‘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 ‘stoking refugee unrest in Germany to topple Angela Merkel’

The Observer reports: Russia is trying to topple Angela Merkel by waging an information war designed to stir up anger in Germany over refugees, Nato’s most senior expert on strategic communications has claimed.

The attempt to provoke the removal of the German leader, who has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime, is said to have been identified by Nato analysts.

Jānis Sārts, director of Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia, told the Observer that Russia had a track record of funding extremist forces in Europe, and that he believed there was now evidence of Russia agitating in Germany against Merkel. [Continue reading…]

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The Russian ‘Global Laundromat’ laundering operation exposed

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reports: Three years after the “Laundromat” was exposed as a criminal financial vehicle to move vast sums of money out of Russia, journalists now know how the complex scheme worked – including who ended up with the $20.8 billion and how, despite warnings, banks failed for years to shut it down.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) broke the story of the Laundromat in 2014, but recently the reporters from OCCRP and Novaya Gazeta in Moscow obtained a wealth of bank records which they then opened to investigative reporters in 32 countries.

Their combined research for the first time paints a fuller picture of how billions moved from Russia, into and through the 112 bank accounts that comprised the system in eastern Europe, then into banks around the world. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Britain’s high street banks processed nearly $740m from a vast money-laundering operation run by Russian criminals with links to the Russian government and the KGB, the Guardian can reveal.

HSBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Barclays and Coutts are among 17 banks based in the UK, or with branches here, that are facing questions over what they knew about the international scheme and why they did not turn away suspicious money transfers.

Documents seen by the Guardian show that at least $20bn appears to have been moved out of Russia during a four-year period between 2010 and 2014. The true figure could be $80bn, detectives believe.

One senior figure involved in the inquiry said the money from Russia was “obviously either stolen or with criminal origin”.

Investigators are still trying to identify some of the wealthy and politically influential Russians behind the operation, known as “the Global Laundromat”.

They estimate a group of about 500 people were involved. These include oligarchs, Moscow bankers, and figures working for or connected to the FSB, the successor spy agency to the KGB.

Igor Putin, the cousin of Russia’s president, Vladimir, sat on the board of a Moscow bank which held accounts involved in the fraud. [Continue reading…]

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How chlorine gas became a weapon in Syria’s civil war

Dorian Geiger writes: Following the 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors being removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later, but most notably in the form of chlorine, which has emerged as the most heavily used chemical weapon in the war.

“We saw chlorine appearing as a weapon in Syria for the first time in 2014,” said Ole Solvang, the deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch.

“The challenge is there are so many horrific things going on in Syria, that this one issue tends to perhaps be overshadowed sometimes by other attacks that are going on.”

In February, Human Rights Watch and Solvang authored a report documenting at least eight instances of chlorine use by the Syrian regime in the battle for Aleppo between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The human rights watchdog verified the attacks through video footage analysis, phone, and in-person interviews, as well as by social media.

The report indicated that the chlorine attacks killed at least nine people, including four children, and injured around 200 people. The attacks, according to the report, constituted war crimes.

“This is, of course, horrific because it is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria is a part of,” Solvang explained. “It’s horrific for the victims, but also because it really undermines one of the strongest bans on any weapon in international humanitarian law and what we’re really concerned about is that the government’s continued use of chemical attacks will undermine this ban and lower the threshold for other countries to also use it [chlorine].”

The Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1993, constitute the world’s first internationally binding chemical weapon laws. They are enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a United Nations-backed agency.

Following the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people – more than 400 of them children – according a United Nations Security Council report, Syria joined the convention as part of an international agreement – and to subdue the Obama administration’s threats of military action. It was the 190th country to sign on.

So to what role has chlorine played in Syria’s complex and long civil war? And what has been the human toll?

Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured. However, Solvang acknowledged that this is likely a grave underestimate.

“It’s a terrifying weapon to most people,” Solvang said.

Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death.

Chlorine’s effects are also largely psychological: the chemical triggers fear, shock, and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don’t. In the case of Aleppo, Solvang suspects the regime strategically used chlorine to force a mass exodus of the city. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea rocket engine test: What did we learn?

CNN reports: North Korea’s test of a rocket engine Sunday showed “meaningful” signs of progress, according to South Korean officials.

“Through this test, it is assessed that (North Korea) has made meaningful progress in engine performance, but further analysis is needed for exact thrust and its possible uses in future,” said South Korean Defense Ministry deputy spokesman Lee Jin-woo.

He said the equipment tested “appears to have one main engine with four auxiliary engines connected to it. We believe this was an attempt to develop a new engine.”

Pyongyang, for its part, touted the test as a “great leap forward” in its rocket program.

Many analysts linked the timing of the test to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to north Asia, which ended in Beijing Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Ivanka Trump set to get West Wing office as role expands

Politico reports: Ivanka Trump, who moved to Washington, D.C., saying she would play no formal role in her father’s administration, is now officially setting up shop in the White House.

The powerful first daughter has secured her own office on the West Wing’s second floor — a space next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who was recently promoted to a position on the National Security Council. She is also in the process of obtaining a security clearance, and is set to receive government-issued communications devices this week.

In everything but name, the first daughter is settling in as what appears to be a full-time staffer in her father’s administration, with a broad and growing portfolio — except she is not being sworn in, will hold no official position, and is not pocketing a salary, her attorney said.

Ivanka Trump’s role, according to her attorney Jamie Gorelick, will be to serve as the president’s “eyes and ears” while providing broad-ranging advice, not just limited to women’s empowerment issues. Last week, for instance, Ivanka Trump raised eyebrows when she was seated next to Angela Merkel for the German chancellor’s first official visit to Trump’s White House. [Continue reading…]

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Tracking the special treatment media get when they play nice with the White House

Margaret Sullivan writes: Some people regard Tomi Lahren as a racist.

The social-media star’s past commentary on the conservative website the Blaze, including her disparagement of the Black Lives Matter movement, caused her to be booed when she appeared last year on Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show.”

Noah acknowledged that — even as he urged his progressive audience to be polite to his guest: “Imagine you’re at Thanksgiving again and your racist uncle walked in.”

But President Trump seems to like her style. He was so taken with Lahren’s recent appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that he rang her up.

“He called and said, ‘Thank you for your fair coverage of me,’ ” Lahren told Washingtonian magazine, which reported that the president had watched the show live as the 24-year-old waxed enthusiastic about why so many Americans had flocked to Trump: ‘They said: ‘Guess what? This man is doing something amazing.’ ”

Lahren also told Washingtonian that in the 10- or 15-minute conversation with the president, he “was asking about me personally,” but she gave no details about his questions. [Continue reading…]

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Being Indian in Trump’s America

Amitava Kumar writes: On a September evening in 1987, Navroze Mody, a thirty-year-old Indian man living in Jersey City, went for drinks at the Gold Coast Café, in Hoboken. Later that night, after he left the bar, he was accosted on the street by a group of about a dozen youths and severely beaten. Mody died from his injuries four days later. There had been other attacks on Indians in the area at that time, several of them brutal, many of them carried out by a group that called itself the Dotbusters—the name a reference to the bindi worn by Hindu women on their foreheads. Earlier that year, a local newspaper had published a handwritten letter from the Dotbusters: “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her.”

When I first read about the attack on Mody, I had only recently arrived in the United States. I was a young graduate student at Syracuse University then, and although the news alarmed me I wasn’t fearful. In those days, distances felt real: an event unfolding in a city more than two hundred miles away seemed remote, even in the imagination. I might have worried for my mother and sisters, who wore bindis, but they were safe, in India. Whatever was happening in Jersey City, in other words, couldn’t affect the sense that I and my expat friends had of our role in this country. The desire for advancement often breeds an apolitical attitude among immigrants, a desire not to rock the boat, to be allowed to pass unnoticed. Since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the racist quotas of the nineteen-twenties, our compatriots had been bringing their professional skills to America. If we didn’t hope to be welcomed, we at least expected to be benignly ignored.

A lot has happened in the long interregnum. Indian-Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group in the United States. There is a greater visibility now of Indians on American streets, and also of Indian food and culture. I’ve seen the elephant-headed deity Ganesha displayed all over America, in art museums, restaurants, yoga centers, and shops, on T-shirts and tote bags. The bindi isn’t the bull’s-eye it once was. But the bigotry, as we have witnessed in 2017, has not gone away. [Continue reading…]

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Boston public schools map switch aims to amend 500 years of distortion

The Guardian reports: When Boston public schools introduced a new standard map of the world this week, some young students’ felt their jaws drop. In an instant, their view of the world had changed.

The USA was small. Europe too had suddenly shrunk. Africa and South America appeared narrower but also much larger than usual. And what had happened to Alaska?

In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, city authorities are confident their new map offers something closer to the geographical truth than that of traditional school maps, and hope it can serve an example to schools across the nation and even the world.

For almost 500 years, the Mercator projection has been the norm for maps of the world, ubiquitous in atlases, pinned on peeling school walls.

Gerardus Mercator, a renowned Flemish cartographer, devised his map in 1569, principally to aid navigation along colonial trade routes by drawing straight lines across the oceans. An exaggeration of the whole northern hemisphere, his depiction made North America and Europe bigger than South America and Africa. He also placed western Europe in the middle of his map.

Mercator’s distortions affect continents as well as nations. For example, South America is made to look about the same size as Europe, when in fact it is almost twice as large, and Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller. Alaska looks bigger than Mexico and Germany is in the middle of the picture, not to the north – because Mercator moved the equator.

Three days ago, Boston’s public schools began phasing in the lesser-known Peters projection, which cuts the US, Britain and the rest of Europe down to size. Teachers put contrasting maps of the world side by side and let the students study them. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Sona Jobarteh — ‘Mani Ni Cé’

 

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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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Once in the shadows, Europe’s neo-fascists are re-emerging

The New York Times reports: Head bowed in reverence, Robert Svec gently placed a bouquet of blood-red flowers at the foot of the only known statue of Jozef Tiso, Slovakia’s wartime fascist leader, in a weedy monument park known as the Pantheon of Slovak Historical Figures.

For years, Mr. Svec’s neo-fascist cultural organization, the Slovak Revival Movement, was a tiny fringe group. But now his crowds are growing, as 200 people recently gathered with him to celebrate the country’s fascist past and call fascist-era greetings — “Na Straz!” or “On the guard!” Mr. Svec is so emboldened that he is transforming his movement into a political party, with plans to run for Parliament.

“You are ours, and we will forever be yours,” Mr. Svec said at the foot of the statue, having declared this as the Year of Jozef Tiso, dedicated to rehabilitating the image of the former priest and Nazi collaborator, who was hanged as a war criminal in 1947.

Once in the shadows, Europe’s neo-fascists are stepping back out, more than three-quarters of a century after Nazi boots stormed through Central Europe, and two decades since a neo-Nazi resurgence of skinheads and white supremacists unsettled the transition to democracy. In Slovakia, neo-fascists are winning regional offices and taking seats in the multiparty Parliament they hope to replace with strongman rule. [Continue reading…]

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Struggle to define an ‘America First’ foreign policy divides White House

The Washington Post reports: Before President Trump delivered his first major address to Congress, he sat down with H.R. McMaster, his new national security adviser, who had sketched out proposed changes to the address on index cards.

McMaster pressed the president to describe the battle against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda as a global and generational war that the United States would fight in partnership with its Muslim allies, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. And he urged Trump to strike the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” from his remarks.

None of McMaster’s proposed changes made the cut. [Continue reading…]

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Why Raqqa won’t be the end of the road for ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: To understand American policy short-sightedness in the region, look no further than northern Syria today. One can predict with utmost confidence that the policy that Washington insists on pursuing in Raqqa will do two things. It will heat up a secondary conflict in the broader Syrian civil war to a boiling point, and it will reset the conditions for the return of extremist forces.

A common way to deflect the troubling issues with the policy is to make it principally about Turkey. The overarching concern, though, is how a YPG-led campaign to dislodge ISIL from Raqqa will be perceived locally and beyond, and what the YPG seeks to gain from fighting in a predominantly Arab city that ISIL took from the Syrian rebels after the latter expelled the regime from it in 2013.

A YPG commander, Sipan Hemo, told Reuters on Friday that the attack on Raqqa will begin in early April. Everyone should wish the anti-ISIL forces luck, but it should be made clear that the United States is operating below the credit line politically. By that, I mean two things.

First, the win against ISIL would be purely tactical: the removal of ISIL militants from Raqqa will not damage the group’s image, as it should ideally have been designed to do. If policymakers involved in the campaign think the demise of the group in Raqqa in this manner will undermine its narrative, they will be mistaken and out of touch with reality. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian UN envoy: Putin sent message to Israel that its freedom to act in Syria is over

Haaretz reports: Russia has sent a clear message to Israel that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies is over, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday night.

“Putin sent a clear message,” said Bashar Jaafari, speaking on Syrian television. “The fact is that the Israeli ambassador [to Russia] was summoned for a conversation only a day after he submitted his credentials [to the Russian Foreign Ministry last Thursday], and was told categorically that this game is over.”

Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel last Thursday night has changed the rules of the game, too, Jaafari said, adding that Syria will not stand idly by in the face of an Israeli threat.

He also claimed that when the civil war began in Syria in 2011, opposition militia groups sabotaged the anti-aircraft defense systems belonging to President Bashar Assad’s regime, giving Israel freedom to operate.

In a separate incident, Syrian media reported Sunday that the commander of a militia fighting alongside the regime was killed in an Israeli airstrike around Quneitra, in the Golan Heights.

The Lebanese TV channel Al Mayadeen, which is associated with Hezbollah, identified the casualty as Yasser Assayed, a member of the national defense militia. A source associated with the Assad regime said Assayad was a commander in the Golan brigade, a militia of Druze fighters (from villages in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights) who are fighting with the regime.

Between Thursday night and Friday morning, Israeli fighter jets attacked several targets in Syria, triggering the most serious clash between Israel and Syria since the civil war erupted six years ago. In response to the airstrikes, the Assad regime’s aerial defense system fired several missiles at the jets. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system was launched, shooting down one of the missiles north of Jerusalem. The incident forced Israel to admit for the first time that it had launched an aerial attack in Syria.

Following that, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow, Gary Koren, was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for talks with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov – again, an unusual development. Since Russian forces began operating in Syria in 2015, there have been a number of airstrikes that foreign media have attributed to Israel. But the Israeli ambassador had never previously been called in to clarify Israel’s actions. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Fierce clashes broke out in the Syrian capital on Sunday after insurgents infiltrated government-held parts of the city through tunnels overnight in a rare advance after months of steady losses elsewhere in the country.

It was a surprising breach of the security perimeter in Damascus, where the government has effectively walled itself off from opposition forces encamped in two enclaves in the eastern parts of the city.

Bashar al-Assad’s government has endeavoured to maintain a veneer of normality in the capital as his forces bomb opposition areas on the edges and suburbs of the city.

Residents said artillery shells and rockets had landed in the heart of the city. Damascus Today, a Facebook group run by activists, reported government airstrikes in the area where the clashes took place.

Government infantry and tank reinforcements arrived to repel the attackers in the afternoon, the group said. [Continue reading…]

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The Trump administration has become a leading purveyor of the Kremlin’s fake news

John R. Schindler writes: The threat to the West posed by Kremlin lies—what is properly termed disinformation—is something that I and a few other specialists have raised the alarm over for years. After 2016, when Moscow weaponized disinformation to influence our presidential election, this problem is finally getting the public attention it merits, not least because identical Russian espionage techniques are currently aimed at France and Germany, which have their own elections coming up.

The previous administration ignored this rising problem, shuttering a tiny State Department effort to counter Russian propaganda only months before the Kremlin lie machine went into overdrive against President Obama’s own party. As I’ve pointed out, Obama and his White House bear part of the blame for the Russian havoc wrought last year on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, thanks to their abject unwillingness to confront Vladimir Putin. By refusing to seriously confront Kremlin disinformation and deception, President Obama got more of both.

Now this problem, which shows no signs of going away, has become even more dangerous, since the new administration has taken to parroting Russian disinformation when it suits their political needs. A propaganda loop has emerged with Kremlin lies emerging on Putin regime outlets like RT and Sputnik, then being pushed by far-right conspiracy websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars, and finally winding up on Fox News where they receive a mass audience. [Continue reading…]

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