Saturday, the 13th of July

Talking points

Digging up secrets in the Holy See. PHOTO: AFP
  1. An unexpected twist emerged in the Vatican murder mystery cold case
  2. Britain's ambassador to the U.S. resigned after a diplomatic scandal
  3. Deutsche Bank revealed a massive downsizing in scale and ambition
  4. 22 nations condemned China's Muslim concentration camps
  5. The U.S. beat the Dutch to win the Fifa Women's World Cup
  6. A deadly superbug spread to epidemic levels in Vietnam's hospitals
  7. A skull in Greece has rewritten the history of the Homo sapiens
  8. Iranian and British vessels tangled near the Strait of Hormuz
  9. French lawmakers voted for a 3% tax on tech giants like Google
  10. Anti-poaching laws boosted Tanzania's rhino population by 1000%

Deep Dive

Donald, Melania, Jeffrey and Ghislaine at Mar-a-Lago in 2000. PHOTO: Getty

A billionaire sexual predator has been charged with running a child sex trafficking ring through his Upper East Side townhouse and Palm Beach mansion. He was, and is, a friend to minor royals, tycoons and the uppermost echelon of America's political class. Accusations have been accreting over decades, and it's becoming clear that his relative success in legal battles had more to do with his fortune rather than good fortune. This is not the plot of a John Grisham novel: it's the life and times of Jeffrey Epstein.

A few bad men 

Long before all of this mess, Epstein was a "fixture" of Palm Beach's social scene and a friend to celebrities and politicians. No-one quite knows how he made his wealth (the term 'financier' is often applied to him; he apparently managed other billionaires' fortunes in the 1980s). Whatever it was that he did, during the 1990s and 2000s it allowed him to move in America's most exclusive social circles and devote significant time to his favourite pursuit: coercing underage girls into having sex with him aboard his private jet (the tabloid press dubbed it, the 'Lolita Express') and at his various residences.

In 2002, one-time friend Donald Trump said of Epstein, then a regular guest at Mar-a-Lago, "He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side". It must be mentioned that years on Epstein was banned from the exclusive Florida club for allegedly grooming an employee. But in the good old days Trump wasn't the only person having a lot of fun with him. Flight logs show former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker as passengers on the Lolita Express around the time Epstein was alleged to be abusing children. 

The best justice money can buy 

Things soured in 2005 when Florida police began investigating Epstein for soliciting sex from a 14-year-old. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) added its heft to the proceedings and eventually gathered credible testimony from 36 girls. Their experiences overlapped: each were brought to Epstein's properties for 'massages', coerced into intercourse and then paid. Some were paid extra to act as recruiters for other girls. Others alleged they had been coerced into having sex with other famous men on his plane. A separate lawsuit in 2006 supported this: accusing Epstein of "lending" underage girls to his famous friends, only to secretly film them as an insurance policy.

A 53-page indictment was prepared by the office of the United States Attorney for Florida, Alexander Acosta, alleging enough crimes to send Epstein to jail for life. But Epstein's well-heeled lawyers (Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School fame and Ken Starr of Clinton impeachment fame) won concession after concession from Acosta's office, culminating in what the Miami Herald described as "the deal of a lifetime". In 2008 Epstein plead guilty to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution from underage girls and the case was sealed. He served just 13 months in the cushy private wing of a Florida county jail. In actuality his 'work release' arrangement allowed him to spend 12 hours per day (and six days per week) at his office.

Just days after the non-prosecution deal was signed, Epstein had a two curious devices shipped to his Florida mansion: a document shredder and a carpet-and-tile extractor. 

Questions of substance

Nearly a decade after the original trial, a dogged reporter kept chipping away at the legal screen of secrecy, interviewing victims and assembling the disparate threads of the story. After two years of painstaking effort, Julie K. Brown published her piece in the Miami Herald. It carried even more details about Epstein's sex-trafficking ring; enough to prompt the authorities to open an investigation.

Acosta – Trump's Labor Secretary – defended his actions, arguing that a plea deal that guaranteed time in jail, albeit just 13 months, was preferable to the state losing in open court and having Epstein walk free. True, Dershowitz was a specialist in getting his clients off the hook – O.J. Simpson, for one – but the state had an embarrassment of evidence in their corner. Likewise, the fact that his accusers were kept in the dark about key details does not have any ready-made explanations. Unable to answer them convincingly, Acosta resigned from Cabinet late on Friday.

But Acosta is not the only one who needs to answer questions. British socialite, wealthy heiress and Epstein's long-term partner Ghislaine Maxwell will surely have to answer the multiple accusations that she acted as a procurer for the billionaire paedophile. One lawsuit alleged that Dershowitz himself had molested girls on the Epstein's private plane. And New York County District Attorney Cy Vance must explain why his office reduced Epstein's sex offender status from level one (the highest) to level three (the lowest). Vance is already facing heat for his preferential treatment of Trump and Harvey Weinstein. We'd say that questions remain for Trump himself but the answers wouldn't be all that reflective.

There is another lingering question, one that nearly all of us should grapple with. We live in a society that sexualises teenaged girls. Through all forms of media, advertising and the arts (looking at you Nabokov), representations of pubescent girls are regularly viewed through the prism of sexuality and desire. It provides a smokescreen for predators, while laying the foundation for objectification, control and abuse. Epstein's case is just an extreme manifestation of it. 


A rocky landing. PHOTO: Forbes

A falcon in the dragon palace 

Take your time with the unfamiliar image above. Notice the strange apparatus on a foreign mass, a spray of debris from the point of impact, and the low-resolution of the image itself. What's pictured is Japan's Hayabusa 2 (Falcon 2) probe collecting sub-surface material from the asteroid Ryugu (Dragon Palace), some 290 million kilometres from Earth. It is the first time that such material has been collected that predates the formation of our own planet. Or, in the words of an ecstatic Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) project leader, "We've collected a part of the Solar System's history"

The Hayabusa 2 has been orbiting this distant asteroid for several months as the team examined the most sensible places to land and take samples. Ryugu is of particular interest because it has been drifting through space – being blasted by cosmic radiation – for an estimated 4.5 billion years. The fridge-sized spacecraft approached the surface and fired a projectile (sorry, no lasers yet) into the surface. If successful (JAXA won't know until they actually look inside) then a compartment on the bottom of the Hayabusa 2 will contain roughly 0.1 grams of asteroid innards. It will give us an unheralded look into the dawn of the Milky Way, if, of course, the falcon manages to leave the dragon palace in good stead.
Gone, but not forgotten. PHOTO: The Independent

The nukes below the surface

The extreme conditions in which military submarine crews operate is legendary: isolated hundreds of metres beneath the waves for months at a time in a vessel powered by a nuclear reactor. However lurking below the sea not only amplifies their menace, it exacerbates their vulnerability. A pair of stories concerning Russian subs revealed just how easily accidents can become catastrophes.

In 1989 the nuclear-powered Soviet submarine Komsomolets sunk after a fire broke out aboard. It took to the bottom of the Barents Sea both its scrammed nuclear reactor and a pair of nuclear-tipped torpedoes. At the time the Norwegian government successfully petitioned for the Soviet navy to retrieve the munitions, but the Kremlin insisted that the reactor wasn't leaking. On Monday a joint Russian-Norwegian research team revealed that to be incorrect: one reading inside the submarine found it to have 100,000 times more radiation than one would expect to find in sea water. 

The news came just a week after another disaster aboard a nuclear Russian submarine in the same sea. On the first of the month the Losharik reported that a fire had broken out as it took measurements near the seabed. 14 sailors died from the fire and smoke inhalation before it was contained. Little is known about the submarine – it is one of the most closely-guarded weapons in the Russian navy – but those who died give us an understanding of its importance. Seven of the dead are amongst the highest ranking officers in the navy and two of them are Hero of Russia award recipients. This concentration of brass on an experimental submarine suggests that it was trialling some new technology or tactic (more than likely relating to tapping undersea cables). 

The Best of Times

Value that defies decapitation. PHOTO: Trustees of the British Museum

Thanks for reading

The British Museum has repatriated to Afghanistan the priceless remains of 4th century terracotta sculptures. The pieces, which once adorned the buddhist temples of the kingdom of Gandharā, were partially destroyed by the Taliban. Someone squirrelled them out of the country, but only as far as Britain, where they've remained in contention since 2002. It comes just a week after the British lust for other people's antiquities copped a serve in this very column. Coincidence?

Fire > fire 

Superbugs pose a serious, possibly calamitous, threat to our species. A whole host of contemporary treatments and drugs have proven ineffective in the face of these hardy bacteria. So scientists are trying a promising new method: using superbugs to fight superbugs.

The Worst of Times

The clenched fist of the law. PHOTO: John Moore / Getty

Icy receptions

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become a byword for heavy-handedness (even its acronym is foreboding). The uncompromising and increasingly militarised border guards have proven a divisive agency in America – and this week they'll split the country even further. Trump administration officials leaked to reporters that ICE will start rounding up undocumented migrants in 10 cities as of this Sunday. 

Tropical Storm Barry

New Orleans, a city lying below sea-level, is preparing for 'extreme flooding' this weekend as a tropical storm approaches from the Gulf of Mexico. While Barry is only expected to raise the water level at the mouth of the Mississippi by 2-3ft, this will be on-top  of the extra 10 feet of water roaring down the swollen river from heavy rains inland. If the levees breach the city will be inundated.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Sure, we had – and have – GDP growth rates that many other countries around the world envied, but for many New Zealanders, this GDP growth had not translated into higher living standards or better opportunities. How could we be a rockstar, they asked, with homelessness, child poverty and inequality on the rise?"

– New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson explains why his country will be taking the profoundly sensible step of scrapping the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the barometer for national growth in favour of a Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI). Yes, incredible as it may seem, there is more to the human endeavour than the accumulation of money. Bravo.

 Headline of the week

Kanye West to Build 'Star Wars'-Inspired Housing for the Homeless
Rolling Stone

Special mention

This giant wreck-fish that ate a shark in one bite.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: We're being spoilt for great sporting events at the moment. There are almost too many World Cups to mention. This weekend we recommend you bathe in the glow of raw human potential – by that we mean watch Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Netball World Cup or the Cricket World Cup.

You ought not need to be reminded of the rules: always barrack for the underdog – unless that underdog is England.

Tom Wharton