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Old 25th February 2018, 22:00
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Russian Disinformation Pt 2

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the use of active measures against the West went into hiatus, though they still found use against some countries of the former Soviet Union. Then, in December 2011, people took to the streets in protest against Mr Putin. Mr Putin blamed Mrs Clinton, then America’s Secretary of State.

The Maidan uprising in Ukraine in February 2014, the subsequent Russian-backed fighting in the east of the country and the annexation of Crimea moved things up a gear. Kremlin-controlled media claimed that Ukraine’s government was dominated by fascists and that its armed forces were committing atrocities. Russian trolls spread the stories on Twitter, Facebook and the Russian social-media platform VKontakte.

In July of that year 298 people were killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin responded with a barrage of disinformation blaming Ukraine. Its defence ministry hosted a press conference at which it presented fake data on the plane’s flight path, as well as a tampered video which made it appear that the lorry carrying the missile had passed through Ukrainian-controlled territory. As European public opinion turned sharply anti-Russian, the Kremlin stepped up efforts at covert influence well beyond Ukraine proper.

The cyber elements of such activities get the most attention, but much of Russia’s activity consists of techniques from the pre-digital Soviet manual: marshalling human assets, be they active spies or sympathetic activists; funding organisations that may be helpful; and attempting to influence the media agenda.

Tried and not true
Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist, has studied the links Russia has cultivated with an array of European parties. Some are tiny outfits like Italy’s neo-fascist Forza Nuova. Others are much larger, such as the right-wing Northern League. Last year its leader, Matteo Salvini, signed a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s party, United Russia. Austria’s hard-right FPÖ, which now controls the foreign, interior and defence ministries, has a similar pact. In Germany Russia maintains ties with Die Linke, a far-left group descended from East Germany’s Communist Party, but has also cultivated the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD does especially well with the million or so Germans of Russian descent; last year it published its manifesto in Russian.

Sponsored visits to Russia have bolstered relationships with politicians including Nick Griffin, once the leader of the fascist British National Party; Frank Creyelman, a member of the Flemish parliament for the far-right Vlaams Belang party; and Marton Gyongyosi, a leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. Last September an MP from the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), Pavel Gamov, managed to get kicked off one of these junkets by demanding that his hosts pay his bar tab and other untoward expenses. (The SD expelled him, too.)


Direct funding of sympathetic parties is often rumoured but rarely proven, in part because many European countries have strikingly lax election-finance laws. The Czech Republic’s pro-Russian president, Milos Zeman, pulled off a narrow re-election victory last month with the help of a massive advertising campaign financed by a group known simply as “Friends of Zeman”; the source of some of that money is not known. A British investigation into the source of £8.4m ($12m) in loans and donations provided to the Leave.EU campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum by Arron Banks, a prominent campaigner, have yet to reach a conclusion.

Broadcasters like RT and Sputnik spread disinformation that furthers Mr Putin’s ends and slant news stories in ways that play up their divisiveness. Plenty of news outlets with greater reach do the latter; but one area where Russian active measures go further is in the use of straight-up forgery. Martin Kragh, a Swedish security expert, describes more than 20 forgeries that have made news in recent years. One was a fake letter supposedly written by Sweden’s defence minister, offering to sell artillery to Ukraine. A second purported to contain evidence of a conspiracy to install Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister, as Ukraine’s prime minister. The forgeries often appeared first on Russian-language websites, or were placed on social media by a pro-Russian account. As Mr Kragh notes, such fakes often continue to circulate on social media long after they are debunked.

It is in assuring such continued circulation that outfits like the IRA play a role, setting up automated accounts—“bots”—that promulgate messages to specific groups and individuals. Last November NATO’s Stratcom Centre of Excellence in Riga, which studies disinformation, found that 70% of Russian-language social-media communication about NATO in the Baltic states seemed to be generated by bots. A study of social media during the Brexit campaign by 89Up, a consultancy, found that Russian bots delivered 10m potential Twitter impressions—about a third of the number generated by the Vote Leave campaign’s Twitter account. Such echoing amplifies the effect of RT and Sputnik stories, which are in general not much watched.

Their all-or-nothing nature makes referendums particularly juicy prizes. At least one in the Netherlands has been targeted. Javier Lesaca, a political scientist at George Washington University, found that RT and Sputnik stories on Catalonia’s independence referendum last year—which took the pro-independence side, as Russia would wish—were retweeted on a vast scale by “Chavista bots” which normally spent their time tweeting messages sympathetic to the Venezuelan government.

Estimating how many bots are out there is hard. Primitive bots give themselves away by tweeting hundreds of times per hour, but newer ones are more sophisticated. Some generate passable natural-language tweets, thus appearing more human; others are hybrids with a human curator who occasionally posts or responds on the account, says Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. It is not always easy to distinguish bots from humans. “Journalists spend a lot of time talking on social media. Sometimes they look almost automated,” she says.

Discovering who controls such accounts is even harder. In America the main work of identifying which bots and troll accounts were run by the IRA has been done by Twitter and Facebook themselves. Independent analysts can try to identify Twitter bots based on their activity patterns, but for Facebook accounts, which are mainly private and post only to their own friends, it can be impossible for anyone outside the company.

“We don’t have a list of Russian troll accounts in Europe, similar to what we have for the US,” acknowledges Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), which studies online influence operations. In Germany Mr Nimmo identified a Russian botnet—in this context, a network of mutually reinforcing bots—that amplified right-wing messaging in the week before the German election in September, promoting #Wahlbetrug (“election fraud”) as a hashtag. Beforehand the botnet had spent its time promoting pornography and commercial products. It may have been a freelance rent-a-botnet also available for far-right messaging; it may have been a Russian operation. The difference can be hard to see.

So can the impact of such interventions. Analysts are most confident of ascribing influence when they see a superhuman burst of bot activity followed by a deeper but more leisurely spread deemed to be “organic” (both in the sense of proceeding naturally and being done by flesh not circuits). This is what happened when material stolen from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was posted shortly before the second round of last May’s French election. An analysis by DFRLab showed that the top ten accounts retweeting links to the material posted more than 1,300 times in the first three hours, with one account posting nearly 150 tweets per hour. Later, says Ms Neudert, the messages began to spread organically. On the other hand, Mr Lesaca’s figures suggest that the retweets of RT and Sputnik by Chavista bots were not taken up by living, breathing Catalans.

Some European countries are trying to strengthen themselves against web-borne disinformation. On a sunny afternoon at the Alessandro Volta junior-middle school in Latina, 50km south of Rome, Massimo Alvisi, who teaches digital literacy, runs through some of the topics the rumbustious children in front of him have covered this year. A visitor asks the class: why do people make things up online, anyway?

“People put up false stories to earn money,” shouts a dark-haired wiseacre at the back. “To create panic!” says another. “To deceive people.” “Just to have fun!”

Mr Alvisi, a history teacher by training, has been leading the digital-literacy classes for two years. He developed his course partly on his own initiative. But the issue has been given a new push. Last year the president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, announced a “Basta bufala” programme (fake news, for reasons which appear obscure, is known as “bufala” in Italy). She has herself been a target of online attacks; she has furiously denounced a Northern League senator who shared a baseless post alleging that she had obtained a government job for her brother, a well-known abstract painter.

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Old 25th February 2018, 22:01
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Russian Disinformation Pt 3

Italy is an easy target for disinformation; fake news is rife, trust in the authorities low, and some parties like it like that. In last year’s German elections all parties swore off the use of bots (though the AfD dragged its feet). In Italy the Northern League positively encourages bottishness with an app that automatically embeds party postings in supporters’ timelines. The populist Five Star Movement is opposed to anything top-down, including efforts to block fake news (which can indeed, in government hands, look disturbingly like ministries of truth). Its websites and Facebook pages have become Petri dishes for conspiracy theories in the run up to the general election in March.

Sweden, too, is rolling out a national digital-literacy curriculum. Teachers there are particularly impressed by the effect of assignments that get the students to create fake-news campaigns themselves; they dramatically improve students’ awareness of how disinformation works, and how to recognise it. Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is responsible for communications during emergencies and for combating disinformation, runs similar “red teaming” exercises for government agencies, in which staff brainstorm attacks to test their own vulnerabilities.

Its flow chart for handling information attacks looks at the emotions they seek to engender (fear, shock, discouragement) and the tools they employ (trolls, hacks). Identifying the aggressor is not a priority. “Intelligence agencies can handle that. We need to think about the effects,” says Dominik Swiecicki of the MSB. Indeed, in some cases attribution could be counter-productive; saying someone has struck you without having the will, or wherewithal, to strike back can, as America is learning, make you look hopeless.

Robust efforts by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to monitor trolls, bots and aggressive disinformation campaigns would greatly help all such moves towards resilience. Facebook, for which Russian meddling poses a severe image problem (see article) has promised it will have 20,000 people monitoring abusive content by the end of the year. Twitter’s identification of IRA-linked bots has enabled independent groups to track their activities as they happen, observing them as they seized on topics such as the high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida on February 15th (see article). Governments are pressing them to do more. But, as Ms Neudert observes, “There are massive concerns about freedom of speech.” She says that because of German fines for online hate speech and fake news, “The platforms are ‘over-blocking’ all kinds of content that they are worried might be in any way problematic”. France, Italy and the Netherlands say they too are looking at laws and other measures to combat fake news.

Please tread on me
Such European efforts may backfire; but they are at least efforts. And some European leaders take the problem seriously. At his first meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Macron publicly accused RT and Sputnik of being state propaganda channels. Mrs Merkel is said to have explicitly warned him about interference in Germany’s elections at a meeting in Sochi. In America, by contrast, one of the most striking things about the Russian attacks is how little has been done about them.

When evidence of the conspiracy first surfaced in 2016, Congressional Republicans refused to agree to a bipartisan statement warning of Russian attempts to breach voting systems. Mr Obama responded to what the intelligence services were telling him with modest warnings and symbolic sanctions, aware that to do more in defence of the election without the support of Republicans might backfire with suspicious voters. After the election, but before Mr Trump’s inauguration, the director of national intelligence issued a report laying out much of the evidence he had seen and warning of its seriousness.

Then things got worse. Mr Trump appears to read allegations of Russian meddling not as national-security threats but as personal attacks—insinuations that without them he would not have won. He lies about the issue, as when he tweeted, “I NEVER said Russia did not meddle in the election” on February 18th, and he has undermined the FBI’s attempts to understand both the conspiracy and its links, if any, to his campaign. He fired James Comey, the FBI’s respected head, after Mr Comey refused to offer him a pledge of personal loyalty. He publicly attacked the bureau after the Florida shooting .

Some Republican representatives have taken up Mr Trump’s rhetoric about a “deep state” out to undermine his presidency, calling for a “purge” of the FBI and the sacking of Mr Mueller. So have media organisations such as Fox News—much more influential than Russian active measures could ever hope to be and similarly dedicated to division. Indeed, Mr Mueller may have released his indictment in part to make sacking him even less defensible than it would have been otherwise.

Mr Mueller still has a way to go. He has years of e-mail and social-media communication belonging to the 13 indicted Russian agents and, it appears, unnamed “co-conspirators”. Many expect him soon to indict those responsible for hacking into Democratic servers, and perhaps in doing so link them to organs of the Russian state, or members of Mr Putin’s inner circle. On February 20th Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer involved in Ukrainian politics and the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch, pleaded guilty to making false statements about his communications with a worker on the Trump campaign. But whatever Mr Mueller finds, the fate of the president will be political, not legal, determined by Congress and, ultimately, the voters.

Unfortunately, when it comes to voting, says Michael Sulmeyer, head of the Belfer Centre’s Cyber Security Project at Harvard, interference looks set to continue. Mr Trump’s intelligence chiefs also expect Russia to try to influence this autumn’s midterm elections—presumably to benefit Republicans, since congressional Democrats are more eager to investigate their meddling. Many states use voting machines vulnerable to hacking (some are turning back to paper to guard against it). The Department of Homeland Security found that Russian hackers tried to breach election systems in 21 states in 2016.

Mr Trump has given no instructions as to how to counter this threat. His refusal to take Russian interference seriously and dismissal of unfavourable reports as “fake news” have made America fertile ground for further disinformation campaigns. They let his supporters deny the facts. A poll published this January found that 49% of Republicans do not believe Russia tried to influence the election in 2016. It would be naive to expect that number now to fall to zero. “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos,” Mr Trump tweeted on February 17th, “they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” For once, he had it right.

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Old 26th February 2018, 03:55
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U.S. Says Manafort Secretly Paid Ex-EU Leaders to Pitch Ukraine
BLOOMBERG Andrew Martin February 25, 2018, 12:00 AM EST

-‘Hapsburg group’ met with Congressman, paid 2 million euros
-Disclosure comes as Manafort’s longtime deputy pleads guilty

They were informally called the “Hapsburg group,” a misspelled reference to the monarchy that ruled parts of central Europe through World War I.

Under that umbrella, former European heads of state were secretly paid more than 2 million euros ($2.4 million) by Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to aid lobbying for Ukraine, according to a superseding indictment filed against Manafort Feb. 23 by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

While none of the former leaders is named in the indictment, other documents lead to Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy; Alfred Gusenbauer, former chancellor of Austria; and Aleksander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland. In interviews or statements Saturday, all denied being paid by Manafort. Prodi and Gusenbauer said they advocated for better relations between Ukraine and the European Union before a 2014 uprising.

Gusenbauer told the BBC that he had visited with members of Congress in 2013, part of a “noble” effort to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. He said he understood he was paid for his efforts by a U.S. company but not by Manafort or President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.

Your Guide to Understanding the Trump-Russia Saga

Kwasniewski, the former Poland president, told the New York Times that he had met Manafort several times during a mission to Ukraine in 2012 or 2013. “He was an adviser to President Yanukovych, whom I also met, and it was only natural our paths had to cross a couple of times.”

“He never paid us,” Kwasniewski told the newspaper. “I never had any financial relationship with him, and I never heard of the Hapsburg Group.”

The new indictment of Manafort was released the same day Manafort’s longtime deputy, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and false statements as part of Mueller’s sweeping probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Both were initially charged in October with a scheme to launder money they made while working as unregistered foreign agents on behalf of Ukraine and Yanukovych.

Mueller has increased pressure on the two men, adding additional tax and bank fraud charges against them on Thursday. A day later, Gates admitted in part that he helped Manafort coordinate the “Hapsburg group” on Ukraine’s behalf.

Political Fixer
Manafort continues to maintain his innocence. A legendary Republican political fixer, he explained in a June 2012 “Eyes Only” memo that the purpose of the “Super VIP” effort would be to “assemble a small group of high-level European influencial (sic) champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine,” according to the indictment.

The group was managed by a former European chancellor, identified as foreign politician A, in coordination with Manafort, who explained that a nongovernmental agency would be created to retain the group but “at our quiet direction,” the indictment says. In 2013, politician A and other former European politicians lobbied in Washington, in coordination with Manafort and two lobbying groups.

They are identified in the indictment as Company A and Company B, which people familiar with the matter say is Mercury Public Affairs LLC and the Podesta Group respectively. Neither firm has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Increased Scrutiny
Mercury didn’t return messages seeking comment. The Podesta Group ceased operation last fall amid increased scrutiny of its foreign advocacy. Founder Tony Podesta declined to comment. A person familiar with the matter said the Podesta Group was not aware that the ex-politicians from Europe were paid to advocate for Ukraine.

Both firms worked on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which the indictment says was a mouthpiece for Yanukovich and the Ukrainian government. The firms said they weren’t aware they were representing the Ukrainian government, which would have required them to register with the U.S. government. According to Mueller’s office, the center was created in 2012 and used by Manafort, Gates and others to conduct a public relations campaign in the U.S. and Europe on behalf of Yanukovych’s regime.

Washington Meetings
Both lobbying firms submitted forms with the U.S. government last year detailing their work related to Ukraine.

Mercury explained that it set up meetings with members of Congress, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and members of the media, part of an effort to “highlight the work of the Ukrainian government to align with westerns democracies generally, and the EU specifically on security, political and economic concerns.” Speakers for the events include former Ukrainian officials and other experts on the Ukraine and EU, including Kwasniewski, Gusenbauer and Prodi, the filings said.

Mercury reported March 2013 meetings between Prodi and congressional staff members and with Congressman Ed Royce, of California, while Podesta reported attending an event with Prodi that same month.

Royce couldn’t be located for comment. In a statement, Prodi said he didn’t recall the details of his Washington meetings but “is sure that they were simply meant as a chance to expose his point of view on the situation in Ukraine.”

“President Prodi denies both to have played a role in any lobbying effort and to be part of a secret lobby,” according to the statement. “Thus he did not receive any money for these activities.” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/artic...-pitch-ukraine

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Old 26th February 2018, 13:49
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THE ECONOMIST by D.S.O.R. Feb 26th 2018
How to understand the latest Russia memo
Duelling Democratic and Republican memos are bugle-toots on a battlefield
A political moment in which “what” matters far less than “who”

AMERICA is living through strange times when the headline “duelling committee memos released” can make partisans sit up and roar. These are those time, alas. There has been much roaring since the late-night release over the weekend of a memorandum written by Democratic members of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), rebutting an earlier document written by that body’s Republican leaders. The release of the Democratic rebuttal was a surprise. Publication had already been delayed for two weeks by the White House, ostensibly because President Donald Trump was concerned that his opponents had been careless about revealing intelligence sources. That is a worthy concern, though slightly at odds with Mr Trump’s decision to release the initial Republican memo before reading it despite public pleas from the FBI and Department of Justice that it risked giving away secrets.

In more normal times, the contents of the memos themselves might seem a trifle esoteric for a partisan slugging-match. The core charge of the Republican memo, written by staff working for the HPSCI chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, is that the Department of Justice and the FBI improperly secured a warrant to spy on Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign with long-standing business interests in Russia, in so far as they had failed to tell an oversight court that evidence against Mr Page came from a dossier commissioned and paid for by the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Furthermore, the Nunes memo, as it is known, waxed indignant about the alleged bias of the former British intelligence officer who wrote that dossier, Christopher Steele. The evidence for that “bias” is that Mr Steele grew increasingly anxious about the prospect of a Trump presidency as he worked his Russian sources and heard tales (some of them lurid and uncorroborated) about how Russians might think they had compromising information on the property tycoon.

To keep things simple, the Nunes memo charged American spooks with failing to tell the oversight court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that the Steele dossier was paid for by the Democrats, though that dossier was “an essential part” of the application for a surveillance warrant against Mr Page granted in October 2016 and renewed three times thereafter.

That fits the Trumpian narrative, stoked for months by the president and his supporters, that the broader probe into Russian election-meddling in 2016 by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is a partisan witch-hunt.

Again to keep things simple, the Democratic rebuttal pushes back at the idea that judges were not warned that evidence from the Steele dossier had been gathered for political reasons. Yes, say the Democrats, it is true that the names of Mr Steele and of the Americans who hired him were redacted in the warrant application and replaced with such tags as “Source #1” and “U.S. Person”. But, say the Democrats, the judges were told everything else that they needed to know, and in any case the warrant application “made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources about Page’s specific activities in 2016”. The Democratic rebuttal quotes from the original warrant application, which said that Mr Steele:

"was approached by an identified U.S. Person, who indicated to Source #1 [Steele] that a U.S.-based law firm had hired the identified U.S. Person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. (The identified U.S. Person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship.) The identified U.S. person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified U.S. Person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign."

What is more, the Democrats retort, it is a bit rich for Republicans to grumble that the names of Americans were not revealed to the intelligence oversight court. Not that long ago, Mr Nunes, a vocal Trump ally, made the alleged “unmasking” of Americans by Democrats and the intelligence community Exhibit A for his theory that the late Obama administration was a lawless dystopia, in which agents of a deep state schemed against Mr Trump.

Finally, the Democrats charge, even if the Steele dossier helped tip the oversight court into granting a warrant to spy on Mr Page, the FBI had been anxiously monitoring the businessman’s contacts with Russians for months, and had indeed interviewed him “multiple times” before the FBI became aware of the Steele dossier in September 2016.

Because this is 2018 and the world is quite strange, the Republican majority on the HSCI have now actually put out a rebuttal to the Democrats’ rebuttal of their chairman’s memo. This rebuttal-rebuttal grumbles that if the evidence against Mr Page was so strong, the Democrats and the FBI would surely not have needed the Steele dossier. It further grumbles that the FBI and Democrats both “omit that, in a secretly-taped statement reproduced in a 2015 federal court filing, a Russian intelligence officer called Page ‘an idiot’.” That is indeed an interesting detail, though arguably unhelpful in explaining why Mr Trump named Mr Page as a foreign-policy aide to his campaign in March 2016.

If non-partisans, on reading these duelling memos, despair at the sense of confusion creeping over them like a fog, they should not be surprised. For such memos are not intended to elucidate. The sad reality is that almost nothing anyone reveals about the various probes into Russian election-meddling is likely to change a single partisan mind. These memos may be written in the sober, footnoted style of legal submissions. But it is more helpful to think of them as toots on a bugle in the midst of a cacophonous battle. They are calls to arms, designed to rally the troops on each side, reassure them that they are winning and keep them in line amid the clanging, banging and horse-whinnying of combat.

Mr Trump understands that well. Over the weekend he used his favourite bugle, Twitter, to tell his followers exactly how to understand the Democratic rebuttal memo. The Democratic memo, he tootled-tweeted: “is a total political and legal BUST.” He went on that it “just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!”

A scholar of the historical record is allowed to frown at this point, wondering just which of the Democrats’ and the FBI’s actions strike Mr Trump as being so terrible. True, Republican supporters of the president have been queuing to denounce the Democrats and the FBI for such wicked acts as relying on a dossier born of political opposition research. They have also attacked Mr Steele for obtaining information from Russian sources.

But no less an authority than Mr Trump is on the record as cheering the idea that using opposition research and dodgy Russian information can be a public service, if that is what it takes to expose skulduggery in high places. Take Mr Trump’s statements in July 2016, after Russia had been accused by American spy chiefs of hacking Democratic National Committee e-mails.

“I will tell you this, Russia: if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” Mr Trump told reporters in Florida, referring to e-mails deleted from a private server used by Mrs Clinton when she was secretary of state. Mr Trump doubled down on Twitter later that same day, saying: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”

Then there is the question of opposition research. In July 2017, when Donald Trump junior was in the spotlight for accepting a meeting during the election campaign with Russians who he believed had dirt on Mrs Clinton, the president defended his son without hesitation. “It’s called opposition research, or even research into your opponent,” Mr Trump said at a joint news conference with the French President, Emmanuel Macron. “Politics is not the nicest business in the world, but it’s very standard where they have information and you take the information.”

The key to the mystery is to understand that these duelling memos are not about what was done by anyone. This is a political moment in which “what” matters less than “who”—who someone is for, and against. For Republicans, the real crime is that the FBI employed senior officials who said to colleagues in text messages or e-mails that they hated the idea of a Trump presidency, and worked with Trump opponents. Mr Steele is accused of being desperate to stop Mr Trump from being elected, as proof of his “bias”. Others might say that if Mr Steele really thought he had evidence that the Russians had kompromat on the Republican nominee for president, it was his duty to be alarmed.

Not long ago, of course, lots of Americans believed that individuals could have personal political beliefs and still serve the rule of law. If the duelling memos clarify anything, it is that that moment is long past. https://www.economist.com/blogs/demo...st-russia-memo

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Old 28th February 2018, 04:16
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Foreign officials sought leverage over Kushner via his business arrangements, U.S. officials say
THE WASHINGTON POST February 27, 2018

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

It is unclear if any of those countries acted on the discussions, but Kushner's contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, the officials said.

Kushner's interim security clearance was downgraded last week from the top-secret to the secret level, which should restrict the regular access he has had to highly-classified information, according to administration officials.

H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perceptions of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster’s daily intelligence briefings, according to the current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Within the White House, Kushner’s lack of government experience and his business debt were seen from the beginning of his tenure as potential points of leverage that foreign governments could use to influence him, the current and former officials said.

They could also have legal implications. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders, according to a former U.S. official.

Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel, said one former White House official.

Kushner has an unusually complex set of business arrangements and foreign entanglements for a senior White House aide, experts have said. But his behavior while in office has drawn more scrutiny and raised concerns that he would be unable to obtain a final security clearance, which he needs to perform the many jobs Trump has entrusted to him, from negotiating foreign trade deals to overseeing a Middle East peace process.
“We will not respond substantively to unnamed sources peddling second-hand hearsay with rank speculation that continue to leak inaccurate information,” said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner’s lawyer.

White House officials said McMaster was taken aback by some of Kushner’s foreign contacts.

“When he learned about it, it surprised him,” one official said. “He thought that was weird. . . . It was an unusual thing. I don’t know that any White House has done it this way before.”

The official said that McMaster was “not concerned but wanted an explanation. It seemed unusual to him.”

In the months since, McMaster and Kushner have worked to coordinate so that the National Security Council is aware of Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials and so Kushner has access to the council’s country experts to prepare for meetings.

“General McMaster has the highest regard for Mr. Kushner, and the two work well together,” said council spokesman Michael Anton. “Everything they do is integrated . . . it’s seamless.”

[Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.]

Foreign governments routinely discuss ways they can influence senior officials in all administrations.

“Every country will seek to find their point of leverage,” said one person familiar with intelligence intercepts of foreign officials discussing Kushner.

But Kushner came to his position with an unusually complex set of business holdings and a family company facing significant debt issues.

A Mexican diplomatic source said that Kushner “has remained strictly professional” in his dealings with the country, “with both sides looking after their interests but trying to find common ground.”

Officials from the UAE identified Kushner as early as the spring of 2017 as particularly manipulable because of his family’s search for investors in their real estate company, current and former officials said.

Officials at the embassies of China, Israel and the UAE did not respond to requests for comment.

Kushner’s lack of a final security clearance has drawn scrutiny in recent weeks. He had an interim clearance that gave him access to information at the top-secret level, as well as more highly classified information, such as the president’s daily intelligence briefing. But the application for his final clearance dragged on for more than a year. The downgrading of his interim clearance from top secret to secret was first reported by Politico.

On Feb. 9, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein alerted White House Counsel Don McGahn that significant issues would further delay Kushner’s security clearance process, according to four people familiar with their discussions.

Kushner has repeatedly amended a form detailing his contacts with foreign persons. Not fully disclosing foreign contacts ordinarily would result in a clearance being denied, experts said.

On Friday, Trump said White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly would make a final decision on whether Kushner would continue to have a security clearance.

In 2016, Kushner was simultaneously running his family business, Kushner Cos., and helping to oversee Trump’s campaign. One of his top business concerns was what to do with his family’s investment in 666 Fifth Ave. in New York, which the company bought under his direction for $1.8 billion in 2007, the highest price paid at the time for a U.S. office tower. The purchase became troubled as the Great Recession hit, and Kushner refinanced it, leaving the company with a $1.2 billion debt that comes due in January 2019.

The Manhattan property has been a particularly nettlesome problem inside the government because Kushner’s company has sought foreign money on the project.

Kushner and his company had proposed a redevelopment plan that would double the building’s size, requiring major new investment. Before Trump took office, Kushner and other company officials explored several options for the financing. They met with an executive of a Chinese-run insurance company, Anbang, which had bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. They also discussed a possible investment by the former finance minister of Qatar, who oversaw an investment fund. But after Kushner served as Trump’s senior adviser for a few months in the White House, questions arose about potential conflicts of interest, the financing talks ended, and neither Anbang nor the Qatari fund signed on.

Thomas Barrack, a close Trump friend who asked the Qataris to consider investing in the Fifth Avenue property, has told The Washington Post that the refinancing efforts were “crushed” because Kushner’s move to the White House “just about completely chilled the market, and [potential investors] just said, ‘No way — can’t be associated with any appearances of conflict of interest,’ even though there was none.”

Questions have also been raised about whether Kushner discussed financing with a Russian banker. He met in December 2016 with Sergey Gorkov, the top executive of Vnesheconombank. The bank has said they talked about “promising business lines and sectors,” but Kushner told Congress that the meeting did not involve any discussion about his family’s company.

Kushner, upon entering the White House, divested his stake, which is now controlled by family members. With the deadline for the $1.2 billion debt looming, the company has continued to search for a lender. The redevelopment plan appears to be on hold after the company’s main partner, Vornado, run by Trump friend Steve Roth, deemed it “not feasible.”

Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, who plays a major role at the company, told The Post in a recent interview that he and the firm have not been contacted by Mueller. The company, which is privately held, has stressed that the Fifth Avenue property is a small fraction of its assets and that it is doing well financially.

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Old 13th March 2018, 19:55
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HUFF PRESS 03/13/2018 08:51 am ET Eline Gordts & Marina Fang
Trump Ousts Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson
Tillerson reportedly learned he’d been booted from Trump’s tweet.

WASHINGTON ― Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state after just 14 months on the job.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted that he is replacing Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, minutes after The Washington Post first reported that he had ousted Tillerson on Friday.

Donald J. Trump✔@realDonaldTrump
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
8:44 AM - Mar 13, 2018

The White House said Trump asked Tillerson to step down on Friday so the president could have a “new team in place” for an upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But a State Department spokesman told CNN that Tillerson found out about his firing when Trump announced it on Twitter on Tuesday.

According to a statement that followed Trump’s announcement, Tillerson ”had every intention of staying,” the State Department said. “The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason.”

The State Department official who contradicted the White House on Tillerson’s firing was also fired, The Associated Press reported.

Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he “made that decision by myself” to remove Tillerson, and noted that “Rex, as you know, was not in this country” at the time. He alluded to their disagreements, saying, “we were not thinking the same,” and predicted, “Rex will be happier now.”

Tillerson cut short a trip to Africa, returning to Washington Monday night. Reporters traveling with him said that they had no idea the secretary of state had been fired on Friday.

Trump announced that he plans to nominate Gina Haspel, now deputy CIA director, to replace Pompeo as head of the spy agency.

Most of Trump’s statement focused on Pompeo. He mentioned Tillerson at the end.

“A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well,” Trump said.

Notably missing from Trump administration statements on the secretary of state was something from Tillerson himself.

Just a day ago, Tillerson made a statement holding Russia responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, putting him at odds with the White House, which did not single out Russia.

Tillerson’s departure comes amid reports of his disappointment with the turbulent atmosphere in Trump’s White House, as well as mounting criticism of his performance as the country’s leading diplomat and his drastic reduction of civil servant positions at the State Department.

His job security had always seemed precarious, but on Nov. 30, The New York Times reported that the White House was considering forcing out Tillerson and replacing him with Pompeo.

The White House and State Department pushed back on the report, but that day, neither Trump nor White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would definitively say whether the president had confidence in Tillerson.

“He’s here. Rex is here,” Trump told reporters.

“When the president loses confidence in somebody, they’ll no longer be here,” Sanders said at that day’s White House press briefing.

Trump and Tillerson’s relationship has long been filled with tension. Tillerson reportedly considered resigning after Trump’s widely criticized speech to the Boy Scouts of America in July.

On Oct. 4, NBC News reported that Tillerson called Trump “a moron” during a meeting with top officials over the summer.

Following the report, Tillerson held an unusual press conference, in which he showered Trump with praise, affirming that the president is “smart.”

Notably, he did not dispute whether he called Trump “a moron,” leaving that job to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who claimed that “the secretary does not use that type of language.”

Attacking the reporting as “phony,” Trump later said he appreciated Tillerson’s comments and that he had “total confidence in Rex.”

But less than a week later, he suggested in a Forbes magazine interview that if the story were true, he should “compare IQ tests” with Tillerson.

“And I can tell you who is going to win,” he added.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed Trump’s comment was “a joke” and said that he “never implied that the secretary of state was not incredibly intelligent.”

Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts in attempting to quell North Korea’s nuclear aggression, with the two men often contradicting each other and the president lambasting Tillerson on Twitter.

Tillerson’s days as secretary of state seemed numbered from the start.

A government outsider lacking diplomatic experience, he arrived at Foggy Bottom after decades at Exxon Mobil Corp., rising from engineer in 1975 to chairman and CEO in 2006, overseeing vast expansion of the company’s operations worldwide.

Trump picked Tillerson for the State Department job after a lengthy public vetting of prominent candidates, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Tillerson faced opposition during his Senate confirmation process, with lawmakers expressing concerns over his lack of experience in government and diplomacy, and strong ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin from years of business in the country.

Even Tillerson himself had been reluctant to accept the position. “I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job,” he admitted to the conservative news outlet Independent Journal Review in March.

“My wife told me I’m supposed to do this,” he responded when an aide asked him why he accepted the position anyway.

Once in office, Tillerson sought to reorganize the State Department and prioritize its activities toward business and security. He publicly illustrated the pivot after weeks on the job, opting to skip the presentation of the department’s annual human rights report.

During his tenure, the department faced drastic budget cuts and a crucial leadership vacuum. Amid massive international challenges like North Korea’s nuclear arms race and the war in Syria, Trump proposed cutting the State Department budget by nearly one-third. Dozens of vacancies remained unfilled, including top deputies, because of White House refusal to accept Tillerson’s picks.

Tillerson and the White House also clashed on policy and messaging.

As a diplomatic crisis in Qatar unfolded, Trump directly undermined Tillerson’s calls for calm, expressing support for Saudi Arabia’s economic and diplomatic blockade of the Gulf state, and accusing Qatar of funding terrorism.

In an August interview, Tillerson declined to defend Trump’s support for “America’s values,” telling Fox News that “the president speaks for himself.” The questioning arose during a conversation about Trump’s much criticized response to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier that month, when counterprotesters clashed with hate groups protesting the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

From the White House, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, often ran a parallel track of diplomacy ― traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories to explore ways to revive peace talks, and interacting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Sources told CNN in July that Tillerson was becoming increasingly frustrated with the White House. In late August, Axios reported that Trump was losing patience with his secretary of state, in part because key roles at the department still remained unfilled more than eight months into Trump’s presidency. A State Department spokesperson told Axios that Tillerson was working to fill the vacancies but that the White House was effectively sitting on his recommendations.

Nauert had repeatedly insisted Tillerson was not considering resignation. Asked if a July vacation indicated Tillerson wanted to step away from the spotlight, Nauert said the secretary was “just taking a little time off” after that month’s G-20 summit.

Tillerson, like Trump, wasn’t a fan of reporters’ questions, doing away with the State Department’s daily briefing and limiting media access during his foreign travels.

He said he wasn’t “a big media press-access person,” when he allowed just one journalist ― a reporter from the Independent Journal Review ― to accompany him on a visit to South Korea. The move backfired. American journalists were unable to challenge an embarrassing report in the Korea Herald that the secretary had canceled a dinner with South Korean officials because he was fatigued.

Tillerson is just the latest to step down in the Trump administration. In September, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign, after he used taxpayer-funded private jets on numerous occasions.

National security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to step down in February following revelations that he discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador before Trump’s inauguration.

On May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election.

Mike Dubke, White House communications director, resigned later in May after months of chaos in the press shop. Press secretary Sean Spicer quit in July, after the president appointed Anthony Scaramucci as the new communications director. Scaramucci resigned after just 10 days, amid a spate of departures that included White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and, less than a month later, chief strategist Steve Bannon. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry...b0c95f375db326

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Old 17th March 2018, 02:47
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NBC NEWS William M. Arkin & Kevin Monahan / Mar.15.2018 / 8:58 AM ET
Possible Russian trolls try to register for Texas Democratic convention

Next Saturday, March 24, hundreds of Texas Democratic Party activists will gather at the Austin Hyatt Regency to nominate candidates for political office in Travis County, a kick-off event leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

But some people who tried to register will not be attending, among them Candida McGruder. Gustavo Chubb. Geraldo Tinsley. Vincent Amundson. Roxie Male.

That's because these five individuals and 43 others who signed up to attend don't appear to be Travis County residents, or Texans, or even Americans. They might not even be real people. They may be pranksters — or they may be Russian trolls, and their appearance in Texas could represent the first public example of foreign probing of the 2018 elections.

Five senior intelligence officers, two current and three former, say the case of the Texas 48 looks like Russian meddling. And they tell NBC News that despite the clumsiness of the failed registrations, the Texas case fits a pattern of Russian behavior seen in its covert operations.

U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News that Russia has never stopped trying to influence American politics through fake social media accounts and propaganda. The officials have not disclosed any specific cyberoperations aimed at voter rolls or the 2018 midterms, but they say they fully expect Russian interference attempts to continue.

"In the context of what we already know, the Texas case points to the broader Russian effort," a senior intelligence official said.

Earlier this year, as Texas party officials prepared for the March 24 county meetings that would nominate candidates for office, Glen Maxey noticed something odd about online registrations for the Travis County meeting in Austin. Some of the people attempting to register either didn't fully fill out their online form or provided obviously false information.

Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party and a former member of the Texas House of Representatives, said that at the time just over 2,500 Texas citizens had successfully registered online for the Travis County meeting. He went through the aborted registrations by hand, checking to see whether the registrations had been "kicked back" because of simple errors, in which case he would follow up with the individuals.

Maxey found a few unfinished registrations that were simple mistakes. But he identified 48 that were problematic, meaning they seemed unconnected to anybody living in Texas. Twenty-five of those 48 were trying to register with email addresses ending in "mail.ru." Those last two letters, .ru, are the internet designation for domains in Russia.

Maxey told NBC News he and his team hadn't seen any other examples of pranks or false registrations in past cycles. He also said he didn't know who to contact in Texas state government and had received no guidance from either state or federal authorities regarding anything to do with potential Russian interference.

An excerpt of a spreadsheet showing some of the failed registrants for the Democratic Party's Travis County Convention and their ".ru" email addresses, provided by Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.

NBC News wrote to the 48 suspicious registrants, using the email addresses they provided in their online registrations, asking for additional information. Of the 48, 16 emails bounced back — "undeliverable" in internet terms, meaning the addresses were likely false. But the others — including all 25 ending in @mail.ru, were evidently delivered to their respective inboxes. After a week, NBC News has heard no responses.

"These are not automated names caught in some spam filter," the senior intelligence official told NBC News, when he was told of the circumstances of the Texas 48. He points out that the suspect addresses seem to link to an actual human or humans rather than automated "bots" in that someone had to physically navigate to the website and fill out web forms.

The official also notes that in contrast to Russian probes during the 2016 election, where operatives tried to penetrate voter registration systems or voter lookup systems, whoever is pranking or probing the Democratic Party in Texas is focusing on the broader election process.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's Feb. 16 grand Jury indictment, the official points out, shows meticulous Russian low-level activity to use social media and influence party activists in specific states and localities.

Whoever is behind the Texas 48 is targeting a political party instead of voter registration systems, the official said, the "systems that state officials and homeland security are now prepared to defend."

So are the Russians coming?

On the surface, said cyberintelligence expert and NBC News consultant Sean Kanuck, "this almost sounds like junior high school students ordering pizzas under fake names."

But beneath the surface, Kanuck thinks perhaps something more sinister could be afoot.

Despite the ham-handedness that announces an obvious Russian origin, said Kanuck, who served as the first national intelligence officer for cyber issues at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2011 to 2016, the methods and even the in-your-face nature of the trolling fit the pattern of "a Russian strategic campaign to delegitimize the democratic electoral process."

"I would speculate that Russia is testing the waters for possible interventions or disruptions in the future," Kanuck said.

And why be so obvious?

If there's one thing that U.S. intelligence officials are unanimous about, it is that Russia will be back, that is, if indeed they ever left.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that Russia "views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target." The directors of the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency agreed.


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