Remember back in May 2017, barely a couple of months in office, when the president bragged to the Russian Foreign Secretary about some intelligence we'd developed on ISIS in Syria? That disclosure resulted in a dangerous and expensive mission to exfiltrate one of our highest-level assets within the Russian government:
The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.
The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter.
At the time, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source, known as an asset. An extraction, or "exfiltration" as such an operation is referred to by intelligence officials, is an extraordinary remedy when US intelligence believes an asset is in immediate danger.
Weeks after the decision to extract the spy, in July 2017, Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg and took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter's notes. Afterward, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the President may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community's response to the Trump-Putin meeting.
Knowledge of the Russian covert source's existence was highly restricted within the US government and intelligence agencies. According to one source, there was "no equal alternative" inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on Putin.
So is he a Russian asset or just a useful idiot? What difference does that make, anyway?
On Friday (Thursday evening in the US) the Russian destroyer Vinogradov maneuvered to within 30 meters of the USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea:
According to Cmdr. Clay Doss of the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Chancellorsville was recovering its helicopter while maintaining a steady course when the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet.
“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said in a statement. “We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional.”
The Russian statement, however, said the U.S. cruiser “suddenly changed directions and came within 50 meters [164 feet] of the Russian destroyer.” Russia, which stated that the incident took place in the East China Sea, said its ship was forced to perform an emergency maneuver and warned the American ship of inadmissible actions.
According to a senior US Navy Surface Warfare Officer with whom I spoke, the Chancellorsville was "flying limited maneuvering and Hotel," meaning they had flags on their mast signaling to other ships in the area that they were unable to maneuver freely because they were recovering a helicopter. The Russian crew had no doubt that the American ship would continue in a straight line at low speed no matter what the Russians did. (The officer declined to be identified because the Navy did not authorize our conversation.)
When I asked about the forbearance of the Chancellor's skipper, the officer replied, "I know what I would have done," adding that the rules of engagement allow any military asset to take defensive action, including using lethal force, without waiting for orders if there is an immediate threat.
"Back in the Cold War, the Soviet navy behaved very professionally, since no one wanted to destroy the world because a 19-year-old kid turned the boat the wrong direction by mistake," the officer continued. "We all kept in our lanes. But in the last few years, they've gotten reckless."
The conclusion: the Russian captain, obviously acting under orders from much higher up, deliberately provoked the US warship in a "saber-rattling" maneuver.
Fun times. I think I liked the Soviet navy better than this new Russian one.
As in, "nice work, Dutch military, for unraveling a GRU operation and blowing 300 GRU agents worldwide:"
Dutch authorities have photographs of four Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives arriving at the Amsterdam airport last April, escorted by a member of the Russian embassy. They have copies of the men’s passports — two of them with serial numbers one digit apart. Because they caught them, red-handed, inside a car parked beside the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague — the GRU team was trying to hack into the OPCW WiFi system — Dutch authorities also confiscated multiple phones, antennae and laptop computers.
On Thursday, the Dutch defense minister presented this plethora of documents, scans, photographs and screenshots on large slides at a lengthy news conference. Within seconds, the images spread around the world. Within hours, Bellingcat, the independent research group that pioneered the new science of open source investigation, had checked the men’s names against several open Russian databases. Among other things, it emerged that, in 2011, one of them was listed as the owner of a Lada (model number VAZ 21093) registered at 20 Komsomolsky Prospekt, the address of the GRU. While they were at it, Bellingcat also unearthed an additional 305 people — names, birthdates, passport numbers — who had registered cars to that very same address. It may be the largest security breach the GRU has ever experienced.
That's a great way to fight back: exposure. This is an example of the integrity and ingenuity which almost led to the Dutch controlling the world instead of the British way back when.
Researchers at Clemson University, working with 538.org, identified 3 million tweets from 2,800 Twitter handles belonging to Russian trolls:
“We identified five categories of IRA-associated Twitter handles, each with unique patterns of behaviors: Right Troll, Left Troll, News Feed, Hashtag Gamer, and Fearmonger. With the exception of the Fearmonger category, handles were consistent and did not switch between categories.”
The five types:
- Right Troll: These Trump-supporting trolls voiced right-leaning, populist messages, but “rarely broadcast traditionally important Republican themes, such as taxes, abortion, and regulation, but often sent divisive messages about mainstream and moderate Republicans…They routinely denigrated the Democratic Party, e.g. @LeroyLovesUSA, January 20, 2017, “#ThanksObama We're FINALLY evicting Obama. Now Donald Trump will bring back jobs for the lazy ass Obamacare recipients,” the authors wrote.
- Left Troll: These trolls mainly supported Bernie Sanders, derided mainstream Democrats, and focused heavily on racial identity, in addition to sexual and religious identity. The tweets were “clearly trying to divide the Democratic Party and lower voter turnout,” the authors told FiveThirtyEight.
- News Feed: A bit more mysterious, news feed trolls mostly posed as local news aggregators who linked to legitimate news sources. Some, however, “tweeted about global issues, often with a pro-Russia perspective.”
- Hashtag Gamer: Gamer trolls used hashtag games—a popular call/response form of tweeting—to drum up interaction from other users. Some tweets were benign, but many “were overtly political, e.g. @LoraGreeen, July 11, 2015, “#WasteAMillionIn3Words Donate to #Hillary.”
- Fearmonger: These trolls, who were least prevalent in the dataset, spread completely fake news stories, for instance “that salmonella-contaminated turkeys were produced by Koch Foods, a U.S. poultry producer, near the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday.”
Will learning that Russian trolls' "mission was to divide Americans along political and sociocultural lines, and to sow discord within the two major political parties" help people call bullshit on trolling tweets and posts? Probably not. But a guy can dream.
Happy August! (Wait, where did April go?)
As I munch on my salad at my desk today, I'm reading these stories:
And finally, a bit of good news out of Half Moon Bay, Calif. The corporate owner of the local paper told them they had to shut down, so a group of townspeople formed a California benefit corporation to buy the paper out.
Andrew Sullivan doesn't think we need to dig too deeply into President Trump's dealings to understand why he behaves the way he does:
The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.
And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires. The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain — “we should have kept the oil!” — it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.
He always hated it, and he never understood it. That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.
All of this has been clear from the start. So while the Mueller probe may continue to uncover massive criminal activity all around Trump, it may never find true collusion with Russia. But the probe is still necessary, because (a) there really is criminal behavior there and (b) it can preserve the West that much longer.
But we simply must take the House back this November, and send Trump packing in 2020. Otherwise the world will become a much worse place very soon.
Writing for New Republic, Conor Lynch speculates that President Trump may not be a Russian asset per se; he might just be a fellow traveler:
To be fair to the critics..., Trump’s behavior was indeed troubling. During the NATO summit, Trump insulted and alienated leaders of the United States’ closest allies, and it became clear early on that he had no intention of toning down his rhetoric. After declaring that Germany was “captive to Russia,” blasting other members as “delinquent,” and threatening to “go it alone” if other countries didn’t raise their spending, the president held a bizarre press conference on Thursday to declare the summit a success and once again refer to himself as a “stable genius.” The NATO summit was a success in at least one sense: As Alex Ward put it in Vox, the big winner of the summit was Vladimir Putin, who “wants to divide NATO.”
But even after Trump’s scandalous week in Europe, there is still a better explanation for his apparent hostility towards Europe and affection for Putin: Trump and Putin have similar worldviews and political temperaments, and thus see eye to eye on many things. Both are political reactionaries and ultra-nationalists and, though Putin is far more authoritarian, Trump has made it clear that he would rather be a dictator than the leader of a democracy with constitutional restraints on his authority. The American president has a long history of praising authoritarian leaders like Putin and President Xi Jinping of China while disparaging democratically elected leaders as “weak,” so it is not surprising that he would admire the Russian president.
I mean, Occam's Razor gives this idea some credence. But let's not kid ourselves: the outcomes from Trump's worldview are in themselves very disturbing. He just may want them on his own, without Russian help.
This is not an innocent man:
I mean, credit to Putin for keeping a straight face. But I can see why officials in both major U.S. parties have called this treasonous or nearly so.
Let's see what the Republicans in Congress do now.
Update: Around 30:15, Putin offers to have Russian law enforcement interrogate the Russian GRU agents who were named in the Justice Department indictment from Friday. Where does one even start? What does he have on Trump, seriously?
I probably won't have time to read all of these things over lunch:
Share that last one with your non-technical friends. It's pretty clever.
Jonathan Chait lays out the evidence that we know about, and concludes that President Trump is almost certainly colluding with Vladimir Putin:
A case like this presents an easy temptation for conspiracy theorists, but we can responsibly speculate as to what lies at the end of this scandal without falling prey to their fallacies. Conspiracy theories tend to attract people far from the corridors of power, and they often hypothesize vast connections within or between governments and especially intelligence agencies. One of the oddities of the Russia scandal is that many of the most exotic and sinister theories have come from people within government and especially within the intelligence field.
Suppose we are currently making the same mistake we made at the outset of this drama — suppose the dark crevices of the Russia scandal run not just a little deeper but a lot deeper. If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.
[I]f you’re Putin, embarking upon a coveted summit with the most Russophilic president since World War II, who is taking a crowbar to the alliance of your enemies, why wouldn’t you help him in 2018 and 2020? Ever since the fall of 2016, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately turned down an Obama-administration proposal for a bipartisan warning to Russia not to interfere in the election, the underlying dynamic has been set: Most Republicans would rather win an election with Putin’s help than lose one without it. The Democrats, brimming with rage, threaten to investigate Russian activity if they win a chamber of Congress this November. For Putin to redouble his attack — by hacking into voting machines or some other method — would be both strategic and in keeping with his personality. Why stop now?
It's straightforward and logical, as Occam's Razor should be. And it's deeply frightening.