BBC 2024-02-09 06:01:59


‘My memory is fine’ – Biden hits back at special counsel

US President Joe Biden has angrily criticised an investigation that found he mishandled top secret files and said he struggled to recall key life events.

In a surprise news briefing on Thursday evening, Mr Biden insisted: “My memory is fine.”

He slammed a claim that he could not recollect when his son died, saying: “How the hell dare he raise that?”

The inquiry found Mr Biden “wilfully retained and disclosed” classified files, but decided not to charge him.

Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Hur determined Mr Biden had improperly kept classified documents related to military and foreign policy in Afghanistan after serving as vice-president.

The scathing 345-page report, released earlier in the day, said the president’s memory had “significant limitations”.

Mr Hur interviewed the 81-year-old president over five hours as part of the inquiry.

The special counsel said Mr Biden could not recall when he was vice-president (from 2009-2017), or “even within several years, when his son Beau died” (2015).

At Thursday night’s news conference, an emotional Mr Biden lashed out at the passages casting doubt on his recollection of events.

“Frankly, when I was asked the question I thought to myself, was none of their damn business,” he said.

“I don’t need anyone to remind me when he [Beau Biden] passed away.”

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He said he was “very occupied… in the middle of handling an international crisis” when he was interviewed by the special counsel from 8-9 October last year – just as the Israel-Gaza war erupted.

The inquiry also said Mr Biden had shared some of the sensitive material from hand-written notebooks with a ghostwriter for his memoir, a finding that the president denied from the podium.

The special counsel concluded it would be difficult to convict the president of improper handling of files because “at trial, Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.

Opinion polls indicate the president’s age is a concern for US voters ahead of November’s White House election. But Mr Biden told reporters on Thursday he was the most qualified candidate.

“I am well-meaning,” he said. “And am elderly. I know what the hell I’m doing. I put this country back on its feet.

“I don’t need his recommendation.”

Asked whether he took responsibility for having classified documents in his home, Mr Biden blamed his staff.

He said he didn’t know they had put sensitive memos in his garage, where the special counsel says they were located next to a dog bed.

A BBC reporter at the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room described the atmosphere as tense.

When one journalist said the American people were concerned about his age, Mr Biden raised his voice in reply: “That is your judgement, that is your judgement.”

He insisted that his memory is “fine” and “has not gotten worse” during his presidency.

Mr Biden’s legal team also criticised the special counsel’s remarks about Mr Biden’s apparent memory lapses.

“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events,” wrote White House lawyer Richard Sauber in a letter attached to the report.

The top secret files were found at Mr Biden’s house in Wilmington, Delaware, and former private office from 2022-23.

The discovery came after a separate investigation charged former President Donald Trump with mishandling classified documents following his departure from the White House. He faces a trial in that case this May.

The Hur report distinguishes between both cases, saying Mr Biden handed over the documents to government archivists, while Mr Trump “allegedly did the opposite”.

“According to the indictment, he not only refused to return the documents for many months, but he also obstructed justice by enlisting others to destroy evidence and then to lie about it,” the report says about Mr Trump.

Mr Trump, in response, said his classified files trial should be cancelled by the justice department prosecutor.

“If Special Counsel Jack Smith wants to do good for our Country, and help to unify it, he should drop all Litigation against Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, ME, and let our Country HEAL,” the Republican White House frontrunner posted on his platform, Truth Social.

Even as Mr Biden sought to rebut reporters’ questions about his age and mental acuity, he inadvertently mixed up two world leaders.

Asked to comment on the latest in the Israel-Gaza war during Thursday’s evening news conference, he confused Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

“I think as you know initially,” he said, “the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in.”

Additional reporting by Rebecca Hartmann

US says it will not back unplanned Rafah offensive

The US has warned Israel that staging a military offensive into Gaza’s southern city of Rafah without proper planning would be a “disaster”.

The White House said it would not support plans for any major operations in Rafah without due consideration for the refugees there.

The comments come days after Israel’s leader said the military had been told to prepare to operate in Rafah.

More than half of Gaza’s people now live in the city bordering Egypt.

Some 1.5 million Palestinians are surviving there in dire humanitarian conditions.

Israel bombed parts of Rafah from the air on Thursday morning and Israeli tanks reportedly also opened fire.

Emad, 55, a father of six sheltering in Rafah after fleeing his home elsewhere, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying his greatest fear was a ground assault with nowhere left to run.

“We have our backs to the [border] fence and faces toward the Mediterranean,” he said. “Where should we go?”

Much of northern and central Gaza has been reduced to ruins by sustained Israeli bombardment since the war began on 7 October.

Speaking on Thursday evening, and without referring to Rafah, US President Joe Biden said Israel’s actions in Gaza had been “over the top”.

Earlier, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Israeli military had a “special obligation as they conduct operations there or anywhere else to make sure that they’re factoring in protection for innocent civilian life”.

“Military operations right now would be a disaster for those people and it’s not something that we would support,” he said, adding that the US had not seen anything to suggest Israel was going to launch a major operation in Rafah imminently.

Deputy State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel echoed Mr Kirby’s comments, saying: ”We [the US] would not support the undertaking of something like this without serious and credible planning.”

Asked by the BBC where refugees in Rafah should go in the event of an operation, Mr Patel said these were “legitimate questions that we believe the Israelis should answer”.

Speaking in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any “military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost… and that’s especially true in the case of Rafah”.

It is rare for the US, a key ally and military backer of Israel, to talk about any forthcoming stages of the country’s military offensive in Gaza – but this was a clear warning.

Washington sends around $3.8bn (£3bn) in military aid to Israel each year, making the country the world’s biggest recipient of such funding.

Around 1,300 people were killed during the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, according to Israeli officials.

More than 27,800 Palestinians have been killed and at least 67,000 injured by the war launched by Israel in response, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

“They are living in overcrowded makeshift shelters, in unsanitary conditions, without running water, electricity and adequate food supplies,” was the stark assessment of the situation by UN chief António Guterres on Thursday.

“We were clear in condemning the horrific acts of Hamas. We are also clear in condemning the violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza.”

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah and that “total victory” by Israel over Hamas was just months away.

Zelensky sacks Ukraine’s commander-in-chief

Ukraine’s president has sacked the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

It follows speculation about a rift between the president and Gen Zaluzhnyi, who has led Ukraine’s war effort since the conflict began.

Battle-hardened Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi was announced as his replacement in a presidential decree.

It is the biggest change to Ukraine’s military leadership since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said the high command needed to be “renewed” and that Gen Zaluzhnyi could “remain on the team”.

“Starting today, a new management team will take over the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” he said on Thursday.

Gen Zaluzhnyi is a popular general trusted by Ukrainian soldiers and the public, and has been something of a national hero.

His recent approval ratings have been higher than those of Mr Zelensky.

  • Analysis: General’s sacking won’t instantly solve Ukraine’s war woes

The president said he and Gen Zaluzhnyi had a “frank conversation” about the changes needed in the army, and that he thanked the general for defending Ukraine from Russia.

The new army chief, Gen Syrskyi, has experience of both defensive and offensive warfare, Mr Zelensky said.

He led the defence of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

He then masterminded Ukraine’s surprise and successful counter-attack in Kharkiv that summer, and has since been serving as the head of military operations in eastern Ukraine – one of the two main axes in Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

“We must make this year a crucial one,” Mr Zelensky said.

“Crucial for achieving Ukraine’s goals in the war. Russia cannot simply accept the existence of an independent Ukraine – the very fact of our country’s independent life.”

He said his “renewal” of the army’s leadership was “not about surnames” or politics, but rather the management of Ukraine’s armed forces and the experience of battlefield commanders.

“The army’s actions must become much more technologically advanced. The generalship must be reset,” he added.

Mr Zelensky said he expected a detailed plan for the armed forces this year, taking into account the reality of the war with Russia. He said there needed to be a different approach to frontline management, mobilisation and recruitment.

Mykhailo Podolyak, who is the adviser to the head of the president’s office, said the move was needed to revise the tactics used in Ukraine’s counter-offensive last year.

He echoed Mr Zelensky’s comments about the need to prevent stagnation on the frontline and to find high-tech solutions.

But there has been mixed reaction so far to the announcement, with opposition MPs the first to criticise the shake-up.

Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko thanked Gen Zaluzhnyi for his service to Ukraine, adding that he hoped the authorities would justify the changes.

Oleksii Honcharenko, an MP from the opposition party led by former President Petro Poroshenko, said the move was “a huge mistake” by the president. He said it would carry risks for the country, adding: “We will all have to pay for this mistake.”

Another opposition MP, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko from the Batkivschina party, said the military leadership during the war “is something that we must preserve, support, not criticise, but help in every possible way”.

Ukraine’s defence minister, Rustem Umerov, thanked Gen Zaluzhnyi in a statement, saying:

“General Valerii Zaluzhnyi had one of the most difficult tasks – to lead the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the Great War with Russia.

“But war does not remain the same. War changes and demands change. Battles 2022, 2023 and 2024 are three different realities. 2024 will bring new changes, for which we must be ready. New approaches, new strategies are needed.

“Today, a decision was made on the need to change the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

“I am sincerely grateful to Valerii Fedorovych for all his achievements and victories.”

Big Tech jobs have lost their glamour

Once the pinnacle of employment, Big Tech is finding its star tarnishing among layoffs and cutbacks. Workers across the industry are questioning their next moves.

Michael says he joined his Big Tech company in spring 2021 to test himself against the best software engineers in the world. “They do some very complicated projects: when you join them, you’re supposedly joining the best. You feel you’re working somewhere that raises your brand value as a person.”

Initially, the move went well. Michael says he got to work on high-impact features, testing his mettle against senior developers. The perks also helped. “It was a typical Big Tech company in that it offered huge benefits, with a great work-life balance,” he says. “Compared to my past employers, it was a breeze: there was free food, wellness expenses and health insurance. And the people were amazing – it was a nice working environment, if at times a little cult-ish.”

But the first sign something was changing came in March 2022. Amid the economic slowdown, the free laundry service was taken away. Soon there were more cuts – the timing of dinners for workers putting in late hours changed, conflicting with the final free shuttle scheduled to leave the New York campus. Employees had to effectively pick between free food and a free ride home. “Folks complained – particularly the younger ones. It was a very pampered place.”

Months later, cuts to perks were followed by cuts to jobs – Michael was one of 11,000 employees let go in November that year, amid a broader tech slowdown and industry-wide layoffs. His next move was to leave Big Tech entirely. He now works in “Big Finance”, for a major investment bank. It’s a job that still offers interesting projects, says Michael, and he feels he has comparatively greater job security. “If you’d have asked me before, I’d have said I’d work for another ‘Faang‘ company next. But there’s a world outside Big Tech.” 

Perks such as in-house fitness centres, like this one in Google Canada’s engineering headquarters, were among the amenities offered to employees (Credit: Getty Images)

Up until recently, tech roles – particularly among major players such as Meta, Alphabet and Amazon – were often considered some of the most desirable jobs available, offering candidates six-figure salaries, lavish perks and the prospect of being at innovation’s forefront. But since summer 2022, the sector has been rife with cuts, layoffs and uncertainty. In some cases, leaders have also cracked down on remote work, making the return to office a disciplinary issue.

A recovery feels distant. According to industry tracker Layoffs.fyi, 23,670 workers were laid off across 85 tech companies in January 2024 alone, including Microsoft, Amazon, eBay and Google. And it means some workers are beginning to look for jobs outside the sector they once competed to work in. 

‘Tech was the place to be’

Before layoffs, tech companies were more renowned for workplace cultures that serviced employees with free benefits and premium amenities in state-of-the art offices. But gourmet chefs and meditation rooms weren’t introduced just to keep workers on site for as long as possible – they were a means of attracting talent. Scott Dobroski, career trends expert at Indeed, in San Francisco, says candidates – particularly in tech – are attuned to employer branding and company culture. 

This changed following the pandemic. As the economy faltered in spring 2022, rising inflation and interest rates curbed companies’ growth. This initially led to hiring freezes, and then industry-wide layoffs in late 2022, which are ongoing. “Covid-19 was a once-in-a-generation event that changed companies’ trajectories, overestimating demand and sending them into hiring sprees,” says Dobroski. “After coming too strong out the gate in 2021, tech companies had to suddenly pull back their recruitment.”

I no longer feel inspired, or that ‘buzz’ when I first stepped into the office – Alessandra

The tech sector has consequently become less desirable for many workers. According to Indeed’s Best Jobs of 2024. Measured by salary, flexibility and growth, only three in its top 25 are tech roles, versus 11 in its 2023 edition.

“While tech jobs continue to command high salaries and offer above-average levels of flexible working, they’ve fallen significantly in terms of growth,” says Dobroski. “Job seekers typically want to join companies that are flourishing, in which they feel they can grow. But when layoffs are announced, that doesn’t only reduce opportunities to move in the job market – it harms employers’ reputations and signals uncertainty.”

It’s not just job seekers put off by tech roles. Current employees in the industry report feeling disenchanted.

Alessandra works for a blockchain technology firm in London. She says she chose tech as her career when she first stepped into her employer’s corporate headquarters as an intern. “I was wowed by the office – it made it feel as though tech was the place to be. It was its fast-paced and innovative nature that stood out most to me: as though I could be part of something new.”

Like many in the sector, Alessandra’s firm has been impacted by the tech slowdown. By February 2023, one of its blockchain product offerings was closed. Layoffs have continued ever since – her team has now been slashed fivefold. Employees are also mandated to be in the office three days a week – or face the consequences. “My day alternates from being super intense when it seems things are ‘taking off’, to long periods of doing absolutely nothing,” she says. 

Modern, cool offices – like Amazon’s Urban Campus in Washington, US – were part of the initial appeal of Big Tech jobs (Credit: Alamy)

Her disillusionment extends beyond her company and to the industry itself. “It’s seemingly luck whichever part of tech you fall in. Right now, AI is taking off, so everyone else feels like they’re getting left behind. It’s not just my company: the market itself doesn’t know what it needs to do to succeed, or where it’s headed. I no longer feel inspired, or that ‘buzz’ when I first stepped into the office.”

‘The glory days will be back’

Dobroski believes that excitement for jobs in the tech sector will only return once the economy fully recovers, layoffs end and companies recommence hiring en masse.

Until then, only certain roles remain coveted. “History has shown that when there’s job growth, that’s the signal there are opportunities for job seekers,” he says. “For now, there are areas within the industry that are still very attractive to tech talent, such as AI teams among both Big Tech and start-ups.”

Although he’s left the industry, Michael says he’d still work for a Big Tech firm in the future. “The benefits are great, and you’re driven to work on big problems you can one day point to and say, ‘I developed that’. The glory days will be back: a couple of years post-economic downturn and it’ll be back to 2021. Tech talent is always going to be in short supply.”

But for now, many tech workers are beginning to look elsewhere. “Most of my colleagues feel the same way: we’re working towards something that’s going nowhere,” says Alessandra. “And after seeing so many close colleagues suddenly be made redundant, or quit as a result, we’ve lost faith in what we’re trying to achieve. Most of us are planning our exit strategies from the company – and some even from the industry.”

The BBC is withholding Michael and Alessandra’s surnames for job-security concerns

Taylor Swift’s cat is allegedly worth millions

Online net worth calculators claim Taylor Swift’s cat, Olivia Benson, has a higher net worth than Swift’s partner, the NFL’s Travis Kelce. Are these calculators at all accurate?
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Taylor Swift is worth an estimated $1bn dollars (£792m) and her cats aren’t doing too poorly, either: According to Cats.com, Swift’s cat, named Olivia Benson, after Mariska Hargitay’s Law and Order: SVU character, is worth an estimated $97m (£77m). That’s more than Swift’s much-discussed beau Travis Kelce‘s estimated net worth of $40m (£32m).

Benson has earned her keep, appearing in TV commercials and in Swift’s music videos for Blank Space and Me!. As for Swift’s two other felines, Meredith Grey and Benjamin Button? There’s no publicly-available numbers for their earnings, so it’s possible Benson’s and Swift’s accumulatd wealth are what’s keeping them well-fed.

Taylor Swift’s cat, Olivia Benson, isn’t the wealthiest pet ever (Credit: Getty Images)

Swift’s alleged millionaire cat isn’t even the wealthiest pet ever, according to the report: She ranks behind both a German shepherd named Gunther VI – reportedly worth a cool $500m (£396m) – and Nala Cat, who has 4.5 million followers on Instagram. And then there’s Choupette, the cat belonging to the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld – Lagerfeld once told The Cut that Choupette had earned €3m (£2,558,207) in one year.

But are these online net worth calculators at all accurate – and where does their data even come from?

In their report, Cats.com claims to have used “data from Instagram” to come up with the net worth of celebrity pets – an approach that finance experts say is far from accurate.

Gunther VI is a German shepherd who is reportedly worth $500m (£396m) (Credit: Netflix)

Financial advisor Travis Brown is both a securities agent and an investment advisor, whose firm oversees $59 billion in assets. He tells the BBC that while coming up with someone’s net worth should be straightforward using a “simple calculation of assets minus liabilities”, it’s challenging for outsiders because that information is usually kept private. Calculating a celebrity’s net worth, or their pet’s, would require a good deal of guesswork – because outside of the celebrity’s own financial advisors or attorneys, no one is going to have the detailed financial records necessary to make that calculation, Brown explains.

Jen Reid, founder of BASE Financial Management, specializes in financial advice for both millionaires and millennials – two boxes Swift checks. Reid agrees with Brown and adds that sites – such as Idol Net Worth or Celebrity Net Worth – that claim to know the nitty gritty of a celebrity’s wealth also need to be taken with a grain of salt because you never know how much of that celebrity’s income they are spending. And when someone is earning the kind of money Taylor Swift does, says Reid, these “calculators” are likely to be even more off base. “She may have spent some of that on liabilities or other life expenses – maybe some private jets trips, travel, dinners,” Reid tells the BBC. “Or she may have invested it in assets like houses, businesses, or other equity and income producing ventures.” 

Karl Lagerfeld’s cat Choupette reportedly earned €3m (£2,558,207) in 2014 (Credit: Alamy)

But the inaccuracy of online net worth calculators – for both pets and humans – doesn’t mean celebrity animals aren’t worth something. Nala Cat has a book, a pet food brand, and a lot more to her name. Gunther VI is the star of a documentary on Netflix, which explores how he came into his enormous wealth. And animal actors (like Benson) have long been earning a decent income when working on set. According to the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), animal actors are paid a daily flat rate of $500/day (£396).

Jackie Hornung is the mom/owner of a very famous dog, Lumi, who goes by Little Bear Lumi on Instagram. He’s been on Good Morning America and can also be seen riding around New York City in Hornung’s backpack (so that he can legally ride the subway with her). Lumi hasn’t reached Benson’s alleged millionaire status, but he does earn a modest income for his work, says Hornung. “He does make money – enough to pay for his dog food and treats.”

As for Olivia Benson’s true fortune (or Meredith Grey’s or Benjamin Button’s), we may never know the accurate numbers. But that won’t stop the internet from “calculating” dubious net worth predictions for celebrities of all species.