Russia allegedly planning to expel 30 American diplomats in a few weeks

US embassy in MoscowRussia is planning to expel approximately 30 American diplomats from its territory, and seize buildings and property belonging to the United States Department of State, according to Russian media reports. The expulsions will be in response to the expulsion last December of 35 Russian diplomats stationed in the US by the administration of President Barack Obama. In addition to expelling the diplomats, Washington also reclaimed two “recreational facilities” (in reality intelligence outposts) that were used by the Russians in New York and Maryland. The White House said that the expulsions were ordered in response to alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

Observers, including the present author, were confident at the time that the Kremlin would respond in kind. In a surprising move, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not respond to Mr. Obama’s move, in the hope that US-Russian relations would improve with the arrival of the new president in the White House. He added that Russia reserved the right to retaliate at a later time. Moscow’s response was met with praise by the then-president-elect Donald Trump and his transition team.

But Russia’s hopes for warmer relations with the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership do not seem to be materializing. A recent article in the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin thought it was “outrageous” that the Trump White House had not yet returned the two seized compounds to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not rescinded the expulsions of the 35 diplomats and their families. It also claimed that President Putin raised the issue with his US counterpart during their July 7 meeting in the German city of Hamburg. The Moscow-based newspaper quoted unnamed senior Russian officials, who said that Russia was preparing to expel dozens of American diplomats and seize US diplomatic facilities soon.

It appears that Russia will wait until the upcoming meeting between the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which has been scheduled for later this month in St. Petersburg. If no US assurances for the return of the compounds and diplomats are made at that time, Moscow will proceed with its tit-for-tat plan. When asked about Izvestia’s article, the Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, replied that the Kremlin was “weighing specific measures” in response to last December’s expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US. However, Mr. Lavrov said he did not want to elaborate at the present time, while also refusing to deny the newspaper’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

New clues emerge about targeted efforts by Russia to hack US elections

GRUNew information about carefully targeted attempts by Russian operatives to compromise the November 2016 presidential elections in the United States have emerged in a newly published intelligence document. The document, which dates from May of this year, was produced by the US National Security Agency and published on June 5 by The Intercept. The web-based outlet published the leaked document on the same day that Reality Leigh Winner, a US federal contractor with a top-security clearance, was charged with espionage for leaking classified documents to the media. This has led to speculation that Winner may be the source of the leak.

The NSA document details attempts by hackers to compromise the online accounts of over 100 election officials, as well as employees of private contractors involved in administering the election process. The attempts reportedly took place during the period leading up to November 8, 2016. To do that, hackers resorted to a technique commonly known as ‘spear-fishing’. They sent carefully crafted emails, claiming to be from Google, to specifically targeted individuals. The goal was to trick the email recipients into downloading and opening Microsoft Word attachments, which were infected with malware. The infected software would then allow the hackers to remotely access the compromised computers. The NSA document states that at least one targeted person had his or her computer compromised though the ‘spear-fishing’ technique. Importantly, the leaked document appears unequivocal in its assessment that the hackers behind the ‘spear-fishing’ attacks worked for the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian armed forces. The document also states that the main goal of the attacks was to compromise the software used to manage voter registration lists, and that the attackers were operating under a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at US and foreign elections”.

American intelligence officials have previously said that Russian spies launched in a complex and prolonged campaign to undermine public faith in the US electoral process. It is also known that the Russian campaign targeted election officials in the months leading up to the November 2016 elections. But the NSA report is the first publicly available description of some of the specific techniques employed by the alleged Russian hackers as part of their campaign. The leaked document does not provide technical details about the ‘spear-phishing’ campaign. Nor does it discuss whether the attacks were successful, whether vote tallies were actually compromised, or whether the election process itself was sabotaged by the hackers. The Intercept said it contacted the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who refused to publicly comment on the content of the NSA report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 June 2017 | Permalink

FBI acting head says he will report attempts to stop Russia probe

Andrew McCabeThe interim director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has told an intelligence panel in the United States Senate that he will not hesitate to report any attempts by the White House to interfere with an official investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Andrew McCabe assumed the leadership of the FBI on Tuesday, after US President Donald Trump abruptly fired the Bureau’s director, James Comey. A trained lawyer who joined the FBI in 1996, McCabe amassed significant experience in countering organized crime and terrorism before being appointed Deputy Director of the Bureau in 2016.

It is worth noting that Republican Party officials have criticized McCabe for being close to former Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, campaigned for a seat in the Virginia State Senate in 2015, on a Democratic Party ticket.

McCabe spoke on Thursday before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, along with the directors of five other American intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. During their testimony, the six intelligence officials repeated their agencies’ previously stated claims that Moscow engaged in systematic efforts to assist the election of Donald Trump in last November’s presidential elections. McCabe also responded to specific questions by Democratic senators about alleged attempts by the White House to prevent probes in to Russia’s alleged intervention.

When asked by Democratic Senator Mark Warner whether he would inform the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence of attempts by the Trump administration to stop the probe, McCabe responded saying: “I absolutely do”. There are currently at least three parallel investigations into Russia’s alleged involvement in the US presidential elections, of which the Senate’s is one. The US House of Representatives and the Department of Justice are also conducting separate investigations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 May 2017 | Permalink

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

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