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On Provenance and Putin: That Sid Blumenthal Story

At a campaign appearance yesterday, Donald Trump quoted a judgment that Kurt Eichenwald made in an article last year on the Benghazi investigation.

One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.

The rest of the article was about how politicized the inquiry was. But right there in the middle of his article, Eichenwald included a namby pamby both-sides paragraph — one that could have better nuanced the conclusions of the many Benghazi reports — that said Benghazi was a legitimate issue to raise against Hillary.

Sucks to be Eichenwald, because Trump just used it on his campaign, to thrilled cries from his frothy supporters.

The quote came up on the campaign trail because Sid Blumenthal had forwarded the article — highlighting the description about the politicized questioning he himself had undergone, but ultimately quoting the entire article, including that namby pamby paragraph — to a bunch of undisclosed recipients, including John Podesta, under the subject line “The truth…” Blumenthal surely meant that Eichenwald’s larger point — that the whole investigation was politicized — was the truth, but he did forward the whole thing, including the namby pamby paragraph, under that heading.

The forwarded story got released by WikiLeaks as part of its Podesta leaks (emails which Hillary effectively confirmed during the debate by explaining one of the emails that had attracted the most attention).

Now, as it turns out, Sputnik published a story on the email, erroneously attributing the entire judgment, including that attacking Hillary for Benghazi was a legit talking point, to Blumenthal, not Eichenwald. They apparently realized their error and took it down. But not before Eichenwald started wondering how Trump came to be quoting his own namby pamby paragraph on the campaign trail.

In an article asserting that Trump got his talking point from the Sputnik story, Eichenwald has given up not only his namby pamby tone, but moderation. In it, having already suggested the misattribution to Blumenthal was due to “incompetence,” he then claims it was also deliberate disinformation. He then states as fact that Trump got this “falsehood” from the Kremlin.

This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).

The Russians have been obtaining American emails and now are presenting complete misrepresentations of them—falsifying them—in hopes of setting off a cascade of events that might change the outcome of the presidential election. The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Donald Trump? That is a topic for another time.

Here’s an earlier version of the article, in which Eichenwald even more obviously asserts that the Sputnik article is both an error and a deliberate falsification.

Of course, this might be seen as just an opportunity to laugh at the incompetence of the Russian hackers and government press—once they realized their error, Sputnik took the article down. But this is not funny at all. The Russians have been obtaining American emails and now are presenting complete misrepresentations of them—falsifying them—in hopes of setting off a cascade of events that might change the outcome of the presidential election. The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Donald Trump. That is a topic for another time.

There are two interesting details about Eichenwald’s story. Nowhere in the piece does he link the actual Wikileaks email, which makes it clear that Blumenthal had, in fact, forwarded that namby pamby paragraph along with everything else. It is clear that the email was just a forwarded Newsweek article, but given that the part Blumenthal highlighted at the top was his own testimony, it is perhaps understandable why someone might make the misattribution.

More interesting still, while Eichenwald links this YouTube of what he says is Trump repeating the Sputnik talking point, he only selectively quotes from it. But it appears (and I admit that this, as with all of Trump’s ramblings, is not entirely clear) that Trump introduces the quote this way:

So Blumenthal writes a quote — this just came out a little while ago, I have to tell you this. “One important point has been …

It’s certainly possible Trump meant, “So Blumenthal writes, I quote,” but at least to my ear, he said, “Blumenthal writes a quote.” If that’s right, then Trump couldn’t have been working from Sputnik (or he at least wasn’t replicating their error), because he would have been properly attributing this judgment as a quote (of Eichenwald). Trump does go on to say “this is Sidney Blumenthal, the only one he was talking to,” after insinuating that one reason Hillary set up her email server may have been to continue talking to “Sleazy Sidney” after Obama told her to stop, but nowhere in the clip do I see Trump IDing it as an email from Blumenthal. Perhaps Eichenwald bases this assertion — “He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal” — on some other part of the appearance.

Eichenwald also notes that Trump was “holding a document in his hand.” But the document appears to be a transcribed talking point; it’s almost certainly not the Sputnik article. So that doesn’t tell us anything about provenance.

In other words, it’s not actually clear where Trump got this from, or whether Trump’s staffers had at least corrected Sputnik’s error. It may well be! But Eichenwald hasn’t made that case.

Apparently this frothy Trump supporter tweeted out the claim, just as Trump stated it, though he has since deleted it. (h/t Emma Jones) The supporter, who joined Twitter in February 2016, could well be a Russian troll (but one that long precedes this particular leak campaign), but he certainly models as an Infowars loving Hillary hater who overreads anything implicating her, something America has in ready supply without Putin’s help.

There’s one other part of this that I find notable, aside from the claim that Sputnik made this error out of both incompetence and deliberate disinformation. A big part of this narrative is that Wikileaks is doing Russia’s bidding rather than — a more logical explanation — attacking Hillary, with whom Julian Assange has had a 6-year adversarial relationship.

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-8-39-57-am

Wikileaks may well be working with Russia and/or the effect of sharing a mutual interest in weakening Hillary may amount to the same.

But this is actually a case where Russia did not do what has been alleged they might. That is, Wikileaks released what is an email no one contests, a not very controversial one at all. While Wikileaks has made misleading claims about what it has released at times, this is not one of them.

One thing clearly did not happen though. Even assuming Russia is responsible for the Podesta email leak, Russia did not “falsify” the original email to say what Eichenwald is so convinced Russia wanted to claim, that Blumenthal himself had endorsed Eichenwald’s namby pamby judgment that Benghazi is a fair talking point to use against Hillary. That claim only came after Sputnik tried to make it a bigger issue (but then realized its error, according to Eichenwald).

If Russia were doing what Eichenwald claimed — and they might in the future!! — then they would have doctored the email on the front end, not when republishing it in a state outlet.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Glenn Greenwald rips this (especially Eichenwald’s inflammatory tweets about the story) apart. More interesting, WaPo also dings Eichenwald for overclaiming what this incident reveals.

Update, November 1: There’s a very strange coda to this story. The guy who, until this event, worked at Sputnik and was responsible for the mistake, Bill Moran, wrote up this story from his viewpoint. Here’s how he made the mistake.

On Columbus Day, I made an embarrassing mistake. I noticed a series of viral tweets attributing words to Sidney Blumenthal on the Benghazi scandal. The original WikiLeaks document, to which the original article linked, was lengthy – 75 pages. I reviewed the document in a hurry, but I did not read all of them.

[snip]

I was moving too fast and I made a mistake – a mistake that I remain embarrassed about making. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette after scheduling our social media accounts, stopped halfway through, thought “why hasn’t anybody else picked this up?” gave the document a second review, realized my error, and proceeded to delete the story.

The story was up from 3:23PM EDT to 3:42PM EDT and received 1,061 views before being removed – I’d like to apologize to weekend readers for making that mistake no matter how honest an error it was.

What happened next is weirder. Eichenwald made a series of contacts with the guy, basically trying to persuade him not to tell the real story publicly, including by suggesting he could help him get a job at New Republic and then by threatening him.

Then, as Paste describes, they had a long conversation that Moran, at first, wasn’t going to release. In it, Eichenwald waggles around American spooks.

In Moran’s notes on the call, he quotes Eichenwald as repeating that the “intelligence community” was monitoring both Sputnik and a separate Twitter account, which he holds responsible for the blowback (as opposed to his own story). He went on to say that everyone at Sputnik had an intelligence file on them, and asked if Moran had made any foreign phone calls that might have raised eyebrows. He went on to imply that Moran might have issues getting a re-entry visa into America if he ever traveled abroad, and then offered to help Moran “find a real job” to extricate him from the situation. He went on to say that both Sputnik and Russia Today have been targeted by the intelligence community, and will soon be subject to sanctions that aim at shutting them down for good.

Which Eichenwald does again in a follow-up email (at which point Eichenwald seemed to be going nuts, because he didn’t realize that Moran included Newsweek’s own lawyer on the exchange and instead assumed it was Moran’s lawyer).

Next, he reverts to the threatening language—the “bad cop” persona—telling Moran that he could tie him to the Russians themselves: “Now, there is one alternative here,” Eichenwald writes. “I can write: ‘William Moran, the writer for Sputnik, said he based his article not on directives from the Russian government but on an anonymous tweet that used a clip of the image of the document. He said he accepted the anonymous tweeters’ description that this was from Blumenthal, and did so because he was rushed. However, as the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiry said, the original altered document that was tweeted onto the internet came from a location that has been identified as being connected to the Russian disinformation campaigns, and only the news outlet owned by the Russian government published an article based on it.”

In other words, perhaps in an attempt to salvage his reputation, or perhaps in truth, Eichenwald was dragging the intelligence community into this.

DC Cooties

There have been a series of stories fed to the press this week intended to heighten concerns about Trump advisor Paul Manafort’s ties to Russian thugs (but not his numerous ties to other thugs). The NYT had a story about Manafort receiving cash payments from 2007 to 2012 (that is, well before Trump decided to run for President). And the AP has a story headlined, “AP Sources: Manafort tied to undisclosed foreign lobbying” that describes how Manafort’s partner, Rick Gates, funneled funds from a pro-Yanukovych non-profit to two DC lobbying firms.

Paragraph 10 of the story reveals that it relies on sources from the Podesta Group, one of the lobbying firms in question.

Paragraph 15 begins to explain salient information about the Podesta group: that its ties to the Clinton campaign are as close as Gates’ ties to the Trump campaign.

The founder and chairman of the Podesta Group, Tony Podesta, is the brother of longtime Democratic strategist John Podesta, who now is campaign chairman for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The head of Mercury, Vin Weber, is an influential Republican, former congressman and former special policy adviser to Mitt Romney. Weber announced earlier this month that he will not support Trump.

After being introduced to the lobbying firms, the European nonprofit paid the Podesta Group $1.13 million between June 2012 and April 2014 to lobby Congress, the White House National Security Council, the State Department and other federal agencies, according to U.S. lobbying records.

[snip]

One former Podesta employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a non-disclosure agreement, said Gates described the nonprofit’s role in an April, 2012 meeting as supplying a source of money that could not be traced to the Ukrainian politicians who were paying him and Manafort.

In separate interviews, three current and former Podesta employees said disagreements broke out within the firm over the arrangement, which at least one former employee considered obviously illegal. Podesta, who said the project was vetted by his firm’s counsel, said he was unaware of any such disagreements.

In other words, the headline and lead of this story should say something to the effect of, “Trump’s campaign manager’s partner funneled potentially illegal funds to Hillary’s campaign manager’s brother.”

Or more succinctly: “DC is a corrupt, incestuous cesspool.”

But it doesn’t. Instead of telling the story about the broken foreign registry system that permits elites of both parties to take funding from some unsavory characters — some we like, some we hate — the story instead spins this as a uniquely Trump and Manafort problem.

Sure. Vladimir Putin is one scary bastard. But there are a lot of scary bastards, and they’re feeding both sides of the DC pig’s trough.

The Promise [sic] of Big Data

22 pages into the White House report on Big Data, this paragraph appears:

Government keeps the peace. It makes sure our food is safe to eat. It keeps our air and  water clean. The laws and regulations it promulgates order economic and political life. Big data technology stands to improve nearly all the services the public sector delivers.

It presents several claims that are arguably not at all true:

  • Government keeps the peace (where? South Chicago? Iraq? Wall Street?)
  • Government makes our food safe to eat (with the few inspectors who inspect factory farms? with federal guidelines that don’t combat obesity?)
  • Government keeps our air and water clean (I’m more comfortable with this claim, until you consider we’re melting the planet with stuff in the air that government doesn’t want to regulate)
  • Government laws order economic and political life (they may well, but is that order just and good?)

And that, the report says, is all made possible because of BigData.

Some 15 pages later, after it has reviewed the top secret DHS database analyzing all our public called Cerberus, has admitted the government needs to rethink the meaning of metadata across both intelligence and non-intelligence functions, and explained the new continuous evaluation systems to root out insider threats, the report again proclaims Big Data’s good.

When wrestling with the vexing issues big data raises in the public sector, it can be easy  to lose sight of the tremendous opportunities these technologies offer to improve public services, grow the economy, and improve the health and safety of our communities.  These opportunities are real and must be kept at the center of the conversation about  big data.

Meanwhile, the report offers up these other signs of Big Data progress:

  • Big data “is also enabling some of the nearly 29 percent of Americans who are ‘unbanked’ or ‘underbanked’ [often because of Big Data] to qualify for a line of credit by using a wider range of non-traditional information—such as rent payments, utilities, mobile-phone subscriptions, insurance, child care, and tuition—to establish creditworthiness.”
  • “Home appliances can now tell us when to dim our lights from a thousand miles away.”
  • “Powerful algorithms can unlock value in the vast troves of information available to businesses, and can help empower consumers.”
  • “The advertising-supported Internet creates enormous value for consumers by providing access to useful services, news, and entertainment at no financial cost.”

In short, the whole thing is rather breathless about Big Data.

And in spite of the fact that respondents to a totally unscientific (not Big Data) survey said they were most concerned about intelligence (first) and law enforcement (second), the Big Data report avoided much of the discussion about this,relegating it to discussions of local law enforcement’s use of predictive analysis.

And where they do describe surveillance, it’s either to boast about how good the security is on their database, as they do for DHS’ curiously named “Cerberus” database, or to pretend big data doesn’t dominate there, too.

Today, most law enforcement uses of metadata are still rooted in the “small data” world, such as identifying phone numbers called by a criminal suspect. In the future, metadata that is part of the “big data” world will be increasingly relevant to investigations, raising the question of what protections it should be granted. While today, the content of communications, whether written or ver-bal, generally receives a high level of legal protection, the level of protection afforded to metadata is less so.

Although the use of big data technologies by the government raises profound issues of how government power should be regulated, big data technologies also hold within them solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens. These include sophisticated methods of tagging data by the authorities under which it was collected or generated; purpose- and user-based access restrictions on this data; tracking which users access what data for what purpose; and algorithms that alert supervisors to possible abuses.

And there are a slew of places in the report — where it talks about HIPAA without talking about using Section 215s to get HIPAA data, where it talks about FCRA without talking about NSLs to get financial data, where it neglects to mention NCTC’s ability to get federal databases, including those of DHS — where it remains silent about the surveillance piggybacking on the issue at hand.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the report — aside from the fact that it actually had to advance the recommendation that we only use Big Data collected in schools for educational purposes (setting aside how well or poorly Big Data is serving our students) — is the silence about the things we don’t use Big Data for enough, notably solving the financial crisis and regulating banksters (including things like tax havens, inequality, and shadow banking), or really doing something about climate change.

Big Data, as it appears in the report (as presented by a bunch of boosters) is not something we’re going to throw at our most intractable problems. We’re just going to use it to turn the lights off on the other side of the country.

And to spy.

If by “Big Data” You Mean “Big Campaign Donations”

President Obama has named the people who will help John Podesta accomplish this task.

I have also asked my Counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy. This group will consist of government officials who—along with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look at how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.

As I said in my annotations to Obama’s speech, effectively Obama responded “to a review by calling for another review,” but at least it would be a welcome first time he reached out to technologists.

Here’s the list:

That’s why in his speech, the President asked me to lead a comprehensive review of the way that “big data” will affect the way we live and work; the relationship between government and citizens; and how public and private sectors can spur innovation and maximize the opportunities and free flow of this information while minimizing the risks to privacy. I will be joined in this effort by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren, the President’s Economic Advisor Gene Sperling and other senior government officials.

I’ll outsource judging whether this amounts to reaching out to technologists to Chris Soghoian:

None of the big names named in the president’s “big data” review announcement are technologists. DC at its finest.

But I’m particularly interested in Penny Pritzker’s presence on the list.

After Cass Sunstein and Geoffrey Stone ended up being too independent to deliver the whitewash Obama wanted, he has picked one of his biggest campaign donors to review Big Data.

So I guess by “Big Data” we know what Obama meant.

Worse still, Pritzker heads up an Agency that — it is increasingly clear — serves a key role in offering carrots and sticks to coerce compliance from private companies with government data demands. And compliance not just for the purposes of defense of spying, but also for cyberoffense. Not exactly the kind of person who might expect candor from the Big Data companies likely to be coerced by the government.

Woodward’s Secrets

Jeebus: Goldsmith may be getting a hang of this blogging thing, but I’m not: John Rizzo, not John Brennan. So the stuff I originally said about Brennan doesn’t make any sense.

I may not always agree with Jack Goldsmith, but he’s getting a hang of this blogging thing. Today, he posts the answer John Brennan gave him to the question of how Bob Woodward got very specific details of a meeting that a number of Obama’s top advisors had to leave because they didn’t have the appropriate clearance.

The first Chapter of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars describes Barack Obama’s first post-election intelligence briefing from Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, on November 6, 2008.  The chapter shows McConnell, at the direction of President Bush, excluding many Obama aides (including Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta and former Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg) from the briefing.  Because the briefing contained highly classified information about “sources and methods,” McConnell explained, only those “designated to take a top national security cabinet post” could attend.   Woodward then recounts this highly classified intelligence briefing in great detail, including several highly classified CIA and NSA programs, and their code names.

After reading this chapter, I wondered how a meeting involving classified information so sensitive that a close Obama aide and former top national security official could not attend could the following year be recounted in such loving detail in the first chapter of a best-selling book.  Woodward clearly got his information from participants in the meeting or their close aides.  Was it right for these people to speak to Woodward about these matters?  Was it legal?  I sent these questions to John Rizzo, the just-retired thirty-four year veteran CIA lawyer who has seen his share of leaked classified information over the years.

John responded:

Simple.  When a President himself is a key source and directs or at least signals to his Administration to cooperate with the author, that for all intents and purposes means the book becomes one big authorized disclosure. That’s what Obama did for Woodward, and that’s what Bush did for Woodward in his three books during that Administration, which also were packed with hitherto sensitive information.  That’s what is remarkable and unique about Woodward’s standing.

Now, Goldsmith appears offended that Obama and Bush would treat classified information so lightly.

Me, I’m more interested in what this says about Woodward’s (and, while we’re talking about it, Judy Miller’s) position in the information management function.

John Brennan–a guy who oversaw targeting for Cheney’s illegal wiretap program and therefore presumably had the highest clearance in two Administrations–lackadaisically says that if the President wants something leaked, it becomes legal to leak it.

In Judy Miller’s case, we saw how this selective leaking ensured the Administration could declassify its politicized case for war, while ensuring those who disputed the case were kept silent under threat of prosecution.

Woodward is even more interesting. Woodward knew to ask certain pointed questions of Richard Armitage–the same questions, as it turns out, that Bob Novak asked to elicit information about Valerie Plame’s purported role in Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger. But according to John Brennan, at least, even if Richard Armitage leaked Plame’s role intentionally, it would not be illegal. And remember, too, that on July 8 or 9 (this is reflected in notes introduced at trial; you’ll have to take my word for it though, because I don’t have my records with me), the VP’s office did give Woodward detailed information about the Iraq NIE. In other words, we know Woodward was a part of the OVP’s strategy for rebutting Joe Wilson in what was effectively a political hit.

More generally, though, consider what this suggests about the excuse that Cheney was prepared to use for having ordered the leak of Plame’s identity. John Brennan, at least, argues that if the President “signals to his Administration” that he wants certain information out there, it’s legal to leak it. I don’t necessarily buy that, mind you.

But it suggests one of Obama’s key advisors buys off on the idea that it’s cool for the President to selectively declassify information (you know, like leaks to the press about targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, even if you later invoke state secrets about it) for political gain.