Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Everything Is Going According To Plan As Khashoggi Begins To Sink From View

HUFFINGTON POST
I get things wrong on occasion, so I am relieved -- if at the same time deeply saddened -- that my prediction that the Jamal Khashoggi Scandal will sink into the sands of Saudi Arabia without a trace is playing out exactly as expected. 
As I wrote here the other day, the dissident Saudi journalist, who was living in self-imposed exile in suburban Washington until he was inconveniently tortured, murdered and dismembered, his fingers first with a bone saw before being decapitated by a hit squad dispatched by Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS for short) at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, is mere roadkill in the long and problematic relationship between the U.S. and oil-rich kingdom. 
If memory serves, that oil-rich kingdom was the home base of another hit squad -- the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudis -- who hijacked four passenger jets and changed world history on September 11, 2001 at the expense of 3,000 lives.  There were no repercussions of consequence in Riyadh after 9/11.  In fact, Dubya helpfully expedited the departure of Saudi government officials and nationals in the wake of the terror attacks, so what's one filleted journalist? 
Anyhow, back to Everything Going According To Plan:  
U.S. tech, media and entertainment companies have dutifully withdrawn from a Saudi investment conference sponsored by MBS.   
Editorial writers have been levitating in their ivory towers.   
President Trump has belatedly entered the fray by vowing "severe punishment" if it is found the Saudis killed Khashoggi.   
The Saudis have responded indigently that they didn't do it as incontrovertible evidence piles up that they did.   
The Turks have identifed the hit-squad ringleader as an MBS pal and other hitmen as members of MBS's security detail. 
Trump has suggested that Khashoggi was the victim of "rogue killers," kind of like Robert Mueller is a"rogue prosecutor."   
Lindsey Graham has gone off his bipolar meds and criticized the boss for his callow response. 
Son-in-law Jared Kushner, an MBS buddy who is Trump's go-to guy on the Middle East, is struck with laryngitis.   
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flown to the oil-rich kingdom kingdom to read MBS the riot act. 
STEVE GONZALEZ / THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE VIA AP / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Uh, check that.   
From all appearances -- and we don't need evidence from anyone's Apple Watch recording to verify this -- the purpose of Pompeo's fly-by was to discreetly kiss Saudi ass, whisper that everything will soon blow over, and perhaps get fitted for a camel hair coat.   Pompeo flew on to Istanbul on Wednesday as the Turkish government released an audio recording confirming the gruesome details of Khashoggi's last minutes.     
My cynicism is warranted. 
In days of yore, say a mere three or four years ago, the U.S. would have taken the lead in condemning so barbarous an act.   But today the U.S. takes the lead in being a global laughingstock as Trump bromances MBS, who is yet another autocratic thug in the mold of two other presidential heroes -- Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.  In fairness, MBS has been far more well behaved.  If you ignore his fonds for kidnaping people, including the prime minister of Lebanon, and miring the oil-rich kingdom in a catastrophic war in Yemen notable for the genocide targeting women and children.
And the Jamal Khashoggi Scandal begins to sink into the sands of Saudi Arabia without a trace.   
ABOUT THAT MYSTERIOUS GLOWING ORB PHOTOGRAPH: It was taken in May 2017 when Trump visited Saudi King Salman in Riyadh.  The third dude is Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.  The Big White Hat also briefly touched the orb, but she's off camera here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Is Our National Nightmare Ending? Not Quite, But Trump's Is Just Beginning.

MATTHIEU BOUREL / THE NEW YORK TIMES
You know that the American political landscape has changed dramatically when Kayne West hangs in the Oval Office and boasts that his MAGA baseball cap gives him superpowers while Taylor Swift is viewed as the grownup in the room.  But despite the unrelenting national nightmare of Donald Trump, one thing has not changed: The Rule of Law.   
Yes, Trump thinks he is above such constitutional piffle, but the Rule of Law will make a dramatic post-midterm election star turn that will further confirm the immortal words of a crook by the name of Richard Nixon that the Watergate scandal was a "third-rate burglary."    
The Predator in Chief has his own vocabulary for the scandal of the moment, the Russia scandal and its many and far reaching tentacles, including "witch hunt" and "hoax."  
But Trump's nightmare will be just beginning when the clock runs out on the unofficial Justice Department rule that investigations, indictments and such be put on the back burner during the two months before an election (never mind James Comey) and Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other federal prosecutors begin hauling in their nets in earnest.   
This is what Trump can expect to find in those nets, as other unwelcome developments: 
Mueller indictments against a host of perps, possibly including but not limited to Hope Hicks, K.T. McFarland, Donald McGahn, Carter Page, Reince Preibus, Roger Stone, Donald Trump Jr. and Javanka -- Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.   
A subpoena from Mueller's grand jury, which will be a likely consequence of the fandango that the special prosecutor and Trump's ever shifting defense team have been doing since forever over whether the president will answer written questions or sit for an interview. 
Revelations detailing the interlocking roles of Russian hackers and trolls, WikiLeaks and Cambridge Analytica in coordinating the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton with his stump speeches as well as targeting unsuspecting voters in swing states.
Continuing Justice Department investigations into Elliot Broidy's pay-for-presidential access scam and Mariia Butina's efforts to broker secret Trump meetings with Vladimir Putin and infiltrate U.S. political groups, including the National Rifle Association.     
Federal Election Commission investigations into whether Russian money was funneled through the NRA to the Trump campaign and whether Trump's hush agreements with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to silence them before the election were illegal.   
Should the Democrats retake the House, investigations about and possibly impeachment proceedings against him for a variety of offenses and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for repeatedly perjuring himself during his confirmation hearing testimony. 
With Democrats in control of the House, a little known 1902 law might enable the Ways and Means Committee to tell the Treasury Department to fork over his long-secret federal tax returns, which presumably would reveals any financial entanglements with Russia.  
Fallout from fraudulent tax schemes built on part on his lousy record as a businessman and need for large cash infusions, which have included innumerable ties to the Russian underworld and its expertise in money laundering. 
Courts green lighting lawsuits against the Trump Foundation, lawsuits on his violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and a lawsuit brought by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for his campaign's use of stolen emails. 
Negative blowback from his expected post-election dismissal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy AG Ron Rosenstein, appointment of a new AG (Lindsey Graham?) and concomitant efforts to discredit and possibly derail Mueller's investigation. 
Further resignations by Cabinet members and White House aides, possibly including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and perhaps even his long suffering chief of staff, John Kelly. 
Out-of-court settlements in defamation lawsuits filed by member of Seth Rich's family over articles and broadcasts pushing the conspiracy theory that Rich's murder was linked to DNC email thefts that actually were perpetrated by Russian hackers. 
Finally, his inability of grasp even the most elementary aspects of being president and tenuous relationship between what he says and reality -- whether pathological lying or a mere twisting of facts -- will come under increased scrutiny.  
While there is an element of wishful thinking in this impressive list, and we have been told over and over that Trump's fortunes are about to turn and do not, conspicuously absent from the list are Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, Felix Sater and Allen Weisselberg. 
These six individuals -- Trump's longtime lawyer-fixer, his former campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, his disgraced national security adviser, his partner in myriad illegal deals and the Trump Organization's chief financial officer -- have one very ominous thing in common for the president.  
All are all cooperating witnesses and all will be testifying sooner or later to the culpability of Trump and other perps in financial crimes, election law violations and much worse.  Like colluding with Russia to get elected. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.
 

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Why The Jamal Khashoggi Scandal Will Sink Into Saudi Sands Without A Trace

EVAN VUCCI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
It should be noted from the jump that U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations have long been an accident waiting to happen.  Successive American presidential administrations dating back to Harry Fricking Truman have embraced the extremists in Riyadh, who honor their goats over their wives and daughters, because of their fabulous if diminishing oil wealth. Never mind their appalling human rights violations in Yemen and Middle East meddling in general, and the fact that Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.  
Still, it is deliciously ironic that the crackup would occur with Donald Trump in the White House and Jared Kushner, his felonious loose cannon of a son-in-law, calling the U.S. policy shots in the Middle East, central to which is his bromance with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short. 
The MBS-ordered torture, murder and gruesome dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago should be deeply embarrassing to Trump and Kushner, but of course it is not.  It should be heartening that U.S. tech, media and entertainment companies are withdrawing from a Saudi investment conference "as dismay over Saudi agents’ alleged murder of Khashoggi spread to companies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to woo," in the words of the WaPo, where Khashoggi was a columnist. 
The president's reaction is, of course, straight out of the Trump Playbook -- utter disinterest masquerading as feigned concern about a man whose passion was getting to the truth, which is kryptonite for Trump. 
While MBS is yet another autocratic thug in the mold of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, Trump will tolerate a messy assassination and human rights outrages because of his fawning admiration for the crown prince, so all the back-and-forth between Washington and Riyadh as the scandal has grown is the equivalent of a diplomatic pillow fight.   Championing "democratic values" abroad is so . . . , uh, Obama. 
Besides which, Khashoggi is "not a U.S. citizen," in Trump's words.  (Never mind that he was a U.S. resident who lived in suburban Washington.)    The U.S., notes Trump, is not about to squander the precious $110 billion Saudi Arabia is paying for U.S. weapons systems and all the jobs that lethal windfall creates.  (Never mind that the actual figure is $20 billion and the jobs were there to begin with.)  And how about all those economic and social reforms that MBS is advocating?  (Never mind that while widening women's limited rights, he's jailing the most outspoken of them.) 
Trump's fondness for Saudi Arabia may have something to do with all the times the royal family has bailed him out. 
In 1991, teetering on the verge of personal bankruptcy and scrambling to raise cash, Trump sold his 282-foot yacht "Princess" to billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal for $20 million, a third less than what he reportedly paid for it.  
In 1995, the prince came to his rescue again, joining other investors in a $325 million deal for Trump's money-losing Plaza Hotel.  
In 2001, Trump sold the entire 45th floor of the Trump World Tower for $12 million to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 
The Saudi government also is a prime customer at Trump's New York and Washington hotels.   
HATICE CENGIZ
You can't turned around these days without bumping into another scandal.  That is the Russia scandal, and there are several Russia scandal-related tentacles attached to the Khashoggi drama, which stems from his disappearance and presumed murder inside the Istanbul consulate while his  fianceĆ©, Hatice Cengiz (photo, above), waited outside.  And waited and waited. 
Take the August 3, 2016 Trump Tower meeting convened by Donald Trump Jr., who has promoted a tweet calling Khashoggi a "jihadist." 
The president's son met with an Israeli social media specialist whose company had drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Trump, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, whom we'll call MBZ, who was the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)and George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who was advising Mohammed bin Salman.    
The meeting was arranged by former Blackwater mercenary goon squad boss Erik Prince, whose current private security company is actively working to screw up the Middle East even further.  
We only know the outlines of the meeting and trust Special Counsel Robert Mueller knows more since Nader has become a cooperating witness.  But from what we gather, Nader graciously offered to also help the campaign and was quickly embraced as a good buddy who subsequently met frequently with Kushner, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.  At the time, Nader was promoting a secret plan to use private contractors (read Prince's) to destabilize Iran, the regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 
During a private meeting in early November after Trump's victory, MBZ told an unidentified American close to Trump that Putin might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which is a recurring theme in the many contacts between Trump's campaign and nascent administration and Russia and its proxies.  
The incestuousness of the scandal's many characters cannot be overstated. 
Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who enticed Trump campaign coffee boy George Popadolpoulos with the disclosure that the Kremlin had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails -- perhaps the first such reference to them whispered to drooling campaign officials -- is a bit player in the Khashoggi scandal.  He attended a seminar in Moscow on Yemeni security issues as a member of the delegation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is MBS's titular boss. 
Mifsud disappeared in November 2017 three days after Mueller's office announced that Papadopoulos had been indicted, pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to FBI agents and agreed to cooperate with Mueller's.  There is little question that Mifsud was deaded, possibly on Putin's orders, but absent a corpus delicti he still is considered just missing. 
And we can't forget Elliot Broidy, a top fundraiser for Trump, who has worked with Nader to isolate another Saudi enemy -- Qatar --  and undermine the Pentagon's longstanding relationship with the Gulf country.   
Broidy's security firm, Circinus LLC, has secured at least $800 million in foreign defense contracts since Trump took office and Broidy began advocating for outcomes favorable to Saudi Arabia and other countries Circinus lists as clients.  The Justice Department is investigating whether Broidy sought to sell his influence with the Trump administration by offering to deliver U.S. government actions for foreign officials in exchange for big bucks.  A slam-dunk case if ever there was one. 
Meanwhile, Steve Mnuchin, Trump's Treasury secretary, is still going to that investment conference even as others are pulling out.  This is because of the one thing we, Trump and Mnuchin can be certain about.  Even though Trump has belatedly vowed to inflict "severe punishment" if it is found the Saudis killed Khashoggi, the scandal will soon sink into the vast sands of Saudi Arabia without a trace. 

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Why The Alfa Bank Mystery Is Key To Understanding Trump-Russia Collusion



One very big question remains unanswered as investigations into Russia’s cyber sabotage of the 2016 elections forge ahead: That question is not whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, which it certainly did based on a wealth of evidence, but how the campaign and Vladimir Putin’s cyberwarriors communicated. 
There were, of course, numerous meetings between Trump campaign officials and Russia cutouts, and several of those officials are cooperating with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.  But solving what we'll call the Alfa Bank Mystery may go a long way to answering the question of how the campaign, in all likelihood operating from Trump Tower, and those cyberwarriors communicated about the nitty gritty of their collusion.  This included voter targeting and demographics and possibly coordinately damaging WikiLeaks releases of emails hacked by some of those cyberwarriors with candidate Trump's schedule of appearances and major stump speeches for maximum impact. 
What has been long known is that two servers owned by Alfa Bank, one of the largest banks in Russia, looked up the address of a Trump server nearly every day during the campaign, a total of more than than 2,000 times between May and September 2016. 
Dexter Filkins does not solve the mystery in an exhaustive new piece in The New Yorker. But he considerably advances our understanding of the mystery's parameters through interviews with savvy computer scientists who have found digital fingerprints that pretty much put the lie to the litany of rationales and excuses offered by the campaign and others in trying to explain away the deluge of lookups. 
The first thing you should know about the nitty-gritty of the mystery is that Alfa Bank and most of the people on the receiving end of the lookups probably didn't know they were occurring.  (I'll explain why in a moment.)   The second thing you should know is that key to discerning the importance of the lookups is understanding the Domain Name System (DNS), a worldwide network that acts as a sort of phone book for the Internet, translating domain names into IP addresses, the strings of numbers that computers use to identify one another. 
The computer scientists, who for the most part want to remain anonymous, became involved after reports in June 2016 that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had been hacked, probably by Russians.  The computer scientists speculated that if the Russians were hacking the Democrats they must be hacking the Republicans, too.  They were, but were not releasing any of the hacked Republican materials. 
Intrigued by the possibility that there was collusion in the form of computer communications between the Trump campaign and Russians, the computer scientists began their search for fingerprints by examining DNS logs for domains associated with Republican candidates.  DNS logs are records of the servers used by private companies, public institutions and . . . yes, banks, and reveal who has been trying to connect with whom. 
One of the computer scientists, who called himself Max, told Filkins that they went looking looking for fingerprints similar to those on the Russian-hacked DNC computers, but "we didn't find what we were looking for.  [But] we found something totally different. Something unique." 
It was in the small town of Lititz in Pennsylvania Dutch country, that they stumbled on a domain linked to the Trump Organization that was behaving in a peculiar way.   
The server that housed the domain belonged to a company called Listrak, which mostly delivered mass-marketing e-mails.  Some Trump Organization domains sent mass e-mail blasts, but the one that Max and his colleagues spotted appeared not to be sending anything.  However, at the same time a very small group of companies -- two in all -- seemed to be trying to communicate with it.  
Examining records for the Trump domain over the summer of 2016, Max's group discovered DNS lookups from a pair of servers owned by Alfa Bank.  They found there were dozens of lookups on some days and far fewer on others, but the total number was more than 2,000 between May and September 2016.  
"We were watching this happen in real time --it was like watching an airplane fly by," Max said.  "And we thought, 'Why the hell is a Russian bank communicating with a server that belongs to the Trump Organization, and at such a rate?' " 
Only one other entity seemed to be reaching out to the Trump Organization's domain with any frequency: Spectrum Health, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. 
Spectrum Health is closely linked to the filthy-rich DeVos family, who are major Trump contributors.  They include Betsy DeVos, whom Trump appointed Secretary of Education, and her brother, the particularly vile Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious Blackwater group and who, to Special Counsel Mueller's great interest, in all likelihood was a Russian cutout when he secretly met after the election with a Putin pal in the Seychelles to discuss setting up a back channel between Trump and the Russian leader. 
Why was the Trump Organization's domain, set up to send mass-marketing e-mails, conducting such meager activity?  And why were computers at Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health trying to reach a server that didn't seem to be doing anything?
After analyzing the data, the answer became clear.  The fingerprints pointed to a covert communication channel that might have used a method called foldering.  With foldering, messages are written but not sent; instead, they are saved in a drafts folder, where an accomplice who also has access to the account can read them. 
The Trump campaign and Trump Organization, Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health have repeatedly and strenuously denied the covert channel finding.  Never missing an opportunity to bash the opposition, the Trump campaign added, “The only covert server is the one Hillary Clinton recklessly established in her basement."  One Trump Organization denial included a particularly convoluted explanation for the look-ups that indicates someone may have known what really was going on. 
(Alfa Bank may get a pass on this because it is the rare major Russian financial institution that has managed to stay an arm's length from Putin, would have suffered a public-relations disaster with Western customers if it was involved in the covert channel and, like I said, may actually have been unaware that its servers were being used for nefarious purposes.)  
In August, Max decided to reveal the data that he and his colleagues had assembled because, if the covert communications were real, "this potential threat to our country needed to be known before the election." 
He decided to hand over their findings to the FBI and Eric Lichtblau, a New York Times reporter with cybersecurity chops who in turn shared the findings with three computer scientists who were struck by the unusual traffic on the server and that substantial effort had gone into concealing it. 
"These people who should not be communicating are clearly communicating," concluded one of the computer scientists, Jean Camp of Indiana University. 
Lichtblau prepared a story.  The FBI asked The Times to sit on it, and then seemed to lose interest.  Then Dean Baquet, The Times' executive editor, decided that it would not suffice to report the existence of the computer contacts without knowing their purpose.  The resulting October 31 story not only was watered down, but it erroneously reported that the FBI had not found any links between the Trump campaign and Russia. 
A day earlier, Slate had published a story by Franklin Foer that made a detailed case for the possibility of a covert link between Alfa Bank and Trump and quoted several experts, most of whom said that there appeared to be no other plausible explanation for the data.

One aspect of Foer's story was particularly intriguing. 
On September 21, The Times had provided potential evidence of the communication channel to a Washington lobbying firm that worked for Alfa Bank.  Two days later, the Trump domain vanished from the Internet, but for four more days, the servers at Alfa Bank kept trying to look up the Trump domain.  Then, 10 minutes after the last attempt, one of them looked up another domain which had been configured to lead to the same Trump Organization server. 
The Slate story notwithstanding, interest in the Alpha Bank Mystery began to fade following Trump's November 8 victory.  This is not necessarily surprising given the extraordinary quantity of developments being reported as the shocking breadth and depth of the Russia scandal started to become known. 
Then an unnamed Democratic senator became interested. 
The senator enlisted Daniel Jones, a former FBI counterterrorism investigator who runs a security firm and a nonprofit initiative intended to keep elections free from foreign interference.  To assess the Alfa Bank data, Jones assembled yet another team of computer scientists and divided them into two geographic groups.  In order to encourage an unbiased outcome, Jones never introduced the East Coast group to the West Coast group.  
"I started from an assumption that this is a bunch of nonsense," one of the computer scientists, who used the pseudonym Leto, told Filkins.  But in the end he too became convinced that he was looking at a covert communications channel. 
"If I’m a cop, I'm not going to take this to the DA and say we're ready to prosecute," Leto said.  "I'm going to say we have enough to ask for a search warrant." 
No one is holding their breath waiting for that to happen, and there are a small army of detractors. 
Among them is Marcy Wheeler, a first-rate blogger whose posts at emptywheel have been some of the best on the Russia scandal. 
Wheeler's big gripe with analyses of the Alfa Bank scandal, which she reiterates after her initial read of the Filkins piece, is what she calls "shitty link analysis," or making unwarranted or weak connections and jumping to overarching conclusions based on those connections.  Wheeler is especially critical of Filkins' Spectrum Health tie-in and his assertion that Erik Prince's known activities on behalf of Trump validate that tie-in although better communications channels were available than "using the network of a hospital that his brother-in-law chairs but doesn't run." 
Wheeler concludes that "This Trump Tower – Alfa Bank story continues to spin journalists, not to mention academics and infosec experts, into uncharacteristic habits that don't appear to be leading to any real clarity about the topic at hand."      
I mostly disagree. 
In the final analysis (mine), it is impossible to dispute the conclusions of a small army of computer scientists who together and independently determined that at the heart of the Alpha Bank Mystery is the existence of a covert communication channel. 
If we have learned anything from the Russia scandal, is that "uncanny" series of events and seeming "coincidences" are anything but.  There was in all likelihood a sophisticated, deeply concealed means for members of the Trump campaign and those cyberwarriors to communicate undetected in real time, and a close reading of a timeline of many of the actions and reactions of both parties over the four-month period examined by the computer scientists reveal the probability of a sophisticated level of coordination. 
That makes chasing the Alpha Bank Mystery an imperative, not a fool's errand.  And when and if the mystery is solved, the major unanswered question of how Donald Trump usurped the presidency finally will have been answered.        

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.      

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Midterm Elections: It's Not About The Economy, Stupid. It's About Donald Trump.

STEPHAN CROWLEY / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Will the "mob" that opposed the appointment of sexual predator and perjurer Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court prevail four weeks from today in the most important election since the last one? 
The last election was, of course, the one that all the pundits -- myself included -- got very wrong as another sexual predator and perjurer (do we have a pattern here?) was improbably elected on the backs of the Make America Great Again lumpenproletariat with an assist from Donald Trump's best buddy, Vladimir Putin, in his quest to Make Russia Great Again. 
Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, flushed with hubris after Kavanaugh's lifetime appointment to the high court was approved by a deeply divided Senate, used the term "mob" over the weekend in dismissing the opposition to Kavanaugh as the bleatings of a few loud protesters. 
"In their quest for power, the radical Democrats have turned into an angry mob," Trump said at yet another of his campaign-style rallies, this one in a Kansas that Dorothy would hardly recognize.  
The conventional wisdom, so wrong in 2016, is that while the Kavanaugh debacle has energized woman voters and will help Democratic House candidates, it also has energized Trump's base, the people who wouldn't give a fig if Trump shot someone on Fifth Avenue, and that will help Republican Senate candidates.  This, according to that conventional wisdom, means that while Democrats have a chance to take back the House, the Senate will remain in Republican hands, which is to say with the execrable McConnell still in charge. 
Although the concept of "logic" has fallen almost as low as the fealty to "truth," there is a certain logic to this assessment.   
Here's why: 
All 428 House seats are in play.  Democrats need to flip 24 to take control of the lower chamber, and there is every indication one month out that they will do that and more because of the voter demographics in red state districts that are trending blue and Trump's unpopularity in many of those districts.   
There are 37 Senate seats in play.  Democrats need to flip only two to take control of the upper chamber, but that will be difficult because the most highly contested seats involve Democrats running for re-election in states won by Trump.  Put another way, Democrats need to win 28 seats to take control of the Senate and Republicans need to win only nine to keep control.  Put even more starkly, Democrats must retain all of their seats and win two of the Republican seats in play. 
But it is the issues that are motivating voters, -- and that "mob" in particular -- that may matter most.  This explains why Democrats have a good shot at recapturing the House and still have a long shot at retaking the Senate. 
The economy will not be among those issues, stupid. 
Although voters traditionally vote their pocketbooks and the economy is robust with unemployment below 4 percent and the stock market going bonkers, many voters have seen through the massive Republican tax cuts as a giveaway for the rich and mere crumbs for the middle class.  They understand that Trump inherited a healthy economy from the Islamofascist president and is doing his best to fuck with it through unnecessary trade wars and giving Wall Street an unconscionably long leash.  Falling back on the old culture wars meme of the liberal "mob" is an admission that the tax cuts aren't electrifying voters unless they spend their days glued to Fox News.  
Many voters also have seen through the ceaseless efforts of Trump and Republicans to eviscerate Obamacare, which is freighted with irony since Democrats lost the House in 2010 because of the unpopularity of heath-care reform and may well retake the House in 2018 because the health-care reform many voters have now come to love being imperiled. 
Add to that the Republican War on Women, which has resulted in a record number of woman candidates and was encapsulated brilliantly in the Kavanaugh debacle, Republican treatment of minorities and the party's disdain for actually governing.  There also are the issues of gun safety (formerly known as gun control) and Trump's policy of separating children from their immigrant parents and confining the whole lot of them in detention centers. 
Then stir in Trump's pugnacity, pettiness, lawbreaking and use of the presidency as a profit center for his family business, and things are looking pretty good for Democrats.   
No day in my life has been no more depressing than November 8, 2016.   
Beyond the knowledge that the next president would be a narcissistic boy-man who was profoundly unsuited for the office, I had let down my readers in fecklessly predicting a Lock Her Up Hillary landslide victory.  After two years in which Trump and his Republican helpmates have relentlessly chipped away at the core values that once made America great, a lot of voters share my view that it is time for a national do-over. 
American democracy is broken with or without Trump.  Tribalism run amok has much to do with that, but Democrats also must share the blame for the parlous state of government.   
But if the 2018 midterm election is indeed all about Donald Trump, then democracy may yet survive if -- and this is a very big if -- Democrats can score big election victories and then actually govern while beginning to restore the balance of powers and perhaps some civility, while they're at it.  All this while impeaching Trump and Kavanaugh and safeguarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia scandal investigation. 
Oh, and in the meantime, thank you for your help, Taylor Swift.   

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Sunday, October 07, 2018

How A Dutch Intelligence Agency Exposed Officers In Russia's Notorious GRU

Say hi to Alexsei Morenets.   
Alexsei is an officer specializing in internet technology in the cyber-warfare division of the Russia's Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the by-now notorious GRU.  Alexei is one of four GRU intelligence agents who traveled to the Hague on diplomatic passports in April where they attempted to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was trying to identify the nerve agent that felled former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, his daughter and three other people in Salisbury, England in March.  
We know that Alexsei and his accomplices were in Holland for purposes other than sniffing the tulips because of the crack Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service.   
Intelligence agencies tend to be overrated.  Lest we forget, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency learned of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 on CNN and didn't exactly covered itself in glory in its too-little-too-late investigation of Russia's cybertheft of the 2016 presidential election. 
But the Dutch MIVD is something else.   
The MIVD was the first intelligence agency to alert American authorities that it had evidence that Russia's Federal Security Service, the also by-now notorious FSB, had hacked into the Democratic National Committee's computer system. 
This was in November 2014 
Short-attention-span U.S. authorities shrugged when the MIVD said that hackers using the also by-now notorious name "Cozy Bear" were preparing for a major attack on State Department computers, a precursor to the main event in 2016 when the combined efforts of the GRU and FSB, along with other Russian malefactors, resulted in the improbable presidency of a monster by the name of Donald Trump. 
Oh, and by the way, the MIVD not only had hacked into the FSB's computer system but also had accessed the security camera system in the FSB's Moscow facility and could see who was coming and going in real time. 
Again, U.S. authorities shrugged.  
This is the backstory of how the tiny MIVD took a huge security lapse by the GRU that not only revealed who Alexsei and his fellow travelers were, and subsequently the identities of a total of an astounding three hundred and five people who probably are affiliated with the GRU were revealed by Bellingcat, a British investigative website. 
The first break for the MIVD came when it was realized that Alexsei's real name was Alexsei Morenets and his accomplices also were using their real names and not cover names, which had been used by the GRU officers who slipped into England in March to poison Skripal.
A public document -- a Russian automobile ownership database, of all things -- revealed that one of the four suspects was registered as living at Ulitsa Narodnogo Opolcheniya 50, an address in Moscow where the Military Academy of the Ministry of Defence is located. This academy is popularly known as the GRU Conservatory. 
According to the database, Alexei was the registered user and/or owner of a Lada automobile.   
The address to which the Lada was registered was Komsomolsky Prospekt 20 (circled in red in the image above), which happens to be the address of Military Unit 26165, which is GRU's cyber warfare department.  The database also helpfully contained Alexsei's passport number.   
Dutch authorities identified Alexsei's accomplices as Evgenii Serebriakov, who with Alexsei had consecutive passport numbers, and Oleg Sotnikov and Alexey Minin (seen in the image below at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on April 10 after arriving from Moscow).  
The four agents rented a Citron C3 on April 11 and parked it in a hotel parking lot as close as possible to the OPCW headquarters.

"They were doing some exploration work for a close-access hack operation," said Onno Eichelscheim, the head of Dutch counterintelligence.  "We know for sure they were not on holiday." 
The four agents planned to travel next to an OPCW-accredited Swiss laboratory in Bern that does research into chemical weapons, Eichelsheim said, but never boarded a train for which they bought tickets tickets for April 17 because Dutch authorities intervened on April 13 and expelled the "diplomats."   In the trunk of the Citron C3 they found laptop computers, an assortment of high-grade equipment used to hack Wi-Fi channels, including a so-called Wi-Fi pineapple, numerous mobile phones and an antenna covered by a coat.   
The laptops contained material related to the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine by a Russian surface-to-air missile that took the lives of all 283 passengers and 15 crew.   
Russia, of course, has issued blanket denials for the Flight 17 disaster, the Skripal poisoning and the Hague hacking attempt.   
Enter Bellingcat, the investigative web site founded by Eliot Higgins and supported by fellow British citizen journalists.  (Bellingcat is derived from the idiom "belling the cat," which comes from the medieval fable about mice who discuss how to make a cat harmless. One suggests hooking a bell around his neck, and all the mice support the idea but none is willing to do it.)

By searching a database (the website does not say if it is the same automobile owner database) for the same address, Bellingcat was able to identify a total of 305 individuals, whose full names, ages (ranging from 27 to 53), passport numbers and, in most cases, mobile phone numbers are listed. 
If these 305 individuals are indeed officers or otherwise affiliated with the GRU's cyber warefare department, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, it may constitute one of the largest mass breaches of personal data of an intelligence service in recent history. 
Among the morals of this story is that you don't have to be a major player to have a major impact in the global cyberwars.  The MIVD certainly is not; it merely was smart and very clever.  And that the ubiquitousness of databases, whether in Russia or elsewhere, make it very difficult for the foot soldiers in the cyberwars to remain anonymous. 
Meanwhile, last Thursday the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of seven GRU officers on cyber hacking charges linked to the leaking of Olympic athletes' drug-test data in an alleged attempt to undermine international efforts to expose Russian doping.   Four of the officers -- Alexsei and his three pals -- also are charged with targeting organizations probing Russia's use of chemical weapons, including the poisoning of Skripal.   
This brings the number of indictments of Russian intelligence officers by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the U.S. Justice Department and British authorities to 21.   
Not too bad for a witch hunt. 

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and related developments.