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The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

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

Look Closer to Home: Russian Propaganda Depends on the American Structure of Social Media

The State Department’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel, wanted to talk about his efforts to counter Russian propaganda. So he called up David Ignatius, long a key cut-out the spook world uses to air their propaganda. Here’s how the column that resulted starts:

“In a global information war, how does the truth win?”

The very idea that the truth won’t be triumphant would, until recently, have been heresy to Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine. But in the nearly three years since he joined the State Department, Stengel has seen the rise of what he calls a “post-truth” world, where the facts are sometimes overwhelmed by propaganda from Russia and the Islamic State.

“We like to think that truth has to battle itself out in the marketplace of ideas. Well, it may be losing in that marketplace today,” Stengel warned in an interview. “Simply having fact-based messaging is not sufficient to win the information war.”

It troubles me that the former managing editor of Time either believes that the “post-truth” world just started in the last three years or that he never noticed it while at Time. I suppose that could explain a lot about the failures of both our “public diplomacy” efforts and traditional media.

Note that Stengel sees the propaganda war as a battle in the “marketplace of ideas.”

It’s not until 10 paragraphs later — after Stengel and Ignatius air the opinion that “social media give[s] everyone the opportunity to construct their own narrative of reality” and a whole bunch of inflamed claims about Russian propaganda — that Ignatius turns to the arbiters of that marketplace: the almost entirely US-based companies that provide the infrastructure of this “marketplace of ideas.” Even there, Ignatius doesn’t explicitly consider what it means that these are American companies.

The best hope may be the global companies that have created the social-media platforms. “They see this information war as an existential threat,” says Stengel. The tech companies have made a start: He says Twitter has removed more than 400,000 accounts, and YouTube daily deletes extremist videos.

The real challenge for global tech giants is to restore the currency of truth. Perhaps “machine learning” can identify falsehoods and expose every argument that uses them. Perhaps someday, a human-machine process will create what Stengel describes as a “global ombudsman for information.”

Watch this progression very closely: Stengel claims social media companies see this war as an existential threat. He then points to efforts — demanded by the US government under threat of legislation, though that goes unmentioned — that social media accounts remove “extremist videos,” with extremist videos generally defined as Islamic terrorist videos. Finally, Stengel puts hope on a machine learning global ombud for information to solve this problem.

Stengel’s description of the problem reflects several misunderstandings.

First, the social media companies don’t see this as an existential threat (though they may see government regulation as such). Even after Mark Zuckerberg got pressured into taking some steps to stem the fake news that had been key in this election — spread by Russia, right wing political parties, Macedonian teenagers, and US-based satirists — he sure didn’t sound like he saw any existential threat.

After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading. These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here.

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

[snip]

This has been a historic election and it has been very painful for many people. Still, I think it’s important to try to understand the perspective of people on the other side. In my experience, people are good, and even if you may not feel that way today, believing in people leads to better results over the long term.

And that’s before you consider reports that Facebook delayed efforts to deal with this problem for fear of offending conservatives, or the way Zuckerberg’s posts seem to have been disappearing and reappearing like a magician’s bunny.

Stengel then turns to efforts to target two subsets of problematic content on social media: terrorism videos (definedin a way that did little or nothing to combat other kinds of hate speech) and fake news.

The problem with this whack-a-mole approach to social media toxins is that it ignores the underlying wiring, both of social media and of the people using social media. The problem seems to have more to do with how social media magnifies normal characteristics of humans and their tribalism.

[T]wo factors—the way that anger can spread over Facebook’s social networks, and how those networks can make individuals’ political identity more central to who they are—likely explain Facebook users’ inaccurate beliefs more effectively than the so-called filter bubble.

If this is true, then we have a serious challenge ahead of us. Facebook will likely be convinced to change its filtering algorithm to prioritize more accurate information. Google has already undertaken a similar endeavor. And recent reports suggest that Facebook may be taking the problem more seriously than Zuckerberg’s comments suggest.

But this does nothing to address the underlying forces that propagate and reinforce false information: emotions and the people in your social networks. Nor is it obvious that these characteristics of Facebook can or should be “corrected.” A social network devoid of emotion seems like a contradiction, and policing who individuals interact with is not something that our society should embrace.

And if that’s right — which would explain why fake or inflammatory news would be uniquely profitable for people who have no ideological stake in the outcome — then the wiring of social media needs to be changed at a far more basic level to neutralize the toxins (or social media consumers have to become far more savvy in a vacuum of training to get them to do so).

But let’s take a step back to the way Ignatius and Stengel define this. The entities struggling with social media include more than the US, with its efforts to combat Islamic terrorist and Russian propagandist content it hates. It includes authoritarian regimes that want to police content (America’s effort to combat content it hates in whack-a-mole fashion will only serve to legitimize those efforts). It also includes European countries, which hate Russian propaganda, but which also hate social media companies’ approach to filtering and data collection more generally.

European bureaucrats and activists, to just give one example, think social media’s refusal to stop hate speech is irresponsible. They see hate speech as a toxin just as much as Islamic terrorism or Russian propaganda. But the US, which is uniquely situated to pressure the US-based social media companies facilitating the spread of hate speech around the world, doesn’t much give a damn.

European bureaucrats and activists also think social media collect far too much information on its users; that information is one of the things that helps social media better serve users’ tribal instincts.

European bureaucrats also think American tech companies serve as a dangerous gateway monopolizing access to information. The dominance of Google’s ad network has been key to monetizing fake and other inflammatory news (though they started, post-election, to crack down on fake news sites advertising through Google).

The point is, if we’re going to talk about the toxins that poison the world via social media, we ought to consider the ways in which social media — enabled by characteristics of America’s regulatory regime — is structured to deliver toxins.

It may well be that the problem behind America’s failures to compete in the “marketplace of ideas” has everything to do with how America has fostered a certain kind of marketplace of ideas.

The anti-Russian crusade keeps warning that Russian propaganda might undermine our own democracy. But there’s a lot of reason to believe red-blooded American social media — the specific characteristics of the global marketplace of ideas created in Silicon Valley — is what has actually done that.

Update: In the UK, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, Tom Watson, is starting a well-constructed inquiry into fake news. One question he asks is the role of Twitter and Facebook.

Update: Here’s a summary of fake news around the world, some of it quite serious, though without a systematic look at Facebook’s role in it.

Ignatius Has Become a “Choice between Security and Privacy” Stenographer

David Ignatius should be ashamed about this column. Even by his standards, it serves simply as stenography for the buzzwords top security officials have fed him, such that he repeats lines like this without any critical thinking.

Gen. Keith Alexander and other top NSA officials are considering ways they could reassure the public without damaging key programs, according to U.S. officials. They think that forcing Congress to decide between security and privacy is an unfair choice, since the country would lose either way. They’d like an agreement that protects both, but that’s a tall order. [my emphasis]

Remember: we’re talking about the Section 215 dragnet, not the (according to all players) far more valuable Section 702 collection. Even according to the government, it has only come into play in 13 terrorist cases. The only one the government can describe where it has been crucial involves indicting a man the FBI determined was not motivated by terrorism but rather tribal affiliation sending less than $10,000 to al-Shabaab three and a half years earlier.

And yet Ignatius uncritically repeats that requiring the government to use more specificity with its collections would present Congress the “unfair choice” of “deciding between security and privacy.”

So it should be no surprise that Ignatius uncritically repeats other details of the program. For example, Ignatius claims this involves only two-hop analysis, when we know it can go three hops (and therefore millions of people) deep.

When the agency identifies a suspicious number in, say, Pakistan, analysts want to see who that person called in the United States and who, in turn, might have been contacted by that second person.

Ignatius doesn’t note the descriptions — from both Edward Snowden and James Clapper — that they then use this metadata to index previously collected communications. That’s because he’s too busy repeating that we don’t “record” these collections, as if we’d have to.

Then finally there’s Ignatius’ claim that SWIFT (the record of international financial transfers) presents a viable alternative to the dragnet program. As I have reported, when the EU finally got to audit what the US had been doing with SWIFT, they discovered the real content of the queries was transmitted verbally, making it impossible to audit the use.

Thus far, no one has explained whether the queries and underlying articulable suspicion gets automatically recorded or — as happened with one of the precursors to this program — manually in hardcopy form. If it’s the latter (which I will assume until someone asserts differently) it is prone to the same kind of large scale documentation lapses that could hide a great deal of improper use of the dragnet. Which, given Ron Wyden and Mark Udall’s insistence that the problems have been more problematic than James Clapper lets on, could well be the case.

All of these are issues anyone with Ignatius’ access might want to answer.

Alternately, that access may now serve to do no more than produce “security or privacy” automatons, repeating the obviously false cant Ignatius has here.

 

Day of Surprises in Afridi Case: Conviction Not Related to CIA Help; Ignatius Chastises CIA

There are many developments today surrounding Pakistan’s sentencing of Dr. Shakeel Afridi to 33 years in prison, including two that are quite unexpected. According to documents released today to multiple news agencies, it turns out that Afridi’s conviction is not on the treason charges relating to his work with the CIA in finding Osama bin Laden that many thought were the basis of the charges against him. Instead, the documents indicate that Afridi was convicted for aiding the outlawed group Lashkar-e-Islam, which is said to be in open conflict with Pakistan. Equally unexpected is today’s column by CIA spokesman reporter columnist David Ignatius in the Washington Post where he chastises the CIA for using Afridi in a vaccination ruse, citing the resultant danger to public health as vaccination programs come more generally under suspicion in the areas where they are needed most urgently.

Reuters gives us the basics on the documents released today by the court:

A Pakistani doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden was imprisoned for aiding militants and not for links to the CIA, as Pakistani officials had said, according to a court document released on Wednesday.

Last week, a court in the Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border sentenced Shakil Afridi to 33 years in jail. Pakistani officials told Western and domestic media the decision was based on treason charges for aiding the CIA in its hunt for the al Qaeda chief.

But in the latest twist in the case, the judgment document made available to the media on Wednesday, states Afridi was jailed because of his close ties to the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Islam, which amount to waging war against the state.

Dawn fills in more details:

The order said intelligence reports had indicated that the accused had close links with the defunct LI and “his love for Mangal Bagh, Amir of Lashkar-i-Islam, and his association with him was an open secret”.

Referring to the report submitted by the JIT, it said the accused had paid Rs2 million to LI when he was serving at the Tehsil Headquarters Hospital Dogra, Bara, Khyber tribal region.

The court also accused Mr Afridi of providing medical assistance to militant commanders like Said Noor Malikdinkhel, Hazrat Sepah, Wahid Shaloberkhel and others at the hospital which he headed.

It also referred to statements by some people that militant commanders used to visit the hospital and hold private meetings with the accused. “These meetings were usually of longer duration and most often those meetings were followed by attacks by militants on security forces’ checkposts and other places at night,” the order read.

It said LI’s design to wage war against the state of Pakistan was a reality known to all and that those attacks were planned in the office of the accused. Being a public servant, the involvement of the accused in subversive activities and his role in facilitating the waging of war and attacks on security forces made him liable to be proceeded against, it added.

There is one more point that stands out in the Dawn article: Read more

We Drone Strike, Ergo We Are at War

Check out the logic top pundit David Ignatius employs here:

The United States just decided to step up its drone war [in Yemen], which is a sure sign that al-Qaeda poses a significant, continuing threat.

Ignatius has long served as a mouthpiece for the CIA, so it’s not like he lacks sources he could ask about why we’re going to start using signature strikes in Yemen. If he asked, he might find out that we’re using signature strikes because the civil war Ali Abdullah Saleh’s leadership failures incited is considered a threat to the US (or to the Saudis), independent of any threat AQAP might represent.

But instead, David Ignatius, DC insider, says we’re ramping up drone strikes, ergo al Qaeda must pose a significant, continuing threat.

The line actually serves as the punch line of a larger, equally poorly argued piece “proving” that because people are rebelling against the dictators who used the war on terror as yet another excuse to oppress their people, Osama bin Laden has won.

Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden. And the al-Qaeda goal of driving the “apostate,” pro-American President Hosni Mubarak from power has been achieved.

I would dismiss all this as more beltway inanity. But Ignatius wields this (il)logic even while he waves around those OBL documents he got in an authorized, exclusive leak from the Administration.

As Wednesday’s anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches, I have been going back over my notes of these messages. I found some unpublished passages that show how bin Laden’s legacy is an ironic mix: His movement is largely destroyed, but his passion for a purer and more Islamic government in the Arab world is partly succeeding. In that sense, the West shouldn’t be too quick to claim victory.

The message the Administration has deemed Ignatius solely worthy to interpret and read is that OBL turned to unifying Muslims behind reformed governance at the end of his life, and therefore reformed governance must be opposed because it would represent a victory of what he calls “electoral bin Ladenism.”

And by pointing to documents that have purportedly been declassified but the rest of us aren’t permitted to see, and deploying the logic that says just because we’ve resumed targeting drones at people whose identity we don’t know, Ignatius “proves” there must be a reason to target those people and that reason must ultimately be OBL.

As Bush Did with Judy Miller, Obama Insta-Declassifies for David Ignatius

One more point about the David Ignatius wankfest today.

In his story pitching OBL as a still-ambitious terrorist rather than an out-of-touch idiot, David Ignatius claimed the documents he based his article on had already been declassified.

The scheme is described in one of the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound by U.S. forces on May 2, the night he was killed. I was given an exclusive look at some of these remarkable documents by a senior administration official. They have been declassified and will be available soon to the public in their original Arabic texts and translations. [my empahsis]

But National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor says that’s not yet the case.

A White House spokesman confirmed that the documents found in the raid are in a declassification process that is “still ongoing,” and National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said it “would likely be a few months before they’re fully available” to the media and public. (The CIA had no comment.) [my emphasis]

Either these documents are declassified, in which case the White House should be handing them out to anyone who asks, or they’re not yet declassified, in which case, someone should be prosecuted for handing them to Ignatius.

The most likely explanation, however, is that the Administration is playing the same game the Bush Administration played with Judy Miller, sharing still-classified documents with a reporter who will spin things in a favorable light, so as to pre-empt any response a
more open assessment of the documents will have. That the Obama Administration is doing it to support his reelection and not an illegal war doesn’t make the ploy any less cynical.

David Ignatius and Bin Laden’s Biden Judgment

Presumably to buck up their campaign theme–“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive“–the Administration pre-leaked some documents to David Ignatius taken from OBL’s compound revealing that OBL hoped to attack President Obama. Ignatius described the aspirational plot as a “bold” command

Before his death, Osama bin Laden boldly commanded his network to organize special cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan to attack the aircraft of President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus.

“The reason for concentrating on them,” the al-Qaeda leader explained to his top lieutenant, “is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make [Vice President] Biden take over the presidency. . . . Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour . . . and killing him would alter the war’s path” in Afghanistan. [my emphasis]

And even while Ignatius admits OBL was never going to be able to shoot Petraeus and Obama out of the air, he offers it as proof that the terrorist still wanted to launch spectacular attacks.

The plot to target Obama was probably bluster, since al-Qaeda apparently lacked the weapons to shoot down U.S. aircraft. But it’s a chilling reminder that even when he was embattled and in hiding, bin Laden still dreamed of pulling off another spectacular terror attack against the United States. [my emphasis]

Politico–that arbiter of beltway conventional wisdom–has described Ignatius’ acceptance of a motivated leak to be a scoop of such proportions to solidify his position as the “preeminent writer on national security affairs.” Politico even offers a quote from its own anonymous Administration source explaining what they got by leaking stuff to Ignatius.

“David is not only influential, he’s a serious journalist who is taken seriously,” an Obama administration official told POLITICO. “His byline gives [the bin Laden] story instantaneous cachet, credibility and, yes, visibility.”

Which Politico accompanies with fawning quotes from Jeff Goldberg, Evan Thomas, Steve Clemons and Sally Quinn (Sally Quinn!?!?!) affirming Ignatius’ magnificence as national security status.

There’s just one problem with all that.

Ignatius, this purportedly brilliant commenter, doesn’t even notice, much less mention, how stupid OBL was.

OBL was going to kill Obama not for the sake of killing the US President, but because Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, almost 12 of which he served as one or another powerful committee Chair, “is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”

Really?

Joe Biden may be many things: but he is as prepared to be President as just about any person in this country. And in a number of key debates during this Administration–notably, what to do with Afghanistan–Biden proved to be right two years before the rest of the Administration copped on.

OBL’s plans to attack Obama, then, show not just how unhinged from reality about al Qaeda OBL was by this point, but also how completely ignorant he was about America.

You’d think that DC’s crack national security correspondent would note just how laughable OBL’s plots were late in life.

But I guess if he did, the Administration wouldn’t come to him anymore for his purported “instantaneous cachet, credibility and, yes, visibility.”

Ignatius: CIA Is Involved with the Iran Plot, So It Must Be True!

In the face of near universal ridicule over the Iran plot, the Administration is now trying to shore up the case that this plot is “real.” Many many media outlets are repeating one US official promising multiple sources corroborated the plot (forgetting, apparently, that one source reading a talking point saying he’s got multiple sources is not the same as multiple sources describing credible evidence).

“Multiple” sources have corroborated the report about an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a scheme the administration is alleging is tied to Iran’s military, a U.S. official told CNN Thursday.

More interesting, the CIA’s mouthpiece, David Ignatius, has been trotted out to reassure us that this is true because the CIA says it is.

But over months, officials at the White House and the Justice Department became convinced the plan was real. One big reason is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corraborating the informant’s juicy allegations — and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert-action arm of the Iranian government.

It was this intelligence collected in Iran — not tips from someone inside the Mexican drug mafia — that led the Treasury Department to impose sanctions Tuesday on four senior members of the Quds Force who allegedly were “connected” to a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador.

So after going to great lengths to scrub the complaint of any hint that the CIA or NSC was involved in this plot, pretending, for example, that we weren’t tracking where Manssor Arbabsiar was when he traveled abroad, that we weren’t wiretapping his conversations, and that we hadn’t kept a close eye on a car salesman with serial legal troubles and ties to the Quds Force even before this plot, the government has now decided to admit that the CIA was instead central to the plot.

The same CIA that used the equally dubious laptop of death for years to claim Iran had a nukes program. The CIA that dealt Iranians doctored blueprints for nukes. And hell, while we’re at it, the same CIA that overthrew the elected government of Iran to protect BP.

In short, David Ignatius wants to convince us we should believe this plot because the CIA, which has a long history of fabricating or using fabricated evidence to implicate Iran, says the plot is true.

They were better off when they were scrupulously hiding the CIA’s centrality to this plot!

Read more

David Ignatius Confuses Joe McCarthy and Dan Burton

David Ignatius got it wrong, IMO, when he asked whether Darrell Issa is going to be the next Joe McCarthy.

When you see the righteous gleam in Issa’s eye, recall other zealous congressional investigators who claimed to be doing the public’s business but ended up pursuing vendettas. I think of Robert F. Kennedy’s ruthless pursuit of labor “racketeering” when he was chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. And, more chilling, I think of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s use of that subcommittee to probe what he imagined was Communist Party subversion in America.

[snip]

Issa doesn’t come across as a McCarthyite. Indeed, he has struck me as one of the smarter and more creative members of the Republican caucus. But he now has the whip in his hand, and investigative power, as we have so many times in American history, can be grotesquely abused.

Ignatius’ analogy shows his blindness in two directions.

First, it’s pretty obvious that Peter King, not Darrell Issa, intends to be the next McCarthy. Sure, other Republicans will join him in his anti-Muslim fear-mongering, but King is the guy who has promised to use his gavel to accomplish that task. Peter King’s goal, it seems, like that of Joe McCarthy, is to foster a generalized atmosphere of fear and distrust to justify authoritarian measures.

And given that today’s equivalent of anti-Communist witch hunts is anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks, it’d be particularly dangerous for Lebanese-American Darrell Issa to carry out that task. Indeed, Debbie Schlussel, one of the key operatives in sowing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate, has in the past targeted Issa for his ancestry, calling him “Jihad Darrell.”

But all that’s not to say Issa won’t launch into a bunch of wasteful witch hunts. But they’re obviously modeled on the witch hunts of Dan Burton, Issa’s predecessor at Oversight, in which a slew of baseless investigations served the purpose of delegitimizing the President.

Perhaps I’m being a pedant for insisting on this distinction, but I do so for two reasons. First, because it’s important to understand the structure of these witch hunts and the intended targets of them. Issa, it seems to me, has an entirely political aim, whereas King’s is more societal. Issa’s target is Obama, King’s is all of us.

But I also think it remarkable that a purportedly centrist Villager like Ignatius can’t even summon the more obvious Burton comparison. All the blathering about bipartisanship, after all, ignores the tactics Republicans use to discredit their opponents, tactics that Burton mastered. It ignores the way Republicans put aside the good of the country to score political points.

I’m glad that Ignatius is calling on Issa to act like an adult, but he seems to ignore the whole point of Issa’s forecast witch hunts.

National Cathedral Thinks “Fuck the UAW” and “Fucking R****ds” Will Heal National Discourse

Faiz Shakir tweeted this:

Our national discourse is becoming increasingly shrill. We are faced with complex economic, social, and foreign policy questions that need a safe atmosphere in which to explore solutions that will work for the long term. Partisan attacks have taken hold in Washington and throughout the country, and reasoned analysis is harder and harder to find. Can we turn it around? What will it take to shift from accusation to reflection and purposeful debate? Can we find mutual respect that allows us to “govern across the divide?”

On the evening of Tuesday, October 5, as part of its commitment to present programs at the intersection of faith and public life, Washington National Cathedral hosts the 2010 Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program. This year’s program features two presidential chiefs of staff: Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, and Joshua Bolten, chief of staff to former President George W. Bush. Historian Michael Beschloss provides a reflection following the main dialogue featuring CBS anchor Bob Schieffer as moderator. Knowing firsthand how intense the political climate can get, Emanuel and Bolten share a sense of how and why Washington has become so divisive and how we might return some civility and cooperation to the discourse. [my emphasis]

If you didn’t already know, I’m all in favor of the occasional F-Bomb.

What I’m not in favor of is attacking your allies, particularly not if you’re in a position of power made possible by the hard work of those allies.

But I guess the National Cathedral ascribes to that well established religion of the Village, flaccid bipartisanship that ignores things like mutual respect.

And to answer your question, yes, the Ignatius family sponsoring this is columnist David Ignatius’.