Following the Russian money

Tim Weiner writes: Counterintelligence is long, hard work. Investigators need time to string along suspects — seeking the who, what, when, where and why of the case. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tries to build 3-D chronologies of who did what to whom. Agents usually follow the money, the best evidence. That’s how the feds got Al Capone: for tax evasion.

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, is running the most explosive counterintelligence case since Soviet spies stole the secrets of the atom bomb more than 70 years ago. Some of those atomic spies didn’t speak Russian: They were Americans. We now know that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia attacked American democracy by meddling in the 2016 election. Did he enlist American mercenaries?

A tantalizing clue came at the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday.

First, Democrats named names: the former Trump campaign director, Paul Manafort, dismissed shortly after the F.B.I.’s investigation started in late July; then the former Trump national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who lost his job last month. Both appear to have had pecuniary ties to Mr. Putin’s allies — in Mr. Manafort’s case, a politician and an oligarch; in Mr. Flynn’s case, RT, the news and propaganda network.

Then Mr. Comey was asked to explain the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Sure,” the director said.

The act, known as FARA, is intended to prevent espionage or illicit foreign influence on American public opinion, policy and laws. It requires Americans acting as agents of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department. A willful failure to register can be a crime. [Continue reading…]

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Calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump could be a terrible mistake

Philip Shenon writes: The drumbeat is heard—again. After every national tragedy, or in the wake of a major political scandal or economic crisis, there are calls across Washington for creation of an independent, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to investigate. After Pearl Harbor, there was the Roberts Commission, named for its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. After the Kennedy assassination, there was the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After the 2001 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Now, Democratic leaders in Congress—and a handful of Republicans—are urging creation of an independent commission to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election and, more specifically and explosively, whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. The prospects of an independent investigation seemed to grow after this week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau has opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump aides for their possible ties to the Russian hacking operation that targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The calls for an outside inquiry were louder still after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s stunning claim on Wednesday that some on the Trump transition team had been swept up in government surveillance of other targets.

In welcoming Comey’s disclosure, Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s ranking Democrat, said that, beyond the inquiries in Congress and the FBI, it was time for creation of “an independent commission that can devote the staff and resources to this investigation that we do not have, and that can be completely removed from any political considerations.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly called for creation of a “9/11-style commission” to deal with allegations involving the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Having written histories of both the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission and after spending years poring over their long-secret archives, I think I speak with confidence in warning the Democrats to be careful what they wish for. Neither of those blue-ribbon investigations—especially the 9/11 Commission, most often cited by Schiff, Pelosi and their colleagues as a model for a Trump-Russia inquiry—offers much hope that an independent commission would accomplish the Democrats’ goals, at least not if those goals include getting to the bottom of this mess in a timely fashion and holding individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.

The 10-member 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress over the initially fierce opposition of the Bush administration, is—accurately or not—held out as a gold standard for independent federal investigations. With its membership equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, it produced an elegantly written, unanimous report that documented the terrorist conspiracy behind the 2001 attacks and the larger history of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

But it is worth remembering that the 9/11 Commission got started late and took a long time to finish—the investigation lasted 20 months, with its final report not issued until July 2004, more than two and a half years after the Twin Towers fell. The logistics of actually setting up that commission were akin to organizing a small federal agency from scratch, albeit one that required a staff of dozens of experts with the highest-level security clearances.

And the 9/11 Commission achieved bipartisan agreement only because the panel abandoned any attempt at individual accountability. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. officials: Info suggests Trump associates may have coordinated with Russians

CNN reports: The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one source.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing. [Continue reading…]

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Nunes tries to give Trump some cover on wiretap claim

Bloomberg reports: Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.

Representative Devin Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during legal surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. Trump told reporters at the White House, “I somewhat do” feel vindicated by the latest development.

The intercepted communications weren’t captured through wiretaps — the president’s spokesmen had already abandoned that assertion — or through surveillance directed at Trump or his aides, Nunes told reporters at the Capitol before heading to the White House to brief Trump on his findings.

But Nunes said he was “alarmed” that the identities of Trump aides were revealed in intelligence community documents. “Details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in an intelligence community report,” he said, adding that he didn’t know if Trump’s “own communications were intercepted.”

Then Nunes headed to the White House to brief the president on what he had learned. “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found,” Trump said. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: “The chairman would not answer the question of whether anyone associated with the White House was the source of the new information.”

Nunes says the information he has seen was “widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s lack of interest in receiving intelligence briefings, it seems likely that the White House was already well aware of what Nunes today “revealed.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a charade in which Trump leaked information to Nunes so that the Republican Congressman could then theatrically “brief” the president while glossing over the fact that none of this changes the fact that Trump was not the target of a wiretap.

I also wonder whether as events now unfold, the FBI may be gathering growing evidence of a Trump-led effort to subvert a criminal investigation.

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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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Roger Stone, the ‘trickster’ on Trump’s side, is under FBI scrutiny

The New York Times reports: In President Trump’s oft-changing world order, Roger J. Stone Jr., the onetime political consultant and full-time provocateur, has been one of the few constants — a loyalist and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” who nurtured the dream of a presidential run by the developer-turned-television-star for 30 years.

But two months into the Trump presidency, Mr. Stone, known for his pinstripe suits, the Nixon tattoo spanning his shoulder blades and decades of outlandish statements, is under investigation for what would be his dirtiest trick — colluding with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton and put his friend in the White House.

At a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, Democrats pressed James B. Comey, director of the F.B.I., for information on Mr. Stone. Asked by Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, a Democrat, if he was familiar with Mr. Stone, Mr. Comey replied tersely, “Generally, yes,” before saying he could not discuss any specific person.

Mr. Stone, 64, is the best known of the Trump associates under scrutiny as part of an F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference in the election. John D. Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman whose hacked emails were released by WikiLeaks, accused him in October of having advance warning of the hacks, which the intelligence community has concluded were orchestrated by Russia. [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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Russian mafia boss still at large after FBI wiretap at Trump Tower

ABC News reports: There, indeed, was an FBI wiretap involving Russians at Trump Tower.

But it was not placed at the behest of Barack Obama, and the target was not the Trump campaign of 2016. For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money-laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower in New York.

The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” he was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.

Seven months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a red notice for Tokhtakhounov, he appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.

“He is a major player,” said Mike Gaeta, the agent who led the 2013 FBI investigation of Tokhtakhounov and his alleged mafia money-laundering and gambling ring, in a 2014 interview with ABC News. “He is prominent. He has extremely good connections in the business world as well as the criminal world, overseas, in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, other countries.” [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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FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at far-right news sites

McClatchy reports: Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.

The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.

Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.

The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry into the use of bots.

Russia-generated bots are one piece of a cyber puzzle that counterintelligence agents have sought to solve for nearly a year to determine the extent of the Moscow government’s electronic broadside.

“This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. [Continue reading…]

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‘There’s a smell of treason in the air’

The Washington Post reports: On the 60th day of his presidency came the hardest truth for Donald Trump.

He was wrong.

James B. Comey — the FBI director whom Trump celebrated on the campaign trail as a gutsy and honorable “Crooked Hillary” truth-teller — testified under oath Monday what many Americans had already assumed: Trump had falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping his headquarters during last year’s campaign.

Trump did not merely allege that former president Barack Obama ordered surveillance on Trump Tower, of course. He asserted it as fact, and then reasserted it, and then insisted that forthcoming evidence would prove him right.

But in Monday’s remarkable, marathon hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Comey said there was no such evidence. Trump’s claim, first made in a series of tweets on March 4 at a moment when associates said he was feeling under siege and stewing over the struggles of his young presidency, remains unfounded.

Comey did not stop there. He confirmed publicly that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and associates with Russia, part of an extraordinary effort by an adversary to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election in Trump’s favor.

Questions about Russia have hung over Trump for months, but the president always has dismissed them as “fake news.” That became much harder Monday after the FBI director proclaimed the Russia probe to be anything but fake.

“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A Gallup poll released Monday found Mr. Trump with an abysmal 37 percent approval rating; other recent polls place his popularity in the mid-40s, but even that level is among the lowest ever recorded for a president this early in his first term.

Over the past several weeks, Republicans in Congress and members of their staffs have privately complained that Mr. Trump’s Twitter comment on March 4 — the one where he called Barack Obama “sick” and suggested that the former president had ordered a “tapp” on his phone — had done more to undermine anything he’s done as president because it called into question his seriousness about governing.

The problem, from the perspective of Mr. Trump’s beleaguered political fire brigade, is that the president insists on dealing with crises by creating new ones — so surrogates, repeating talking points the president himself ignores, say they often feel like human shields. [Continue reading…]

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Russia inquiries overlap in a tangle of secrets and sniping

The New York Times reports: Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election has spawned a tangle of inquiries with competing agendas and timetables, and with little agreement on the most important things that should be investigated.

Staff members for the Senate Intelligence Committee have spent weeks poring over raw intelligence that led the Obama administration to conclude that Russia meddled in the election, but they have yet to be given any access to far more politically charged information — evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Trump.

The House Intelligence Committee is conducting its own investigation of issues surrounding Mr. Trump and Russia, but the committee’s Republican chairman has said a top priority is to unmask whoever is speaking to journalists about classified information. Democrats on the committee hope the investigation can force a disclosure of the president’s tax returns.

The progress of these congressional inquiries depends at least in part on a third investigation by the F.B.I., in which counterintelligence agents have been scrutinizing past contacts between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s aides. Officials say the F.B.I. effort will probably take many months or even years, however eager Congress might be for quick answers.

And, while the F.B.I. conducts its investigation in secrecy, the White House insists publicly that there is nothing to investigate. [Continue reading…]

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What to ask about Russian hacking

Louise Mensch writes: On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee holds its first hearing on Russia’s hacking of the election. (No date has yet been set for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s parallel investigation.) The list of initial witnesses does not inspire confidence in the House committee’s effectiveness.

It should be relatively easy to get at the truth of whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia over the hacking. I have some relevant experience. When I was a member of Parliament in Britain, I took part in a select committee investigating allegations of phone hacking by the News Corporation. Today, as a New York-based journalist (who, in fact, now works at News Corp.), I have followed the Russian hacking story closely. In November, I broke the story that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court had issued a warrant that enabled the F.B.I. to examine communications between “U.S. persons” in the Trump campaign relating to Russia-linked banks.

So, I have some ideas for how the House committee members should proceed. If I were Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the committee, I would demand to see the following witnesses: Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Richard Burt, Erik Prince, Dan Scavino, Brad Parscale, Roger Stone, Corey Lewandowski, Boris Epshteyn, Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Flynn, Michael Flynn Jr., Felix Sater, Dmitry Rybolovlev, Michael Cohen, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Anton, Julia Hahn and Stephen Miller, along with executives from Cambridge Analytica, Alfa Bank, Silicon Valley Bank and Spectrum Health.

There are many more who need to be called, but these would be a first step. As to lines of questioning, here are some suggestions. [Continue reading…]

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House Intelligence panel does not reveal whether documents substantiate Trump’s wiretap claim

The Washington Post reports: The House Intelligence Committee did not reveal on Friday night the answer to the question of whether Justice Department documents substantiate President Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration.

The committee had asked for copies of any warrants, applications or court orders relating to a wiretap of Trump or his surrogates and affiliates in advance of a Monday hearing at which the directors of the FBI and the National Security Agency are expected to testify about alleged connections between the Trump team and Russian authorities.

Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) avoided the big question by releasing a statement late Friday that said his panel is “satisfied” that Justice “has fully complied” with its request related to “possible surveillance” of Trump and his associates.

Nunes said the CIA and FBI had not yet provided information that was requested “that is necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked.”

He added that the NSA had “partially met our request” and pledged to fully meet it by the end of next week. [Continue reading…]

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Russian espionage piggybacks on a cybercriminal’s hacking

The New York Times reports: To the F.B.I., Evgeniy M. Bogachev is the most wanted cybercriminal in the world. The bureau has announced a $3 million bounty for his capture, the most ever for computer crimes, and has been trying to track his movements in hopes of grabbing him if he strays outside his home turf in Russia.

He has been indicted in the United States, accused of creating a sprawling network of virus-infected computers to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from bank accounts around the world, targeting anyone with enough money worth stealing — from a pest control company in North Carolina to a police department in Massachusetts to a Native American tribe in Washington.

In December, the Obama administration announced sanctions against Mr. Bogachev and five others in response to intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Russia had meddled in the presidential election. Publicly, law enforcement officials said it was his criminal exploits that landed Mr. Bogachev on the sanctions list, not any specific role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

But it is clear that for Russia, he is more than just a criminal. At one point, Mr. Bogachev had control over as many as a million computers in multiple countries, with possible access to everything from family vacation photographs and term papers to business proposals and highly confidential personal information. It is almost certain that computers belonging to government officials and contractors in a number of countries were among the infected devices. For Russia’s surveillance-obsessed intelligence community, Mr. Bogachev’s exploits may have created an irresistible opportunity for espionage. [Continue reading…]

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