Hopes dim for congressional Russia inquiries as parties clash

The New York Times reports: In a secured room in the basement of the Capitol in July, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, fielded question after question from members of the House Intelligence Committee. Though the allotted time for the grilling had expired, he offered to stick around as long as they wanted.

But Representative Trey Gowdy, who spent nearly three years investigating Hillary Clinton’s culpability in the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was growing frustrated after two hours. You are in an unwinnable situation, Mr. Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, counseled Mr. Kushner. If you leave now, Democrats will say you did not answer all the questions. If you stay, they will keep you here all week.

The exchange, described by three people with knowledge of it, typified the political morass that is crippling the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and whether the Trump campaign colluded in any way.

But the problems extend beyond that panel. All three committees looking into Russian interference — one in the House, two in the Senate — have run into problems, from insufficient staffing to fights over when the committees should wrap up their investigations. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry has barely started, delayed in part by negotiations over the scope of the investigation. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while maintaining bipartisan comity, have sought to tamp down expectations about what they might find.

Nine months into the Trump administration, any notion that Capitol Hill would provide a comprehensive, authoritative and bipartisan accounting of the extraordinary efforts of a hostile power to disrupt American democracy appears to be dwindling. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Mueller now investigating Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta

NBC News reports: Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of a federal investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, three sources with knowledge of the matter told NBC News.

The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller’s inquiry into the finances of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the sources. As special counsel, Mueller has been tasked with investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Manafort had organized a public relations campaign for a non-profit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU). Podesta’s company was one of many firms that worked on the campaign, which promoted Ukraine’s image in the West.

The sources said the investigation into Podesta and his company began as more of a fact-finding mission about the ECMU and Manafort’s role in the campaign, but has now morphed into a criminal inquiry into whether the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump pledges at least $430,000 of his own money to help cover aides’ legal costs related to Russia probes

The Washington Post reports: President Trump plans to spend at least $430,000 of his personal funds to help cover the mounting legal costs incurred by White House staff and campaign aides related to the ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in last year’s election, a White House official said.

The Washington Post reported last month that the Republican National Committee had spent roughly that amount to pay lawyers representing Trump and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., in the multiple investigations.

The White House official said Trump’s pledge is not meant as a reimbursement to the RNC, but that it does not preclude Trump from doing that at a later time or for increasing the amount available for his aides.[Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Jeff Sessions just confessed his negligence on Russia

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes write: The headlines from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday focused on his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump and his declaration — dragged out of him with all the elegance of a tooth extraction — that he had not yet been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Lost in the back-and-forth and amid focus on his testy exchange with Sen. Al Franken about Russian contacts, however, was a truly damning moment about Sessions’s tenure at the Justice Department thus far.

That moment came not in the context of hostile questioning from a committee Democrat but in a perfectly cordial exchange with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

With Midwestern gentility, the Nebraska senator told Sessions that he wasn’t going to grill him about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, he said, “I would like to continue talking about the Russians but in the context of the long-term objectives that Vladimir Putin has to undermine American institutions and the public trust.… We face a sophisticated long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermining confidence in American institutions.”

Russia will be back in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, Sasse argued. “We live at a time where info ops and propaganda and misinformation are a far more cost-effective way for people to try to weaken the United States of America than by thinking they can outspend us at a military level.… So as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and as a supervisor of multiple components of our intelligence community … do you think we’re doing enough to prepare for future interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries in the information space?” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

The Washington Post reports: CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington.

His comment suggested — falsely — that a report released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January had ruled out any impact that could be attributed to a covert Russian interference campaign that involved leaks of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the flooding of social media sites with false claims and the purchase of ads on Facebook.

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump.

But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome — an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump campaign staffers pushed Russian propaganda from fake Twitter account days before the election

The Washington Post reports: Russian operatives used a fake Twitter account that claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans to persuade American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share select content with their own massive lists of followers, two people familiar with the matter said.

The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, includes political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.

There is no evidence that any of them knew the account was run by Russians. Independent researchers had suspected the account was Russian, and their work was confirmed Wednesday by two people familiar with the investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Facebook and Google helped anti-refugee campaign in swing states

Bloomberg reports: In the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign, voters in swing states including Nevada and North Carolina saw ads appear in their Facebook feeds and on Google websites touting a pair of controversial faux-tourism videos, showing France and Germany overrun by Sharia law. French schoolchildren were being trained to fight for the caliphate, jihadi fighters were celebrated at the Arc de Triomphe, and the “Mona Lisa” was covered in a burka.

“Under Sharia law, you can enjoy everything the Islamic State of France has to offer, as long as you follow the rules,” intoned the narrator of one ad.

Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google. They helped target the ads to more efficiently reach the intended audiences, according to internal reports from the ad agency that ran the campaign, as well as five people involved with the efforts.

Facebook advertising salespeople, creative advisers and technical experts competed with sales staff from Alphabet Inc.’s Google for millions in ad dollars from Secure America Now, the conservative, nonprofit advocacy group whose campaign included a mix of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-Islam messages, the people said.

The content of some ads left some employees of Harris Media—the Austin-based digital advertising firm that runs campaigns for Secure America Now—feeling uneasy. “It was designed to strike fear in people’s hearts,” said one former Harris employee who requested anonymity. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Twitter was warned repeatedly about this fake account run by a Russian troll farm and refused to take it down

BuzzFeed reports: Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state’s real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake.

The account, @TEN_GOP, was enormously popular, amassing at least 136,000 followers between its creation in November 2015 and when Twitter shut it down in August, according to a snapshot of the account captured by the Internet Archive just before the account was “permanently suspended.”

Some of its tweets were deliberately outrageous, the archive shows, such as one in December 2016 that claimed that unarmed black men killed by police officers deserved their fate. It also trafficked in deliberate fake news, claiming just before it was shut down that a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship parade was actually a crowd waiting to hear Donald Trump speak.

Twitter, already under fire, along with Facebook, for being slow to recognize its role in Russian election meddling, declined to comment. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company does not comment on individual accounts.

@TEN_GOP gained enough support from the far right that when it was finally shut down, commentators like Reddit’s pro-Trump r/the_donald forum expressed outrage. Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump internet activist who himself has more than 213,000 Twitter followers, questioned the action when Twitter temporarily suspended the account in July. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russian troll factory paid U.S. activists to help fund protests during election

The Guardian reports: Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues, according to a new investigation by a respected Russian media outlet.

On Tuesday, the newspaper RBC published a major investigation into the work of a so-called Russian “troll factory” since 2015, including during the period of the US election campaign, disclosures that are likely to put further spotlight on alleged Russian meddling in the election.

The existence of the troll factory, which has a history of spamming Russian and English blogs and comment forums, has been reported on by many outlets including the Guardian, but the RBC investigation is the first in-detail look at the organisation’s activity during the election period.

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Many of the accounts had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in western outlets, but RBC said its sources at the troll factory had provided screenshots of the internal group administration pages of some of the groups, as proof they were run from Russia. It also spoke to former and current employees of the troll factory, all of whom spoke anonymously.

Perhaps the most alarming element of the article was the claim that employees of the troll factory had contacted about 100 real US-based activists to help with the organisation of protests and events. RBC claimed the activists were contacted by Facebook group administrators hiding their Russian origin and were offered financial help to pay for transport or printing costs. About $80,000 was spent during a two-year period, according to the report.

The main topics covered by the groups run from Russia were race relations, Texan independence and gun rights. RBC counted 16 groups relating to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues that had a total of 1.2 million subscribers. The biggest group was entitled Blacktivist and reportedly had more than 350,000 likes at its peak. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Putin’s ‘chef,’ the man behind the troll factory

CNN reports: Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch dubbed “chef” to President Vladimir Putin by the Russian press. In 2002, he served caviar and truffles to President George W. Bush during a summit in St. Petersburg. Before that, he renovated a boat that became the city’s most exclusive restaurant.

But his business empire has expanded far beyond the kitchen. US investigators believe it was Prigozhin’s company that financed a Russian “troll factory” that used social media to spread fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign, according to multiple officials briefed on the investigation. One part of the factory had a particularly intriguing name and mission: a “Department of Provocations” dedicated to sowing fake news and social divisions in the West, according to internal company documents obtained by CNN.

Prigozhin is one of the Kremlin’s inner circle. His company is believed to be a main backer of the St. Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), a secretive technology firm, according to US officials and the documents reviewed by CNN. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in December of 2016 for providing financial support for Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine. Two of his companies, including his catering business, were also sanctioned by Treasury this year. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Interview with a former troll at Russia’s Internet Research Agency

Meduza reports: One of the many remarkable things about 2017 is that American journalists no longer have the Irish Republican Army in mind when writing “IRA,” which is now used most often to mean Russia’s Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” responsible for buying ads on social media and polluting American online news discussion in an apparent effort to destabilize U.S. democracy. On October 15, the Russian independent news network Dozhd published the latest development in this ongoing story: an interview with a man who allegedly worked for the IRA from 2014-2015. Meduza summarizes that interview here.

*

Dozhd calls him “Maxim,” but that’s not his real name. The TV network says Max’s employment records confirm that he spent 18 months at 55 Savushkina in St. Petersburg, working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia’s infamous “troll factory.” He quit in early 2015, before Donald Trump even announced his presidential candidacy, but not too soon to get a taste of the “factory’s” war on Hillary Clinton.

According to Max, the IRA’s “foreign desk” had open orders to “influence opinions” and change the direction of online discussions. He says this department within the agency considered itself above the “Russian desk,” which he claims is generally “bots and trolls.” The foreign desk was supposedly more sophisticated. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” Max told Dozhd. People in his department, he says, were even trained and educated to know the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more.

Max says that IRA staff were tasked with monitoring tens of thousands of comments on major U.S. media outlets, in order to grasp the general trends of American Internet users. Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to “rock the boat.”

According to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin. One thing the staff learned quickly was that Americans don’t normally talk about Russia: “They don’t really care about it,” Max told Dozhd. “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he claims. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

The trolls at the IRA were also careful about covering their tracks. Max says anyone working in the foreign desk was required to post comments using a VPN, to disguise their Russian origins. He says an employee once shared a photograph taken at the IRA’s office, which was especially forbidden, because photos can contain revealing metadata. This incident also revealed that the IRA employed staff to spy on its own trolls, Max says.

Even two years before Americans actually voted on their next president, St. Petersburg trolls were told to attack Hillary Clinton, reminding Internet users about her wealth, her husband’s legacy, and her various corruption scandals. The IRA even encouraged employees to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards,” supposedly as an education in U.S. politics. Staff would also monitor each other’s use of English, nitpicking over grammar and punctuation, in order to weed out ESL formulations. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russian trolls were schooled on ‘House of Cards’

Michael Isikoff reports: The Russians who worked for a notorious St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election were required to watch the “House of Cards” television series to help them craft messages to “set up the Americans against their own government,” according to an interview broadcast Sunday (in Russian) with a former member of the troll factory’s elite English language department.

The interview, broadcast by the independent Russian TV station Rain, provides new insight into how the troll factory formerly known as the Internet Research Agency targeted U.S. audiences in part by posting provocative “comments” pretending to be from Americans on newspaper articles that appeared on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.

A central theme of this messaging was demonizing Hillary Clinton by playing up the past scandals of her husband’s administration, her wealth and her use of a private email server, according to the interview with the agency worker, identified only as “Maksim,” with his face concealed. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Manafort had $60 million relationship with a Russian oligarch

NBC News reports: Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for President Donald Trump, has much stronger financial ties to a Russian oligarch than have been previously reported.

An NBC News investigation reveals that $26 million changed hands in the form of a loan between a company linked to Manafort and the oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin.

The loan brings the total of their known business dealings to around $60 million over the past decade, according to financial documents filed in Cyprus and the Cayman Islands. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

What Facebook did to American democracy

Alexis Madrigal writes: In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.

Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.

Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.

But no one delivered the synthesis that could have tied together all these disparate threads. It’s not that this hypothetical perfect story would have changed the outcome of the election. The real problem—for all political stripes—is understanding the set of conditions that led to Trump’s victory. The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded, and no one has explained precisely how. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes

Politico reports: Twitter has deleted tweets and other user data of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing Russia’s suspected manipulation of the social media platform during the 2016 election, according to current and former government cybersecurity officials.

Federal investigators now believe Twitter was one of Russia’s most potent weapons in its efforts to promote Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, the officials say, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

By creating and deploying armies of automated bots, fake users, catchy hashtags and bogus ad campaigns, unidentified operatives launched recurring waves of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton story lines via Twitter that were either false or greatly exaggerated, the officials said. Many U.S. investigators believe that their best hope for identifying who was behind these operations, how they collaborated with one anotherand their suspected links to the Kremlin lies buried within the mountains of data accumulated in recent years by Twitter.

By analyzing Twitter data over time, investigators could establish what one U.S. government cybersecurity consultant described as “pattern of life behavior,” determining when Russian influence operations began, and how they “were trying to nudge the narrative in a certain direction.”

“So if you have access to all this, you can basically see when botnets appeared and disappeared, and how they shaped narrative around certain events,” said the analyst, who could not speak for attribution given company policy.

But a substantial amount of valuable information held by Twitter is lost for good, according to the cybersecurity analysts and other current and former U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia probe now investigating Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s ‘psychographic’ data gurus

The Daily Beast reports: A data firm backed by some of Donald Trump’s closest allies is now facing scrutiny as part of an investigation into possible collusion between the president’s team and Russian operatives, The Daily Beast has learned.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) is looking at Cambridge Analytica’s work for President Donald Trump’s campaign as part of its investigation into Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 race, according to sources familiar with the probe.

The company is in the process of turning over documents to HPSCI, according to a source familiar with the committee’s work. Another source close to the investigation said that the probe’s focus on Cambridge Analytica is “fruitful.”

Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, had holdings in Cambridge Analytica worth between $1 million and $5 million as recently as April of this year, Bloomberg reported. Bannon, now back as the chairman of the pro-Trump media outlet Breitbart, hasn’t been publicly mentioned as a potential witness for or target of Russia investigators. He previously sat on the board of Cambridge Analytica. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Carter Page says he won’t testify before Senate Intelligence panel in Russia probe

Politico reports: Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, informed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he will not be cooperating with any requests to appear before the panel for its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and would plead the Fifth, according to a source familiar with the matter.

A former naval-officer-turned-energy consultant, Page came under fire last year after reports emerged that he had met with high-level associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2016. While Page denied those meetings occurred, the Trump campaign distanced itself from the adviser not long after, with former officials saying that Page and Trump had never met.

Page also attracted attention earlier this year after it was revealed that he once came under scrutiny by the FBI for his contact with a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. Page was never charged with a crime, and the association happened years before he came into Trump’s orbit. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Russia harvested and amplified American rage to reshape U.S. politics

The New York Times reports: YouTube videos of police beatings on American streets. A widely circulated internet hoax about Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives. A local news story about two veterans brutally mugged on a freezing winter night.

All of these were recorded, posted or written by Americans. Yet all ended up becoming grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that has carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin, and which is now believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election.

A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.

The Russian pages — with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders” and “Blacktivist” — cribbed complaints about federal agents from one conservative website, and a gauzy article about a veteran who became an entrepreneur from People magazine. They took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them, sometimes lightly edited for maximum effect.

Other posts on the Russian pages used stilted language or phrases rarely found in American English. Yet their use of borrowed ideas and arguments from Americans, which were already resonating among conservatives and liberals, demonstrated a deft understanding of the political terrain. The Russians also paid Facebook to promote their posts in the feeds of American Facebook users, helping them test what content would circulate most widely, and among which audiences.

“This is cultural hacking,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage — and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.” [Continue reading…]

One of the biggest problems in shining light on Russia’s massive interference campaign is the same one that’s presented by all other forms of fraud: the victims are reluctant to acknowledge that they got duped, because this is humiliating — very few people have the humility to own their capacity to be fooled.

Moreover, one of the engines driving political social media is the fact that alternative news sources cater to an audience that sees itself as smart enough not to be deceived by the mainstream media. So, when the mainstream media now says, you guys got duped, the reflexive response from many will be, that’s what the mainstream media wants everyone to believe.

In this way, social media has become the perfect delivery system for disinformation. To a significant degree it is inoculated from the impact of being called out.

Facebooktwittermail

Stephen Miller’s ascent powered by his fluency in the politics of grievance

The New York Times reports: Stephen Miller had their attention. That was reason enough to keep going.

Standing behind the microphone before a hostile amphitheater crowd, Mr. Miller — then a 16-year-old candidate for a student government post, now a 32-year-old senior policy adviser to President Trump — steered quickly into an unlikely campaign plank: ensuring that the janitorial staff was really earning its money.

“Am I the only one,” he asked, “who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?”

It appeared he was. Boos consumed the grounds of the left-leaning Santa Monica High School campus. Mr. Miller was forcibly escorted from the lectern, shouting inaudibly as he was tugged away.

But offstage, any anger seemed to fade instantly. Students were uncertain whether Mr. Miller had even meant the remarks sincerely. Those who encountered him afterward recalled a tranquillity, and a smile. If he had just lost the election — and he had, the math soon confirmed — he did not seem to feel like it.

“He just seemed really happy,” said Charles Gould, a classmate and friend at the time, “as if that’s how he planned it.”

In the years since, Mr. Miller has rocketed to the upper reaches of White House influence along a distinctly Trumpian arc — powered by a hyper-fluency in the politics of grievance, a gift for nationalist button-pushing after years on the Republican fringe and a long history of being underestimated by liberal forces who dismissed him as a sideshow since his youth.

Across his sun-kissed former home, the so-called People’s Republic of Santa Monica, they have come to regret this initial assessment. To the consternation of many former classmates and a bipartisan coalition of Washington lawmakers, Mr. Miller has become one of the nation’s most powerful shapers of domestic and even foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail