Natalie Nougayrède writes: One year ago in Berlin, Lisa F, a 13-year-old German-Russian girl, disappeared for 30 hours. When she returned to her parents, she claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Arab” men. This was a lie – as she later admitted. She had fallen out with her parents and invented the whole story. But that did little to stop the episode from becoming the centrepiece of a whirlwind Russian disinformation campaign aimed at destabilising Angela Merkel and German institutions.
Russian state media and pro-Russian websites in Germany immediately swirled with reports. Merkel was already under pressure for her open-door policy on refugees. Now German far-right groups and representatives of Germany’s ethnic Russian community held demonstrations. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, described Lisa (a dual German-Russian citizen) as “our girl” and accused German authorities of a cover-up and “whitewashing reality to make it politically correct”.
A diplomatic spat ensued, with the German foreign minister accusing Russia of “political propaganda”. Berlin officials struggled to counter the Russian campaign. But Moscow’s overt meddling in Germany’s domestic politics seeped into the public consciousness – for a while, at least.
Fast-forward to January 2017. The fallout from the Trump-Russia dossier has now placed Vladimir Putin and his power structure at the centre of American politics. For Europeans, a question arises: what could this all mean for the old continent, as it approaches key elections? This year, voting will take place in France, the Netherlands and in Germany. Remembering the Lisa scandal is important, for it says something about what may lie ahead.
Now that Russia’s covert activities are being so intensely discussed in the US, it is high time Europe placed as much attention on what it might, in turn, be confronted with – and to prepare itself. [Continue reading…]
The Republican in charge of government oversight wants to prohibit criticism of Trump’s ethical violations
Dahlia Lithwick writes: It is going to be practically impossible for Donald Trump to take office next Friday and stay on the right side of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause without divesting and placing his businesses in a blind trust. This fact is — with a clutch of dissenters — not in dispute. Ethics experts across the political spectrum have explained carefully what needed to be done to avoid the appearance that the president was benefiting financially from foreign gifts, payments, or favors. But Trump announced this week that he has no intention of creating a blind trust, arguing that voters don’t care about the issue and declaring that he would donate any hotel profits from foreign governments to the Treasury and let his sons manage his business for the duration of his presidency.
At his Wednesday announcement, Trump’s lawyer, Sheri Dillon, disputed claims that he even has any such constitutional obligations: “These people are wrong. This is not what the Constitution says, paying for a hotel is not a gift or present and has nothing to do with an office. It is not an emolument,” she said. She added that “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” meaning, I suppose, that the normal rules don’t apply to rich presidents. (Mitt Romney was willing to divest in 2012, so maybe it’s just that the normal rules don’t apply to Trump).
The director of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, immediately dismissed the president-elect’s dramatic nonplan as “meaningless.” He was quoted this week as saying at an unprecedented press conference at the Brookings Institution, “It’s important to understand that the president is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president.”
Most ethics experts have agreed with Shaub that the arrangement announced Wednesday is inadequate to address the conflict rules. Trump’s expectation and hope seems to be that — since the only fix for an Emoluments Clause violation is impeachment — Republicans will do as Trump has instructed and stop caring and that Democrats won’t have the nerve to raise the point that the president will — every day after next Friday — be violating the Constitution in a way that risks putting him in thrall to foreign powers. Republicans seem happy to oblige. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Donald Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff warned the director of the Office of Government Ethics on Sunday to “be careful” about criticizing Trump’s handling of his business conflicts.
“The head of the government ethics ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political,” Priebus said on ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Priebus suggested that Shaub, who was appointed by President Obama, was supportive of Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Obama opens NSA’s vast trove of warrantless data to entire Intelligence Community, just in time for Trump
The Intercept reports: With only days until Donald Trump takes office, the Obama administration on Thursday announced new rules that will let the NSA share vast amounts of private data gathered without warrant, court orders or congressional authorization with 16 other agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security.
The new rules allow employees doing intelligence work for those agencies to sift through raw data collected under a broad, Reagan-era executive order that gives the NSA virtually unlimited authority to intercept communications abroad. Previously, NSA analysts would filter out information they deemed irrelevant and mask the names of innocent Americans before passing it along.
The change was in the works long before there was any expectation that someone like Trump might become president. The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself. [Continue reading…]
Shadi Hamid, William McCants, and Rashid Dar write: Five years after the start of the Arab uprisings, mainstream Islamist groups — which generally seek to operate within the confines of institutional politics — find themselves brutally repressed (Egypt), fallen from power (Tunisia), internally fractured (Jordan), or eclipsed by armed groups (Syria and Libya). Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements had enjoyed considerable staying power, becoming entrenched actors in their respective societies, settling into strategies of gradualist democratic contestation, focused on electoral participation and working within existing state structures. Yet, the twin shocks of the Arab Spring — the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the rise of ISIS — have challenged mainstream Islamist models of political change.
The first section of the paper analyzes how recent developments in the region are forcing a discussion of the various fault lines within Islamist movements in Muslim-majority countries. The second brings out the challenges faced by Islamist parties, which, once admitted into the halls of power, have had to play politics in circumscribed contexts and make difficult compromises while not alienating their conservative constituencies.
The third section considers how Islamist groups have made sense of ISIS’s rise to prominence. The fourth takes a closer look at the state-centric approaches of Brotherhood-linked movements and how these are either coming under scrutiny or being challenged from various quarters, particularly by younger rank-and-file activists. The paper concludes by briefly considering to what extent Islamist movements will be able to “see beyond the state” in the years (and decades) to come.
Jimmy Tobias writes: In recent weeks, archivists, academics, and other ardent information activists have frantically sought to preserve and protect federal climate science before Donald Trump takes power in Washington. Leading the way is the University of Pennsylvania’s DataRefuge project, which is conducting a nationwide campaign to save and copy massive government data sets that contain critical information about our changing climate. Leaders of this effort fear that such data could disappear from federal websites when the president-elect’s administration gains control of government agencies.
But climate science isn’t the only potential victim. DataRefuge organizers, along with allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists, are equally worried about other forms of federal environmental research.
“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
Goldman stresses the vulnerability of wildlife science, particularly research by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that pertains to endangered, threatened, or otherwise imperiled species. [Continue reading…]
Michelle Goldberg writes: A new conventional wisdom is emerging among Very Serious People in Washington, D.C. It essentially holds that while Russia intervened on Donald Trump’s behalf in America’s election, questioning Trump’s legitimacy only plays into Russian hands. Marco Rubio articulated the new line in his questioning of Mike Pompeo, Trump’s choice for CIA chief, on Thursday. Rubio began with a series of false equivalences: “A president-elect who has questioned at times the judgment of our intelligence agencies. Opponents to our president-elect who continuously question the legitimacy of his election. The shameful leak in the media regarding unsubstantiated, unsourced information designed to smear the president-elect.” Given all that, he asked, “Is Vladimir Putin looking at all this and saying, ‘We’ve done a really good job of creating chaos?’ ” With this, Rubio conflated the behavior of Putin and Trump, which raises questions about Trump’s legitimacy, with the act of merely asking those questions. It’s a way to shut down attempts to reckon with the existential crisis Trump’s elevation poses to our faltering democracy while maintaining a centrist, Trump-skeptical pose.
Democrats should be pushing against this conventional wisdom, hard. So far only a few have stepped forward. In an interview to air on Meet the Press Sunday, U.S. Rep John Lewis, legend of the civil rights movement, told Chuck Todd that he does not consider Trump a legitimate president. “I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others to help him get elected,” Lewis said. “That’s not right. That’s not fair.” For the first time in his 30 years in Congress, Lewis said he would not be attending the inauguration. “You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong,” he said.
Lewis was speaking for many of us who are aghast at the way Trump benefited from Russian hacking and now appears to be returning the favor by taking a fawning stance toward Putin. He spoke for those of us who are shocked by the role of the FBI, which improperly publicized the reopening of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails but refuses to say whether it is investigating Trump’s ties with Russia. Trump lost the popular vote; he is president-elect only because the country values fidelity to the democratic process over popular democracy itself. (The Constitution, it turns out, may in fact be a suicide pact.) If the process itself was crooked — if Trump’s campaign colluded in any way with Russia — his legitimacy disappears. If he scorns the Constitution by, say, violating the Emoluments Clause, it disappears as well. A president who lost the popular vote, who may have cheated to win the Electoral College, and who will be contravening the Constitution the second he’s sworn in is due neither respect nor deference. [Continue reading…]
Michael R. Bromwich, who served as Justice Department inspector general from 1994 to 1999, writes: The announcement by the Justice Department’s inspector general that his office will look into FBI Director James B. Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails reopens painful questions about the 2016 election, but it is also welcome news. The country needs this — an objective, independent and thorough investigation of issues that have roiled the country for months and continue to stir heated debate.
No one questions that the inspector general has the authority to conduct such an investigation, but some wonder whether it is wise to step into matters so completely suffused with politics. These fears are understandable but misguided. Inspectors general occupy a unique institutional position. They have dual reporting responsibilities: to the agency in which they are embedded and to Congress. Members of Congress sometimes inappropriately leverage the power conferred by those reporting responsibilities, and the unique relationships that exist between inspectors general and Congress, by requesting investigations or other reviews that have partisan political motives.
Here, that is not an issue. The announcement made clear that this investigation has bipartisan support — it was requested by the chairman and ranking members of multiple congressional oversight committees. In the face of those requests, the better question is whether the inspector general could afford not to do it.
Some members of the public may wonder how a political appointee in an outgoing administration can launch an investigation such as this one. That misunderstands the role of federal inspectors general, who do not leave with the change of administrations. Inspectors general are the only political appointees whom the law requires be selected “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity.” They serve for indefinite periods and may be removed only for cause and with advance notice to Congress. [Continue reading…]
Anne Applebaum writes: Here, for the record, once again, are things we already know about Trump and Russia, and they aren’t remotely secret:
- Trump’s real estate empire relies, though we don’t know how much, on Russian money. Trump says he never invested in Russia or got loans from Russia. But he did get investment from Russia. In 2008, his son said that Russian investment was “pouring in” to Trump properties. Even before that, Trump had a whole series of partners and investors linked to post-Soviet oligarchs and even Russian organized crime. Has Trump concealed his tax returns for this reason?
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, spent many years working on behalf of the thuggish Russian-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled his own country. Manafort maintains links to pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. His name appeared on a list of people who took large chunks of cash from Yanukovych. He hasn’t gone away — in fact, he has lived in Trump Tower. There is no secret about his Russian connections. On the contrary, they define him.
- Last summer, Trump operatives at the convention changed the Republican Party platform to soften the language on Ukraine. There was no explanation for this change, one of the few substantive changes made to the entire party platform. Was this a signal, from Manafort or Trump, that the candidate was on Vladimir Putin’s side?
- Throughout the campaign, Trump repeated slogans and conspiracy theories — “Obama invented ISIS,” “Hillary will start World War III” — lifted from Sputnik, the Russian propaganda website. Was this just Trump campaign chief Stephen K. Bannon borrowing ideas, or Manafort using tactics he perfected in Ukraine? Or was there deliberate linkage?
- Finally, and most important: Trump is willing to risk serious conflict with China, to destroy U.S. relations with Mexico, to dismiss America’s closest allies in Europe and to downgrade NATO, our most important military alliance. But he has repeated many times his admiration for Russia and its president. In 2013 he told MSNBC, “I do have a relationship” with Putin, who is “probably very interested in what you and I are saying today” and will “be seeing it in some form.” In 2014 he bragged that Putin had sent him a “beautiful present” and claimed — apparently untruthfully — to have spoken to him as well. Nothing that Putin has done since — invade Ukraine, murder journalists, jail opponents — has induced Trump to change his mind.
To that list, we can now add the fact that Russia hacked material from the Clinton campaign, fed it to WikiLeaks and passed it on through their bot and troll network, which transformed it into hysterical slogans. Eventually, our intelligence agencies may learn more about that process, but at this point it doesn’t matter.
Information doesn’t have to be secret to be shocking. Trump doesn’t have to be a Manchurian candidate who has been hypnotized or recruited by foreign intelligence. It’s enough that he has direct and indirect links to a profoundly corrupt and violent foreign dictator, whose policies he admires, whose advisers he shares and whose slogans he uses. That’s kompromat enough for me. [Continue reading…]
Human Rights Watch: The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world, Human Rights Watch said today in launching its World Report 2017. Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk.
Meanwhile, strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality, Human Rights Watch said.
In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will.
“The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights,” Roth said. “Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”
Roth cited Trump’s presidential campaign in the US as a vivid illustration of the politics of intolerance. He said that Trump responded to those discontented with their economic situation and an increasingly multicultural society with rhetoric that rejected basic principles of dignity and equality. His campaign floated proposals that would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women’s rights and media freedoms, and to use torture. Unless Trump repudiates these proposals, his administration risks committing massive rights violations in the US and shirking a longstanding, bipartisan belief, however imperfectly applied, in a rights-based foreign policy agenda. [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: The dossier alleging that the Russian government has compromised President-elect Donald Trump has not only been circulating at the highest levels of the US government, but also among the intelligence agencies of other countries, two Israeli intelligence officers told BuzzFeed News. And while the dossier’s claims haven’t been verified, the officers said that intelligence services from other countries have been doing their own digging into Trump’s connections to Moscow.
“You can trust me that many intelligence agencies are trying to evaluate the extent to which Trump might have ties, or a weakness of some type, to Russia,” one of the intelligence officers said.
Part of Israel’s interest, he said, came from wanting to know how much of the intelligence it routinely shares with the Unites States might be fed to Russia.
The document published by BuzzFeed News “had been circulating for some months” among intelligence officers from various governments, one of the officers said. Both asked to speak on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the claims in the dossier, a 35-page collection of memos commissioned by political opponents of Trump and written by a former British intelligence agent, identified in news reports as Christopher Steele.
Besides the Steele dossier, several unconfirmed reports of ties between Moscow and Trump are being circulated among Western intelligence agencies, said one of the Israeli officials familiar with the reports.
“There have been various reports about Trump’s ties to Russia,” the officer said in reference to other unpublished reports. “The dossier is one of them, but there are others, they make other allegations. Some are more specific, and some are less. You can trust me that many intelligence agencies are trying to evaluate the extent to which Trump might have ties, or a weakness of some type, to Russia.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.
A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.
Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Russia has invited the incoming Trump administration to Syrian peace talks it is sponsoring later this month with Turkey and Iran, part of a process from which the Obama administration pointedly has been excluded.
U.S. participation, especially if an agreement is reached, would be the first indication of the enhanced U.S.-Russia cooperation that President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump have forecast under a Trump administration.
The invitation, extended to Trump’s designated national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, came in a Dec. 28 phone call to Flynn by Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, according to a transition official. [Continue reading…]