US politics in uncharted waters as FBI announces probe into Russian activities

James ComeyMonday’s official announcement that an investigation is underway into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election was an important moment in American political history. It exposed the chaotic state of American politics and added yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come. This is regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if it fails to produce a ‘smoking gun’, the very fact that the country’s chief counterintelligence agency is examining the possibility that a US president was elected with help from Russia, is an astonishing development without parallel in modern American history.

It is important to recognize that the FBI would never have initiated such a controversial and politically charged investigation without having concrete proof of Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. No agency of the US federal government would choose to dedicate enormous resources and personnel, and risk the political fallout that such a probe inevitably entails, without first having amassed indisputable evidence that necessitates it. Moreover, the FBI is not acting alone; its investigation almost certainly encompasses and incorporates similar probes carried out by other American security agencies, and possibly by agencies in allied countries, including the United Kingdom. It follows that the FBI investigation will undoubtedly confirm the existence of a systematic Russian intelligence operation that was aimed at influencing the outcome of last year’s American election.

As the present author has previously stated, it would be “extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election […]. Indeed, the opposite would have been strange”. The central question, of course, is: what types of activities were part of the Kremlin’s covert campaign? Did it mostly involve the methodical production and dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’? Did it involve substantial funding of individual candidates or political parties? Or were there perhaps instances of extortion and blackmail of targeted individuals? These questions must be answered in full, and their inherent complexity explains fully why the FBI Director James Comey would not discuss details of the investigation on Monday.

Crucially, the FBI probe will have to answer conclusively the question of whether members of the administration of US President Donald Trump, or indeed the president himself, were implicated in the Kremlin’s actions. Did the president and his senior campaign team know that the Kremlin was —allegedly—assisting their efforts? If so, how did they know? And if not, did they deliberately ignore concrete warnings pointing to the contrary?

Every American, regardless of political persuasion, who genuinely cares about his or her nation’s political stability, hopes that the FBI probe finds no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. However, there is an important sense in which, no matter the outcome of the investigation, serious damage has already been done. The reputation of American political institutions as a whole has been severely shaken, and mistrust between American civil society and its political institutions continues to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that it will take months for the FBI’s probe to conclude. By then, the current chaotic state of American politics could be the a new permanently reality in Washington, a city that has witnessed much tumult in its history, though perhaps never as perplexing as the current crisis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2017 | Permalink

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Opinion: Trump’s astonishing wiretapping claims deepen volatility of US politics

Trump and ObamaThe absurdity of American politics reached new heights over the weekend, as President Donald Trump dramatically alleged on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his telephones last year. Even for a highly impulsive public figure known for his sensational and often-unsubstantiated allegations, Mr. Trump’s latest claims prompted a new sense of abnormality and astonishment in Washington. If the president is unable to prove his dramatic claims, his reliability will be further-eroded, and what little is left of his relationship with the American intelligence and national-security communities will disintegrate. If his allegations are proven, they will cause a scandal of unprecedented proportions from which American political institutions —including the presidency— will find it difficult to recover.

Mr. Trump appears to claim that Mr. Obama personally instructed the machinery of government to intercept the telecommunications of his campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. But experts —including the present author, whose PhD focuses on government-sponsored wiretapping— correctly note that, barring a complete and systematic breakdown of law and q-quoteorder at the highest levels of the American government, Mr. Trump’s claims cannot possibly be true. American presidents have not been legally allowed to order wiretaps since 1978, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was established. Prompted by the abuse of executive power revealed through the Watergate scandal, FISA forces government agencies to seek the approval of specially mandated judges before installing wiretaps. If an agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to wiretap an individual or group suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power, it must convince one of 11 federal district judges who rotate on the FISA court that the case warrants a wiretap order. Thus, before authorizing the wiretap, a FISA judge must be convinced by examining the available evidence presented before him or her.

Usually FISA counterintelligence cases involve foreign subjects who are suspected of operating in the US as unregistered agents of a foreign power —that is, spies or handlers of spies. However, if the case proposed by the FBI involves the targeting of American citizens’ communications, then the application for a wiretap must be personally reviewed by the US attorney general. Only if the attorney general approves the application does it get sent to a FISA judge. That is precisely why President Trump’s allegation is so explosive: if Mr. Obama personally directed a law enforcement or intelligence agency to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications, it would mean that a US president deliberately violated FISA regulations and kept the Department of Justice in the dark while wiretapping the telecommunications of American citizens. Read more of this post

Some at CIA wonder whether to share sources and methods with Trump

Donald Trump CIAOfficials at the United States Central Intelligence Agency have questioned whether it is safe for them to reveal the sources of their information about Russia to America’s new President, Donald Trump, according to a report. The implication is that some at the CIA are concerned that Trump’s allegedly close ties with Russian officials may put CIA operations officers in danger. The information was shared on Monday by Mary Louise Kelly, national security correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). She told the Washington-based station that relations between the CIA and the new American president remain cool, despite the apparent rapprochement between the two sides last Saturday, when Trump gave a speech at the CIA headquarters.

Kelly cited Steve Hall, a former CIA operations officer who retired from the agency in 2015 after three decades in the National Clandestine Service, which is runs intelligence operations around the world. Hall spent time in Europe, Latin America and Central Eurasia, and some believe he was CIA station chief (America’s senior intelligence representative) in Moscow for a number of years. Hall retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, which consists of the most senior members of the National Clandestine Service. In her report, Kelly identified Hall as the CIA’s former “chief of Russia operations”. She told NPR that Kelly had responded with skepticism to President Trump’s speech at the CIA headquarters last weekend. He wondered, she said, what would happen if the CIA collected “a stellar piece of intelligence that […] puts [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in a bad light?”. Presumably the Agency would have to brief the US leader about the finding. But what if the president inquired about the source? The CIA would have to reveal its methods and sources, because that information cannot be kept from the president. According to Kelly, Hall asked: “How can you say no, we don’t trust you with the sourcing of that information?”. And continued: “[t]hat is a live question today at Langley”, referring to the location of the CIA headquarters in the US state of Virginia.

Last month, Hall wrote a guest column in The Washington Post in which he touched on the importance of sources and methods for the CIA. He wrote that the agency’s collection capabilities “could be rendered useless in one news cycle if disclosure is not handled correctly. [And] if it were human sources that provided the information, they could lose their lives”. Hall went on to argue that, if the CIA revealed its information about Russia’s alleged attempts to influence last November’s US presidential election, additional information would be demanded of it. “Questions like, ‘How exactly did you get that information?’ or ‘Where did that come from?’ and ‘When precisely did you know that?’ will inevitably be asked —and the protection of sources and methods will begin to erode”, wrote the retired CIA operations officer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Why the ‘Trump Dossier’ is no victory for Putin

Putin TrumpThere is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on United States President Donald Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or maintain political relations with Russia. Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for president. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in America’s Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russianq-quote intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists, this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. Clinton’s positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment. Read more of this post

British intelligence ‘among the first’ to notify US about Russian hacking

MI6British intelligence agencies gave their United States counterparts an early warning about Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the American presidential election, according to The New York Times. The American newspaper cited “two people familiar with the conclusions” of a US intelligence report, who said that British spies helped “raise the alarm” in Washington about Russian hacking. The Times were referring to a classified US intelligence report that purports to prove that Moscow tried to skew the US election results in favor of Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. The report, parts of which have been released to the public, was shared with Trump in a secret meeting with US intelligence officials last week.

Interestingly, media reports suggest that US intelligence agencies were not aware of the severity of Russian hacking operations until they were notified by allied intelligence agencies. British spy agencies were “among the first” to tell their transatlantic partners that Moscow was engaged in an allegedly large-scale operation against American political parties and institutions. According to The Times, British intelligence reports mentioned Russian hacking operations against the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, as well as against senior officials in the Democratic Party. There is no mention in the report about how the British acquired the information. The London-based newspaper The Guardian speculates that British intelligence agencies picked up clues by monitoring Russian government communications (voice intercepts and computer traffic). However, the possibility that the information was acquired through an agent should not be ruled out.

According to the British newspaper, government officials in London were “alarmed” by the close contacts between Moscow and the inner circle of Donald Trump’s campaign. They even contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and passed information about what The Guardian describes as “the depth and nature of contacts” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. There is no information, however, about whether the FBI did anything with that information. Meanwhile, the British government is eager to cultivate good relations with the US president-elect, despite concerns in Whitehall about the close Russian connections of the incoming American administration. London needs Washington’s support as it is disengaging from the European Union, says The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 January 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: US expulsion of Russian spies is mostly symbolic, aimed domestically

Russian embassy in WashingtonThere had been rumors for some time about a possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. The White House confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, by announcing the expulsion of 35 accredited Russian diplomats from the US, and the reclamation of two “recreational facilities” used by Russian diplomats in New York and Maryland. Washington said the Russian diplomats are spies operating under diplomatic cover and that the recreational facilities were being “used for Russian intelligence activities”. Although the sanctions may seem significant at first, they are mostly symbolic, and their impact will be temporary and limited. They may even end up hurting the United States more than Russia.

As I told Newsweek‘s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein earlier today, the current size of Russia’s human-intelligence presence in the United States is estimated at more than 100 officers. Therefore, the expulsion of a third of those operatives will set back Russian human-intelligence activities on US soil —but only temporarily, since most of the expelled officers will be replaced in time. Moreover, Moscow will probably respond in kind, so Washington is likely to suffer a proportional reduction of its human-intelligence presence in Russia. That could hurt the US more than Russia, because the American human-intelligence presence in Russia is smaller and more needed in a relatively closed society as Russia’s. Thus, a proportional expulsion of Russian and American spies from each other’s territory may actually harm Washington more than Moscow.

In reality, the expulsions and sanctions pertain more to domestic American politics than foreign policy. They are designed to place the incoming president, Donald Trump, who is seen as a friend of Russia, in a difficult position, by further-complicating Russian-American relations in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s Administration. These measures should arguably have been implemented much earlier this year, and certainly before November 8, when they may have had some impact. At this late stage, they can hardly be taken seriously, given the inconsistency in US national policy toward Russia, as shown in the differing viewpoints of the Obama and Trump teams.

Assuming that Russia was indeed behind a systematic effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, it has already achieved one of its main goals. It was to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole and to divide America by intensifying the already growing mistrust between American —and by extension Western— civil society and its political institutions. Moscow will see the US response, such as it is, as a price worth paying, given the broader accomplishments of its covert operation against US democracy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Russia did meddle in US election, but its goal was not to elect Trump

Trump 2016No person familiar with the theory and practice of intelligence will be shocked by allegations that Russia interfered in the recent American presidential election. On the contrary, the claim will strike experienced observers as a textbook case of covert operation —an intelligence activity designed to influence foreign political, military or economic developments. Far from being physically violent, most covert operations involve actions like secretly funding political parties, planting misinformation or propaganda in foreign media outlets and —in more extreme cases— bribing or extorting key political actors. During the Cold War, hardly a national election took place without attracting the covert attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Soviet equivalent, the KGB. This practice continues today, as nearly every intelligence agency engages in covert operations of some form or other.

It would thus be extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election. To not have done so would mean that the Russian intelligence apparatus failed to abide by its mission statement. Such an eventuality would be unthinkable, especially given the size and importance of the target. It should therefore be presumed that Russian spy agencies, in particular the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, engaged in systematic efforts to meddleq-quote in last month’s US election. Indeed, the opposite would be strange.

The view that Russian spy agencies interfered in the US presidential election does not, for the moment, rely on publicly available evidence. The latter remains absent, though it is worth noting that, according to The Washington Post, US intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” that Russia meddled in the campaign over many months. It is always wise to treat claims in the media by unnamed “US officials” with some skepticism. But if The Post’s allegation is factual, then the words “with high confidence” are significant. The business of intelligence analysis is one of accuracy and precision. The term “high confidence” is rarely employed, and when it is, it typically denotes an almost indisputable degree of confidence in an analytical conclusion.

That the president-elect chose to automatically dismiss The Post’s allegations by describing them as “ridiculous” and denouncing the CIA in its entirety as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” is worrying. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the intelligence profession and its role in executive decision-making. Ideally, the president-elect should have remained silent until he had an opportunity to confer with the CIA and examine the evidence behind the report. Instead, during a Sunday morning interview on Fox News, Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it”. But this has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with facts and data, which he ought to examine before summarily dismissing an entire agency.

What is more, the evidence behind these allegations must be presented to the American people, who were the ultimate targets of the alleged operation. This was not about the two presidential q-quotecandidates. This was about the reputation of the American electoral process. In fact, the primary goal of Russia’s involvement in the US election —which, again, must be presumed— was not to empower a particular candidate, but to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole. Those who claim that the Kremlin tried to promote Trump because the Republican candidate appears to be more favorably disposed toward Russia are wrong. They misunderstand the complex nature of Russian-American relations and underestimate Russian strategy. Moscow understands that its bilateral relationship with Washington rests on a set of longstanding geopolitical variables and does not depend on ephemeral personal relations between individual leaders. Furthermore, the Kremlin views Trump as an inherently unpredictable actor that is not to be trusted. The Russian plan, therefore, was not to help elect Trump. Rather, it was to sow mistrust between American –and by extension Western– civil society and its political institutions. Given the challenges currently being faced by European and American democracy, that is not a far-fetched goal.

The current state of American politics, which is characterized by ugly sectarianism the likes of which have not been witnessed since the Vietnam War, favors Russia’s strategic goals. Many Americans are currently convinced that the president-elect and some of his most senior aides are influenced by Moscow. Instead of actively trying to alleviate these concerns, Trump has now gone on an all-out offensive against the US Intelligence Community while essentially defending Russia. Americans who care about the current state and future of the Republic must be seriously concerned with this picture, regardless of their political affiliation. It may be that the history textbooks of the future will record the Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election as one of the most successful covert operations of modern times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2016 | Permalink