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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Malaysia assassination highlights North Korea’s network of front companies

North KoreaThe sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, on February 13, revealed much about the current operational mindset of Pyongyang. But it also brought to light the shady network of front companies set up by the North Korean regime to facilitate the country’s illicit financial activities around the world. This extensive network permits Pyongyang to evade international sanctions against it, and to coordinate the activities of hundreds of clandestine operatives around the world. Through these activities, the reclusive country has been able to develop its weapons of mass destruction program unabated, despite concerted efforts by the United Nations to prevent it from doing so.

Writing for Forbes, Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the UN has for many years employed sanctions to “block international financial and material support for North Korean nuclear and missile development efforts”. But now the UN’s own experts have concluded that Pyongyang has been able to evade these sanctions so skillfully that it has “largely eviscerated the intent and impact of UN sanctions resolutions”. How has it done so? Mostly through a network of countries that routinely turn a blind eye to North Korea’s illicit activities. These include several countries in the Middle East, as well as Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pyongyang maintains an extensive network of front companies in these countries, says Snyder, with the main purpose of enabling it to evade international sanctions against it.

Malaysia has been a primary hub of North Korean illicit activity. In that, Pyongyang has been crucially assisted by the fact that —until last week— North Korean citizens could travel to Malaysia without entry visas. Malaysia thus provides a useful base for dozens of North Korean front companies, such as Glocom, which ostensibly markets radio communications equipment, or Pan Systems Pyongyang, which just happens to trade in exactly the kind of commercial items that could be described as “dual-use goods” in UN sanctions resolutions. Pan Systems is connected to several Malaysian-based subsidiaries, including International Global Systems and International Golden Services, which, according to investigators, are operated by North Korean intelligence.

Many of these companies also serve as exporting and importing hubs for Pyongyang. In the last five years, several ships have been intercepted while carrying illicit cargo dispatched from North Korea or destined for the reclusive state. In one such instance in 2013, the Jie Shun, a Cambodian-registered ship with a North Korean crew, was found to be carrying over 30,000 rocket propelled grenades hidden under thousands of tons of iron ore. The shipment was intended for an “undisclosed Middle Eastern destination”, says Snyder and was traced to a firm called “Dalian Haoda Petroleum Chemical Company Ltd.”. Many of these mysterious firms are headquartered in China, registered in Hong Kong, but actually work on behalf of North Korea, often using banking facilities in Europe and the United States to conduct financial transactions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 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

Analysis: African intelligence run amok and prospects for reform in The Gambia

Adama BarrowFor a very long time, the field of Intelligence Studies has been dominated by analysis of the Five Eyes community, which is comprised of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In reality, that study is more often the study of intelligence in the US and the UK. While not entirely fair to characterize this as Western prejudice —access to data is better in these two countries and intelligence scholars and analysts for the most part do not fear retribution or reprisal— more voices need to come forward to consider intelligence and its role on societies beyond the Five Eyes.

There has been slow but gradual progress in getting the discipline to understand this fact, to understand how important the study of intelligence is outside of the Five Eyes. In recent years, particular emphasis has been paid to Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel, just to name several case studies. But the countries of Africa, unfortunately, have largely remained a near-blank analytical slate when it comes to deeper work on the continent’s various intelligence communities. As recent events in The Gambia show, that absence needs to be rectified at a time when some deeply disturbing aspects of state development and political stability hang in the balance.

A few days ago, nine intelligence officers, among them the ex-head of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA), were arrested and charged with the murder of Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a top political opposition figure. Sandeng, the National Organizing Secretary of the United Democratic Party (UDP), died in custody after being arrested for his participation in a protest demanding q-quoteelectoral reforms back in April of 2016. The protests were geared to influencing the December 2016 presidential election, which ultimately saw the defeat of incumbent President/Strongman Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow. Jammeh had corruptly governed the country since rising to power as a young military officer in a bloodless military coup in 1994.

The official docket accused Yankuba Badjie and eight other members of the NIA of “conspiring amongst themselves to take part in the murder of Solo Sandeng”. Back on April 14, 2016, Sandeng and five other members of the UDF party were arrested by police and taken to Mile 2 Prison where, after two days of torture, Sandeng died of shock and respiratory failure. Read more of this post

Opinion: America in deep and profound security crisis as Michael Flynn resigns

Michael Flynn and Donald TrumpThe ongoing security crisis in the United States reached new heights last night as Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, resigned. In his letter announcing his decision, the former general admitted that he “inadvertently” gave members of the Trump administration “incomplete information” about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US in December of last year. This development is only the latest in a series of unprecedented incidents in Washington. The city, and by extension the country, are now in a deep and profound security crisis with unpredictable consequences for the US and its allies.

The sense of normality in America’s capital, the seat of government of the world’s most powerful nation, is becoming increasingly scarce, as the country faces one astonishing situation after another. Today, three weeks after Donald Trump assumed the reins of power in DC, the relationship between the Executive and the Intelligence Community is almost nonexistent. A growing q-quotenumber of former insiders warn that senior intelligence officials are —in the words of former National Security Agency officer John Schindler— “beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust”. Last month, Steve Hall, a former senior member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service, cautioned that officers at Langley are suspicious of the White House’s links with Russia. Currently, Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the man chosen by the president to serve as his national security advisor, is being investigated as part of a counterintelligence probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is facing a separate set of questions from the military. On Tuesday, Senior Republican lawmakers called for a Congressional investigation into Moscow’s alleged proximity with the Trump White House.

Meanwhile, the (now former) acting attorney general and several judges have sought to stop the president from violating Constitutional norms with the imposition of an ill-fated travel ban. In response, q-quoteMr. Trump summarily fired the head of the Department of Justice and openly challenged the legitimacy of a judge who ruled against his executive order. The president did not even address the concerns of the Intelligence Community, which largely views the travel ban as nonsensical, unworkable and counterproductive. Mr. Trump also dismissed the significance of a “Dissent Channel” memorandum, signed by over 1,000 State Department employees —an unprecedented number with no parallel in American diplomatic history— who openly objected to the violation of “core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold”.

Discord and disharmony are not novel concepts in American political life. But the current situation is anything but conventional. It is not normal for the president to summarily fire the chief legal counsel to the US government —acting or not. Nor is it normal for his national security advisor, a man who is privy to the most sensitive secrets of the US government, to be the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, and for one of his senior aides to be denied a security clearance by the CIA. It is unprecedented for a US president to question the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization while seemingly consenting to Russia’s annexation of an important American ally —namely Ukraine. It is equally remarkable to watch conservative governments in Western Europe warn against US policies and even refuse to have Mr. Trump address their parliaments. We are witnessing unparalleled developments ofq-quote inconceivable magnitude, with implications that may well shape the future of America and its place in the world.

These are not partisan considerations, which this website shies away from as a matter of policy. Rather, they are political observations that go to the very heart of America’s ability to govern itself, provide security to its citizens and lead the Western world in our century. Anyone who rejects the notion that the US is currently at the onset of one of the most serious crises in its modern political history is simply disconnected from empirical reality. Anyone —Republican or Democrat— who tries to exploit the current crisis for narrow political gain is not simply foolish, but dangerous to the wellbeing of this country. Mr. Trump’s many friends and adversaries within and without his political party must reach out to him and attempt to mend the damage he has inflicted on America’s government, while preventing further injury to the machinery of national administration. It is every sane person’s hope that the president will take heed at this crucial time, and introduce the much-needed qualities of caution and prudence to his inexperienced administration. History will be particularly unkind to him and his colleagues if they fail to act responsibly. The world is watching.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Deforming the US National Security Council

Steve BannonThere has been much consternation and confusion over the maneuverings engineered by United States President Donald Trump with the National Security Council (NSC). By now everyone knows the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have been essentially demoted down to Principals Committee meetings, with the no-doubt unsatisfying caveat that “when their specific expertise” is needed they will be asked to attend the main Principals meeting with the President. The irony, of course, is that both of these offices have always been oversight and unifying leadership positions: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees and coordinates discussion and debate between the heads of all the military branches while the ODNI was basically created to go do the thing the Department of Homelandq-quote Security was initially meant to do after 9/11 —coordinate and improve communication and cooperative transparency across the entire US Intelligence Community. It is therefore somewhat mystifying as to why two deeply experienced actors with comprehensive knowledge of military and intelligence affairs writ large would be inexplicably categorized as ‘knowledge specialists’, not required for the big general meeting. It is not like the ODNI came into the NSC meetings pre-Trump as the ‘Basque subject matter expert’ alone, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid claim to being the world’s only ‘Gulf of Aden’ maritime security specialist. While it is still too early to know, it seems a logical bet that there is some personality conflict or discomfort between these two men and the incoming member(s) that Trump has designated. Safe money is on General Michael Flynn. But since that right now will remain unsubstantiated rumor and gossip, we are left with nothing but conjecture.

Which leads us appropriately into the appointment of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as a permanent sitting member of the National Security Council. Read more of this post

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