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Watchdog to probe intensive audits of Trump foes who led FBI

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Then FBI Director James Comey (left) was fired by president Donald Trump in 2017
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The US tax authority said Thursday it had asked for an independent investigation into rare, intrusive audits of two ex-FBI heads who were prominent adversaries of former president Donald Trump.

James Comey, the FBI director until he was sacked by Trump in 2017, and Andrew McCabe, Comey’s deputy and temporary replacement, were both subjected to the Internal Revenue Service reviews while the Republican billionaire was in office.

Individuals are supposed to be picked at random for the IRS’s National Research Program audits, making the chances of Comey being singled out in 2017 about one in 30,000, while McCabe’s odds in 2019 were about one in 20,000.

The revelation, first reported by The New York Times, raised questions over how two men who ran the nation’s premier domestic police agency and were seen by Trump as among his most high-profile foes could both have been selected.

Trump sacked Comey in 2017 and then called on him to be arrested for treason, angered by his investigation of the then-president’s extensive ties to Russia.

McCabe, who became acting FBI director after Comey’s dismissal, was fired by Trump’s Justice Department over accusations of lying to investigators that were never followed up with charges.

Trump smeared McCabe, too, again with unfounded treason allegations, and relentlessly pushed for his prosecution.

“I don’t know whether anything improper happened, but after learning how unusual this audit was and how badly Trump wanted to hurt me during that time, it made sense to try to figure it out,” Comey said in a statement to the Times. 

“Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe somebody misused the IRS to get at a political enemy. Given the role Trump wants to continue to play in our country, we should know the answer to that question.”

– ‘Political targeting’ –

The IRS confirmed in a statement that its head Chuck Rettig — appointed by Trump in 2018 — had personally asked a Treasury Inspector General for a review.

“Audits are handled by career civil servants, and the IRS has strong safeguards in place to protect the exam process — and against politically motivated audits,” spokeswoman Jodie Reynolds told AFP.

“It’s ludicrous and untrue to suggest that senior IRS officials somehow targeted specific individuals for National Research Program audits.”

The referral earned support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Richard Neal, the Democratic chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement the “political targeting” of Comey and McCabe marked “a crack in IRS’s fragile credibility.”

His Republican counterpart Kevin Brady said he supported “investigating all allegations of political targeting,” adding that the IRS should never be used as a weapon against political opponents.    

Trump’s representatives did not respond immediately to a request for comment, although the Times reported that a spokesman said the ex-president had “no knowledge of this.”

Comey’s audit lasted more than a year, and he and his wife were found to have overpaid their 2017 federal income taxes and got a $347 refund. 

McCabe told The Times he and his wife had paid a small amount they were found to be owing.

“I have significant questions about how or why I was selected for this,” he said.

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Flight tracking exposure irks billionaires and baddies

How to upset Russian freight companies, Elon Musk, Chinese authorities and Kylie Jenner in one go? Track their jets. 

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The Flightradar24 app is seen on a smartphone in front of a screen showing the live position of planes tracked by the app in the area of Los Angeles on August 5, 2022
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How to upset Russian freight companies, Elon Musk, Chinese authorities and Kylie Jenner in one go? Track their jets.

Flight following websites and Twitter accounts offer real-time views of air traffic –- and sometimes major news like Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip –- but that exposure draws pushback ranging from complaints to gear seizures.

Whether Russian air freight firms, Saudi Arabian plane owners or others, Dan Streufert said his group gets dozens of “requests” each year to stop posting aircrafts’ whereabouts.

“We have not removed anything so far. This is all public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter of who’s right and who’s wrong,” added Streufert, founder of the US-based flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange.

Limits do apply in some cases, but groups that piece together the flight paths note that the core information source is legally available and open to anyone with the right gear.

US rules require planes in designated areas be equipped with ADS-B technology that broadcasts aircraft positions using signals that relatively simple equipment can pick up.

A service like Sweden-based Flightradar24 has 34,000, mostly volunteer-operated receivers around the world to pick up the signals, a key source of information that’s routed back to a central network and combined with data on flight schedules and aircraft information.

Figuring out or confirming to whom a plane actually belongs can require some sleuthing, said jet tracker Jack Sweeney, who filed a public records request with the US government that yielded a form bearing the signature of a particular plane’s owner: Tesla boss Elon Musk.

Sweeney has gotten quite a bit of attention with his Twitter account that tracks the movements of the billionaire’s plane and even rejected Musk’s offer of $5,000 to shut down @ElonJet, which has over 480,000 followers.

“There’s so much traction, I’m doing something right. The celebrity thing –- people like seeing what celebrities are doing, that and the whole emissions thing,” he told AFP, referring to concerns over the planes’ greenhouse gas impact.

“Putting it on Twitter makes it easier for people to access and understand,” Sweeney added.

– ‘We will track anything’ –

Another of Sweeney’s Twitter accounts, powered by data from ADS-B Exchange, showed in July that US model and celebrity Kylie Jenner’s plane took a flight in California that lasted just 17 minutes.

The internet was not pleased and she faced a torrent of criticism on social media over concerns about the message it sent regarding climate change.

“They tell us working class people to feel bad about our once a year flight to a much needed vacation while these celebs take private jets every other day as if it’s an Uber,” tweeted @juliphoria, in an example of the outrage.

Neither Sweeney nor Streufert evoked a distinct redline they were concerned could be crossed by publishing the flight data.

“We will track anything because honestly, if somebody really was a bad actor, and they wanted to know where this stuff is, you can build the electronics for $100 and just deploy receivers to pick up the same signals yourself,” said Streufert from ADS-B Exchange.

Sweeney said “the data is already out there. I’m just redistributing it.”

There is also money to be made, but it’s not clear how much –- Streufert acknowledged he makes a living but declined to provide specifics and Sweeney said his flight tracking work brought in about $100 a month. Flightradar24 didn’t provide its revenue.

The services’ information -– as recently shown by the hundreds of thousands watching whether Pelosi would defy China’s warnings –- has significant potential for impact far beyond embarrassment of celebrities or the rankling of billionaires.

For example, ADS-B Exchange’s data was cited in a non-profit group’s report alleging Europe’s border agency Frontex worked to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, while US media used it to show surveillance planes flew over racial justice protests in Washington in 2020.

In fact, dozens of US Congress members responded to the revelations by signing on to a letter urging the FBI and other government entities like the National Guard to “cease surveilling peaceful protests immediately and permanently.”

In some parts of the world, governments have made clear the technology and resulting information is not welcome.

Chinese state media reported in 2021 that the government had recently confiscated hundreds of receivers used in crowd-sourced flight tracking, citing the risk of “espionage.”

“In many cases, it’s authoritarian regimes that don’t like this exposure,” Streufert said.

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WSJ reports Pfizer in talks to acquire Global Blood Therapeutics for $5-billion

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A man walks past the Pfizer logo on the drug maker's headquarters in New York
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American drugmaker Pfizer is close to a deal to purchase Global Blood Therapeutics, which manufactures a recently approved drug against sickle-cell anemia, for $5 billion, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Pfizer, one of the top makers of Covid-19 vaccines, hopes to conclude talks with GBT within days, the newspaper said Friday, citing people close to the negotiations.

But it said other takeover candidates remain in the running.

GBT’s sickle-cell treatment, marketed as Oxbryta, was authorized for those over 12 years old in 2019 but gained federal approval in December for children aged four to 11. The blood disorder affects millions.

Sales of Oxbryta helped the laboratory generate first-quarter turnover of $55 million (up 41 percent), while the company registered a net loss of $81.4 million.

GBT, which is based in San Francisco, California, is to publish its second-quarter numbers on Monday.

Pfizer, for its part, saw its second-quarter turnover jump by 47 percent — to a record $27.74 billion — boosted by sales of its Covid vaccine and pills.

Its net profit soared by 78 percent, to $9.9 billion.

GBT shares on the New York Stock Exchange were up 33.03 percent at the close on Friday, at $63.84, for a market capitalization of more than $4 billion.

Pfizer shares slipped by 1.18 percent, to $49.27.

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Amazon to buy Roomba-maker iRobot in $1.7-billion deal

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Amazon said it will buy iRobot for $61 per share along with acquiring the company's debt
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Amazon on Friday announced a $1.7 billion deal to buy the maker of robotic vacuum Roomba in a merger that would play into the tech giant’s artificial intelligence and smart home ambitions.

US-based iRobot is a global company that builds robots and “intelligent home” innovations, having introduced Roomba self-operating vacuums a decade ago, Amazon said in a release.

“Over many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive,” said Amazon senior vice president of devices Dave Limp.

Amazon’s deal to buy iRobot for $61 per share along with acquiring the company’s debt is subject to approval of shareholders and regulators.

Colin Angle is to remain chief executive of iRobot after the purchase.

The acquisition “reinforces Amazon’s interest and market position in robotics and home automation, and underscores the strategic value of AI,” Baird analyst Colin Sebastian said in a note to investors.

The Massachusetts-based company has a 30-year track record in robotics, and underlying software such as mapping and navigation, Sebastian said.

Amazon has been investing in smart home and automation technologies with acquisitions such as Ring doorbells, Kiva warehouse robots and self-driving startup Zoox.

“With Alexa and Amazon.com at the core, Amazon continues to prioritize opportunities to develop the smart home,” Sebastian said.

“MGM even fits as it powers more Prime Video on home entertainment devices.”

Amazon earlier this year closed an $8.45 billion deal to buy the storied MGM studios, boosting its streaming ambitions with a catalog including the James Bond and Rocky film franchises.

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