Fact checking the Russian Foreign Ministry’s ‘fakes’ page

Digital Forensic Research Lab reports: On February 20, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a section on its website aimed at exposing articles that contain “untrustworthy” information about Russia.

The Ministry’s approach was uncompromising: each article was labeled with a large red stamp saying “FAKE”. The URL for the section was set as http://www.mid.ru/en/nedostovernie-publikacii. “Nedostovernie publikacii” (недостоверные публикации) means “unreliable publications”.

In the first month of the project, eleven articles were stamped as fakes. All of them came from Western outlets; nine were in English.

The DFRLab has fact-checked the Ministry’s analysis of all eleven stories to see whether they can legitimately be called fakes.

As this report will show, they cannot. [Continue reading…]

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Trump wants to kill an agency that is accomplishing one of his biggest goals

Ana Swanson writes: Candidate Trump promised to boost American exports. But President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate a small agency that does just that.

The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which links U.S. exporters with development projects in emerging economies, was one of 19 agencies that the White House proposed eliminating entirely in the budget it released last week. The budget blueprint, which would have to be approved by Congress before it becomes law, did not provide reasoning behind the cuts.

In a federal government made up of giant agencies — like the 40,000-employee Commerce Department — the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) looks like a gnat. It has just 50 or so full-time employees and a current annual budget of $60 million — about as much as the Secret Service reportedly asked for to cover protection and travel costs for the new administration next year.

But the agency claims a hefty return on its investment. It says it generates $85 in exports for every $1 spent on its programming, and directly boosted U.S. exports by $3 billion last year.

“Any private sector business person would appreciate that as a phenomenal return of investment. I’m baffled, and I have to believe [the administration] just doesn’t understand what it is the agency does,” said Lee Zak, the director of USTDA under Obama who left her post Jan. 20.

“Everything about the agency is consistent with the administration’s priorities and as a matter of fact it should be scaled up, not eliminated,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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No surprise that London attacker Khalid Masood was born in UK

Jason Burke writes: The news that the London attacker was born in Britain and inspired by extremist Islamist ideology was entirely predictable, as was his criminal record.

The standout detail from the sketchy profile we have of Khalid Masood is his age: 52, nearly twice that of most contemporary attackers.

The attack was claimed on Thursday by Islamic State. The group has been selective with such statements, which are credible, and careful in its vocabulary.

Significantly, Isis described a “soldier” who responded to its “call”, indicating the group probably did not have prior contact with Masood before the killings.

The same terminology has been used to describe people such as Omar Mateen, who opened fire in a nightclub in Florida in June and claimed allegiance to Isis during the attack, and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck into a parade in Nice in July. [Continue reading…]

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Could Trump be convicted of treason?

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza writes: On Monday, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Following Comey’s testimony, historian Douglas Brinkley declared, “There’s a smell of treason in the air.”

Between revelations about “longtime [President Donald] Trump confidant” Roger Stone and the controversies surrounding former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, it’s clear that key Trump campaign staff were in contact with Russia. Stone has admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, likely a front for the Russian government, and repeatedly gave advance notice of disclosures from WikiLeaks, which has been acting suspiciously like an agent of the Russian government. Stone is now on the hook with the Senate Intelligence Committee. And at Monday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conceded that Stone worked on the campaign, and that he and the president “had a long relationship going back years where [Stone] would provide counsel.”

Media outlets and social media are filled with accusations of collusion, calls for a special counsel, and queries about treason. Representative Maxine Waters tweeted simply, “Get ready for impeachment.”

If Trump participated in, facilitated, or encouraged a Russian cyber attack intended to overthrow the United States government by changing the outcome of the 2016 election — and then promoted Russia’s interests after assuming office — Waters may get her wish. Those acts could amount to an impeachable offense. They could even be treason. [Continue reading…]

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Bravery and simple humanity have shown Westminster at its best

Jonathan Freedland writes: There are certain places that cease to be places in the public imagination. They become shorthand for a loathed political establishment or distant, overmighty government. In America, that place is “Washington, DC”. For Eurosceptics, it’s “Brussels”. And in Britain, that reviled, imperial citadel is “Westminster”.

Yet today, as the airwaves and social media timelines filled with dreadful, violent news, “Westminster” began to lose those quotation marks. As the afternoon passed, it became seen not as the widely despised bastion of the political class, but a real place inhabited by office workers, tourists, security guards and groups of visiting schoolchildren.

On any other day, Tobias Ellwood might be seen as just another Tory MP. But then came word that he had given CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a policeman who lay wounded – and with it a reminder that the MP, a former army officer, had lost a brother in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Or there were those photos of MPs locked in the chamber of the Commons for their own safety, many of them on their phones, searching for news just like the rest of us but with an extra edge: they were worrying about friends, colleagues or their own employees. Everyone had the same thought: what if someone they knew or loved was among those hurt?

As it happens, I was in Westminster (though not in parliament) when the attacker struck, wrapping up a lunch meeting with an MP who was alerted to the news by a text from his wife, checking that he was safe. On television, he’ll look like just another politician. But if people saw him today, they’d have seen a human being.

And yet, when it comes to those involved in politics – the people who keep our democratic machinery functioning – it seems to take violent tragedy to remind us that those we elect to represent us don’t stop being people the moment we vote for them. Last year it was the murder of Jo Cox that reminded people an MP could also be a living, breathing, loving person. At that moment, many felt chastened about the way we speak about politics – so often using violent language to describe political argument. We held back for a while. But we soon fell back into the old habits. [Continue reading…]

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

Politico reports: A group of congressional Republicans is teaming up with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe with the shared goal of stopping a common enemy: billionaire financier George Soros.

Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”

It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.

Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.

For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.

But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson didn’t want to become Secretary of State — says his wife made him take the job

Steve Coll writes: ExonMobil’s global headquarters are situated on a campus in Irving, Texas, beside a man-made lake. Employees sometimes refer to the glass-and-granite building as the “Death Star,” because of the power that its executives project. During the eleven years that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson served as ExxonMobil’s chairman and chief executive, he had an office on the top floor, in a suite that employees called the “God Pod.” When I visited a few years ago, the building’s interior design eschewed the striving gaudiness of Trump properties; it was more like a Four Seasons untroubled by guests.

When Tillerson travelled, he rarely flew commercial. The corporation’s aviation-services division maintained a fleet of Gulfstream and Bombardier corporate jets at Dallas Love Field Airport, a short drive away. Whether Tillerson was flying to Washington, Abuja, Abu Dhabi, or Jakarta, he would typically be driven in a sedan to a waiting jet. He boarded with a meticulously outlined trip schedule and briefing books. He worked and slept aboard in private comfort, undisturbed by strangers, attended by corporate flight attendants.

During his years running ExxonMobil, Tillerson rarely gave interviews. (He declined my repeated requests for one when I was working on a book about the company, “Private Empire,” which came out in 2012, although he authorized some background interviews with other ExxonMobil executives.) Tillerson’s infrequent public appearances were usually controlled and scripted. [Continue reading…]

Erin McPike writes: hat seems to make Tillerson, with his Texas drawl, different from secretaries past is his relative disinterest in the pomp and circumstance that some seem to believe is part and parcel of the job.

When he deplaned in Tokyo on Wednesday night, he appeared ever so slightly uncomfortable to have to walk through the throng of media and others there to greet him.

At every one of his bilateral meetings over four days in East Asia, Tillerson shook hands and posed for cameras as part of the chore he knew he had to muddle through. He dutifully stood for photos in the Korean Demilitarized Zone but seemed to most enjoy several intense, close, face-to-face conversations with Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Combined Forces Command, and United Nations Command.

So why, then, did he want the gig?

“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He paused to let that sink in.

A beat or two passed before an aide piped up to ask him why he said yes.

“My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s ‘Muslim laptop ban’ makes little sense

Ishaan Tharoor writes: There are quite a few reasons to be both perplexed and skeptical about the new rules. Security experts interviewed by a number of outlets were bemused by the decision. Some doubted that placing laptops in cargo holds would be any safer than carrying them aboard. Journalists and researchers also feared that the measures would risk compromising sensitive information and sources once their laptops are no longer in their immediate possession.


“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with the Guardian. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold. If you’re worried about hacking, a cellphone is a computer.”

Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at aviation consultancy firm StrategicAero Research in London, told Al Jazeera that the move seems to contradict the U.S. federal aviation authority’s own stated concerns over the presence of lithium batteries (which are found in laptops and other such devices) in a plane’s cargo hold. He also noted that the new edicts wouldn’t deter a terror attack launched from an airport in Paris or Brussels — European capitals where jihadist cells have already carried out deadly and spectacular attacks.

“It does nothing to prevent security [threats] from places like France that have suffered a lot of terrorism in recent years,” said Ahmad. “How would Homeland Security mitigate against a passenger from France with a device in the cabin in that situation?”

The answer, critics suggest, is that the electronics ban is not about security.

“Three of the airlines that have been targeted for these measures — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have long been accused by their U.S. competitors of receiving massive effective subsidies from their governments,” wrote political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation.”

Farrell and Newman suggested Tuesday’s order is an example of the Trump administration “weaponizing interdependence” — using its leverage in a world where American airports are key “nodes” in global air travel to weaken competitors. My colleague Max Bearak detailed how this could be a part of Trump’s wider protectionist agenda. In February, President Trump met with executives of U.S. airlines and pledged that he would help them compete against foreign carriers that receive subsidies from their home governments. [Continue reading…]

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A rebel push on Damascus shows that Syria’s war is far from over

The Washington Post reports: An unexpected rebel push on Damascus has brought Syria’s civil war to the heart of its capital for the first time in years, spreading panic among residents and serving as a reminder that the conflict is far from over.

Streets emptied and many shops and schools were closed for a third day Tuesday as battles raged on the eastern edge of the city, where the rebels launched their surprise assault over the weekend. Mortar shells crashed into residential neighborhoods, jets streaked overhead, and the rattle of gunfire plunged Damascus back onto the front lines of a war that has raged since 2011.

The rebel offensive seems unlikely to lead to any sustained ad­vances into President Bashar al-Assad’s most vital and best-defended stronghold. Loyalist forces­ scrambled troops from other areas to defend the capital and appeared to have halted the rebel advance just beyond Abbassiyeen Square, a major gateway just a few miles from the historic Old City of Damascus.

The fighting marked the first time since 2012 that rebel forces­ have advanced so close to the center of Damascus, highlighting the continuing fragility of Assad’s hold on power despite nearly a year and a half of steady gains — aided by Russia’s military intervention — that appeared to have sealed the outcome of the war.

It is now becoming clear that although the rebels lack the capacity to topple Assad, Assad’s forces­ also lack the capacity to defeat the rebels, said Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This doesn’t mean the regime is going to be defeated. But their forces­ are just too thin,” he said. “They stand in one place, they contract in another, they shift forces­ to another, and this has been going on for years.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s frightening trifecta: ISIS, Erdogan & U.S. nukes

Christopher Dickey writes: Immediately after the coup [last July], which involved some Turkish air force officers, the Incirlik air base used by the United States in the war against the so-called Islamic State was cordoned off and effectively shut down for several days. Its Turkish commander was placed under arrest and frog-marched off the base.

Given the Turkish government’s behavior and the country’s evident instability, it’s of no small concern that under NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program, an estimated 50 to 90 atomic weapons reportedly are located at Incirlik (PDF). Although these B61 munitions are considered “tactical” weapons, each thermonuclear device has a potential blast yield of about 340 kilotons—more than 20 times that of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

In the immediate aftermath of the Incirlik blockade and arrests last summer, spurious reports played up by Russian propagandists claimed the nukes had been moved from Incirlik to Romania. That was not the case. But there remains wide sentiment among security analysts that those nukes should be moved somewhere more secure.

As a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) noted at the time, concerns were based on “both the ongoing political uncertainties in Turkey, including the evolving state of U.S.-Turkish relations, and the base’s proximity to territory controlled by ISIS.”

The Syrian border is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Incirlik. Towns like Al Bab and Dabiq, until recently under the control of the so-called Islamic State, are slightly further.

The argument for leaving the nukes in Turkey was to reassure Ankara against a threat from Russia. But given the obvious and growing rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan’s increasingly overt hostility toward his NATO allies, leaving thermonuclear weapons on the bomb racks of Incirlik seems to many a pointless and dangerous exercise. [Continue reading…]

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Why Steve Bannon wants you to believe in the Deep State

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write: Like a George Lucas Death Star or one of those planet-eating monsters in Star Trek, the Deep State has crashed into the national consciousness. Suddenly, it’s not just an obsession of those who inhabit the fevered, conspiracy-laced dream world of Alex Jones or Breitbart, but also the subject of countless news stories and headlines of all stripes across the media spectrum—bigger than anything imaginable, undermining the elected president of the United States, threatening the fundaments of our democracy.

Like the Death Star, the American Deep State does not, of course, exist. An appropriation from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria, where real networks of intelligence, defense and interior ministry officials exercise real power to drive policy, sideline elected officials and eliminate opponents, the American Deep State is nothing more than an invention of President Donald Trump and his allies—the convenient enemy from within that they blame for their frustrations. The leaks that undid former national security adviser Michael Flynn? That was the Deep State. Reports of extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and all manner of other smears? The Deep State. The president is said to be irate about this rear-guard action led by, in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Obama administration holdovers who have “burrowed in” and “continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.” Trump’s unshakable certainty that his Trump Tower phone has been tapped seems to be rooted—disingenuously or not—in this belief.

Many, including Loren DeJonge Schulman, Max Fisher and David Remnick, have written insightfully on the fatuousness of these charges, and there is plenty more to say: for example, that there may be only one Obama appointee left in the two premier Deep State institutions, the FBI and CIA. That’s FBI Director James Comey, whose unprecedented intervention in the presidential election would give Hillary Clinton a much better basis for complaining about the political manipulations of unelected officials than Trump. At the CIA, all four Obama appointees have left, and it is unlikely any Obama people remain at the National Security Agency and the passel of other intelligence agencies, where there were never more than a handful. The problems that plague Trump have nothing to do with former President Barack Obama, or some covert “opposition.” Like it or not, leaks abound when career people feel their agencies are being unfairly attacked, as they did after Trump accused the intelligence community of politicization and fabrication, or when they fear that an administration is dangerously undermining U.S. interests, a worry engendered by Trump’s denigration of traditional U.S. allies and lionization of Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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John Dean: White House is in a ‘cover up mode’

 

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FBI and NSA grilling proves there is no ‘Deep State’

Michael Weiss writes: Not four months into 2017, and the director of America’s domestic intelligence agency let it be known that he is overseeing an investigation into whether the sitting U.S. president or his surrogates may have “coordinated” with the Russian government for the purpose of swaying an American election.

“As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” James Comey said, revealing that he is taking seriously the possibility that Donald Trump, his political advisers, or both have aided and abetted a hostile foreign power.

This doesn’t mean a brief encounter or 12 with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It doesn’t mean a trip to Moscow to slam U.S. foreign policy and anti-Russia sanctions. And it doesn’t even mean working on behalf of pro-Putin political leaders in Europe. It means knowingly colluding with agents of the Russian government in order to spy on their behalf, to help them steal the correspondence of other Americans, or to feed them classified U.S. secrets. Former MI6 operative Christopher Steele suggested that all of the above were distinct possibilities in his dossier, which Comey believed was worth including in classified briefings of President Obama and then-President-elect Donald Trump.

We also learned that Comey began taking these allegations seriously in late July 2016. That was around the time WikiLeaks started publishing Democratic National Committee emails hacked by Russian cyberoperatives and Trump formally became the nominee of a Republican Party, which purposefully watered down its security commitments to Ukraine, almost certainly on orders from then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

I’m old enough to remember when the GOP thought putting any faith in Vladimir Putin was the height of geopolitical naivete. Now the GOP seems to have decided to represent Putin pro bono, while expressing more frustration with The New York Times’ sourcing than with the single most successful Russian infiltration of the U.S. political system since before, during, or after the Cold War. [Continue reading…]

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How the White House got James Comey wrong

Ryan Lizza writes: Early on Monday morning, a couple of hours before the start of the first House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Presidential election, one of Donald Trump’s closest White House advisers made a startling—and completely erroneous—prediction: James Comey, the F.B.I. director, would testify that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “The Russian collusion thing has always been bullshit,” the official said. “I think Comey will come down and say there absolutely was no contact, collusion, or anything like that with the campaign.”

The official conceded that, in the early days of the Trump campaign, the candidate attracted some dubious figures. Sam Clovis, an Iowa talk-radio host who had been appointed as Trump’s senior policy adviser, strained to put together a serious team. Meanwhile, fringe political operatives, such as Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, and Stone’s good friend and former business partner Paul Manafort, who became the campaign chairman, had easy access to the candidate. The White House official described these camps as “two converging sets of marginalia.”

“You had Sam Clovis, God bless him, who tried to put together an advisory group of people,” the official said. “Then you have the whole Manafort-Ukraine thing and Roger Stone running around doing whatever Roger Stone is doing.” He added, “This campaign, early on, had a lot of marginalia associated with it. Guys like Carter Page, Roger Stone. I have no earthly idea what those guys have been up to, right?”

Manafort, a longtime political lobbyist, worked for years in Ukrainian politics as a paid adviser for a pro-Putin party, before surfacing back in the United States as a Trump campaign operative, and later, the campaign’s chairman. Stone, who has known Trump for decades, had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks would release e-mails, later determined to have been stolen by Russian hackers, from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Page, an energy consultant and former Trump campaign adviser, travelled to Moscow last summer for a paid speech. Page, Manafort, and Stone, as well as Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser, are reportedly part of an F.B.I. investigation. [Continue reading…]

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American Muslims are young, politically liberal, and scared

The Atlantic reports: Muslims may be the religious group that’s most talked about and least understood in the U.S. President Trump has put Islam at the center of his policymaking, making shaky claims about how assimilated Muslims are into American life. And yet, in part because the group is so small, actual data about their religiosity, political leanings, and engagement with American culture is relatively scarce.

A new survey from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, or ISPU, offers a rare look at this changing community. The report covers interviews with nearly 2,400 American residents from diverse religious backgrounds, including roughly 800 Muslims. The data suggest that this rapidly growing group is strongly shaped by a few factors. U.S. Muslims are younger and more liberal than their neighbors. They tend to be fairly religious. And they are extremely anxious about what’s happening in America.

Over the past decade, the Muslim community has grown significantly. According to the Pew Research Center, their share of the U.S. population more than doubled between 2007 and 2014. The group now makes up roughly 1 percent of the populace. [Continue reading…]

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Comey’s haunting news on Trump and Russia

In an editorial, the New York Times says: The acknowledgment by James Comey, the F.B.I. director, on Monday that the bureau is investigating possible connections between President Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s chances is a breathtaking admission. While there has been a growing body of circumstantial evidence of such links, Mr. Comey’s public confirmation ought to mark a turning point in how inquiries into Russia’s role in the election should be handled.

The top priority now must be to ensure that the F.B.I.’s investigation, which could result in criminal prosecutions, is shielded from meddling by the Trump administration, which has shown a proclivity to lie, mislead and obfuscate with startling audacity. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Comey said the bureau is conducting its investigation in an “open-minded, independent way” and vowed to “follow the facts wherever they lead.”

There is no reason to doubt Mr. Comey’s commitment. But it is far from certain that senior officials at the Department of Justice, who normally decide whether there is enough evidence to file criminal charges in politically sensitive cases, will be able to avoid White House interference. Before Monday’s hearing began, Mr. Trump issued a remarkable set of tweets calling the possibility of collusion with Russia “fake news” and urging Congress and the F.B.I. to drop the matter and instead focus on finding who had been leaking information to the press. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: The mere presence of an investigation into ties between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the Russian government does not indicate that such connections actually exist, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, reacting to the first public disclosure from the FBI that it is looking into the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election. [Continue reading…]

Michael Isikoff reports: The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, confirmed by FBI director James Comey in congressional testimony Monday, began as early as late July — just weeks after a former British spy briefed bureau agents about evidence he had collected about such ties, sources tell Yahoo News.

Christopher Steele, a former British MI-6 intelligence officer who specialized in Russian operations, had been hired as an investigator by an opposition research firm (initially retained by Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later by supporters of Hillary Clinton). According to one of the sources, it was Steele who first alerted FBI agents on July 5 to evidence he had compiled that advisers to the Trump campaign and Kremlin officials were in contact about the 2016 election.

As first reported by Yahoo News, Steele’s information was taken seriously because he had a pre-existing relationship with the FBI, having worked as a consultant for the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime section, helping to develop information about ties between suspected Russian gangsters and FIFA, the international soccer governing body.

The early contact between Steele and the bureau now appears to have set in motion a chain of events that led to Monday’s extraordinary testimony by Comey that the bureau has been actively investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin since “late July” — or more than three months before Election Day. [Continue reading…]

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