The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill

Megan Molteni05.13.2021 06:00 AM

All pandemic long, scientists brawled over how the virus spreads. Droplets! No, aerosols! At the heart of the fight was a teensy error with huge consequences.

Image may contain Plant Light Droplets Bubbles
Photograph: Naila Ruechel

Early one morning, Linsey Marr tiptoed to her dining room table, slipped on a headset, and fired up Zoom. On her computer screen, dozens of familiar faces began to appear. She also saw a few people she didn’t know, including Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for Covid-19, and other expert advisers to the WHO. It was just past 1 pm Geneva time on April 3, 2020, but in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Marr lives with her husband and two children, dawn was just beginning to break. 

Marr is an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech and one of the few in the world who also studies infectious diseases. To her, the new coronavirus looked as if it could hang in the air, infecting anyone who breathed in enough of it. For people indoors, that posed a considerable risk. But the WHO didn’t seem to have caught on. Just days before, the organization had tweeted “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne.” That’s why Marr was skipping her usual morning workout to join 35 other aerosol scientists. They were trying to warn the WHO it was making a big mistake.

Over Zoom, they laid out the case. They ticked through a growing list of superspreading events in restaurants, call centers, cruise ships, and a choir rehearsal, instances where people got sick even when they were across the room from a contagious person. The incidents contradicted the WHO’s main safety guidelines of keeping 3 to 6 feet of distance between people and frequent handwashing. If SARS-CoV-2 traveled only in large droplets that immediately fell to the ground, as the WHO was saying, then wouldn’t the distancing and the handwashing have prevented such outbreaks? Infectious air was the more likely culprit, they argued. But the WHO’s experts appeared to be unmoved. If they were going to call Covid-19 airborne, they wanted more direct evidence—proof, which could take months to gather, that the virus was abundant in the air. Meanwhile, thousands of people were falling ill every day.

On the video call, tensions rose. At one point, Lidia Morawska, a revered atmospheric physicist who had arranged the meeting, tried to explain how far infectious particles of different sizes could potentially travel. One of the WHO experts abruptly cut her off, telling her she was wrong, Marr recalls. His rudeness shocked her. “You just don’t argue with Lidia about physics,” she says.

Morawska had spent more than two decades advising a different branch of the WHO on the impacts of air pollution. When it came to flecks of soot and ash belched out by smokestacks and tailpipes, the organization readily accepted the physics she was describing—that particles of many sizes can hang aloft, travel far, and be inhaled. Now, though, the WHO’s advisers seemed to be saying those same laws didn’t apply to virus-laced respiratory particles. To them, the word airborne only applied to particles smaller than 5 microns. Trapped in their group-specific jargon, the two camps on Zoom literally couldn’t understand one another.

When the call ended, Marr sat back heavily, feeling an old frustration coiling tighter in her body. She itched to go for a run, to pound it out footfall by footfall into the pavement. “It felt like they had already made up their minds and they were just entertaining us,” she recalls. Marr was no stranger to being ignored by members of the medical establishment. Often seen as an epistemic trespasser, she was used to persevering through skepticism and outright rejection. This time, however, so much more than her ego was at stake. The beginning of a global pandemic was a terrible time to get into a fight over words. But she had an inkling that the verbal sparring was a symptom of a bigger problem—that outdated science was underpinning public health policy. She had to get through to them. But first, she had to crack the mystery of why their communication was failing so badly. 

Marr spent the first many years of her career studying air pollution, just as Morawska had. But her priorities began to change in the late 2000s, when Marr sent her oldest child off to day care. That winter, she noticed how waves of runny noses, chest colds, and flu swept through the classrooms, despite the staff’s rigorous disinfection routines. “Could these common infections actually be in the air?” she wondered. Marr picked up a few introductory medical textbooks to satisfy her curiosity. 

According to the medical canon, nearly all respiratory infections transmit through coughs or sneezes: Whenever a sick person hacks, bacteria and viruses spray out like bullets from a gun, quickly falling and sticking to any surface within a blast radius of 3 to 6 feet. If these droplets alight on a nose or mouth (or on a hand that then touches the face), they can cause an infection. Only a few diseases were thought to break this droplet rule. Measles and tuberculosis transmit a different way; they’re described as “airborne.” Those pathogens travel inside aerosols, microscopic particles that can stay suspended for hours and travel longer distances. They can spread when contagious people simply breathe.

The distinction between droplet and airborne transmission has enormous consequences. To combat droplets, a leading precaution is to wash hands frequently with soap and water. To fight infectious aerosols, the air itself is the enemy. In hospitals, that means expensive isolation wards and N95 masks for all medical staff.

The books Marr flipped through drew the line between droplets and aerosols at 5 microns. A micron is a unit of measurement equal to one-millionth of a meter. By this definition, any infectious particle smaller than 5 microns in diameter is an aerosol; anything bigger is a droplet. The more she looked, the more she found that number. The WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also listed 5 microns as the fulcrum on which the droplet-aerosol dichotomy toggled.

There was just one literally tiny problem: “The physics of it is all wrong,” Marr says. That much seemed obvious to her from everything she knew about how things move through air. Reality is far messier, with particles much larger than 5 microns staying afloat and behaving like aerosols, depending on heat, humidity, and airspeed. “I’d see the wrong number over and over again, and I just found that disturbing,” she says. The error meant that the medical community had a distorted picture of how people might get sick. 

Linsey Marr stands in front of a smog chamber in her laboratory at Virginia Tech. For years, she says, the medical establishment treated her as an outsider.Photograph: Matt Eich

Epidemiologists have long observed that most respiratory bugs require close contact to spread. Yet in that small space, a lot can happen. A sick person might cough droplets onto your face, emit small aerosols that you inhale, or shake your hand, which you then use to rub your nose. Any one of those mechanisms might transmit the virus. “Technically, it’s very hard to separate them and see which one is causing the infection,” Marr says. For long-distance infections, only the smallest particles could be to blame. Up close, though, particles of all sizes were in play. Yet, for decades, droplets were seen as the main culprit.

Marr decided to collect some data of her own. Installing air samplers in places such as day cares and airplanes, she frequently found the flu virus where the textbooks said it shouldn’t be—hiding in the air, most often in particles small enough to stay aloft for hours. And there was enough of it to make people sick.

In 2011, this should have been major news. Instead, the major medical journals rejected her manuscript. Even as she ran new experiments that added evidence to the idea that influenza was infecting people via aerosols, only one niche publisher, The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, was consistently receptive to her work. In the siloed world of academia, aerosols had always been the domain of engineers and physicists, and pathogens purely a medical concern; Marr was one of the rare people who tried to straddle the divide. “I was definitely fringe,” she says.

Thinking it might help her overcome this resistance, she’d try from time to time to figure out where the flawed 5-micron figure had come from. But she always got stuck. The medical textbooks simply stated it as fact, without a citation, as if it were pulled from the air itself. Eventually she got tired of trying, her research and life moved on, and the 5-micron mystery faded into the background. Until, that is, December 2019, when a paper crossed her desk from the lab of Yuguo Li.

An indoor-air researcher at the University of Hong Kong, Li had made a name for himself during the first SARS outbreak, in 2003. His investigation of an outbreak at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex provided the strongest evidence that a coronavirus could be airborne. But in the intervening decades, he’d also struggled to convince the public health community that their risk calculus was off. Eventually, he decided to work out the math. Li’s elegant simulations showed that when a person coughed or sneezed, the heavy droplets were too few and the targets—an open mouth, nostrils, eyes—too small to account for much infection. Li’s team had concluded, therefore, that the public health establishment had it backward and that most colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses must spread through aerosols instead. 

Their findings, they argued, exposed the fallacy of the 5-micron boundary. And they’d gone a step further, tracing the number back to a decades-old document the CDC had published for hospitals. Marr couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. A journal had asked her to review Li’s paper, and she didn’t mask her feelings as she sketched out her reply. On January 22, 2020, she wrote, “This work is hugely important in challenging the existing dogma about how infectious disease is transmitted in droplets and aerosols.”

Even as she composed her note, the implications of Li’s work were far from theoretical. Hours later, Chinese government officials cut off any travel in and out of the city of Wuhan, in a desperate attempt to contain an as-yet-unnamed respiratory disease burning through the 11-million-person megalopolis. As the pandemic shut down country after country, the WHO and the CDC told people to wash their hands, scrub surfaces, and maintain social distance. They didn’t say anything about masks or the dangers of being indoors. 

A few days after the April Zoom meeting with the WHO, Marr got an email from another aerosol scientist who had been on the call, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado Boulder named Jose-Luis Jimenez. He’d become fixated on the WHO recommendation that people stay 3 to 6 feet apart from one another. As far as he could tell, that social distancing guideline seemed to be based on a few studies from the 1930s and ’40s. But the authors of those experiments actually argued for the possibility of airborne transmission, which by definition would involve distances over 6 feet. None of it seemed to add up. 

Scientists use a rotating drum to aerosolize viruses and study how well they survive under different conditions. Photograph: Matt Eich

Marr told him about her concerns with the 5-micron boundary and suggested that their two issues might be linked. If the 6-foot guideline was built off of an incorrect definition of droplets, the 5-micron error wasn’t just some arcane detail. It seemed to sit at the heart of the WHO’s and the CDC’s flawed guidance. Finding its origin suddenly became a priority. But to hunt it down, Marr, Jimenez, and their collaborators needed help. They needed a historian.

Luckily, Marr knew one, a Virginia Tech scholar named Tom Ewing who specialized in the history of tuberculosis and influenza. They talked. He suggested they bring on board a graduate student he happened to know who was good at this particular form of forensics. The team agreed. “This will be very interesting,” Marr wrote in an email to Jimenez on April 13. “I think we’re going to find a house of cards.”

The graduate student in question was Katie Randall. Covid had just dealt her dissertation a big blow—she could no longer conduct in-person research, so she’d promised her adviser she would devote the spring to sorting out her dissertation and nothing else. But then an email from Ewing arrived in her inbox describing Marr’s quest and the clues her team had so far unearthed, which were “layered like an archaeology site, with shards that might make up a pot,” he wrote. That did it. She was in.

Randall had studied citation tracking, a type of scholastic detective work where the clues aren’t blood sprays and stray fibers but buried references to long-ago studies, reports, and other records. She started digging where Li and the others had left off—with various WHO and CDC papers. But she didn’t find any more clues than they had. Dead end.

She tried another tack. Everyone agreed that tuberculosis was airborne. So she plugged “5 microns” and “tuberculosis” into a search of the CDC’s archives. She scrolled and scrolled until she reached the earliest document on tuberculosis prevention that mentioned aerosol size. It cited an out-of-print book written by a Harvard engineer named William Firth Wells. Published in 1955, it was called Airborne Contagion and Air Hygiene. A lead!

In the Before Times, she would have acquired the book through interlibrary loan. With the pandemic shutting down universities, that was no longer an option. On the wilds of the open internet, Randall tracked down a first edition from a rare book seller for $500—a hefty expense for a side project with essentially no funding. But then one of the university’s librarians came through and located a digital copy in Michigan. Randall began to dig in.Sign up for our Longreads newsletter for the best features, ideas, and investigations from WIRED.

In the words of Wells’ manuscript, she found a man at the end of his career, rushing to contextualize more than 23 years of research. She started reading his early work, including one of the studies Jimenez had mentioned. In 1934, Wells and his wife, Mildred Weeks Wells, a physician, analyzed air samples and plotted a curve showing how the opposing forces of gravity and evaporation acted on respiratory particles. The couple’s calculations made it possible to predict the time it would take a particle of a given size to travel from someone’s mouth to the ground. According to them, particles bigger than 100 microns sank within seconds. Smaller particles stayed in the air. Randall paused at the curve they’d drawn. To her, it seemed to foreshadow the idea of a droplet-aerosol dichotomy, but one that should have pivoted around 100 microns, not 5. 

The book was long, more than 400 pages, and Randall was still on the hook for her dissertation. She was also helping her restless 6-year-old daughter navigate remote kindergarten, now that Covid had closed her school. So it was often not until late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, that she could return to it, taking detailed notes about each day’s progress.

One night she read about experiments Wells did in the 1940s in which he installed air-disinfecting ultraviolet lights inside schools. In the classrooms with UV lamps installed, fewer kids came down with the measles. He concluded that the measles virus must have been in the air. Randall was struck by this. She knew that measles didn’t get recognized as an airborne disease until decades later. What had happened?

Part of medical rhetoric is understanding why certain ideas take hold and others don’t. So as spring turned to summer, Randall started to investigate how Wells’ contemporaries perceived him. That’s how she found the writings of Alexander Langmuir, the influential chief epidemiologist of the newly established CDC. Like his peers, Langmuir had been brought up in the Gospel of Personal Cleanliness, an obsession that made handwashing the bedrock of US public health policy. He seemed to view Wells’ ideas about airborne transmission as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the “miasma theory” that had prevailed for centuries. Langmuir dismissed them as little more than “interesting theoretical points.”

But at the same time, Langmuir was growing increasingly preoccupied by the threat of biological warfare. He worried about enemies carpeting US cities in airborne pathogens. In March 1951, just months after the start of the Korean War, Langmuir published a report in which he simultaneously disparaged Wells’ belief in airborne infection and credited his work as being foundational to understanding the physics of airborne infection.

How curious, Randall thought. She kept reading.

In the report, Langmuir cited a few studies from the 1940s looking at the health hazards of working in mines and factories, which showed the mucus of the nose and throat to be exceptionally good at filtering out particles bigger than 5 microns. The smaller ones, however, could slip deep into the lungs and cause irreversible damage. If someone wanted to turn a rare and nasty pathogen into a potent agent of mass infection, Langmuir wrote, the thing to do would be to formulate it into a liquid that could be aerosolized into particles smaller than 5 microns, small enough to bypass the body’s main defenses. Curious indeed. Randall made a note.

When she returned to Wells’ book a few days later, she noticed he too had written about those industrial hygiene studies. They had inspired Wells to investigate what role particle size played in the likelihood of natural respiratory infections. He designed a study using tuberculosis-causing bacteria. The bug was hardy and could be aerosolized, and if it landed in the lungs, it grew into a small lesion. He exposed rabbits to similar doses of the bacteria, pumped into their chambers either as a fine (smaller than 5 microns) or coarse (bigger than 5 microns) mist. The animals that got the fine treatment fell ill, and upon autopsy it was clear their lungs bulged with lesions. The bunnies that received the coarse blast appeared no worse for the wear.

For days, Randall worked like this—going back and forth between Wells and Langmuir, moving forward and backward in time. As she got into Langmuir’s later writings, she observed a shift in his tone. In articles he wrote up until the 1980s, toward the end of his career, he admitted he had been wrong about airborne infection. It was possible.

A big part of what changed Langmuir’s mind was one of Wells’ final studies. Working at a VA hospital in Baltimore, Wells and his collaborators had pumped exhaust air from a tuberculosis ward into the cages of about 150 guinea pigs on the building’s top floor. Month after month, a few guinea pigs came down with tuberculosis. Still, public health authorities were skeptical. They complained that the experiment lacked controls. So Wells’ team added another 150 animals, but this time they included UV lights to kill any germs in the air. Those guinea pigs stayed healthy. That was it, the first incontrovertible evidence that a human disease—tuberculosis—could be airborne, and not even the public health big hats could ignore it.  

The groundbreaking results were published in 1962. Wells died in September of the following year. A month later, Langmuir mentioned the late engineer in a speech to public health workers. It was Wells, he said, that they had to thank for illuminating their inadequate response to a growing epidemic of tuberculosis. He emphasized that the problematic particles—the ones they had to worry about—were smaller than 5 microns.

Inside Randall’s head, something snapped into place. She shot forward in time, to that first tuberculosis guidance document where she had started her investigation. She had learned from it that tuberculosis is a curious critter; it can only invade a subset of human cells in the deepest reaches of the lungs. Most bugs are more promiscuous. They can embed in particles of any size and infect cells all along the respiratory tract.

What must have happened, she thought, was that after Wells died, scientists inside the CDC conflated his observations. They plucked the size of the particle that transmits tuberculosis out of context, making 5 microns stand in for a general definition of airborne spread. Wells’ 100-micron threshold got left behind. “You can see that the idea of what is respirable, what stays airborne, and what is infectious are all being flattened into this 5-micron phenomenon,” Randall says. Over time, through blind repetition, the error sank deeper into the medical canon. The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In June, she Zoomed into a meeting with the rest of the team to share what she had found. Marr almost couldn’t believe someone had cracked it. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is where the 5 microns came from?!’” After all these years, she finally had an answer. But getting to the bottom of the 5-micron myth was only the first step. Dislodging it from decades of public health doctrine would mean convincing two of the world’s most powerful health authorities not only that they were wrong but that the error was incredibly—and urgently—consequential.

While Randall was digging through the past, her collaborators were planning a campaign. In July, Marr and Jimenez went public, signing their names to an open letter addressed to public health authorities, including the WHO. Along with 237 other scientists and physicians, they warned that without stronger recommendations for masking and ventilation, airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2 would undermine even the most vigorous testing, tracing, and social distancing efforts. 

The news made headlines. And it provoked a strong backlash. Prominent public health personalities rushed to defend the WHO. Twitter fights ensued. Saskia Popescu, an infection-prevention epidemiologist who is now a biodefense professor at George Mason University, was willing to buy the idea that people were getting Covid by breathing in aerosols, but only at close range. That’s not airborne in the way public health people use the word. “It’s a very weighted term that changes how we approach things,” she says. “It’s not something you can toss around haphazardly.”

The mannequins in this chamber were used to test the efficacy of masks. Photograph: Matt Eich

Days later, the WHO released an updated scientific brief, acknowledging that aerosols couldn’t be ruled out, especially in poorly ventilated places. But it stuck to the 3- to 6-foot rule, advising people to wear masks indoors only if they couldn’t keep that distance. Jimenez was incensed. “It is misinformation, and it is making it difficult for ppl to protect themselves,” he tweeted about the update. “E.g. 50+ reports of schools, offices forbidding portable HEPA units because of @CDCgov and @WHO downplaying aerosols.”

While Jimenez and others sparred on social media, Marr worked behind the scenes to raise awareness of the misunderstandings around aerosols. She started talking to Kimberly Prather, an atmospheric chemist at UC San Diego, who had the ear of prominent public health leaders within the CDC and on the White House Covid Task Force. In July, the two women sent slides to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. One of them showed the trajectory of a 5-micron particle released from the height of the average person’s mouth. It went farther than 6 feet—hundreds of feet farther. A few weeks later, speaking to an audience at Harvard Medical School, Fauci admitted that the 5-micron distinction was wrong—and had been for years. “Bottom line is, there is much more aerosol than we thought,” he said. (Fauci declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Still, the droplet dogma reigned. In early October, Marr and a group of scientists and doctors published a letter in Science urging everyone to get on the same page about how infectious particles move, starting with ditching the 5-micron threshold. Only then could they provide clear and effective advice to the public. That same day, the CDC updated its guidance to acknowledge that SARS-CoV-2 can spread through long-lingering aerosols. But it didn’t emphasize them.

That winter, the WHO also began to talk more publicly about aerosols. On December 1, the organization finally recommended that everyone always wear a mask indoors wherever Covid-19 is spreading. In an interview, the WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove said that the change reflects the organization’s commitment to evolving its guidance when the scientific evidence compels a change. She maintains that the WHO has paid attention to airborne transmission from the beginning—first in hospitals, then at places such as bars and restaurants. “The reason we’re promoting ventilation is that this virus can be airborne,” Van Kerkhove says. But because that term has a specific meaning in the medical community, she admits to avoiding it—and emphasizing instead the types of settings that pose the biggest risks. Does she think that decision has harmed the public health response, or cost lives? No, she says. “People know what they need to do to protect themselves.”

Yet she admits it may be time to rethink the old droplet-airborne dichotomy. According to Van Kerkhove, the WHO plans to formally review its definitions for describing disease transmission in 2021. 

Yuguo Li, an indoor-air researcher, set out to show that most respiratory diseases spread through aerosols.Photograph: Yufan Lu

For Yuguo Li, whose work had so inspired Marr, these moves have given him a sliver of hope. “Tragedy always teaches us something,” he says. The lesson he thinks people are finally starting to learn is that airborne transmission is both more complicated and less scary than once believed. SARS-CoV-2, like many respiratory diseases, is airborne, but not wildly so. It isn’t like measles, which is so contagious it infects 90 percent of susceptible people exposed to someone with the virus. And the evidence hasn’t shown that the coronavirus often infects people over long distances. Or in well-ventilated spaces. The virus spreads most effectively in the immediate vicinity of a contagious person, which is to say that most of the time it looks an awful lot like a textbook droplet-based pathogen. 

For most respiratory diseases, not knowing which route caused an infection has not been catastrophic. But the cost has not been zero. Influenza infects millions each year, killing between 300,000 and 650,000 globally. And epidemiologists are predicting the next few years will bring particularly deadly flu seasons. Li hopes that acknowledging this history—and how it hindered an effective global response to Covid-19—will allow good ventilation to emerge as a central pillar of public health policy, a development that would not just hasten the end of this pandemic but beat back future ones

To get a glimpse into that future, you need only peek into the classrooms where Li teaches or the Crossfit gym where Marr jumps boxes and slams medicine balls. In the earliest days of the pandemic, Li convinced the administrators at the University of Hong Kong to spend most of its Covid-19 budget on upgrading the ventilation in buildings and buses rather than on things such as mass Covid testing of students. Marr reviewed blueprints and HVAC schematics with the owner of her gym, calculating the ventilation rates and consulting on a redesign that moved workout stations outside and near doors that were kept permanently open. To date, no one has caught Covid at the gym. Li’s university, a school of 30,000 students, has recorded a total of 23 Covid-19 cases. Of course Marr’s gym is small, and the university benefited from the fact that Asian countries, scarred by the 2003 SARS epidemic, were quick to recognize aerosol transmission. But Marr’s and Li’s swift actions could well have improved their odds. Ultimately, that’s what public health guidelines do: They tilt people and places closer to safety.

On Friday, April 30, the WHO quietly updated a page on its website. In a section on how the coronavirus gets transmitted, the text now states that the virus can spread via aerosols as well as larger droplets. As Zeynep Tufecki noted in The New York Times, perhaps the biggest news of the pandemic passed with no news conference, no big declaration. If you weren’t paying attention, it was easy to miss.

But Marr was paying attention. She couldn’t help but note the timing. She, Li, and two other aerosol scientists had just published an editorial in The BMJ, a top medical journal, entitled “Covid-19 Has Redefined Airborne Transmission.” For once, she hadn’t had to beg; the journal’s editors came to her. And her team had finally posted their paper on the origins of the 5-micron error to a public preprint server. 

In early May, the CDC made similar changes to its Covid-19 guidance, now placing the inhalation of aerosols at the top of its list of how the disease spreads. Again though, no news conference, no press release. But Marr, of course, noticed. That evening, she got in her car to pick up her daughter from gymnastics. She was alone with her thoughts for the first time all day. As she waited at a red light, she suddenly burst into tears. Not sobbing, but unable to stop the hot stream of tears pouring down her face. Tears of exhaustion, and relief, but also triumph. Finally, she thought, they’re getting it right, because of what we’ve done.

The light turned. She wiped the tears away. Someday it would all sink in, but not today. Now, there were kids to pick up and dinner to eat. Something approaching normal life awaited.

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First known active-duty military member is charged in Jan. 6 insurrection&nbsp –


05/13/2021 03:25 PM EDT

Updated: 05/13/2021 04:06 PM EDT

Maj. Christopher Warnagiris of the U.S. Marine Corps was arrested in Virginia on Thursday. 

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Rioters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. | Brent Stirton/Getty Images


05/13/2021 03:25 PM EDT

Updated: 05/13/2021 04:06 PM EDT

An active-duty Marine has been charged with assaulting a U.S. Capitol Police officer in the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Department of Justice announced on Thursday.

Maj. Christopher Warnagiris of the U.S. Marine Corps, 40, was arrested in Virginia on Thursday after being charged with a number of federal crimes, including “assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers” and obstructing law enforcement, according to charging documents. He’s the first known active-duty military member to have been charged with a crime in connection with the insurrection.

According to Maj. J. A. Hernandez, a spokesperson for the Marines, Warnagiris has served since 2002 and earned numerous awards. He was deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to Hernandez. 

Warnagiris is accused of “violently enter[ing]” the Capitol on Jan. 6 after he forced his way through a line of officers protecting the Capitol. He pushed his way through the East Rotunda doors, according to charging documents, after which he appeared to help other rioters get through the guarded doors.

An officer tried to close the doors, but Warnagiris tried to push it open more, according to the documents. The officer said that he ordered Warnagiris to leave the entryway, but that he didn’t do so. The officer then tried to push him away, and Warnagiris pushed back to try to stay where he was in the doorway.

The episode for which Warnagiris is charged was captured on security camera footage that was part of the charging documents.

A witness is said to have seen photos of Warnagiris on the web and reported him to the FBI. Investigators found that Warnagiris was stationed at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Northern Virginia.

Hundreds of people have been charged in connection with the riots, which delayed the certification of the Electoral College vote and have left many lawmakers calling for a 9/11-style commission to examine what happened. Then-President Donald Trump held a rally before rioters stormed the Capitol and was impeached on a charge of inciting the insurrection. He was acquitted in the Senate after leaving office.

Evidence filed by the Justice Department suggests pre-rally coordinationbetween groups like the Proud Boys, a self-described Western chauvinist group, and the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia network.

“The Marine Corps is clear on this: There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” Hernandez said in a statement. “Those who can’t value the contributions of others, regardless of background, are destructive to our culture, our warfighting ability, and have no place in our ranks.”

The True Story of Amazon’s ‘Underground Railroad’ | History | Smithsonian Magazine – Meilan Solly May 2021

When Cora, the fictional protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, steps onto a boxcar bound for the North, the train’s conductor offers her a wry word of advice: “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” 

Peering through the carriage’s slats, Cora sees “only darkness, mile after mile,” Whitehead writes. Later, toward the end of her harrowing escape from enslavement, the teenager realizes that the conductor’s comment was a “joke … from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

Set in antebellum America, Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book envisions the Underground Railroad not as a network of abolitionists and safe houses, but as an actual train, with subterranean stations staffed by covert activists snaking north to freedom. Darkness pervades this alternative reality, which finds Cora and Caesar, a young man enslaved on the same Georgia plantation as her, using the railroad to find freedom. In each state the train stops, Whitehead places a new, insidious manifestation of racism before his characters.

The Underground Railroad,” a ten-part limited series out this week from Amazon Prime Video, offers Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ interpretation of Whitehead’s acclaimed work. Featuring South African actress Thuso Mbedu as Cora, Aaron Pierre as Caesar and Joel Edgerton as the slave catcher Ridgeway, the adaptation arrives amid a national reckoning on systemic injustice, as well as a renewed debate over cultural depictions of violence against Black bodies.

Jenkins—like Whitehead in the series’ source material—adopts an unflinching approach to the portrayal of slavery. As writer Camonghne Felix details in Vanity Fair, Jenkins refuses to allow “Black trauma [to] be the guiding vehicle of this story.” Instead, his narrative is one of “Black victory.”

“In a very nuanced way, even amidst the trauma, the people, the characters still retain their humanity. And because of that, I think their personhood remains intact,” Jenkins tells Felix. “The condition of slavery is not a thing that’s fixed or static or that has fidelity to them as persons. These things are being visited upon them.”

Here’s what you need to know about the historical context that undergirds the novel and streaming adaption ahead of “The Underground Railroad”’s May 14 debut. (Spoilers for the novel ahead.)

Did Colson Whitehead base The Underground Railroad on a true story?

In Whitehead’s own words, his novel seeks to convey “the truth of things, not the facts.” His characters are all fictional, and the book’s plot, while grounded in historical truths, is similarly imagined in episodic form. (The book follows Cora’s flight to freedom, detailing her protracted journey from Georgia to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Indiana. Each step of the trip poses unique dangers beyond Cora’s control, and many of the individuals she encounters meet violent ends.)

The Underground Railroad’s biggest departure from history is its portrayal of the eponymous network as a literal rather than metaphorical transport system. As Whitehead told NPR in 2016, this change was inspired by his “childhood notion” of the Underground Railroad as a “literal subway beneath the earth”—a surprisingly common misconception.

Charles T. Webber's 1893 painting of the Underground Railroad
Charles T. Webber’s 1893 painting of the Underground Railroad (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In truth, says Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Eric Foner, the Underground Railroad consisted of “local networks of anti-slavery people, both Black and white, who assisted fugitives in various ways,” from raising funds for the abolitionist cause to taking cases to court to hiding runaways in safe houses. The name’s exact origins are unclear, but it was in wide use by the early 1840s. For decades, academic historians dismissed the Underground Railroad’s significance, some doubting its existence and others placing white men at the center of the action.

Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, says the Underground Railroad is more accurately described as the “Abolitionist Underground,” since the people running in it “were not just ordinary, well-meaning Northern white citizens, [but] activists, particularly in the free Black community.” These “conductors” helped runaways, especially in the North, where the railroad was most active, but as Foner points out, “most of the initiative, most of the danger, was on the shoulders of the Black people who were running away.”

An 1894 photograph of Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for nearly seven years after escaping enslavement
An 1894 photograph of Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for nearly seven years after escaping enslavement (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1847–1852
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1847–1852 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Foner says that Whitehead builds on “recognizable historical moments and patterns” in a manner similar to the late Toni Morrison. The author conducted extensive research before writing his novel, drawing on oral histories provided by survivors of slavery in the 1930s, runaway ads published in antebellum newspapers, and accounts penned by successful escapees like Harriet Jacobsand Frederick Douglass.

These influences are evident in Cora’s journey, notes Sinha. Douglass made his way north by jumping onto a moving train and posing as a free man, while Jacobs spent nearly seven years hiding in an attic; Cora escapes enslavement on a rail line and spends several months hiding in an abolitionist’s attic.

“The more you know about this history, the more you can appreciate what Whitehead is doing in merging the past and the present, or maybe merging the history of slavery with what happened after the end of slavery,” says Foner, who authored the 2015 book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

What time period does The Underground Railroad cover?

Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu)
Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu) think they’ve found a safe haven in South Carolina, but a belief in white supremacy belies their new acquaintances’ actions. (Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)

The Underground Railroad takes place around 1850, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage. It makes explicit mention of the draconian legislation, which sought to ensnare runaways who’d settled in free states and inflict harsh punishments on those who assisted escapees. Designed to discourage the Underground Railroad, the act instead galvanized—and radicalized—the abolitionist movement, according to Foner and Sinha. As one white character snidely remarks, the law “says we have to hand over runaways and not impede their capture—not drop everything we’re doing just because some slave catcher thinks he’s onto his bounty.”

While Whitehead used 1850 as a “sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang,” per NPR, he was less concerned with chronology than conveying a sense of the lived experience of Black Americans. “The book is rebooting every time the person goes to a different state,” the author explained. “[This approach] allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850—skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization.”

Cora’s journey to freedom is laden with implicit references to touchstones in post-emancipation history, from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the mid-20th century to white mobs’ attacks on prosperous Black communities like Wilmington, North Carolina (targeted in 1898), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (razed in 1921). This “chronological jumble,” says Spencer Crew, former president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and emeritus director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, serves as a reminder that the “end of slavery does not bring about the end of racism and racial attacks. … These issues continue to survive in different forms, with parallel impacts upon the African American community.”

What real-life events does The Underground Railroad dramatize?

At first glance, Whitehead’s imagined South Carolina appears to be a progressive haven where abolitionists offer newly freed people education and employment. But as Cora and Caesar soon realize, their new acquaintances’ belief in white superiority belies their honeyed words. (In 20th-century America, eugenicists and proponents of scientific racism often expressed sentiments similar to ones uttered by these fictional characters.) Chatting with a white barkeep who moonlights as an Underground Railroad conductor, a drunk doctor reveals a plan for his Black patients: “With strategic sterilization—first the women but both sexes in time—we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep.”

The doctor continues, “Controlled sterilization, [unethical] research into communicable diseases, the perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit—was it any wonder the best medical talents in the country were flocking to South Carolina?”

North Carolina, meanwhile, exists in Whitehead’s world as an all-white statethat has banned slavery, as well as the mere presence of any Black residents—a dystopia that echoes 19th-century Oregon. The state entered the Union in 1859 and abolished slavery within its borders, but explicitly wrote the exclusion of Black people into its state constitution, only repealing these racist restrictions in the 1920s.

Tuskegee patient getting his blood drawn in the mid-20th century
Whitehead’s imagined version of South Carolina echoes the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Pictured here is a Tuskegee patient getting his blood drawn in the mid-20th century. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Underground Railroad, white immigrants perform the tasks previously carried out by enslaved people in North Carolina, working off the debts of their “travel, tools and lodging” as indentured servants before proudly taking their place in American society. Black people are barred from stepping foot in the state, and those who violate this law—including the many formerly enslaved individuals who lack the resources to leave North Carolina—are lynched in weekly public ceremonies. The “Freedom Trail,” a road filled with the corpses of murdered Black people, extends “as far as there [are] bodies to feed it,” according to the railroad conductor who hides Cora in his attic.

Toward the end of the novel, Cora travels to a farm in Indiana after narrowly escaping the slave catcher Ridgeway. Owned by a free Black man named John Valentine, the tract of land houses a thriving community of runaways and free Black people who seemingly live peacefully alongside white settlers. Before long, however, tensions come to a head, with residents disagreeing over whether they should continue harboring escapees at great risk to the rest of the community or “put an end to relations with the railroad, the endless stream of needy [people], and ensure the longevity of the farm.” On the night of a final debate between the two sides, a mob of white outsiders attacks the farm, burning it to the ground and indiscriminately murdering innocent bystanders.

“Cora had come to cherish the impossible treasures of the Valentine farm so completely that she’d forgotten how impossible they were,” writes Whitehead in the book. “The farm and the adjacent ones operated by colored interests were too big, too prosperous. A pocket of blackness in the young state.”

In 1921, white Tulsans razed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing some 300 people. Pictured here are the ruins of the neighborhood
In 1921, white Tulsans razed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing some 300 people. The Underground Railroad details a similar (imagined) attack on an Indiana farm. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As Tim Madigan reported for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year, a similar series of events unfolded in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa—informally known as “Black Wall Street”—in June 1921. Threatened by Black residents’ success, some 10,000 white Tulsans brutally attacked Greenwood, killing as many as 300 people and razing the prosperous neighborhood to the ground. The massacre was far from an isolated incident, noted Madigan: “In the years leading to 1921, white mobs murdered African Americans on dozens of occasions, in Chicago, Atlanta, Duluth, Charleston and elsewhere.”

Whitehead’s inclusion of events that postdate the end of slavery underscores the institution’s “pernicious and long-reaching tentacles,” says Sinha.

“He’s showing you the range of possibilities,” adds Foner, “what freedom might really mean, or [what] are the limits on freedom coming after slavery?”

Foner says, “[The book] is about … the legacy of slavery, the way slavery has warped the whole society.”

How does The Underground Railroad reflect the lived experience of slavery?

When working on the novel, Whitehead reportedly asked himself “How can I make a psychologically credible plantation?” Instead of portraying “a pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other,” he told the Guardian, the author chose to think “about people who’ve been traumatized, brutalized and dehumanized their whole lives.”

Whitehead added, “Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning, fighting for the small piece of property. To me, that makes sense; if you put people together who’ve been raped and tortured, that’s how they would act.”

Abandoned as a child by her mother, who is seemingly the only enslaved person to successfully escape Ridgeway’s clutches, Cora lives in the Hob, a derelict building reserved for outcasts—“those who had been crippled by the overseers’ punishments, … who had been broken by the labor in ways you could see and in ways you could not see, [and] who had lost their wits,” as Whitehead describes them.

Mbedu stars as Cora (center). Zsane Jhe, left, and Aubriana Davis, right, portray other women enslaved on the Randall plantation.
Mbedu stars as Cora (center). Zsane Jhe, left, and Aubriana Davis, right, portray women enslaved on the Randall plantation alongside Cora. (Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

One night, during a rare celebration marking an older enslaved man’s birthday, Cora protects a young boy who inadvertently spills a drop of wine on their enslaver’s sleeve. The man beats her with his silver cane, and the following morning, the plantation’s overseer delivers a lashing “under the pitiless boughs of the whipping tree.” A few weeks later, Cora agrees to join Caesar in his flight to freedom, pushed past the point of endurance by her punishment and the bleakness of her continued life under enslavement.

The Underground Railroad “really gives a sense of the kind of power that enslavers hold over those who are enslaved and the kinds of resistance that the enslaved try to [mount under these] conditions,” says Crew. Those who escaped faced the prospect of brutal punishment, he adds, “so it’s a very treacherous, dangerous decision that people have to make carefully.”

By selecting Cora as his main character, Whitehead touches on issues that affected enslaved women, specifically, including the threat of rape and pain of bearing a child only to see them sold into enslavement elsewhere. The book’s description of Cora’s sexual assault is heartbreakingly succinct, stating, “The Hob women sewed her up.”

“[Whitehead] writes about it really effectively, with a modicum of words, but really evoking the horror of life as an enslaved woman,” says Sinha. “It’s not as if every enslaved woman was raped, abused or harassed, but they were constantly under the threat of it. That was their lived reality.”

William Jackson Harper of "The Good Place" (left) portrays Royal, a free Black man who rescues Cora from the slave catcher Randall.
William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place” (left) portrays Royal, a free Black man who rescues Cora from the slave catcher Randall. (Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

Sinha argues that the novelist’s depiction of the Underground Railroad “gets to the heart of how this enterprise was both extremely daring and extremely dangerous.” Conductors and runaways, she says, “could be betrayed at any moment, [finding themselves] in situations not of [their] making.” Cora, for her part, aptly summarizes escapees’ liminal status. Locked in an abolitionist’s attic for months on end, she thinks, “What a world it is … that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web?”

Cora continues, “Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”

Crew says he hopes the new Amazon adaptation emphasizes the psychological toll of slavery instead of simply depicting the physical abuse endured by enslaved individuals.

“If you have to talk about the punishment, I would like to see it off-screen,” he says. “It may be that I’ve read this for too many years, and so I’m very much scarred by it. And it may be important for those who have no sense of [slavery’s brutality] to see that, but my … perception of it is that it feels a little bit gratuitous. There are other ways of portraying the horrors and the painfulness of enslavement.”

Speaking with the New York Times earlier this month, Jenkins, the director of the streaming series, outlined his approach to the project, which addresses Crew’s concerns. “I realized that my job was going to be pairing the violence with its psychological effects—not shying away from the visual depiction of these things but focusing on what it means to the characters,” he said. “How are they beating it back? How are they making themselves whole?”

Leaked Video: Dark Money Group Brags About Writing GOP Voter Suppression Bills Across the Country

“We did it quickly and we did it quietly,” said the executive director of Heritage Action.

In a private meeting last month with big-money donors, the head of a top conservative group boasted that her outfit had crafted the new voter suppression law in Georgia and was doing the same with similar bills for Republican state legislators across the country. “In some cases, we actually draft them for them,” she said, “or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”

The Georgia law had “eight key provisions that Heritage recommended,” Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, told the foundation’s donors at an April 22 gathering in Tucson, in a recording obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with Mother Jones. Those included policies severely restricting mail ballot drop boxes, preventing election officials from sending absentee ballot request forms to voters, making it easier for partisan workers to monitor the polls, preventing the collection of mail ballots, and restricting the ability of counties to accept donations from nonprofit groups seeking to aid in election administration. 

All of these recommendations came straight from Heritage’s list of “best practices” drafted in February. With Heritage’s help, Anderson said, Georgia became “the example for the rest of the country.”

The leaked video reveals the extent to which Heritage is leading a massive campaign to draft and pass model legislation restricting voting access, which has been swiftly adopted this year in the battleground states of Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Iowa. It’s no coincidence that so many GOP-controlled states are rushing to pass similar pieces of legislation in such a short period of time. 

Republican legislators claim they’re tightening up election procedures to address (unfounded) concerns about fraud in the 2020 election. But what’s really behind this effort is a group of conservative Washington insiders who have been pushing these same kinds of voting restrictions for decades, with the explicit aim of helping Republicans win elections. The difference now is that Trump’s baseless claims about 2020 have given them the ammunition to get the bills passed, and the conservative movement, led by Heritage, is making an unprecedented investment to get them over the finish line. 

“We’re working with these state legislators to make sure they have all of the information they need to draft the bills,” Anderson told the Heritage Foundation donors. In addition to drafting the bills in some cases, “we’ve also hired state lobbyists to make sure that in these targeted states we’re meeting with the right people.”“In some cases, we actually draft [the bills] for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.”

To “create this echo chamber,” as Anderson put it, Heritage is spending $24 million over two years in eight battleground states—Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin—to pass and defend restrictive voting legislation. Every Tuesday, the group leads a call with right-wing advocacy groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks to coordinate these efforts at the highest levels of the conservative movement. “We literally give marching orders for the week ahead,” Anderson said. “All so we’re singing from the same song sheet of the goals for that week and where the state bills are across the country.”

Days before the Georgia legislature would pass its sweeping bill rolling back access to the ballot, Anderson said she met with Gov. Brian Kemp and urged him to quickly sign the bill when it reached his desk. “I had one message for him,” said Anderson, a former Trump administration official in the Office of Management and Budget. “Do not wait to sign that bill. If you wait even an hour, you will look weak. This bill needs to be signed immediately.” Kemp followed Anderson’s advice, signing the bill right after its passage. Heritage called it a “historic voting security bill.”

Anderson said she delivered “the same message” to Republican governors in Texas, Arizona, and Florida. Texas is the next big fight for Heritage. Anderson said Heritage Action wrote “19 provisions” in a Texas House bill that would make it a criminal offense for election officials to give a mail ballot request form to a voter who hadn’t explicitly asked for one and would subject poll workers to criminal penalties for removing partisan poll challengers who are accused of voter intimidation. It’s expected to pass in the coming days. 

“Gov. Abbott will sign it quickly,” Anderson said. She warned of corporate opposition to the bill, following actions by Georgia-based companies to distance themselves from the restrictive voting bill there. “American Airlines, Dell, they’re coming after us,” she said. “We need to be ready for the next fight in Texas.” 

In response to a request for comment, Anderson said in a statement, “We are proud of our work at the national level and in states across this country to promote commonsense reforms that make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. We’ve been transparent about our plans and public with our policy recommendations, and we won’t be intimidated by the left’s smear campaign and cancel culture.”

Heritage Foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a former George W. Bush administration official who for two decades has been the driving force behind policies that restrict access to the ballot, spoke alongside Anderson at the donor summit.

“Hans is briefing governors, secretaries of state, state attorney generals, state elected officials,” Anderson said. “Just what three weeks ago, we had a huge call with secretaries of state, right?”

“We’ve now for several years been having a private briefing of the best conservative secretaries of state in the country that has so annoyed the left that they have been doing everything they can to try to find out what happens at that meeting,” von Spakovsky replied. 

“So far unsuccessfully,” Anderson said. “No leaks.

Though the bills shaped by Heritage have been sold as advancing “election integrity,” they appear aimed more at helping GOP candidates take back power. “We are going to take the fierce fire that is in every single one of our bellies,” Anderson told the donors in April, “to right the wrongs of November.”

The Heritage Foundation was co-founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a well-connected conservative activist on a mission to create more aggressive conservative infrastructure to rival more liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution. Weyrich, who was also Heritage’s first president, went on to co-found the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pairs corporations with conservative state legislators to draft model legislation, and the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell, which mobilized evangelical voters behind GOP causes and candidates. Heritage received major funding from leading right-wing donors such as Charles and David Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Joseph Coors. 

Speaking in 1980 at a meeting of evangelical leaders in Dallas, Weyrich bluntly articulated his radical views on voting rights. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said. “Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In the years since, the Heritage Foundation became the driving force behind much of the Republican Party agenda, writing many of the policy recommendations that were enacted under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Heritage is spending $24 million over two years in eight battleground states—Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin—to pass and defend restrictive voting legislation.

It remains one of the best-funded organizations in GOP circles. It raised more than $76 million in 2020, according to its most recent annual report. More than $1.6 million of that was raised from corporations, most of which chose to remain anonymous. But according to the annual report from 2019, Google, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and the multi-level marketing company Amway all gave at least $100,000, and Citigroup and Hitachi each gave $25,000.  

In 2010, as opposition on the right to the Obama administration reached a fever pitch, Heritage launched Heritage Action, a dark money group that does not have to disclose its donors but has received at least $500,000 from the Koch brothers. The goal was to connect the Heritage Foundation to the growing Tea Party movement and to enable the group to undertake more aggressive political activities, such as leading opposition to the Affordable Care Act and promoting a government shutdown in 2013. This right-wing advocacy alienated Republicans on Capitol Hill, with former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn accusing the group of “destroying the Republican Party.”

Former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint described the relationship between Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action as “the one-two punch.” The foundation writes the policy, and Heritage Action makes it happen. Heritage Action raised more than $11 million in 2019.

The mastermind behind the nationwide voting restrictions operation is von Spakovsky, who’s done more than just about anyone in GOP circles to spread the myth of widespread voter fraud over the past two decades. 

During the Bush administration, von Spakovsky was a special counsel at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, where he played a key role in the department’s approval of a 2005 voter ID law from Georgia—among the first of its kind—over objections from career department lawyers, who said it was discriminatory. While advocating internally for the law, von Spakovsky published a law review article under the pseudonym “Publius” praising voter ID laws, in violation of Justice Department ethics guidelines.

“It’s like he goes to bed dreaming about this, and gets up in the morning wondering, ‘What can I do today to make it more difficult for people to vote?’” the late civil rights icon John Lewis once said of von Spakovsky. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” said Heritage co-founder Paul Weyrich.

In 2017, von Spakovsky joined Donald Trump’s ill-fated Commission on Election Integrity, which was formed after Trump falsely claimed 3 million people voted illegally in California in the 2016 election, with the aim of unearthing evidence of voter fraud in order to justify new ballot restrictions. Von Spakovsky argued the commission should exclude Democrats and “mainstream Republican officials and/or academics” and helped Vice Chair Kris Kobach, then the Kansas secretary of state, draft a letter requesting sensitive voter data from all 50 states. The request was met with massive pushback, and the commission, facing a flurry of lawsuits, abruptly disbanded in January 2018 without finding any evidence of fraud.

Though Anderson called von Spakovsky “the premier election law expert across this country,” his work has not fared well in court. During a trial challenging Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship law for voter registration, Kobach hired von Spakovsky to support his claim that illegal votes by noncitizens had swung US elections. But under questioning, von Spakovsky admitted he couldn’t name a single election where votes by noncitizens had decided the outcome. A federal judge wrote that the court gave “little weight to Mr. von Spakovsky’s opinion,” citing “several misleading and unsupported examples of noncitizen voter registration.” 

Nonetheless, von Spakovsky’s sensationalist claims about stolen elections and advocacy for policies that restrict voting have found an increasingly receptive audience among Republicans following Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

“The one good thing that came out of last year’s elections,” von Spakovsky said at the Heritage Action event in April, “is I think finally a lot of members of the public, and particularly state legislators, realized that these vulnerabilities exist, have existed for a long time, and have figured out in many states we really need to do something to fix it.”

Indeed, Heritage has been at the forefront of weaponizing Trump’s Big Lie of widespread voter fraud in order to build support for policies that restrict access to the ballot. “A lot of bad things happened in 2020,” Heritage Foundation senior adviser Genevieve Wood said in April to the donors, who ranked “election integrity” as their top issue in a survey this year. “But you should know a lot of good things are beginning to happen now in 2021. You’re seeing it in Georgia. You’re seeing in the state of Arizona. You’re beginning to see it in Texas and so many more.”

Heritage began its lobbying campaign early in Georgia. In February, a representative from the group delivered a letter signed by 2,000 conservative activists to Republicans in the state legislature, urging them to rewrite the state’s voting laws after GOP defeats in the November presidential election and the January Senate runoffs (where Heritage Action contacted 1.5 million voterson behalf of the losing Republican candidates). The activists wrote that they had “lost faith in the process and the outcome of their elections.” Soon after, bills restricting voting access started moving through the legislature. 

“Then we provided testimony, expert witnesses, analysis, and actually how to draft these bills so that they were legally tight,” Anderson said. “So, [Democratic voting rights lawyer] Marc Elias, if you know that name from the progressive left, he’s like their legal pit bull. He goes after all of this with lawsuits, so that Marc Elias can’t find any holes.” 

Elias has filed a suit challenging the Georgia law. “The Georgia law violates both the Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution,” Elias told Mother Jones. “Heritage Action claiming that this is legally tight is like hearing from the Titanic shipbuilders about how much confidence they have in its maiden voyage. This law is based on a Big Lie, denies Black, Brown, and young voters of their rights, and will be struck down in court.”

Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, the author of the bill in the Georgia House, was a guest at Heritage’s donor summit. “I can tell you, back in February, I felt like some days we were alone in Georgia,” Fleming said. “And then the Heritage Foundation stepped in, and that began to bring us a boost to help turn around, get the truth out about what we were really trying to do. And I’m here in part to say thank you and God bless you.

A number of majority-Black counties that Fleming represents as a lawyer in private practice when he’s not at the legislature fired him in protest after the bill passed. But he credited Heritage for helping Republican legislators resist what Anderson called “economic terrorism.” (The group has launched a $1 million ad campaign to defend the law on CNBC and local Georgia stations, which Anderson said is aimed at “woke CEOs [who] didn’t read the bill.”)

“But for the Heritage Foundation and you stepping up to help us, what are other part-time legislators across this nation going to think when they try to do the right thing and secure our elections if they’re allowed to fire us from our jobs, threaten our livelihoods just because we stood up to try to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat?” Fleming asked. 

Other measures Anderson said Heritage drafted included “three provisions” in legislation adopted by Iowa Republicans a few weeks before Georgia’s law, including one placing voters on inactive status if they sit out one election cycle and removing them from the rolls if they fail to take action, a system that could lead hundreds of thousands of voters to be purged. 

“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson said. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’” (Elias has also filed suit against the Iowa law.)Heritage has been at the forefront of weaponizing Trump’s Big Lie of widespread voter fraud in order to build support for policies that restrict access to the ballot.

Anderson also took credit for a Arizona law enacted in early April that prohibits election officials from accepting private funding, which was used in 2020 in both red and blue counties for things like opening more polling locations and drop box sites, saying, “We’re kicking Mark Zuckerberg out of all of our state and federal elections.” And she claimed that another bill signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday, which could purge more than 100,000 people from the state’s list of voters who automatically receive a mail ballot, was “straight from the Heritage recommendations.”  

A Heritage lobbyist met early on with Florida Republicans to draft a bill largely mimicking the Georgia law, which passed the legislature over the unanimous opposition of Florida’s county elections supervisors. While the bill worked its way through the legislature, Anderson urged DeSantis to champion it. “I’ve got a call this afternoon with Gov. DeSantis’ team getting an update,” she said on April 22 to her donors. “Why is that? He needs to do more. He needs to say, get this bill on my desk.” DeSantis signed the bill on May 6 behind closed doors, with only Fox & Friends cameras allowed in for an “exclusive.”

“The scandal is the national pressure coming down on states with an intent to keep people from voting,” says Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the corporate watchdog group Public Citizen. After record turnout in 2020, “writing these bills, pushing these bills, is a mechanism to attempt to return to those new voters being unable to vote.”

In addition to pushing state-based voting restrictions, Heritage Action is leading the effort to block the passage of HR 1, Democrats’ sweeping democracy reform bill that would preempt many of these voter suppression laws by enacting policies like automatic and Election Day registration, two weeks of early voting, and expanded mail-in voting on a nationwide basis. “HR 1 is basically the dream bill of every left-wing advocacy group we’ve been fighting against for years on election issues,” von Spakovsky said at the donor event.

Von Spakovsky said at the beginning of the year that Heritage put out “a short summary of the worst provisions of a 900-page bill. Now, you all know congressional staffers don’t like reading 900-page bills. That fact sheet we put out is being used by congressional staffers, members of Congress, to go up and fight HR 1.” The group dubbed the bill the “Corrupt Politicians Act,” a label that was soon being used by leading Republicans like Ted Cruz.

“We’ve made sure that every single member of Congress knows just how bad the bill is,” Anderson added. “Then we’ve made sure there’s an echo chamber of support around these senators driven by your Heritage Action activists and sentinels across the country where we’ve driven hundreds of thousands of calls, emails, place letters to the editor, hosted events, and run television and digital ads.”

In March, the group organized a rally in West Virginia to urge centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to oppose the bill and “stand up for WV values,” according to an invitation obtained by Documented, even as it bused in conservative activists from states hundreds of miles away. Heritage Action announced on Wednesday it would run ads this summer pressuring Democratic senators in West Virginia, Arizona, Montana, and New Hampshire to preserve the filibuster in order to block HR 1. 

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Anderson said in April. “If we don’t win this, we lose our republic, period.”

To Elias, the video from the Heritage summit is proof that Republican state lawmakers are pursuing voting restrictions not in response to real local problems, but at the behest of well-funded Washington insiders. “It’s not being run by a coalition of state legislators,” he says. “It’s not being run by election administrators. It’s being run out of an office in Washington, DC, by people whose sole agenda is to make it harder for Black, Brown, and young voters to participate in the electoral process. Republicans who adopt these model laws should be ashamed of themselves.”

Nick Surgey is an investigative reporter and the executive director of Documented.

Jeff Bezos and the secretive world of superyachts – By Max Matza BBC News, Washington

6 hours ago

By Max Matza
BBC News, Washington

Superyachts gather in Monaco

News that Jeff Bezos has bought a “superyacht” has revived interest in the secretive world of the uber-rich globetrotters who enjoy these ultimate status symbols. Experts say the superyacht industry has been booming for years, even during the global economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest man, has seen his personal wealth roughly double since 2017, helped by his wallet ballooning last year as more people than ever turned to online shopping.

It’s not just Bezos. Many of the world’s wealthiest have seen their fortunes accumulate in recent years.

And through it all, shipyards have continued turning out mega yachts that experts say are growing larger as they gain in popularity. According to experts and brokers, 2020 saw more yachts sold than ever before, with 2021 set to again break sales records.

What do we know about Bezos’ yacht?

The 417ft (127m) vessel is being built in the Netherlands by Oceanco, according to a new biography of Bezos by Bloomberg News. 

It is estimated to cost about $500m (£350m), a drop in the ocean for the world’s richest man, whose wealth at one point jumped $13bn in a single day in 2020. His estimated net worth now stands at nearly $200bn.

That price tag does not include a smaller motorised “support yacht” that Bezos also plans to buy. The smaller yacht features a helicopter landing pad – Bezos’ girlfriend, TV host Lauren Sanchez, is a trained helicopter pilot. 

The main yacht is unable to support its own helipad due to the three sailing masts on its deck.

The smaller yacht is also expected to be loaded with other goodies, such as cars, luxury speedboatsand probably even a submarine, experts say.

The highly secretive superyacht project, known as Y721, is due to be completed sometime next month, according to Bloomberg. It’s likely that Bezos’ order was placed several years ago, since custom-made ships like this can take around five years to build.

Oceanco, the Dutch yacht maker, has not commented on the project. They previously built the 350ft Black Pearl, the second largest sailing yacht in the world. 

Getty ImagesSailing yacht “A” which features a wall made of stingray skin

What is a superyacht?

There’s no official definition of a superyacht (versus a regular yacht), but in the industry the term generally refers to a yacht that is over 74ft long. 

Some dispute that definition, saying the term superyachts applies to ships over 200ft long. Some brokers have even taken to the term “gigayacht” to refer to ships longer than 300ft.

“It’s all a little bit of marketing,” says Bill Springer, who writes about the yachting industry for Forbes magazine.

Bezos’ yacht, coming in at over 400ft, is almost as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza (if the vessel was laid out vertically). It’s just under half as long as the Eiffel Tower.

Only a few jumbo superyachts like the Bezos vessel are completed each year, but high-profile projects are often done with such secrecy that builders are required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Therefore it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know if Bezos copied the decorative flairs of Russian oligarch and fellow yachtsman Andrey Melnichenko by covering the wall of one room in tanned stingray skins.

How is the yacht industry doing?

The industry has been growing rapidly over the past 20 years.

According to the US National Marine Manufacturers Association, boat sales reached a 13-year high in 2020, reflecting how people were turning to the water for safe, socially distanced activities during lockdowns.

“The market’s been absolutely roaring,” says Sam Tucker, head of superyacht research at market intelligence firm VesselsValue. “There’s been a record number of transactions done, and that trend is being sustained even until now.”

The market for used yachts has also “just been nuts”, he says. “The market is just red hot.”

Getty Images”Motor Yacht A,” pictured on the Thames in London in 2017

According to Tucker, there are 9,357 yachts over 65ft long that are currently on the seas – meaning those that have not sunk or that are being maintained on land.

About 85% of those are motorised and 15% are sailing yachts like the one Bezos has ordered.

Less yachts were chartered in 2020, Tucker says, which he attributes to pandemic travel restrictions preventing normal tourism activities. 

Sales dropped for a few weeks as lockdown orders hit the US last year, but then immediately skyrocketed.

In June “it was like someone flipped a switch” as orders started rapidly coming in, says Bob Denison, who’s been a yacht broker in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, since 2001. 

“There’s been nothing like it before,” he says. “The amount of demand is two or threefold more than I’ve ever seen.”

Denison’s company sold 1,008 vessels in 2020 – a 35% uptake from the previous year. He is currently on track to see another 30% increase in 2021. 

About 65 of those he sold in 2020 were superyachts. So far this year about 40 superyachts have been sold, meaning about 2.2 superyachts have been sold by his company per week since January.

Demand has totally outstripped supply, says his colleague Ben Farnborough, who adds that it’s getting much harder now to find used boats for them to sell.

Farnborough hopes that the easing of coronavirus travel restrictions will soon make it possible to travel to Europe to source more second-hand yachts to sell in the US.

Nick VerolaSubmarines made by the company Triton are about as big as a garden shed

Who buys a superyacht?

The vessels are often bought by corporations and are then rented out by the company’s owner, making it difficult to say for certain which yachts are owned by whom.

At famous ship-building ports, such as the one in the Netherlands where Oceanco is located, hobbyists will try to spot private airplane tail numbers in an effort to determine which billionaires have come to visit their future yacht.

Privacy is the whole point of owning a yacht, says Tucker, who calls it an “opaque industry”. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, fellow tech billionaires, are rumoured to have yachts. 

“These are very private assets and one of the reasons they’re bought is for privacy,” says Tucker. The privacy also offers security protections, not an insignificant consideration for the richest people in the world. 

Getty ImagesBezos speaks in 2017 from on board a spaceship built by his company Blue Origin

But despite the booming popularity, the ultra-rich may want to keep their newest toys extra private these days.

After Hollywood billionaire David Geffen posted online about being “isolated” on his yacht in a tropical paradise and hoping everyone else was “staying safe” during the pandemic, he was swiftly trolled by land-dwellers.

“Did David Geffen just give everyone the middle finger?” one Instagram user posted in reaction to Geffen’s not-so-humble brag.

Why are they so expensive?

Yachts offer “true exclusivity,” says Springer, who likens them to owning a private island or building a personalised city from scratch.

“Back in the Renaissance, rich patrons would pay – in current money – millions of dollars to build cathedrals,” he says. 

“And they were the most beautiful and they had the finest artisans, and they were the most spectacular projects of their day. And it was a lot of ‘Hey I’m really rich and I’m gonna do this really amazing stuff with my money’.”

“So superyachts are very similar in that regard.”

They’re getting more comfortable too, and are going to places beyond the “classic glamour ports” like Monaco, Springer says. People are now taking them to more exotic and farflung locations, such as Antarctica and Papua New Guinea, as owners find that they are more than just status symbols.

Getty ImagesYachts are similar to Christian cathedrals sponsored by wealthy Europeans centuries ago

The finest superyachts are custom-made, with the global craftsmen addressing every single detail for the tastes of the world’s most rich and elite.

They can take years to build. A yacht as big as Bezos’ probably involved about 400 workers and designers, estimates Farnborough. When completed, it will probably need about 60 people to crew it.

Annual operating costs amount to about 10% of the purchase price, says Tucker from VesselsValue. High oil prices and the potential for further lockdowns could lead to more used yachts hitting the market over the coming year, he estimates.

What else costs as much as a superyacht?

If you want this mega yacht, complete with its marble-clad bar, it can be yours for $45m

Bezos bought the Washington Post newspaper in 2013 for just $250m – so about half the cost of his new superyacht.

A painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is currently on auction in New York for a low estimate of $145m. There’s also a Claude Monet painting going for about $350m.

Virgin Galactic has been pre-selling tickets into space for between $200,000 to $250,000 in recent years as they prepare for their first commercial launch.

But if you’re Jeff Bezos, there’s no need to book a ticket. Bezos, who is behind the space venture Blue Origin, could fly on his own rocket ship.

U.K.’s Biggest Naval Fleet in Decades to Flex Muscle With Eye on China and U.S. – By James Marson and Max Colchester May 13, 2021 8:00 am ET

Fresh from Brexit, Britain bulks up military to strengthen special relationship with U.S.

The British Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will lead a group of eight ships on a tour of 40 countries in its first overseas deployment. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/Associated Press

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LONDON—The most powerful U.K. fleet to be assembled in decades is preparing to set sail this month on a tour of 40 countries, focused on the Indo-Pacific, in an effort to show British military muscle in a region where the U.S. is seeking to counter Chinese influence.

Spearheading the fleet is HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of two new aircraft carriers that are central to the U.K.’s new foreign-policy strategy. The approach seeks to cement the “special relationship” with the U.S. while bolstering alliances within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and across the globe.

Britain, now out of the European Union, recently announced an overhaul of its military, pledging the biggest increase in military spending since the Cold War. The U.K. is shrinking its army and cutting its tank forces to spend more on creating a nimbler, better-equipped military with more special forces and drones.

“We are all of us light years away from a superpower in scale so don’t have the option of being able to cover all the bases all the time,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.

Britain no longer needs a hulking army that can fight a traditional war, he said. Instead, it needs a smaller but better-equipped military force that is deployed abroad helping allies and deterring enemies in contested parts of the globe, he said.

The U.K. has previously said it would buy 138 Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jets but has so far committed to purchasing 48. Photo: British Ministry of Defence/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The U.S. still forms the bedrock of that plan. On board the HMS Queen Elizabeth, eight of the U.K.’s most-advanced warplanes, Lockheed Martin’s F-35B, are bolstered by a squadron of 10 similar aircraft from the U.S. Marine Corps.

A U.S. destroyer is joining the group of eight Royal Navy ships—the largest British-led naval operation since the Falklands War of 1982—to help provide protection from air and underwater threats, as is a Dutch frigate.

The British-led fleet, which will sail through the South China Sea, will also promote a vision of the country as a global economic and military player following Brexit. The U.K. last year said it would spend an additional $32 billion over the next four years compared with its 2019 budget to bolster its military and fill gaps in funding.

For the U.K.’s Royal Navy, the renewed focus on sea power marks a return, on a smaller scale, to when the island nation built an empire by ruling the waves.

But it comes at a price. Britain is shrinking its army from 76,000 service members to 72,500 by 2025 and reducing its number of tanks, albeit upgrading the ones it is keeping. Those cutbacks could diminish its ability to fight a traditional land war on the European mainland, its focus during the Cold War, or to pursue large expeditionary operations as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The opposition Labour Party’s Defense spokesman, John Healey, criticized the cut to the army. “It could seriously limit our forces’ capacity simultaneously to deploy overseas, support allies and maintain strong national defenses and resilience,” he said. 

Some U.K. lawmakers and defense analysts say the new strategy highlights the U.K.’s humbler military role as an adjunct of the U.S. that can’t do much on its own. “Some will thus suggest that whilst the poodle will have grown a few more teeth, it is still a poodle,” Julian Lindley-French, a British military analyst, wrote in an analysis. 

“That’s not disparaging,” he said in an interview. “That’s the role we play. It’s the center of the entire plan.”

Mr. Wallace said military analysts who say the plan leaves the U.K. even more reliant on U.S. military muscle “are completely wrong.” 

“Some of our international partnering is going to be focused on different partners, it is not just the U.S.,” he said. Mr. Wallace said that conflicts increasingly play out in “gray zones,” or areas of the globe where great powers vie for influence without going into full-scale war.

Britain is bolstering its investment in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It is also creating a new Ranger Regiment, equivalent to the Green Berets, to take part in covert missions abroad. Britain’s more independent force can forge alliances on the ground without necessarily leaning on the U.S., he said.

A British soldier aboard a Chinook helicopter in March 2019 during a French-led operation in Mali, where the U.K. is working with other EU nations to fight Islamist militants. Photo: daphné benoit/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“We are not going to pretend we have armored divisions we don’t have, and we are not going to have ships that are wrapped up in plastic and tied up,” he said.

The U.K., for example, is working with a group of other EU nations led by France in operations in the Sahel region of Africa that are aimed at combating Islamist militants.

“It may be, as America tilts to China, that Europe, where there is a growing Islamist threat, has to do more in Africa,” Mr. Wallace said. Still, European forces in Africa remain reliant on U.S. intelligence and logistical support.

The reduction in the U.K. army’s size could place more pressure on European allies in NATO to do more to deter and, if needed, defend against Russia. They have added billions of dollars to military budgets since Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014. But Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is still far below the alliance’s spending target of 2% of gross domestic product.

“It’s in vogue to talk about future war, that tanks are obsolete, and it’s not about troops on the ground. But you have to be able to do mass and steel as well,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “That’s what the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians bring to the table.”


What role should the U.K. military play now that the country has left the European Union?  Join the conversation below.

The U.K. is leading a NATO multinational battlegroup in Estonia, one of four set up to counter Russia’s assertiveness. 

“Apart from the United States, European partners create mass by partnerships, by alliances. That’s what NATO is,” Mr. Wallace said. “What are people saying that we could do with a standing force of 76,000 that we couldn’t do with a standing force of 72,000?”

The bulking-up of the British fleet is timely for the U.S. Navy, which is being stretched by a Russian naval resurgence and the rise of China as a sea power, alongside U.S. commitments in the Middle East. China, in particular, has bolstered its naval forces to include two aircraft carriers, with at least one more under construction.

The U.K. carriers will provide some relief to the U.S.’s 11 flattops, which are under strain from extended deployments. 

“The U.S. can’t go it alone,” said retired Adm. James Foggo, a former commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy. “The U.K. has a clear vision, and they are putting the money into it.”

Taiwan and China have had an unstable coexistence for more than seven decades. But concerns are rising that China may move against Taiwan to force a unification. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains some of the causes for worry. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Other European allies are also stepping up. France, which last year unveiled plans for a new nuclear-powered carrier, said in February that one of its nuclear-powered submarines had passed through the South China Sea, where China is seeking to assert its sovereignty. 

The carrier group will sail some 26,000 nautical miles and visit India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. It will take part in exercises in the Mediterranean with France’s aircraft carrier, along with ships and aircraft from Canada, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. The fleet will also exercise in the Pacific with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Recent U.K. governments have said the country would buy 138 F-35B warplanes, but it has only committed to purchasing 48, of which 21 have been delivered. That has prompted concern among some lawmakers that the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, could be bare.

“My worry is that we are falling way, way short of the original ambition and that we are going to end up with fantastic-looking aircraft carriers and very bespoke aircraft, but not many on board,” Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood said at a December meeting of the House of Commons defense committee, of which he is chairman.

“We will be purchasing more” of the aircraft, Mr. Wallace said, without stating exactly how many.

Write to James Marson at and Max Colchester at