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The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief (Part Two in a Series)

As I explained in Part One of this series, I think the Mueller questions leaked by the Trump people actually give a far better understanding of a damning structure to the Mueller investigation — one mapping out cultivation, a quid pro quo, and a cover-up — than the coverage has laid out. This post will lay out how, over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).

April 27, 2016: During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Given the structure of George Papadopoulos’ plea, it’s highly likely Mueller knows that Papadopoulos passed on news that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails they planned to release to help Trump to people in the campaign. Papadopoulos could have passed on that news to Stephen Miller and Corey Lewandowski as early as April 27. On the same day, Papadopoulos helped draft Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev signaled a willingness to meet.

Between the time the GRU first exfiltrated DNC emails in April and the election, Trump invoked “emails” 21 times on Twitter (usually to refer to emails from Hillary’s server). The first of those times came on June 9, less than an hour after the Trump Tower meeting. The most famous of those came on July 27, when Trump addressed Russia directly.

Earlier in the day, Trump had called on Russia to release the emails not to the FBI, but to the press.

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

The timing may reflect awareness among some in the campaign that the call to Russia was a step too far legally. (h/t TC for the addition)

That Trump’s email comments pertain mostly to Hillary’s home-based server doesn’t actually exonerate him. Right after the DNC release (and therefore the July 27 Trump tweet), GOP rat-fucker Peter Smith started reaching out to Russian hackers in hopes of finding hacked versions of those emails. His support documents named Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Mike Flynn. If those people actually learned of the effort (there’s reason to believe Smith was just overselling the ties to the campaign), it’s possible that Trump learned about it as well.

As to social media, while it has gotten virtually no attention, the reference to three Florida-based Trump campaign officials in the Internet Research Agency indictment suggests further investigative interest in them.

[T]here are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

So Mueller may be pursuing whether there was state-level coordination going on, and if so, how far up the campaign chain of command knowledge of that coordination extended.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

On June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign, the Agalarovs offered to serve as an intermediary between him and Putin.

Then, starting at least as early as March 31, 2016 (with Trump’s first foreign policy meeting), his aides started floating pitches for meetings with increasingly senior campaign officials that would hypothetically lead up to one between Trump and Putin.

Those include at least:

  • The George Papadopoulos thread, spanning from March 21 through August 15
  • The Carter Page thread, including his Moscow trip in July, and possibly continuing through his December Moscow trip
  • The NRA thread, focusing on the NRA meeting in Kentucky in May; NRA’s longer outreach includes Trump associates John Bolton and David Clarke

We know Trump was present and did not object when Papadopoulos pitched this in the May 31 meeting. Several of the other entrees went through Don Jr. Many of the offers got briefed at least as far as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We don’t know how many of the other offers he learned about. We just know that years earlier he had joked about becoming Putin’s best friend, and over the course of the campaign, Russian intermediaries made repeated, persistent efforts to work towards a meeting between Trump and Putin, with a meeting between Agalarov representatives (who, again, had offered to serve as intermediaries with Putin when Trump kicked off the campaign) and the most senior people on the campaign happening just as Trump sealed up the nomination.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

This is an open-ended question that might pose particular problems for Trump given the misleading statement claiming the June 9 meeting was about adoptions and not the Magnitsky sanctions. More interesting still are hints that Mueller sees a signaling going back and forth involving Papadopoulos; some of this may have involved signaling a willingness to provide sanctions relief.

Both Aras Agalarov and Natalia Veselnitskaya followed up after the election pushing for sanctions relief.

June 9, 2016: When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Sam Nunberg has suggested Trump probably learned of the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. While he is unreliable on that point, the original June 3, 2016 email Rob Goldstone sent to Don Jr suggests reaching out to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Democrats suspect that between two calls Don Jr had with Emin Agalarov about the meeting on June 6, 2016, he called his dad.

Trump Jr.’s phone records show two calls to and from the same Russian number on June 6, 2016.62 The first call occurred at 4:04 pm on June 6, 2916 – just 21 minutes after Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to say that Emin Agalarov was “on stage in Moscow but should be off within 20 minutes so I am sure can call. [emphasis added]” 63 At 4:38 pm, Trump Jr emailed Goldstone, “Rob, thanks for the help.”64

This documentary evidence indicates that a call likely took place between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov. During his interview, Trump Jr. confirmed that the Russian phone number belonged to Agalarov, though he claimed to not recall whether he actually spoke with him. Rather, despite one of the two calls reflecting a two-minute connection, Trump Jr. suggested that Agalarov may have left voice messages.65

The phone records also show a “blocked” number at 4:27 pm, between the two calls to and from Emin Agalarov. Trump Jr. claimed he did not know who was associated with the blocked number.66 While the Committee has not pursued leads to determine who called Trump Jr. at this crucial time from a blocked number, Corey Lewandowski told the Committee that Mr. Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.” 67

Mueller, of course, almost certainly has the phone records the Democrats weren’t able to obtain.

Finally, Steve Bannon has stated that he’s certain Don Jr “walk[ed] these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor” on the day of the meeting. There’s reason to believe Ike Kaveladze and Goldstone could have done so, including the new piece of evidence that “Kaveladze left [a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia Veselnitskaya] after a few minutes to take a call from Agalarov to discuss the meeting.”

The day after the meeting — and four days before Trump’s birthday — Agalarov sent Trump an expensive painting as a present.

The June 9 meeting is, as far as is public, the most important cornerstone in a presumed quid pro quo. Russians offered unnamed dirt that Don Jr seemed to know what it entailed even before speaking to Emin Agalarov personally. Having offered dirt, four Russians — including two representatives of Trump’s long-time handler Aras Agalarov — laid out a pitch to end the Magnitsky sanctions. And less than a week later, a presumed Russian agent released the first dirt stolen from Hillary Clinton.

July 7, 2016: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

We don’t have many details on what Mueller knows about Manafort’s requests for help on the campaign. We do know he remained in close touch with Russians via someone the FBI believed was a Russian intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, through whom he remained in communications with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is named in some court documents in a way that suggests his relationship with Manafort may be the still hidden third prong of investigation into Manafort approved by August 2, 2017.

Starting in April, Manafort and Kilimnik (whom Rick Gates and therefore presumably Manafort knew was a former GRU officer), exchanged a series of cryptic emails, suggesting that Manafort might be able to pay off the $20 million he owed Deripaska with certain actions on the campaign. In an email sent on July 7, Manafort offered to provide briefings on the campaign to Deripaska. On or around August 2, Manafort and Kilimnik met in person at the Grand Havana Club, in Kushner’s building at 666 5th Avenue. Both deny that anything about the campaign came up. Shortly after this meeting, one of Deripaska’s jets came to Newark, and Russian opposition figure Viktor Navalny has claimed to have proof the jet went from there to a meeting between Deripaska and Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko.

An August 2017 report describes intercepts picking up “Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, … relay[ing] what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

There’s one more area of potential assistance I find of interest. Since January, we’ve been getting hints that Oleg Deripaska has some tie to the Steele dossier, possibly through a lawyer he and Steele share. I’ve raised repeated concerns that the Russians learned about the dossier and found ways to feed Steele disinformation. If they did, the disinformation would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacks that targeted them. And whether or not the dossier is disinformation (and whether or not Deripaska had a role in that, if true), Paul Manafort coached Reince Priebus on how to attack the dossier as a way to discredit the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

With regards to this Manafort question: remember that Rick Gates flipped on February 23, and the questions date to early March. So Gates may have proffered confirmation about these details. In any case, Mueller likely has learned far more about them two months after Gates flipped.

July 10-12, 2016: What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

The Majority HPSCI Russia Report explains that the RNC platform was changed by staffers at the convention based off Trump’s public statements on sanctions.

[Rick] Dearborn generated a memorandum, dated August 1, 2016, outlining a detailed sequence of events that occurred between July 10 and 12, 2016. As part of that memo, J.D. Gordon created a timeline that noted candidate Trump’s policy statements–including at a March 31, 2016, national security meeting–served as the basis for the modification of [Diana] Denman’s amendments. Gordon’s timeline made it clear that the change was initiated by campaign staffers at the convention–not by Manafort or senior officials.

J.D. Gordon has not confirmed that he was asked about this, but he surely was. I would expect Mueller to have tested the timeline Gordon laid out in summer 2016 (when the platform change was a big political issue) against the testimony and communications records of everyone else involved.

Of course, by asking the question in this fashion, Mueller doesn’t reveal what he has already confirmed about the platform changes.

August 5, 2016: What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

After multiple public statements that the Russians were behind the hack-and-leak, on August 5, 2016 (after traveling from NY to LA to his home in FL), Roger Stone wrote a column claiming to believe that Guccifer 2.0 was a hacktivist with no ties to Russia. Stone’s purportedly changed beliefs about Guccifer 2.0 coincide with an August 4 claim he made in an email to Sam Nunberg that he had met with Julian Assange the night before. Stone’s claimed belief that Guccifer 2.0 is not Russian is key to his denials of any involvement or pre-knowledge of hack-and-leak events. It also kicked off an alternative story that others, up to and including Trump, have adopted to excuse their own embrace of the stolen emails. In other words, a key prong in the plausible deniability the Russians built into the hack-and-leak campaign came from long-time Trump associate Roger Stone, after a dramatic and unexplained change in beliefs (Lee Stranahan, who used to work for Breitbart and now works for Sputnik, has claimed some credit for the change, and given how lucid the August 5 column is, someone had to have helped Stone write it).

Ten days later, after Stone had called on Twitter to let him out of Twitter jail, Guccifer 2.0 and Stone started exchanging (fairly innocuous) DMs.

There are events both before and after that which suggest Stone — probably through more interesting go-betweens than Randy Credico — sought information on what dirt Assange and Wikileaks had, and what and when planned to do with it.

Much has been made, especially in the DNC lawsuit, about Stone’s seeming prediction that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Perhaps that’s true (and Stone’s explanation for the tweet is garbage), but any explanation of Stone’s supposed prediction needs to acknowledge that he more often predicted Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation emails, not Podesta ones, that he got the timing somewhat wrong, and that he didn’t dwell on the Podesta emails at all once Wikileaks started releasing them (preferring, instead, to talk about Bill Clinton’s lady problems). Still, that may reflect Stone involvement in the Peter Smith operation, and efforts to get WikiLeaks to release purported Clinton Foundation emails passed on via hackers.

That Mueller is even asking this suggests (if the several grand jury witnesses in recent months dedicated to it don’t already) that Mueller has a pretty good idea that Stone’s communications were more extensive than his denials let on. That he thinks Stone may have shared that information with Trump is all the more interesting.

All of which is to say that the known answers to Mueller’s questions map out a quid pro quo set up during the election, in which Russians offered a Putin meeting and dirt on Hillary, with the expectation that Trump would lift the Magnitsky sanctions if he won (and would get a Trump Tower in Moscow if he lost). I suspect there are other pieces to the quid pro quo, dealing with Ukraine and Syria. But certainly the June 9 meeting set up an understanding: dirt in exchange for Magnitsky relief. The release of the Guccifer 2.0 emails may indicate the Trump camp provided some signal they had formally accepted the offer.

Update: Fixed syntax in last paragraph, h/t LT.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Open Thread: Guns, Guns, and More Bloody Guns

This is an open thread dedicated to what the National Rifle Association wants you to believe is as necessary as air along with ~13,000 gun homicides each year, and seven children and teen gun deaths each day.

Freedom — we have it at gun point.

For the record, my household has guns. They’re used for hunting. Half the meat this household consumes is venison harvested from family property. They’re secured in a gun safe when not in use.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban in force from 1994 to 2004 didn’t impede the ability of this household to hunt its annual venison. Mass shootings were markedly lower during the ban, however, though increasing use of high capacity magazines eventually thwarted the effects of the ban.

Do I believe in the Second Amendment? Sure — including the part about a “well regulated Militia.”

The NRA doesn’t believe in that part of the amendment because it affects their actual clients’ profit motive; regulating a militia means gun makers can’t sell more guns.

At some point gun makers and their lobbyists at the NRA need to face reality: the market is saturated, which is why Remington is going into bankruptcy. There are no more arguments to be made to increase gun sales when there are more guns in the U.S. than Americans.

There are no more arguments to be made to sell more guns into a saturated market when gun proponents care more about their guns than the shattered children in classrooms.

Or when gun proponents’ arguments rely on augmentation and dispersion by foreign agents.

Bring your discussions about guns here. Keep them out of other threads so that others can have uninterrupted discussions on topic.

Friday Morning: Some Place Warm

Warm, like the Philippines, the home of the Manila sound. It’s Friday once again and today’s jazz genre is the precursor to Pinoy rock (like Freddie Aguilar’s Anak) and Pinoy hip hop (like Andrew E’s Binibirocha).

The Manila sound emerged under Ferdinand Marcos’ regime; wish I knew more about this body of work to identify songs which pushed the envelope politically. You can still hear the ghost-like impact more than 300 years of Spanish colonialism in some riffs, shaped by other Asian and American influences.

Think I’ll try a mix mix cocktail later today with a little more contemporary Filipino jazz.

Coincidentally, “mix mix” is an apt description for this morning’s post. A lot of smallish, unrelated items in my inbox today…

The canary that didn’t chirp
Reddit may have received a National Security Letter, based on the disappearance of a notice in transparency reporting which up to now indicated no NSLs had been received. Was an NSL sent to Reddit in response to an online discussion last year with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald? Or did some other content trigger a possible NSL?

Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Security Division wants to fix open source software
“Hello, we’re from the government. We’re here to help you.” Uh-huh. Color me skeptical about this initiative intended to reduce vulnerabilities in open source software. when the government finds a way to insert itself into technology, it’s an opportunity for co-option and compromise. Can you say ‘backdoor’?

Fixing a problem with business iPhones may create a new one
A key reason the USDOJ went after Apple to crack the passcode on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone: poor or missing mobile device management software. Had the iPhone’s owner and issuer San Bernardino County installed an MDM app that could override the assigned user’s passcode, the FBI would have had immediate access to the iPhone’s contents. Employers are likely moving toward more and better MDM to prevent a future costly #AppleVsFBI situation. However, the new SideStepper malware is spreading and taking advantage of MDM’s ability to push software to enterprise-owned iPhones without the users’ approval.

FCC’s very busy Thursday

  • FCC approved a $9.25 monthly subsidy for Lifeline-eligible low-income folks to use on high-speed internet service. Now if only high-speed internet was less than $10/month, or available across the U.S. to all low-income citizens…there are still wide swaths of the U.S. where high-speed internet is simply a pipe dream, let alone adequate competition to keep prices within reach of the subsidy.
  • The subsidy’s approval came amid a lot of political scrambling and maneuvering due to conservatives’ resistance on spending (what a surprise, right?), though the investment should increase the number of users able to access state and federal programs online, reducing costs to operate them over the long run.
  • The FCC also voted to proceed with rulemaking on the handling of users’ personal information over ISPs. Privacy is currently regulated on telecommunications by the FCC, but not on ISPs. Implementing rules on ISPs substantially similar to telecoms may protect consumers’ privacy, which is otherwise wide open. It would also force more equitable competition between ISPs and telecoms on consumer communications services. Perhaps this makes it easier to understand why NBC and MSNBC — both owned by cable ISP company Comcast — have been completely in the tank for Donald Trump? (Might even explain why Trump was such an ass to Univision’s Jorge Ramos, as Comcast owns competitor Telemundo.)

Today in literacy

  • Participating in a book club could land you in prison in Angola (QZ) — There’s either more to this story, or Angola is incredibly repressive and ripe for trouble.
  • Fairy tales, now with more firearms (NPR) — The idiots at NRA think there’s not enough violence in fairy tales, so they’ve rewritten them with weapons added. Distorting the Constitution isn’t enough; why not distort children’s fiction, too?
  • Lawful Hacking: using Existing Vulnerabilities for Wiretapping on the Internet (Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property) — Not a book, but a worthwhile read for infosec literacy.

Public Service Announcement: Backup/Alternate Site
You may have noticed the site’s connectivity going up and down; there’s some tinkering going on under the hood. If the site should go down for long, you can find our more recent content at this alternate site (bookmark for emergency use). If the site needs to stay down for longer periods of time for repairs or redesign, we’ll redirect traffic there. Comments left at the other site will not be ported back to this page, however, and the alternate location is not intended to replace this one though you may find you like the alternate site’s mobile version better.

That’s a wrap, I’m off to find some calamondins, or an approximation for a mix mix cocktail. Have a good weekend!

RuppRogers Fake Dragnet Fix Would End (?) Bulk Firearm Record Collection, But Not Bulk Credit Card Record Collection

I’m just beginning to go through the House Intelligence Fake Dragnet Fix bill — what I will henceforth call the RuppRogers Fake Dragnet Fix.

It does have some improvements — the kind of bones you throw into a legislation to entice members of Congress to back what is in fact a broad expansion of surveillance.

One of those is a prohibition on the use of FISA (presumably including Section 215) to engage in bulk collection of certain kinds of records:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Government may not acquire under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) library circulation records, library patron lists, book sales records, book customer lists, firearm sales records, tax return records, education records, or medical records containing information that would identify a person without the use of specific identifiers or selection terms.

I find this interesting, for one, because it is yet another piece of evidence that suggests the government has been using Section 215 (and National Security Letters, probably) to make its own firearm registry, in defiance of congressional intent.

But I also find it instructive to compare this list:

  • Some but not all library and book records
  • Firearm sales records
  • Tax return (but not other tax) records
  • Education records
  • Some but not all medical records

With the list laid out in this letter from Ron Wyden and Mark Udall and others.

  • Credit card purchases
  • Pharmacy records
  • Library records
  • Firearm sales records
  • Financial information
  • Book and movie purchase records

I would assume from the difference that NSA was unwilling to give up certain kinds of bulk collection, notably credit card and non-tax return financial records.

I think the use of Section 215 to collect gun records is patently illegal, even though I might support a gun registry if passed legislatively. But if we’re going to roll back that collection, let’s roll back the bulk financial record collection as well.

Faster and Furiouser Domestic Spying: Why Would the NSA Review Group Talk to the ATF?

Because I’m working on a post on John Bates’ response to the NSA Review Group recommendations, I happened to re-review the list of people the Review Group spoke with today (see page 277; Bates was the only one from the FISA Court they spoke with),

See if you find anything odd with this list of entities the Review Group spoke with from the Executive Branch (here’s a handy list of intelligence agencies to compare it to):

Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counterterrorism

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Central Intelligence Agency

Defense Intelligence Agency

Department of Commerce

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

Department of Justice

Department of State

Drug Enforcement Agency

Federal Bureau of Investigations

National Archives and Records Administration

National Counterterrorism Center

National Institute for Standards and Technology

National Reconnaissance Office

National Security Advisor

National Security Agency

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

President’s Intelligence Advisory Board

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE)

Special Assistant to the President for Cyber Security

Treasury Department

Much of the list makes sense. You’ve got the people largely in charge of terrorism (NCTC, Lisa Monaco, FBI, Treasury), you’ve got some of the people in charge of cyber and/or corrupting encryption standards (DHS, Michael Daniel, NIST), you’ve got the people who have to deal with angry foreign leaders (State), you’ve got people in charge of data sharing and storage (PM-ISE and NARA), and you’ve got Commerce (which serves to boost, but also coerce, the tech companies on these issues).

There are some absences. I’m surprised Department of Energy, which plays a key role in counterproliferation, isn’t on here. It’s light on counterintelligence functions, both at DNI and things like AFOSI (which I believe has some nifty cybertools). I’m also a little surprised DOD was represented as a whole, but not some of the branch intelligence organizations. Similarly, DHS was represented as a whole, but not some of its relevant branches (TSA, CBP, and Secret Service).

And then there’s the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is on the list.

And even more alarmingly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Don’t get me wrong, neither is all that surprising. We know some of the tools covered by the Review Group — notably National Security Letters — have actually been (mis)used in drug investigations as well as in terrorism ones. Given the logic of the certifications we know exist — not to mention the Administration’s fear-mongering and increasing focus on Transnational Crime Organizations not run by Jamie Dimon — I wouldn’t be surprised if Section 702 were used to fight the war on drugs, if it hasn’t already been. And the drug war certainly is a foreign intelligence priority for EO 12333 collection. Given NSA’s increasing inclusion of drug cartels in the boilerplate comments it releases about Snowden stories, I expect we’ll hear some nifty things about the war on drugs before this is out.

Similarly, one of the first things we learned the government was using Section 215 and/or NSLs to collect was purchase records for beauty supplies, otherwise known as explosives precursors. Since then, Members of Congress have talked about tracking fertilizer purchases. And I’d be shocked if there weren’t at least a half-hearted attempt to track pressure cooker purchases. I guess, from ATF’s inclusion among the Review Group’s interlocutors, we know a little bit about where this data resides: in probably the most fucked up law enforcement agency in government (though maybe that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which thankfully was not considered central enough to talk to the Review Group).

Still, given the increasing number of signals that these authorities have been used to track gun purchases, and ATF’s notorious failures at tracking gun purchases in the past, I wonder whether they’re involved not just to talk about explosives purchases, but also gun records?

The Review Group warned that,

Like other agencies, there are situations in which NSA does and should provide support to the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other law enforcement entities. But it should not assume the lead for programs that are primarily domestic in nature.

For a variety of reasons (both reasonable and unreasonable), it is much harder to claim that tracking gun purchases pertains to counterterrorism or another foreign intelligence purpose than tracking acetone purchases.

Is this one of the domestic security functions the Review Group worried about?

Syrian Moderate Coalition Fractures — Is al Nusra the Next MEK?

The US grand strategy of arming moderate groups within Syria’s opposition in the ongoing civil war (remember, we only arm folks so moderate that they eat enemies’ hearts) took a huge blow yesterday, as several groups previously aligned with the moderates threw their support into a group including the Islamist group Jabhat al Nusra, which has affiliations with al Qaeda. With the moderate coalition in disarray, it occurred to me to wonder whether al Nusra will now undergo a reputation-scrubbing and a lobbying campaign similar to that applied to MEK, which has been removed from the official list of terrorist organizations and continues to support US politicians who are willing to sell their services to any group with enough funding. There is hope for the future, though, as a UN treaty that would take significant steps toward stemming the flow of conventional weapons is gathering steam and has now been signed by more than half of the members of the UN.

The Washington Post brings us the news of the fractured moderate coalition:

American hopes of winning more influence over Syria’s fractious rebel movement faded Wednesday after 11 of the biggest armed factions repudiated the Western-backed opposition coalition and announced the formation of a new alliance dedicated to creating an Islamic state.

The al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is the lead signatory of the new group, which will further complicate fledgling U.S. efforts to provide lethal aid to “moderate” rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The defecting groups are blaming the US for failing to come through with promised arms and for not bombing Assad after the August 21 chemical weapons attack:

Abu Hassan, a spokesman for the Tawheed Brigade in Aleppo, echoed those sentiments, citing rebel disappointment with the Obama administration’s failure to go ahead with threatened airstrikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus last month, as well as its decision to strike a deal with Russia over ways to negotiate a solution.

“Jabhat al-Nusra is a Syrian military formation that fought the regime and played an active role in liberating many locations,” he said. “So we don’t care about the stand of those who don’t care about our interests.”

Toward the end of the New York Times story on this development, we see the al Nusra group being described as less radical than the new kid on the block, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS): Read more

OMIGOD James Clapper Has Our Gun Purchase Records

It’s a testament to Ron Wyden’s good faith that this letter — asking James Clapper for more information about the government’s secret use of the Section 215 provision of the PATRIOT Act — didn’t try to inflame the NRA.

It’s not until the third paragraph in until Wyden (and the 25 other Senators who signed on) say,

It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. And the bulk collection authority could potentially be used to supersede bans on maintaining gun owner databases, or laws protecting the privacy of medical records, financial records, and records of book and movie purchases. [my emphasis]

And while Wyden is right that the letter is bipartisan, I really wonder how it is that only four Republicans — Mike Lee, Dean Heller, Mark Kirk, and Lisa Murkowski — signed a letter raising these issues. Seriously. Not even Rand Paul?

I’ll come back to the loaded questions Wyden asks (I’m frankly still working on some loaded questions he asked 6 months ago — it has turned into a nearly fulltime beat).

But in the meantime, why isn’t the NRA screaming yet?

Wayne LaPierre Demands $5 Billion Subsidy for His NGO

The central thrust of Wayne LaPierre’s press conference offering “solutions” in the wake of the Newtown massacre is to put armed security in every school.

There were 98,706 public schools in 2008-9 (plus 33,740 private schools, which I’ll leave aside).

Even assuming you underpay these armed security guards until such time as school unions represent them, you would pay at least $50,000 in wages and benefits for these armed guards.

That works out to roughly $5 billion, for just one guard in every public school.

That, at a time when we’re defunding education.

In short, Wayne LaPierre just demanded a $5 billion subsidy for his NGO, the price he presumes we should pay as yet another externalized cost of America’s sick relationship with guns.

I’ve got a better idea. Let’s tax gun owners, to cover thus potential cost and the cost of responding to the massacres the NRA enables. Anything short of such stiff taxes would be socialism.

If Gun Buyers Were Mexican

The NYT has a follow-up on Charlie Savage’s earlier article about all the gun safety provisions lying dormant at DOJ. It describes the gaps in the background check system due to states not sharing their data with the federal government.

Nearly two decades after lawmakers began requiring background checks for gun buyers, significant gaps in the F.B.I.’s database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred from doing so.

The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.

In the past I’ve drawn a comparison between our country’s treatment of terrorists and gun nuts, arguing that it has prioritized the less urgent threat.

But this background check database raises interesting comparisons with DHS’ Secure Communities, particularly the effort to ensure that any undocumented person arrested for a crime gets deported. Like terrorism, Secure Communities has hit a point of diminishing returns. As with terrorism, Secure Communities is built to allow for false positives.

Nevertheless, the government has prioritized getting that database completely functioning, with participation from every state.

While the law also allowed the Justice Department to withhold some general law enforcement grant money from states that did not submit their records to the system, the department has not imposed any such penalties, the G.A.O. found.

Not so with gun buyers, apparently.

And the comparison here offers one other lesson. One reason for the delay in data-sharing from the states is the difficulty in implementing an appeals process.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress enacted a law designed to improve the background check system, including directing federal agencies to share relevant data with the F.B.I. and setting up a special grant program to encourage states to share more information with the federal government. But only states that also set up a system for people to petition to get their gun purchasing rights restored were eligible under the law — a key concession to the National Rifle Association — which proved to be an extra hurdle many states have not yet overcome.

Frankly, ensuring people have due process is one of the least offensive things the NRA does (would that they championed the civil rights of felons more generally).

If we demand this for gun ownership, why don’t we demand it for far more damaging terrorism and deportation data mining?

Complicit in 20 Children’s Death, Mitch McConnell Claims He Can Do Nothing

This afternoon, the man who will soon lead a filibuster against laws intended to lessen the chances that a massacre like Newtown will happen again had this to say for the people for Newtown.

So we stand with the people of Newtown today and in the days ahead. We can do nothing to lessen their anguish, but we can let them know that we mourn with them, that we share a tiny part of their burden in our own hearts. And that we lift the victims and their families and the entire community in prayer.

He said nothing in his speech about the personal responsibility he bears for not having acted to prevent this massacre and similar ones before 20 children died. He said nothing about immunizing gun manufacturers and making it easier to buy a gun. Indeed, he remained silent–simply clearing his throat once–when specifically asked about the actions he might take or obstruct to prevent similar massacres in the future.

No, Mitch McConnell. We may not be able to do anything to lessen their anguish, but we sure as hell can do more than your proposed solution–to pray.

I’ve been mentally responding to reactions like this much as The Economist’s Democracy in America did generally.

So unless the American people are willing to actually do something to stop the next massacre of toddlers from happening, we should shut up and quit blubbering. It’s our fault, and until we evince some remorse for our actions or intention to reform ourselves, the idea that we consider ourselves entitled to “mourn” the victims of our own barbaric policies is frankly disgusting.

Unless Mitch McConnell is willing to reverse his career of catering to the NRA, he has no business offering solace to the victims. Because he was one of the people ensuring the perpetrators of this gun violence would have easy access to their guns.

Note, McConnell is not the only one who followed bold words with silence (though he does have the NRA A rating, unlike these others). The White House today refused to say whether gun control was a top priority. And as Alec MacGillis notes, “in the decade since [2000], we’ve heard nary a peep from the side of the spectrum that had previously made this one of their causes.”