Feds investigate Manafort firm as part of Ukraine probe

CNN reports: FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are conducting an investigation into possible US ties to alleged corruption of the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, including the work of Paul Manafort’s firm, according to multiple US law enforcement officials.

The investigation is broad and is looking into whether US companies and the financial system were used to aid alleged corruption by the party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort, who resigned as chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign Friday, has not been the focus of the probe, according to the law enforcement officials. The investigation is ongoing and prosecutors haven’t ruled anything out, the officials said.

The probe is also examining the work of other firms linked to the former Ukrainian government, including that of the Podesta Group, the lobbying and public relations company run by Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. [Continue reading…]


Outcome of U.S. election seen as ‘question of national security for Russia’ says Kremlin watcher

NPR reports: Investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov says the [Democratic National Committee] hack wasn’t necessarily the work of Russian intelligence services.

“It’s much more complicated than that,” says Soldatov, co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. “We have non-government actors, and they’re really adventurous, really fast and they’re really, really good.”

He says mercenary hackers give the government a way to deny involvement.

Once the material had been stolen, though, [Mark] Galeotti thinks the Kremlin took over.

“The actual leak — the point where they did something with the information they gathered — now there’s no question that that would be regarded as a strategic move, and would need to have had Kremlin sanction,” he says.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, repeated this week that Russia doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries. Recently he said, “We have witnessed a volley of Russophobic hysteria.”

He called the accusations “ploys to support one candidate and smear another.”

DNC staffers charged that the publication of the emails was a Russian ploy to support the candidacy of Donald Trump. But “I think it’s not about Trump,” says Soldatov. “It’s all about Hillary Clinton.”

What might Russia hope to gain from influencing the American vote?

Soldatov says President Vladimir Putin believes Clinton is a Russia-hater who was behind anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia in 2011 and 2012.

And Soldatov says this U.S. election is important for Moscow because America’s next leader could determine whether economic sanctions against Russia will be lifted. “And everybody in the Kremlin believes that if Hillary Clinton in the White House, it will be absolutely impossible to get the sanctions against Russia lifted. So in a way, it’s a question of national security for Russia.”

Galeotti thinks the key purpose with the DNC leaks is to divide Clinton’s political base by showing that top party officials worked to freeze out her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders.

The Kremlin’s idea, he says, is to create the impression that politics in the U.S. is manipulated just as much as in Russia. [Continue reading…]


Possible NSA hacking could signal warning shot from Russia

The New York Times reports: The release on websites this week of what appears to be top-secret computer code that the National Security Agency has used to break into the networks of foreign governments and other espionage targets has caused deep concern inside American intelligence agencies, raising the question of whether America’s own elite operatives have been hacked and their methods revealed.

Most outside experts who examined the posts, by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, said they contained what appeared to be genuine samples of the code — though somewhat outdated — used in the production of the N.S.A.’s custom-built malware.

Most of the code was designed to break through network firewalls and get inside the computer systems of competitors like Russia, China and Iran. That, in turn, allows the N.S.A. to place “implants” in the system, which can lurk unseen for years and be used to monitor network traffic or enable a debilitating computer attack.

According to these experts, the coding resembled a series of “products” developed inside the N.S.A.’s highly classified Tailored Access Operations unit, some of which were described in general terms in documents stolen three years ago by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor now living in Russia.

But the code does not appear to have come from Mr. Snowden’s archive, which was mostly composed of PowerPoint files and other documents that described N.S.A. programs. The documents released by Mr. Snowden and his associates contained no actual source code used to break into the networks of foreign powers.

Whoever obtained the source code apparently broke into either the top-secret, highly compartmentalized computer servers of the N.S.A. or other servers around the world that the agency would have used to store the files. The code that was published on Monday dates to mid-2013, when, after Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, the agency shuttered many of its existing servers and moved code to new ones as a security measure.

By midday Tuesday Mr. Snowden himself, in a Twitter message from his exile in Moscow, declared that “circumstantial evidence and conventional wisdom indicates Russian responsibility” for publication, which he interpreted as a warning shot to the American government in case it was thinking of imposing sanctions against Russia in the cybertheft of documents from the Democratic National Committee. [Continue reading…]


Presidential debates: Roger Ailes expected to coach Donald Trump on facing accusations of sexism

The New York Times reports: Mr. Ailes brings enormous experience in preparing for presidential debates, but his addition to Mr. Trump’s team also raises intriguing questions.

Mr. Trump’s support among female voters has eroded during the course of his campaign, after a number of incendiary statements.

Mr. Trump’s challenge during the crowded Republican primary debates was far less pronounced than it will be in what could be a head-to-head against Mrs. Clinton over 90 minutes. He was one of ten candidates onstage and could often filibuster his way through questions or avoid them entirely as his rivals consumed airtime — an approach that would be untenable in a one-on-one or even a three-way matchup including the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.

What is more, some of Mr. Trump’s worst moments in the primary debates involved Ms. Kelly and Carly Fiorina, the only woman vying in the Republican nomination contest. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly swatted away accusations of sexism during the campaign, will likely require coaching on how to handle the potential first female president in a debate.

Whether Mr. Ailes can best address that concern is unclear. [Continue reading…]


The Democratic Party’s silence on Syria


Kim Ghattas writes: Syria cannot be made to fit a clear pattern of injustice, with an occupier and an occupied, like with Israel and the Palestinians, or an oppressed and an oppressor, like with South Africa’s apartheid. Any meaningful U.S. action in Syria would require more military force, a no-no for the left. And rather inconveniently, Assad belongs to the so-called axis of resistance against Israel that includes Hezbollah — and for which the American left has a tendency to voice support with little questioning, because it has the luxury of geographical distance from the consequences of life under its rule.

American political scientist and Israel critic Norman Finkelstein exemplified that attitude when he visited Lebanon in 2008 to show his support for Hezbollah, which he lauded for its courage and discipline in its 2006 war with Israel. A local interviewer pointed out that the widespread support Hezbollah enjoyed among Lebanese after it forced Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 had dissipated in the wake of the costly 2006 war that had wrecked much of the country’s infrastructure — a war which many Lebanese blamed on Hezbollah. “I am not telling you what to do with your lives, and if you’d rather live crawling on your feet, I could respect that,” Finkelstein replied, evoking Spanish Civil War heroine Dolores Ibárruri, who said “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

When the interviewer pressed that support for Hezbollah should be a choice left to the Lebanese who have to live with the consequences of the group’s actions, Finkelstein’s answer was again that it was always better to resist and die with honor, adding dismissively that he doesn’t live in Lebanon, so the internal political divisions were irrelevant to him.

Such thinking is prevalent on the left when it comes to Syria, and its adherents are unwilling to vocalize any criticism of Assad’s use of force, lest it indicate support for removing him from power. Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which supports the opposition, told me Assad’s positions on the Palestinian cause means that “a large segment of the left has completely ignored Syria, and turned a blind eye to what is going on, or even subscribed to conspiracy theories” that the war was manufactured by the West to weaken Assad.

“They believe that U.S. power and military can never be used for good, and somehow they believe Russia provides a balance in the world, but they don’t realize that the Russians are much more brutal,” he said, a pertinent point as President Vladimir Putin’s influence or interference in this election cycle has become a point of debate.

Mustafa said he believed that Sanders’s silence reflected a lack of understanding of both Syria’s geopolitical complexities and the horror of a war where the overwhelming majority of civilian victims have been killed by government forces. “He should go to the Syrian border in Turkey. He should see for himself what is happening and then see if that shifts his position in the right direction,” Mustafa said. “This is our ‘never again’ moment. He needs to clarify his stance, not just keep repeating: We can’t depose dictators, we can’t use force, we can’t have no-fly zones.”

But if the left opposes military action, what about humanitarian action? Even if the United States does not impose a no-fly zone, it could still ramp up funding for overwhelmed and underfunded U.N. agencies and refugee organizations.

This is where [running mate Tim] Kaine’s views are closer to Clinton’s than even some of her own advisors, and those of President Barack Obama himself. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East, he traveled to the region often, speaking passionately about the refugee crisis — including in March 2014, when he said that he refused to accept that “there’s nothing more we can do to end the suffering.” He spearheaded an effort to pass a Senate resolution to press the administration to beef up its humanitarian assistance.

There are two key components to Kaine’s thinking on Syria: First, he believes that the United States should push for a humanitarian zone to deliver aid. In November, he said the zone would be “principally a tool for delivering humanitarian aid pursuant to the U.N. Security Council resolution that even Russia voted for. I think, done correctly, it could also accelerate a path to a negotiated end to the Syrian Civil War.” In other words, this creates space to push back against Assad.

Secondly, Kaine believes the challenge of the Islamic State and the issue of Assad are connected, and Washington’s single-minded focus on the jihadi group means its Syria strategy is nonexistent or a mess. “These are two problems that are connected, and you can’t have a strategy that’s just about one,” he told NPR in October. [Continue reading…]


U.S. considers sanctions against Russia in response to hacks of Democratic groups

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. officials are discussing whether to respond to computer breaches of Democratic Party organizations with economic sanctions against Russia, but they haven’t reached a decision about how to proceed, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Levying sanctions would require the White House to publicly accuse Russia, or Russian-backed hackers, of committing the breach and then leaking embarrassing information. The U.S. has frequently opted not to publicly release attribution for cyber-assaults, though Washington did openly accuse North Korea of carrying out an embarrassing breach of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. in 2014.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. intelligence agencies have been studying the Democratic hacks, and several officials have signaled it was almost certainly carried out by Russian-affiliated hackers. Russia has denied any involvement, but several cybersecurity companies have also released reports tying the breach to Russian hackers.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told reporters, regarding a breach of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spearheads the Democratic House campaigns: “I know for sure it is the Russians” and “we are assessing the damage.”

She added, “This is an electronic Watergate…The Russians broke in. Who did they give the information to? I don’t know. Who dumped it? I don’t know.” [Continue reading…]


Hack of Democrats’ accounts was wider than believed, officials say

The New York Times reports: A Russian cyberattack that targeted Democratic politicians was bigger than it first appeared and breached the private email accounts of more than 100 party officials and groups, officials with knowledge of the case said Wednesday.

The widening scope of the attack has prompted the F.B.I. to broaden its investigation, and agents have begun notifying a long list of Democratic officials that the Russians may have breached their personal accounts.

The main targets appear to have been the personal email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign officials and party operatives, along with a number of party organizations.

Officials have acknowledged that the Russian hackers gained access to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is the fund-raising arm for House Democrats, and to the Democratic National Committee, including a D.N.C. voter analytics program used by Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.

But the hack now appears to have extended well beyond those groups, and organizations like the Democratic Governors’ Association may also have been affected, according to Democrats involved in the investigation. [Continue reading…]


Assange promotes conspiracy theory about Wikileaks’ source of DNC emails


Wikileaks’ first gambit in promoting the idea that DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was murdered for political reasons was to announce that it is offering a reward for information that could lead to the conviction of the killer:

In the interview above, Julian Assange is now insinuating that Rich might have been Wikileaks’ source for the “leaked” DNC documents.

Clearly, this is nonsense — but it’s a claim that Assange shamelessly makes because he knows that idiots like Alex Jones will gladly run with it.

Wikileaks has a solid commitment to protect its sources and would have honored that commitment to Rich — had he been a source — when he was alive.

But there’s nothing that Wikileaks can do to protect him now. Indeed, if a Wikileaks source was murdered by those who feared the possibility of him speaking out, Wikileaks would then have a responsibility to speak out in the name of their source.

If Rich was indeed Wikileaks’ source, Assange would not at this time be shiftily alluding to some such possibility — he would instead be publishing evidence that proves this fact.

In that event, Wikileaks would have a solid foundation for demanding that the criminal investigation into Rich’s death include the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Likewise, in a single blow, Wikileaks would have destroyed the credibility of all those now claiming that Russian intelligence was directly or indirectly Wikileaks’ source.

By publishing evidence that Seth Rich — not the Russians — was Wikileaks’ source, Assange would instantly be able to elevate himself from his current role as a fugitive, attention-seeking conspiracy theorist, to a heroic, fearless truth-teller who had unequivocally struck hard at the heart of the American political establishment.

Who knows? He might even then get rewarded by Russia, secretly extracted from London and provided refuge in Moscow.

What seems more likely, however, is that sooner or later he’s going to get bumped unceremoniously onto the streets of London and thereafter land in a U.S. federal court facing charges for something. I’m sure he’ll get an excellent defense, but if convicted, let’s hope that this leads a future president to then show Chelsea Manning the mercy she deserves.

Assange, on the other hand, is increasingly displaying the recklessness of a man who senses his chickens are coming home to roost.


New Clinton ad insinuates Trump won’t put America first


The Washington Post reports: Insinuations, accusations and speculations have been a staple of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Now Hillary Clinton is using the Republican nominee’s own methods against him.

In a new online advertisement, her campaign makes a few factual statements about Trump’s Russian sympathies, stretches the truth in a couple of ways and then invites readers to draw their own conclusions.

It is exactly the technique that Trump has used repeatedly throughout the campaign to feed conspiracy theories, said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories. The advertisement, which is titled “What Is Donald Trump’s Connection to Vladimir Putin?” and appeared online Friday, insinuates that Trump has some kind of business or political alliance with Russia’s president, Uscinski said.

“We don’t know what’s going on here, and Donald won’t tell us,” the spot concludes. “We’ll let you guess.”

To be sure, a victory for Trump would augur a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. The United States would be much friendlier toward Putin and much more accommodating of his international agenda.

Trump has surrounded himself with people who are sympathetic to Putin. Paul Manafort, the chairman of Trump’s campaign, also advised former Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was aligned with Putin. Carter Page, one of Trump’s advisers on foreign affairs, has openly praised Putin and criticized Western sanctions on Russian officials.

Trump himself has praised Putin, as well, and has also called for the United States to retreat from its responsibilities in NATO — which would probably increase Putin’s influence in the region.

At this point, however, there is no evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign has a direct connection with the Kremlin, as Clinton’s spot insinuated. [Continue reading…]


Donald Trump is wrong. Rigging an election is almost impossible

Ari Berman writes: In a span of two weeks, federal courts have struck down Republican-backed voting restrictions in six states, including laws that required strict forms of government-issued ID in order to cast a ballot, cut back on early-voting days and made it harder to register. The rulings found that the laws — in Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, North Dakota, Kansas and Wisconsin — violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against people of color, sometimes “with almost surgical precision.”

Rather than seeing these rulings as a victory for democracy, Donald Trump says they will lead to a record number of fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton in November. “The voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development,” Trump told The Washington Post. “We may have people vote 10 times. . . . Why not? If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”

Just how easy would it be to rig a Presidential election, as Trump suggests Democrats are preparing to do? How many people would it require, what tactics would they have to use, and how many votes would they need to flip a major contest or state? [Continue reading…]


DNC hacking puts Obama in tough spot with Russia

The Hill reports: Pressure is growing on the White House to respond to Russia’s apparent hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), placing President Obama in a delicate political position.

Evidence has mounted that the Russian government was behind the theft of tens of thousands of damaging internal emails from the DNC, leading prominent lawmakers from both sides of aisle to call for some form of response.

The ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee have all issued calls for Obama to “seek justice” for the alleged attack.

But should Obama publicly point the finger at the Kremlin, it could expose covert intelligence capabilities and damage already touchy discussions over Russia’s behavior in Syria and Ukraine, experts say.

That dynamic reflects one the central challenges the White House faces in responding to cyberattacks. Without any international rules of engagement, officials must weigh a response to each attack individually.

The FBI has opened an investigation into the hack, but because of the risks, experts say, the public is unlikely to ever know the results, even if it is able to prove Russia’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Obama has a slate of possible responses at his disposal, but each carries its own set of problems.

“They are really in between a rock and a hard place. Everything they do has a downside,” said Herb Lin, a senior research scholar who studies cyber policy and security at Stanford. [Continue reading…]


Trump’s core supporters don’t like the way he treated the Khans — but they’re still afraid of Muslims

Greg Sargent writes: Trump’s attacks on the Khan family appear to have gone too far even for his core supporters. American voters overall disapprove of his handling of the exchange with the Khans by 74-13, and Trump-leaning groups agree: Non-college whites disapprove by 67-14; non-college white men disapprove by 64-19; and white evangelicals disapprove by 63-20. (By the way, Republicans and GOP-leaners disapprove by 58-23, and conservatives disapprove by 62-18.)

The overwhelming public disapproval of Trump’s battle with the Khan family is encouraging to see. It’s looking increasingly like Trump, by engaging the Khans, helpfully reinforced many of the messages coming out of the Democratic convention about Trump’s demagogic scapegoating by religion and his overall hostility towards diversifying America. If the Dem convention brought a sledgehammer down on Trump’s worldview, he basically picked up that sledgehammer and continued to hit himself over the head with it — especially in the eyes of the college educated white voters who appear increasingly repulsed by Trumpism.

And yet, even after the battle over the Khans forced a national debate over Trump’s fearmongering about Muslims, his core voting groups are still sticking by the temporary ban on their entry into the United States — which, after all, is a core tenet of the story he’s telling about America. [Continue reading…]