Tag Archives: intelligence

Your weather tweets are showing your climate amnesia

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This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Every time someone in a position of power (for example) says that a cold snap in winter proves that climate change is not a thing, a dutiful chorus responds with a familiar refrain: Weather is not climate. Weather happens on the scale of days or weeks, over a distance relevant to cities or states. Climate happens over decades, centuries even, to an entire planet.

The problem is, guess what timescale and space-scale people live on?

The question of what can make human beings understand climate change is literally an existential one. It’s complicated by humans’ pathetically short lifespan and their attention-span, roughly akin to that of a cat in a laser-pointer QA lab. How can anyone expect people to grasp the planetary, millennium-encompassing implications of their half-remembered actions? There’s bad news on that front, and as is customary with bad news, it comes from Twitter.

From a database of 2.18 billion tweets sent by 12.8 million people in the continental U.S. — stripped of all identifying information except for date and location — a team of climate researchers isolated the ones that talked about the weather. Specifically, they looked for tweets talking about whether it was hot or cold. And then they compared the volume of those tweets to the “reference temperature” for the county where they originated; which is to say, they looked at historical data for whether that county was seeing an unusual number of hot or cold days over time.

In one respect, the researchers found what you might intuit. People bitch about the weather when the weather’s bad. But then, curiously, they stop. What used to seem extreme starts to seem normal. “If you have a recent history where you have abnormally warm or colder temperatures, that reduces the probability you’ll tweet about the weather,” says Fran Moore, an environmental scientist at UC Davis and lead author of a paper about this in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not that people get used to that new normal, though. They just get sort of blind to it. Moore and her colleagues ran the non-weather tweets from their Twitter corpus through two different automated systems for sentiment analysis, the Valence Aware Dictionary for sEntiment Reasoning (VADER) and the much less cool-ly initialized Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. Sentiment analysis is still a field where smart people could disagree on whether it works, but even so, both analyses of the emotional content of these tweet streams showed the same thing. “People stop tweeting about these unusual temperatures,” Moore says, “but as best we can tell, the temperatures are still making them kind of miserable.” Yes, miserable even for Twitter.

It has been about a century since people began pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in earnest. Climate researchers rely on millennia-old data like tree rings and ice cores to show change. But, Moore says, it takes just about five years for people to forget what used to be normal. The cartoonist Randall Munroe had it right in a 2013 XKCD strip: “What used to be normal now feels too cold.” And that worries scientists like Moore, because it might mean that people essentially get amnesia when it comes to climate change. The variation is too subtle for anyone to notice or do anything about — until it’s not, when it’s too late. Which, arguably, is now.

Broadly this idea is called “shifting baseline syndrome.” As happens a lot when it comes to ecological disasters, the ocean researchers noticed it first. As commercial fisheries fall apart, what constitutes a “large catch” gets defined downward, as the marine biologist Daniel Pauly wrote in 1995. As the overall climate takes on the quality of non-stationarity — where past performance no longer predicts future events — memory gets shorter and shorter. It’s not historical, nor generational, nor even extending as far back as childhood; all we’re left with is now.

Or maybe not. Don’t panic. “It’s an important finding to see what they call the remarkability, the noticeability, of these unusual weather conditions tends to decline over time,” says Peter Howe, a geographer at Utah State University who studies people’s understanding of climate. “The effect they’re finding is real. What it poses are some interesting questions about how that relates to perceptions and opinions.” In Howe’s own work, which uses survey data as opposed to the clever expediency of social media, people in 89 different countries have been able to tell when the overall temperatures were going up.

Weirder still, the weather didn’t change people’s minds about climate change as much as the other way ‘round. People who understood that human activities were warming the planet were more likely to perceive weather events as being related to climate change. Those who didn’t, didn’t. And people’s opinion about climate change correlates with nothing so highly as their political affiliation. “Our pre-existing belief about the issue, driven by political factors and other things, shapes what we think we’ve experienced,” Howe says.

Yet even that baseline is shifting. Data from surveys conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show a marked change over the last five years. Since 2013, the number of Americans who are worried about climate change has gone up 16 percentage points, to nearly 70 percent overall. The number who think it’s human-caused has gone up 15, to 62 percent. Those trends hold across the survey — and across political leanings, as well. So, sure, 95 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats are “very” or “somewhat worried” about global warming. But so are 32 percent of conservative Republicans, up from just 14 percent five years ago.

The quinquennial National Climate Assessment and the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the National Intelligence Community emphasized the present, ongoing dangers posed by human-caused climate change, from extreme weather to deaths from heat to disease outbreaks to displaced persons. More than a fifth of all the corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified to be drought-tolerant, suggesting that no matter what farmers think about climate change, they know the climate is changing. Even petrochemical companies acknowledge in court, on the record, that climate change is real, dangerous, and human-caused (while continuing to pump out of the ground and sell the chemicals that cause it — arguably their fiduciary duty, genocidal though it may be).

Despite the mnemonic frame-drag suggested by Moore’s Twitter research, most of the country is on board with getting something done about climate change, whether it’s a Green New Deal or some other attack on the problem. As a climate scientist (herself something of a skeptic) observed to Andrew Revkin in National Geographic, the last bastion of disbelief is the White House — which is, let’s be honest, one hell of a bastion.

The next step, then, is to figure out what makes people believe humans are changing the climate even as their own baseline shifts. “We’re not trying to say that this result means that no one’s going to believe in climate change, because people’s own experiences of weather are not the dominant piece of information they use,” Moore says. “What you could say is that you can’t expect people’s experience of weather alone is going to passively convince them.” So next she’s going to try to figure out if events other than temperature change might have more of an impact — wildfires, hurricanes, or coastal flooding. Weather definitely isn’t climate, but extreme weather may still change some minds.

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Your weather tweets are showing your climate amnesia

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The EPA hired GOP oppo firm because it was sick of ‘fake news’

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Mother Jones first reported in December 2017 that the Environmental Protection Agency had hired a hyperpartisan GOP opposition research firm known for its aggressive tactics to handle the agency’s news-clipping work, the politically appointed flacks in the agency’s press office insisted the decision was about saving money and that the hiring had been handled through normal procurement channels. As we reported Thursday, we now know that was not the case. Internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that political appointees in the EPA press office demanded that career staff push through the hiring of Definers Public Affairs — best known for its work for Republican campaigns and recently for its role as Facebook’s attack dog on Capitol Hill, which included attempts to smear George Soros for his critiques of the social-media network.

Now, thanks to another batch of internal emails, we have even more evidence that the motivation for hiring Definers came from the top agency political appointees who were ticked off at the old service because it was collecting too many news clips that portrayed then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt negatively.

News clipping services are used by public relations offices both inside and out of the government to help keep track of the wide constellation of media outlets that might be talking about a topic of interest. The product they create — usually a roundup of headlines or excerpts — is an internal document designed to keep those inside the agency informed about press coverage. Liz Purchia, a press staffer in Obama’s EPA, noted that “cherry-picking the clips so you only saw the good ones” isn’t typically done, because it “doesn’t give you a realistic picture.” The collection of clippings is not usually publicly distributed.

But according to the new batch of emails, also obtained through FOIA, top EPA political staff were sick of the previous news clipping service’s propensity to include headlines that tended to make the controversial new appointee, who brought to the EPA a Rolodex of industry connections, look bad.

“Is it necessary to include all the negative headlines that go out to everyone?” complained Samantha Dravis, the agency’s associate administrator for policy, in a March 17, 2017, email to John Konkus, who now leads the EPA’s press office. “I could care less what Al Gore thinks about Scott Pruitt’s position — why is that news?? Who puts this together?”

Dravis, who previously had worked as general counsel for the Republican Attorney General’s Association, which Pruitt had run before coming to Washington, was objecting to the inclusion of a link to a PBS News Hour interview with former Vice President Al Gore from the night before, in a daily news roundup.

Konkus, who had previously worked at Republican consulting firm Jamestown Associates, replied that he agreed and that this was an ongoing problem with the news clipping service at the time, a Virginia-based company called Bulletin Intelligence that had provided news clip roundups to the EPA and a number of other federal agencies for several years.

“We had them on the phone about a week ago complaining about the tilt and they said they would change,” he wrote. “They haven’t.”

Don Benton, a White House senior adviser to the EPA, forwarded the whole chain of complaints to his counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security, a political operative named Frank Wuco. A former military consultant, Wuco once created an alter-ego Islamic terrorist character that he featured in videos and as a host for radio shows in which he warned of the danger of Islamic extremism. Benton told Wuco that a scientist had told him that Bulletin Intelligence disseminates “fake news” and suggested Wuco “look into it.” The email was sent to Wuco’s private email address. Wuco’s reply, if any, was not included in the FOIA materials.

Neither Wuco nor Benton replied to a request for comment on the email exchange.

This was early in the Trump administration, but the aggressive and overtly partisan strategy eventually carried over into the EPA’s public operations. The EPA generated even more negative headlines for itself by blocking reporters from events, trying to plant negative stories about EPA reporters in conservative outlets, scripting interviews with Fox News, and calling reporters names, like when then-spokesperson Jahan Wilcox called a reporter a “piece of trash.” The EPA’s spending on Pruitt’s travel, his security, and his soundproof phone booth were already under scrutiny when the EPA approved a contract with Definers.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, told Mother Jones: One of the main reasons that we have a corps of career government contract personnel is to keep the political people away from giving the taxpayer money out to political cronies.”

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The EPA hired GOP oppo firm because it was sick of ‘fake news’

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Genome – Matt Ridley



The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Matt Ridley

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: March 26, 2013

Publisher: Harper Perennial


The genome's been mapped. But what does it mean? Arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the new century, the mapping of the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome raises almost as many questions as it answers. Questions that will profoundly impact the way we think about disease, about longevity, and about free will. Questions that will affect the rest of your life. Genome offers extraordinary insight into the ramifications of this incredible breakthrough. By picking one newly discovered gene from each pair of chromosomes and telling its story, Matt Ridley recounts the history of our species and its ancestors from the dawn of life to the brink of future medicine. From Huntington's disease to cancer, from the applications of gene therapy to the horrors of eugenics, Matt Ridley probes the scientific, philosophical, and moral issues arising as a result of the mapping of the genome. It will help you understand what this scientific milestone means for you, for your children, and for humankind.

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Genome – Matt Ridley

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Report: Climate change could flush your savings

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Businesses say risks to their bottom line from climate climate add up to tens of billions of dollars. That may seem like a lot, but their actual risks to business are at least 100 times higher, according to a study just published in Nature Climate Change. Trillions, instead of billions.

The mismatch between those numbers could liquify the money you’ve been saving for retirement. Company climate plans “give little inkling that up to 30 percent of manageable assets globally may be at risk,” researchers wrote.

Climate change could soon be “the defining issue for financial stability” according to Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and former head of the Financial Stability Board, the international body established to make recommendations to prevent financial collapse. To take that out of econo-speak: Failure to fully comprehend climate risks — droughts, floods, heat waves — could lead to an economic crisis that makes the Great Recession look like a joyride.

The researchers had access to a treasure trove of data, environmental disclosures from 1,630 companies worth more than more than two-thirds of the world’s stock markets added together. It’s the biggest and most comprehensive study of this kind ever done. Some 83 percent of businesses said that they faced real risks from climate change, but only 21 percent had quantified those risks.

It’s fascinating to see how the one in five companies that have crunched the numbers anticipate climate change will affect their business. For example, Samsung estimated that if a cyclone shut down one of their semiconductor factories for a single day it would cost $110 million. And when monsoon floods stopped Hewlett-Packard’s hard drive manufacturing in Thailand, back in 2011, it cost the company $4 billion.

“It was just endlessly surprising, as I did the data analysis, to see all the ways that companies were being affected, and how they were adapting,” said Allie Goldstein a scientist at Conservation International and lead author on the paper.

Airlines are preparing plans to carry fewer passengers and cargo on extreme heat days, because warmer air temperature generate less lift for their planes. Rubber companies, concerned about droughts killing rubber trees, are investing in synthetic alternatives. The Colombian utility Celsia SA is planting thousands of trees upstream from its hydroelectric dams to improve the watershed and hedge against declining rainfall. The Japanese conglomerate Hitachi is installing anti-flood bulkheads in its factories.

“There’s a real thought and creativity going into this, and coming up with an amazing diversity of solutions,” said Will Turner, an executive at Conservation International who also worked on the study. “That’s the positive. The negative is that it’s all incremental progress — it represents just a nascent understanding of the risks.”

You might give less credence to a study like this, because it suggests a need for more action on climate change and comes from an environmental organization that pushes for more action on climate change. But the estimates of investor risk come from the Economist Intelligence Unit, academic research, and the World Economic Forum, not Conservation International. In this paper, the researchers simply tallied up all the adaptations companies are making.

“I always encourage people to be smart consumers of science and look at the methods and also who is doing it,” Goldstein said. “They will find that these findings are based on real data, and real results, not preconceived notions.”

It’s easy to think that average people have little influence over major companies But we have to think differently, if we want to prevent a financial meltdown as climate disasters begin to pile up, Goldstein said. “There’s a tendency to think that this is someone else’s problem, but if you are an employee, or a customer, or an investor, I’d encourage people to think of this as something they can influence themselves, by making a call or asking a question.”

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Report: Climate change could flush your savings

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Inside Animal Hearts and Minds – Belinda Recio


Inside Animal Hearts and Minds

Bears That Count, Goats That Surf, and Other True Stories of Animal Intelligence and Emotion

Belinda Recio

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Seller: Perseus Books, LLC

As Charles Darwin suggested more than a century ago, the differences between animals and humans are “of degree and not of kind.” Not long ago, ethologists denied that animals had emotions or true intelligence. Now, we know that rats laugh when tickled, magpies mourn as they cover the departed with greenery, female whales travel thousands of miles for annual reunions with their gal pals, seals navigate by the stars, bears hum when happy, and crows slide down snowy rooftops for fun. In engaging text, photographs, and infographics, Inside Animal Hearts and Minds showcases fascinating and heart-warming examples of animal emotion and cognition that will foster wonder and empathy. Learn about an orangutan who does “macramé,” monkeys that understand the concept of money, and rats that choose friendship over food. Even language, math, and logic are no longer exclusive to humans. Prairie dogs have their own complex vocabularies to describe human intruders, parrots name their chicks, sea lions appear capable of deductive thinking akin to a ten-year-old child’s, and bears, lemurs, parrots, and other animals demonstrate numerical cognition. In a world where a growing body of scientific research is closing the gap between the human and non-human, Inside Animal Hearts and Minds invites us to change the way we view animals, the world, and our place in it.

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Inside Animal Hearts and Minds – Belinda Recio

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Physics – Scientific American Editors


New Frontiers
Scientific American Editors

Genre: Physics

Price: $4.99

Publish Date: May 22, 2017

Publisher: Scientific American

Seller: Macmillan / Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC

In the world of physics, very little in the universe is what it first appears to be. And science fiction has imagined some pretty wild ideas about how the universe could work – from hidden extra dimensions in Interstellar to life as a mental projection in The Matrix. But these imaginings seem downright tame compared with the mind-bending science now coming out of physics and astronomy, and in this eBook, Physics: New Frontiers, we look at the strange and fascinating discoveries shaping (and reshaping) the field today. In the world of astrophysics, the weirdness begins at the moment of creation. In “The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time,” the authors discuss theories of what might have come before the big bang. Could our 3-D universe have sprung from the formation of a black hole in a 4-D cosmos? The math says: maybe. Later, in “The Giant Bubbles of the Milky Way,” the authors describe massive structures dubbed “Fermi bubbles” at its center – structures that no one noticed until recently. Technological innovations make much of this new science possible, as we see again in “Neutrinos at the Ends of the Earth,” where 5,000-odd sensors frozen deep within a cubic kilometer of ice in Antarctica aim to catch neutrinos in order to study distant cosmic phenomena. Scientists are also dissecting molecules with the most powerful x-ray laser in the world, as explored in “The Ultimate X-ray Machine.” Even our most fundamental notions of what reality is are up for debate, as examined in “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” and the aptly named “What Is Real?” in which the authors question whether particles are indeed material things at all. While all of this abstraction might seem like a fun exercise in mental gymnastics, living things must also abide by the laws of physics, which, according to “The Limits of Intelligence,” may prevent our brains from evolving further. Then again, as we’ve learned, things could be different than they appear…

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Physics – Scientific American Editors

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The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System

Mother Jones

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On Monday, the Intercept published a classified internal NSA document noting that Russian military intelligence mounted an operation to hack at least one US voting software supplier—which provided software related to voter registration files—in the months prior to last year’s presidential contest. It has previously been reported that Russia attempted to hack into voter registration systems, but this NSA document provides details of how one such operation occurred.

According to the Intercept:

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the US election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.

While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying “raw” intelligence on which the analysis is based. A US intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.

The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document:

Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.

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The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System

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Donald Trump Doesn’t Like Dealing With Peasants

Mother Jones

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The Washington Post reports that President Trump prefers to receive his daily intelligence briefing in comic book form, but we already knew that. However, this is new to me:

Most mornings, often at 10:30, sometimes earlier, Trump sits behind the historic Resolute desk and, with a fresh Diet Coke fizzing and papers piled high, receives top-secret updates on the world’s hot spots. The president interrupts his briefers with questions but also with random asides. He asks that the top brass of the intelligence community be present, and he demands brevity.

….Though career intelligence analysts often take the lead in delivering them, Trump likes his political appointees — Pompeo and Coats — to attend, along with national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Pompeo and Coats, whose offices are in McLean, Va., have had to redesign their daily routines so that they spend many mornings at the White House.

It’s appropriate for the intelligence chiefs to be present periodically. But forcing two of them to blow off an hour or two of their time every day isn’t. It’s dumb management.

So why does Trump do it? Mostly for ego and dominance reasons, I suppose. He might also still be convinced that the intelligence community is his enemy and will play games with the orders he gives them. So he wants his own appointees present to make sure they do what he wants.

These are both the marks of an insecure leader. It’s not a good sign.

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Donald Trump Doesn’t Like Dealing With Peasants

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The Intel Community Needs to Fire Someone—Fast

Mother Jones

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The US intelligence community has screwed up. Someone (or multiple someones) passed along British intel about the Manchester bombing to US reporters before it had been publicly released. This is bad for at least three reasons:

It quite possibly impedes an active investigation.
It pisses off British intelligence.
It gives Donald Trump a very reasonable excuse to demand an investigation into leaking from our intelligence agencies.

This is a bit like the reporters who fail to verify their stories properly and end up making mistakes. It might not happen very often, but it gives Trump ammunition for his claims that the media is out to get him with endless fake news. For that reason, reporters in the age of Trump need to be doubly careful about what they write.

If the intel community is smart, it will figure out where these leaks came from and fire someone fast. But are they smart?

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The Intel Community Needs to Fire Someone—Fast

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British Officials Angered by US Leaks of Manchester Intelligence to Media

Mother Jones

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High-ranking British officials, including Home Secretary Amber Rudd, are speaking out against the United States, after a number of confidential details in the ongoing investigation into Monday’s Manchester attack appeared in American media before British authorities confirmed them.

“The British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise,” Rudd said in an interview Wednesday with BBC’s Radio 4. “So it is irritating if it gets released from other sources.”

“I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again,” she continued.

The information in question includes the suspected attacker’s identity and the detail that the attack was likely a suicide-bombing—intel that emerged in American reports hours before authorities publicly verified them. BuzzFeed reports CBS News and the Associated Press were among the American media to cite anonymous US intelligence officials in the reports in question. Notice the time-stamps below:

Meanwhile, British news outlets adhered to police exhortations and waited to disclose such details until officials were ready to reveal them.

Rudd’s admonishment comes as the latest setback in the United States’ intelligence-sharing relationships with key allies, after the Washington Post reported last week that President Donald Trump divulged highly classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister during a meeting in the Oval Office. The bombshell allegation raised concern that Trump’s reveal could jeopardize relations with the intelligence-sharing partner—later reported to be Israel—who relayed the information to the United States in the first place.

On Monday, Trump stepped into it again, when he appeared to inadvertently confirm that the source was in fact Israel.

“This is a leaky administration,” Thomas Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC told the Guardian. “What does that mean for sharing information we need to going forward? The UK and Israel are probably our two biggest sources of intelligence. Now they’re thinking, ‘Is this going to cause us damage every time we share?'”

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British Officials Angered by US Leaks of Manchester Intelligence to Media

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