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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Russian special forces troops seen in Egypt and Libya, say reports

Khalifa HaftarRussia may have become the latest country to deploy special forces soldiers in Libya, according to news reports citing anonymous United States officials. Late on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Russian special forces troops had been seen on the border between Libya and Egypt. The news agency said that the information came from “two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity”. The same article cited unnamed “Egyptian security forces”, who said that a 22-member Russian paramilitary team had set up an operations base in the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani, which is located 60 miles from Libyan territory.

Libya has descended into a state of complete anarchy since the demise of the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan strongman was killed in 2011, as a result of a popular uprising backed by Western powers and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguably the strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the so-called Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army. The commander of the Libyan National Army is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for many decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to participate in the war. The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the US. However, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously, and some believe that Haftar has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya. Last November, Haftar visited Moscow, where he met with senior government officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There are reports that the Russian special forces troops alleged seen in Egypt are operating in support of Haftar.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Tobruk-led government told Russian media that Moscow had promised to provide it with funding and military aid. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that a number of Russian private security contractors were in Libya and were providing services to Haftar’s militias. But there are no confirmed reports of the presence of Russian government troops on the ground in Libya. On Tuesday, Moscow denied the Reuters report and accused “certain Western mass media” of “spreading false information from anonymous sources” in order to “smear Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2017 | Permalink

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | Permalink

French intelligence warn of Russian meddling in upcoming election

dgse franceFrance’s primary intelligence agency warned the country’s government this week that Russia has launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of the upcoming French presidential election in favor of the far right. According to the Paris-based weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) has notified the country’s leadership that a covert operation by the Kremlin is already underway, and is expected to intensify in the run-up to April’s election. The spy agency allegedly believes that Russian efforts aim to promote Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right National Front. Le Pen wants to curb immigration to France and remove the country from the European Union.

In an article published on Wednesday, Le Canard Enchaîné said the DGSE’s warning has alarmed the Élysée Palace. The paper also said that French President François Hollande, who chairs the country’s defense council, has decided to devote the entire agenda of the council’s next meeting to the subject of Russia’s alleged interference in the election. Anonymous sources told the paper that, according to a classified DGSE report, Russian spy agencies are using automated systems designed to “fill the Internet with tens of millions” of articles, images and memes that support the National Front candidate. Additionally, several news media that are controlled by Moscow will try to discredit Le Pen’s rivals for the presidency. At the same time, websites such as WikiLeaks —which some American commentators accuse of working with Moscow— will publish leaked information designed to damage Le Pen’s competitors.

The Le Canard Enchaîné allegations sound very similar to accusations leveled against the Kremlin by American intelligence agencies and by members of the United States Democratic Party. However, these allegations have not been supported by concrete evidence, and Russia denies that it had any involvement in last November’s presidential election in the US, which was won by Donald Trump.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 February | Permalink

Prominent Putin critic poisoned with unknown substance, say doctors

Vladimir Kara-MurzaA prominent member of the Russian opposition and vocal critic of the Kremlin, is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital as a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, is a senior figure in the Open Russia Foundation, a political pressure group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, an ultra-wealthy Russian businessman who was once estimated to be worth over $15 billion, has been living in Switzerland since 2013. Immediately prior to that, he served a 10-year prison sentence in Russia for tax evasion. In 2013, Kara-Murza was a member of a network of Putin critics who helped organize opposition protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He also co-authored a number of reports accusing the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption.

For several years now, Kara-Murza, his wife and three young children have been living in the United States. But he frequently travels back to Russia to meet with opposition activists and other organizers. For the past few weeks, Kara-Murza had been traveling in his homeland to help launch a new documentary film about the life and death of scientist and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov served as Russia’s deputy prime minister for a few months in 1998, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. After 2000, he became a vocal critic of the Putin administration. In late February 2015, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back and killed while walking with his girlfriend near Moscow’s Red Square. Opposition groups, including members of the Open Russia Foundation, claim that his murder was organized by the Kremlin.

Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgeniya, said yesterday that her husband woke up suddenly in the early hours of last Thursday, finding it difficult to breathe. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital where he has been under a medically induced coma since Tuesday. His family said that, while visiting Russia in 2015, Kara-Murza was hospitalized with similar symptoms, and was diagnosed with “kidney failure in connection with poisoning”. He later claimed that he survived an attempt on his life by people in power who wanted to silence him. This time, said Kara-Murza’s wife, the family has sent blood samples to specialists in Israel and France, hoping that the poison that is allegedly inside his body can be identified.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 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

Russian official accuses US of trying to blackmail Russian diplomat

first-post-vA senior Russian official has accused the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation of trying to blackmail a Russian diplomat who was attempting to purchase anti-cancer drugs in an American pharmacy. The allegation was made Sunday on live Russian television by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was being interviewed on Sunday Night with Vladimir Solovey, a popular politics roundtable show on Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1 television channel. Zakharova told Solovey that, a few years ago, the Russian government authorized one of its diplomats in the United States to purchase several thousand dollars’ worth of anti-cancer drugs. The drugs were to be used by Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s prime minister in the late 1990s, who was battling liver cancer.

According to Zakharova, the Russian diplomat was supplied with funds through an official money transfer from Moscow. Meanwhile, Primakov’s “health certificates and medical prescriptions” were supplied to a pharmacy in Washington, DC, where the Russian diplomat purchased the medicine. However, shortly after the Russia diplomat completed his purchase, he was accosted by American intelligence officers —presumably from the Federal Bureau of Investigation— who demanded to speak with him. The diplomat was then allegedly taken to the basement of the pharmacy, where, according to Zakharova, there was no cellular reception. The Russian diplomat was thus unable to contact his superiors at the Russian embassy. Zakharova claims that the two American officers kept the diplomat in the basement “for an hour” and attempted to turn him into a double agent, by accusing him of “illicit drug trafficking” and threatening to expel him from the country.

Zakharova said the Russian diplomat refused to cooperate and was allowed to return to the Russian embassy. However, the drugs were confiscated and the money paid by the diplomat to the pharmacy has not been “returned to this day”, she said. Eventually, according to Zakharova, the diplomat was deported from the United States, despite the intervention of Secretary of State John Kerry, who stepped in to try to resolve the episode. Primakov died in 2015 of liver cancer. The United States government and the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, did not comment on Zakharova’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2017 | Permalink