Morning News Brief
NOEL KING, HOST:
The White House says it is quote, "engaging directly" with Russia after the world's largest meat supplier, a company called JBS, was hit by a ransomware attack.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
JBS processes more than 20% of the beef and pork sold here in the United States. Some of its plants had to be shut down after the ransomware attack. Now the company says most will be operating today, but it's warning that deliveries of some meat to wholesalers and retailers may be delayed. The White House says the company blames a criminal organization likely based in Russia.
KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is covering this story. Good morning, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: What happened to JBS?
MYRE: Well, JBS said it first detected the cyberattack on Sunday when its computers were hit in North America and Australia. So this is a huge global company. Its biggest market is here in the U.S., but it's based in Brazil, operates in 20 countries worldwide, global sales of more than $50 billion last year. Many of these meat processing facilities in the U.S. were down on Tuesday, as well as some in Canada and Australia. The company told thousands and thousands of workers to stay home. No reports of meat shortages on supermarket shelves. And a top executive in the U.S. says the company is making progress. Systems are coming back online. He expects the vast majority of their plants to be operational today; no word on whether a ransom was paid.
KING: OK. So we, again, have the White House involved in a cyberattack on a private company; not that the White House attacked the company, but they're involved in the response. I mean, is there anything that the U.S. government can actually do in these cases?
MYRE: Well, we're going to find out. I mean, it is noteworthy how quickly the Biden administration is stepping in, as it did last month with the Colonial Pipeline attack. And so this reflects its desire to send a strong public message to be actively involved. The president laid out a broad cyber strategy last month. But it's going to take time to put this in place. I spoke with Dmitri Alperovitch. He's a leading cyber expert who heads the Silverado Policy Accelerator. And he offered a couple suggestions that he considers pretty urgent.
DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: There are two things that the Biden administration should do immediately. The first is go after the cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin. That is the oxygen that fuels this ransomware fire.
MYRE: So criminal hackers get paid in cryptocurrencies because it's anonymous. It's very hard to trace. And so stopping it won't be easy. It will require some sort of financial regulation, perhaps laws by Congress. But then he cited an even bigger challenge.
ALPEROVITCH: The second thing is we have to do some deterrence. The vast majority of these criminals are operating out of Russia. And while there's no evidence that the Russian government is involved in these attacks, they're certainly aware of many of these criminals. And we have to confront Putin and demand that these people be arrested and prosecuted right away.
MYRE: And this will be even harder. Russia has always denied involvement or responsibility, but Biden will have this chance to confront Putin face to face at a summit in two weeks in Geneva, Switzerland.
KING: Yeah, that'll be interesting. Let me ask you a big-picture question. We have been hearing about ransom attacks for years intermittently, but now we hear about them all the time. Are there just more of them?
MYRE: Yes, there are. But it's also just the significance of them. And I've been going to a national security conference for years, these long all-day events. And maybe late in the afternoon there's a conference on ransomware and critical infrastructure. And that's when a lot of people will sort of step out and get some coffee and a doughnut. It can be pretty dry stuff. But now we're hitting this critical mass. We've seen that in the past year with hospitals hit while they're dealing with COVID, the Colonial Pipeline attack that led to gasoline shortages and now this attack on the meat plants.
KING: OK, Greg Myre, national security correspondent. Thanks so much, Greg.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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KING: Michigan is reopening.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has lifted restrictions on outdoor events and plans to end almost all COVID orders by July 1, which is a symbol of how quickly conditions across the United States have changed. Just a month or so ago, Michigan faced a surge in cases and deaths.
KING: Quinn Klinefelter from member station WDET in Detroit is following this story. Good morning, Quinn.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Hi there.
KING: Things were really bad in Michigan. I remember reporting about that on this very show. What changed so quickly? Why are restrictions being lifted now?
KLINEFELTER: Well, as Steve was saying, just over a month ago, Michigan led the nation in per capita cases of COVID-19. And Governor Gretchen Whitmer was beseeching the Biden administration to surge more vaccine to the state. But a couple things did happen. Vaccines became more plentiful, more vaccine sites became available, and the number of cases started steadily dropping. Then the CDC issued new guidelines that those who were vaccinated did not have to wear a mask outdoors or indoors. And Whitmer says that changed the landscape. She had tied easing COVID restrictions to the percentage of people that had received a vaccine shot. It was a way to incentivize getting more people inoculated. But about two weeks ago at a news conference, the governor revised that timetable, and she said those who were vaccinated could forget face coverings and look forward to a return to a normal life.
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GRETCHEN WHITMER: We will be able to sing at church, dance at weddings, cheer at games, hug each other and laugh together. I know that that is welcome news to so many.
KING: But there are still some restrictions in place in Michigan, I would imagine.
KLINEFELTER: Yes, for at least the next month. Indoor settings like bars and restaurants can only open at 50% capacity for now, and those who are not fully vaccinated are still required to wear a mask, although it's a bit unclear if establishments can really verify whether somebody has been vaccinated or not. And businesses can decide whether or not they want to mandate that their employees wear a mask. But Whitmer says unless something unforeseen happens in the meantime, everything should open with no restrictions by the Fourth of July. But there are some restrictions still in place for a few weeks.
KING: Yeah. I remember over the summer last summer, Michigan had some of the toughest COVID rules and restrictions in the country, and then the governor came under immense pressure to roll them back, didn't she?
KLINEFELTER: She did very much. In fact, when the pandemic lockdowns began last year, politicians, including former President Trump, were telling Whitmer to, quote, "free" Michigan. The Republican-controlled legislature here sued to take away her authority to unilaterally make restrictions. And with the state's economy hit so hard by the pandemic, business groups have been pushing Whitmer to ease the mask and capacity mandates so they have a chance at earning back some of their badly needed revenue. But when I talk to people on the streets in cities like Detroit, many say they worry this is all happening too soon. Many Detroiters have either had COVID themselves or they know somebody who've died from it. And Whitmer says she understands this is going to be a true sea change in the public health posture towards COVID.
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WHITMER: After a year of living with COVID and with masks and distancing and hand-washing, I know how jarring any change to our daily lives feel. In this time of transition, I'm asking that people extend one another a little bit of grace.
KLINEFELTER: But along with grace, the state at every turn continues promoting vaccinations, and they're having mixed success. More than half of Michigan's population has had at least one dose of vaccine, but the pace of inoculations has kind of plateaued. And in the state's largest city, Detroit, only about a third of residents have been vaccinated.
KING: A third. Quinn Klinefelter, reporter with WDET in Detroit. Thank you, Quinn.
KLINEFELTER: Thank you.
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KING: All right. The Tokyo Olympics are about seven weeks away from starting.
INSKEEP: And the first group of international athletes has already arrived in Japan. They are players from Australia's national women's softball team, and they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Japan has started vaccinating its own athletes, but the country is struggling with the latest outbreak. And some doctors, newspapers and Japanese citizens are asking the government to call off the games.
KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us this morning from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So Olympic organizers have been insisting that the games will be safe this year. How can they ensure that?
KUHN: Organizers say these games are going to be taking place inside a bubble, and those who are inside the bubble will be strictly separated from the general public. There will be no overseas spectators in the stands, possibly no domestic ones either. And athletes will be tested daily. The officials argue that many international sporting events have been safely held, and they can do it, too. And the government claims that they have secured 80% of the roughly 7,000 doctors and medical staff needed for the games. But they also had to lower that target from an initial 10,000.
KING: OK, so the organizers are doing a lot, possibly even the most. And yet there are still critics. There are still people saying we don't want this to happen.
KUHN: Yeah. Several Japanese medical groups say the games could spark another wave of infections, it could be a super spreader event and they should be called off. There are others, including authors of a recent New England Medical Journal article, who say that, you know, the Olympics are not following the best practices for sporting events. For example, Olympic athletes will be staying more than one to a room. They're supposed to supply their own face masks. They have to sign these waivers that absolve the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, of any responsibility for COVID risks. Now, last week, Naoto Ueyama, who is chairman of the Japan Doctors Union, described this nightmare scenario in which athletes bring mutant strains of the virus from all over the world to Tokyo. Let's hear him speak through an interpreter.
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NAOTO UEYAMA: (Through interpreter) If such a situation where to arise, it could indeed even mean a Tokyo Olympic strain of the virus being named in this way, which would be a huge tragedy and something which would be the target of criticism even for 100 years to come.
MYRE: Now, he's not saying that the Olympics will definitely spawn a new mutation of the virus, but it's certainly a possibility that has many doctors worried.
KING: Sure. And variants have everybody worried at this point. I wonder, the athletes who have already gotten to Japan, how are they preparing? How is it different from normal?
KUHN: Well, the Aussie women softballers are basically going to be confined to their hotel and their training fields. They're going to be in about one of 500 towns that have signed up to host the Olympic training camps. But many of these towns have had to cancel because they don't have the medical resources for the Olympic athletes. Japan's 2,500 strong Olympic delegation just got started vaccinating yesterday. The IOC says 80% of athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, although athletes will actually not be required to be vaccinated.
KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you, Anthony.
KUHN: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.