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State Department Cut Funding for Controversial "Iran Disinfo" Project — but Kept Working With Its Creators

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/09/2020 - 10:00pm in

In June 2019, the State Department suspended a contract for a counterpropaganda program called the Iran Disinformation Project, widely known by its combative Twitter handle, @IranDisinfo. The project had come under scrutiny because, on Twitter, it was dedicating a significant amount of its output to attacking U.S. critics of President Donald Trump’s Iran policy. Within days of complaints being brought against Iran Disinfo, the project was suspended; by early June, the remainder of the $1.5 million contract had been terminated.

But the State Department did not end all its funding for Iran Disinfo’s implementing organization, the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, or ECCE, which has received nearly $10 million from the U.S. government to operate a number of Iran projects over the past decade. Internal documents obtained by The Intercept show that even after Iran Disinfo’s grant was terminated, State Department officials continued talking and collaborating with the co-founder and president of the ECCE, Mariam Memarsadeghi, seeking to use her other U.S.-funded platforms to distribute Trump administration messaging on Iran. In one document, department officials acknowledged that they continued funding another ECCE project, Tavaana, an online platform for civic education in Iran.

The documents were obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department, with help from Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that advocates against authoritarianism in the U.S. Hundreds of pages of documents offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy and the Trump State Department’s hawkish rhetoric against Iran. Over four years, the policy has resulted in significant suffering in Iran, mostly through the reimposition of crushing economic sanctions, but failed to achieve the administration’s goal of bringing Iran to the negotiating table with Trump or toppling its government.

In the wake of the Iran Disinfo scandal in 2019, according to internal documents, State Department officials discussed a proposal from the program implementer to amplify Twitter messages from Richard Grenell, a combative Iran hawk and, at the time the documents were created, Trump’s ambassador to Germany. An official at the U.S. Embassy in Germany wrote of a June 2019 meeting with Memarsadeghi. “Mariam was eager to amplify Ambassador Grenell’s social media/Twitter messages in Farsi through the Tavaana platforms, but she also mentioned her organization was also linked to the Disinfo project that was discontinued,” wrote the embassy official, whose name was redacted in the email exchange.

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In a subsequent email, whose senders and recipients are also redacted, another department official seems to give a blessing to the collaboration between Grenell and Tavaana, explaining that the public was unaware of the links to Iran Disinfo. “We’ve reviewed Tavaana social media feeds carefully and have not found any inappropriate or out-of-scope behavior. We don’t have concerns with these social media accounts and are still funding them,” the official wrote. “To my knowledge, it’s not (widely) public or in the press reporting that Tavaana and IranDisinfo are/were run by the same group ECCE.”

Although Iran Disinfo was a separate project, it shared the same leadership and staff with other ECCE projects: Memarsadeghi was the project lead, and Brittany Hamzy was project manager for both Iran Disinfo and Tavaana and remains on at ECCE as deputy director. (Memarsadeghi, who did not respond to requests for comment, resigned from her position at ECCE in December 2019.)

“Funding that was meant to counter ISIS propaganda was morphed into funding to silence activists and experts who want to reform U.S. policy on Iran.”

In response to a question about their current relationship with the ECCE, a State Department spokesperson said, “The GEC ended its work with E-Collaborative for Civic Education (ECCE) in 2019 following a 2019 review. The State Department does not currently provide funding to any ECCE programs.” The State Department, however, refused to confirm whether it has ended its working relationship with the ECCE. Government grantees occasionally spend short periods of waiting time between finished projects and new grants. (ECCE did not respond to requests for comment.)

The revelations about attempts to continue its work with a disgraced contractor suggest a determination by the Trump administration to keep pressing its hard line against Iran.

“It seems that the State Department is playing bait and switch with the American people, announcing they had cut funding to a project that used tax dollars to attack American human rights researchers and academics considered not sufficiently war-hungry on Iran, but quietly funding other projects by the same organization under the same leadership,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. Whitson had publicly flagged Iran Disinfo’s State Department funding last year after the group made a disparaging tweet about Human Right Watch’s Iran researcher, who was investigating the negative impact of U.S. sanctions on access to medicine in Iran.

Whitson told The Intercept, “The real bottom line here is that funding that was meant to counter ISIS propaganda was morphed into funding to silence activists and experts who want to reform U.S. policy on Iran.”

The FOIA documents obtained by The Intercept show how many of the State Department’s efforts — such as the ones describing efforts to quietly keep the relationship with ECCE going — have been marshaled  in the service of pushing a hard-line view of Iran policy. Diplomatic counterpropaganda resources continue to be poured into pursuing the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, with the result being combative public messaging. In the case of Iran Disinfo, the funds came from State Department’s Global Engagement Center, whose mission is to “recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.”

“The Global Engagement Center was designed to protect Americans and democracies from the threat of disinformation,” said Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement in President Barack Obama’s White House. “They have failed miserably. They have done little, even as the danger grew.”

Instead, funds disbursed by the GEC were used, as in the case of Iran Disinfo and its affiliated Twitter accounts, to wage online campaigns against groups and individuals based in the U.S. — smearing human rights researchers, former political prisoners in Iran, analysts who are critical of Trump’s Iran policy, and even Persian media outlets and journalists (including a reporter on this story) as “mouthpieces” and apologists for the Iranian regime.

“It has been used by the administration for publicity and the pursuit of those who opposed their foreign policy, especially on Iran,” Bruen said. “Astonishingly, those who were targeted included American citizens. This violates the law and fundamental beliefs about how our country should operate.”

The money given out to groups like ECCE over the years is part of a purported effort to promote democracy in Iran, initiatives for which Congress has appropriated more than $515 million since 2004. In 2020, the State Department received $55 million from Congress for Iran democracy programs under the rubric of Near East Regional Democracy initiatives, known as NERD. NERD-funded programs include online initiatives based outside Iran, due to the Iranian government’s deep suspicion of U.S.-funded democracy projects and the security risks posed to those who implement them. For this reason, the State Department does not publicize NERD activities, grantees, or beneficiaries.

The secrecy has created a funding ecosystem that lacks transparency and rigorous congressional oversight, and is not open to media and public scrutiny that can result in scandals.

“The Iran Disinfo campaign was a clear example of why we need more transparency with respect to all operations within the State Department. It was unacceptable that Americans were being targeted and harassed online, financed by tax dollars for being critical of the Trump Administration’s policy with Iran,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in a statement to The Intercept. “I was happy to see the contract cancelled, but it’s deeply disturbing to hear that the State Department continued to fund the program’s implementers.”

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike on January 6, 2020 in Tehran, Iran.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony of Iranian Maj. General Qassim Suleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 6, 2020 in Tehran, Iran.

Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Since taking office in 2017, Trump embarked on a reversal of the approach that Barack Obama took toward Iran. After exiting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal over opposition from America’s European allies, Trump ramped up economic sanctions against Iran and even carried out targeted killings of Iranian military officials.

Efforts like Iran Disinfo are part of the administration‘s overall strategy. Though the public scrutiny of the initiative led to its downfall, the modus operandi of launching personal attacks against critics is typical of the Trump administration’s general approach — visible in statements from the president himself, as well as top officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The documents obtained by The Intercept give an inside look as the State Department scrambled to deal with inquiries from Capitol Hill and the press about Iran Disinfo’s online behavior.

Memarsadeghi, who founded and ran ECCE with her husband, Akbar Atri, has promoted a hard-line view of Iran policy, frequently engaging in the sort of online attacks that became Iran Disinfo’s calling card. In the internal documents, State Department officials even complained about Memarsadeghi attacking their own agency, referring to a tweet she shared questioning why Pompeo did not take a more hard-line stance on Iran during a speech. The softer stance, according to the emails, turned out to have been a translation mistake. Officials continued to complain, however, that Memarsadeghi didn’t amend her tweets even after she was notified of the translation error.

“It is explicitly prohibited to use public diplomacy funds, which are designed to influence foreign audiences, to propagandize Americans.”

As scrutiny on Iran Disinfo’s combative social media presence mounted, the behavior became a problem for the GEC. “It is explicitly prohibited to use public diplomacy funds, which are designed to influence foreign audiences, to propagandize Americans,” said Bruen.

Bruen added that the Iran Disinfo flap reflected a broader problem with counterpropaganda funding in the Trump administration. “A recent Inspector General report noted that in most cases, they don’t even bother to ask what impact their work is having against the spread of disinformation,” he said. “Instead, they are pretty much just shoveling money out the back of pickup trucks to anyone who says they’ll do something about propaganda.”

Memarsadeghi and key members of her team had not been vetted for their work on the Iran Disinfo project as late as April 2019, months after the project had started, according to the emails obtained by The Intercept. An email written by Memarsadeghi on March 28, 2019 said, “Several key members of our staff (myself included) have NOT been confirmed to be cleared, as well as several consultants we’re hoping to work with.” The email asked for the vetting process to be expedited to avoid future problems.

As public concern over Iran Disinfo’s activities grew, questions were raised inside Foggy Bottom. On May 30, 2019, TJ Rodebaugh, a State Department official, sent an email to Lea Gabrielle, a former intelligence official and Fox News reporter who was appointed by Trump to lead the GEC. Rodebaugh laid out the background of the Iran Disinfo flap, including a timeline, and distributed talking points for the official to use.

“At 12:15 Scott called the implementer” — Iran Disinfo — “to explain that, based on the Scope of Work they agreed to, their activities should be focused on foreign audiences (not engaged in online debates with U.S. based organizations) and should utilize their fact based reporting, documentaries, and briefing packets,” the email to Gabrielle said. “If they cannot keep the scope of their activities to that of the project SOW and work plan then they risk the longevity of the project. The implementer’s president, Mariam Memarsadeghi, said that she will immediately contact the account operators and get them back within scope.”

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The effort to save Iran Disinfo’s public image would prove futile. By early June, the State Department suspended the project under pressure from the media and Congress. On July 10, Gabrielle publicly acknowledged in a congressional hearing that the $1.5 million Global Engagement Center contract with Iran Disinfo had been canceled.

At around the same time, however, the U.S. official in the German embassy was seeking cooperation from Memarsadeghi to distribute Grenell’s statements. The internal documents also show that the same month, ECCE officials were communicating with the State Department about a new grant opportunity for which they had been invited to apply.

As the State Department became a machine for promoting the Trump administration’s Iran policy, officials at Foggy Bottom remained highly attuned to public scrutiny of their activities.

Internal emails show officials held internal discussions about a 2019 article published in The Intercept titled “How Voice of America Persian Became a Trump Administration PR Machine.” The article outlined how the ostensibly apolitical Persian-language outlet had become another tool in Trump’s maximum pressure program against Iran. In a series of emails to various officials, then-State Department senior adviser Mora Namdar called the article “misleading and inaccurate,” and offered to brief higher-ups about the news story. Namdar was later installed as acting vice president for legal affairs at Voice of America’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. (In response to a request for comment, the State Department declined to expand on its complaints about the story.)

With the Iran Disinfo grant discontinued, the State Department still had $1.2 million of its original budget to spend. An October 2019 memo requested approval from Gabrielle to disburse the remainder of the funds to the Stabilisation Network, an organization that describes itself as being involved in countering violent extremism and has very limited online presence, including a website that does not mention State Department funding.

In a statement to The Intercept, a representative of the Stabilization Network said the group received funding to support social cohesion, youth, and civil society organizations in Jordan. The group’s representative said it does no work on Iran and has no connections to Iran Disinfo, ECCE, or other related projects.

In late November, months after the public scandal over Iran Disinfo and its subsequent termination, nationwide protests broke out in Iran. The government cracked down on protesters violently. Christopher Taylor, a State Department official in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, wrote to Memarsadeghi to thank her for the “excellent” work by Tavaana — the ECCE project then still receiving grant money — in covering the protests. Taylor also asked if the State Department could forward videos of the protests it received to Tavaana, for wider distribution.

“Of course, Chris,” Memarsadeghi wrote back. “That’s perfect. Thank you.”

The post State Department Cut Funding for Controversial “Iran Disinfo” Project — but Kept Working With Its Creators appeared first on The Intercept.

Did the FBI Downplay the Far-Right Politics of Las Vegas Shooter Stephen Paddock?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/09/2020 - 9:00pm in

Crime scene tape surrounds the Mandalay Hotel on October 2, 2017 after Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and wounded more than 500 others when he opened fire a day earlier on a country music concert in Las Vegas. Police said the gunman, a 64-year-old local resident named as Stephen Paddock, had been killed after a SWAT team responded to reports of multiple gunfire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, a hotel-casino next to the concert venue. / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Crime scene tape surrounds the Mandalay Hotel after Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and wounded more than 500 others when he opened fire on a country music concert in Las Vegas on Oct. 2, 2017.

Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Three years after the worst mass shooting in recent American history, the FBI has yet to identify a motive explaining what could have driven Stephen Paddock to open fire on a crowded music festival from a Las Vegas hotel window, killing 58 people and injuring many hundreds more. But the FBI, which has been notoriously slow to recognize right-wing threats in recent years, may have ignored a politically inconvenient explanation: Paddock, in our view, fit the profile of a far-right political extremist bent on sowing violence in society.

Paddock appeared fixated on three pillars of right-wing extremism: anti-government conspiracy theories, threats to Second Amendment rights, and overly burdensome taxes. For instance, one witness told Las Vegas police that Paddock was “kind of fanatical” about his anti-government conspiracies and that he believed someone had to “wake up the American public” and get them to arm themselves in response to looming threats. Family members and associates of Paddock painted a picture of a man who loathed restrictions on gun ownership and believed that the Second Amendment was under siege, according to our review of their statements to investigators after the shooting and other documents compiled by the authorities.

Some violent, far-right extremists, including the attacker in last year’s mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques, point as inspiration to the notion of “accelerationism”: their desire to create violent chaos in society, even a civil war. While that term hadn’t yet taken hold when Paddock opened fire on October 1, 2017 — and, as his final act, shot himself dead — his anti-government hostilities, his right-wing ideologies, and his violent rampage that night might qualify him as one of the first in a new wave of accelerationists.

The FBI and Las Vegas police each spent many months searching for a motive in the Las Vegas attack, and both agencies claimed to come up empty in the end. There was “no single or clear motivating factor behind Paddock’s attack,” an FBI panel concluded in a report released in January 2019, and it found “no evidence that Paddock’s attack was motivated by any ideological or political beliefs.” The FBI said that “throughout his life, Paddock went to great lengths to keep his thoughts private, and that extended to his final thinking about this mass murder,” much like many violent lone actors before him.

Paddock’s anti-government hostilities, his right-wing ideologies, and his violent rampage that night might qualify him as one of the first in a new wave of accelerationists.

The FBI’s silence on a possible motive is unsatisfying. Attacks carried out by Muslims and Middle Easterners are routinely labeled as terrorism inside the United States, while many of those carried out by non-Muslims like Paddock — a 64-year-old white man — often are not. It was not until earlier this year, after mounting evidence from outside studies, that FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged, belatedly, that the bureau considered the rising threat of violent domestic extremists to be on a par with foreign and Islamic-inspired terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Then came the news earlier this month from a high-ranking Homeland Security whistleblower who said he had been pressured to downplay the threat of white supremacists and other intelligence that might be frowned upon by the Trump White House. Another high-ranking Homeland Security official made the same claim in a Forbes interview last month.

With the three-year anniversary of the Las Vegas massacre a week away, Paddock’s motives deserve closer scrutiny by the FBI and others — not only for understanding the rampage itself, but also for understanding a string of other deadly attacks carried out by right-wing extremists in recent months in response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

To be sure, factors like Paddock’s declining mental health or an apparent downturn in his high-stakes gambling could also have played a part in his twisted thinking that night. We may never know for certain what would drive a man to barricade himself inside the Mandalay Bay resort with nearly two-dozen high-powered weapons and commit an act of such horrendous violence. But consider what is known about Paddock’s deep-set political beliefs and grievances on issues like guns and taxes.

Kitchenette in the hotel room of Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock's 32nd floor room of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, an image released as part of a preliminary report by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Jan. 19, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Kitchenette in the hotel room of Stephen Paddock’s 32nd floor room of the Mandalay Bay hotel, an image released as part of a preliminary report by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Jan. 19, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Photo: Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department/AP

Paddock “had an obsession with guns” and would become angry when challenged on the Second Amendment, according to Adam LeFevre, who dated the sister of Paddock’s partner. Paddock “made it very clear he would have no part of gun ownership restrictions,” said LeFevre, who got a glimpse of Paddock’s well-stocked gun room during a tour of his home, in another interview. Indeed, by the time of the attack, Paddock had amassed an arsenal of some 80 firearms, mostly assault-style rifles, in addition to stockpiling ammunition and some survivalist equipment — another glaring attribute of the far right.

“He was animated about the government and the tax system,” LeFevre told us in an email. “He was outspoken about the inadequacies and waste of the government.”

“He was animated about the government and the tax system. He was outspoken about the inadequacies and waste of the government.”

Paddock’s ardent opposition to gun restrictions bled into his embrace of a number of the debunked conspiracy theories that have helped to fuel a rise in right-wing extremism in recent years, according to the statements collected by the Las Vegas police, as well as interviews with journalists.

The month before the shooting,  one unnamed associate recounted to Las Vegas police detectives that Paddock tried to bribe him into selling a gun part used to convert a semiautomatic firearm into a fully automatic machine gun, demonstrating a total disregard for federal firearms laws. When the associate refused because he said it would be illegal, Paddock reportedly became enraged and made references to a litany of anti-government conspiracy theories, including supposed plans by the Federal Emergency Management Administration to set up “detention camps” of Americans and plans for widespread confiscation of firearms. Paddock believed that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 “was just a dry run for law enforcement and military to start kickin’ down doors and confiscating guns,” the associate said.

“He was kind of fanatical about this stuff,” the associate added, quoting Paddock as saying that “somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves.”

Another witness interviewed in the investigation gave a similar account of Paddock’s fixation on anti-government conspiracy theories. A 27-year-old Las Vegas sex worker, who said she spent many hours drinking and gambling with Paddock, described him as “paranoid” and said that he would often rant about the American government’s orchestration of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Paddock, a high-stakes gambler at Las Vegas casinos, also held views on the burden of taxes — which might seem ironic, since he had worked for the IRS early in his career. In fact, the shooter’s younger brother, Eric Paddock, believed that Stephen, who was trained as an accountant, had gone to work for the IRS years earlier “in order to learn how to hide income,” according to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s final report on the shooting. Another brother, Bruce Paddock, recalled that Stephen would “juice” the family’s tax returns to get back thousands of dollars in refunds.

While the FBI has been reluctant to label many attacks by far-right figures as terrorism, outside academics and researchers who track terrorism have filled that void in recent years, compiling data on the growing amount of far-right violence. The managers of two exhaustive databases on terrorism incidents — the START program at the University of Maryland, which works with the Department of Homeland Security, and the Center for Investigative Reporting — decided to include Paddock’s Las Vegas massacre as an act of domestic terrorism, even though the FBI does not classify it that way.

Trying to decipher the motives of a mass murderer like Paddock is no mere academic exercise; it is vital that law enforcement officials and policymakers are able to identify warnings signs and institute prevention strategies to try to head off the next attack. Too often, the system has fallen short, with clear warnings missed — and lives lost. Understanding Paddock’s motivations becomes even more critical in light of the violent responses to Black Lives Matters protests by a number of far-right agitators who, like Paddock, appear motivated by a passion for guns, extremist ideologies, and a desire to “wake up Americans” to their perceived plight.

President Donald Trump, with little evidence, has tried repeatedly to blame antifa and “left-wing” protesters for organized violence surrounding the protests. But in most cases of violence, evidence on the ground so far points instead to far-right, anti-government protesters — particularly members of the so-called boogaloo boys, who believe in conspiracies about the government’s confiscation of guns and predict a coming civil war in America.

A group gathers around Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson for a prayer after a candlelight vigil Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Vancouver, Wash., for Aaron "Jay" Danielson, who was fatally shot in Portland, Ore.

A group gathers around Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson for a prayer after a candlelight vigil on Sept. 5, 2020, in Vancouver, Wash., for Aaron “Jay” Danielson, who was fatally shot in Portland, Ore.

Photo: Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian via AP

Prosecutors have linked the boogaloos and armed, right-wing militia groups to a series of violent episodes, including the fatal shootings of law enforcement officers in Oakland and Santa Cruz, Calif., the shooting of a Black Lives Matter protester in Albuquerque, N.M., the killing of two people at a protest in Kenosha, Wis., and — in Las Vegas itself — the attempted bombing of another protest.

Another far-right group called Patriot Prayer has been involved in a series of increasingly volatile and sometimes violent clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters in its support for Trump. One of Patriot Prayer’s members, Aaron Danielson, was shot and killed in a Portland demonstration during an apparent confrontation with Michael Reinoehl, who was later killed by federal authorities in the state of Washington. Danielson’s death is the first known killing carried out by anyone affiliated with antifa during the recent wave of unrest.

Admittedly, the idea that Stephen Paddock’s rampage in Las Vegas may have been driven by right-wing extremism still leaves many questions unanswered — such as why he would pick a country music festival as his target or what finally drove him to violence. After all, there are plenty of conspiracy-minded, gun-toting tax haters who never kill anyone.

Paddock left behind no note or manifesto explaining his actions — unlike a number of recent mass murderers motivated by far-right grievances who wrote screeds that laid out their hatreds. That list includes Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; Patrick Crusius, accused of killing 23 people last year at a Walmart in El Paso frequented by many Latinos; and Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people last year at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In his New Zealand screed last year, Tarrant, a white supremacist angry at immigrants, wrote of his adherence to the idea of using violence to speed accelerationism and destabilize society, giving the idea a much wider platform on social media. This violent extremist concept has existed for decades, but those on the far right in the United States — both anti-government extremists and white supremacists — have reinvigorated this concept in recent years in an attempt to foment violence and civil war.

The clues to his political motives certainly merit further review from law enforcement officials to help solve the mystery of what drove him to massacre those dozens of concertgoers.

We asked officials at both the FBI and the Las Vegas Police Department whether they believed that Paddock may have been motivated by extreme right-wing ideologies, given what is now known about his beliefs. The FBI and Las Vegas police referred us back to their 2018 reviews of the attack, which were unable to pinpoint a motive. In releasing that report, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said at the time: “What we have been able to answer are the questions of who, what, when, where and how. What we have not been able to definitively answer is the ‘why’ Stephen Paddock committed this act.”

Both of us have examined from a close vantage point the rise of right-wing extremism — and resistance from the federal government in recognizing it. Daryl Johnson was the author of a 2009 report at DHS on the rising threat, which was retracted under political pressure by Republicans, and he has written two books on the subject. Eric Lichtblau has written about the subject extensively over the years, including an article in The Intercept in June about an intelligence report acknowledging the government’s failings in confronting the threat of domestic extremists.

People may disagree, based on the evidence, about whether Paddock should be considered part of the rogue’s gallery of ideologically inspired, right-wing killers — alongside people like Roof in Charleston and Crusius in El Paso. But the clues to his political motives certainly merit further review from law enforcement officials to help solve the mystery of what drove him to massacre those dozens of concertgoers on that October night three years ago. The families of the victims deserve it, and the government’s efforts to head off the next massacre demand it.

Update: September 22, 2020
This story has been updated with comment from the FBI that was provided after publication.

The post Did the FBI Downplay the Far-Right Politics of Las Vegas Shooter Stephen Paddock? appeared first on The Intercept.

“At This Point It’s Country Over Party”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 1:29am in

It feels like power is slipping away from Trump and his administration, and they are trying desperately to claw it back. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his team are trying to criticize the president without getting sucked into his orbit, so they can focus on moving the country forward. Continue reading

The post “At This Point It’s Country Over Party” appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

At Homeland Security, Anti-Muslim Activist Katharine Gorka Maintained Ties With Islamophobes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 3:18am in

In October 2018, Clare Lopez, a far-right activist and longtime top figure at the anti-Muslim group Center for Security Policy, wrote to a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security expecting a receptive audience. After all, the recipient of the email was Katharine Gorka, a former senior adviser in the Department’s Office of Policy, whose tenure in President Donald Trump’s DHS was itself controversial, in light of her past comments about Islam.

Lopez’s email echoed a widespread far-right conspiracy theory about Muslim Americans: that national Muslim advocacy organizations, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, are secretly fronts for overseeing terrorist organizations. Lopez was writing to urge the largest federal law enforcement organization in the country to act on the unfounded theory.

“HAMAS is a designated FTO” — Foreign Terrorist Organization — “& CAIR is its US branch … but members of Congress openly support it, even are featured as keynote speakers at its events,” Lopez wrote. She warned about CAIR and another American-Muslim group: “We need to understand that this is a domestic insurgency aimed at destruction & replacement of the US Constitution – please let me know how I can help.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Center for Security and Policy, where Lopez worked at the time, as a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement.” It is unclear if Lopez, who was a vice president with the group, remains at the Center of Security Policy; the group no longer appears in many of her public biographies. (Lopez did not respond to repeated inquiries and the Center for Security Policy declined to comment.) But her LinkedIn page lists the center as a current affiliation, describing her role as that of a “thought leader” and “project manager” in the “counterjihad movement.”

“We were concerned when she joined the administration. What we found is a large number of meetings proving our hypothesis.”

Lopez’s message was obtained by the Washington-based group American Oversight this month as part of a public records request into Gorka’s role at DHS. Founded in 2017, lawyers from American Oversight filed suit for her calendars and external communications last year. The agency began releasing documents earlier this year and shared a recently released collection with The Intercept.

Because of her record of anti-Muslim comments, Gorka’s roles with the Trump administration — she was an early appointee to the transition team for the Department of Homeland Security — raised alarm bells among Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. While it’s not clear from the FOIA documents whether Gorka ever responded to Lopez’s October appeal, the email was one among many in the trove that American Oversight says confirmed the worst fears: that Gorka’s appointment could have emboldened far-right and anti-Muslim voices to see an ally in Trump’s DHS.

Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director and a former lawyer for the State Department under President Barack Obama, told The Intercept by phone that the group filed the lawsuit to find out what role Gorka had in DHS’s policy process and to see whether she was in touch with outside voices on the far-right.

“Katharine Gorka comes from an ecosystem of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam organizations and personalities,” Evers said. “We were concerned when she joined the administration that she would bring that network in, and enhance its influence with the power of the United States government. What we found is a large number of meetings proving our hypothesis.”

In a statement to The Intercept, CAIR Director of Government Affairs Robert McCaw said, “These messages confirm what we already knew — Katharine Gorka is an anti-Muslim bigot and conspiracy theorist who openly collaborates with other far-right extremists. Ms. Gorka never had any business serving in the federal government.”

A former writer for the far-right website Breitbart, Gorka had used various platforms to air anti-Muslim views in the past. In a 2015 interview, she proposed “shutting down the radical mosques.” She had also suggested that the news network Al Jazeera — a frequent boogeyman of the Islamophobic far right — should not be allowed to broadcast in the United States.

Though it is unclear if Gorka ever responsed to Lopez’s October email, Lopez had indeed maintained a relationship with a sympathetic ally in the highest levels of government.

According to the FOIA documents, Gorka and Lopez ran into each other earlier in August 2018, when Gorka’s husband Sebastian — a former Trump White House official and bombastic right-wing personality — gave a foreign policy address at the think tank Westminster Institute, where Katharine Gorka formerly served as executive director. Lopez wrote to Gorka the next day and shared her private Protonmail address. “Great to see you … last night at Westminster, Katie – looking forward to following up w/you,” Lopez wrote.

After more than two years as a senior policy adviser at DHS, Gorka became press secretary for the department’s Customs and Border Protection last June. Two months later, she left the Trump administration and now works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. Unlike her husband, Sebastian, who has been a vocal presence on right-wing media defending the president, Katharine Gorka, who goes by Katie, is a more understated presence. Her caution extends to what she puts in government email.

The FOIA documents paint a picture of Trump’s DHS as heavily influenced by political appointees like Gorka.

Calendars and emails, however, which were obtained through American Oversight’s FOIA request, largely confirm previous news reports that she was an influential, behind-the-scenes presence on terrorism policy and had a hand in shaping DHS’s approach to “countering violent extremism” programs.

The FOIA documents paint a picture of Trump’s DHS as heavily influenced by political appointees like Gorka, and the revelations come at a time when DHS stands accused of politicizing intelligence to benefit Trump. Last week, the House Intelligence Committee released a whistleblower complaint from Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, who told the committee that senior leadership had pressured him to inflate the threat of left-wing violence, while downplaying that from white supremacy and Russian election interference.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, DHS moved to shift the focus of its “countering violent extremism” grant program. CVE, as the policy area is known, purports to espouse a community-based terrorism prevention effort aimed at preventing all forms of extremist violence in the U.S. Even under President Barack Obama, the effort was criticized for singling out American Muslims for suspicion. As a result, CVE programs grew to be controversial for targeting Muslim American communities for surveillance.

Under Trump, the program appeared to go one step further — and criticisms deepened, not least because of the involvement of officials like Gorka.

In 2017, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly altered the distribution of about $10 million in CVE grant money previously allocated to community organizations by the outgoing Obama administration. Among the groups cut were Life After Hate, a nonprofit aimed at de-radicalizing white supremacists. News reports, including a profile in BuzzFeed News later that year, linked Gorka to the decision.

The calendars obtained by American Oversight confirm that much of Gorka’s work in 2017 focused on policy around CVE. Her calendars list a first “CVE grant discussion” on January 24, 2017 — four days after Trump’s inauguration — and continued to list her as a participant in more than 10 meetings or discussions on CVE between then and the end of March 2017.

Gorka’s calendars show that, throughout the year, she was invited to participate in meetings, discussions, and phone calls on CVE programs, including discussing partnerships with other DHS agencies. For example, her calendar shows one October 2017 meeting between staff from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Office of Citizenship “to explore partnering on developing CVE programs for children of immigrants.” It’s unclear if anything came of the meeting.

Gorka’s calendar also lists a February 2017 discussion on “CVE grants and Sanctuary Cities.” Again, it’s unclear if anything came of the meeting, but the Trump administration would later fight a court battle over whether the Department of Justice can withhold law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities.

The calendars show Gorka also had a hand in other terrorism prevention initiatives at DHS. In late 2017, she was invited to participate in a meeting on “DHS Screening and use of publicly available information” — possibly a reference to a later policy change by the Trump administration to start screening the social media pages for refugee and asylum seekers.

Gorka was so central to terrorism policy at DHS that, after Kelly left in November 2017, Gorka was one of the officials tasked with coordinating between different DHS offices.

Gorka was so central to terrorism policy at DHS that, after Kelly left to become Trump’s chief of staff in November 2017, she was one of the officials tasked with coordinating between different DHS offices to develop a briefing on terrorism prevention for the incoming secretary.

While at DHS, Gorka also frequently corresponded with various people at her soon to be employer, the Heritage Foundation, where she is listed as having a number of meetings during her tenure in public office. One frequent confidant was Robin Simcox, then a terrorism researcher at the think tank who authored a report called “The Asylum-Terror Nexus: How Europe Should Respond,” which it pushes a similar line to the justifications given by Trump and other anti-immigration activists to the U.S.’s asylum program. (Simcox, who frequently shared his published works with Gorka’s official government email address, did not respond to a request for comment made to the U.K.’s Counter Extremism Group, where he is the director.)

Gorka also used her work email to confide in Heritage scholars, including about her plans after leaving DHS. In June 2018, more than a year before she left the agency, Gorka emailed James Carafano, a national security expert at the think tank, asking to talk about “terrorism prevention and life after DHS.” (A spokesperson for Heritage declined to comment for this story.)

Eighteen months later, she would become Carafano’s colleague, when, according to a LinkedIn page, she formally joined Heritage.

The post At Homeland Security, Anti-Muslim Activist Katharine Gorka Maintained Ties With Islamophobes appeared first on The Intercept.

BlueLeaks Documents Bolster Whistleblower Account of Intelligence Tampering at Homeland Security

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 9:00pm in

If Chad Wolf, the man currently running the largest law enforcement agency in the country, had any idea of what was coming, he didn’t show it. On Wednesday, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security stood before his colleagues and delivered the 2020 “State of the Homeland Address,” detailing the many ways in which his department was living up to its post-9/11 mission and supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda. Everyone on the DHS livestream was socially distanced and wearing masks — everyone, that is, but Ken Cuccinelli, the department’s “senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary.”

Last month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that both Wolf and Cuccinelli are illegally occupying their positions atop DHS. But what the two men lack in legal authorization to work, they make up for in fealty to the president. Teeing up the crowd for Wolf’s remarks this week, Cuccinelli spoke of threats to “our cherished homeland” and said that “after decades of putting global interests ahead of the safety and the prosperity of our citizens, this administration has boldly put America first.”

Wolf, a former Transportation Security Administration lobbyist, struck a similar tone in his prepared remarks, drawing applause when he mentioned Homeland Security’s role in policing protests in Portland, Oregon, and his department’s ongoing efforts to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. The event had just barely concluded when the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published a 24-page whistleblower complaint accusing Wolf, Cuccinelli, and other current and former DHS leaders, including former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was also present at Wednesday’s address, of illegally manipulating and politicizing intelligence to bolster the president’s talking points and policy objectives in numerous ways across multiple years.

Ken Cuccinelli walks off of the stage after speaking at an event at DHS headquarters in Washington.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli walks off stage after speaking at an event at DHS headquarters in Washington, Sept. 9, 2020.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

The man behind the complaint was Brian Murphy, a war on terror veteran who ran Homeland Security intelligence operations and served as a principle adviser to the secretary of DHS and the director of national security. Though complicated by the fact that Murphy himself had previously been accused of overseeing disturbing surveillance practices earlier this year, the whistleblower complaint marked the latest revelation in a long line of stories suggesting that DHS has become the armed extension of a Trumpian political project.

Murphy’s allegations ranged from inflating the number of known or suspected terrorists crossing the border, to the suppression of intelligence on right-wing terrorists, to the stifling of reports on Russian interference in the coming election. Murphy claimed that his efforts to push back on the senior DHS officials were met with retaliation and a demotion. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chair of the intelligence committee, described his complaint as “grave and disturbing,” adding in a statement, “We will get to the bottom of this, expose any and all misconduct or corruption to the American people, and put a stop to the politicization of intelligence.”

John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the politicization of Homeland Security operations under the Trump administration has been “tremendous,” and that it first began in the border and immigration realms and steadily expanded to include militarized Border Patrol BORTAC units deployed to arrest protesters in a major American city against the wishes of local officials.

“It’s at the point now where it’s really undermining the operational capability of DHS to work with the state and local governments,” Sandweg told The Intercept. “There’s going to be repercussions.”

In his complaint, Murphy claimed that in a series of meetings, Wolf and Cuccinelli personally intervened in an effort to doctor information related to the recent protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd, instructing him to “modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups.” Murphy also claimed that the men improperly inserted themselves in the creation of a “Homeland Threat Assessment” report earlier this year, blocking circulation of the document out of concerns over how it “would reflect upon President Trump.”

Chad Wolf testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chad Wolf testifies to answer questions about federal agents’ use during protests in Portland, Ore., in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6, 2020.

Photo: Toni L. Sandys/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

“Two sections were specifically labeled as concerns: White Supremacy and Russian influence in the United States,” Murphy’s complaint said. The complaint went on to describe a series of meetings in May and June, as protests against police brutality spread to every state in the country, in which “Mr. Cuccinelli stated that Mr. Murphy needed to specifically modify the section on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

Murphy’s allegations come two months after an investigation by The Intercept that analyzed a trove of hacked law enforcement documents that were posted online under the title “BlueLeaks.” The materials included documents produced at the local, state, and federal level, including Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, otherwise known as I&A, where Murphy worked. The Intercept’s analysis focused on hundreds of documents produced during the recent protests that referenced “antifa,” a loose movement of antifascist political activists, and revealed glaring disparities between law enforcement’s depiction of groups on the right and the left.

In the case of antifa, the documents revealed that law enforcement intelligence was often vague, mixed up in online conspiracy theories or untethered to evidence of suspected criminal activity. On the far right, on the other hand, the documents showed law enforcement agencies across the country sharing detailed and specific information on the mobilization of armed groups looking to use the unrest as cover to attack law enforcement and protesters and set off a civil war. In July, the sergeant of an elite Air Force security unit with ties to the so-called boogaloo movement was arrested on suspicion of assassinating a federal court security officer and killing a California sheriff’s deputy, strongly suggesting that the online threats circulating at the time went beyond mere posturing.

During the protests, I&A shared intelligence that was both dubious and disturbing. On June 2, for example, the office circulated a tweet to law enforcement agencies across the country reporting that antifa was stashing bricks to “fuel protests.” As Mainer magazine later reported, the original source of the information was a pro-Trump biker who called himself “the wolfman” and previously spread conspiracy theories online.

At the same time, I&A circulated intelligence in late May detailing conversations inside an encrypted white supremacist Telegram channel, in which thousands of followers were encouraged to use guns, Molotov cocktails, and chainsaws to attack police and “spread racial hatred.” The following day, I&A published an intelligence note again describing conversations in another white supremacist Telegram channel, in which followers were encouraged to “engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’ — a term used by some violent extremists to refer to the start of a second Civil War — by shooting in a crowd.”

At the time, Trump, along with Wolf, Cuccinelli, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr were agitating for a crackdown on antifa, with Trump calling the movement a terrorist organization and Barr announcing that Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country would be called to root out leftist “agitators.”

The Justice Department has launched hundreds of domestic terrorism investigations in the weeks since, while a Trump Super Pac has used the antifa crackdown to raise money for the president’s reelection efforts.

On June 1, Trump boosted a tweet from Brian Kilmeade, in which the “Fox and Friends” co-host said he saw no evidence of white supremacists mobilizing in response to the protests. “TRUE!” Trump tweeted. Later in the day, Trump delivered an address in the Rose Garden threatening to use the military in response to the “professional anarchists” and antifa elements in the streets. He made no mention of groups on the far right. The next morning, DHS circulated a report acknowledging “media reports” indicating “that neo-Nazi, and other paramilitary far-right groups, are calling for terror attacks during the ongoing unrest throughout the United States.” According to a distribution list at the bottom of the report, the document was shared with the White House Situation Room, DHS headquarters, federal interagency operations centers, and state and local partners.

Despite the intelligence circulating in his own office regarding threats from the far right, Cuccinelli continued to keep the focus on the left.

Despite the intelligence circulating in his own office regarding threats from the far right, Cuccinelli continued to keep the focus on the left, tweeting, “Their silence is deafening. Cities across America burn at the hands of antifa and anarchists while many political leaders are refusing to call it what it is: domestic terrorism.”

Murphy and his office drew national attention in late July, when news broke that I&A had disseminated three Open Source Intelligence Reports summarizing the tweets of a New York Times reporter and the editor of a prominent Washington, D.C. national security blog; both had published unclassified DHS documents related to the Portland protests. At the time, Wolf said he had ordered a stop to the intelligence gathering and launched an investigation into the matter. Murphy was singled out as the official driving the intelligence collection, with sources telling the Washington Post that the former FBI agent had “earned a reputation at DHS for aggressively trying to expand the operations of the intelligence office.”

In his complaint, Murphy said the media reports concerning the collection of information on journalists were “significantly flawed and, in many instances, contained completely erroneous assertions,” and that “I&A never knowingly or deliberately collected information on journalists, at least as far as Mr. Murphy is aware or ever authorized.”

The expansive network of law enforcement fusion centers where I&A directs much of its work product have been the subject of years of criticism for exhibiting a “persistent pattern of violating Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, producing unreliable and ineffective information, and resisting financial and other types of standard public accountability.” As The Intercept reported in late July, I&A under Trump has repeatedly directed its intelligence-gathering efforts at immigration advocates on the border. DHS officials in San Diego oversaw a sweeping, binational intelligence-gathering operation targeting lawyers, journalists, and asylum advocates associated with the migrant caravans that became a key political talking point for the Trump administration during the 2018 midterm elections.

It is unclear what role, if any, Murphy played in those events, though his complaint notes that during his March 2018 to July 2020 tenure, he was “responsible for all intelligence activities in DHS.” He has been called to testify before Congress later this month, where those questions may come up.

Throughout the past three and half years, the leadership of DHS has been steadily hollowed out, resulting in a department increasingly run by allies of Trump’s anti-immigration adviser, Stephen Miller. To many Homeland Security veterans, the ascent of Wolf and Cuccinelli is the disturbing encapsulation of that trend — one former DHS official, speaking to The Intercept on background, described Wolf as a “back bencher” and “literally a joke.”

On Thursday, one day after Murphy’s complaint made news across the country, the White House sent a letter to the Senate formally nominating Wolf to head DHS. Twenty-four hours later, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, subpoenaed Wolf to testify before his committee, noting in a statement that the acting secretary had been dodging the lawmakers’ questions since protests picked up in June.

“This administration has so completely fueled the negative stereotype of the agency, that is going to have real world implications for the agency for years to come, not just in dealing with Congress,” Sandweg said. “I think they’ve done incalculable damage.”

The post BlueLeaks Documents Bolster Whistleblower Account of Intelligence Tampering at Homeland Security appeared first on The Intercept.

FBI's "Hamas" Sting Against Boogaloo Boys Was So Absurd That Even Hamas Spoke Out Against It

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/09/2020 - 2:42am in

On August 29, in a Minnesota hotel room, Michael Solomon, a pudgy 30-year-old man with a brown scraggly beard, and his pimply faced 22-year-old friend Benjamin Teeter handed over a “drop-in auto sear”: a special part used to convert a gun to fully automatic fire.

Solomon and Teeter were accompanied by two men they believed were members of Hamas, a Palestinian political and militant organization that the U.S. government has designated a foreign terrorist organization. Solomon and Teeter, who had been on the streets of Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd by police, claimed to be members of a group called Boojahideen — part of the so-called Boogaloo movement, a loosely organized collection of far-right, pro-gun extremists who advocate for civil war and the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The Hamas operatives had enlisted the two men to build parts that could modify weapons. The arrangement was the first in what was supposed to be a growing partnership between Hamas and Boojahideen.

Teeter told the Hamas members that they should test the drop-in auto sear before using it in battle, in order to get a sense of how fast the bullets discharge.

One of the Hamas operatives then asked if the gun part could be used to kill American and Israeli soldiers. “Yeah,” Solomon told him.

About a week later, Solomon and Teeter discovered that their new colleagues weren’t Hamas members.

One was an FBI informant, the other an undercover agent. On September 9, the Justice Department announced an indictment against Solomon and Teeter, charging them with attempting to provide material support to Hamas.

“When we read about this, it was really shocking to connect our movement with such extremists.”

Now Hamas, the group FBI agents were pretending to represent, is publicly denouncing the prosecution and its supposed connection to the two Boogaloo members.

“When we read about this, it was really shocking to connect our movement with such extremists,” said Basem Naim, a Hamas member who is the head of the Council on International Relations in Gaza, in an interview with The Intercept.

This is the first time that a designated terrorist group that the FBI pretended to be has come out publicly to denounce a sting case.

“First of all, Hamas is a Palestinian national movement, and we have limited our struggle for freedom and independence within the boundaries of Palestine, and we have nothing to do outside these geographical territories,” Naim said. “The second thing, we have nothing planned and we are not intending to plan anything against the United States.”

New Sting, Same Problems

FBI stings such as this are part of a well-worn counterterrorism tactic. Since the September 11 attacks, the FBI has arrested more than 340 defendants who were caught up in counterterrorism stings in which they believed they were supporting the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or another foreign terrorist organization.

The Boojahideen case did something rare: Over the years, the FBI usually uses foreign terror plots to coax would-be adherents of these foreign groups, whereas in the Boojahideen case, the FBI linked up domestic extremists with a foreign terror group. Under the Justice Department’s normal modus operandi — using something of a double standard — right-wing domestic terrorists do not face terrorism charges.

Still, the use of stings involving foreign-terror plots is still unsettling to some law enforcement and rights experts. Human Rights Watch has critized these stings for often targeting “those with intellectual and mental disabilities and the indigent.” The FBI has long defended its practices by saying that stings allow federal law enforcement to find would-be terrorists before real terrorist groups have the opportunity, but, as in the Boojahideen case, the threats often seem to be concocted by the FBI out of whole cloth in order to initiate charges.

“I fear that the bureau is throwing a lot of effort into resource-intensive sting operations that target only the most gullible individuals in the movement, rather than investigating the multiple examples of far-right violence that are happening in plain sight.”

Michael German, a former FBI special agent and now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, has been a critic of these sting operations. While German didn’t want to pre-judge the Boojahideen case without all the facts at hand, he nonetheless expressed concern that the use of these tactics on far-right terrorists had the same shortcomings. “I fear that the bureau is throwing a lot of effort into resource-intensive sting operations that target only the most gullible individuals in the movement,” German said, “rather than investigating the multiple examples of far-right violence that are happening in plain sight.”

Long, Strange Trip

Solomon lived in the suburbs north of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Teeter was from North Carolina. On May 26, the day after a white police officer killed a Black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly eight minutes, Teeter posted on Facebook: “Lock and load boys. Boog flags are in the air, and the national network is going off.” He then traveled from North Carolina to Minnesota to meet up with Solomon.

As demonstrations started in Minnesota — the first of what would become a summer of unrest in the United States — Teeter and Solomon were patrolling the streets. A witness, who would later be paid by the FBI for information, encountered Solomon walking down the street with a gun. Solomon told the FBI’s witness that he was with Boojahideen, and he was there to protect others from the police, white supremacists, and looters. Solomon and Teeter told the witness that their group’s goal was to overthrow the government and the police.

The Boogaloo movement’s aims are difficult to pin down, since its ideology can vary greatly from adherent to adherent and group to group. Some are white supremacists who view the current unrest as a prelude to a race war. Others, like Solomon and Teeter, do not appear to be racist but are virulently pro-gun and anti-police. Boogaloo adherents refer to themselves as “Boogaloo boys” or “Boogaloo bois,” and during the protests around the country this summer, some wore Hawaiian shirts to connect themselves with the loose anti-government ideology.

Their propensity for violence is not in question. In June, federal and state prosecutors charged three men for their alleged role in a plot to use Molotov cocktails to start a riot at a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas. In California, an Air Force officer and Boogaloo adherent allegedly ambushed and killed one police officer and severely wounded another.

Would-Be Mercenaries

In early June, the FBI’s informant contacted Solomon and Teeter on Facebook. The informant, according to court records, was a Middle Eastern man with a heavy accent. He told Solomon and Teeter that he was with Hamas.

Solomon and Teeter explained to the informant that they were willing to attack protesters in Minnesota, and if the police were called, they’d stick around for a gunfight.

“I’m going to take out whoever initiated the violence, and then I’m going to hang out in the area, you know, move and set up in a better location that’s as close to the area as I can, and then I’m going to take out the next thing that shows up,” Solomon told the informant, according to the government’s account.

Solomon and Teeter apparently had big plans. They wanted to raise money to purchase a compound where Boogaloo and Boojahideen members could train. They saw Hamas as a possible solution, and the pair allegedly suggested to the FBI informant that they could become mercenaries for the Palestinian organization, earning money from the group by blowing up government monuments and courthouses.

On June 28, the informant introduced the two men to an undercover agent who also pretended to be a Hamas member. Teeter told the undercover agent that he was an anarchist who wanted to remove the government. Solomon, according to court filings, added: “Our goal is to tear it down.”

The undercover agent suggested that Solomon and Teeter make suppressors — which muzzle the sound and light from a discharging firearm — for Hamas. The FBI informant, in turn, gave the two men money for a drill press, which they needed to make the suppressors.

From Solomon’s and Teeter’s statements, it’s clear they lived in a fantasy world. Teeter claimed that they could build untraceable AR-15 rifles and that they had a network of “Boog Boys” who could deliver guns around the country.

When asked what he’d like to do in the future, Solomon told the supposed Hamas members: “Well, for the future, I’d build a gallows … and just start hanging politicians left and right.”

But the FBI also did its part to construct the fantasy world. After Solomon and Teeter delivered five suppressors on July 30, the FBI made a video, using agents as Hamas members, that appeared to show soldiers with the terrorist organization firing rifles with the suppressors Solomon and Teeter produced. A month later, Solomon and Teeter were arrested.

One of the many problems with the fantasy that the FBI constructed for Solomon and Teeter is that Hamas says it’s not interested in any such plots.

“Maybe this is for internal domestic reasons — to create such connections and to attract more voters from the right and the Zionist lobbyist to support the current administration,” Naim, the Hamas member, said. “But this should not come at the expense of our just struggle against oppression, apartheid, and occupation.”

The post FBI’s “Hamas” Sting Against Boogaloo Boys Was So Absurd That Even Hamas Spoke Out Against It appeared first on The Intercept.

Senate Report Shows What Mueller Missed About Trump and Russia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/09/2020 - 11:00pm in

When Donald Trump traveled to Moscow in November 1996, looking for real estate development opportunities, he didn’t get a hotel deal in Moscow, but he may have found a new woman, and the Russian government probably knew about it, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s remarkable new report on the committee’s three and a half year investigation into Trump and Russia.

Trump met the Russian woman through his business connections at a party at a luxury hotel in Moscow, and the two apparently had a brief affair, at a time when Trump was married to his second wife, Marla Maples. The Senate report has redacted the woman’s name and blacked out her face in photos taken of her with Trump at the time and provided to the committee. But the report explains in detail how Russian intelligence operatives keep track of the sexual activities of visiting foreign business executives, and notes that the Moscow-based U.S. businessman who introduced Trump to the woman probably told Russian government officials about it.

The report reveals the true nature of the counterintelligence threat posed by a president willing and eager to accept the help of a foreign adversary to win American elections.

The story of Trump’s alleged Moscow affair is in keeping with the bipartisan and comprehensive nature of the Senate report, which is at turns both reassuring and alarming. While it debunks the so-called Steele Dossier, which was highlighted by a wild accusation that Trump had two women urinate on his bed in his Moscow hotel room in 2013, the Senate report examines in detail the less tawdry, but far more plausible, story that Trump had a brief affair on his earlier trip to Moscow and the Russians knew about it.

In fact, the Senate report dismisses many of the most outrageous accusations involving Trump and Russia even as it provides overwhelming and damning evidence of Russia’s efforts to intervene in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win and the Trump campaign’s eagerness to embrace the Russian intervention.

But the Senate report goes much further than election interference and provides the first detailed examination of the broader and complex network of relationships between Trump, his ever-shifting circle of personal and business associates, and a series of Russian oligarchs and other Russian and Ukrainian figures with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the process, the report provides badly needed context for the events of 2016 and beyond. Above all, it reveals the true nature of the counterintelligence threat posed by a president willing and eager to accept the help of a foreign adversary to win American elections.

Since its August 18 release, the Senate report — actually the fifth and final volume of the committee’s massive opus on Trump and Russia — has been overshadowed by both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and as a result, it has received far less attention from the press and the public than it deserves.

But the Senate report is particularly significant now, as the 2020 general election campaign intensifies and Trump and his supporters continue to deny that Russia tried to help him win in 2016 and that Moscow is trying to do so again this year. In recent days, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, has said that the DNI will stop in-person briefings for Congress about election interference, angering congressional Democratic leaders who charge that Ratcliffe and the Trump administration are trying to keep the public in the dark.

But the Senate report cuts through the political noise with clear and unequivocal language to explain what happened in 2016.

At nearly 1,000 pages, the Senate report is by far the best and most thorough examination of the Trump-Russia story to date, and puts the narrower and more legalistic Mueller Report to shame. Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed in 2017 to be special counsel to investigate the Trump-Russia case, kept his focus on gathering evidence for specific criminal prosecutions; the Senate report shows that he missed the forest for the trees.

The Senate report itself is critical of Mueller’s narrow approach and chides him and his team for having failed to grasp the true nature of the national security threat posed by Russia’s intervention in 2016. The report complains that Mueller failed to continue the FBI’s original counterintelligence investigation once the FBI handed off the broader Trump-Russia case. Instead, the special counsel abandoned the counterintelligence portions of the case and focused instead only on elements of the case that could result in criminal prosecutions.

“Over the course of its investigation, the [special counsel] successfully secured numerous criminal indictments and convictions,” the Senate report states. “While criminal prosecutions are a vital tool in upholding our nation’s laws, protecting our democratic system from foreign interference is a broader national security mission that must be appropriately balanced with the pursuit of criminal prosecutions. It is the committee’s view that this balance was not achieved. Russian interference with the U.S. electoral process was inherently a counterintelligence matter and one not well-suited to criminal prosecutions.”

The Senate report is most remarkable for its bipartisan nature. It was produced by a Republican-controlled committee, but the report almost never seems to pull its punches aimed at any of its targets. It is unsparing in its description of Trump and his campaign aides as eager to reach out for Russian help in 2016, but is equally tough in its criticism of the FBI for its missteps in its subsequent investigation of Trump and Russia’s intervention in the election. Along the way, each episode is recounted in exhaustive detail, and the result is that the reader is left with a clear understanding of the relative significance of the different chapters of the Trump-Russia case. That is a relief after years of partisanship and polarization have skewed the public’s understanding of the case.

Lust, Avarice, Opportunism, Incompetence

In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is a throwback to an earlier era of congressional investigations in which bipartisanship was the rule, not the exception. The report is so thick with research and evidence that the letters from Republican and Democratic senators on the committee, attached at the end of the report and arguing over the report’s meaning, seem trivial by contrast.

Perhaps the only significance of the attached letter from the Republican senators is the name of one senator who didn’t sign it: Richard Burr of North Carolina, who until recently was the committee’s chair. Burr was forced to step aside in May, after the disclosure that he was under investigation for stock sales he made before the American public knew the extent of the likely economic threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. But by that time, the committee’s work on the Trump-Russia case was virtually complete. In hindsight, Burr appears to have played a key role in protecting the committee’s investigation from excessive partisan influence.

The independence of the committee’s investigation is evident in its clear and concise conclusions.

“The committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president,” the report states. “Moscow’s intent was to harm the Clinton campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.”

“The committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president.”

The GRU, a Russian intelligence service, conducted the hacks and then used a false cyber front to transfer data to WikiLeaks, which then published the Clinton-related documents at key moments in the 2016 campaign, according to the report. The U.S. media obligingly wrote stories based on the documents, without aggressively pursuing evidence that the leaks were the product of a Russian cyberattack.

The report states that “while the GRU and WikiLeaks were releasing hacked documents, the Trump campaign sought to maximize the impact of those materials to aid Trump’s electoral prospects. To do so, the Trump Campaign took actions to obtain advance notice about WikiLeaks releases of Clinton emails; took steps to obtain inside information about the content of releases once WikiLeaks began to publish stolen information; created messaging strategies to promote and share the materials in anticipation of and following their release; and encouraged further theft of information and continued leaks.”

One of the most intriguing sections in the report deals with the relationship between Paul Manafort, the onetime Trump campaign chair, and a Russian intelligence officer. Indeed, the Manafort section of the report is a prime example of how the Senate investigators brought fresh eyes to a well-known episode in the Trump-Russia case and, unlike Mueller, found new information by examining it as a counterintelligence matter.

In March 2016, longtime international lobbyist Paul Manafort joined the Trump campaign and by May was named the campaign’s chair. Manafort offered to work for Trump for free.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to Rusal President and Management Board Member Oleg Deripaska at the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Da Nang, Vietnam on Nov. 10, 2017.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to Rusal President and Management Board Member Oleg Deripaska at the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Da Nang, Vietnam on Nov. 10, 2017.

Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS via Getty Images

But Manafort came to the Trump campaign with a lot of baggage and was facing a desperate financial squeeze. He had spent years working for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin, who had tasked him to conduct influence operations in countries where Deripaska had major business interests. Deripaska also introduced Manafort to Ukrainian oligarchs and eventually Manafort went to work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych until he was ousted from power in 2014 in the wake of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution.

By 2016, Manafort was caught up in a fight with Deripaska over an investment that had gone sour, and he saw his new position with the Trump campaign as a lifeline to help him resolve the situation. “Once on the campaign, Manafort quickly sought to leverage his position to resolve his multi-million dollar foreign disputes and obtain new work in Ukraine and elsewhere,” the Senate report concluded.

One of Manafort’s closest aides during his time in Ukraine was Konstantin Kilimnik, who the Senate report identifies as a Russian intelligence officer. Kilimnik also served as Manafort’s liaison with Deripaska.

While he was working for Trump during the 2016 campaign, Manafort stayed in contact with Kilimnik and gave him the Trump campaign’s internal polling data, which showed that the key to defeating Clinton was to drive up negative attitudes about her among voters.

The Mueller report found that Manafort had shared Trump polling data with Kilimnik, but didn’t examine why he had done so.  The Senate report says that the intelligence committee “obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 election.” The report adds that “this information suggests that a channel for coordination on the GRU hack operation may have existed through Kilimnik.” The report adds that in interviews with Mueller’s prosecution team, “Manafort lied consistently about one issue in particular: his interactions with Kilimnik.” Manafort decided to “face more severe criminal penalties rather than provide complete answers about his interactions with Kilimnik.” The Manafort-Kilimnik relationship, the Senate report concludes, represents “the single most direct tie between senior Trump campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”

The Senate report is filled with such rich details, shedding new light on the wide cast of characters surrounding both Trump and Putin, and the end result is an engrossing tale of modern intelligence — and of lust, avarice, squalid opportunism, and incompetence — worthy of John le Carré. With its depth of research, layered with an understanding of a complex series of personal networks in both the United States and Russia, the Senate report has done what none of the previous investigations have achieved. It has brought the Trump-Russia story to life.

The post Senate Report Shows What Mueller Missed About Trump and Russia appeared first on The Intercept.

Senior U.S. Intelligence Official Died by Suicide in June

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/08/2020 - 10:47am in

One of the nation’s highest-ranking intelligence officials died by suicide at his home in the Washington, D.C., area in June, but the U.S. intelligence community has remained publicly silent about the incident even as the CIA has conducted a secret investigation of his death.

Anthony Schinella, 52, the national intelligence officer for military issues, shot himself on June 14 in the front yard of his Arlington home. A Virginia medical examiner’s report lists Schinella’s cause of death as suicide from a gunshot wound to the head. His wife, who had just married him weeks earlier, told The Intercept that she was in her car in the driveway, trying to get away from Schinella when she witnessed his suicide. At the time of his suicide, Schinella was weeks away from retirement.

Soon after his death, an FBI liaison to the CIA entered Schinella’s house and removed his passports, his secure phone, and searched through his belongings, according to his wife, Sara Corcoran, a Washington journalist. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

As NIO for military issues, Schinella was the highest-ranking military affairs analyst in the U.S. intelligence community, and was also a member of the powerful National Intelligence Council, which is responsible for producing the intelligence community’s most important analytical reports that go to the president and other top policymakers.

The National Intelligence Council is now under the control of the Director of National Intelligence, and has recently gained greater public prominence as its analytical work has been caught up in political controversies surrounding the Trump administration, including this summer’s public firestorm over intelligence reports about Russian bounties to kill American troops.

On June 26,  the New York Times reported that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump quickly faced criticism for having failed to do anything in response to protect American troops. Within days, the National Intelligence Council produced a memo that claimed that the intelligence about the bounties wasn’t conclusive. While the memo was not made public, it was quickly picked up in the press and seemed designed to placate Trump by raising doubts about the original news story about the Russian bounties. The NIC memo appears to have been generated at the urging of John Ratcliffe, the former Republican Texas congressman and Trump supporter who became director of national intelligence in May.

But at the time that the memo became public through press reports, there was no mention of the fact that the national intelligence officer for military issues — the one member of the NIC who should have had the most input into the analysis concerning military operations in Afghanistan — had killed himself just days earlier. In fact, Schinella was considered an expert on the Taliban and its military capabilities. Though he was an analyst, Schinella had deployed to four different war zones during his career, his wife said.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a graduate degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Schinella had spent much of his career in the CIA before joining the National Intelligence Council. In 2019, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, published a book by Schinella entitled “Bombs Without Boots,” a study of the limits of the uses of air power in modern war.

Tim Kilbourn, a friend and former colleague of Schinella, described him in an interview as an “American patriot,” and said that his end was a “tragedy,” but declined to comment further. The Arlington County, Virginia, police report on the incident was not immediately available.

Ashley Savage, a spokesperson for the Arlington County Police Department, said the department’s investigation of the Schinella case remains open. She said the Arlington police notified the CIA about Schinella’s death, and that the Arlington police provided assistance to the CIA. “We will defer any questions related to the CIA investigation to their agency,” she added.

After his death, Schinella’s wife discovered a large collection of bondage and S&M gear that had been hidden in his house, along with 24 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. His wife said that one of Schinella’s CIA colleagues contacted her recently and said the CIA has completed an investigation into Schinella’s death, but didn’t provide her with any details.

Schinella had two children from a previous marriage.

The post Senior U.S. Intelligence Official Died by Suicide in June appeared first on The Intercept.

Gina Haspel Hangs on at CIA, With Little Support From Trump or Democrats

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 20/08/2020 - 11:57pm in

Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel is a rarity in the Trump administration’s national security apparatus: a career professional who has beaten the odds and survived repeated personnel purges. The president is on his fourth director of national intelligence and sixth national security adviser, including all the “acting” officials to hold those positions. But while he traffics in conspiracy theories about the so-called deep state and often says the U.S. intelligence community is out to get him, Trump has never fired a CIA director.

Still, Haspel’s hold on her job now appears tenuous. Until recently, in fact, several current and former government officials suggested that Trump was likely to fire her sometime before the election, adding that Haspel privately shared those fears. Earlier this summer, Haspel confided to a former colleague that she wouldn’t be surprised if Trump replaced her by September, according to the person who spoke with her.

Haspel has apparently angered Trump by being unwilling to publicly dispute reports about intelligence and national security matters that have made him look bad, including refusing to deny reports that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, the current and former officials said. She has also upset the president by failing to publicly discredit intelligence reports showing that Russia has interfered in the U.S. electoral system to help him win reelection in 2020, a repeat of Moscow’s 2016 intervention.

Haspel has no significant support among Democrats either, because of her involvement in the CIA’s torture program during the George W. Bush administration. Sen. Kamala Harris was one of her biggest critics during her 2018 confirmation hearings, and if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Harris, now his vice presidential running mate, win the election, Haspel will certainly be out.

As a result, Haspel is a CIA director without any base of political support, and she must walk a tightrope every day.

Haspel, 63, has led the CIA since May 2018, a century in Trump time. But her inability to sufficiently placate the president fueled discussions at the White House as recently as mid-July about whether Trump should replace Haspel or FBI Director Christopher Wray, according to a former intelligence official familiar with the matter.

Despite the questions swirling in the national security community about her status, Haspel now appears likely to remain in her job at least until the November election. One former senior intelligence official said that may be thanks to the intervention of key Republican senators, who, apparently worried that the president was about to fire both Haspel and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, have urged Trump not to oust either one before the election. Esper angered Trump in June by resisting the deployment of the military across the country during racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.

The senators advised Trump that getting rid of two top officials in such sensitive posts so close to the election would damage him politically, noting that the Senate would be unlikely to confirm replacements before November, said the former senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss confidential conversations.

“Haspel was anxious [that she was about to lose her job] for like two months,” the former official said. “Now she thinks she has dodged the bullet, but she is still laying low. I think she is probably in there until the election.”

The president is, of course, volatile and unpredictable when it comes to personnel matters. “With Trump, you never know, he could change his mind again,” the former senior official said.

Wray, for example, was once again in the hot seat last week, when Trump publicly criticized him for failing to be sufficiently cooperative with federal prosecutor John Durham’s inquiry into the FBI’s investigation of alleged Russian involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign. And last weekend, Trump publicly mocked Esper in response to reports that he plans to fire him after the election, adding that he “considers firing everybody.”

“[Haspel] thinks she has dodged the bullet, but she is still laying low.”

If Trump wins in November, Haspel, like Esper, is likely to be removed, the current and former officials said. Once she is gone, Trump will be free to place a partisan loyalist in charge of the CIA.

“There’s so much wrong with this story, I don’t even know where to begin,” said Nicole de Haay, a CIA spokesperson, who declined further comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has already elevated a political supporter to be director of national intelligence, installing John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman from Texas. The president initially tried to give Ratcliffe the DNI job last year but backed off because even some Senate Republicans thought Ratcliffe — who misrepresented his role in an anti-terrorism case that he cited among his credentials — lacked experience and would politicize intelligence. In February, Trump tried again, and the Senate finally gave in and confirmed Ratcliffe in May by a vote of 49 to 44, the narrowest margin in a confirmation vote for any DNI since the post was created.

TOPSHOT - Gina Haspel (L) is sworn in as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency alongside US President Donald Trump (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) during a ceremony at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, May 21, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Gina Haspel is sworn in as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump during a ceremony at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., on May 21, 2018.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Haspel is only the Trump administration’s second CIA director; the first, Mike Pompeo, was promoted to secretary of state.

At first, she seemed like the perfect choice to lead the agency under Trump. Before he tapped her for the job, she was best known for her connections to the CIA’s torture regime, when she briefly oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed support for the use of torture against terrorism suspects, and after he won, there was widespread concern that he planned to revive the long-shuttered CIA torture program. While he stopped short of that, his decision to name Haspel deputy CIA director in 2017 was seen as a rebuke to Democrats and human rights advocates who had opposed the use of torture.

When Pompeo was named secretary of state in 2018, Trump’s nomination of Haspel to succeed him stirred such an outcry that she considered withdrawing until White House officials persuaded her to stick with the confirmation process. Her nomination ultimately made it through the Republican-controlled Senate, but she had to endure an intense grilling from Harris, which helped raise Harris’s national profile and establish her as one of the most effective interrogators of Trump administration officials in Congress.

Throughout her tenure, Haspel has faced conflicting objectives: convincing Trump that she is a team player, while at the same time trying to insulate the CIA from the potential for excessive politicization.

Interviews with several former CIA officials reveal that Haspel has relied on Pompeo — one of the only people in the national security arena who has the president’s trust — to help her try to ingratiate herself with Trump and stay out of his erratic line of fire.

“Pompeo taught Gina how to interact with Trump. He taught her how not to antagonize the president, how not to ruffle Trump’s feathers.”

“Pompeo taught Gina how to interact with Trump,” said Douglas London, a former senior CIA officer who retired last year. “He taught her how not to antagonize the president, how not to ruffle Trump’s feathers. Gina adopted Pompeo’s style of messaging to the White House, which focuses on not upsetting the president and making this better for the CIA, rather than worse. That has become her litmus test in dealing with the president.”

Early in Haspel’s tenure as director, Pompeo introduced her to Sean Hannity, the Fox News pundit and ardent Trump supporter, according to a former Trump White House official and a current White House adviser. Hannity has been viewed by Trump administration officials as something of a shadow chief of staff to the president: in frequent contact with him and host of a nightly show that serves as a feedback loop for Trump and Republican talking points. A spokesperson for Hannity confirmed that he and Haspel met, but described it as a chance encounter.

But Haspel’s efforts to appease Trump while shielding the CIA have come at a high cost. Critics say that the agency, like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, has become increasingly risk-averse and reluctant to disseminate intelligence that might be viewed as politically dangerous and likely to anger Trump and the White House.

Despite Trump’s public hectoring, the CIA has continued to collect useful intelligence about Russia’s efforts to intervene in the 2020 election, according to the former senior intelligence official. But the political danger begins once those findings are shared with the White House and the rest of the Trump administration.

“Nobody has been told to stand down,” said a former senior intelligence official, referring to CIA officers in the field working on sensitive targets like Russia. “But nobody is really all that eager to go up the chain of command with it.”

Haspel’s efforts to appease Trump while shielding the CIA have come at a high cost.

The CIA’s caution and bureaucratic inertia under Haspel’s leadership have at times irritated other officials in the intelligence community. Last year, a senior intelligence official in the Defense Department expressed frustration that the CIA had not acted on several proposals from the Pentagon, according to another former senior intelligence official who discussed the matter with him.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity for the CIA. At headquarters, CIA personnel have altered their work schedules to reduce the spread of the virus, while the agency’s strict procedures for dealing with classified information make it difficult for CIA employees to work from home.

In some cases, the agency’s intelligence work overseas has also been disrupted. One active-duty intelligence officer recently told a former colleague that he had returned from his overseas assignment because of the pandemic.

Despite Haspel’s attempts to placate Trump, she has nonetheless angered him because she has been unwilling to cross certain lines. She has sought to maintain her credibility inside the CIA by largely avoiding public statements that actively support Trump’s lies.

One glaring example has been Haspel’s handling of the fallout from the June 26 New York Times story disclosing that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Facing intense criticism for having failed to do anything to protect American troops, Trump falsely claimed both that he was never briefed on the matter and that the story was “fake news” and a “hoax.”

Senior U.S. intelligence officials were soon under pressure to support Trump’s falsehoods, while congressional Democrats demanded classified briefings to force those same officials to tell them the truth.

There was a subtle but noticeable difference between the way Haspel and Ratcliffe, the pro-Trump DNI, handled these competing demands.

 CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives for a closed door briefing at the US Capitol on July 02, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives for a closed door briefing at the U.S. Capitol on July 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Within days of the Russian bounties story, Ratcliffe reportedly arranged for a memo to be generated by the National Intelligence Council, which reports to him. The memo, which claimed that the intelligence about the bounties wasn’t conclusive, was not made public but still seemed designed to placate Trump by raising doubts about the story.

Haspel, by contrast, issued a vague statement in late June that complained about leaks of classified information but did not deny the bounty story. “Hostile states’ use of proxies in war zones to inflict damage on U.S. interests and troops is a constant, longstanding concern,” Haspel said in the statement. “CIA will continue to pursue every lead; analyze the information we collect with critical, objective eyes; and brief reliable intelligence to protect U.S. forces deployed around the world.”  Meanwhile, Haspel privately confirmed that the intelligence was shared with the White House, according to a person who spoke with her about the bounties.

Haspel’s refusal to raise doubts about the Russian bounty story may have angered Trump, but the current and former officials say her public statement represented a search for some elusive middle ground. “She would have a lot of unhappy people in her building if she said that was a hoax,” a former senior intelligence official said.

In recent weeks, U.S. intelligence officials have also given a series of classified briefings to Congress about Russian election meddling that have angered congressional Democrats with their vagueness and for failing to emphasize that Russia is interfering with the specific aim of helping Trump win.

Democratic congressional leaders have also been frustrated that top intelligence officials, including Haspel, have said little in public to raise the alarm about threats to the upcoming election from Russia and other adversaries. During a classified briefing on July 31, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats accused William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, of failing to adequately warn the American public, Politico reported.

Under pressure, Evanina responded on August 7 with a public statement about foreign election interference that once again appeared to downplay evidence that Russia is trying to help Trump win. The statement also repeated anti-Biden disinformation from pro-Russian figures in Ukraine without making it clear that the information was false or that the disinformation campaign had its roots in the Trump camp.

Evanina’s statement further sought to muddy the waters by adding passages devoted to election meddling by China and Iran. The statement said that China wants Trump to lose but acknowledged that China’s efforts were “largely rhetorical,” and that Beijing has not engaged in intensive election intervention like Russia. Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff immediately blasted Evanina’s latest statement, saying that it “treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections.”

For now, Haspel seems to be trying to let Evanina and Ratcliffe take the lead in public statements on Russian election interference. But as the presidential campaign enters its closing days, it will be increasingly difficult for the CIA director to maintain her silence.

The post Gina Haspel Hangs on at CIA, With Little Support From Trump or Democrats appeared first on The Intercept.

SEAL Who Shot Bin Laden Banned From Delta Air Lines for Not Wearing Coronavirus Mask

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 20/08/2020 - 9:59am in

The Navy SEAL who claims he killed Osama bin Laden was banned from Delta Air Lines after he tweeted a photo of himself failing to wear a mask — in contravention of airline policy that all passengers must use face coverings to fight the spread of coronavirus on flights.

On Wednesday, Robert O’Neill, a former member of SEAL Team 6 who fired several shots into bin Laden during the 2011 raid which killed the Al Qaeda leader, tweeted a photo of himself maskless on a plane with what appeared to be a Delta logo on the seats. “I’m not a pussy,” O’Neill wrote in the tweet alongside the photo.

O’Neill, who spent the better part of two days griping about the attention for his tweet attracted, announced Thursday afternoon on Twitter that Delta Air Lines had banned him from flights.

The tweet was later deleted. A subsequent tweet said O’Neill’s wife took the picture down. Later, O’Neill said it was an “attempt at a joke,” but he has previously tweeted out that airline passengers on a different flight he was on were “sheep” for abiding by the mask requirement. Later in the afternoon, he tweeted, “I am not the bad guy. I killed the bad guy.”

Earlier, on Wednesday, Delta Air Lines told The Intercept that O’Neill faced a ban. “We’re aware of this customer’s tweet and are reviewing this event,” a spokesperson for Delta told The Intercept. “All customers who don’t comply with our mask-wearing requirement risk losing their ability to fly Delta in the future. Medical research tells us that wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to reduce the COVID-19 infection rate.”

A spokesperson for O’Neill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his tweets, O’Neill has repeatedly cast doubt on the seriousness of Covid-19, the virus that has already killed roughly 170,000 Americans since it began spreading in the U.S., and the efficacy of masks — which he has called a “novelty” — in combating the spread of the virus.

Airlines started requiring masks for travel in the spring, though enforcement was reportedly lax. Airlines have come under increasing pressure to enforce the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended mask mandates for flying, particularly after outraged passengers posted pictures of people not wearing masks onboard to social media. In response, airlines have become stricter in recent weeks about enforcing compliance, as well as dictating what type of masks meet their requirements. In addition to removing noncompliant passengers from individual flights, several airlines, including Delta, have said they will in some cases ban passengers for life.

Last Friday, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told CNN the airline had already banned dozens of people for refusing to wear masks. “We’ve had well over 100 people that have refused to keep their mask on during the flight,” Bastian said.

A consensus has developed among scientists and health experts that wearing a mask is one of the best tools for impeding the spread of coronavirus. But masks have been politicized by right-wing political figures, not least President Donald Trump.

After serving 16 years in the Navy, O’Neill was fired from his team shortly after the bin Laden raid, after SEAL Team 6 discovered he was frequenting Virginia Beach bars and openly bragging that he was the man who killed bin Laden. The Intercept previously reported that O’Neill has misstated and embellished his role in bin Laden’s death.

O’Neill is a polarizing figure even in the tight-knit Navy SEAL community. His former teammates credit another SEAL with fatally wounding bin Laden before O’Neill entered the room and fired several shots into the terrorist leader’s face. Following his separation from the Navy, O’Neill’s name was added to SEAL Team 6’s “rock of shame,” an unofficial list of unit pariahs, and he was banned from the team’s Virginia Beach headquarters.

After he left the Navy, O’Neill became a right-wing celebrity, including gigs as a paid Fox News contributor and popular public speaker. The former Navy SEAL frequently uses Twitter to troll “libs” — liberals — as well as to hit on far-right themes.

For instance, O’Neill has used Twitter to decry social activism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May. During the George Floyd protests O’Neill tweeted, “Rubber bullets might as well be white flags. Shoot. Or you don’t shoot.” He then referred to police who “retreated” during protests as “pussies.” He later compared activists pushing to take down statues of Confederate officers with “ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

His tweets against wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemic have also sometimes been tinged with racism.

Update: August 20, 2020
This post has been updated to reflect that, on Thursday, O’Neill tweeted that he had been banned from Delta Air Lines.

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