North Korea said to be target of inquiry over $81 million cyberheist

The New York Times reports: Federal prosecutors are investigating North Korea’s possible role in the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh in what security officials fear could be a new front in cyberwarfare.

The United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles has been examining the extent to which the North Korea government aided and abetted the bold heist in February 2016, according to a person briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In the theft, the attackers, using a global payment messaging system known as Swift, were able to persuade the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to move money from the Bangladesh bank to accounts in the Philippines. The Swift system is used by some 11,000 banks and companies to transfer money from one country to another.

In the months that followed the Bangladesh heist, it was disclosed that cyberthieves had also attacked banks in Vietnam and Ecuador using Swift. [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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Schiff: Trump-Russia evidence ‘more than circumstantial’

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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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Bravery and simple humanity have shown Westminster at its best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spicer denies Trump knew about Manafort’s Russian sugar daddy

The Daily Beast reports: The White House on Wednesday insisted that the president had no idea his former campaign chairman had worked to advance the interests of the Russian government when he was hired last year.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed “insane” suggestions that Trump might have known about Paul Manafort’s past work for a Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch—noting that his work in Russia was public record.

And it would have been, if Manafort filled out the proper forms. But he didn’t, and he’s now facing allegations of a federal crime as a result.

Spicer’s comments followed an Associated Press report revealing that Manafort worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Under his $10 million annual contract, Manafort pursued policies to “greatly benefit” Putin’s government, according to the AP report.

Spicer insisted that the news has no bearing on an ongoing FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

His comments came a day after he sought to downplay Manafort’s involvement with the 2016 campaign. On Tuesday, Spicer said the former campaign chairman “played a very limited role” on the campaign.

Spicer brushed aside questions on Wednesday about whether Trump should have known about Manafort’s past dealings with an adversarial foreign government, even as he described that work, and Manafort’s representation of other governments, as readily available information. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea has no fear of U.S. sanctions move, will pursue nuclear arms, says envoy

Reuters reports: North Korea has nothing to fear from any U.S. move to broaden sanctions aimed at cutting it off from the global financial system and will pursue “acceleration” of its nuclear and missile programs, a North Korean envoy told Reuters on Tuesday.

This includes developing a “pre-emptive first strike capability” and an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), said Choe Myong Nam, deputy ambassador at the North Korean mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Reuters, quoting a senior U.S. official in Washington, reported on Monday that the Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions as part of a broad review of measures to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.

“I think this is stemming from the visit by the Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) to Japan, South Korea and China…We of course are not afraid of any act like that,” Choe told Reuters.

“Even prohibition of the international transactions system, the global financial system, this kind of thing is part of their system that will not frighten us or make any difference.” [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: A North Korean missile fired Wednesday morning exploded within seconds of launch, the South Korean and American militaries said, a reassuring sign for allies worried about the speed at which the country’s weapons program has been progressing.

The attempted missile launch comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, with the United States and South Korea conducting joint military exercises aimed at countering the North Korean threat and the Trump administration clearly signaling it is prepared to use force to stop the Kim regime. [Continue reading…]

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Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war

Reuters reports: Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement, stepping up support for its Shi’ite ally in a civil war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East, regional and Western sources say.

Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the impoverished state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula – part of the same regional power struggle that is fuelling the war in Syria.

Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, say that in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support. This mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Syria.

A senior Iranian official said Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force – the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – met top IRGC officials in Tehran last month to look at ways to “empower” the Houthis. [Continue reading…]

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Warnings of a ‘powder keg’ in Libya as ISIS regroups

The New York Times reports: After B-2 bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in Libya in January, killing more than 80 militants, American officials privately gloated. On the heels of losing its coastal stronghold in Surt the month before, the Islamic State seemed to be reeling.

But Western and African counterterrorism officials now say that while the twin blows dealt a setback to the terrorist group in Libya — once feared as the Islamic State’s most lethal branch outside Iraq and Syria — its leaders are already regrouping, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum gripping the country.

Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Senate panel this month that after their expulsion from Surt, many militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were moving to southern Libya.

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” General Waldhauser said. “Even with the success of Surt, ISIS-Libya remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.”

Libya remains a violent and divided nation rife with independent militias, flooded with arms and lacking legitimate governance and political unity. Tripoli, the capital, is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups that have built local fiefs and vied for power since Libya’s 2011 uprising. Running gun battles have seized Tripoli in recent days.

“Libya is descending into chaos,” said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue), a senior Chadian officer who directed a major counterterrorism exercise here in the Chadian capital last week involving 2,000 African and Western troops and trainers. “It’s a powder keg.” [Continue reading…]

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Coal in ‘freefall’ as new power plants dive by two-thirds

The Guardian reports: The amount of new coal power being built around the world fell by nearly two-thirds last year, prompting campaigners to claim the polluting fossil fuel was in freefall.

The dramatic decline in new coal-fired units was overwhelmingly due to policy shifts in China and India and subsequent declining investment prospects, according to a report by Greenpeace, the US-based Sierra Club and research network CoalSwarm.

The report said the amount of new capacity starting construction was down 62% in 2016 on the year before, and work was frozen at more than a hundred sites in China and India. In January, China’s energy regulator halted work on a further 100 new coal-fired projects, suggesting the trend was not going away. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort had plan to benefit Putin government

The Associated Press reports: President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.

Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.

“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”

Manafort’s plans were laid out in documents obtained by the AP that included strategy memoranda and records showing international wire transfers for millions of dollars. How much work Manafort performed under the contract was unclear. [Continue reading…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why, then, did he want the gig?

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

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

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

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Trump’s ‘Muslim laptop ban’ makes little sense

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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