Chance favors the prepared mind. — Louis Pasteur
Until very recently we’ve had three main methods for treating cancer. We’ve had surgery for at least 3,000 years. We added radiation therapy in 1896. Then in 1946, chemical warfare research led to the use of a mustard gas derivative to kill cancer cells. Those poisons were the foundation for chemotherapy.
These “cut, burn, and poison” techniques are currently estimated to be able to cure cancer in about half of the people who develop the disease. And that’s remarkable, a true medical accomplishment. But that leaves the other half of cancer patients. Last year, in the United States alone, that translated to nearly 600,000 people who died of the disease.
The fight was never fair. We’ve been pitting simple drugs against creative, mutating versions of our own cells, trying to kill the bad ones while sparing the good ones, and making ourselves sick in the process. And we’ve been doing that for a very long time.
But now we have added a new and very different approach—one that doesn’t act directly on cancer, but rather acts on the immune system. And that’s the breakthrough.
For more than 100 years, medical researchers puzzled over that question. Most concluded that the immune system and cancer simply had nothing to say to each other. The argument was that since cancer is a normal body cell gone rogue, it is too much a part of us to ever trigger an immune response. Cancer immunotherapy was condemned as a quaint if simplistic idea based on high hopes and bad science. But despite the mounting mockery of the larger scientific community and dwindling research funds, a handful of immunotherapy researchers continued to believe—and continued searching, decade after decade, for the missing piece of the cancer immunity puzzle, a factor that prevented the immune system from recognizing and attacking cancer cells.
The stakes could not have been higher. If such a missing piece could be found, it would radically reshape our scientific understanding of both ourselves and disease and possibly revolutionize medicine on a scale not seen since the invention of vaccines. It might allow us to finally unleash our immune system, enabling it to recognize and attack cancer the way it does other diseases. It might even pave a new road to the cure. For the tens of millions more diagnosed with cancer each year, the race to find the missing piece of the cancer-immunity puzzle was literally a matter of life and death.
But despite the occasional glimmer in the darkness, generations of researchers had tried and failed to find this missing factor. Nobody could even say for certain that such a such a piece existed. And certainly nobody would have guessed that it would be discovered by a hard-living, harmonica-playing Texan who hadn’t even been looking for it.
THE STRETCH BETWEEN 1965 and 1973 were peak years if you were young and musical in Austin, when the little university town was just beginning its metamorphosis into the tech and freak capital of a cowboy state—Texas enough to two-step, hippie enough to do it stoned, and smart enough to work the newly relocated tech mills of Texas Instruments, Motorola, and IBM. Jim Allison fit right in.
He had outgrown his hometown of Alice, Texas, when the local high school failed to offer an advanced biology class that dared mention Charles Darwin. He turned to correspondence courses from the University of Texas at Austin. and after graduation he enrolled full-time, a 17-year-old bound to be a country doctor like his dad. Back then, the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine wasn’t even a twinkle in the young Texan’s eye.
If you sold beer in Austin and had a surface flat enough to put a bar stool on, you were a music club, and Jim Allison played the blues harp well enough that he was in demand. He could sit in at the honky-tonks in town or play for Lone Stars in Luckenbach, where the new breed of outlaw country players like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings roamed the earth. Either way it was a lot of fun; premed, meanwhile, wasn’t proving to be that interesting. Allison wasn’t drawn to memorizing what others had found out. He wanted to arm himself with skills to do the finding himself, so in 1965 he switched tracks and traded memorization for a laboratory, working with enzymes toward a biochemistry PhD.
Enzymes are natural organic chemicals that make stuff happen. The enzymes Allison was studying happened to break down a chemical that fueled a type of mouse leukemia; inject a mouse with this specific enzyme and the enzyme destroyed the cancer fuel. His goal was to figure out the biochemistry of how those enzymes did their job.
In the experiment, once the enzyme eventually robbed the tumor of all its fuel, the tumor went necrotic and “disappeared.” Allison wanted to know where it went. Allison says. His curiosity led him to his first glimpse of a biology he would eventually redefine, and the first tenuous steps toward a generational breakthrough in the war against cancer.
Allison knew the disease intimately. He’d been just a kid when he lost his mom to it, had held her hand as she went, not even knowing what the disease was or why she had burns, only knowing she was gone. He’d lose most of his family that way eventually, and though he’d never say it out loud, and wouldn’t even much voice it to himself, in the back of his mind killing cancer would always be the one potential, practical outcome of his otherwise pure scientific research. Allison would follow his curiosity like a north star, wandering for decades, but heading home all the while.
The dead tumors in his mouse cages hadn’t just disappeared by magic, of course—it was biology. The human body sheds old, dead cells (a mass roughly equal to our body weight each year) the way trees shed leaves, and for essentially the same reason. The process (called “apoptosis,” from the Greek for “to fall away”) allows fresh daughter cells to take their place. The spring cleaning is carried out by hungry, blobby Pac-Man cells in our blood—part of a 500 million-year-old personal defense force that Allison’s textbooks called the innate immune system.
Today, aspects of our immune system still remain a mystery, but when Allison began his studies it hadn’t really even been explored, a sort of deep-ocean ecosystem in the human body. “New” aspects of the immune system, like the hunter-killer T-cells, were barely on the radar yet (Allison’ s college professor thought they were “too weird” evolutionarily to really exist). But some of the older aspects of the defenses in our bloodstream had been worked out, especially those of the innate immune system, which works much the same in sea sponges as it does in humans.
The ancient players of the innate immune system are charismatic and deceptively straightforward. They also happen to be big enough to be seen wiggling and eating under the microscope. That includes amoeba-like cells adept at squeezing between body cells and patrolling our perimeter (inside and out, we have a surface larger than a doubles tennis court), looking for what shouldn’t be there and killing it.
Some of the innate immune cells are small, blobby smart patrollers called dendritic cells. Others are similar-looking but larger blobby characters called macrophages (literally, “big eaters”). Most of what they eat are those retired body cells—normal cells that have hit their expiration date and politely self-destructed, through apoptosis. They also eat bad guys.
Macrophages have an innate ability to recognize simple invaders. Most are the usual suspects of disease—the bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses that evolved right alongside us for millennia. These foreign, or “non-self,” cells are recognizable as foreign because they look different—that is, the fingerprint of chemical arrangements of proteins on their surfaces is different. Macrophages look for anything they recognize as foreign, then grab and gobble it.
From his reading in the library, Allison knew that researchers had found these blobby amoeba-like cells to be more than just garbagemen; they were also frontline reporters bringing back updates from the constant battle against disease. When they found something interesting and foreign, they carried pieces of those strange, non-self proteins (or “antigens”) back to the lymph nodes, to show them around like wanted posters. (Lymph nodes are like Rick’s in Casablanca. Good guys, bad guys, reporters and soldiers, macrophages, dendritic cells, T and B cells, and even diseased cells, everyone goes to Rick’s.) The information triggered other cells in the adaptive immune system to ramp up into a massive clone army in specific response.
Allison knew that was basically how vaccines worked—by presenting the body with dead samples of a disease that it might encounter later. This introduction triggers the immune system to build up forces against anything that looks like that sample. Then later, if the live disease does show up, an immune army will be waiting for it.
Now, Allison wondered if something like that was happening in his mouse cages, too
He’d killed the tumor. The mouse macrophages were gobbling up the mutant cells and clearing them out. In the process, they were surely carrying back those distinctive mutant proteins and showing them to the killer cells of the adaptive immune system. And wasn’t that sorta how a vaccine worked?
So, Allison wondered, did that mean his experiment had, in a roundabout way, vaccinated his mice against this specific form of blood cancer? Were they now “immune” to this cancer?
“Just for the hell of it, I was setting up another experiment, and I decided that since I had these mice that were cured—who were just sitting there, eating—I would inject them with the tumor again, but not treat them with the enzyme this time, and see what happened,” Allison remembers. He hadn’t asked permission, he didn’t write a protocol, nothing. He simply shot from the hip. And what happened was … nothing.
“They didn’t get tumors,” Allison says. “I went back and injected them with 10 times as much, and they still didn’t get tumors. I injected them with another five times more, and they still didn’t get tumors! Something was happening here,” Allison says. “Something amazing!”
As a casual one-off, the experiment hadn’t really proved anything. (“People talked about doing it in humans, you know, just taking your own tumor and mashing it up somehow and injecting it back, but it doesn’t really work that easily.”) But it had provided Allison his first glimpse of the mystery and potential of the immune system and its most recently discovered component, the T cell. His professor was only half wrong—they did exist, but they were, in fact, weird. Good weird, Allison thought. They were killers, some of them, but there were other types that “helped” complex immune responses, making it possible to somehow be prepared to recognize and kill diseases that the human body had never encountered before. And, really, there was no telling how much we didn’t yet know.
Simply put, this was the most interesting thing Jim Allison had ever come across. So he decided to switch tracks, again, and study that.
“Man, they sold a lot of beer that night,” Allison says. Willie had taken the mic, asking, “You all mind if I stand in and play a few?” then played for four hours. “I never had to pay for another one in that bar again,” Allison says. Afterward he took the band back to the hotel. “Yeah, that was good,” Allison says. “And somehow we managed to avoid getting arrested.”
Meanwhile, Scripps wasn’t really working out the way he’d imagined. “I was purifying proteins and sequencing them and all this stuff, working on the key molecules of the immune system,” he says, “but it really wasn’t immunology.” Allison was interested in systems. “But we were discouraged from what the older guys called, you know, ‘model building.’ Like, ‘Don’t build models, just do your work. Don’t think.’ Yeah. It was very frustrating. I figured, if this is what science is, I don’t like it.” The cutting edge of cancer therapy might look very different had Allison quit the field right there. Instead, he went home and got lucky.
Back in Texas, the MD Anderson Cancer Center was opening a new outpost lab near the town of Smithville. “Yeah, it was pretty weird.” Allison says. “Some economic stimulus thing from the governor, on donated land and with state money. And it was in the middle of an 18-acre state park. They’d just set up some lab buildings and hired six faculty members to go out there.”
The idea was to fund a team to study carcinogenesis—how cancer starts. But in reality, Allison soon discovered, they pretty much had free rein.
“Yeah, that was the weird thing at the time, because after they started this thing, the MD Anderson president changed. The new guy came in and said, “What do you do? What the hell is that?” You know? So they kind of just forgot about us and pretty much left us alone.”
This was Allison’s kind of place. His colleagues were bright, enthusiastic scientists his own age—the oldest were in their thirties—who worked late, helped each other with their experiments, kept beer in the lab for ones that ran overnight, and pooled intellectual resources without ego or credit getting in the way. “It was great,” Allison says. “The camaraderie—nobody expected any payback for anything. They did it because it’s what you did, you know? It was heaven.”
The setup was sweetened by a total lack of teaching or administrative responsibilities, a Norton Commando 850 motorcycle, and enough NIH and NCI grant money to pursue what Allison was really interested in—the T cell.
“It was a fantastic time in science because immunology had just been this poorly understood field,” he says. “I mean, everybody knew we had an immune system, because there were vaccines. But nobody knew much about the details of anything.”
One of the things nobody knew was how a T cell recognized a sick cell in the first place. By now it was understood that T cells killed off normal body cells that had become sick or infected. But exactly how a T cell “saw” that sick body cell, how it recognized the distinctively foreign sick cell proteins (or “antigens”) on the cell’s surface, was still a stone-cold mystery. Allison read every academic paper he could find on the topic, then read the papers cited in them.
There were plenty of theories about how a T cell recognized antigens. Most assumed that each T cell had a unique type of receptor (a specific arrangement of proteins extending from the cell surface) that recognized a specific antigen expressed by a sick cell, homing in and fitting something like a key into a lock.
That was a reasonable theory, but nobody had actually found one of the receptors. If they existed, there should be a lot of them, scattered among all the yet-uncounted proteins that stuck out from the T-cell surface (there are so many that new ones are given numbers, like newly identified stars). Those “receptor” proteins would be molecules built in some sort of double-chain-like configuration. Several labs were convinced that it would look just like it did on another denizen of the adaptive immune system that “sees” antigens, the B cells. Which, Allison thought, was stupid.
“People from Harvard and Johns Hopkins and Yale and from Stanford were already claiming they had a molecule that was the T cell receptor,” Allison says. “Most of them, because B cells make antibodies, figured that in T cells the receptor had to be an antibody-like thing, too.”
Whatever it looked like, if you could find it, in theory you could manipulate it. Control the T-cell receptor and you might control what the immune system’s killing machine targeted. The result could have massive implications for humanity, and a massive name—and maybe even a Nobel Prize—for whoever found it.
“We didn’t have a library to speak of in Smithville,” Allison remembers, but he had access to an excellent library down the road, thanks to having finagled an adjunct appointment with the main MD Anderson campus in Houston and a newly restored ’54 Mercedes for the back-and-forth. “I’d go and Xerox big stacks of shit and then read it,” he says. He was looking to better understand the T cell receptor. But what Allison was reading in the academic journals didn’t really make sense to him.
“Yeah, when that happens, the fact that it doesn’t make sense is either their fault or your fault,” Allison laughs. Naturally, his first assumption was that it was his fault. “I’d think, ‘I’m an idiot. I can’t understand this.’” Allison says. “Then, I thought, ‘No, they’re idiots. They don’t understand what they’re talking about!’” Then he’d drive back out to the library and copy another stack.
All the reading and wondering came together one night while Allison was in Houston sitting in on a lecture by a visiting Ivy League immune researcher. Something just clicked. “I said, ‘I think I know a shortcut to finding the T-Cell receptor.'”
Suddenly it seemed so obvious: If Allision could rig up a way to compare B cells and T cells, devise a lab experiment that put one against the other and let their redundant surface proteins cancel each other out, the receptor should be the molecule that didn’t cancel out. Essentially, he was looking for a needle in a haystack, and his idea was to set fire to the haystack and sift the ashes—or as Allison puts it, “pick it out of the weeds.” Whatever was left would be the needle he was looking for.
He gunned the Merc back to the Smithville lab and got to work. The idea was relatively simple, but the steps were numerous, and Allison had to make all the assays himself, which was tedious work. “The assays were so crude,” Allison says. “The end point involved holding a piece of film up and trying to guess which circle was bigger out of 100, you know? Then doing that with maybe 1,000 different films. People laughed at us. I’m really surprised that it worked.”
And yet, it did work. “It was a success, the very first time,” he says. “So now I’ve got a thing that’s on T cells but not on B cells, not on any other cells— so, that’s gotta be the T-cell receptor!”
He showed that the receptor was a two-chain structure—an alpha and a beta chain, and he wrote it up in a paper.
Allison was hoping to be published by one of the leading peer-reviewed research journals. But nobody at Cell or Nature or any of the A-list, peer-reviewed journals was willing to publish the findings of this junior academic from Smithville, Texas. “Finally, I ended up publishing the results in a new journal called The Journal of Immunology.” It wasn’t Science or the New England Journal of Medicine, but it was in print, and in the world.
“At the end of the paper, I said, ‘This might be the cell antigen receptor, and here are the reasons why I think that it is the T-cell antigen receptor,’ and I just listed it out, all the reasons.” It was a bold announcement regarding the biggest topic in immunology. “And nobody noticed it,” Allison says. “Except in one lab.”
That lab was headed by eminent biologist Philippa “Pippa” Marrack at UC San Diego. Her lab (shared with her husband, John Kappler) hadn’t identified the T-cell receptor yet, but they had a scientific technique that could verify if Allison’s results were correct. Marrack reproduced Allison’s experiment and got an exact hit on the protein Allison had identified—and only on that protein. It was a shock, especially coming out of a lab Marrack had never heard of. Allison says she called and told him she was organizing a Gordon Conference—elite, closed-door gatherings something like the Davos of science. She invited him to present at the meeting; Allison had a sense he was being invited into the big leagues.
The Gordon meeting helped put the brash young scientist on the academic map and won him an appointment as a visiting professor at Stanford University. It also gave him license to pursue the next intellectual milestone. Now that the T-cell antigen receptor had been identified and its two-chain molecular structure had been described, the race was on for the greater prize: the blueprints for those proteins, as encoded in genes in the T-cell DNA.
“At that point, people had just figured out how you could work with DNA and clone genes, so now, everybody was trying to clone this T-cell receptor protein gene,” Allison says. “It had been the holy grail of immunology for 20, 25 years, and nobody had solved it. There was this huge, ugly race for about three or four years. I mean, everybody realized there was a Nobel Prize at the end of it. Everybody was scrambling, man.” The experience provided a valuable lesson to the young immunologist. “I mean, it got ugly. Ugly. But I met some really good people there too, some fine people,” Allison says. “So I sorta learned who was who.”
“Anyway, we cloned a lot of stuff,” Allison says. “But none of it was right.” Other teams wound up decoding the T-cell receptor genes. “Yeah. Anyway, we failed. A guy named Mark Davis at Stanford actually cloned the beta chain gene. Then, later on, his lab and his wife cloned the alpha chain gene. In the meantime, though, I was in Irv Weissman’s lab and I got a call one day to give a seminar at Berkeley. Berkeley, you know; it was like, ‘Wow.’
“It was kind of controversial because I hadn’t been at the big labs,” Allison says. “I hadn’t been at Harvard. I lacked the pedigree of most faculty at places like Berkeley.” Which was why it blew his mind two weeks later when Berkeley offered him a full-time job, covered by a healthy grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Allison would have a lab and postdoc salaries, and he could research whatever he wanted. He didn’t need to teach, and the money might last forever with no strings. His only obligation was to occasionally give a presentation on his progress.
“Then when you came up for review, it was pretty bad,” Allison says. “They would have 50 of the top scientists in the world in the room. You would give a 25-minute talk, and it was 25 exactly. When minute 25 came, it was ‘Stop. Questions?’ It was really frightening. Literally, sometimes the night before I’d just be in the bathroom throwing up.”
Much had been discovered about T cells in the decade since their discovery. Now it was widely accepted that there were different kinds of T cells, with different specialties for coordinating an immune response against disease. Some “helped” immune response by sending out chemical instructions, via cytokines, like a quarterback calling plays. Others, the killer T cells, killed infected cells one-on-one—usually by chemically instructing those cells to commit suicide.
These processes, and more, were set in motion only when a T cell was “activated.” Activation is the beginning of the adaptive immune response to disease; until then, the T cells are just floating around and waiting. So what activated T cells? What made them start mobilizing against disease?
“We thought that the T-cell antigen receptor was the ignition switch,” Allison says. That was the natural assumption.
It was only after they’d identified the T-cell receptor that they realized, nope, that wasn’t quite right either. They could get the T-cell receptor to “see” the foreign antigen of a sick cell; they clicked together like lock and key. They could make that fit. But it wasn’t enough to turn on a T cell. It wasn’t the “go” signal that ignited the immune response.
After all the work that had gone into decoding the T-cell receptor, this might have been a frustrating development; instead, it only deepened the mystery. “When I learned that, I said, ‘Oh, wow, this is cool. T cells are even more complex,’ you know?” Allison remembers. “It just added to the puzzle. It made it more fun.”
If keying the T-cell receptor with the corresponding antigen wasn’t the only signal needed to turn on a T cell, that meant there had to be another molecule, maybe several, required to activate the T cell, what’s known as “co-stimulation.” Maybe the T cell required two signals—like the two keys for a safe deposit box, or how, when starting a car you need to key the ignition and also press the gas pedal to make it go. But where was the T cell’s gas pedal? Three short years later, they found it, another molecule on the T-cell surface called CD28. (CD stands for “cluster of differentiation,” which is sort of like calling it “a thing that’s clearly different from the other similar things around it”.)
CD28 was definitely a second signal required for activating T cells; that is, they’d discovered that T cells could not activate without it. That was an important discovery, but as Allison and other researchers quickly realized, it also wasn’t that simple. Presenting the right antigen key to the T-cell receptor and co-stimulating CD28 did start up the T cell, but when they did that in mice models, the T cell often just stalled out. It was as if they’d found the key to the ignition and the gas pedal, but a third signal was still necessary to make the T cell go. So now they went hunting for that.
One of Allison’s postdoctoral students, Matthew “Max” Krummel, compared the structure of the protein CD28 to other molecules, looking for something similar in a sort of computerized book of molecule mug shots—“the gene bank, that’s what we called it at the time,” Allison says. The idea was that if you found a molecule that looked similar, maybe it did similar things and was related, evolutionarily.
Krummel soon found another molecule with a close family resemblance to the part of CD28 that stuck out of the cell, the receptor part. The molecule had recently been identified, named, and numbered. It was the fourth cytotoxic (cell-killer) T-immune cell (lymphocyte) identified in the batch, so Pierre Goldstein, the researcher who’d found it, called it cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein #4— or CTLA-4 for short. (A few decades later, these letters would be on the license plate of Allison’s convertible Porsche.)
Meanwhile, researchers Jeffrey Ledbetter and Peter Linsley were working on the same third-signal problem at the Bristol-Myers Squibb research campus in Seattle. Finding the protein signal was one thing, but the point was understanding what it did. Blocking a signal (with an antibody that binds to it and basically prevents it from being used, like crazy-gluing a keyhole) and observing the result is a common method. “Linsley made an antibody to block CTLA-4,” Allison recalls. The group quickly published a paper, concluding that CTLA-4 was a third “go” signal, another gas pedal on the T cell that had to be activated for immune response.
Having another researcher beat them to the anti-CTLA-4 antibody was disappointing. It was especially disheartening to Krummel, who had just spent three years working on the antibody as his intended thesis project. But Allison decided to proceed with more CTLA-4 experiments anyway. There was always more to learn—and besides, Allison wasn’t totally convinced that Linsley et al. had really solved the T-cell activation mystery. “I knew there were two ways you can get something to go faster,” Allison says. “One is to press on the gas pedal. The other is to take off the brake.”
Allison says Linsley’s group had only devised experiments consistent with CTLA-4 being another “go” signal, essentially a second CD28. “I said, ‘Let’s do the experiments consistent with CTLA-4 giving an off signal.’ Sure enough, that’s what we found out. CTLA-4 was an off signal.”
Jim Allison is a master of the Texas-sized understatement. Behind his simple statement of his lab’s new finding lies a discovery that has profoundly shifted our scientific understanding of how immunity works—and sometimes doesn’t—and how we can change those rules to turn the tables on cancer.
ALLISON’S LAB NOW had a fairly complete picture of the steps required for T-cell activation against disease. First, the T cell needed to recognize the sick cell by its unique protein fingerprint; in other words, it needed to be presented with the antigen that matched up with its T-cell receptor. Usually it was a dendritic cell or macrophage that did that presenting. Binding to that antigen was like turning the key in an automobile ignition.
The other two signals (CD28 and CTLA-4) were like the gas pedal and brake on the car. CTLA-4 was the brake—and it was the more powerful of the two. You could press both (and in experiments, Krummel found that was a crude way of controlling the activation rate), but if you floored both, the brake overruled the gas pedal and the T cell wouldn’t go, regardless of everything else.
The double-check, double-signal mechanism of T-cell activation would turn out to be only one of many redundancies and fail-safe feedback loops built into immune response. Those “checkpoints” on T-cell activation hadn’t been guessed at before. But now Allison’s lab and, simultaneously, the lab of Jeff Bluestone at the University of Chicago had found one of those checkpoints.
Bluestone was focused on ways of placing this new discovery in the context of organ transplants and diabetes, tamping down unwanted immune response. But Allison had a different idea where he’d like to stick it
Biology was interesting, diseases weird and fascinating, immunology cool. But cancer, Allison admits, “pissed me off” personally. Allison’s lab had always been dedicated primarily to pure immune research. But now Jim Allison had another experiment in mind, and an intellectual path to an emotional destination. As it happens, that road also eventually led to the Nobel Prize.
ALLISON WROTE THE experiment out in late summer and gave it to his new postdoc, Dana Leach, who, he says, had “done some tumor stuff.” “I said, ‘I want you to give some mice tumors and then inject them with this CTLA-4-blocking antibody. Give other mice tumors but no anti-CTLA-4, and let’s see what happens.’” In November, Leach came back with the results: The mice that got anti-CTLA-4 had been cured of cancer. The tumors had disappeared. In the mice that didn’t have CTLA-4 blocked, the tumors kept growing.
He told the postdoc to just label the cages A, B, C, and D. “I said, ‘I’ll measure the mice. Don’t tell me anything.’” Allison would do the grunt work and check the results for each cage, but until it was over, he wouldn’t know which group was which.
“It was really harrowing,” Allison says. He’d come in every day and see that the tumors in cage A seemed to be getting bigger. He’d measure each tumor with calipers and mark the results on his gridded paper, then move to cage B and find the same thing, mice with growing tumors. Same story in cage C and cage D. There were a lot of mice, a lot of numbers, and they were all on the same track. It was 100 percent failure.
Had his break-happy postdoc screwed up this experiment too? Allison felt he was moving backward. Finally, on Christmas Eve he was in the lab, staring at four cages of mice, all with steadily growing tumors. “I said, ‘Fuck—I’m not going to measure these anymore. I need to take a break from this.’”
But by the time Allison returned four days later, the situation in the cages had changed dramatically. In two of the cages the mouse tumors were now shrinking. In the other two cages the tumors continued to grow. When he unblinded the experiment’s cages, he was sure. It had taken time for the immune response to kick in, much like it does with a vaccination, but it had happened. Day by day, and surprisingly quickly, the trend continued to the end; it was just as before—100 percent dead versus 100 percent alive and tumor-free, a perfect experiment.
He hadn’t consciously known where he was going with all of this experimentation. Now, suddenly, they had arrived at a result and a biological mechanism. Maybe Allison and his lab had cured cancer in mice, one more time. Or perhaps they had just found a piece of the cancer immunity puzzle, one that might make sense of decades of confusing data. CTLA-4 was a safety checkpoint built into the body to help prevent the immune system from attacking the body or a developing fetus. Tumors survive and thrive, shielded by these built-in safety mechanisms on T cells, which effectively put the brakes on the body’s immune response against them. That was cancer’s survival trick, or one of them. At least, it was in mice. But if Allison could block it in mice, maybe he could block it in people.
The breakthrough wasn’t what was in the cages; it was the new view of the world the data revealed. It doesn’t usually happen in science like it does in the movies, the eureka moment, a new understanding in an instant. But this was it. EUREKA! T cells could recognize cancer, but these inhibitory pathways stifle a complete T cell response, and you could block that.
What else was possible? That question, and the hope it engendered—that was what mattered. And that was the breakthrough.
Allison didn’t do it all, and he didn’t do it alone. But there’s little doubt that the now 70-year-old scientist’s work tipped the balance in a 100-year scientific debate. Allison’s work cracked open the door; subsequent breakthroughs have kicked it wide. The result is a fundamental course correction in the direction of cancer research and treatment and a groundswell of scientific talent and R&D dollars being funneled into a formerly discredited field of pursuit.
The war on cancer is not over; we have not achieved a full and total cure, and so far the handful of cancer immunotherapy drugs available have demonstrated robust and durable results in a minority of patients. But we have undeniably turned a corner in our understanding of the disease—what many scientists believe to be a “penicillin moment” in our quest for the cure.
The CTLA-4-blocking drug Ipilumimab, approved by the FDA in 2015, was the first of a new class of drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors” and the beginning of what researchers refer to as a tsunami of new cancer treatments. The pace of progress is staggering, such that we now recognize that what Allison discovered is not only the end of that 100-year scientific mystery, but also the beginning of a new chapter in medicine. Already, new therapies such as CAR-T have essentially wiped out some forms of cancer; the newest checkpoint inhibitors have turned stage-four metastatic death sentences into full remission. This work has only just begun. And while it’s hopeful, it’s not hype.
Jim Allison returned home to Texas, where he works with his wife and fellow prize-winning cancer immunotherapist Padmanee Sharma at MD Anderson in Houston. His work continues to travel the world, and change it. Allison still plays blues harp—he considered backing Willie Nelson on stage a few years ago to have been a lifetime highlight, before he found out about the Nobel—and he regularly hears from former cancer patients whose lives were changed or saved by his work. He sees them in the halls and on planes; they are everywhere. Not only because they now number in the hundreds of thousands, but because they are us.
And, his wife says, Jim cries, every damn time.
Adapted from the book THE BREAKTHROUGH: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Charles Graeber. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
The bartender replies “A nickle”.
The customer, completely amazed, orders a beer then asks the bartender “Well then how much for a NY sirloin, with side of mashed potatoes and salad, and an entire cheesecake for desert?”
The Bartender replies “a quarter”.
The guy, still amazed, then orders everything and after he is done eating his meal, then says “Wow, this place is amazing, I really wish I could meet the owner of this place”.
The bartender then says “Oh well, he’s upstairs in his office with my wife”.
The guy looks all confused, then asks “What is he doing upstairs in his office with your wife?”
The bartender said “The same thing I’m doing to his business down here”.
Three old servicemen were waiting in the veteran’s affairs office to apply for a lump-sum bonus to which they had been entitled.
The V.A. officer came in and addressed them all.
“Gentlemen, the V.A. has decided that all bonuses will be given commensurate with physical measurements taken from the applicant.To be fair however, the applicant gets to decide the measurement used.”
The first man, a sailor stand up and says. “I want my measurment to be from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.”
The V.A. officer takes a tape measure and measures this distance, and announces, “Five foot eleven..your bonus will be five thousand, one hundred and ten dollars.”
The second man, a pilot in the USAF stand up and says, ” I want to be measured from the tips of my outstretched arms.”
The V.A. officer measures this and announces, “Six feet, two inches..your bonus will be six thousand, two hundred dollars.”
The third man, and old Marine Gunny stands up and says “You can measure me from the tip of my cock to my balls.”
The V.A. man is confused and says “Are you sure that’s the measurment you want to use?”
“Damn straight” says the grizzled old Marine, and drops his drawers.
The V.A. officer kneels before him and places the end of the tape measure on the tip of the soldier’s penis and extends it downward until he reached where the man’s testicles would have been.”
“Where are your balls?” the V.A. man asks.
“Vietnam” says the Marine.
The pastor asked if anyone in the congregation would like to express praise for answered prayers.
Suzie Smith stood and walked to the podium.
She said, “I have a praise.
Two months ago, my husband, Tom, had a terrible bicycle wreck and his scrotum was completely crushed. The pain was excruciating and the doctors didn’t know if they could help him.”
(You could hear a muffled gasp from the men in the congregation as they imagine the pain that poor Tom must have experienced.)
“Tom was unable to hold me or the children,” she went on, “and every move caused him terrible pain.”
We prayed as the doctors performed a delicate operation, and it turned out they were able to piece together the crushed remnants of Tom’s scrotum, and wrap wire around it to hold it in place.”
(Again, the men in the congregation cringed and squirm uncomfortably as they imagined the horrible surgery performed on Tom.)
“Now,” she announced in a quivering voice, “thank the Lord, Tom is out of the hospital and the doctors say that with time, his scrotum should recover completely.”
(All the men sighed with unified relief.)
The pastor rose and tentatively asked if anyone else had something to say.
A man slowly stood up and walked just as slowly to the podium.
He said, “I’m Tom Smith.” The entire congregation held its breath.
“I just want to tell my wife — the word is sternum.”
Why do some people laugh when someone farts and others don’t?
A fart is an asshole telling a joke in a language that only other assholes can understand.
When I was a biology student I conducted a study on the balance in sea birds with a specific focus on Royal Terns.
I proposed that giving measured doses of THC (marijuana) and observing their flight patterns would give some clutch to the problems of balance in 3D space.
This proposal being given in a more liberal era, I got the funding.
I filled out thousands of forms, set up a lab with a ready supply of terns, and proceeded on my way.
After a year of diligent work, groveling monthly before the review committee to get my stipend, and living with drugged terns, I completed my study.
With trembling hands, I delivered my 347-page report, complete with charts and graphs, to the review committee.
The august body perused my study, asking penetrating questions and reducing me to jello. Finally, the department head spoke.
The light reflected off her horn-rimmed glasses as she stared down at me.
“There is a lot of good work here,” she said. “But we can’t accept this report. You have detailed marvelously the effects of THC on terns but you forgot one essential step: you have no control group.”
I turned pale and said, “You don’t mean…”
“Yes. I’m afraid so. You left no Tern unstoned.”
Melania was awakened by a strange noise in the middle of the night. “Wake up, Donald,” she whispered, “I think there are thieves in the house.” “Wha….,” said Donald sleepily, “You woke me for this? They’re not in the House, they’re in the Senate.”
The family of an elderly Arab gentleman have searched everywhere for a nursing home for him. At last they find one – a Jewish home. Some days pass, and his son calls to visit. “How is it here?” he asks.
“It’s great”, the old man replies. “Do you know, they address everyone here by their title, no matter how long it is since they practiced their vocation. There’s a conductor who hasn’t stood in front of an orchestra for 30 years, but they still call him Maestro. And a doctor who hasn’t lifted a stethoscope for 20 years, but is still addressed as Doctor Cohen. An academic who retired 25 years ago is still called Professor.”
“What about you?” the son asks.
“It’s the same with me”, replies the old man. “I haven’t had sexual intercourse for 40 years, but they still call me the fucking Arab.”
9 February 1896 – 30 December 1982 was a noted Peruvian painter of pin-up girls. He is often considered one of the most famous of the pin-up artists. Numerous Vargas paintings have sold and continue to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, enjoy.
The U.S. debt to China is $1.17 trillion as of August 2018. That’s 19 percent of the $6.3 trillion in Treasury bills, notes, and bonds held by foreign countries. The rest of the $21 trillion national debt is owned by either the American people or by the U.S. government itself.
Million, billion & trillion, similar words different by one or two letters. Let’s take another look.
Chinese wealth has been derived from stealing intellectual property, patented technology and technological military secrets from the United States and the rest of the world. When the rest of the world can convince people to work for as little as fifty cents an hour we can compete with China!
OCTOBER 11, 2018
KEVIN AND JULIA Garratt had spent nearly all of their adult lives in China. A devout Christian couple in their fifties with an entrepreneurial streak, they operated a café called Peter’s Coffee House, a popular destination in the city of Dandong, according to TripAdvisor.
DANDONG IS A sprawling border town that sits just across the Yalu River from North Korea. For tourists and expats, the Garratts’ coffee shop—just a short walk from the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge—was a hub of Western conversation and comfort food. “After time in North Korea a decent cup of coffee was one of those things I was really looking forward to,” one Australian tourist wrote in early 2014. “Peter’s was a perfect place.”
The Garratts had come to China from Canada in the 1980s as English teachers. They lived in six different Chinese cities over the years, raising four children along the way, before settling in Dandong. From their perch near the border, they helped provide aid and food to North Korea, supporting an orphanage there and doing volunteer work around Dandong itself. The Garratts had a strong social network in the city, so it didn’t seem odd to either of them when they were invited out to dinner by Chinese acquaintances of a friend who wanted advice on how their daughter could apply to college in Canada.
The meal itself, on August 4, 2014, was formal but not unusual. After dinner, the Garratts got into an elevator that took them from the restaurant down to a lobby. The doors opened onto a swarm of bright lights and people with video cameras. The Garratts initially thought they’d stumbled into a party of some kind, maybe a wedding. But then some men grabbed the couple, separated them, and hustled them toward waiting cars. Everything happened fast, and very little made sense. As the vehicles pulled away, neither Kevin nor Julia had any idea that it was the last they’d see of one another for three months.
It wasn’t until the two arrived at a police facility that they each realized they were in real trouble. And it wasn’t until much later still that the couple would understand why they had been taken into custody. After all, before their detainment, they’d never even heard of a Chinese expat living in Canada named Su Bin.
WHEN THE GARRATTS first arrived in China, in 1984, the country was still transitioning away from collective farms. Shanghai had only just opened up to foreign investment; the future megacity Shenzhen still had just a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Over the ensuing three decades, the couple would watch as China hurtled from eighth-largest economy in the world to second-largest, powered, famously, by mass migrations of people into new industrial cities and the erection of a vast manufacturing and export sector. But especially in the later years of the Garratts’ career as expats, the country’s growth was also propelled by a more invisible force: a truly epic amount of cheating.
China has become one of the world’s most advanced economies overnight in no small part through the rampant, state-sponsored theft of intellectual property from other countries. This extended campaign of commercial espionage has raided almost every highly developed economy. (British inventor James Dyson has complained publicly about Chinese theft of designs for his eponymous high-end vacuums.) But far and away its biggest targets have been the trade and military secrets of the United States. From US companies, Chinese hackers and spies have purloined everything from details of wind turbines and solar panels to computer chips and even DuPont’s patented formula for the color white. When American companies have sued Chinese firms for copyright infringement, Chinese hackers have turned around and broken into their law firms’ computer systems to steal details about the plaintiffs’ legal strategy.
Each theft has allowed Chinese companies to bypass untold years of precious time and R&D, effectively dropping them into the marathon of global competition at the 20th mile. China’s military has gotten a leg up too. Coordinated campaigns by China’s Ministry of State Security and the People’s Liberation Army have helped steal the design details of countless pieces of American military hardware, from fighter jets to ground vehicles to robots. In 2012, National Security Agency director Keith Alexander called it the “greatest transfer of wealth in history,” a phrase he has regularly repeated since.
And yet, despite a great deal of restlessness in the ranks of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the United States was, for years, all but paralyzed in its response to Chinese hacking. China simply denied any hand in the thefts, professing to take great umbrage at the idea. American diplomats were skittish about upsetting a sensitive bilateral relationship. And American companies, in turn, were often inclined to play dumb and look the other way: Even as they were being robbed silly, they didn’t want to jeopardize their access to China’s nearly 1.4 billion consumers.
John Carlin, who served as assistant attorney general for national security during the Obama administration, recalls one meeting with executives from a West Coast company whose intellectual property was being stolen by Chinese hackers. The executives even projected that, in seven or eight years, the stolen IP would kill their business model; by that point, a Chinese competitor would be able to undercut them completely with a copycat product. But the company’s general counsel still didn’t want the government to step in and take action. “We are going to be coming back to you and complaining,” the general counsel said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Finally, between 2011 and 2013, the US began to reach a breaking point. Private Cybersecurity firms released a string of damning investigative reports on China’s patterns of economic espionage; the US government started to talk more publicly about bringing charges against the country’s hackers. But it was far from clear how any government or company might successfully turn back the tide of Chinese incursions. President Obama pressed the issue of cyber thefts in his first meeting with President Xi in 2013, only to be met with more denials.
This is the story of how the US finally achieved some leverage over China to bring a stop to more than a decade of rampant cyber theft, how a Canadian couple became bargaining chips in China’s desperate countermove, and how the game ended happily—only to start up again in recent months with more rancor and new players.
ON MONDAY, MAY 19, 2014, nearly three months before the Garratts were whisked away into the Dandong night, the US Justice Department called a press conference at its headquarters in Washington, DC. Attorney general Eric Holder took the podium to announce charges against five hackers for breaking into the systems of several US companies, including U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, and a renewable-energy outfit called Solar World. The FBI had mocked up a bunch of “Wanted” posters, which made it strikingly clear that the hackers all shared an employer: the Chinese army. Two of the men were even pictured in their crisp dress uniforms.
The press conference marked the first time the US had ever indicted individual foreign agents for cyber intrusions. It made front-page headlines across the country, instantly bumping the issue of Chinese economic espionage off the back burner of public consciousness. But the news came with an inevitable caveat: “The move by the Justice Department was almost certainly symbolic,” The New York Times wrote, “since there is virtually no chance that the Chinese would turn over the five People’s Liberation Army members named in the indictment.”
A few days later, Carlin and a Justice Department prosecutor named Adam Hickey were flying back from a meeting with the victims of the PLA hackers. At the Pittsburgh airport, Carlin lamented the obvious: None of the hackers would face a US courtroom anytime soon. Everyone at the Justice Department knew it would take more than a single “name and shame” campaign to change the calculus of Chinese behavior; the US needed to apply pressure on multiple fronts, perhaps building up to a threat of sanctions. Now that they’d made their opening gambit, prosecutors needed a next move, preferably one that would actually put someone in handcuffs. Sitting in the terminal Carlin said, “The next case, we need a body.”
Hickey smiled. “Actually, I’ve got a case I want to talk to you about,” he said.
Kevin and Julia Garratt KAMIL BIALOUS
THE FBI REMAINS cagey today about where and how the conspirators first appeared on the agency’s radar. The bureau will say only that it opened its investigation after seeing emails between them. Reading between the lines, the case likely began with intercepts from the NSA, passed through the intelligence community from Fort Meade to the FBI. Eventually, in late summer 2012, a trove of emails between three Chinese agents landed on the desk of supervisory special agent Justin Vallese, who runs a squad of cyber agents in the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
“From day one, we knew it was bad,” Vallese says. “The contents of those emails are pretty explosive.”
One message, which bore an attachment entitled “C-17 Project Reconnaissance Summary,” appeared to suggest a broad outline of the project therein: a successful, long-term effort by hackers to steal the design secrets of one of America’s most advanced cargo aircraft, the C-17 military transport.
A $202 million-per-unit craft developed by Boeing, the C-17 had been one of the most expensive military planes ever developed by the US Air Force, costing more than $31 billion to create in the 1980s and ’90s. Since its completion, the C-17 had become a key means of delivering troops, vehicles, and supplies to the front lines of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as delivering humanitarian supplies the world over. It’s also used to transport the president’s armored limousines around the globe.
American intelligence agencies knew that, for years, the Chinese had been struggling to build their own large cargo plane, a necessary tool for any modern military that wants to project its power over a large area. Now Beijing was evidently making some headway—by raiding Boeing’s trade secrets to build what was essentially a Chinese version of the C-17.
Right away, the FBI alerted Boeing to the intrusions. (Boeing declined to comment on this story.) After that, agents in Los Angeles began wading through encrypted attachments and translating each message from Chinese. The emails would ultimately give them an incredibly detailed picture of the inner workings of a Chinese espionage operation. Not only that, they realized, it might also give them a chance to actually arrest someone. Two of the conspirators—the ones who did the actual hacking—were out of reach in China. But the third was a successful businessman named Su Bin, and he was based right here in North America, just a three-hour flight from the agents’ offices in LA.
Su, who in the West went by Stephen, owned an 80-employee Chinese aviation-technology firm called Lode-Tech and, according to The Globe and Mail, had a comfortable $2 million house in Richmond, British Columbia. He had two kids, both born in Canada; his wife had been a gynecologist, and his oldest son went to college in Switzerland. In 2012, he was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal as part of a story about wealthy Chinese decamping for the West. He said he was the son of an army officer and that he had made millions as an aerospace entrepreneur. He told the Journal that he found the rules of the West less restrictive. “Regulations [in China] mean that businessmen have to do a lot of illegal things,” Su said at the time.
China’s extended campaign of commercial espionage has raided almost every highly developed economy. But far and away its biggest targets have been the military secrets of the United States.
From what the agents could reconstruct, the hacking conspiracy had begun as early as 2009. Su’s contributions as a spy, the agents realized, were intimately tied to his work as an entrepreneur. “Su Bin was what we’d call in the traditional espionage world a spotter—someone who would tee up targets for a nation-state,” explains Luke Dembosky, one of the prosecutors overseeing the case. Through Lode-Tech, Su had a deep network of industry contacts, and his team’s espionage began with mining his knowledge of the field: He would direct his hacker colleagues toward particularly interesting engineers and corporate personnel in the aerospace industry. Then the hackers likely used basic techniques—standard phishing emails—to attempt to penetrate company executives’ email accounts and, from there, access restricted corporate networks.
According to court records, once the hackers got inside a network—through “painstaking labor and slow groping,” as they put it—they went back to Su Bin. They would send him lists of the files they’d uncovered; he would then highlight in yellow the most valuable documents that they should exfiltrate, guiding them through what they were uncovering. (Investigators came to enjoy the secret irony in Lode-Tech’s tagline, printed in big letters on its website: “We will track the world’s aviation advanced technology.”)
It was tedious work. Some of the file directories ran to thousands of pages; in one dump of nearly 1,500 pages, Su meticulously highlighted 142 files that seemed most likely to be useful to his Chinese Army contacts—files with names like C17 Hangar Requirements 112399.pdf and Critical Safety Item(CSI) Report_Sep2006.pdf. In another 6,000-page directory, he picked out the 22 most promising file folders—hitting on one that FBI agents later calculated contained more than 2,000 files related to the C-17.
ALL TOLD, ACCORDING to their own accounting, Su and his two Chinese partners stole 630,000 files related to the C-17, totaling about 65 GB of data. “We safely, smoothly accomplished the entrusted mission in one year, making important contributions to our national defense scientific research development and receiving unanimous favorable comments,” the team wrote.
The C-17 wasn’t the hacker’s only target; they filched information about other aircraft as well. Investigators believe they pillaged 220 MB of data related to the F-22 Raptor, as well as files related to the F-35, including its flight test protocols, which Su carefully translated into Chinese. The thefts would be critical to helping the Chinese understand—and copy—the world’s most advanced multirole fighter plane, which had cost $11 billion to develop.
The more they dug, the more the agents realized what a uniquely valuable conspirator Su Bin was, perhaps even sui generis as a spy. He was conversant with the aerospace community, and he spoke English, Chinese, and the technical jargon of aviation in both languages, able to translate the complex world of industrial design schematics, plans, and handbooks. “I don’t know how many Su Bins there are,” Vallese says.
Su’s hacking effort provided a staggering return on investment for the Chinese government: According to court documents, the operation cost China around $1 million—an absolute pittance compared to the decades of engineering knowledge, military technology, and construction details that Su and his team were able to steal from Boeing and the US Air Force. The team’s overseers ran such a tight ship that Su griped in an email about the difficulty of getting reimbursed for expenses.
According to court documents, the hackers covered their tracks by pin balling stolen files through a sophisticated international server network, with machines planted in the US, Singapore, and Korea. They carefully disguised documents as they stole them, so as to circumvent the internal intrusion alarms at Boeing. Then they were careful to move their digital contraband through at least three foreign countries, ensuring that at least one had unfriendly relations with the United States, to throw pursuers off China’s scent. Ultimately, the files would be deposited on machines near Hong Kong and Macau.
There, officials would pick them up and transfer them back to China—in person, further covering all tracks between the United States and China. But the evidence the FBI had collected left no doubt that the ultimate customer was the Chinese military—and that Su Bin’s partners were members of the military themselves. While the two hackers in China have not been charged publicly, the US government knows who they are; according to court records, investigators intercepted an email that one of the hackers had received with a copy of his own ID card, which included his photo, name, and date of birth. Similarly, emails the FBI traced to the other hacker, one with the subject line “boss,” included photos of both men in Chinese military uniforms.
After their detention the Garratts found themselves caught in China’s Kafkaesque justice system, interrogated regularly but with nothing to confess.
By late spring 2014, around the time Carlin was sitting in the Pittsburgh airport with Hickey, the FBI had assembled everything it needed to make a case against Su Bin; as it happened, the timing coincided with the Justice Department’s newfound desire to charge someone with Chinese espionage. “We were fortunate to get Su into a place where there was an interest and an appetite for an arrest,” Vallese says. “We had the right subject and had the ability to put hands on him.”
To actually arrest Su, the FBI needed the cooperation of Canadian authorities. Once again, timing may have worked in the case’s favor. Around the same time when the FBI was asking for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s help in detaining Su Bin, according to The Globe and Mail, Canada was responding to a massive attack by state-sponsored Chinese hackers who had penetrated the network of its National Research Council, which leads the country’s research and development efforts. (China denied the accusation.) Given the chance to help break up a Chinese hacking ring, authorities north of the border were perhaps unusually motivated to help. In any case, they said yes.
By June 2014, the investigative teams knew that Su Bin was planning to leave the country for China—though no one knew for how long. They decided that now was the time to act. A few days before his scheduled trip, Canadian authorities pulled Su Bin over and arrested him.
Right away, China knew that one of its most valuable intelligence assets had been caught. While the “Wanted” posters and Eric Holder’s indictment of five military hackers had certainly made an impression on Beijing, Carlin says that the follow-up case against Su Bin—which actually brought a spy into custody—helped shape the Chinese response even further.
“The Su Bin case, all but unnoticed by the public, had a large impact on Chinese thinking,” says Carlin, who has coauthored with me a new history of the government’s approach to cyber threats. “In the space of barely a month, the United States had taken overt steps against two major Chinese economic espionage operations.”
Vallese says the FBI expected it would be an ordeal to get Su Bin back from Canada. International extraditions, even from close partners and allies, are always complicated. “We weren’t under any impression this was going to be easy,” Vallese says.
As Su Bin prepared for his initial court appearances, China quickly decided to send a not-so-subtle message to Canada. To make America’s northern neighbor think twice about allowing the extradition of Su Bin to the United States, it appears the Ministry of State Security had Kevin and Julia Garratt invited to dinner in Dandong.
AFTER THEIR DETENTION, the Garratts found themselves caught in China’s Kafkaesque justice system, interrogated regularly but with nothing to confess. Their family retained James Zimmerman, an American lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie, who had spent nearly two decades working in Beijing. He began to piece together the case against the couple.
The Chinese government, he realized, was leveling charges against Kevin Garratt that were almost a mirror image of the US charges against Su Bin. The Chinese Foreign Ministry told The New York Times that the Garratts were being investigated for stealing intelligence “about Chinese military targets and important national defense research projects, and engaging in activities threatening to Chinese national security.” As if that weren’t menacing enough, on February 19, 2016, China amended the indictment against Kevin to include more serious charges.
The “evidence” against Kevin, though, appeared mainly to be that he had a history of taking fairly unremarkable photographs in public places—going to Tiananmen Square, say, and filming the soldiers marching around and raising the flag, Zimmerman says. “Getting caught up with China’s politically driven criminal justice system can be a bleak, depressing experience,” Zimmerman says. “Due process in China is a different animal than in most Western judicial systems. While the investigators are not allowed to torture the suspects, mistreatment is a matter of definition.” He spent months shuttling back and forth between meetings with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, and Canadian embassy officials. “My goal was to plead to them that this case was not good for China given the dearth of evidence and the potential for a public backlash.” Later, Kevin Garratt would precisely recall the outline of the cell he shared with as many as 14 prisoners in China: “About 12 paces by five and a half.”
But even if the diplomatic aftermath of Su Bin’s hacking operation was spinning wildly out of control, the operation’s military objective was just coming to fruition. In November 2014, while Su Bin and the Garratts sat behind bars, the Chinese rolled out their own knockoff military cargo plane at an annual air show in Zhuhai. At the show, the Xian Y-20—codenamed Kunpeng after a mythical ancient Chinese bird capable of flying long distances—was parked across the tarmac from an American C-17. Aviation enthusiasts noted how similar the two planes looked, right down to the design of their tail fins. The Chinese plane had met its American doppelgänger, just feet apart.
TO ANYONE MONITORING the traffic of Chinese cyber thefts, the one-two punch of the PLA indictments and the Su Bin arrest seemed to make a real difference. “Since mid-2014, we have seen a notable decline in China-based groups’ overall intrusion activity against entities in the US and 25 other countries,” the cybersecurity firm FireEye concluded in one report. Many inside the government had worried that the Justice Department’s newly aggressive stance would backfire. But as it turned out, it was the Garratts who suffered the negative repercussions; otherwise the indictments and Su Bin’s arrest seemed to have compelled China to put the brakes on its hacking.
Because the sky hadn’t fallen, the Obama administration felt emboldened to keep pushing harder. China, they figured, saw its economic espionage—like all espionage—via the lens of cost-benefit analysis. With the indictment and arrest of Su Bin, the Americans felt that they had begun to change one side of that equation—and now it was time for them to up the ante. President Xi was scheduled to make his first state visit to Washington at the end of September 2015. In the weeks leading up to the visit, the Obama administration set out to bring the tensions between the two nations to a head.
In August 2015, The Washington Post ran an article warning that the US government was getting ready to issue sanctions targeting China for its hacking. In September, President Obama addressed a group of business leaders: “We are preparing a number of measures that will indicate to the Chinese that this is not just a matter of us being mildly upset but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved. We are prepared to take some countervailing actions in order to get their attention.” Other officials, including national security adviser Susan Rice, pressed the message behind closed doors: China’s behavior had to change.
The warnings, both public and private, got through. Just days before Xi’s visit, Beijing dispatched a large, high-level delegation to Washington. “The Chinese saw they had a big potential embarrassment brewing,” Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general Luke Dembosky recalls. No one on the Chinese side wanted Xi’s first state visit to become a showdown over cybersecurity. “They had to let the air out of the balloon.”
The conversations, which included Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson and White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel, began with a firm message from the Americans: Don’t even bother denying this is your typical behavior. Let’s move past that. For days, the negotiations were tense and stilted. But finally, on the night before the delegation was set to return home, the Chinese called the White House for a final set of talks. “I was all set to go home, and I got a call at 6:30: ‘Can you be at the White House at 8?’ ” Dembosky recalls.
It turned out to be too late to arrange access to the White House, so the groups met at the Omni Shoreham Hotel instead, perched on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Aides from the White House, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department, among others, talked through the night with the much-larger Chinese delegation. All of them were aware that the Chinese had a deadline to make their 7:30 am flight home. “It was one of the most constructive dialogs I’ve ever been part of. For a brief moment, the stars were aligned. They were highly motivated to do the right thing,” Dembosky says. By morning, they’d worked out an agreement for the two presidents to sign later in Washington.
A few days later, on September 25, 2015, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping met privately. As Obama recapped the meeting to the press, he said he had “raised once again our very serious concerns about growing cyber threats to American companies and American citizens. I indicated that it has to stop. The United States government does not engage in cyber-economic espionage for commercial gain.” Then the president made an announcement in the Rose Garden that many US leaders had never thought they’d hear: “Today, I can announce that our two countries have reached a common understanding on the way forward. We’ve agreed that neither the US or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage. In addition, we’ll work together, and with other nations, to promote international rules of the road for appropriate conduct in cyberspace.” The breakthrough was later endorsed by the G-20, the rough equivalent of the first arms-control agreement ever reached in cyberspace.
“We did see the behavior of the Chinese change. I had been cynical about the agreement, but I was wrong,” Carlin recalls. “China, at least in a narrowly defined box, had agreed to a new cyber norm. Consistent with their agreement, they largely ceased state-sponsored hacking that targeted a private US company for the direct economic benefit of a Chinese competitor.”
THE WORLD’S TWO largest superpowers had broken new ground, but the travails of the Garratts and Su Bin dragged on. Julia had been released on bail but was ordered to stay in China, and in January 2016 the Chinese government announced it would try Kevin for espionage. “Chinese authorities also found evidence that implicates Garratt in accepting tasks from Canadian espionage agencies to gather intelligence in China,” the Xinhua news agency reported.
Behind the scenes, though, the Chinese acknowledged that the charges were absurd—and that there was an easy path for the Garratts’ release, says the couple’s lawyer. As Zimmerman told The New York Times, “The Chinese made it clear that the Garratt case was designed to pressure Canada to block Su Bin’s extradition to the US.”
The C-17 isn’t the only product to have its design lifted by hackers. Over the past decade, Chinese economic espionage has affected thousands of businesses worldwide, from vacuum-makers to paint manufacturers. —Andrea Powell
Since 2011, British inventor James Dyson has been accusing China of hacking the trade secrets of his eponymous fan and vacuum empire.
In 2014, a man in California was convicted of stealing DuPont’s formula for titanium dioxide—a white pigment used in everything from paint to Oreos—on behalf of the Chinese government.
This maker of wind turbines lost more than a billion dollars after its Chinese partner company, Sinovel, used a spy to steal source codes for the machines.
In 2010, while Westinghouse was building a few power plants in China, a hacker stole specs for how the company designs and routes the pipes running through its generation facilities.
In addition to helping Chinese hackers steal plans for the C-17, Chinese-Canadian businessman Su Bin was also charged with pilfering specs for the F-22 stealth fighter plane.
But in February 2016, Su Bin himself foiled China’s bargaining position. He waived extradition, deciding he would go freely to the US to face charges. His lawyer later told a US court that Su Bin knew that his extradition proceedings might last longer than the time he’d serve in a US prison.
FBI agents flew to Vancouver and prepared to take custody of Su; Vallese and several colleagues waited next to the FBI’s Gulfstream jet as a Canadian police motorcade pulled onto the tarmac. “Su was in the backseat of the SUV, sandwiched between two Canadian law enforcement officers,” Vallese recalls. “All of us got chills.”
On the flight back to California, Vallese says the talk among the agents and Su turned to aviation. He complimented the FBI’s plane. Making chitchat, one of the agents asked him if he had a favorite jet. “Not the C-17,” Su deadpanned.
On March 22, 2016, Su Bin pleaded guilty. His 35-page agreement was perhaps the most detailed firsthand explanation of China’s spying apparatus ever released in public. “It was the first time we’d had that kind of success—the first time we’d had someone owning their part in an intrusion like this,” Vallese says. Su Bin declined to speak publicly, though, in court: “I lost my words now,” he said at his sentencing, where a judge handed him 46 months in federal prison and ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine. With time served, he was released in October 2017.
The case against the Garratts rapidly unraveled in the wake of Su Bin’s decision to waive extradition. Julia was able to leave China in May 2016, and Kevin was released that September, though he had to pay nearly $20,000 in fines and penalties—money that had been partly designated for a North Korean orphanage project and other aid work.
This spring, FBI director Christopher Wray stated in public what people in cybersecurity circles had been seeing for a while: China is back to its old tricks. It is once again infiltrating US computer systems and stealing information at a massive scale. “There’s no country that’s even close,” Wray told NBC News in March this year. “We’re talking about big damages,” President Trump recently told Reuters. “We’re talking about numbers that you haven’t even thought about.”
“There’s been a massive pickup in the last year and a half,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, cofounder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.
For a variety of reasons, the 2015 truce between China and the United States didn’t hold—in a way, it’s because both countries have ceased to acknowledge it.
Donald Trump’s trade war against China has largely been couched as a way to punish China for its years of rampant intellectual property theft. And the official documents that make a case for that war have made scant mention of the progress that the Obama administration made. “After years of unsuccessful US-China dialogs, the United States is taking action to confront China,” wrote the US Trade Representative’s office, disregarding the quite successful dialog that took place at the Omni Shoreham hotel in 2015. If the US isn’t going to acknowledge that things ever got better, what incentive does China have to keep on good behavior?
At the same time, Chinese hacking may be on the rise again for reasons that are quite internal to Beijing. Between 2005 and 2014, the main force behind China’s campaign of cyber theft was the People’s Liberation Army. In turn, after the outing of the five PLA soldiers in 2014, that agency bore most of the embarrassment and blame for China’s weakened hand in negotiations with the US. Since 2016, for a host of reasons, the army has had its wings clipped politically by President Xi, both through a reorganization and through anticorruption drives that have seen numerous government officials sidelined, imprisoned, and, in at least one case, even sentenced to death.
Into the vacuum left behind by the PLA, the Chinese Ministry of State Security—a powerful agency that combines elements of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA—has apparently stepped in and become China’s new central office for cyber theft. “The PLA have stepped back significantly, but the MSS and their affiliated contractors have stepped into that void,” Alperovitch says.
These new hackers with the Ministry of State Security have evidently learned from the PLA’s mistakes. “They’ve gotten steadily better,” Alperovitch says. “They’re thinking much harder about how to be more stealthy.” After all, no Chinese hacker wants to be the next one splashed across an FBI “Wanted” poster.
**Adapted from Dawn of the Code War: Inside America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat, by John P. Carlin, with Garrett M. Graff (PublicAffairs), published October 2018.
Starkle, starkle, little twink, who the hell you are I think. I’m not as drunk as some thinkle peep I am besides, I’ve only had bee threers and I’ve got all day sober to Sunday up. I fool so feelish, I don’t know who’s me yet but, the drunker I sit here, the longer I get.
At the beginning of the school year, a teacher asked her young pupils how they spent their summer vacation.
One child wrote the following:
“We went to Florida to visit with Grandma and Grandpa. They used to live in a big brick house but Grandpa got retarded and they moved to Florida.
“Now they live in a tin box and have rocks painted green to look like grass.
They ride around on their bicycles and wear name tags because they don’t know who they are anymore.
“They go to a building called a wreck center, but they must have got it fixed because it is all okay now, they do exercises there, but they don’t do them very well.
There is a swimming pool too, but all they do is jump up and down in it with hats on.
“At their gate, there is a doll house with a little old man sitting in it. He watches all day so nobody can escape.
Sometimes they sneak out, and go cruising in their golf carts.
“Nobody there cooks, they just eat out. and, they eat the same thing every night — early birds.
Some of the people can’t get out past the man in the doll house.
The ones who do get out, bring food back to the wrecked center for pot luck.
“My Grandma says that Grandpa worked all his life to earn his retardment and says I should work hard so I can be retarded someday too.
When I earn my retardment, I want to be the man in the doll house. Then I will let people out, so they can visit their grandchildren.”
Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.
The military men and women who serve and protect the U.S. come from all walks of life; they are parents, children, grandparents, friends, neighbors and coworkers, and are an important part of their communities. Here are some facts about the veteran population of the United States:
Every Veteran’s Day, for exactly one minute, this monument can be seen in its full glory. Composed of five pillars, each representing an arm of the U.S. military, the monument’s shadows will align at precisely the right angles to form the great seal of the U.S. This isn’t just any day or hour: it was designed to do this at 11:11 every November 11th, or Veteran’s Day.
Additionally, the brick pavers within the Circle of Honor are inscribed with the names of U.S. servicemen and women, symbolizing the ‘support’ for the Armed Forces. The pavers are red, the pillars are white, and the sky is blue to represent America’s flag. The circle represents an unbreakable border.
How did the engineers manage to calculate the rotational shadows down to the minute? The monument’s chief engineer Jim Martin says that they knew they had to create this with a “fixed azimuth (the horizontal angle from astronomical north to the center of the sun on Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m. that creates the horizontal illumination of the Great Seal)” and a “fixed altitude angle (the vertical angle for zenith, or horizon, to the center of the sun on Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m. that creates the vertical illumination of the Great Seal).” Even with the yearly variations, the monument is accurate to within 12 seconds.
The monument was designed by a local resident of Anthem named Renee Palmer-Jones. The pillars are quite high (tallest is 17 feet) and the order of the branches of the armed service were placed in accordance with Department of Defense protocol—United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, the United States Navy, the United States Air Force and the United States Coast Guard.
After World War I, the poppy flourished in Europe. Scientists attributed the growth to soils in France and Belgium becoming enriched with lime from the rubble left by the war. From the dirt and mud grew a beautiful red poppy. The red poppy came to symbolize the blood shed during battle. The American Legion Family adopted “In Flanders Fields” following the publication of the wartime poem. The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. while serving on the front lines.
On September 27, 1920, the poppy became the official flower of The American Legion family to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the war. In 1924, the distribution of poppies became a national program of The American Legion.
Led by the American Legion Auxiliary, each year members of The American Legion Family distribute poppies with a request that the person receiving the flower make a donation to support the future of veterans, active-duty military personnel and their families with medical and financial needs.
Poppy Day is celebrated in countries around the world. The American Legion brought National Poppy Day® to the United States by asking Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day, as National Poppy Day.
While visiting some cemeteries you may notice that headstones marking certain graves have coins on them, left by previous visitors to the grave.
These coins have distinct meanings when left on the headstones of those who gave their life while serving in America’s military, and these meanings vary depending on the denomination of coin.
A coin left on a headstone or at the grave site is meant as a message to the deceased soldier’s family that someone else has visited the grave to pay respect. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited.
A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served with him in some capacity. By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he was killed.
According to tradition, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.
In the US, this practice became common during the Vietnam war, due to the political divide in the country over the war; leaving a coin was seen as a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war.
Some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.
Turn up the volume all the way
So she shouts to a man below, “Excuse me. I promised a friend I would meet him, but I don’t know where I am.”
“You’re at 31 degrees, 14.57 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude,” he replies.
“You must be a Democrat.”
“I am. How did you know?”
“Because everything you told me is technically correct, but the information is useless, and I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve been no help.”
“You must be a Republican.”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“You’ve risen to where you are due to a lot of hot air, you made a promise you couldn’t keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but somehow, now it’s my fault.”