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Release the Memo: 24 Hours Later

Late yesterday evening I addressed the quickly developing disinformation campaign being called release the memo after the hashtag of the same name. I specifically wrote:

Apparently Congressman Nunes, or folks working for/with him on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, have produced a four page memo alleging significant abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the Obama Administration, specifically the Department of Justice and the FBI, against Republicans. The memo is supposedly classified. This has led to the creation of a release the memo hashtag (click at your own risk of sanity). This would seem to explain Sean Hannity’s opening tease on Fox News tonight.

And:

It is hard to get decent info at this point, but if I’m following all this correctly the memo being referred to is the result of Congressman Nunes’ monomania regarding lawful unmasking by the Obama Administration in 2015 and 2016 and the attempt to create a controversy and scandal over FISA violations as reported by the chronically wrong and easily duped John Solomon at The Hill, as well as his equally odious, one sided, and misleading reporting on the text messages between two FBI officials during the campaign.

 

Twenty-four hours later we have more clarity on exactly how the alleged memo was created and the purpose to which it is being put. Hamilton68, funded by the German Marshall Fund to track Russian active measures on social media, has been tracking the release the memo hashtag.

Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider has further details.

Russia-linked Twitter bots have jumped on the bandwagon.

#ReleaseTheMemo is the top-trending hashtag among Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations, according to Hamilton 68, a website launched last year that says it tracks Russian propaganda in near-real time.

The frequency with which the accounts have been promoting the hashtag has spiked by 233,000% over the past 48 hours, according to the site. The accounts’ references to the “memo,” meanwhile, have increased by 68,000%.

The most-shared domain among the accounts has been WikiLeaks, and the most-shared URL has been a link to WikiLeaks’ “submit” page.

WikiLeaks said on Thursday that it would reward anyone with access to the “FISA abuse memo” who chooses to submit it to the site. The Russia-linked accounts have evidently been sharing the “submit” page to push the memo’s release.

Bret Schafer, a communications coordinator at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy who tracks the Hamilton 68 accounts, said he “certainly can’t remember” the last time the researchers had seen a topic “promoted to this level” by the Russia-linked bots and trolls.

“On a normal day, our top hashtag is typically used around 400 times in a 48-hour period by the network we track,” he said in an email on Friday.

“As of right now, #ReleaseTheMemo has been used over 3,000 times (and five other related hashtags are in the top 10),” he said. “In total, they’ve easily shared more than 4,500 hashtags on the topic in the past two days, and our top URL is Assange’s offer to pay for a copy of the memo. That certainly seems to be a sign of a coordinated effort by the bots and trolls.”

Congressman Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence – and the only member of that committee to actually successfully prosecute an espionage case – had this to say:

a profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation. Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI. This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.”

Where does this leave our beleaguered hero Congressman Nunes, the chairman of the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence? According to GOP strategist Rick Wilson he’s right in the thick of things.

Also, OpSec people, OpSec!!!!!

Wilson’s anonymous source has now been verified by subsequent reporting.

One thing about that document: Republican staffers wrote it.

Even the most plugged-in news consumer could be forgiven for thinking the classified memo is an executive branch document that exposes wrongdoing within the Justice Department and the FBI. It isn’t.

The document, which alleges abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the FBI’s quiet counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the final months of the 2016 election, was actually compiled by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee. That committee voted along partisan lines this week to allow any member of Congress to take a peek at the document themselves. Republican members soon flocked to a secure room to read the memo written by their allies — and then ran to tell the press about it.

If the memo does eventually go public, it won’t end well for Republicans, Susan Hennessey, the executive editor of the legal commentary site Lawfare, argued Friday. “After causing completely unnecessary chaos today, this memo will be released in some redacted [form] in a few weeks and prove to be an utter embarrassment to Nunes personally, the [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] majority, and frankly to US House of Representatives,” Hennessey predict

What I estimated last night was correct.

Since these (the Simpson transcripts just released by HPSCI) basically shoot everything Congressman Nunes, Congressman Gaetz, Congressman DeSantis, Congressman Jordan, and several other GOP members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Oversight, Justice, or other committees have been saying about the Special Counsel and his investigation and the FBI’s role in the counterintelligence investigation pertaining to the President that was begun in July 2016, they needed to do something to change the narrative. Enter the four page classified memo supposedly alleging that the Obama Administration, the DOJ, the FBI, and other parts of the US Intel Community were all conspiring against Republicans and conservatives in general and the President, his businesses, and his campaign in specific. Leaked to Fox News and teed up for Sean Hannity’s diatribe for an audience of one this evening. Given what happened the last time that Congressman Nunes tried to get creative in screening fire for the President, I fully expect that if this memo is ever declassified it won’t survive first contact with the actual subject matter experts the news media brings in to consult on it. Except, of course, for Fox News, talk radio, the alt-right news media (Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, etc) and social media crowd, Wikileaks, RT, and Sputnik. They’ll all, amazingly, have the exact same talking points. As will the White House, the President on twitter, and the aforementioned GOP members of Congress. This amount of coincidence takes a lot of work!

This is a desperate play to try to change the subject, to try to divert the news media’s attention, and it appears to have been fed to one of the specific Fox News personalities that we know are tailoring their programming directly to and for the President. Anyone want to estimate the over/under that Congressman Nunes actually either gave Hannity the memo he cobbled together or just read it to him, despite the fact that it was classified because it cherry picks material from classified DOJ, FBI, and US Intelligence Community information? Finally, releasing a partisan staff product memo isn’t going to answer any actual questions.

The only way to put the issue to bed would be to declassify and release the FISA warrant application. That is not going to happen. And you’ll notice that Congressman Nunes, nor his exceedingly shrill partners in crime – Congressman Gaetz, Congressman DeSantis, Congressman King (IA), Congressman Meadows,  Congressman Jordan, Congressman Zeldin, Sean Hannity, Wikileakes, etc – are actually calling for that to happen. All they want is Congressman Nunes cherry picked material disseminated to create maximum outrage and diversion. Which is, apparently, what Russian state media, Russian intelligence funded trolls, Russian controlled bots, Russia’s fellow travelers on the alt-right, the Fox News personalities who are programming their shows to speak to an audience of one (the President), and these members of Congress all want. This is a strange convergence of interests. And this is why they are all using the exact same talking points, messaging, and language. A lot of work went into creating this coincidence.

Updated at 9:26 PM EST

Here’s an example of the clear eyed, quality thinking that has gone into releasing the memo:

Genius!

Stay frosty (or warm if you’re where it’s cold)!

Open thread!



Penetration At All Levels: US Senate Edition

This is what happens when you decide to play political games for power and profit rather than provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare! That this is being disclosed now means that the penetration has occurred, Senators, their staffs, and/or their campaigns are already compromised, and the enemy – Russia – wants everyone to know in order to increase the confusion and distrust and further aggravate the social, political, economic, religious, and ethnic/racial tensions and divisions in the US. Are Senators Grassley’s and Graham’s recent actions the result of being compromised or attempts to seek partisan advantage? And what about the House of Representatives? There is no way the Russians have hacked the Senate, but not the House.

From The Associated Press:

PARIS (AP) — The same Russian government-aligned hackers who penetrated the Democratic Party have spent the past few months laying the groundwork for an espionage campaign against the U.S. Senate, a cybersecurity firm said Friday.

The revelation suggests the group often nicknamed Fancy Bear, whose hacking campaign scrambled the 2016 U.S. electoral contest, is still busy trying to gather the emails of America’s political elite.

“They’re still very active — in making preparations at least — to influence public opinion again,” said Feike Hacquebord, a security researcher at Trend Micro Inc., which published the report . “They are looking for information they might leak later.”

The Senate Sergeant at Arms office, which is responsible for the upper house’s security, declined to comment.

Hacquebord said he based his report on the discovery of a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system. He then cross-referenced digital fingerprints associated with those sites to ones used almost exclusively by Fancy Bear, which his Tokyo-based firm dubs “Pawn Storm.”

Trend Micro previously drew international attention when it used an identical technique to uncover a set of decoy websites apparently set up to harvest emails from the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in April 2017. The sites’ discovery was followed two months later by a still-unexplained publication of private emails from several Macron staffers in the final days of the race.

Hacquebord said the rogue Senate sites — which were set up in June and September of 2017 — matched their French counterparts.

“That is exactly the way they attacked the Macron campaign in France,” he said.

Business Insider also has coverage:

The US Senate was targeted last year by the same hacking group that broke into the Democratic National Committee servers during the 2016 presidential election, according to the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.

The research firm found that phishing sites were set up by Pawn Storm, also known as Fancy Bear or APT28, mimicking the Senate’s internal email system in an attempt to gain users’ login credentials.

“By looking at the digital fingerprints of these phishing sites and comparing them with a large data set that spans almost five years, we can uniquely relate them to a couple of Pawn Storm incidents in 2016 and 2017,” the researchers wrote.

The  June 2017 phishing attempts would not have been the first time the Russia-linked hackers tried to infiltrate the US Senate.  In its extensive analysis of Fancy Bear’s targets during the presidential election, the Associated Press found that Senate staffers Robert Zarate, Josh Holmes, and Jason Thielman were targeted between 2015-2016.

Fancy Bear had a “digital hit list” throughout that period that targeted a wide range of Russia’s perceived enemies, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, and half of the feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot.

Trend Micro said that the Senate’s Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS), which is bascially its internal email system, “is not reachable on the open internet.” But phishing of users’ credentials on a server “that is behind a firewall still makes sense.”

“In case an actor already has a foothold in an organization after compromising one user account, credential phishing could help him get closer to high profile users of interest,” the researchers wrote.

Hacquebord said he doesn’t think it’s correct to say that the methods Pawn Storm used were not advanced.

“They have to know who they want to target, and the timing is important,” Hacquebord said. “The techniques may not be advanced but the social engineering is. They’ve been using these same tactics for quite some time, and it’s been quite effective. They are also very persistent.”

He added that Pawn Storm was using zero-days, or software vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers before the developer discovers and patches it.

“These zero days are expensive on the black market,” Hacquebord said. “This is not the stuff of amateurs.”

In case you think compromising members of the Senate, their staffs, and their campaigns is very bad, it gets worse.

On June 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified to the Senate Intelligence committee about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. After fielding hours of questions about his knowledge of the plot, Sessions was greeted by an abrupt change in topic from Senator John McCain. “Quietly, the Kremlin has been trying to map the United States telecommunications infrastructure,” McCain announced, and described a series of alarming moves, including Russian spies monitoring the fiber optic network in Kansas and Russia’s creation of “a cyber weapon that can disrupt the United States power grids and telecommunications infrastructure.”

When McCain asked if Sessions had a strategy to counter Russia’s attacks, Sessions admitted they did not.

But while the role of hacks in the election is the subject of several ongoing probes, the hacks of other U.S. institutions and infrastructures have been largely ignored by the Trump administration, even as the hacking became more aggressive throughout 2017. In June, shortly after McCain’s testimony, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released an urgent joint report stating that U.S. nuclear power stations and other energy facilities had been hacked. In July, Bloomberg and the Washington Postconfirmed that the hackers worked for the Russian government.

While U.S. government officials stressed that the public was not yet at serious risk, claiming the hackers had not yet gained the ability to control the grid, intelligence officers warned that infrastructure attacks by a hostile state can also operate as a form of political leverage. Most analyses of the 2016 election hacks have framed leverage in personal terms: kompromatstolen from hacked emails used to blackmail individuals into submission or to humiliate officials as part of a propaganda campaign. Less examined is the form of leverage McCain raised at the Sessions hearing: the possibility of vital infrastructure, like the power grid, being crippled, potentially causing massive financial and humanitarian consequences. In this formulation, an entire government could ostensibly be held hostage to another government’s whim out of fear of triggering a cataclysmic attack.

As 2017 wore on, Russia continued to hack infrastructure around the world , again crippling government and corporate offices across Ukraine, along with energy sectors in the United Kingdom and government officialsin France, and ending the year targeting NATO countries through unprecedented focus on underwater North Atlantic cables that provide internet service to the U.S. and Europe. Disrupting these cables, one British naval official said, would “immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living.”

In September, security firm Symantec said it had notified more than 100 energy companies in the U.S., Turkey, Switzerland, Afghanistan, and elsewhere about Dragonfly 2.0—a set of intrusions into industrial and energy-related companies suspected to originate in Russia. Using targeted phishing emails and compromised websites designed to capture users’ credentials, the hackers gained access in some cases not just to front-office networks but to “operational machines.” As a Symantec security analyst told Fast Company, “We’re talking about machines that are controlling elements that are plugged into the power grid.” A month later, the Dept. of Homeland Security and FBI warned critical infrastructure providers in nuclear, energy, and other key sectors about the ongoing attacks, noting that “threat actors are actively pursuing their ultimate objectives over a long-term campaign.”

And if you think Putin is going to stop, he’s not. He’s going to turn the screws.

When the employees of the famous “troll factory” in St. Petersburg return to their desks after the Russian holidays, they will be writing comments and posts on social media in much more spacious offices. As the city’s leading business daily Delovoy Peterburg reports in an investigative article published just before New Year, the 4,000 square metres of their previous address on 55, Savushkina Street have been replaced by 12,000 square metres in St Petersburg’s Lakhta business district.

The impressive threefold increase of work space is testimony to the success of the “factory”. As Russian RBC Daily’s investigation in April 2017 showed, the trolling activities have now branched out into a conglomerate of at least 16 different online outlets, all of which voice strong support for Kremlin’s policies, while systematically linking to each other’s products. At the same time they carry little or no advertisement.

The owner of the “troll factory”, businessman and billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, has also become known as “Putin’s chef” because of his success in providing catering services for, among other clients, the Kremlin and other branches of the Russian government. Mr Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for providing financial support for Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine. Delovoy Peterburg’s investigation also reveals that the owners of the new premises are contributors to President Putin’s election campaign.

As I wrote 18 months ago: we are at cyberwar. I was one of the first national security professionals to publicly make that argument based on what was available in open source reporting. Eighteen months later we have actually moved to the point were the cyberwar is just one of the fronts in an elaborate, multi-pronged Russian attack and offensive against the US, our EU and NATO allies, and other liberal democratic states and societies. A formal declaration of war and placing the US on a mobilized for war footing in order to appropriately respond is no longer something to joke about. We can either get serious with this threat and respond appropriately through a formal declaration of war, placing the US on a war footing to fight back, and the mobilization of our closest allies by invoking NATO Article 5 or we can watch Putin make bank as he dismantles liberal democracy in the US, Canada, and the EU and then tries to scarf up eastern Europe, the Baltics, and parts of Scandanavia.

This is not a game. It is not a joke. This is not politics as usual or as unusual. This is not about partisan advantage. We have wasted trillions of dollars, thousands of American and allied lives, and hundreds of thousands to millions of lives of host country nationals caught in the crossfire misunderstanding and improperly responding to Islamic extremism and the terrorism it engenders as an existential threat. Right now we have decided to purposefully ignore a real existential threat: Russia’s war against the US, the EU, NATO, and liberal democracy because it might jeopardize Paul Ryan’s desires to gut Social Security, Mitch McConnell’s dreams to gut campaign finance laws and pack the Federal courts, Stephen Miller’s blatant racism, Mike Pence’s fetish for punishing LGBTQ people because they make him feel icky about himself, and the President’s psychological inability to come to terms with the fact that he is only in office because Vladimir Putin felt threatened by Secretary Clinton combined with the desires of a plurality of white racists and misogynists to make one last stand for bigotry and oppression. And because stating that truth is considered to be politically inappropriate. We can either get it together or we can be remembered as a society so stupid we allowed ourselves to be subverted and destroyed without a single shot being fired.

As I asked eighteen months ago: we are at war, what are we going to do about it?



Senator Cardin’s Report on the US Security Concerns of Russian Active Measures and Cyberwarfare

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has overseen the production of a report on the US security concerns regarding the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaigns against the US and a number of European states. This is a minority staff report prepared for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The report can be found at this link or downloaded below. A section by section summary can be found at this link or downloaded below.

Final_Cardin_Report Section by Sections of RR 1-8

For those interested, here’s the video of the German Marshall Fund’s event about the report with Senator Cardin and Congressman Hurd.

Responding to Russia’s Attacks on Democracy

January 10, 2018 | 8:45AM to 10:30AM EST
Washington, DC

Discussants

  • Panel 1: U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (D-MD)
  • Panel 2: U.S. Congressman Will Hurd, Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security (R-TX)

Moderator

  • Secretary Michael Chertoff, former United States Secretary of Homeland Security

While Americans have recently been awakened to the threat of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine democratic institutions in the United States, such tactics are all too familiar to our European partners and allies who have been on the frontlines of Russia’s assault on democracy. There is much we can learn from the history of Russia’s activities aimed at undermining democracies in Europe, as well as from how our European partners and allies respond. The U.S. government, including the Executive Branch and Congress, must take steps to work with our European partners and allies to defend against and deter such activities in the future.

Please join the Alliance for Securing Democracy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States for a two-part discussion. The first conversation will feature U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as he presents findings from his new report, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” This will be directly followed by a conversation with U.S. Representative Will Hurd on Russia’s threat to U.S. national security. Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff will moderate both sessions.

Open thread!



Breaking: Senator Feinstein Has Released The Transcript of Glenn Simpson’s Testimony To The Senate Judiciary Committee

Senator Feinstein has released the transcript of Glenn Simpson’s, of Fusion GPS, testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. You can find all 312 pages at this link. Or access it below in case Senator Grassley throws a tantrum and it get’s removed from Senator Feinstein’s outward facing Senate page. I haven’t had a chance to read through this and won’t get to it till at least tomorrow, if not later in the week, but enjoy!

Simpson_Testimony

Open thread!



What Does Penetration at All Levels Actually Mean

This morning Cheryl wrote about a newly reported on email about another conservative activist attempting to set up a meeting between the President, when he was a candidate, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to The NY Times reporting, the email’s author, Paul Erickson, specifically recommended establishing an early “first” contact at the NRA’s annual meeting.

I just wanted to take a little time and explain why this is part of the penetration at all levels portion of the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaign that we’ve been tracking since June 2016 and what I mean by the term penetration at all levels.

Working in reverse order, penetration at all levels refers to establishing connections and building a network through a wide variety of elites, notables, organizations, and institutions across as many societal sectors as possible. By doing so one has the ability to both influence and leverage the political, social, economic, religious, educational, entertainment, and military realms. Not all of this is nefarious. Not all of it is done to be detrimental to the US. And the US, as well as American organizations, do this in other countries too. A lot of it is not nefarious or intended to be, but some, like what we’ve been observing of the Russian active measures campaign against the US, definitely are.

Until Putin’s active measures campaign against the US, the EU, and NATO became clear, perhaps the best example of penetration at all levels in the US was by the Israelis. The Israelis are able to leverage both the Jewish American and Christian (specifically the evangelical Christian Zionists) religious communities, politicians from both political parties, the entertainment industry, other business sectors, think tanks, and the military (there is a US Army Military Education Level 1 Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy aka WINEP aka The Washington Institute). This isn’t intended as a screed about Israelis, rather it is simply a quick recounting of how the Israeli government pursues its interests in the US. What Putin and his proxies have done is similar, though nowhere near as thoroughly as the Israelis. That we know of…

In the Russian case a lot of the penetration that is being reported on and made public appears to have been focused solely on more politically, socially, economically, and religiously conservative sectors, groups, and organizations in the US. The Daily Beast first reported on Russia’s connections to the NRA back in February 2017. This was the first of three articles that delineated the creation of a Russian firearms sporting organization partially led by Marina Butina. Specifically:

Two of Butina’s friendships in particular have raised eyebrows. She started a business with Paul Erickson, a decades-long Republican Party activist. And she served as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator belonging to Vladimir Putin’s political party with alleged ties to the Russian mob world.

 As chilled vodka flowed through an ice sculpture—a bottle imprinted with the Soviet hammer and sickle—she took some time to brag. She brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, two individuals who were present said. On other occasions, in one of her graduate classes, she repeated this claim.

Erickson and Butina have been seen in public frequently, at the invitation-only Freedom Ball after Trump’s inauguration; and holding court at Russia House, a Russian-themed bar in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. At one such gathering in the fall of 2016 Erickson bragged that he was advising the Trump transition team, according to two sources who were present; he is also said to have told a story about introducing Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, to former NRA president David Keene. (Kalashnikov allegedly inspired the creation of “The Right to Bear Arms,” Butina’s gun rights group.)

The two appear to have gotten close: Erickson formed a limited liability corporation with Butina in February 2016, according to the South Dakota secretary of state. It is unclear what this organization, Bridges, LLC, actually does. (Despite living in Washington, D.C., Butina has a cellphone number with a South Dakota area code.)

In The Daily Beast‘s second report, Tim Mak expands on his reporting from February 2017 by digging into the meeting between members of the NRA and Dmitry Rogozin, one of Putin’s hard line deputies and the head of the Russian Shooting Federation, which would make him either Butina’s partner or boss. The Daily Beast‘s third article on this topic delves even deeper to who was at the meeting with Rogozin. Specifically former Milwaukee County Sheriff, Fox News analyst, extremist anti-US government Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association Sheriff of the Year, campaign proxy and Republican National Convention prime time speaker, and withdrawn nominee for political appointment at the Department of Homeland Security David Clarke. And former NRA President and current board member David Keene.

Here’s Rogozin’s tweet about the event. You’ll notice Clarke’s in the second photo. Keene is in the first standing next to Rogozin.

Putin, via his proxies, hasn’t just established connections to the NRA and through NRA officials like Clarke to anti-US government groups like the pro-militia and pro-Bundy Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. They’ve also worked very hard to establish connections to conservative Christian groups in the US.

Growing up in the 1980s, Brian Brown was taught to think of the communist Soviet Union as a dark and evil place.

But Brown, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said that in the past few years he has started meeting Russians at conferences on family issues and finding many kindred spirits.

Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, has visited Moscow four times in four years, including a 2013 trip during which he testified before the Duma as Russia adopted a series of anti-gay laws.

“What I realized was that there was a great change happening in the former Soviet Union,” he said. “There was a real push to re-instill Christian values in the public square.”

On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.

The attitude adjustment among many conservative activists helps explain one of the most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia. To the alarm of some in the GOP’s national security establishment, support in the party base for then-candidate Donald Trump did not wane even after he rejected the tough tone of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who called Russia America’s No. 1 foe, and repeatedly praised Putin.

Why here’s Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley at the National Prayer Breakfast. This picture was originally posted to his Instagram account:

Makarov is a member of the United Russia Party and is the head of the Duma’s Budget Committee. Why, exactly, is Russia sending a sixteen member delegation of senior officials to the US National Prayer Breakfast, an event largely promoted and attended by elected, appointed, and otherwise well connected American social and religious conservatives? Penetration at all levels in pursuit of influence. It is also important to remember that the National Prayer Breakfast is the premier annual event of The Family, the secretive, ultra-Christian conservative and neo-fascist organization that runs a boarding house for Christian conservative members of Congress.

Vice President Pence gave a keynote address at Franklin Graham’s summit on religious violence against Christians. He also met with Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Alfeyev. Alfeyev runs the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department.

Even the sponsor of the President’s foreign policy address in April 2016, The Center for the National Interest, appears to have ties to Russia.

That Trump would choose the Center for the National Interest as the place to premier his new seriousness on foreign policy has Manafort’s fingerprints all over it. For Manafort and the Center have something very important in common: both have ties to the Russian regime of President Vladimir Putin, (whose ambassador to the United States sat in the front row for Trump’s address).

As for the Center, both it and its journal, the National Interest, are two of the most Kremlin-sympathetic institutions in the nation’s capital, even more so that the Carnegie Moscow Center, which has evolved from a hub of Russian liberalism into an accomodationist, intellectually-compromised think tank.

Center director Dmitri Simes worked as an aide to Nixon and for decades has used his connections to the Kremlin — real or perceived — to cultivate a reputation in Washington as one of the few Russia hands who intimately knows that country’s politics. For years, the Center for the National Interest partnered with the Russian government-funded Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a New York-based institution whose head, Adranik Migranyan, was personally appointed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks. In May 2014, the two think tanks held a press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.

Another association connecting Trump to the Center is Richard Burt, chairman of the National Interest’s advisory council, and a former ambassador to Germany and State Department official during the Reagan administration. According to a knowledgeable source, Burt, who had previously worked as an unpaid advisor to former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, has been enlisted by Manafort to join Trump’s campaign and helped draft his speech (neither Burt nor Manafort responded to inquiries). Burt sits on the senior advisory board of the Russian Alfa Bank.

Burt is the lobbyist and former diplomat who contradicted AG Sessions testimony that he hadn’t been at dinners hosted by the AG when he was a senator. He also helped to draft the President’s April 2016 speech on foreign policy, while he was lobbying on behalf of Russia.

It is important to note that the editor of The Center for the National Interest’s publication, The National Interest, has publicly disputed Politico‘s reporting in Politico. His refutation in Politico was also one of the items used to impeach AG Sessions memory over one of his meetings with Ambassador Kislyak:

Speaking for myself, after briefly meeting Trump at a reception in the Senate Room of the Mayflower, where a number of politicians and Trump advisers, such as Senator Jeff Sessions and ambassadors, congregated before the event, I can’t claim any kind of conversion experience.

The reason for all of this outreach, networking, and connection making is to both allow for influence operations to proceed and to facilitate contacts and create opportunities for even more leverage and influence. The reason the NRA annual meeting was proposed for a meeting is that Rogozin was already scheduled to be there under cover of his Russian shooting sports organization. And because most media outlets aren’t going to cover the event. And those that do, which tend to focus on the firearms industry or shooting sports, aren’t going to be paying a lot of attention to Rogozin and his organization other than to note how great it is that Russians are looking to the US in pursuing the natural and civil rights to self defense.

And the reason these Russian contacts want meetings and want to take selfies is it gives them access, influence, and leverage. Do I actually think that Senator Grassley is compromised because he was seated with Member of Duma Makarov? No. But that selfie can be used to provide the impression that maybe he can’t be trusted, beyond just simple partisanship and his noted cantankerousness, to run an objective, above board Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Do I think Clarke or the other NRA board members that went to Russia to meet with Rogozin are compromised by the Russians? Doubtful, but hopefully they didn’t do anything strange in their hotel rooms because I’m sure they were under a variety of electronic and signals intelligence throughout their trip.

This is penetration at all levels. Though in this case it is selective, for the time being, on the center right to right in American political, religious, economic, and social spheres. It is intended to provide access, influence, and leverage. Combined with the other portions of the Russian active measures, specifically the cyber warfare campaign, it has been very effective while it has also been very clumsy. Only time will tell just how effective and how much actual damage it has done.



A Deep Dive Into the Russian Active Measures Against the United States

The Guardian has published a long form, deep dive piece of investigative journalism into the Russian active measures against the US, provided what is close to the definitive context of how the Steele dossier came to be, and quickly and neatly debunked both the conspiracy theory that the FBI based its inquiry on the Steele dossier and that the Clinton campaign, and the Clintons, were really conspiring with Putin and Russia against the US.

Let’s start with that last item first:

In mid-2015, the Republican front-runner had been Jeb Bush, son of one US president and brother of another. But as the campaign got under way, Bush struggled. Trump dubbed the former Florida governor “low-energy”. During the primaries, a website funded by one of Trump’s wealthy Republican critics, Paul Singer, commissioned Fusion to investigate Trump.

After Trump became the presumptive nominee in May 2016, Singer’s involvement ended and senior Democrats seeking to elect Hillary Clinton took over the Trump contract. The new client was the Democratic National Committee. A lawyer working for Clinton’s campaign, Marc E Elias, retained Fusion and received its reports. The world of private investigation was a morally ambiguous one – a sort of open market in dirt. Information on Trump was of no further use to Republicans, but it could be of value to Democrats, Trump’s next set of opponents.

The FBI, as we know from following this story closely as it emerged across 2016, based its counterintelligence inquiry not on the Steele dossier, but on intercepts and intelligence products produced by US allies and partners. (emphasis mine)

In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.

The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness – the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.

But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’ – the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.

That summer, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, flew to the US to personally brief CIA chief John Brennan. The matter was deemed so important that it was handled at “director level”, face-to-face between the two agency chiefs. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, later confirmed the “sensitive” stream of intelligence from Europe. After a slow start, Brennan used the GCHQ information and other tip-offs to launch a major inter-agency investigation. Meanwhile, the FBI was receiving disturbing warnings from Steele.

As for how the Steele dossier came to be:

Before this, in early spring 2016, Simpson approached Steele, his friend and colleague. Steele began to scrutinise Paul Manafort, who would soon become Trump’s new campaign manager. From April, Steele investigated Trump on behalf of the DNC, Fusion’s anonymous client. All Steele knew at first was that the client was a law firm. He had no idea what he would find. He later told David Corn, Washington editor of the magazine Mother Jones: “It started off as a fairly general inquiry.” Trump’s organisation owned luxury hotels around the world. Trump had, as far back as 1987, sought to do real estate deals in Moscow. One obvious question for him, Steele said, was: “Are there business ties to Russia?”

Over time, Steele had built up a network of sources. He was protective of them: who they were he would never say. It could be someone well-known – a foreign government official or diplomat with access to secret material. Or it could be someone obscure – a lowly chambermaid cleaning the penthouse suite and emptying the bins in a five-star hotel.

Normally an intelligence officer would debrief sources directly, but since Steele could no longer visit Russia, this had to be done by others, or in third countries. There were intermediaries, subsources, operators – a sensitive chain. Only one of Steele’s sources on Trump knew of Steele. Steele put out his Trump-Russia query and waited for answers. His sources started reporting back. The information was astonishing; “hair-raising”. As he told friends: “For anyone who reads it, this is a life-changing experience.”

Steele had stumbled upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa. It was the boldest plot yet. It involved the Kremlin and Trump. Their relationship, Steele’s sources claimed, went back a long way. For at least the past five years, Russian intelligence had been secretly cultivating Trump. This operation had succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Not only had Trump upended political debate in the US – raining chaos wherever he went and winning the nomination – but it was just possible that he might become the next president. This opened all sorts of intriguing options for Putin.

I highly recommend you click across and read the whole thing. It will be well worth your time.



Further Perversions in Social Media: The Catalonian Independence Referendum

Catalonia is holding an independence referendum today. The national Spanish government has declared this an illegal and/or unconstitutional political act.

Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978, which was approved by more than 90% of Catalan voters, gave wide autonomy to the regions but affirmed “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. Only the Spanish parliament can change the constitution. Mr Puigdemont’s referendum is therefore illegal, and Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, is determined to prevent it taking place.

Police have been deployed to stop it, leading to all too predictable violence.

Spanish riot police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt a banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region.

Police broke down doors to force entry into voting stations as defiant Catalans shouted “Out with the occupying forces!” and sang the anthem of the wealthy northeastern region. In one incident in Barcelona, police fired rubber projectiles.

Catalan officials said 337 people had been injured in the police crackdown. Officers in riot gear hit people with batons and forcibly removed would-be voters, including women and the elderly, from polling stations.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

Here’s what things look like on the ground.

The good:

The bad:

And the ugly:

The Spanish news media, however, has noticed an unfortunate trend playing out in regard to the independence referendum regardless of one’s views on Catalonia and whether it should be independent, how far back the desire for independence goes, or how many Catalonians (around 40% by polling) favor independence. From El Pais:

The Russian meddling machine has intensified its efforts on social media to deepen divisiveness in the final hours before the Catalan independence referendum of Sunday. Pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts increased their mentions of the Catalan crisis by 2,000%, according to social conversation analysis tools. The attempt to hold an independence referendum has gotten star treatment not only in channels directly funded by the Russian government, but also from accounts that trade in conspiracy theories and helped Donald Trump become the US president.

The 2,000% increase in Catalonia-related online activity in Russia detected by the tool Hamilton 68, not only involves anonymous accounts, but also a sudden interest in this crisis by famous social media users from the US, including Jack Posobiec, a far-right agitator who has been retweeted by Trump himself. These past couple of days Posobiec has shared links about the measures taken to prevent the vote in Catalonia.

Accordingly, Assange has intensified efforts to make the Catalan crisis a global trend on social networks, always from his particular point of view. On Friday, he accused Spain and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of having triggered the first world war through Internet censorship. His message was shared 14,000 times on Twitter. Before the Civil Guard took action to prevent an electronic vote tally, Assange himself also recommended via Twitter sending in the ballots via Telegram, an application developed by a company based in Russia.

And while El Pais reported that InfoWars and Drudge had gotten into the action, The Sydney Morning Herald has found that the top influencers, the key nodes, in the social media campaign for Catalonian independence are Assange and Snowden. Quickly followed by Wikileaks and RT.

El Pais has also reported that the hosting for the independence movements website is in Russia and it is being supported by Russian hackers.

However, now that judicial authorities have blocked logistical preparations for the vote, pro-independence forces have only been left with the support of hackers to maintain websites containing the electoral roll and and information on where to vote.

In fact, according to Spain’s Civil Guard, a group of hackers based in Russia and satellite countries is permanently creating new links in order to have so many copies of the census site that it will be impossible for the Spanish judiciary and police to shut them down.

In terms of digital technology, pro-independence forces face two serious obstacles: any website based in the European Union is liable to be shut down by authorities relatively quickly, and any hacker that operates within EU territory could be accused of a crime. This is why those in favor of independence for Catalonia are using computer programmers based in Russia, which has no legal agreements with the EU when it comes to digital legislation.

While Assange’s activities in regard to Catalonian independence have gotten him into some trouble with his hosts, the real question here is who benefits by doing this? And by doing it now? It certainly isn’t going to be the Catalonians, especially the 40% of Catalonians that support independence and will turn out to vote for it today. Their actions are making them subject to arrest or, based on the video clips up top, extra-judicial suppression by Spanish police attempting to stop the referendum. It certainly isn’t Spain which is going to have to deal with a prolonged challenged to its political integrity and cohesion. Nor is it going to be the EU which will be dealing with yet another challenge within one of its southern members. Given all the social network analysis of the social media landscape surrounding the Catalonian independence referendum and the fact that the independence movement moved its servers to Russia, it would appear that Putin’s Maskirovka has once again slipped. The game was given away by who the social media players were. At this point the only state that seems to benefit from increased civil, political, and social disorder in Spain and the EU is Russia.