Why it’s far worse for Trump to fire Rosenstein than to fire Mueller

Asha Rangappa writes: Although under the Special Counsel regulations Mueller does not have to report to Rosenstein day to day, he does need to check in with the DAG three months before the end of the fiscal year with a status report on the progress of the investigation, and Rosenstein has the power to “determine whether the investigation should continue.” Separately, Rosenstein has the power to require Mueller to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and can prevent Mueller from pursuing any action if, in his view, he believes that it is “inappropriate or unwarranted” under departmental practices. If he does so, he must report this decision to both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. The fact that, six months into Mueller’s appointment, no such report has been made and Mueller continues to take significant investigative and prosecutorial steps (including, most recently, obtaining tens of thousands of transition team emails from the General Services Administration) suggests that Rosenstein is on board with the breadth, scope, and direction in which Mueller is taking the investigation.

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions on the investigation. The new DAG could burden the Special Counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes, and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, since Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate—er, trump card: she could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Of course, any attempt to override a decision by Mueller would need to be reported and justified to Congress. However, given the increased clamor of some GOP members and right-leaning media outlets against the Mueller investigation, a DAG’s rationale for pushing back on Mueller’s investigation would find a receptive audience in some circles, including on the Hill. The situation is delicate, and a DAG has a powerful platform to shift the balance of power against the investigation. Imagine the next DAG simply expressing doubts about Mueller in testifying before the Congress, instead of the level of confidence Rosenstein expressed last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Those are important moments in the life of this investigation, and a DAG not fully committed to the rule of law but to insulating the president and the White House from political and legal accountability could wreak havoc. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump judicial nominee Matthew Petersen pulls out after struggling to answer basic questions

The Washington Post reports: Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.

Petersen, nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the third Trump judicial pick to withdraw in the past week amid criticism from Democrats and others about their qualifications.

White House spokesman Raj Shah confirmed that Trump had accepted Petersen’s withdrawal but declined to comment further.

The video of Petersen that went viral Thursday captured five minutes of pointed questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) at Petersen’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before.

It was posted on Twitter by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wrote that it showed Kennedy asking Peter­sen “basic questions of law & he can’t answer a single one.”

As of Friday, the White House was standing by Petersen, with a spokesman saying that he was qualified and that “the President’s opponents” were “trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How the Pentagon’s cyber offensive against ISIS could shape the future for elite U.S. forces

Dan Lamothe reports: The U.S. military has conducted cyber attacks against the Islamic State for more than a year, and its record of success when those attacks are coordinated with elite Special Operations troops is such that the Pentagon is likely carry out similar operations with greater frequency, according to current and former U.S. defense officials.

The cyber offensive against ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State, was a first and included the creation of a unit named Joint Task Force Ares. It focused on destroying or disrupting computer networks used by the militant group to recruit fighters and communicate inside the organization. Such offensive weapons are more commonly associated with U.S. intelligence agencies, but they were brought into the open in 2016 after then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter pressured U.S. Cyber Command to become more involved in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

The move sparked a debate in the U.S. government over whether American allies would object to the U.S. military’s altering computer networks abroad, The Washington Post reported in May. Some intelligence officials argued that using such weapons in other countries could jeopardize the cooperation of international partners on which U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies depend.

But the cyber attacks were approved and launched anyway, and the campaign recently received the full-throated endorsement of Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Senate Russia investigation now looking into Jill Stein

BuzzFeed reports: The top congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has set its sights on the Green Party and its nominee, Jill Stein.

Dennis Trainor Jr., who worked for the Stein campaign from January to August of 2015, says Stein contacted him on Friday saying the Senate Intelligence Committee had requested that the campaign comply with a document search.

Trainor, who served as the campaign’s communications director and acting manager during that time, told BuzzFeed News that he was informed of the committee’s request because during his time on the campaign, his personal cell phone was “a primary point of contact” for those looking to reach Stein or the campaign. That included producers from RT News, the Russian state-funded media company that booked Stein for several appearances, Trainor said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump silences ‘We The People’ petition site

The Hill reports: The White House says it will take down a website that hosts petitions to the federal government, with a promise to restore it as a new site next year.

The “We The People” website, launched by then-President Obama in 2011, will be taken down on Tuesday at midnight, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Officials told the AP that platform will be replaced with a new website in late January and that all of the existing petitions will be restored at that time.

The Trump administration has yet to respond to any petitions that have exceeded 100,000 signatures, which necessitate a response from the federal government. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Hunger in North Korea is devastating. And it’s our fault

Kee B. Park writes: One cool morning last April in Pyongyang, North Korea, I watched a woman squat over a patch of grass along the Daedong River. A large handkerchief covering her head was knotted below her chin, encircling her sunburned and wrinkled face. As a van passed by blaring patriotic hymns from the oversize speakers on its roof, she weeded the riverbank. In North Korea, keeping the neighborhood clean is a civic duty. But she was far from any neighborhood. She was gathering the weeds for food.

On Nov. 13, a North Korean soldier in his 20s was shot multiple times as he ran across the demilitarized zone into South Korea. His surgeons reported finding dozens of parasitic intestinal worms inside his abdominal cavity, some as long as 11 inches, suggesting severe malnutrition.

As these stories show — and as I have seen during my 16 visits to North Korea in the past decade — hunger remains a way of life there. Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.

The hunger is devastating. And it’s our fault. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

It’s official: North Korea is behind WannaCry

Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s Homeland Security Advisor, writes: Cybersecurity isn’t easy, but simple principles still apply. Accountability is one, cooperation another. They are the cornerstones of security and resilience in any society. In furtherance of both, and after careful investigation, the U.S. today publicly attributes the massive “WannaCry” cyberattack to North Korea.

The attack spread indiscriminately across the world in May. It encrypted and rendered useless hundreds of thousands of computers in hospitals, schools, businesses and homes. While victims received ransom demands, paying did not unlock their computers. It was cowardly, costly and careless. The attack was widespread and cost billions, and North Korea is directly responsible.

We do not make this allegation lightly. It is based on evidence. We are not alone with our findings, either. Other governments and private companies agree. The United Kingdom attributes the attack to North Korea, and Microsoft traced the attack to cyber affiliates of the North Korean government. [Continue reading…]

Last May, Quinn Norton wrote: The story of WannaCry (also called Wcry and WannaCrypt) begins somewhere before 2013, in the hallways of the National Security Agency, but we can only be sure of a few details from that era. The NSA found or purchased the knowledge of a flaw of MicroSoft’s SMB V.1 code, an old bit of network software that lets people share files and resources, like printers. While SMB V.1 has long been superseded by better and safer software, it is still widely used by organizations that can’t, or simply don’t, install the newer software.

The flaw, or bug, is what what people call a vulnerability, but on its own it’s not particularly interesting. Based on this vulnerability, though, the NSA wrote another program—called an exploit—which let them take advantage of the flaw anywhere it existed. The program the NSA wrote was called ETERNALBLUE, and what they used it to do was remarkable.

The NSA gave themselves secret and powerful access to a European banking transaction system called SWIFT, and, in particular, SWIFT’s Middle Eastern transactions, as a subsequent data-dump by a mysterious hacker group demonstrated. Most people know SWIFT as a payment system, part of how they use credit cards and move money. But its anatomy, the guts of the thing, is a series of old Windows computers quietly humming along in offices around the world, constantly talking to each other across the internet in the languages computers only speak to computers.

The NSA used ETERNALBLUE to take over these machines. Security analysts, such as Matthieu Suiche, the founder of Comae Technologies, believe the NSA could see, and as far as we know, even change, the financial data that flowed through much of the Middle East—for years. Many people have speculated on why the NSA did this, speculation that has never been confirmed or denied. A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately reply to The Atlantic’s request for an interview.

But the knowledge of a flaw is simply knowledge. The NSA could not know if anyone else had found this vulnerability, or bought it. They couldn’t know if anyone else was using it, unless that someone else was caught using it. This is the nature of all computer flaws.

In 2013 a group the world would know later as The Shadow Brokers somehow obtained not only ETERNALBLUE, but a large collection of NSA programs and documents. The NSA and the United States government hasn’t indicated whether they know how this happened, or if they know who The Shadow Brokers are. The Shadow Brokers communicate publicly using a form of broken English so unlikely that many people assume they are native English speakers attempting to masquerade themselves as non-native—but that remains speculative. Wherever they are from, the trove they stole and eventually posted for all the world to see on the net contained powerful tools, and the knowledge of many flaws in software used around the world. WannaCry is the first known global crisis to come from these NSA tools. Almost without a doubt, it will not be the last.

A few months ago, someone told Microsoft about the vulnerabilities in the NSA tools before The Shadow Brokers released their documents. There is much speculation about who did this, but, as with so many parts of this story, it is still only that—speculation. Microsoft may or may not even know for sure who told them. Regardless, Microsoft got the chance to release a program that fixed the flaw in SMB V.1 before the flaw became public knowledge. But they couldn’t make anyone use their fix, because using any fix—better known as patching or updating—is always at the discretion of the user. They also didn’t release it for very old versions of Windows. Those old versions are so flawed that Microsoft has every reason to hope people stop using them—and not just because it allows the company to profit from new software purchases.

There is another wrinkle in this already convoluted landscape: Microsoft knew SMB V.1, which was decades old, wasn’t very good software. They’d been trying to abandon it for 10 years, and had replaced it with a stronger and more efficient version. But they couldn’t throw out SMB V.1 completely because so many people were using it. After WannaCry had started its run around the world, the head of SMB for Microsoft tweeted this as part of a long and frustrated thread:


The more new and outdated systems connect, the more chance there is to break everything with a single small change.

We live in an interconnected world, and in a strange twist of irony, that interconnectedness can make it difficult to change anything at all. This is why so many systems remain insecure for years: global banking systems, and Spanish telecoms, and German trains, and the National Health Service of the United Kingdom. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

This year the world woke up to the society-shifting power of artificial intelligence

Dave Gershgorn reports: In less than five years, a 2012 academic breakthrough in artificial intelligence evolved into the technology responsible for making healthcare decisions, deciding whether prisoners should go free, and determining what we see on the internet.

Machine learning is beginning to invisibly touch nearly every aspect of our lives; its ability to automate decision making challenges the future roles of experts and unskilled laborers alike. Hospitals might need fewer doctors, thanks to automated treatment planning, and truck drivers might not be required by 2030.

But it’s not just about jobs. Serious questions are starting to be raised about whether the decisions made by AI can be trusted. Research suggests that these algorithms are easily biased by the data from which they learn, meaning societal biases are reinforced and magnified in the code. That could mean certain job applicants get excluded from consideration when AI hiring software is used to scan resumes. Even more, the decision-making process of these algorithms is so complex that AI researchers can’t definitively say why one decision was made over another. And while that may be disconcerting to laymen, there’s an industry debate over how valuable knowing those internal mechanisms really is, meaning research may very well forge ahead with the understanding that we simply don’t need to understand AI.

Until this year, these questions typically came from academics and researchers skeptical of the breakneck pace that Silicon Valley was implementing AI. But 2017 brought new organizations spanning big tech companies, academics, and governments dedicated to understanding the societal impacts of artificial intelligence.

“The reason is simple—AI has moved from research to reality, from the realm of science fiction to the reality of everyday use,” Oren Etzioni, executive director of the Allen Institute for AI, tells Quartz. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Can the International Criminal Court be saved from itself?

Thierry Cruvellier writes: Last month, the International Criminal Court opened two investigations, including a sensitive one in Afghanistan, and a call has been made to allow it to intervene in Myanmar. But such a flurry of announcements mainly testifies to the impasse at which the court finds itself.

On Nov. 20, after 11 desperately long years conducting a “preliminary examination,” Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, formally requested authorization to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan thought to have been committed since 2003, after the United States-led invasion of the country.

It is a contentious move: Afghanistan recognizes the court’s jurisdiction, but the United States does not, and the I.C.C. is expected to investigate acts by American soldiers and C.I.A. personnel, along with some by the Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces.

The court was controversial from the moment it was created in 1998: Major states, including the United States, China and Russia, opposed its foundational treaty, the Rome Statute.

The I.C.C. has since come under repeated attack for being too slow, too accommodating to powerful states, inefficient and sloppy. It has gone after only Africans, indicted at most a few defendants in each of its eight concrete investigations, secured only four convictions and even botched investigations.

In November, the prosecutor also disclosed that she has opened an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi since April 2015 by state agents and the ruling party’s youth wing. Two days after the I.C.C. judges allowed the investigation, Burundi became the first country to formally withdraw from the court. There is meager hope of a significant outcome.

The fact that crimes were committed in Afghanistan is hardly in dispute. The Taliban, the office of the prosecutor wrote, has led “a widespread and systematic campaign of intimidation, targeted killings and abductions of civilians” perceived to oppose them, while the Afghan Army and police showed “systemic patterns of torture and cruel treatment” of war prisoners, including acts of sexual violence. Such acts are also alleged against United States agents and servicemen, principally in the 2003-04 period.

The problem is that none of the targeted authorities is likely to cooperate. The Taliban can’t be bothered with international justice. Despite being an I.C.C. member state, Afghanistan has shown no sign of commitment to a court that has no means to enforce arrest warrants.

The United States will at best ignore the I.C.C. or at worst be actively hostile, as it was during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, when it pressured more than a hundred states, including Afghanistan, to sign bilateral agreements not to surrender Americans to the I.C.C.

The I.C.C. will be able to claim that it no longer targets only Africans, which seems its primary motive to open the investigation now. But it will keep showing its powerlessness. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Music: Snarky Puppy — ‘Shofukan’

 

Facebooktwittermail

Putin thanks Trump for CIA intel that ‘foiled’ a planned ‘terrorist attack’ in Russia

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday phoned President Trump to thank him for a tip from the CIA that thwarted a terrorist attack being planned in St. Petersburg.

The unusual call — countries share intelligence all the time, but presidents rarely publicly thank one another for it — was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Putin told Trump that the information provided by the CIA allowed Russian law enforcement agencies to track down and detain a group of suspects who were planning to bomb the centrally located Kazan Cathedral and other crowded parts of Russia’s second-largest city.

“Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.” [Continue reading…]

I don’t have time to answer this question right now, but I can’t help wondering whether the conspiracy theorists who so often raise the specter of “false flag” operations are doing so right now.

We already know how easily the piggy in the Oval office can be led by the ring in his nose.

We also know Putin wants to presents Russia as an equal to the U.S. rather than an inferior partner.

But the picture being painted here is one in which the CIA supposedly has better intelligence on plots unfolding inside Russia than do Putin’s own security services.

Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps bait was carefully laid for the CIA in order to conjure a useful bit of PR highlighting the cordiality of U.S.-Russian relations during a time when Russia isn’t too busy meddling in U.S. elections.

Update: I guess there are other observers with vastly more knowledge of Russian politics than I have, who are also casting a deeply skeptical eye on this report:

Facebooktwittermail

Trump predicts exoneration in Russia investigation as allies fear a ‘meltdown’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump is privately striking a less agitated tone on the Russia investigation, sources say, even insisting he’ll soon be cleared in writing. But his new approach has some allies worried he’s not taking the threat of the probe seriously enough.

Trump has spent much of his first year in office so enraged by the federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election that lawmakers who work with him tried to avoid the issue entirely and his friends worried that Trump might rashly fire the special counsel. But in recent weeks, Trump has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation, according to multiple sources who have spoken with the President.

There’s no indication from special counsel Robert Mueller or his team that the probe is in its final stages. A tipping point in the showdown could come as soon as this week when Trump’s private lawyers and Mueller meet, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s team is hoping to get a clearer sense of Mueller’s next steps in the investigation, an assessment that could either pacify Trump or inflame him. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Doug Jones doesn’t believe that sexual harassment is a ‘real issue.’ If it concerned enough voters, he argues, Trump wouldn’t be president

BuzzFeed reports: In the wake of Democratic Sen. Al Franken announcing his resignation after being accused of sexual misconduct, several Senate Democrats have called on Trump to step down because of the allegations against him leveled by more than a dozen women.

On Sunday, Jones broke with some of his fellow Democrats, saying he didn’t believe the president should resign and that “we need to move on and not get distracted by those issues.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Alabama senator-elect said, “Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

As Saudi prince cracks down on corruption, he buys himself ‘the world’s most expensive home’

The New York Times reports: When the Chateau Louis XIV sold for over $300 million two years ago, Fortune magazine called it “the world’s most expensive home,” and Town & Country swooned over its gold-leafed fountain, marble statues and hedged labyrinth set in a 57-acre landscaped park. But for all the lavish details, one fact was missing: the identity of the buyer.

Now, it turns out that the paper trail leads to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Saudi throne and the driving force behind a series of bold policies transforming Saudi Arabia and shaking up the Middle East.

The 2015 purchase appears to be one of several extravagant acquisitions — including a $500 million yacht and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting — by a prince who is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the Saudi elite and preaching fiscal austerity at home.

“He has tried to build an image of himself, with a fair amount of success, that he is different, that he’s a reformer, at least a social reformer, and that he’s not corrupt,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and author. “And this is a severe blow to that image.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Venezuela’s children are starving

The New York Times reports: Kenyerber Aquino Merchán was 17 months old when he starved to death.

His father left before dawn to bring him home from the hospital morgue. He carried Kenyerber’s skeletal frame into the kitchen and handed it to a mortuary worker who makes house calls for Venezuelan families with no money for funerals.

Kenyerber’s spine and rib cage protruded as the embalming chemicals were injected. Aunts shooed away curious young cousins, mourners arrived with wildflowers from the hills, and relatives cut out a pair of cardboard wings from one of the empty white ration boxes that families increasingly depend on amid the food shortages and soaring food prices throttling the nation. They gently placed the tiny wings on top of Kenyerber’s coffin to help his soul reach heaven — a tradition when a baby dies in Venezuela.

When Kenyerber’s body was finally ready for viewing, his father, Carlos Aquino, a 37-year-old construction worker, began to weep uncontrollably. “How can this be?” he cried, hugging the coffin and speaking softly, as if to comfort his son in death. “Your papá will never see you again.”

Hunger has stalked Venezuela for years. Now, it is killing the nation’s children at an alarming rate, doctors in the country’s public hospitals say.

Venezuela has been shuddering since its economy began to collapse in 2014. Riots and protests over the lack of affordable food, excruciating long lines for basic provisions, soldiers posted outside bakeries and angry crowds ransacking grocery stores have rattled cities, providing a telling, public display of the depths of the crisis.

But deaths from malnutrition have remained a closely guarded secret by the Venezuelan government. In a five-month investigation by The New York Times, doctors at 21 public hospitals in 17 states across the country said that their emergency rooms were being overwhelmed by children with severe malnutrition — a condition they had rarely encountered before the economic crisis began. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail