Big Tech Hearings, Germany, Vietnam Outbreak: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering tech moguls getting grilled in Congress, the U.S. pulling 12,000 troops from Germany and a surprising virus surge in Vietnam.

The chief executives of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon appeared before Congress on Wednesday, grilled for more than five hours by a House of Representatives antitrust panel about the tactics that led to their dominance of the digital economy.

Appearing via videoconference, the executives — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — were asked whether their companies had harmed the economy, stifled rivals and left consumers with few choices. All denied those claims.

There were emotional speeches and technical issues. Democrats accused the companies of unfairly using their data hoards to kill off competitors, while Republicans questioned whether their platforms suppressed conservative voices.

The panel opened an investigation into the companies last year, and federal and state antitrust officials are also looking into them. But while the hearing was ripe with theater, any impact will be limited by century-old antitrust laws that are imperfect tools for corralling internet firms.

We have details on the proceedings, and you can sign up for our On Tech newsletter for more insights.

Go deeper: Mr. Bezos has been cast in a role he never wanted: Amazon’s defender in Washington. He has taken an unusually hands-off approach with policymakers, our reporters write.

What they said: We tallied how often the C.E.O.s repeated certain arguments and catchphrases, like “We are not that big” and “We are good for America.”

The United States plans to reduce its troop presence in Germany by nearly 12,000 and relocate some units to Belgium and Italy, its defense secretary announced on Wednesday. About 6,400 troops are to return to the United States.

The move is certain to rankle European leaders and anger American lawmakers who see the country’s military presence on the continent, especially in Germany, as a cornerstone of the post-World War II order.

What this means: The Pentagon’s decision, which will leave about 24,000 troops in Germany, is in keeping with President Trump’s “America First” philosophy. He has called Germany “delinquent” for not meeting its NATO commitment to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense.

Quotable: “This is so clearly a punitive move against Germany that it’s hard to see any benefit from this,” said Rachel Rizzo, the director of programs at the Truman Center for National Policy, who focuses on European security issues. She added that it “will stick in Europeans’ mind well into the future.”

Belarus said on Wednesday that more than 200 mercenaries from Russia, disguised as tourists, had infiltrated the country to disrupt its presidential election — drastically escalating a feud with its longtime ally.

Reports of a Russian mercenary force in Belarus could not be independently confirmed. They followed months of increasingly tense exchanges between Minsk and Moscow, whose leaders once bonded over their wariness of the West. Now, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has a record of blaming foreign powers for his troubles, is turning his propaganda machine on Russia.

The country’s state media said that 33 Russian fighters had been arrested. The Russian Embassy said it had not received official information about Russians being detained.

Context: Russia has long been Belarus’s main benefactor, and the nations are bound together by language, similar political systems and a shared reverence for many aspects of the former Soviet Union. But relations soured as President Vladimir Putin pushed Mr. Lukashenko to form a “union state.”

Postponed elections. Sidelined courts. A persecuted opposition. Raids on the homes of journalists.

As the coronavirus pandemic tears through Latin America and the Caribbean, killing more than 180,000 to date and destroying livelihoods, it is also undermining democracy. Leaders are using the crisis to do things that would normally be seen as authoritarian, but which are now characterized as lifesaving measures. Above, downtown Caracas, Venezuela, during lockdown.

Vietnam: It seemed like a miracle: months without a single coronavirus death, or even a local transmission. But over the weekend, the country announced that the virus was lurking after all — and spreading.

Notre-Dame: During the April 2019 fire that nearly destroyed the cathedral, hundreds of tons of lead burned, ending up in Parisian parks, buildings and playgrounds. Now some has been detected in the honey produced by urban beehives, researchers say.

Russian bounties: When President Trump spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week, he did not bring up intelligence that Russia had offered bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump said in an interview published on Wednesday.

Vatican: Chinese hackers infiltrated the Vatican’s computer networks, a private monitoring group has concluded, in an apparent espionage effort before talks over Catholicism’s status in China.

Snapshot: Above, a truck full of sheep crossing into Senegal from Mali. With Tabaski, the Senegalese version of Eid al-Adha, drawing near, the pandemic has put sacrificial sheep out of many people’s reach.

What we’re listening to: This episode of “This American Life” — which has a new partnership with The Times — on figuring out how to be apart. “We’re all learning how to be alone during the pandemic, and the one thing we can take comfort in is that everyone is in that same boat,” writes Remy Tumin, a journalist on the Briefings team.

Cook: These beef short rib rice bowls inspired by galbi, the Korean barbecued ribs, take a sharp turn away from the sweet, fruity treatment and skew savory, with warm spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric.

Read: Tana French has written seven novels, with an eighth due in October. All set in Ireland, they pull you way down rabbit holes and are haunting diversions, writes our literary critic, who has put together a guide to reading Ms. French.

Watch: Even though they were made before the pandemic, three new bold and chilling horror movies, all directed by women, have a kind of topical resonance now, with plots that deal with contagion and isolation.

At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch and do.

Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean were part of a Times reporting team that broke the story of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a secret Pentagon unit investigating unidentified flying objects, and they’ve been following it ever since. Here are excerpts from what they recently wrote about covering U.F.O.s.

We’re often asked by well-meaning associates and readers, “Do you believe in U.F.O.s?” The question sets us aback as being inappropriately personal. But in this case we have no problem responding, “No, we don’t believe in U.F.O.s.”

And to be clear: U.F.O.s don’t mean aliens. Unidentified means we don’t know what they are, only that they demonstrate capabilities that do not appear to be possible through currently available technology.

Our previous stories were relatively easy to document with Department of Defense videos of U.F.O.s and pilot eyewitness accounts backed up by Navy hazard reports of close encounters with small speeding objects.

But our latest article provided a more daunting set of challenges, since we dealt with the possible existence of retrieved materials from U.F.O.s. We were provided a series of unclassified slides showing that the program took this seriously enough to include it in numerous briefings. One slide says one of the program’s tasks was to “arrange for access to data/reports/materials from crash retrievals of A.A.V.’s,” or advanced aerospace vehicles.

Our sources told us that “A.A.V.” does not refer to vehicles made in any country — not Russian or Chinese — but is used to mean technology in the realm of the truly unexplained.


That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.

— Isabella


Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at briefing@nytimes.com.

P.S.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about the Trump administration’s confrontation with China.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: Only mammal that can fly (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Farah Stockman moves from the newsroom to the Opinion side as a writer covering foreign policy and national affairs.

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