Russia, Brexit, Whale Songs: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re examining Russia’s reaction to news about a C.I.A. spy deep inside the Kremlin and a legal showdown surrounding Brexit. We also have a story on whale karaoke. Yes, you read that right.

ImageThe house of Oleg Smolenkov in Virginia.
CreditEric Baradat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine kicked into high gear to counter reports that a Russian informant helped the C.I.A. uncover President Vladimir Putin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Russian officials and state-controlled media outlets named the informant as Oleg B. Smolenkov, and dismissed him as a boozy nobody who had no contact with Mr. Putin.

That picture contrasts sharply with what U.S. intelligence officials have said about the spy, who has been extracted from Russia: that he saw Mr. Putin regularly and became “one of the C.I.A.’s most valuable assets.” Our reporters traced him to a house in Virginia, which he bought in 2018 for $925,000.

The C.I.A. declined to comment, and The New York Times was not able to independently confirm that Mr. Smolenkov was the spy extracted by the United States.

Pinch of salt: Russia wants to make it seem as if the C.I.A. invested in a low-level diplomat, but minimizing a rival’s recruits is as much a part of spycraft as inflating them.

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Scotland’s highest civil court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s interruption of Parliament’s normal session at the height of the Brexit crisis was unconstitutional.

While the government said that it intended to prepare lawmakers for a new legislative session, the court found that the maneuver “had the purpose of stymying Parliament” and freeing Mr. Johnson from parliamentary oversight as he pursued a no-deal Brexit.

Reminder: The decision deepened the political morass for the prime minister, who has recently lost his working majority in Parliament, exiled veteran Conservative lawmakers and failed twice to secure an early election. Some legislators are demanding Mr. Johnson’s resignation if he lied to the queen over his reasons for closing Parliament, as well as vowing a sit-in to reopen it.

What’s next: The decision has set up a showdown next week at the Supreme Court in London, which will either endorse the Scottish court’s decision or reject it and side instead with the High Court in London, which said last week that the suspension was not open to a legal challenge.

CreditIslamic Republic of Iran, via Reuters

A day after the hawkish national security adviser, John R. Bolton, walked out of his White House job, President Trump seemingly undermined his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by opening the door to easing economic sanctions before starting new nuclear negotiations.

Reminder: Mr. Trump’s change in tone toward Iran comes amid escalating tensions between Tehran and the West, which were spurred by Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the global nuclear pact last year, and have prompted tit-for-tat seizures of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

Hawks no more: Mr. Bolton strongly opposed détente with Iran, and his unceremonious ouster has reignited concerns among some Republicans in Congress about the White House’s declining projection of American military power around the world.

Related: The Australian government confirmed that three citizens had been detained in Iran. Officials said consular assistance was being provided to their families but provided no further details.

CreditLuis Antonio Rojas for The New York Times

The Supreme Court backed a Trump administration policy that requires many Central American migrants to seek and be denied asylum in another country before applying in the United States.

The move reverses longstanding asylum policies that allowed people to seek haven no matter how they got to the U.S.

Analysis: Our Interpreter columnists examine how refugee resettlement became the cornerstone of the world order in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the impact of President Trump’s cuts to the U.S. system.

Related: Refugee migration to Greece surged this summer. Although the rate of recent arrivals is still just a fraction of the 2015 peak, the uptick comes as Ankara threatens to allow a wave of migrants to pass through Turkey to Europe.

If you have six minutes, this is worth it

CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

As a symbol of the Communist Party’s seemingly boundless future, a French apartment building was named, in the early 1960s, Cité Gagarine, after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Even its structure embodied the ideals of the French Communist Party.

But now, its dramatic demolition decades later reveals the changes that led to the party’s decline.

Purdue Pharma: The company and its owners in the Sackler family tentatively reached a deal to settle thousands of lawsuits over the company’s role in the U.S. opioid crisis. It would dissolve Purdue Pharma, channel profits to plaintiffs and make the family pay $3 billion over seven years, but not force them to admit any wrongdoing.

Uber: The company’s chief legal officer said that a new California law would not require it to reclassify contract workers as employees, taking the position that drivers are not core to its business.

Trade wars: President Trump said that the United States would delay its next planned tariff increase on China by two weeks to possibly mend the damaged ties between the world’s two biggest economies.

Stock exchange offer: The London Stock Exchange said it would consider its Hong Kong counterpart’s offer to buy it for nearly $37 billion. The deal would create a market juggernaut, pairing the pre-eminent exchanges in Europe and Asia, but it faces many hurdles.

CreditBecky Lindsay/University of Auckland

Snapshot: Above, a humpback whale near Raoul Island, 700 miles from the northeast coast of New Zealand. A new study has found that whales from the South Pacific tend to hang out in this area for a few days every year and share songs with one another. In other words, it’s a humpback karaoke spot.

From the archives: Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the novelist Colson Whitehead wrote an ode to New York City and the World Trade Center for The Times Magazine. “When the buildings fall, we topple, too,” he said.

What we’re reading: This piece in The New Atlantis. Charles Homans, the politics editor for The Times Magazine, recommends: “Laurence Scott’s wonderful and probing exploration of the particular nostalgia and melancholy brought on by watching old videos on YouTube — the unexpected emotional places those rabbit-hole expeditions can take us.”

CreditDavid Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Vivian Lui.

Cook: Fresh ginger is the key ingredient in coconut-gochujang glazed chicken with broccoli.

Go: Book your tickets to Paris, Belgrade, São Paulo, Lagos and London: Here are the art shows this season that are worth traveling for, chosen by our critic.

Listen: The conductor Teodor Currentzis — anarchist, goth, guru — has burst out of the Russian provinces and scaled the classical heights.

Read: Books by Paul McCartney, Sonia Sotomayor and Dr. Seuss (incorporating a manuscript in progress discovered by his widow) are new this week on the children’s picture book best-seller list.

Smarter Living: Getting enough vitamin D is critical to having healthy bones. But, it turns out, a little goes a long way: High doses of vitamin D may actually lower bone density in healthy adults, a clinical trial found. The good news is that the study didn’t find any increased risk of serious health issues, like cancer or kidney stones.

Not all dogs are well-trained pets (even if they are still very good dogs). Here are some tips for finding the right trainer for Fido.

This summer, China put its first indigenous aircraft carrier out for sea trials and launched its first commercial rocket into space.

But some pet lovers may be more interested in another milestone: China’s first cloned cat.

CreditYan Cong for The New York Times

It was born in July with DNA from a deceased British shorthair, China’s state-controlled news media reported. The heartbroken owner, a 22-year-old Chinese businessman, kept the corpse in his refrigerator while waiting for a technician to extract some of its skin cells.

The clone was named after the original cat: Da Suan (大蒜), meaning Garlic. The owner told our colleague Sui-Lee Wee that the name just came to him. Garlic is, of course, an indispensable part of Chinese cuisine.

The new Garlic’s birth solidifies China’s position among the major cloning nations, which include Britain, South Korea and the U.S. Sinogene, the company that did the cloning, has cloned more than 40 dogs and is working on a horse.

But Sinogene’s chief executive says he has never owned a pet.

“Cats and dogs require too much care,” he told Ms. Wee.

That’s it for this briefing. Melina will be back tomorrow.

— Matthew

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford for the break from the news. Mike Ives, a Hong Kong-based reporter, wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about the departure of John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: Spooky (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• For the past year, The New York Times’s Kabul bureau and The Times Magazine’s At War channel have published weekly reports documenting civilian and military deaths in Afghanistan. Two Afghan reporters who write the reports explained the process.

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