Meet the ex-Soviet intel officer at Don Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting - Axios

Meet the ex-Soviet intel officer at Don Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Rinat Akhmetshin, the former Soviet intelligence officer who attended a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, is a superlative Washington political operator who over the last two decades has repeatedly been at the center of cases involving corruption, dictators and sometimes war.

Akhmetshin was apparently hired to work with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met with Trump on June 9, 2016, in a lobbying effort against the Magnitsky Act, a congressional measure that sanctions Russia and Russian figures. He confirmed to the AP on Friday morning that he was in that meeting, saying: "I never thought this would be such a big deal to be honest."

I met Akhmetshin in 1998 in the Kazakhstan city of Almaty, where I was writing for The New York Times and he was representing the country's opposition leader in a quixotic effort to oust President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Over the subsequent months, Akhmetshin leaked me a trove of documents that linked Nazarbayev to millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts — payments from international oil companies working in the Central Asian republic. The result was a scoop in the paper, a high-profile investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and, later, a thick section of a book I wrote about those years on the Caspian Sea.

How he made his mark: At that time and over the subsequent years, Akhmetshin proved again and again to be surprisingly adept at influencing politics in Washington, DC, not his homeland. A profane and fast talker who likes to dress well, a quick study who understands the world of geopolitics, local politics and technology, he managed to ingratiate himself with important members of Congress, and through them and his contacts with reporters single-handedly tarnished Nazarbayev's and Kazakhstan's reputation. If today the Kazakh leader and his country have reputations for chronic corruption, a primary reason is Akhmetshin.

Akhmetshin openly described his years as a military counter-intelligence officer, serving in Afghanistan. He ultimately took American citizenship. As we met again and again over the years, he represented opposition figures in Ukraine and Afghanistan, too. I never found him having cultivated the man in power anywhere. In a world in which no one is clean, Akhmetshin was someone you could trust.

The original NBC News reports suggested that Akhmetshin's intelligence past somehow has rolled forward until now, putting Russian spies in the same room with Donald Trump, Jr. Nothing I picked up in numerous intense reporting experiences with Akhmetshin over the years — in the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. — suggested any current such relationships.

Last year, Akhmetshin took on clients attempting to tarnish Bill Browder, the former high-rolling American investor in Moscow and defender of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only turned on the Russian president when he kicked him out of the country. Browder has since become one of Putin's fiercest critics, driven by the murder of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow prison.

Four days after the Trump Tower meeting, Akhmetshin was responsible for arranging the high-profile showing of a revisionist anti-Magnitsky film at Washington, DC's Newseum.

Akhmetshin, reached by cell phone in Europe where he said he is surfing with family, said "there was nothing really" to the meeting. He said he was just going to dinner and preferred not to talk further about the incident. I asked how it was that he was yet again at the center of events. "Just lucky, I guess," he said.


Lyft will develop its own autonomous driving tech

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Doubling down on its investment in self-driving cars, ride-hailing company Lyft is set to open a new office in Silicon Valley that will focus on autonomous driving tech. Named after the highest level of autonomous driving — Level 5 — the facility will house several hundred employees by the end of 2017.

In-house tech: Until now, Lyft's self-driving car efforts have been limited to working with other technology makers by providing them access to its ride-hailing network and data via its Open Platform. But now the company plans to develop its own technologies to tackle mapping, perception, localization, path planning, and motion control. Already, 10% of the company's engineers are working on autonomous driving tech, says Lyft.

Why it matters: Lyft's new move is not only a significant increase in its investment in self-driving cars, but it's also turning into a more direct competitor to its partners like Waymo and GM, which are developing their own versions of autonomous driving tech.

Open approach: Lyft says it plans to make some of its technology and resources available to its platform partners. It also plans to contribute to the broader industry by publicly releasing some data, publishing research papers, and opening access to its network for research, according to Luc Vincent, Lyft's head of autonomous driving, though it's not made concrete plans yet.

Future drivers: Lyft says that it will always employ drivers in some capacity even when self-driving cars become a reality—either to drive in situations in which autonomous systems can't, or to fulfill other functions. This echoes the predictions of other tech leaders, who have said that while self-driving cars will eliminate driving jobs, they will give rise to a slew of new jobs.

Planned testing: Lyft says it's still on track to roll out a pilot program in partnership with self-driving car startup nuTonomy later this year in Boston. It's also still planning to debut a program with GM, though it's unclear when this will happen. Company execs also declined to comment on Lyft's plans to get a self-driving car testing permit for its home state of California.


Researchers push for mandatory black boxes on robots

Creative Commons

Researchers in the U.K. are suggesting that — like aircraft — robots be equipped with a black box that records their decisions, the rationale behind them, and their step-by-step actions, per the Guardian. The proposal is a half-way solution to a growing push in the field for "explainable artificial intelligence," or AI with which you can engage in robust discussion about its opinions.

Alan Winfield, a professor at the University of the West of England, and Marina Jirotka, a professor at Oxford University, are proposing the "ethical black box" as a step toward understanding accidents involving robots and AI-backed systems. They were to argue the case for such mandatory systems at a conference Thursday at the University of Surrey.

Why it matters: Winfield argues, "Serious accidents will need investigating, but what do you do if an accident investigator turns up and discovers there is no internal datalog, no record of what the robot was doing at the time of the accident? It'll be more or less impossible to tell what happened."


What a world without drivers will look like


What will it look like when fully autonomous vehicles take over the roads? Forrester has some predictions in a new report:

  • Platoons of autonomous trucks will replace human-driven freight, especially on long-haul routes, as soon as it is technologically and legally possible. (David wrote about the implications of this a while back.)
  • Your insurance bill may stay high. Sure, human error will be taken out of the equation. But all those high-tech sensors and software will make it more difficult to decipher what's to blame when something goes wrong, per CNET. (We're not so sure about this: Other people think that the cost of insurance will be baked into the car price because drivers won't really be at fault).
  • Your commute will be bombarded with ads. Advertisers and media companies will compete for a spot inside the new vehicle experience and big brands will sponsor rides.

Bottom line: As Forrester puts it, "We predict that by 2035, the global economy will be unrecognizably different


Amazon is under investigation for inflating its prices

Peter Wynn Thompson / AP

The Federal Trade Commission is looking into claims that Amazon was deceptive about its pricing discounts, reports Reuters, citing a source close to the investigation. The probe, which was spurred by a complaint from the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, is part of the FTC's review of Amazon's agreement to acquire Whole Foods.

In a letter to the FTC, the group alleged that Amazon had been inflating the list prices on roughly 46% of its products, making Amazon's prices look like a bargain. As a result, Consumer Watchdog asked the FTC to stop Amazon from purchasing Whole Foods while the deceptive pricing continued. Amazon hit back and said the conclusions the Consumer Watchdog reached from its analysis are "flat out wrong."

Why it matters: Critics argue that Amazon's agreement to buy Whole Foods would give the e-commerce giant an unfair advantage over competitors. While there isn't an obvious antitrust angle for blocking the acquisition, other red flags raised by critics, like this one, could slow down the review.


Protests against Poland's strike on independent judges

Poznan, Poland (@OnetWiadomosci via Twitter).

Strains of populism continue to rend Europe, as a Polish government move to weaken judicial independence triggered protesting crowds on Thursday night estimated at nearly 100,000 in Warsaw and other Polish cities, per Buzzfeed.

  • The protests broke out after the Sejm, the Polish parliament, okayed a bill that would compel all 83 of the country's Supreme Court judges to resign, apart from those appointed by the ruling Law and Justice Party. They would then be replaced by the Minister of Justice. The bill must now be approved by the Senate, which could vote as early as today, and signed by President Andrzej Duda.
  • Critics say the move will be fatal stroke against Polish democracy. Duda has disputed that, and attempted to compromise by saying he will veto any bill that excludes a 60% threshold for the approval of any new judge. But some EU officials say that, should the bill become law, Poland could trigger a suspension of its voting rights within the EU.
  • Why it matters: Along with Hungary, Poland has been drifting further and further away from the democracy established a quarter century ago with Eastern Europe's break from the Soviet Union. Their shift, along with Brexit, is complicating unity on hard political questions within the already-fractious EU.

Sears makes the jump: Will sell Kenmore appliances on Amazon


"Sears Links With Amazon, Jolting Appliance Industry" — Wall Street Journal front-pager by Suzanne Kapner and Laura Stevens: "Sears... said... it will start selling its Kenmore appliances on Amazon, loosening its grip on one of its historic product lines and becoming the latest big American brand to capitulate to the online-retail giant."

Why it matters: "Amazon's rapid growth has displaced traditional stores and left even powerful brands unable to ignore it. Nike Inc., one of the biggest holdouts, recently decided to start selling directly to Amazon."


Trump admin sticks by plan to oversee fintech startups

Jacqueline Martin/AP

Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, accused of being a tool of the financial industry, is surprising critics by adopting a relatively nuanced approach to regulation of "fintech" firms, in the emerging technology-based financial services sector.

In a speech Wednesday, Noreika defended a plan put forth by his predecessor, Obama-appointee Thomas Curry, that would enforce federal rather than state regulatory predominance over fintechs. Specifically, Noreika sided with Curry's assertion of the right to issue special federal banking charters to fintech firms like peer-to-peer lenders.

Why it's surprising: Noreika represented the financial services industry before being chosen to head the OCC in a fashion that allowed him to avoid Senate confirmation. Democrats have portrayed Noreika as too close to Wall Street and pointed to how he was appointed as illustrative of the Trump Administration's desire to gut banking regulations. Now, Noreika is continuing his predecessor's desire to defend the OCC's regulatory reach.

Why it's not surprising: Noreika's support for the right to issue such charters doesn't mean he will issue them, or that he will ultimately adopt a tough regulatory stance toward financial services startups. State regulators have filed suit against the OCC, arguing that the special charters are a usurpation of their right to set banking regulations, and could serve as a means for fintech companies to avoid more onerous state rules. Noreika made clear that he will defend the federal government's authority, but did not explicitly challenge the states' concerns for how the fintechs could harm consumers.


Teen-age Burundian robot inventors vanish after U.S. competition

Washington, DC, police

Four teen-age Burundi robot inventors are still missing Thursday evening after vanishing from a prominent international competition in Washington, D.C., but two others have turned up in Canada, per Wash Post.

The Burundian youths — five boys and a girl — were last seen Tuesday evening at the competition, an event run by the American inventor Dean Kamen. Their disappearance has since attracted attention for its novelty — there is no prominent history of Burundi visitors to the U.S. claiming political asylum or otherwise disappearing into the country; nor is there a history anywhere of robot inventors violating their visas in this way.

This worried a lot of people: Some thought the teens might have met foul play: Burundi has been shaken by years of civil war, and some 400,000 people have fled the country over the last two years. But the Washington police force released photos of the teens, and on Thursday the girl and one of the boys — 16-year-old Don Charu Ingabire and 17-year-old Audrey Mwamizaki — surfaced in Canada. The police said they believe the others are safe, too.


Musk claims "verbal agreement" to build NY-DC hyper loop

The Boring Company

Elon Musk tweeted that he has received "verbal agreement" to build a super-fast, 29-minute "hyper loop" taking passengers from New York to Washington, D.C. Traveling within an airless tube, passengers could disembark or get on along the way in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There were no further immediate details, and no confirmation from any officials along the route. But, should such a system be built, it would out-perform any type of current travel options in the East.

The bottom line: The idea still seems outlandish from almost every vantage point — technology, land acquisition, expense, and so on. Yet, given Musk's foray into space and his formidable electric car company, we have learned not to underestimate Musk. He even has a rival: On July 13, a company called Hyperloop One conducted a slow test of its technology on a Nevada track and is currently looking at 11 serious proposals for where to build a working model, with the idea of reducing the number to three.

Go deeper: The idea for a hyper loop seemed fantastical when, back in 2013, Musk first proposed such a transportation system from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But since then, his Boring Company says he has completed the first section of the Los Angeles portion, and the notion has taken fire, with proposals for such loops from Chicago to Pittsburgh, Cheyanne, Wyoming, to Pueblo, Colorado2,600 proposals in all, according to one count.


Layoffs begin at Carrier plant in Indiana

It's the final day of work for more than 300 employees at Carrier's Indianapolis plant, a facility that rose to national prominence after then-candidate Trump criticised Carrier's plans to close it and ship production to Mexico. The administration reached a deal to keep 1,069 jobs at the plant for 10 years, in exchange for $7 million in incentives. But the company is moving forward with plans to move other jobs to Mexico while also investing in new labor-saving technologies.

Why it matters: The Trump Administration scored a PR victory when it won Carrier's promise to keep some jobs in Indiana, but it hasn't implemented policies, like aggressive new tariffs, that would cause multinational corporations to reconsider efforts to save money through offshoring.