, the Commander in Chief, was nowhere to be seen.

Russian Defence Minister Shoigu visits command centre in Ukraine - 08 Nov 2022
Image caption,Gen Surovikin (L) said the withdrawal, ordered by the defence minister (R) was a difficult decision

“The Defence Minister took the decision, I have nothing to say about this,” President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Friday. The Kremlin is letting the military own this one. Or, at least, trying to.

But it was President Putin who ordered the invasion of Ukraine. What he calls the ‘special military operation’ was his idea. Distancing himself from any aspect of it won’t be easy.

There is a danger here for Vladimir Putin, but one that pre-dates the retreat from Kherson. Events of the last nine months risk changing how the president is perceived here at home: not so much by the Russian public, but – crucially – by the Russian elite, by the people around him, by the people in power.

For years they have viewed Mr Putin as a master strategist, as someone who always manages to come out on top… as a winner. They have looked on him as the lynchpin of the system of which they are part and which has been built around him.

“Winning”, though, has been in short supply since 24 February. Vladimir Putin’s invasion has not gone according to plan. Not only has it resulted in death and destruction in Ukraine, but significant military losses for his own army. He’d promised that only “professional soldiers” would do the fighting, yet later drafted hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens into the military to take part in the war. The economic costs, too, for Russia have been considerable.

The Kremlin used to portray Vladimir Putin as “Mr Stability” here in Russia.

That’s become a much harder sell.


Research shows the crimes of the past continue to shape the country today.

Research shows the crimes of the past continue to shape the country today

“It’s As If We Never Existed”Namibia Continues Seeking Justice for Germany’s Colonial-Era Genocide

“Every Herero, with or without a gun, will be shot.” That was the order given in October 1904, setting off Germany’s genocide in Namibia. New research shows how the crime continues to have an effect today, and how Berlin seems uninterested in real reconciliation.

The pain comes on suddenly, says Kambanda Nokokure Veii. It comes when she is driving through the steppe of central Namibia, past the trees where German soldiers hanged Veii’s ancestors. It comes when she is in the capital city of Windhoek and sees compatriots with lighter skin, many of whom are descendants of rape victims. Or when she, as on this afternoon, visits a memorial site on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the Omaheke region, one of the few places that recalls the genocide committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama from 1904 to 1908.

Veii, a 60-year-old retired English teacher and a member of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation from Windhoek, is standing before a grave that is covered in thornbushes. Some of her fellow campaigners have joined her, and together, they sink to a knee. A man recites verses in the Otjiherero language, and the others repeat after him. Veii’s voice falters. She wipes tears from her face. “Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized,” she says.

More than a century has passed since the Herero and Nama rose up against the German colonial regime in Namibia, then called German South West Africa. German rule was incredibly cruel.

The research agency Forensic Architecture joined forces with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation to reconstruct the atrocity

Researchers focused their attentions on key locations like Okahandja in central Namibia.

They examined historic photographs …

… and, with the help of terrain mapping and 3-D models, they were able to determine the precise location of the photos and when they were taken.

By doing so, it became possible to see just how systematic the Germans proceeded.

Over the course of several years, the Herero were driven out of places like Okahandja.

Today, many places reveal no sign of what happened there.

On a hill not far from the memorial, the senior commander of the German “Schutztruppe,” or “Protection Force,” Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, issued the order for genocide on October 2, 1904: “Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer except women and children.” According to estimates, between 50,000 and 70,000 people were slaughtered by von Trotha and his troops.

This map shows the locations of Herero settlements, which were frequently located near sources of water and places where battles took place.

A model created by Forensic Architecture demonstrates how the Germans were able to locate Herero settlements.

In particular by pinpointing their ritual fires.

The Germans deliberately drove the Herero into the Omaheke desert.

Despite the brutality of the crimes committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama, they are hardly discussed today. When present-day Germans look back on the atrocities committed in their name, the focus tends to be on the Nazis and the Holocaust. The violent German colonial regimes in Africa and Asia, which culminated in the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, are hardly mentioned.

The fact that the first genocide of the 20th century is even a topic at all internationally is largely thanks to people like Kambanda Nokokure Veii.

Kambanda Nokokure Veii, a member of the Herero, says: "Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized."

Kambanda Nokokure Veii, a member of the Herero, says: “Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized.” Foto: Davies Samkange / KANYANGA MEDIA / DER SPIEGEL

Veii herself only learned of the crimes committed against her people later in life, and then only piecemeal. She grew up with her great-grandmother, who had lived through German colonial rule, but was too ashamed to talk about the genocide. Her father was a politician who rose up against the South African regime which took over from the Germans and ruled Namibia until 1990. He was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island, where he became friends with Nelson Mandela, according to his daughter. Her mother fled into exile in Britain.

Like so many Namibians, Veii’s first introduction to politics was the fight for independence. Only once that struggle was won did she develop an interest in the history of her own people, the Herero. The more she read about the genocide and the more she listened to the stories told by descendants of survivors, the clearer it became to her, she says, the degree to which this crime continues to shape the country today.

Research by Forensic Architecture and the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation shows how German settlers profited from the genocide perpetrated against the Nama and Herero.

It was a vast theft of land.

In 1902, only 6 percent of Namibian land belonged to the Germans.

Three years after the genocide, that share had risen to 20 percent.

And that trend continued apace.

It is a clear indication of just how powerful the colonial presence was.

Today, just 4,500 settlers with European roots, including descendants of the Germans, control almost half of the country.

Together with others who share her view, Veii founded a committee that prepared the commemoration ceremony on the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2004. German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul traveled to Namibia for the occasion, becoming the first member of a German government to apologize for the German atrocities. A short time later, Veii and her committee introduced a motion in parliament in Windhoek demanding the acknowledgement and investigation of the genocide.

Another 10 years passed before the dialogue between Germany and Namibia about their shared history really got underway. In 2015, the two countries began discussions, which ultimately led in summer 2021 to a joint Reconciliation Agreement.

An historical photo of a Herero settlement: Germany's violent colonial rule in Namibia is overshadowed by World War II and the Holocaust.

An historical photo of a Herero settlement: Germany’s violent colonial rule in Namibia is overshadowed by World War II and the Holocaust. Foto: Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft / Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main

In the agreement, Germany officially recognizes responsibility for the genocide committed against the Nama and Herero for the first time, though only historically and not legally. Berlin has also committed to paying a total of 1.1 billion euros to Namibia in development aid over the next 30 years.

German politicians have described the deal as an historical step, but in Namibia, it is widely viewed with disgust. The Herero and Nama, in particular, feel as though they have been ignored. In the Namibian parliament, dissatisfaction with the agreement is so great that the lawmakers still haven’t ratified it. The Namibian government wants to renegotiate the agreement now – making it look as though Germany’s attempts to face up to the crimes it committed in the colonial era have reopened old wounds instead of closing them.

The Waterberg Plateau, located in central Namibia, was one of the main sites of the genocide.

With the help of historical photos and satellite imagery, Forensic Architecture was able to produce a model of the landscape.

It provides an indication of just how systematically the colonizers took control of the plateau.

They constructed military barracks and a police station.

The Herero were driven out.

This image shows a Herero settlement.

Forensic Architecture was able to reconstruct it with the help of interviews and 3-D software.

At the site, the Germans established a cemetery for German soldiers, but not for the Herero.

The Waterberg Plateau – known historically as Omuverumue – juts out of the steppe in central Namibia like a memorial, its rimrock glowing red in the morning light. Gerson Kaapehi is waiting in a lodge at the foot of the mountain.

Kaapehi, a 65-year-old historian, has spent much of his life collecting stories of the Herero. He can name every single battle in the war between the German Empire and the Herero and Nama and knows exactly where the soldiers faced off.

One of those battles took place at the plateau in August 1904, a decisive campaign that concluded with the German forces driving the Herero into the Kalahari Desert. Commander von Trotha had approaches to the desert blocked in many places and cut off access to water. Thousands of people died of thirst or starved.

Following the example of the British in South Africa, the Germans established concentration camps where the Nama and Herero had to perform forced labor.

Women were forced to pull the flesh from the skulls of their murdered husbands so they could be sent back to Germany for “race science research purposes.”

Forensic Architecture has produced a model of the camp.

Today, a parking lot and a sports field are located at the site.

The places where concentration camps were located are often unknown.

Forensic Architecture also examined colonial archives as part of their research.

And they examined historical photos.

The agency was thus able to identify the site of an additional concentration camp in Windhoek.

The lodge at Waterberg served as the site of a prison for the German colonial masters, and during the war, von Trotha set up his headquarters at the site. But even though the building now belongs to the Namibian state, there is no indication of its history. There are no signs informing tourists of the crimes that were committed here and no memorial to the victims. Instead, a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II still hangs on the wall in the dining hall. “It’s as if we Herero never even existed,” says Kaapehi.

The Herero and the Nama made up the majority of the population in Namibia before the genocide. Today, they represent less than a tenth of the country’s population of 2.5 million, and they are hardly represented at all in the government. For President Hage Geingob, commemoration of the genocide doesn’t play a significant role, according to the affected communities. For him and his political party, Namibia’s history essentially begins with the battle for independence against the South African occupiers.

An historical photo of Waterberg, known traditionally as Omuverumue. Many of the crimes committed by the German colonialists centered on this plateau.

An historical photo of Waterberg, known traditionally as Omuverumue. Many of the crimes committed by the German colonialists centered on this plateau. Foto: Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft / Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main

As such, it is all the more surprising that the German government negotiated the Reconciliation Agreement with the government in Windhoek without including the most important representatives of the Herero and Nama.

When it came to reparations following World War II, Germany spoke with the government in Israel along with Jewish communities around the world, says Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the Berlin-based human rights organization the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which has been instrumental in pushing forward the process in Germany of confronting the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama. “But in Namibia, decisions were made without the involvement of the groups affected, in violation of international law. Important issues like the sexualized violence deployed by the Germans and the confiscation of fertile land were excluded.” Even the UN rebuked Germany for its approach.The Namibia Research from Forensic Architecture 

Click here  for the complete multimedia research report on the website of Forensic Architecture.

When reached for comment, the German government stated that it could only negotiate with the “democratically legitimate” government of Namibia, adding that representatives of the victims groups are “participants in the dialogue.”

Observers in Namibia believe that Berlin intentionally left the Herero and Nama out of the negotiations because they weren’t really interested in addressing uncomfortable questions such as land distribution. “The Germans don’t want to take any responsibility for their colonial crimes,” says Kaapehi, the historian. “They just want to be done with it.”

“The agreement offered the opportunity to establish historical justice. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been wasted.”

Mutjinde Katjiua, Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA)

But Namibia’s colonial heritage continues to have an effect on the country today. Augustinus Muesee encounters the economic inequality whenever he searches for grazing land for his herd of cattle. The steppe at the edge of the Kalahari Desert is largely unsuitable, with droughts having led to a lack of pastureland for the animals. “I don’t know for how much longer we will be able to survive on agriculture,” Muesee says.

Muesee’s ancestors once owned fertile estates near Windhoek. But they were driven away during the genocide, and he says that the Germans took ownership of their property. Today, Muesee is left with a few hectares of land that the government has made available to him and other Herero in central Namibia as a kind of reservation.

Like many Herero, Muesee is demanding that land in Namibia be more fairly distributed. He’s not in favor of expropriating white farmers, as happened in Zimbabwe. But he wants the state, using money from Germany, to buy up land to return it to the ancestors of genocide victims. “There has to be compensation for the disaster we suffered,” he says.

Farmer Augustinus Muesee: "There has to be compensation for the disaster we suffered."

Farmer Augustinus Muesee: “There has to be compensation for the disaster we suffered.” Foto: Maximilian Popp / DER SPIEGEL

The coalition agreement of the government in Berlin states that reconciliation with Namibia remains “an essential task that grows out of our historical and moral responsibility.” In Berlin, though, nobody seems prepared to revisit the controversial Reconciliation Agreement – despite the fact that one of the coalition parties, the Greens, voiced criticism of the deal prior to the last election. “The joint declaration is, from the perspective of the German government, complete,” the German Foreign Ministry said in a statement in response to a query from the Left Party.

The senior-most Herero representative not in parliament, Mutjinde Katjiua, can hardly contain his anger when asked about the deal with the Germans. France, Belgium, Portugal – all other former European colonial powers, he says, are keeping a close eye on the negotiations between Berlin and Windhoek. “The agreement offered the opportunity to establish historical justice. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been wasted.”

Katjiua, 55, a lecturer on land use by profession, is the newly installed “paramount chief” of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA), the officially recognized representation of the Herero. He is an unpretentious man with a leather hat, corduroy jacket and rimless glasses. In contrast to his predecessor, he doesn’t receive his guests in his own home, but is waiting in a café on Independence Avenue in Windhoek. But like other OTA representatives, he also feels betrayed by the Germans. “Berlin didn’t find it necessary to speak with us even a single time,” he says.

If the Germans are serious about their desire for reconciliation, says Katjiua, then a renegotiation of the agreement is unavoidable. The 1.1 billion euros that the German government has offered Windhoek as compensation over the next 30 years is too little, he says, less even that the sum Germany has paid Namibia since 1990 as normal development aid.

For Katjiua, though, symbolic recognition of the wrongs committed is more important than the money. “Why doesn’t Berlin invest in a documentation center in Namibia, similar to Yad Vashem?” he asks. “Why doesn’t Germany grant more visas to Namibian students and professionals to foster exchange?” Katjiua sums up his demands of the Germans in a single sentence: “Listen to us!” 


‘The WEIRDest People in the World’: How cultural evolution changes the brain

Joseph Henrich’s book argues that high literacy rates in the West has produced some of the strangest humans on the planet

Two children read a book in the back seat of a car, in an image taken in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1949.
Two children read a book in the back seat of a car, in an image taken in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1949.RAE RUSSEL (GETTY IMAGES)

Nature or nurture? It’s an age-old debate that has produced pronouncements like, “This little girl takes after her father,” and “The boy looks just like his grandmother.” But Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s clever cousin, brought the debate into the academic arena in the late 19th century. Darwin was a serious and conscientious scientist. Galton was an intense polymath, eager to use the principles of evolution to explain human societies. He invented eugenics and social Darwinism, two theories that would reserve him a place in the history of human infamy. But stripped of all their political and economic interpretations, his scientific ideas are still being actively debated today. So much for the nature theory.

The nurture theory reached its peak popularity a few decades later with the arrival of B.F. Skinner, the influential behaviorist who convinced 20th-century academia that humans are born with “blank slate” brains, and any environmental stimuli could write on that slate. Skinner believed so strongly in social engineering that he once invented an “air crib” for infants, a sealed, microbe-free, air-conditioned and soundproof enclosure. Skinner believed this was the optimal environment for raising babies until they were two years old. Starting in the 1950s, Skinner used his Harvard pulpit to influence generations of psychologists, an influence that persists to this day. Genetics is still a bad word in university humanities courses. So much for parenting.

Without human genes, we would not be able to learn to read and write. But the acts of reading and writing themselves modify the brain

Joseph Henrich’s extraordinary book, The WEIRDest People in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), resolves the nature-nurture debate with dazzling eloquence. Settling such polarized arguments often requires climbing a ladder to a second-floor balcony and watching the contradictions vanish. The two opposing ideas are revealed as parts of a more abstract, profound and fruitful reality. It is not nature or nurture, but nature then nurture, and nurture then nature.

Without human genes, we would not be able to learn to read and write. But the acts of reading and writing themselves modify the brain. That is the essence of Henrich’s argument in his lengthy book. It’s the Western people of the world who are the weird ones alluded to in the book’s title. Henrich attributes this weirdness to the very high literacy rates of developed countries, still a rarity among the 1,000 or so diverse cultures on our planet. This is not because Westerners are born smarter, but because our societies and political systems have made us literate. And this has changed our brains. Nurture then nature.

The author has convincing qualifications. A professor and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, anthropologist and space engineer, he has led teams researching the behavior of different human societies. This research has led him to conclude that the subjects of most psychology research – Western citizens – are very peculiar. Henrich winkingly calls them WEIRD, an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. It’s an important insight because it implies that the discipline of contemporary psychology is guided by a very skewed sample of the human species. Western citizens cannot be extrapolated to other cultures.

The WEIRDest People in the World is not a book for neuroscientists or anthropologists. Its target audience is educated readers of all types. There is no doctrine or dogma, simply arguments based on sound research, including the author’s own. Henrich takes the reader by the hand through a complex reality – our species is complex – showing how a scientific approach led to his conclusions, however shocking they may be. It’s a refreshing approach in a nonfiction landscape littered with baseless opinions. Henrich follows in the footsteps of Jared Diamond, the American academic for whom anthropological sensitivity and scientific creativity peacefully coexist on the second-floor balcony. Both authors are contemporary intellectuals who have transcended the myopic academic boundaries that constrain so many.

Learning to read and write modifies the brain in a very interesting way. Just above and behind the left ear is the occipitotemporal cortex of the brain, where processors that interpret spoken language and recognize objects dwell. Spoken language is intimately associated with human nature, and has played a leading role in the evolution of our species for hundreds of thousands of years. Writing, on the other hand, was only invented about 6,000 years ago, not enough time for genetics to adapt and develop a built-in writing organ. Instead, a literate culture creates a new processor among the language and object recognition processors, one that is responsible for perceiving very special objects – letters and words.

There are even more differences between Western populations and other cultures, including spatial reasoning, attention, memory, perceptions of fairness, risk-taking, pattern recognition, inductive reasoning and even susceptibility to optical illusions. Culture changes the brain, and that’s why Westerners like us are the weirdest people in the world. Read the book.


An Ancient People’s Oldest Message: Get Rid of Beard Lice

Archaeologists in Israel unearthed a tiny ivory comb inscribed with the oldest known sentence written in an alphabet that evolved into one we use today.

A close-up view of a small ivory fragment held between two gloved fingers with markings on its side and small, visible comb teeth on its bottom edge.
A 3,700-year-old ivory comb found in southern Israel bears an inscription that reads, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image

The tiny ivory comb came from ancient ruins in central Israel and was about the size of a child’s thumb. A number of its teeth had snapped. It was so encrusted in dirt that the archaeologist who found it initially added it to a bag of assorted bones.

More than half a decade later, by a stroke of luck, scientists found letters faintly inscribed on the object: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

“People kind of laugh when you tell them what the inscription actually says,” said Michael Hasel, an archaeologist at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee who was involved in the discovery of the comb.

But those words turned out to be anything but banal. Dr. Hasel and his colleagues dated the comb to around 1,700 B.C., which means that this appeal against lice is one of the oldest examples of the writing of Canaanites, an ancient Near Eastern people credited with developing the earliest forms of the alphabet that would evolve into the letters used in this newspaper today. As the scientists explain in an article published Wednesday in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the 17 letters on the comb form the oldest full, decipherable sentence ever found in an early alphabetic script.

“I really think this is the most important object ever found in my excavations,” said Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study who has unearthed evidence of King David’s reign during his career.

He paused, then added, with a hint of emotion in his voice: “This is the first sentence ever found in the alphabet.”

The earliest confirmed systems of human writing emerged around 3,200 B.C., with cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics in Egypt. These scripts had hundreds of letters and were largely pictorial. That made them very difficult to learn, but they spread around the Near East. At some point, probably close to 1,800 B.C., a new kind of writing appeared in the region that relied on only a few dozen letters that were repeated and shuffled around. Each letter related to a single basic sound, or phoneme.

The development of this early alphabet is not well understood. But Christopher Rollston, who studies the languages and writing systems of the Near East at George Washington University, said there was consensus that “the alphabet was invented by Semitic-speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system.”

An aerial view of the Tel Lachish site, with some roads and structures on a brown hill surrounded by farmland.
The Tel Lachish archaeological site where a Canaanite city once stood, about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Several centuries later, around 1,100 B.C., these earliest alphabetic scripts were adopted by the Phoenicians, who strictly wrote from right to left and standardized the shape and stance of the letters. “There is a wide misconception in the general public that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet,” Dr. Rollston said. “They didn’t.”

The alphabet continued to evolve, from Phoenician to Old Hebrew to Old Aramaic to Ancient Greek to Latin, becoming the basis for today’s modern English characters. Dr. Garfinkel said that the DNA of the earliest alphabet could still be found in English and Hebrew. For instance, the letter “A” looks a bit like a cow staring at you — two legs supporting a head. It corresponds to the Hebrew letter Aleph, which corresponds to the Semitic word for ox. “You can still see that in the ‘A,’” Dr. Garfinkel said.

Part of the alphabet’s function came from its simplicity. Matching one letter to one sound made writing and reading far easier to learn. Dr. Hasel compared it with the printing press and the internet — whole new communities were able to access information and record history. “The invention of the alphabet was the most important contribution to communication in the last four millennia,” he said.

But the discovery of the letters on the tiny ivory comb did not start with anyone seeking clues to how this alphabet emerged. The artifact had been in storage since 2016, when it was collected from the ruins of the ancient city of Tel Lachish. Archaeologists digging at the site can inventory thousands of items a week.

Earlier this year, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, put the comb under a microscope to look for remnants of head lice. “I concentrated on the teeth, and not on anything else,” she said. “I had beautiful pictures under the microscope.”

But she also took pictures of the whole comb with her phone, and when she zoomed in, she saw an engraving.

A small group of tourists walk among stone ruins of the archaeological site.
Visitors to the Tel Lachish site, where researchers say their team often digs up thousands of artifacts a week.Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

Dr. Mumcuoglu sent two of these pictures to Daniel Vainstub, a paleographer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He was able to discern Canaanite letters. Dr. Hasel and Dr. Garfinkel then sent the actual comb to Dr. Vainstub for a more thorough analysis. All of the researchers were stunned that the writing had gone unnoticed for more than five years

“Everybody had this comb in their hand, and no one saw the inscription,” Dr. Mumcuoglu said.

Over the next few months, Dr. Vainstub compared the 17 letters in the inscription, each less than a tenth of an inch long, to other ancient writings. Because examples of Canaanite writing around the same time period are rare and fragmentary, and because many of the engravings on the comb were faint, the work was painstaking. But the writing of the inscription on an ivory comb seemed to point to a single translation. Dr. Vainstub said that, after he made out the word “lice,” he knew he had figured it out.

“This is brilliant and judicious and careful scholarship,” said Dr. Rollston, who was not involved in the study.

While the discovery and deciphering of the inscription amounts to a significant archaeological advance in the study of the alphabet, none of the researchers claim that this finding blows open the doors to the field. In fact, there are many new questions to ask: There were no elephants in Canaan, so where was the ivory comb inscribed? Who inscribed it? What purpose did the inscription serve?

Dr. Garfinkel said that finding the comb with a plea against lice was like “finding a plate that says, ‘Put food on this plate.’” It’s simple, functional and reflective, in some ways, of our nature.

“It’s something very human,” he said. “What were you expecting? A love song? A recipe to make pizza?”

New York Times – November 9, 2022

Russia Tried to Absorb a Ukrainian City. It Didn’t Work.

In Kherson, national songs were banned, speaking Ukrainian could lead to arrest, and students were told they were Russian. Cue the resistance

A Ukrainian soldier signing a flag in the main square of Kherson on Sunday.
A Ukrainian soldier signing a flag in the main square of Kherson on Sunday.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

KHERSON, Ukraine — Iryna Dyagileva’s daughter attended a school where the curriculum included memorizing the Russian national anthem. But teachers ignored it, instead quietly greeting students in the morning with a salute: “Glory to Ukraine!”

The occupation authorities asked Olha Malyarchuk, a clerk at a taxi company, to settle bills in rubles. But she kept paying in Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia.

“It just didn’t work,” Ms. Malyarchuk said of the Russian propaganda that was beamed into televisions and plastered on billboards for the nine months of Russia’s occupation of Kherson. On Sunday, she was walking in a park, waving a small Ukrainian flag.

One roadside billboard proclaimed in bold text, “We are together with Russia!” But a teenager who offered only his first name, Oleksandr, had shinned up the supporting pole and was tearing the sign to pieces. Asked how he felt, he said, “Free.”

The Ukrainian Army, defying the odds after its much more powerful neighbor invaded in February, has reclaimed hundreds of villages and towns in three major counteroffensives north of Kyiv, in the northeastern Kharkiv region and now in the southern Kherson region.

Kherson residents celebrated the liberation of their city. This billboard had been used for Russian propaganda.
Kherson residents celebrated the liberation of their city. This billboard had been used for Russian propaganda.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Ukrainians greeted a passing military convoy on the road to Kherson on Sunday.
Ukrainians greeted a passing military convoy on the road to Kherson on Sunday.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

But the city of Kherson stands out: It was the focus of an ambitious Russian campaign to assimilate the citizenry and stamp out Ukrainian identity — a goal President Vladimir V. Putin harbored for all of Ukraine had his military been more successful, judging by his assertions that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation.

In Kherson, national songs were banned. Speaking Ukrainian could lead to arrest. Schools adopted Russian curriculums, and young students were to be told that they were Russians, not Ukrainians.

In the early days of the city’s liberation, it appears that those Russian efforts were largely futile, at least among those who remained in the city as Ukrainian forces approached.

Serhiy Bloshko, a construction worker, had lived at friends’ houses through the nine-month occupation, fearing arrest for having joined anti-occupation protests in March, soon after the Russian Army arrived. Soldiers did go to his home. Not finding him, they made off with his television and refrigerator, he said.

But the Russians found some of his friends, who were detained and vanished, he said.

“They repressed the pro-Ukrainian population,” said Mr. Bloshko, who was interviewed in a line for water on Sunday afternoon. Of the cultural assimilation effort, he said, “What happened here was ethnic cleansing.”

Kherson residents lining up to fill containers with water on Sunday.
Kherson residents lining up to fill containers with water on Sunday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Kherson residents lining up to fill containers with water on Sunday.
An empty grocery store in the city.
An empty grocery store in the city.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The manner in which each army entered his city, one in February, the other last week, was telling, he said.

“When our soldiers drove in, their machine guns were pointed up, into the air,” Mr. Bloshko said. “When the Russians drove in, their guns were pointed at the people. That explains everything. And they said they were our liberators.”

Throughout Ukraine, the war has been notable as a time of accelerated cultural separation of Ukrainian from Russian — the exact opposite of what Mr. Putin had sought to achieve.

Bilingual Ukrainians who spoke Russian before the war pivoted to Ukrainian. Writers in Kyiv suggested closing a museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov, a native of the city but one who wrote in Russian. The mayor of Odesa, the Black Sea city founded by Czar Catherine the Great, has said her statue will be torn down.

What began a decade ago, after Russia intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine, as a “de-communization” policy of banning Soviet-era place and street names has extended to Russian cultural references. Towns, for example, are renaming their many Pushkin Streets, named in honor of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Col. Roman Kostenko, who is also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, recording a video in front of a City of Kherson sign after Russia announced it had retreated.
Col. Roman Kostenko, who is also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, recording a video in front of a City of Kherson sign after Russia announced it had retreated.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Ukrainian civilians and soldiers rejoicing over the liberation of Kherson.
Ukrainian civilians and soldiers rejoicing over the liberation of Kherson.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

In Kherson over the weekend, any residents who might have felt more warmly toward the Russian assimilation efforts were not in evidence, hardly surprising given that many had evacuated as the Ukrainians closed in and the Russian government encouraged residents to leave. Many local government officials had collaborated with the Russians.

Three days after the Russian Army left, several hundred Kherson residents were still celebrating on a central square.

But trepidation had also set in. Throughout the day, booms from artillery strikes in or near the city rang out occasionally, and Russian troops remain close by, on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River.

Ms. Malyarchuk, the taxi clerk, said that despite the failures of the assimilation program, the occupiers pressed ahead, publishing Russian newspapers and broadcasting a pro-Moscow local television news program. On Thursday, as they pulled out, Russian soldiers blew up the television tower, lest Ukraine now beam pro-Ukrainian news into nearby occupied territory.

Ms. Malyarchuk credited the Ukrainian Army’s strategy of patiently degrading Russian forces and launching pinpoint strikes on Russian supply lines and positions in and around Kherson for months with preserving the city itself. That approach, she said, also preserved support for Ukraine’s government.

A broadcasting tower destroyed by Russian troops on their way out of town.
A broadcasting tower destroyed by Russian troops on their way out of town.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
People gathering around an internet connection powered by a car battery in the main square of Kherson on Sunday.
People gathering around an internet connection powered by a car battery in the main square of Kherson on Sunday.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

One strike by a precision guided HIMARS rocket, she said, had hit a Russian garrison in a residential district about 150 yards from her home, blowing out windows but harming no civilians. “It was a beautiful explosion,” she said.

“Thank God for America, Canada and Great Britain, and thank God for Grandfather Biden,” she said, noting the Western military aid that helped Ukraine repel the Russians from her city.

In the city’s center, one Russian base across a street from a hospital appeared hollowed out from the inside by a direct hit. Only jagged remnants of exterior walls remained standing. But the blast did not even crack windows in the hospital itself.

Dr. Ivan Terpak, a family physician at the hospital, said the strike had been worth the risk to patients and medical personnel, and was needed to drive out the Russians. “They wouldn’t have left if we didn’t shoot at them,” he said.

“Nobody asked me,” Dr. Terpak said, “but if they did, I would have said, ‘Go ahead and take the shot.’”

Along Ushakova Avenue, an elegant tree-lined boulevard that runs through the city, most buildings were undamaged.

A destroyed military vehicle on the road into Kherson.
A destroyed military vehicle on the road into Kherson.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
A sign warning of mines in front of a former Russian barracks in Kherson.
A sign warning of mines in front of a former Russian barracks in Kherson.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Ms. Dyagileva said she had sent her daughter to school only after ensuring that the teaching staff remained secretly patriotic, playing along with Russian-appointed administrators but not teaching the curriculum that was imposed. Teachers at other schools did teach the Russian program, she said.

Iryna Rodavanova, a retired curator at the Kherson Art Museum, said the brutality of Russian soldiers had alienated residents, undermining the efforts at cultural assimilation. Soldiers beat her husband on a roadside after accusing him of a traffic violation.

“I agree with our president,” Ms. Rodavanova said. “Better without electricity, without water and without heat if also without the Russians.”

Oddly, weeks before retreating, Russian soldiers carried away the bones of the 18th-century Russian aristocrat Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, removing as they left a potent historical and cultural symbol of the city’s ties to Russia. Prince Potemkin, a lover of Catherine the Great, was considered the founder of the modern city of Kherson.

Father Vitaly, a priest at St. Catherine’s Cathedral, said Russian officers had from time to time through the occupation turned up at the cathedral to visit the crypt holding Prince Potemkin’s bones.

Lighting candles inside St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson on Sunday.
Lighting candles inside St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson on Sunday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Father Vitaly in the crypt beneath the cathedral that once held the remains of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, thought to have founded of the modern city of Kherson.
Father Vitaly in the crypt beneath the cathedral that once held the remains of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, thought to have founded of the modern city of Kherson. Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Soldiers arrived wearing balaclava masks, saying they would protect the bones from the Ukrainian attack. Two soldiers carried out the bones, held in a charcoal-colored cloth bag, and two others the wooden coffin they had lain in for two centuries, Father Vitaly said.

“It was the most important relic of our church,” he said. “But it is more important to them than to us. He’s a significant historical figure and a symbol of Russian imperial ambitions.”

Ukraine should ask for the return of the bones, Father Vitaly said, adding, though, that Kherson residents won’t really mind if they don’t come back.

“We don’t need the bones,” he said. “Maybe the next generation will even forget they were ever here.”

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

A darkened apartment block as night fell on Kherson on Sunday.
A darkened apartment block as night fell on Kherson on Sunday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

New York Times – November 13, 2022

Your Cat Might Not Be Ignoring You When You Speak

Cats have a reputation for being aloof, but a new study has found that their relationships with their owners may be stronger than we thought.

Three kittens sit on a pillow in a row, one of which looks very directly at the camera.
Cats are often seen as aloof. But in a new study, they were not ignoring their owners, but instead “their reactions were very subtle,” the lead author of the study said.Credit…David W Cerny/Reuters

Every cat owner has a story to tell of being blanked by their cat: We call to our cat, it turns away, and some of us might be left wondering why we didn’t get a dog. But your cat may be listening after all. More than that, it cares more than you may think.

A study by French researchers that was published last month in the journal Animal Cognition found that not only do cats react to what scientists call cat-directed speech — a high-pitched voice similar to how we talk to babies — they react to who is doing the talking.

“We found that when cats heard their owners using a high-pitched voice, they reacted more than when they heard their owner speaking normally to another human adult,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, an author of the study and cat behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre. “But what was very surprising in our results was that it actually didn’t work when it came from a stranger’s voice.”

Unlike with dogs, cat behavior is difficult to study, which is part of why humans understand them less. Cats are often so stressed by being in a lab that meaningful behavioral observations become impossible. And forget about trying to get a cat to sit still for an M.R.I. scan to study its brain function.

So the researchers for the latest study went to the cats’ homes and played recordings of different types of speech and different speakers. At first, Dr. de Mouzon and her team were worried that the cats weren’t reacting at all. But then they studied film recordings of the encounters. “Their reactions were very subtle,” Dr. de Mouzon said. “It could be just moving an ear or turning the head towards the speaker or even freezing what they were doing.”

In a few cases, the cats in the study would approach the speaker playing a voice and meow. “In the end, we had really clear gains in the cat’s attention when the owner was using cat-directed speech,” Dr. de Mouzon said.

Three views arrayed horizontally of a white-and-gray cat, top, and a dark gray cat with a dark red fluffy thing next to it at bottom.
Behavioral changes before (a), during (b) and after (c) the stimulus onset. The stimulus onset interrupted a grooming session with the top cat and caused the lower cat’s pupils to dilate and orient its head toward the speaker.Credit…Charlotte de Mouzon

The findings showed that “cats are paying close attention to their caretakers, down to not only what they are saying, but how they are saying it,” said Kristyn Vitale, an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College in Maine who was not involved in the new study.

The new study complements Dr. Vitale’s own research into relationships between a cat and its owner. This relationship is so important, Dr. Vitale’s research has found, that it replicates the connection between a kitten and its mother. “It is possible that attachment behaviors originally intended for interactions with their mother have now been modified for interactions with their new caretakers, humans.”

Unlike dogs, “most cats actually prefer human interaction over other rewards like food or toys,” Dr. Vitale said.

Genetics may also play a role in why dogs are easier to study and are assumed to be friendlier.

“Dogs were artificially selected hundreds or thousands of years ago based precisely on their capacity to be trained, whether as sheepdogs, hunting dogs or something else,” Sarah Jeannin, a dog behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre who was not involved in the new study.

Dr. Jeannin disputed the stereotype that dogs are closer to humans than cats. “People say that dogs are a man’s best friend, that you can trust them and that they are very loyal. But we don’t know what dogs actually think,” she said. “It’s really just projection by us that dogs are in love with us.”

“For years, scientists didn’t ask the right questions about cats,” Dr. de Mouzon said. Now, those who are convinced of the perfidy of cats won’t like the answers that are emerging.

Cats don’t hate us after all, Dr. Vitale said, adding that “a growing body of work supports the idea that social interaction with humans is key in the life of a cat.”

According to Dr. de Mouzon, just because cats react in subtle ways doesn’t mean they are aloof.

“Cats don’t do what you expect them to do. But if cats don’t come when we call them, it may be because they’re busy doing something else, or they are resting,” she said. “People have these kinds of expectations because when you call a dog, the dog will come. But if you call a human when they are having a nap at the other end of the house, would you go?”

A wide-eyed cat looks attentively at someone or something off-camera, standing on a very large scratching post/play structure with a feathery toy in front of it.
An unsubtle, attentive test subject in the study.Credit…Charlotte de Mouzon

New York Times – November 13, 2022

Iran and China Use Private Detectives to Spy on Dissidents in America

The U.S. investigators are hired under false pretenses by authoritarian governments to do their “dirty work,” the F.B.I. says.

A man in a tweed driving cap sits behind a car steering wheel.
Michael McKeever, a private investigator, was unwittingly hired to watch an Iranian dissident. F.B.I. agents were watching, too.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The job that came in through Michael McKeever’s website was unremarkable, the kind of request he often received in his decades working as a private investigator in New York.

An international client wanted his help tracking down a debtor who had fled from Dubai and was believed to be in Brooklyn. Mr. McKeever was to surveil a house and photograph the people coming and going. “Kindly be discreet as they are on the lookout,” he was told.

Mr. McKeever and an associate began taking turns conducting the surveillance, but they failed to notice another team watching the same address. They were F.B.I. agents, and one soon got in touch with a warning.

“Your client is not who you think they are,” the agent said, according to Mr. McKeever. “These are bad people, and they’re up to no good.”

Mr. McKeever, 71, would later learn that he had been used by Iranian intelligence agents in a suspected plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian-American journalist who has been unsparing in her criticism of Iran’s human rights abuses, discrimination against women and imprisonment and torture of political opponents.

“We were afraid they were going to look to snatch and grab her, bring her home and probably kill her,” said James E. Dennehy, the former head of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence and cyber division in New York, who now runs the bureau’s Newark office.

Across America, investigators are increasingly being hired by a new kind of client — authoritarian governments like Iran and China attempting to surveil, harass, threaten and even repatriate dissidents living lawfully in the United States, law enforcement officials said.

Federal indictments and complaints in the past two years detail cases in which private investigators were drawn into such schemes in New York, California and Indiana, and F.B.I. officials say they believe others have been as well. Most appear to have been used unwittingly, and later cooperated with the authorities; a few, however, were charged.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a government can hire an investigator in a routine transaction to learn detailed information about a person’s residence, cellphones, Social Security number, work address — and feed that knowledge to a state security apparatus.

“It strikes me as low-cost, low-risk state-sponsored terrorism in the 21st century,” Mr. Hoffman said.

The tactic comes amid a broad wave of repression, officials said, which has included the poisonings of opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Britain and elsewhere; Saudi Arabia’s involvement in luring Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic, to its Istanbul consulate where he was brutally killed and dismembered in 2018; and Turkey’s pursuit of perceived enemies in at least 31 countries, according to a 2021 report by Freedom House, which promotes democracy globally.

In the case involving Ms. Alinejad, Manhattan federal prosecutors filed kidnapping conspiracy charges in July 2021 against an Iranian intelligence official and three associates, all in Iran. None are likely to be apprehended if they remain there, but officials said the goal, beyond protecting potential victims, was to expose and deter plots devised at the highest levels of a foreign government.

For most private eyes, daily work is far from the glamorized depictions in film and literature, with jobs originating with law firms, insurance companies and aggrieved spouses. Today, many assignments come via the internet, with no face-to-face contact.

“If you’ve got somebody on the other side — an intelligence professional who can lie and create smoke and mirrors — sometimes it’s hard to vet those clients correctly,” said Wes Bearden, a Dallas-based private investigator and an officer of the World Association of Detectives, which has about 1,000 members.

Many private investigators, some with backgrounds in law enforcement, are decidedly old school. Mr. McKeever’s website bears the motto “Delivering the truth … with honesty and proof,” and lists offerings like employment background checks and “Infidelity & Matrimonial Investigation.”

That sort of street-level legwork can also provide the basis of an intelligence operation, one that foreign governments can conduct cheaply at a safe remove.

“That’s their proxy that they use here on the ground in a very natural way to do a lot of their dirty work,” the F.B.I.’s Mr. Dennehy said.

A woman with tall, curly hair and a flower behind her ear stands before a backdrop of trees.
Masih Alinejad, as a journalist in Iran, had frequently exposed malfeasance and corruption, and was threatened with arrest or worse.Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times

In Ms. Alinejad’s case, he said, the Iranians wanted to know her emotions, her state of mind — even her body language. Was she frantically looking over her shoulder or did she seem carefree?

Mr. McKeever said that after being told of Iran’s role, he secretly cooperated with the bureau, providing access to his email account. F.B.I. officials confirmed his cooperation. Mr. McKeever has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and he continues to operate his firm.

As private investigators fall victim to the sorts of schemes they usually unearth, the F.B.I. says it has been contacting professional groups to warn them.

“The more we can draw attention to it, the more we hope private investigators and others will learn to spot these red flags,” said Roman Rozhavsky, an F.B.I. counterintelligence official in New York.

Not every private eye has avoided legal trouble. Michael McMahon, a 55-year-old retired New York Police Department sergeant who built a second career as a private investigator, was arrested in 2020. He faces charges of acting as an illegal agent for the Chinese government, stalking and two conspiracy counts. Prosecutors say he was part of an effort to coerce a Chinese citizen living in New Jersey, identified only as John Doe-1, to return to that country.

Mr. McMahon said that he was stunned and that he had no knowledge he was working for China.

“When I read the complaint against me,” he said in an email, “I became sick to my stomach. As my background shows, I committed my life to upholding the law and never have — and never would — commit a crime.”

A man in a jacket and checked shirt stands by a river with a bridge in the middle distance.
Michael McMahon, a private investigator accused of working for China, said he would never commit a crime and had no idea his employer was a hostile foreign government.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. McMahon said in an interview that in 2016, he took a job from a woman who found him through his website. He said he was led to believe she was calling for a client from China who was seeking a person in New Jersey who had stolen money from a Chinese construction company.

“We need to locate that person — is that something you do?” he recalled her asking.

“‘I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do.’”

Mr. McMahon said the woman claimed to own a translation company and paid him with a check in the firm’s name. He said he conducted surveillance on five occasions in New Jersey in 2016 and 2017, each time notifying local police departments that he was parked outside a residence. That, Mr. McMahon said, was evidence that he had nothing to hide. He said he hired two other investigators, both retired New York police detectives, to help.

Mr. McMahon said he was awakened early one morning in October 2020 by his dog barking and someone banging on the door of his Bergen County, N.J., house. About a dozen F.B.I. agents and police officers had come to arrest him.

Justice Department officials said Mr. McMahon and a group of other defendants, some in China, were part of an aggressive Chinese government campaign called Operation Fox Hunt. Brooklyn federal prosecutors have said Mr. McMahon was integral to the scheme.

“After multiple months of investigative work by the defendant Michael McMahon,” the indictment says, “the co-conspirators planned a specific rendition operation to stalk and repatriate John Doe-1 through psychological coercion.”

Prosecutors have said Mr. McMahon knew John Doe-1 was being sought by the Chinese government: While conducting surveillance, he emailed himself a link to an English-language Chinese newspaper page listing the man among 100 fugitives wanted in an anti-graft campaign.

They have also said that Mr. McMahon, in a conversation with a co-defendant, a Chinese citizen who had lived in Queens, proposed they harass John Doe-1 by parking outside his house to “let him know we are there.”

Mr. McMahon’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said that investigators are often hired by private firms to locate people who are simultaneously sought by the authorities, and that his client’s harassment comment was just a suggestion that they engage in more overt surveillance — which he said never occurred.

“I have not seen one piece of evidence — not one — that Mike had any idea that he was in any way working for the Chinese government,” Mr. Lustberg said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment.

Mr. Lustberg noted that his client also was not given an opportunity to cooperate with investigators.

“There never comes a time before his arrest,” Mr. Lustberg said, “where the federal government goes to him and says, ‘Hey, do you realize what’s going on here? You are being played by the Chinese government.’”

Iran, a theocracy facing a cresting wave of protest at home, has also been eyeing its critics abroad for years and has taken advantage of American detectives. In July 2020, Mr. McKeever received the email asking that he watch the Brooklyn home that turned out to be Ms. Alinejad’s residence.

“I am contacting you on behalf of a client looking [for] a missing person from Dubai, U.A.E., who has fled to avoid debt repayment,” wrote the sender, Kiya Sadeghi, according to the indictment.

Ms. Alinejad, as a journalist in Iran, had frequently exposed malfeasance and corruption, and was threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Her press pass was revoked and she was forced to flee in 2009. From Brooklyn, she has remained a high-profile presence in the news media. In July, a man was arrested with a loaded AK-47-style assault rifle outside her home.

Mr. McKeever said he knew nothing about Ms. Alinejad. Mr. Sadeghi’s email said his services were needed for surveillance on a “potential address” for the missing person, according to the indictment.

“Will need high quality pictures/video of persons living in the address and cars they drive,” one email said. The client wanted “photos of faces and cars” and their license plate numbers and, “if possible picture of envelopes in mailbox,” Mr. Sadeghi wrote in another message.

To Mr. McKeever, the assignment seemed straightforward: “I thought it might be a one-day job.”

The indictment identifies Mr. Sadeghi as an Iranian intelligence agent who researched and hired investigators in the United States, Canada and Britain to procure surveillance services for Iranian intelligence, the indictment said.

On July 22, 2020, Mr. McKeever emailed Mr. Sadeghi to report that surveillance had begun, and attached a photograph of the ho

In August and September, he was asked for additional days of work, including pictures and video. The client also wanted “pictures of faces of everyone visiting the address, even if they are marketers and salespeople,” one email said.

“Pictures of everything and everyone,” Mr. Sadeghi wrote in another message. “Client wants lots of content even if you may think it is not of value.”

In October 2020, Mr. McKeever received the call from the F.B.I. He agreed to cooperate.

“I was like, hey, whatever you need, I’m good,” Mr. McKeever said.

Mr. McKeever said he continued to communicate with Mr. Sadeghi with full knowledge of the F.B.I., and conducted additional surveillance in early 2021. At one point, Mr. Sadeghi asked whether it was possible to park in front of the house in a car outfitted with a camera to provide a live video feed. In all, Mr. McKeever was paid just under $6,000 for his services, the indictment says.

Looking back, he does not believe he ignored obvious red flags in the repeated requests from Mr. Sadeghi. But he acknowledged that he missed clues that might have raised suspicions, like the questions he had posed to Mr. Sadeghi that never generated satisfactory answers.

For example, he said he asked for the name of the supposed debtor, so he could determine whether a person by that name lived at the Brooklyn address. He was never told. He now believes the Iranians were trying to thwart any checking he might have done on his own.

“One of the things I could have done is run a trace on that house and said, ‘Who lives here?’” Mr. McKeever recalled. “And I could have Googled that woman’s name.” If he had learned her name, he said, his reaction would have been, “‘Whoa, wait a second.’”

Ms. Alinejad, in an interview, said she was furious when she learned of the extent of the surveillance.

“Miles away from my homeland,” Ms. Alinejad said, “I’m being watched and monitored by someone who has been hired by the Iranian regime.”

According to the indictment, the plotters had researched routes from Ms. Alinejad’s home to the Brooklyn waterfront, and methods of taking her by boat to Venezuela and on to Iran.

“No question in my mind that they could have done it,” Mr. McKeever said, adding, “I’m glad that it didn’t work out.”

Over his many years as a private eye, Mr. McKeever said, he always tried to be vigilant in scrutinizing the jobs he took. He did not believe he was naïve, but he knew clients could lie. If there was a lesson for private investigators, he said, it was to be careful not to be used.

“I was used,” he said.

New York Times – November 13, 2022