Thursday Reads: The Spy War

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Good Morning!!

Week four of the tRump presidency has been even wilder than the previous three weeks, and it’s not over yet. How much more crazy and chaotic can thing get in the U.S. government?

Two days ago, the top special ops commander warned that the government is “in unbelievable turmoil,” according to CNN–and this was before the Flynn resignation!

The head of US Special Operations Command said Tuesday that the US government is in “unbelievable turmoil,” a situation that he suggested could undermine US efforts to fight adversaries such as ISIS.

“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas told a symposium in Maryland….
Thomas oversees America’s elite Special Operations troops, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, which have played a large role in carrying out the nation’s conflicts since 9/11.
Asked later about his comments, Thomas, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”

Since Flynn resigned/was fired, the media has been focusing on ties between tRump and his “associates” and the Russian government and intelligence agencies, including CNN’s report that “Trump aides were in constant touch with senior Russian officials during campaign.” This scandal has already gone way beyond Watergate, and we still don’t have a serious investigation in Congress. It’s difficult to see how much longer Republicans can avoid the inevitable. Yesterday, Malcolm Nance warned on MSNBC that tRump staffers should seriously consider lawyering up.

Nance, a former NSA employee and current MSNBC counterterrorism and intel analyst, warned that this is “very, very, serious stuff” and that because the FISA warrant “authorized the NSA to turn on the full collection power of the United States…there is nothing that will escape that.”

Given what intelligence agencies know – and this is in direct contradiction of Republican claims that no such evidence exists – he said,

“These people need to start getting lawyers and cutting deals because when we have both sides of the conversation, you are gonna get caught.”

Today former NSA analyst John Schindler has a new opinion piece at the NY Observer: KremlinGate Enters Uncharted Waters as Russian Links Overwhelm DC. Here’s what he had to say about former tRump campaign manager Paul Manafort:

One of the Trump associates named in both reports (from the NYT and at CNN, linked above) is Paul Manafort, the shady veteran political operative who left the campaign last August when his unsavory ties to the Kremlin hit the newspapers. In response to the latest allegations, Manafort replied, “I don’t remember talking to any Russian officials,” last year, memorably adding that he had no recollection of ever being in contact with Kremlin spies: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

That appears to be yet another untruth, since as I reported back in August, Manafort’s longtime friend in Kyiv, Konstantin Kilimnik, who served as his translator and sidekick during Manafort’s years as a political fixer for Ukraine’s then-ruling party, was remarkably open about his longstanding affiliation with GRU, that is Russian military intelligence. Kilimnik boasted of his GRU ties, which he didn’t discuss in the past tense only. For Manafort to say he’s never been in contact with Russian spies is therefore unconvincing.

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And on tRump:

The president seems to be increasingly flabbergasted by the exposure of his clandestine relationship with Moscow. As is his wont, he took to Twitter to lambaste the Intelligence Community and the mainstream media some more, denouncing “fake news” and IC leaks, while asserting that American spies are acting “just like Russia”—a puzzling statement that may be more revealing than the president intended—and to top it off they’re “very un-American.” Perhaps this is progress of a sort, since it was only a few weeks ago that Trump compared the IC to Nazi Germany on Twitter.

All the same, presidential mania on social media isn’t a pretty picture and will do nothing to stop the coming investigations by Congress into what exactly was going on between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year. Trump’s bluster and deflections on the campaign trail sufficed to push aside some of those troubling questions, but things have reached a point that the full story, no matter how unpleasant it may be, will come out, eventually.

At a minimum, the House and Senate intelligence committees will be conducting investigations which ought to worry the White House, whose political future will likely depend on how many Republicans are willing to back Trump—and by extension the Kremlin—over fellow Americans. Since several prominent Republican senators, including Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr, have indicated that investigations are going forward, the White House can’t depend on partisan loyalty to protect them for much longer.

Read the whole thing at the NY Observer.

At Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald reported that our allies have been spying on tRump and “associates” in order to protect themselves.

As part of intelligence operations being conducted against the United States for the last seven months, at least one Western European ally intercepted a series of communications before the inauguration between advisers associated with President Donald Trump and Russian government officials, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.

The sources said the interceptions include at least one contact between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian official based in the United States. It could not be confirmed whether this involved the telephone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that has led to Flynn’s resignation, or additional communications. The sources said the intercepted communications are not just limited to telephone calls: The foreign agency is also gathering electronic and human source information on Trump’s overseas business partners, at least some of whom the intelligence services now consider to be agents of their respective governments. These operations are being conducted out of concerns that Russia is seeking to manipulate its relationships with Trump administration officials as part of a long-term plan to destabilize the NATO alliance.

Moreover, a Baltic nation is gathering intelligence on officials in the Trump White House and executives with the president’s company, the Trump Organization, out of concern that an American policy shift toward Russia could endanger its sovereignty, according to a third person with direct ties to that nation’s government.

Head over to Newsweek to read the rest.

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The Guardian has a scoop involving Deutsche Bank, which holds a great deal of tRump’s debt: Deutsche Bank examined Trump’s account for Russia links.

The scandal-hit bank that loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to Donald Trumphas conducted a close internal examination of the US president’s personal account to gauge whether there are any suspicious connections to Russia, the Guardian has learned.

Deutsche Bank, which is under investigation by the US Department of Justice and is facing intense regulatory scrutiny, was looking for evidence of whether recent loans to Trump, which were struck in highly unusual circumstances, may have been underpinned by financial guarantees from Moscow.

The Guardian has also learned that the president’s immediate family are Deutsche clients. The bank examined accounts held by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, her husband, Jared Kushner, who serves as a White House adviser, and Kushner’s mother.

The internal review found no evidence of any Russia link, but Deutsche Bank is coming under pressure to appoint an external and independent auditor to review its business relationship with Trump.

More at the link.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that tRump plans to ask New York billionaire Stephen A. Feinberg to conduct a “review” of U.S. intelligence agencies. He may be asking for more trouble than he can handle. NBC News First Read: Trump’s War With the Intelligence Community Is His Biggest Yet.

Less than a month in office, President Trump has engaged in plenty of fights already — with the courts, Mexico, the media, and even Nordstrom. But his emerging fight with the U.S. intelligence community (over Russia and leaks) might be his biggest fight yet. On the one hand, you have the New York Times reporting that Trump is planning to appoint an ally who has little experience in intelligence matters “to lead a broad review” of the intelligence agencies. “The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president,” the Times says. And on the other hand, you have the Wall Street Journal writing that U.S. intelligence officials “have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised.” (The White House and Director of National Intelligence have both disputed this account.)….

We get that Trump is trying to crack down on leaks; Barack Obama was frustrated by them, too. But what is the bigger story here — that Russians had contacts with Trump’s campaign, or the leaks about these contacts? Or that Russians interfered in the 2016 election, or that this interference was leaked to the press? It sure seems like Trump and his team are less bothered by the news than who’s leaking the news.

The Financial Times has an opinion piece on the Russia connections: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and a fatal attraction. After Flynn’s resignation, smiles are turning to scowls in Moscow.

The opening weeks of the presidency have been as disastrous as anyone could have feared. Mr Trump has behaved in office as he did on the campaign trail. Chaos and belligerence in the White House has been mirrored by the casual disarming of allies and the empowering of adversaries abroad. America’s standing in the world could scarcely be lower. All this as the fires continue to burn in the Middle East and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un tests a ballistic missile that may soon be tipped with a nuclear warhead.

Mr Trump’s hopes of some sort of grand bargain with Russia’s Vladimir Putin have dissolved. Firing Mr Flynn for lying to vice-president Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington will not staunch the disquiet about the administration’s contacts with Moscow before inauguration day. Mr Trump and his aides face three sets of questions from legislators and law enforcement agencies about the ties.

The first asks how wide and deep were the exchanges: who exactly was involved, what were the subjects of conversations, and were there any bargains struck, implicit or explicit, about the direction of US policy once Mr Trump reached the White House? The second requires the examination of Mr Trump’s financial ties with Russia — the detailed investigation that should have happened during the campaign and now demands open access to the president’s tax returns. The third, made more urgent by the lengthy delay between the White House’s discovery of Mr Flynn’s mendacity and his sacking, asks the old Watergate question — just what did the president know and when?

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I hate to link to The Intercept, but there’s a weird story there you might want to look at: Carter Page, at Center of Trump Russian Investigation, Writes Bizarre Letter to DOJ Blaming Hillary Clinton.

Page provided the lengthy letter to The Intercept when asked whether he would support President Trump using his power as president to declassify any government material to disclose any intercepted conversations between Page and Russian officials. He did not say. Instead he forwarded the letter, which is well-formatted, heavily-footnoted, grammatically correct and has no spelling mistakes. However, its content is bizarre.

To begin with, it is addressed to the voting section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which is charged exclusively with enforcing federal laws that protect the right to vote.

It then makes the grandiose claim that “the actions by the Clinton regime and their associates may be among the most extreme examples of human rights violations observed during any election in U.S. history since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was similarly targeted for his anti-war views in the 1960’s.”

Page repeatedly describes as “outrageous” the news coverage claiming that he has significant connections to Russian officials, and what he says was the Clinton campaign’s hidden hand behind it.

The Clinton campaign, says Page, engaged in “human rights violations,” “illegal activities,” “unlawful deceptions,” “Obstruction of Justice – the charge upon which President Nixon was impeached,” spreading “False Evidence,” and “an obviously illegal attempt to silence me on an important issue of national and international consequence in violation of my Constitutional rights.”

Page also states that he was targeted by the Clinton campaign because he is Catholic, a military veteran and a man.

Keep in mind that Page was recommended as an adviser to tRump by none other than Jeff Sessions, who is now in charge of the DOJ. Page is also the guy who was personally in touch with Russian officials who were running the hacking operation against the DNC and the Clinton campaign in order to help tRump get elected.

That’s today’s installment of crazy. I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of the news; so please post your own links in the comment thread and try to stay sane!


Thursday Reads: Syria, Snowden, and the G20

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Good Morning!!

Syria policy has pretty much eclipsed everything else in the national and  international news (heard anything about Egypt lately?), with the NSA story still a close second. The G20 is also beginning in Russia, and that’s also “all about Syria.” So these are the stories this morning. This will also be a quickie post, because I overslept and I have someone coming to fix my electricity pretty soon.

As you all know, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved limited strike on Syria yesterday, although there is still wrangling among Senators about how aggressive the U.S. action should be. From NBC News:

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials went before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to confront skeptics and press the administration’s case. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimated the cost of a limited strike at tens of millions of dollars.

However, Kerry told the hearing that Arab League countries had offered to pay for the unseating President Bashar Assad if the United States took the lead militarily….

The Senate yes votes comprised seven Democrats and three Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, who had expressed reservations that the United States was not doing enough to arm the rebels fighting Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

“We commend the Senate for moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security,” read a statement from the White House. “We will continue to work with Congress to build on this bipartisan support for a military response that is narrowly tailored to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and sufficient to protect the national security interests of the United States of America.”

NBC News also reports that Russia’s Putin is warning the US against ‘aggression’ in Syria without UN approval.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the United States and its allies against unilateral action against Syria on Wednesday – but said he “doesn’t exclude” backing a U.N. resolution if evidence proved the use of poison gas against civilians.

As the White House stepped up its efforts to secure political approval for retaliatory strikes on the regime of Bashar Assad, Putin said acting without the approval of the U.N. Security Council “can only be interpreted as an aggression.”

In an interview with The Associated Press ahead of President Barack Obama’s arrival in Europe for meetings with G20 leaders, Putin said video footage of the suspected Aug. 21 chemical weapons attackoutside of Damascus could have been fabricated by groups “connected with al Qaeda.”

According to Time, Putin also warned that indiscriminate bombing in Syria could lead to a “nuclear catastrophe.”

Russia is warning that a U.S. strike on Syria’s atomic facilities might result in a nuclear catastrophe and is urging the U.N. to present a risk analysis of such a scenario.

The warning comes from Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich. He said in a statement Wednesday that a strike on a miniature reactor near Damascus or other nuclear installations could contaminate the region with radioactivity, adding: “The consequences could be catastrophic.”

Who knew Syria had “nuclear installations?”

The Christian Science Monitor: G20 economic summit: It’s all about Syria.

As world leaders gather in St. Petersburg, Russia, today for the annual two-day Group of 20 summit, economic policy may be overshadowed by what’s not on the agenda: Syria.

Divisions over how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in August grow as the US continues to lobby for support for military action and Russia digs in its heels against it. President Obamawon initial domestic political backing on Wednesday after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly authorized military measures in a 10-7 vote, according to The Associated Press.

“My credibility isn’t on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line,” Obama said in a press conference before flying to Russia. “The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.”

Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the sidelines of the summit after the Kremlin offered asylum to former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who leaked classified US documents.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent, Fred Weir, President Putin has argued there “is no convincing evidence” that Assad launched a poison gas attack. Putin has exercised his veto power on the UN Security Council repeatedly against any military intervention in Syria since the two-year-old conflict began.

The Guardian on the troubled U.S.-Russia relationship: Putin and Obama apart in more ways than one at G20 table.

In terms of table placement at least, the Russians are trying to avoid a fight. When world leaders file into St Petersburg’s imperial Constantine Palace on Thursday, with the nightmare of Syria and a wider Middle Eastern war on their minds, presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obamawill be distant from one another literally, as well as politically.

The seating order, which would have had the Russian and US leaders separated only by the Saudi king, has been reshuffled to put five leaders, including David Cameron, between the two key adversaries over Syria and much else.

“The seating will be arranged according to the English alphabet,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Moscow newspaper, Izvestiya. Had the Russian alphabet been used, Putin and Obama would have been almost cheek-by-jowl.

If the rushed re-seating is one measure of the US-Russian tensions militating against a breakthrough arresting the slide to greater conflict over Syria, there are plenty more. Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, holed up in Russia, wanted in America, is the most recent.

The summit should be interesting; I hope Obama and Putin don’t come to blows.

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On the Snowden front, there is quite a bit of speculation going around about how involved Russia was with Snowden even before he arrived in Moscow.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported: Putin Says Snowden Was In Touch Before Coming To Russia. Putin just can’t keep his story straight. First he said he was taken completely by surprise when Snowden landed in his lap–he’d hardly even paid any attention to him before that. But lately he’s been gradually admitting that wasn’t true. From the WSJ:

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that Edward Snowden contacted Russian diplomats in Hong Kong a few days before boarding a plane to Moscow but that no agreement was reached to shelter him and he decided to come to Russia on his own without warning.

Mr. Putin had initially said Mr. Snowden’s arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on June 23 was a “complete surprise,” but now acknowledges that he had some prior knowledge that the fugitive former U.S. National Security Agency contractor might be headed Russia’s way.

“Mr. Snowden first appeared in Hong Kong and met with our diplomatic representatives. It was reported to me that there was such an employee, an employee of the security services. I asked ‘What does he want?’ He fights for human rights, for freedom of information and challenges violations of human rights and violations of the law in the United States. I said, ‘So what?’,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with Russia’s Channel One and The Associated Press.

Actually Russia had publicly “offered to consider [Snowden’s] asylum request” in June when Snowden was still in Hong Kong, but that fact seems to have gone down the corporate media’s memory hole at this point. Everyone also seems to have forgotten that the U.S. voided Snowden’s passport before he left Hong Kong and flew to Russia–supposedly on the way to Cuba and the Ecuador. Putin is still trying to blame the U.S. for Snowden’s failure to take his scheduled flight to Cuba, claiming it was because of the cancelled passport.

In an interview to Russia’s state-run Channel One and The Associated Press published Wednesday, Putin responded to various questions about touchy subjects in U.S.-Russia relations.

When asked about Snowden, who found himself the world’s most wanted fugitive after leaking top secret documents on U.S. surveillance programs, Putin said U.S. authorities could have grounded the plane that Snowden boarded to come to Moscow from China’s Hong Kong just as they did with the plane of Bolivian leader Evo Morales after they suspected that Snowden was on board.

Or, he said, U.S. intelligence officers could have let Snowden leave Russia —which was initially meant to be only a transit stop on his way to another country that would grant him asylum — and then could have grabbed him in a country “with a relaxed security regime,” Putin said, the Kremlin website reported.

“They could have done that in relation to Snowden. What prevented them” from doing that? Putin said.

Um…. you did, Mr. Putin. We’ve read the reports that Snowden was surrounded by a crowd of FSB officers before his feet even hit the floor in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport transit zone.

More foreign affairs writers are beginning to question just how much of an “accident” Snowden’s defection to Russia actually was. At Business Insider, Michael Kelley summarizes the growing suspicions among intelligence experts: Did WikiLeaks Sell Out Snowden To The Russians?

Is it just a coincidence that former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, a valuable intelligence asset, ended up in the hands of Russia’s security services?

Or did WikiLeaks, the “anti-secrecy” organization that has taken responsibility for Snowden, send him there in collaboration with the Russians?

Former senior U.S. intelligence analyst Joshua Foust makes a compelling argument that Wikileaks may have been infiltrated by Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB.

His argument is based on the shared history between WikiLeaks and Russia, how Snowden ended up in Russia, and what happened to Snowden once he landed in Moscow.

Looking at the same evidence, we think this is certainly a possibility.

Read all about it at the link, and if you have time, read Foust’s longer piece. It’s fascinating.

I’ll end with a couple of articles on the damage done to U.S. Intelligence services by Snowden’s stealing and leaking the contents of top secret documents. From former NSA analyst and now academic John Schindler: Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence.

From nearly the outset I’ve stated that Snowden is very likely an agent of Russian intelligence; this was met with howls of indignation which have died down in recent weeks as it’s become apparent that Ed’s staying in Russia for some time, along with whatever classified materials he had on his person. (Since Glenn Greenwald’s partner when stopped by British authorities at Heathrow had 58,000 highly classified documents on him, thanks to Ed, one can only wonder how big the initial haul actually was.) That Snowden was in contact with the Russian consulate in Hong Kong during his pre-Moscow visit there, including spending his 30th birthday with his new friends, is now admitted. Even President Vladimir Putin has conceded that Ed’s contacts with Russian officials did not commence when he landed at Sheremtyevo airport, rather before.

But when? That of course is the key question that NSA counterintelligence surely wants – needs – to know. All roads here lead to Wikileaks. We know that Snowden in late 2012 reached out to Glenn Greenwald and other members of the spy-ring – all of whom can be considered cut-outs for Wikileaks when not paid-up members – that stands behind the massive leaks. After making this contact, Ed took a contractor job with Booz Allen Hamilton to increase his access to NSA secrets. I’ve been stating for a while now that Wikileaks is functionally an extension of Russian intelligence; it’s become a minor meme asa few journalists have decided that such a scandalous viewpoint is worth considering.

Of course, for anyone versed in the ways of Russian intelligence, the notion that Wikileaks is a Moscow front that’s involved in anti-US espionage is about as controversial as, say, the notion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Running false flags, creating fake activist groups, using Western journalists and activists for deception purposes – this sort of thing is in the DNA of Russian intelligence going back to the 19th century and is second nature to them. They call espionage tradecraft konspiratsiya (conspiracy) for a reason.

While there can be little doubt that the damage Snowden has wrought to the US and Allied SIGINT system is nothing less than immense, it will be some time before NSA and the US Government make any public pronouncements on such a touchy matter – not to mention that it will likely be several months yet before the Intelligence Community completes what will surely rank as the Mother of All Damage Assessments.

Without in any way diminishing the espionage losses that young Mr Snowden has caused, I want to suggest that the political damage in this case may loom larger, particularly as Putin savors his big win in this round, having humiliated American intelligence as it’s never quite been publicly humiliated before. The onetime Chekist in Putin surely is going to bed at night with a smile these days. “There are no ‘former’ intelligence officers,” Russia’s president once famously said, and he was also talking about himself.

Read the rest at the link if you can; this guy really knows his stuff–and he’s no right wing nut.

One more piece by British writer Chris Boffey: Why Edward Snowden is not a patriot, whistleblower or hero – but a spy.

Edward Snowden is a spy. The runaway CIA contractor may not know, or even care, whom he is spying for but the damage he is doing ranks alongside Philby, Burgess, McLean and Blunt. They comforted themselves with delusions that revealing the names of agents to the Soviet Union were for the greater good. Snowden was equally deluded when he opened up the secrets of western intelligence to one and all. Unlike the British spies, Snowden is not dealing in human information but electronic intelligence which in this day and age has more importance, but the results are the same….

Unlike Ames, Snowden was able to claim the moral high ground when spilling out the inner workings and policies of the US and UK security services to the world. Revealing how the state spies on its own citizens, without their knowledge or acquiescence, can be considered laudable but he lost the right to be called a whistleblower when he fled to negotiate first with the Chinese and then the Russians about political asylum and then it was revealed that he had taken with him the whole security shooting match.

Whistleblowers stand up and are counted; Snowden crawled out and ran away.

In sweeping up every secret he came across and downloading them to be dripped out is just plain treason and he knows this, given his determination not only never to return to the US but also to stay out of its legal jurisdiction.

Snowden justified his actions saying: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things [surveillance on its citizens]… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded… My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Presumably that is why he is now living in Russia, that Mecca of human rights.

Much more at the link. Check it out and see what you think.

That’s all I’ve got for you for the moment. Now what are you reading and blogging about today?