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Disaster Democracy: Can Something Be Salvaged from Trump’s Meltdown?

The WaPo has two panicked pieces about Trump.

First, there’s a David Ignatius column that correctly notes we’re in a really dangerous place until Biden’s win is certified (I’d say, until Inauguration). Along the way, Ignatius points to a terrifying possibility that might (or might not) explain a sudden Kash Patel flight: that he was being considered to replace Chris Wray.

Kash Patel, chief of staff to acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller, returned home “abruptly” from an Asia trip in early December, according to Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin. Patel didn’t explain, but in mid-December Trump discussed with colleagues the possibility that Patel might replace Christopher A. Wray as FBI director, one official said. Wray remains in his job.

And another terrifying possibility that, Ignatius notes, is just speculation: that Trump’s flunkies may have tried to split NSA and CyberComm to install Ezra Cohen-Watnick as the head of NSA.

But why did Trump loyalists suggest the NSA-Cyber Command split in the first place? Some officials speculate that the White House may have planned to install a new NSA chief, perhaps Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the young conservative recently installed to oversee Pentagon intelligence activities.

To stave off these terrifying, but unsubstantiated, possibilities, Ignatius advises that some wise Republicans go to the White House and tell Trump to stop.

Trump won’t succeed in subverting the Constitution, but he can do enormous damage over the next weeks. Before Jan. 6, a delegation of senior Republicans should visit him at the White House and insist, emphatically: Biden has won. This must stop.

Meanwhile, another WaPo piece describes the vacuum at the White House as Trump ignores people — like Steve Mnuchin — who’ve long been able to coax some actual responsible policy actions out of him, the kind of people Ignatius might have in mind to talk to sense into Trump.

Mostly, this story is one of a long line of stories on how Trump repays loyalty with humiliation.

His demand for $2,000 stimulus checks is a direct rejection of the $600 checks that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had personally proposed and negotiated with Democrats and Republicans. Now, Trump’s rejection of the deal has confounded many leaders on Capitol Hill because they had thought Mnuchin negotiated the package on behalf of the president. The treasury chief’s standing with many lawmakers is now in tatters just days before a full-blown crisis is set to occur.

The president’s denunciation of the agreement represented a stunning public broadside against his own treasury secretary, who for four years loyally shielded the president’s tax returns, endured repeated presidential tirades in private, and defended even Trump’s most incendiary and contradictory remarks. Through it all, Mnuchin had emerged with the unique ability to walk a tightrope between Trump and congressional leaders, serving as an emissary in difficult negotiations. That all ended on Tuesday, when Trump posted a video on Twitter ridiculing the agreement.

But the more important bit describes how Trump decided, on his own, to blow up the bill that Mnuchin had negotiated. Mark Meadows helped him do so, even though he opposed both Trump’s call for $2,000 checks and (I think) the vindictive video blowing up the bill itself.

Trump’s shocking move to possibly blow up the agreement appears to have been his idea alone, according to two people briefed on the matter by White House staff.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who had earlier this month successfully talked Trump out of demanding $2,000 stimulus payments, helped orchestrate the video released by the White House. But Meadows did not come up with the idea for it and was widely seen internally as opposing the move, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

That is, in the midst of a story describing how yet another loyal Trump supporter was treated like shit (as were the Republicans in Congress who believed Mnuchin could speak for Trump), WaPo describes how Trump is vindictively staging confrontations in defiance of the advice from his closest advisors, with no care for the millions of Americans who get harmed in the process.

This is the man the Republican party has loyally defended in the face of ever increasing allegations of corruption and disloyalty to the country, repaying their loyalty by blowing up their attempt to feign concern about struggling Americans just in time for the Georgia run-off.

It is undeniable we’re in a dangerous place right now — because of the armed gangs supporting the President, because he’d love to start a war on his way out, because his temper tantrum is having very real effects for human beings.

But for better and worse, there are no responsible Republicans — or even immediate family members — who can save the day. Those who know Trump best have left town in an attempt to dissociate themselves from what is coming that will leave lasting damage for Joe Biden to clean up.

Nevertheless, we’ve reached an important moment, where Trump has turned on virtually all remaining institutional parts of the Republican party, from the judges and justices he installed to the Senators who refused to call him on his attempt to coerce Ukraine. Yes, we will still have Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, yes, we will newly have Tommy Tuberville.

But significant parts of the Republican party will, because of this tantrum, be prepared to turn on him as soon as he loses the power of the Presidency. And that may provide a way out.

Naomi Klein invented a term “Disaster Capitalism” for the way members of both parties use disasters as an opportunity to loot or facilitate future looting. That’s a risk here. But Republicans will have an incentive to distance themselves from Trump. And that may provide an opening to recover from Trumpism.

Like All Else, Trump’s Inspector General Turnover Is about Pandemic

Update: I’m republishing this and bumping it, because Trump just replaced Glenn Fine as Acting Inspector General — whom Michael Horowitz had named to head the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee — with the IG for EPA. This makes him ineligible to head PRAC. Fine will remain Principle Deputy IG. 

Late last night, President Trump fired the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General who alerted Congress of the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump effectively put Atkinson on administrative leave for 30 days in a move that skirts the legal requirement that an inspector general be fired for cause and Congress be notified of it.

Trump has been accused of firing Atkinson late at night on a Friday under cover of the pandemic to retaliate for the role Atkinson had — which consisted of nothing more than doing his job as carefully laid out by law — in Trump’s impeachment. It no doubt is.

But it’s also likely about the pandemic and Trump’s proactive attempts to avoid any accountability for his failures in both the pandemic response and the reconstruction from it.

There were a lot of pandemic warnings Trump ignored that he wants to avoid becoming public

I say that, first of all, because of the likelihood that Trump will need to cover up what intelligence he received, alerting him to the severity of the coming pandemic. Trump’s administration was warned by the intelligence community no later than January 3, and a month later, that’s what a majority of Trump’s intelligence briefings consisted of. But Trump didn’t want to talk about it, in part because he didn’t believe the intelligence he was getting.

At a White House briefing Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said officials had been alerted to the initial reports of the virus by discussions that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had with Chinese colleagues on Jan. 3.

The warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies increased in volume toward the end of January and into early February, said officials familiar with the reports. By then, a majority of the intelligence reporting included in daily briefing papers and digests from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA was about covid-19, said officials who have read the reports.

[snip]

Inside the White House, Trump’s advisers struggled to get him to take the virus seriously, according to multiple officials with knowledge of meetings among those advisers and with the president.

Azar couldn’t get through to Trump to speak with him about the virus until Jan. 18, according to two senior administration officials. When he reached Trump by phone, the president interjected to ask about vaping and when flavored vaping products would be back on the market, the senior administration officials said.

On Jan. 27, White House aides huddled with then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in his office, trying to get senior officials to pay more attention to the virus, according to people briefed on the meeting. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argued that the administration needed to take the virus seriously or it could cost the president his reelection, and that dealing with the virus was likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.

Mulvaney then began convening more regular meetings. In early briefings, however, officials said Trump was dismissive because he did not believe that the virus had spread widely throughout the United States.

In that same period, Trump was demanding Department of Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar treat coronavirus briefings as classified.

The officials said that dozens of classified discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), a key player in the fight against the coronavirus.

Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said.

“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official said. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”

The sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security issues, ordered the classification.”This came directly from the White House,” one official said.

Now, it could be that this information was legitimately classified. But if so, it means Trump had even more — and higher quality — warning of the impending pandemic than we know. If not, then it was an abuse of the classification process in an attempt to avoid having to deal with it. Either one of those possibilities further condemns Trump’s response.

Also in this same period, then Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was asking not to hold a public Worldwide Threats hearing because doing so would amount to publicly reporting on facts that the President was in denial about.

The U.S. intelligence community is trying to persuade House and Senate lawmakers to drop the public portion of an annual briefing on the globe’s greatest security threats — a move compelled by last year’s session that provoked an angry outburst from President Donald Trump, multiple sources told POLITICO.

Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on behalf of the larger clandestine community, don’t want agency chiefs to be seen on-camera as disagreeing with the president on big issues such as Iran, Russia or North Korea, according to three people familiar with preliminary negotiations over what’s known as the Worldwide Threats hearing.

The request, which is unlikely to be approved, has been made through initial, informal conversations at the staff level between Capitol Hill and the clandestine community, the people said.

Not only did that hearing never happened, but neither has a report been released.

Among the things then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned of in last year’s hearing was the threat of a pandemic.

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change.

So to some degree, Trump has to make sure there’s no accountability in the intelligence community because if there is, his failure to prepare for the pandemic will become all the more obvious.

Richard Burr is incapable of defending the Intelligence Community right now

But it’s also the case that the pandemic — and the treatment of early warnings about it — may have created an opportunity to retaliate against Atkinson when he might not have otherwise been able to. Even beyond offering cover under the distraction of thousands of preventable deaths, the pandemic, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr’s success at profiting off it, means that the only Republican who might have pushed back against this action is stymied.

On Sunday, multiple outlets reported that DOJ is investigating a series of stock trades before most people understood how bad the pandemic would be. Burr is represented by former Criminal Division head Alice Fisher — certainly the kind of lawyer whose connections and past white collar work would come in handy for someone trying to get away with corruption.

The Justice Department has started to probe a series of stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of the sharp market downturn stemming from the spread of coronavirus, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The inquiry, which is still in its early stages and being done in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission, has so far included outreach from the FBI to at least one lawmaker, Sen. Richard Burr, seeking information about the trades, according to one of the sources.

[snip]

Burr, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has previously said that he relied only on public news reports as he decided to sell between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stocks on February 13. Earlier this month, he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the trades given “the assumption many could make in hindsight,” he said at the time.

There’s no indication that any of the sales, including Burr’s, broke any laws or ran afoul of Senate rules. But the sales have come under fire after senators received closed-door briefings about the virus over the past several weeks — before the market began trending downward. It is routine for the FBI and SEC to review stock trades when there is public question about their propriety.

In a statement Sunday to CNN, Alice Fisher, a lawyer for Burr, said that the senator “welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”

“The law is clear that any American — including a Senator — may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did. When this issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review, and he will cooperate with that review as well as any other appropriate inquiry,” said Fisher, who led the Justice Department’s criminal division under former President George W. Bush.

In spite of Fisher’s bravado, Burr is by far the most legally vulnerable of the senators who dumped a lot of stock in the period. That’s partly because he had access to two streams of non-public reporting on the crisis, the most classified on SSCI (which Senator Feinstein also would have had), but also on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. And unlike the other senators, Burr admitted that he made these trades himself.

Again, in spite of Fisher’s claims, Burr will be forced to affirmatively show that he didn’t rely on this non-public information when dumping an inordinate amount of stock.

All of which is to say that Burr may be hoping that Fisher can talk him out of any legal exposure, which will require placating the thoroughly corrupt Bill Barr.

I had already thought that Trump might use this leverage to influence the findings or timing of the remaining parts of SSCI’s Russian investigation. That’s all the more true of Atkinson’s firing. Thus far, Burr has remained silent on what is obviously a legally inappropriate firing.

Even as he fired Atkinson, Trump undermined any oversight of his pandemic recovery efforts

A week before firing Atkinson, Trump made it clear he had no intention of being bound by Inspectors General in his signing statement for the “CARES Act” recovery bill. In addition to stating that Steve Mnuchin could reallocate spending without prior notice to Congress (as required by the bill and the Constitution), Trump also undercut both oversight mechanisms in the law. He did so by suggesting that the Chairperson of Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (who is DOJ’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz) should not be required to consult with Congress about who he should make Director and Deputy Director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Section 15010(c)(3)(B) of Division B of the Act purports to require the Chairperson of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to consult with members of the Congress regarding the selection of the Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director for the newly formed Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The Committee is an executive branch entity charged with conducting and coordinating oversight of the Federal Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. I anticipate that the Chairperson will be able to consult with members of the Congress with respect to these hiring decisions and will welcome their input. But a requirement to consult with the Congress regarding executive decision-making, including with respect to the President’s Article II authority to oversee executive branch operations, violates the separation of powers by intruding upon the President’s power and duty to supervise the staffing of the executive branch under Article II, section 1 (vesting the President with the “executive Power”) and Article II, section 3 (instructing the President to “take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed). Accordingly, my Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory.

On Monday, Horowitz named DOD Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine Director of PRAC.

In appointing Mr. Fine to Chair the PRAC, Mr. Horowitz stated, “Mr. Fine is uniquely qualified to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, given his more than 15 years of experience as an Inspector General overseeing large organizations — 11 years as the Department of Justice Inspector General and the last 4 years performing the duties of the Department of Defense Inspector General. The Inspector General Community recognizes the need for transparency surrounding, and strong and effective independent oversight of, the federal government’s spending in response to this public health crisis. Through our individual offices, as well as through CIGIE and the Committee led by Mr. Fine, the Inspectors General will carry out this critical mission on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers.”

Last night, however, after years of leaving DOD’s IG position vacant, Trump nominated someone who has never managed the an office like DOD’s Inspector General, which oversees a budget larger than that of many nation-states, and who is currently at the hyper-politicized Customs and Border Patrol.

Jason Abend of Virginia, to be Inspector General, Department of Defense.

Mr. Abend currently serves as Senior Policy Advisor, United States Customs and Border Protection.

Prior to his current role, Mr. Abend served in the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Office of Inspector General as a Special Agent. Before that, he served as a Special Agent in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General, where he led a team investigating complex Federal Housing Administration mortgage and reverse mortgage fraud, civil fraud, public housing assistance fraud, and internal agency personnel cases.

Mr. Abend was also the Founder and CEO of the Public Safety Media Group, LLC, a professional services firm that provided strategic and operational human resources consulting, training, and advertising to Federal, State, and local public safety agencies, the United States Military, and Intelligence agencies.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Abend worked as a Special Agent at the United States Secret Service and as an Intelligence Research Specialist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Abend received his bachelor’s degree from American University and has received master’s degrees from both American University and George Washington University.

Abend seems totally unqualified for the DOD job alone, but if he is confirmed, he would also make Fine ineligible to head PRAC.

Horowitz issued a statement on Atkinson’s firing today that emphasized that Atkinson had acted appropriately with the Ukraine investigation, as well as his intent to conduct rigorous oversight, including — perhaps especially — PRAC.

Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done “by the book” and consistent with the law. The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee. This includes CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and its efforts on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers to ensure that over $2 trillion dollars in emergency federal spending is being used consistently with the law’s mandate.

Also in last week’s signing statement, Trump said he would not permit an Inspector General appointed to oversee the financial side of the recovery to report to Congress when Treasury refuses to share information.

Section 4018 of Division A of the Act establishes a new Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) within the Department of the Treasury to manage audits and investigations of loans and investments made by the Secretary of the Treasury under the Act. Section 4018(e)(4)(B) of the Act authorizes the SIGPR to request information from other government agencies and requires the SIGPR to report to the Congress “without delay” any refusal of such a request that “in the judgment of the Special Inspector General” is unreasonable. I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3.

That may not matter now, because Trump just nominated one of the lawyers who just helped him navigate impeachment for that SIGPR role.

Brian D. Miller of Virginia, to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, Department of the Treasury.

Mr. Miller currently serves as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Associate Counsel in the Office of White House Counsel. Prior to his current role, Mr. Miller served as an independent corporate monitor and an expert witness. He also practiced law in the areas of ethics and compliance, government contracts, internal investigations, white collar, and suspension and debarment. Mr. Miller has successfully represented clients in government investigations and audits, suspension and debarment proceedings, False Claims Act, and criminal cases.

Mr. Miller served as the Senate-confirmed Inspector General for the General Services Administration for nearly a decade, where he led more than 300 auditors, special agents, attorneys, and support staff in conducting nationwide audits and investigations. As Inspector General, Mr. Miller reported on fraud, waste, and abuse, most notably with respect to excesses at a GSA conference in Las Vegas.

Mr. Miller also served in high-level positions within the Department of Justice, including as Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General and as Special Counsel on Healthcare Fraud. He also served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he handled civil fraud, False Claims Act, criminal, and appellate cases.

Mr. Miller received his bachelor’s degree from Temple University, his juris doctorate from the University of Texas, and his Master of Arts from Westminster Theological Seminary.

To be fair, unlike Abend, Miller is absolutely qualified for the SIGPR position (which means he’ll be harder to block in the Senate). But by picking someone who has already demonstrated his willingness to put loyalty ahead of the Constitution, Trump has provided Mnuchin one more assurance that he can loot the bailout with almost no oversight.

The New Cyber Sanctions

Even as Trump was working hard to get Russia admitted back into the G-7, Treasury was preparing new cyber sanctions against a number of “Russian” entities. This appears to be an effort to apply sanctions for activities exploiting routers and other network infrastructure (activities that the US and its partners engage in too) that US-CERT released a warning about in April.

One of the designated entities in controlled by and has provided material and technological support to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), while two others have provided the FSB with material and technological support.  OFAC is also designating several entities and individuals for being owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, the three entities that have enabled the FSB.

[snip]

Examples of Russia’s malign and destabilizing cyber activities include the destructive NotPetya cyber-attack; cyber intrusions against the U.S. energy grid to potentially enable future offensive operations; and global compromises of network infrastructure devices, including routers and switches, also to potentially enable disruptive cyber-attacks.  Today’s action also targets the Russian government’s underwater capabilities.  Russia has been active in tracking undersea communication cables, which carry the bulk of the world’s telecommunications data.

I’ve included the entire list of sanction targets below.

On paper, at least, it looks like Treasury is sanctioning:

  • An entity, Divetechnoservices, that helps Russia tap into submarine cables along with three of its employees (another thing our spooks do, but one the US and especially UK have been increasingly worried about from Russia); the Treasury release notes that Divetechnoservices got the contract for a FSB submersible craft way back in 2011
  • An entity, Kvant Scientific Research Institute, that has been a research institute for FSB since August 2015 and, since April 2017, the prime contractor on an FSB project
  • An entity, Digital Security, that as of 2015 worked on a project that would expand Russia’s offensive cyber capabilities; the sanctions also include two companies the release claims are Digital Security subsidiaries, both which have US and Israeli locations

All of these were sanctioned under E.O. 13694, which, as amended, included attacks on election processes; given the dates, they might be implicated in the election year hacks, or might just be deemed a threat to national security. Just Kvant was also sanctioned under CAATSA, which is the more general sanctions program forced onto Trump by Congress. I’ve also put the language for the two of those below.

And, as Lorenzo F-B notes, the heads of two of the sanctioned alleged subsidiaries of Digital Security, ERPScan and Embedi, say they have nothing to do with the company.

But one of the security companies named in the new sanctions, ERPScan, denied having anything to do with the Russian government in an email to Motherboard.

“The only issue is that I and some of my peers were born in Russia, oh, cmon, I’m sorry but I can’t change it,” ERPScan’s founder Alexander Polyakov told me. “We don’t have any ties to Russian government.”

ERPScan is mostly known for its product that hunts for vulnerabilities in companies’ systems provided by SAP, a popular German enterprise software maker. Cyber Defense Magazine gave ERPScan an award this year for “best product” in its artificial intelligence and machine learning category.

[snip]

Polyakov, however, claimed that as of 2014, ERPScan is a “private company registered in the Netherlands” and that it has no connections “with other companies listed in this document.”

[snip]

“The news came to us as an unpleasant surprize. We never worked for Russian government, but indeed we have some former Russian researchers in our Research Team (some of them are former employees of Digital Security),” Alex Kruglov, Embedi’s head of marketing, told Motherboard in an email. “It is the only reason we can figure out to be added to a sanctions list.”

And they’re both legit cybersecurity companies, which at the very least raises questions (as the Kaspersky targeting did) about whether this is just infosec protectionism. If these protestations are correct, however, it renews real questions about the accuracy of sanction claims made under Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The first indication that Mnuchin’s Treasury Department was offering bullshit to fulfill Congress’ demand for sanctions came when Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs in January that was basically just the Forbes list of richest Russians, including a number that oppose Putin.

President Trump’s Treasury Department releaseda list of prominent Russian political figures and business leaders who have prospered while Vladimir Putin has led Russia.

The list features 210 people, including politicians such as Prime Minister Medvedev and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. Also on the list are 96 “oligarchs.” Within hours of the list’s posting , media organizations began pointing out the similarity between the 96 billionaires listed and the Russians that appear on Forbes’ 2017 list of the World’s Billionaires.

Forbes went through the lists and confirmed that indeed the Treasury Department’s list is an exact replica of the Russians on the 2017 billionaires list.

For a bit, I thought the list released in March, which added a few new GRU officers, might have reflected new knowledge about GRU officers involved in the targeting of the DNC. Except it turned out those officers were just people readily identifiable off public GRU records. Treasury basically could have gotten them from a spook phone book.

Treasury did better with non-cyber Ukraine-related sanctions in April. It actually named several figures — most obviously Oleg Deripaska and Alexander Torshin — suspected of having played key roles in the election interference. Since then, Deripaska and his aluminum company Rusal have pursued financial games to shield Rusal from sanctions. He’s doing this with the help of Mercury Public Affairs — the Vin Weber lobbying group that shows up in a lot of Manafort’s indictments — and former Trump aide Brian Lanza, who now works there. So it’s not clear whether Deripaska will be significantly impacted.

With that history in mind, it’s worth asking whether Treasury simply can’t do cyber sanctions well, both because it’s hard to distinguish infosec from hacking (it would be equally difficult to do so for any of a number of contractors with close ties to FBI, the analogue of the companies that got sanctioned yesterday), and perhaps because Treasury doesn’t have good intelligence on who is hacking for Russia. Or perhaps Mnuchin is just obstinate.

But thus far, the history of Treasury’s selections on Russian related cyber sanctions leaves quite a bit to be desired.


Today’s action includes the designation of five Russian entities and three Russian individuals pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, as well as a concurrent designation pursuant to Section 224 of CAATSA.

Digital Security was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for providing material and technological support to the FSB.  As of 2015, Digital Security worked on a project that would increase Russia’s offensive cyber capabilities for the Russian Intelligence Services, to include the FSB.

ERPScan was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for being owned or controlled by Digital Security.  As of August 2016, ERPScan was a subsidiary of Digital Security.

Embedi was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended.  As of May 2017, Embedi was owned or controlled by Digital Security.

Kvant Scientific Research Institute (Kvant) was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, and Section 224 of CAATSA for being owned or controlled by the FSB.  In August 2010, the Russian government issued a decree that identified Kvant as a federal state unitary enterprise that would be supervised by the FSB.

Kvant was also designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for providing material and technological support to the FSB.  As of August 2015, Kvant was a research institute with extensive ties to the FSB.  Furthermore, as of April 2017, Kvant was the prime contractor on a project for which the FSB was the end user.

Divetechnoservices was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for providing material and technological support to the FSB.  Since 2007, Divetechnoservices has procured a variety of underwater equipment and diving systems for Russian government agencies, to include the FSB.  Further, in 2011, Divetechnoservices was awarded a contract to procure a submersible craft valued at $1.5 million for the FSB.

Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun (Tribun) was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for acting for or on behalf of Divetechnoservices.  As of December 2017, Tribun was Divetechnoservices’ General Director.

Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov (Chirikov) was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for acting for or on behalf of Divetechnoservices.  As of March 2018, Chirikov was Divetechnoservices’ Program Manager.

Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy (Kaganskiy) was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for acting for or on behalf of Divetechnoservices.  As of December 2017, Kaganskiy was Divetechnoservices’ owner.  Previously, Kaganskiy also served as Divetechnoservices’ General Director.


EO 13694 as amended

E.O. 13694 authorized the imposition of sanctions on individuals and entities determined to be responsible for or complicit in malicious cyber-enabled activities that result in enumerated harms that are reasonably likely to result in, or have materially contributed to, a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.  The authority has been amended to also allow for the imposition of sanctions on individuals and entities determined to be responsible for tampering, altering, or causing the misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions.

CAATSA Section 224

IN GENERAL.—On and after the date that is 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the President shall— (1) impose the sanctions described in subsection (b) with respect to any person that the President determines— (A) knowingly engages in significant activities undermining cybersecurity against any person, including a democratic institution, or government on behalf of the Government of the Russian Federation; or (B) is owned or controlled by, or acts or purports to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, a person described in subparagraph (A);

[snip]

SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITIES UNDERMINING CYBERSECURITY DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘significant activities undermining cybersecurity’’ includes— (1) significant efforts— (A) to deny access to or degrade, disrupt, or destroy an information and communications technology system or network; or (B) to exfiltrate, degrade, corrupt, destroy, or release information from such a system or network without authorization for purposes of— (i) conducting influence operations; or (ii) causing a significant misappropriation of funds, economic resources, trade secrets, personal identifications, or financial information for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain; (2) significant destructive malware attacks; and (3) significant denial of service activities.


Three Things: Flying Moochin’ Mnuchin Air

Usually when I pull together a Three Things post they’re unrelated topics worth a quick look but not necessarily a full-blown post. This time these three things are related and I can’t write a post on each one because my blood pressure won’t handle it, thanks to Moochin’ Mnuchin.

~ 3 ~

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) recently FOIAd Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s travel data. You’ve probably heard by now about his use of military aircraft for eight trips costing nearly one million dollars. CREW looked at the regulations covering government travel and authorization for spending. Take the time to read their work, it’s worth the effort.

And then read the FOIAd records CREW shares, but only after you’ve taken your blood pressure medications and/or prepared for a tooth-grinding tension migraine. There were repeated indications to Mnuchin and staff these trips were expensive — one cost $26,953.33 when commercial airfare for the same trip was $688 per person.

It’s this trip which first made me do a double take, because Mnuchin’s plane was on the ground in Miami on June 15, 2017, for a mere two hours and 45 minutes or less.

Mnuchin traveled to Miami to attend the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America held at FIU’s campus, roughly 15 minutes by car from Miami International Airport. Assuming the travel times were prompt and on the mark, Mnuchin made it to the conference for a fucking two-hour lunch.

An institutionally-prepared $13,476-an-hour lunch.

But get this — here are the other U.S. attendees at this event:

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin co-hosted the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in Miami, Florida on June 15-16, 2017 with Mexican Foreign Secretary Videgaray Caso, Interior Secretary Osorio Chong, and Secretary of Finance José Antonio Meade Kuribeña, and attended by President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, and Vice President Oscar Ortiz of El Salvador. Other meeting participants included U.S. and Latin American private sector leaders, senior government representatives from Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Nicaragua, Panama, and Spain, and leaders from the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. …

Mnuchin was a bloody co-host. Why did he not travel with one of the other co-hosts? Why did he have to commission his own military aircraft instead of tagging along with another cabinet member? Or even the vice-president?

Mnuchin’s use of military aircraft was repeatedly justified by the need for secure communications. The June 15 trip to Miami was one such occasion; a call on the return leg needed an aircraft on which persons without adequate security clearance would be traveling.

CREW noted this as well:

Two days before the scheduled departure, Treasury advised the FAA that “due to a new need to access to secured comms during this mission, which cannot be accommodated on the available aircraft, we are going to have to pull this mission down and will have to utilize another means of transport.” (UST 00024). The call was scheduled during the two and one-half hour return flight (UST 000063). The use of a military aircraft increased the cost of the approximately two-hour flight to $45,136 (UST 00003). In other words, a scheduling conflict that the Secretary apparently did nothing to avoid cost the government an additional $18,000. Of note, the five listed individuals on the manifest could have made the same trip on a commercial aircraft for approximately $3,440 (or $688 per person, UST 00001). …

Again, Mnuchin was a conference co-host. There were other cabinet members traveling to Miami. What was so bloody important that he couldn’t travel earlier with the rest of the U.S. co-hosts? Why did Mnuchin schedule a call needing secure communications two days before the trip?

And why over the last year was there repeated insistence on the availability of secure communications, unlike Mnuchin’s predecessors? What changed so dramatically about the Treasury Secretary’s job?

What might have been happening on June 15 about which Mnuchin knew more than 48 hours in advance?

~ 2 ~

Remember last year when I noted the odd timing of Jared Kushner’s unannounced, unpublicized trip to Saudi Arabia during which he had a pajama party of sorts with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where they discussed who knows what?

It seemed quite the coincidence that Kushner arrived during Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s publicized trip to Saudi Arabia. What incredible timing!

Except it wasn’t a coincidence. Our forgetful Boy Wonder was on the same goddamned military aircraft with Mnuchin, who had insisted on a military plane for access to secure communications.

Here’s a screenshot from page 57/126 (from document 2018-2-15-Production-redactions-applied.pdf via CREW), an amended request to White House by Treasury for mission support, required to obtain a military aircraft. Note the Requesting Principal and the trip’s purpose as well as the date, August 31:

Here’s a screenshot of page 59/126 from the manifest included with the same amended request:

Kushner isn’t mentioned in the request or the agenda except as a line item in the manifest; he appeared to be included in every leg of this trip, including a visit to United Arab Emirates and Qatar. There’s an awful lot of redacted material related to this trip, too, big swaths blanking out what could be entire emails or attachments.

Worth noting the FOIAd documents dated July 25 reflect this Middle East trip was originally scheduled for September; by August 31 the trip has been pushed back to October. The mission requested a plane with secure communications capability from the first, which does make sense in this case given the level of discussions being held between Treasury Department, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar.

But the frequent insistence on secure communications capability and Kushner’s presence on this October trip spawns several questions: is the use of military aircraft a flying backchannel? Is Mnuchin equally invested in the use of a backchannel?

Was this trip really another negotiation related to the blockade of Qatar and was Kushner involved for that reason? Is this why his presence wasn’t openly communicated?

~ 1 ~

And then there’s the possibility Moochin’ Mnuchin took his spouse, our generation’s Marie Antoinette, for a vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland and other European locations using one of our military aircraft. I may have an aneurysm if I don’t stop here. Just look at the itinerary on page 66/126 and tell me what you make of it. I can’t find coincident formal events scheduled for Scotland or Italy, or for virtual attendance during this trip’s time frame. CREW reported the trip was their goddamned honeymoon (modifying epithet all mine).

Did Mnuchin and Linton seriously tie up a military aircraft so they could go walkabout in Scotland? Let me guess Linton is a big fan of the premium cable show Outlander and she wanted to take in the show’s shooting locations. The sole argument presented for the use of our military aircraft is “to be able to monitor issues [redacted], and participate in scheduled [redacted]” and the need for access to secure communications.

Don’t we have an undersecretary or a deputy to do whatever [redacted] so Mnuchin can take his honeymoon on his own time, on his own dime? Or is [redacted] something in which nobody else should be involved?

Go ahead and argue this trip request says it’s a “reimbursable mission.” This request is dated August 1, and his trip was from August 3 through August 12. This means our government personnel had to drop everything else they were doing during what is traditionally a short-staffed month and scramble to get this aircraft and crew and flight plan together for his damned honeymoon.

I suppose I should be less surprised by this wasteful crap bordering on theft after Mnuchin unnecessarily flew by military plane with the same high maintenance prima donna spouse to Fort Knox, just in time on August 8 to observe the rare complete solar eclipse.

I’m still suspicious of Mnuchin’s need for an entire bloody military plane and crew for his honeymoon so he has access to secure communications. Again, is this a flying backchannel he’s using? Does his wife have a security clearance necessary to hear whatever it is that’s so secret that he has to do it while on his honeymoon?

~ 0 ~

This is an open thread. Bring your pitchforks and torches.

The Trump Toadies Who Are Worried about Being Unmasked

Last week, Zoe Tillman noted this FOIA lawsuit from attorney Gene Schaerr, working on behalf of someone who wants to remain anonymous “at present,” suing to obtain records on the unmasking of Trump campaign and transition officials. The thing is, Shaerr isn’t just asking for unmasking records generally.

The odd collection of people being FOIAed

He’s asking for unmasking records pertaining to a really curious group of people:

  1. Steve Bannon
  2. Rep. Lou Barletta
  3. Rep. Marsha Blackburn
  4. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
  5. Rep. Chris Collins
  6. Rep. Tom Marino
  7. Rebekah Mercer
  8. Steven Mnuchin
  9. Rep. Devin Nunes
  10. Reince Priebus
  11. Anthony Scaramucci
  12. Peter Thiel
  13. Donald Trump Jr.
  14. Eric Trump
  15. Ivanka Trump
  16. Jared Kushner
  17. Rep. Sean Duffy
  18. Rep. Trey Gowdy
  19. Rep. Dennis Ross
  20. Pastor Darrell C. Scott
  21. Kiron Skinner

Some of these would be obvious, of course: Trump’s spawn, Bannon, Priebus, and Mnuchin. I’m really interested to see Rebekah Mercer (especially given the more we learn on Cambridge Analytica). Mooch is there. The litigious Peter Thiel is there (making him at least a reasonable candidate to be paying for this lawsuit, except for reasons I lay out below).

Mike Flynn, the one person we know to have been unmasked, is not in there (which is particularly odd given all the efforts to find some way to unring Flynn’s guilty plea, though that came after this FOIA was filed).

Then there are the eight members of Congress (in addition to the corrupt FL AG, Pam Bondi, who helped Trump out of a legal pinch in FL after Trump gave her a donation).

Lou Barletta, who’s a loud opponent of “illegal immigration,” a member of the Homeland Security Committee, and who, not long after this FOIA was first filed, prepared a challenge to PA’s Bob Casey in the Senate last year.

Marsha Blackburn, who works on a number of data issues in Congress, and is running to replace Bob Corker as TN Senator. Blackburn worked closely with Tom Marino to shield pharma and pill mills from DEA reach.

Chris Collins from upstate NY. His most interesting committee assignment is on Energy and Commerce, though he has worked on broadband issues.

Tom Marino, former US Attorney for Pennsyltucky who is on the Judiciary Committee. Trump tried to make him the Drug Czar, until it became clear he had pushed through a bill that hurt DEA’s ability to combat the opioid epidemic.

Devin Nunes, whose efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation have been epic, and who first manufactured the unmasking scandal. He’d be a great candidate to be Schaerr’s client, except he would probably just leak this information, which he has already seen.

Sean Duffy, a WI congressman who is chair of the investigations subcommittee of the Financial Services committee, and has been an opponent of CFPB.

Trey Gowdy took over as Chair of the Oversight Committee last year and also serves on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Because of those appointments, even without being designated by Devin Nunes to take the lead on the Mueller pushback, he would have already had the most visibility on the Mueller investigation. But because Nunes put him in charge of actually looking at the intelligence, he is the single Republican who has seen the bulk of the Mueller investigative materials. During Nunes week, he announces his retirement suddenly, and has warned about the seriousness of the Mueller investigation, and he just gave a crazy interview to Fox News (which I’ll return to).

Dennis Ross, from FL, serves on the Financial Services committee.

On top of the Republicans, the list includes two of the few African Americans (with David Clarke, Omarosa, and Tim Scott) who supported Trump.  Darrell Scott was head of a Michael Cohen invented diversity group hastily put together in April 2016. Kiron Skinner is a legit scholar of Reagan who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and has a bunch of other appointments.

As I said, aside from the big obvious players, this list is a curious collection. Of note, however, four people on it should have a sound understanding of how NSA spying and FISA work: Thiel, Nunes, Gowdy, and Marino. But (again aside from the big players), the international ties of most of these people (Thiel and Skinner are big exceptions) are not readily apparent.

The whack understanding of FISA laid out on the complaint

I’m interested in the FISA knowledge of some people named in this list because of the crazy depiction of FISA that the complaint lays out.

The complaint highlights two departments of NSA, claiming they’re the ones that deal with improper use of intelligence (but does not include the Inspector General).

On information and belief, at least two departments within the NSA handle complaints regarding the improper use of intelligence. These departments are known publicly by the codes “S12,” a code name apparently referring to the agency’s Information Sharing Services authority, and “SV,” a code name apparently referring to the agency’s Oversight and Compliance authority.

As part of the FOIA to NSA, Schaerr asked for anything submitted to these departments.

All reports made to S12 and SV regarding improper dissemination of any individual listed in Question 2, above. See National Security Agency, United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, § 7.5 (January 25, 2011).

That’s an oddly specific request, unless whoever is behind this request knows there are reports there.

That might suggest Nunes, Gowdy, or Marino is behind the request. But then consider how unbelievably wrong the complaint gets FISA.

After introducing FISA, it turns exclusively to Section 702, which is odd because the unmasking pseudo-scandal has thus far been based off the unmasking of individual orders.

Plaintiff’s requests in this case concern the Defendants’ use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA).1 Section 702 of FISA (“Section 702”) empowers the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly authorize “the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information.” 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(a) (emphasis added). Section 702 expressly forbids use of this surveillance process to target persons who are either “United States persons” or located “inside the United States.” Id. at 1881a(b).

The complaint then makes three utterly false statements about how labor is divided between the FBI, NSA, and CIA.

14. The FBI collects data on outgoing communications, i.e., from persons in the United States to persons outside the United States.

15. The NSA collects data on incoming communications, i.e., from persons outside the United States to persons inside the United States.

16. The CIA, like the FBI and NSA, analyzes the information that comes from the FBI’s and NSA’s data collection. Unlike the other agencies, the CIA uses the information to engage in international intelligence operations.

The FBI collects on domestic targets, which can include incoming and outgoing comms, plus anything domestic (such as Sergey Kislyak’s calls across town to Mike Flynn; update — the December 29 calls would have been from DC to Dominican Republic, where Flynn was vacationing). The NSA likewise collects incoming and outgoing comms, as well as stuff that takes place entirely overseas (though very little of the latter is done under 702). Both the other agencies, in addition to CIA, use FISA information to engage in international intelligence operations.

The complaint then claims, in contradiction to a bunch of public information, that minimization equates to completely anonymizing US person data.

Section 702 also requires that foreign intelligence surveillance be conducted consistently with “minimization procedures.” Id. § 1881a(e)(1). These procedures are designed to “minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons,” but in a manner still “consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information.” Id. § 1801(h)(1). As relevant here, minimization procedures must be designed to ensure the anonymity of United States persons who may be incidentally surveilled. Id. § 1801(h)(1), (2).

This comment comes immediately after a paragraph on finished intelligence reports, so this may be an incorrect statement of what masking is.

It then makes a claim about how data gets circulated that entirely ignores the sharing of raw data under 702, and further makes claims relying on this article that aren’t actually supported by the article (admittedly, the article doesn’t describe the sharing of raw data, but its focus in primarily on traditional FISA).

Generally, original raw intelligence is not circulated to other agencies; instead, intelligence reports are created and circulated internally. See, e.g., Gregory Korte, What is ‘unmasking?’ How intelligence agencies treat U.S. citizens, USA Today, (Apr. 4, 2017; 2:14 p.m.), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/ 2017/04/04/ what-unmasking-how-intelligence-agencies-treat-us-citizens/100026368. In the process of summarizing the intelligence, agencies exclude the names of U.S. citizens from the reports, referring to them instead with identifiers like “U.S. Person 1.” Id.

The complaint then describes what sounds like a muddle of upstream collection and back door searches, but gets both wrong.

The NSA also has the ability to search the internet data it collects by entering the name of an individual into a database search tool. This process is known as “upstreaming” and has the effect of creating additional raw intelligence that may contain the names of American persons. Such intelligence is also subject to the usual masking requirements and procedures.

This is wrong because upstream collection uses selectors, not names, whereas back door searches, which can use a name, are done by all three agencies. Such intelligence would not necessarily be masked at FBI if it made it into an investigative report.

The complaint then points to that godawful Circa report that itself muddles the difference between 702 and 704/705b to claim that they were upstream violations during the campaign cycle.

News reports—as well as a declassified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion—also note that some Americans had their names upstreamed, in violation of internal policies, during the 2016 election cycle, which the opinion described as a “serious Fourth Amendment issue.” See Declassified FISC Court opinion at 19-20, available at http://bit.ly/FISCopApril2017; Circa News, Obama intel agency secretly conducted illegal searches on Americans for years, May 23, 2017), https://www.circa.com/story/2017/05/23/politics/obama-intel-agencysecretly-conducted-illegal-searches-on-americans-for-years.

The violations in question, while serious, actually involve back door searches on upstream collection, and to the extent the searches were done on 704/705b targets, would only have happened were there an individualized FISA order against one of the named people (in fact, NSA’s back door searches on US persons are generally limited to people with individualized orders, those who may be targets of a foreign power, or urgent searches following a terrorist attack or similar situation).

In short, it’s a remarkable garble of how FISA really works. That doesn’t exclude Nunes’ involvement (I would hope both Marino and Gowdy have a better understanding of FISA than this, but don’t guarantee it). But it seems to be an attempt to declassify stuff it knows about, even while it exhibits a remarkable misunderstanding of what it’s talking about.

So why are all these Trump toadies worried about being unmasked

All of which brings me to the puzzle: what the hell is his anonymous client up to? Why is the client concerned about this specific selection of transition officials, but not (say) Mike Flynn?

Update: Laura Rozen notes that this list is the list provided here, except with this chunk taken out, and with some weird alpha order going on.

 

Under Cover of the Nunes Memo, Russian Spooks Sneak Openly into Meetings with Trump’s Administration

On December 17, Vladimir Putin picked up the phone and called Donald Trump.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the call was to thank Trump for intelligence the US provided Russia that helped them thwart a terrorist attack. Here’s what the White House readout described.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called President Donald J. Trump today to thank him for the advanced warning the United States intelligence agencies provided to Russia concerning a major terror plot in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people. No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated. President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives. President Trump stressed the importance of intelligence cooperation to defeat terrorists wherever they may be. Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together. President Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo and the CIA. President Trump then called Director Pompeo to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!

Putin, of course, has a history of trumping up terrorist attacks for political purposes (which is not to say he’s the only one).

In Trump’s Russia, top spooks come to you

That call that Putin initiated serves as important background to an event (or several — the details are still uncertain) that happened earlier this week, as everyone was distracted with Devin Nunes’ theatrics surrounding his memo attacking the Mueller investigation into whether Trump has engaged in a conspiracy with Russia. All three of Russia’s intelligence heads came to DC for a visit.

The visit of the sanctioned head of SVR, Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service — was ostentatiously announced by Russia’s embassy.

SVR is the agency that tried to recruit Carter Page back in 2013, and which has also newly been given credit for the hack of the DNC in some Dutch reporting (and a recent David Sanger article). It’s clear that SVR wanted Americans to know that their sanctioned head had been through town.

As the week went on, WaPo reported that FSB’s Alexander Bortnikov and GRU’s Colonel General Igor Korobov had also been through town (GRU has previously gotten primary credit for the hack and Korobov was also sanctioned in the December 2016 response, and FSB was described as having an assisting role).

Pompeo met with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, and Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB, which is the main successor to the Soviet-era security service the KGB.

The head of Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, also came to Washington, though it is not clear he met with Pompeo.

A senior U.S. intelligence official based in Moscow was also called back to Washington for the meeting with the CIA chief, said a person familiar with the events, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive meeting.

Treasury defies Congress on Russian sanctions

These visits have been associated with Trump’s decision not to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions, claiming that the threat of sanctions is already working even as Mike Pompeo insists that Russia remains a threat. In lieu of providing a mandated list of Russians who could be sanctioned, Treasury basically released the Forbes list of richest Russians, meaning that the sanction list includes people who’re squarely opposed to Putin. In my opinion, reporting on the Forbes list underplays the contempt of the move. Then, today, Treasury released a memo saying Russia was too systematically important to sanction.

Schumer’s questions and Pompeo’s non-answers

Indeed, Chuck Schumer emphasized sanctions in a letter he sent to Dan Coats, copied to Mike Pompeo, about the Naryshkin visit (the presence of the others was just becoming public).

As you are well aware, Mr. Naryshkin is a Specially Designated National under U.S. sanctions law, which imposes severe financial penalties and prohibits his entry into the U.S. without a waiver. Moreover, the visit of the SVR chief occurred only days before Congress was informed of the president’s decision not to implement sanctions authorized the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was passed with near unanimous, bipartisan support. CAATSA was designed to impose a price on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies for well-documented Russian aggression and interference in the 2016 election. However, the administration took little to no action, even as Russia continues its cyberattacks on the U.S.

Certainly, that seems a fair conclusion to draw — that by emphasizing Naryshkin’s presence, Russia was also boasting that it was immune from Congress’ attempts to sanction it.

But Mike Pompeo, who responded to Schumer, conveniently responded only to Schumer’s public comments, not the letter itself.

I am writing to you in response to your press conference Tuesday where you suggested there was something untoward in officials from Russian intelligence services meeting with their U.S. counterparts. Let me assure you there is not. [my emphasis]

This allowed Pompeo to dodge a range Schumer’s questions addressing Russia’s attacks on the US.

What specific policy issues and topics were discussed by Mr. Naryshkin and U.S. officials?

    1. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections?  If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    2. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise existing and congressionally-mandated U.S. sanctions against Russia discussed? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    3. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin raise ongoing Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. and its allies, including reported efforts to discredit the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?
    4. Did the U.S. officials who met with Mr. Naryshkin make clear that Putin’s interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections would be a hostile act against the United States? If not, why was this not raised? If raised, what was his response?

Instead of providing responses to questions about Russian tampering, Pompeo instead excused the whole meeting by pointing to counterterrorism, that same purpose, indeed — the same attack — that Putin raised in his December phone call.

We periodically meet with our Russian intelligence counterparts — to keep America safe. While Russia remains an adversary, we would put American lives at greater risk if we ignored opportunities to work with the Russian services in the fight against terrorism. We are proud of that counterterror work, including CIA’s role with its Russian counterparts in the recent disruption of a terrorist plot targeting St. Petersburg, Russia — a plot that could have killed Americans.

[snip]

Security cooperation between our intelligence services has occurred under multiple administrations. I am confident that you would support CIA continuing these engagements that are aimed at protecting the American people.

The contempt on sanctions makes it clear this goes beyond counterterrorism

All this together should allay any doubt you might have that this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism, if, indeed, it even has anything to do with counterterrorism.

Just as one possible other topic, in November, WSJ reported that DOJ was working towards charging Russians involved in the hack after the new year.

The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said. Discussions about the case are in the early stages, they said.

If filed, the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion. U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven’t provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved.

Today, Russia issued a new warning that America is “hunting” Russians all over the world, citing (among others) hacker Roman Seleznev.

“American special services are continuing their de facto hunt for Russians all over the world,” reads the statement published on the ministry’s website on Friday. The Russian diplomats also gave several examples of such arbitrary detentions of Russian citizens that took place in Spain, Latvia, Canada and Greece.

“Sometimes these were actual abductions of our compatriots. This is what happened with Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was kidnapped in Liberia in 2010 and secretly taken to the United States in violation of Liberian and international laws. This also happened in 2014 with Roman Seleznyov, who was literally abducted in the Maldives and forcefully taken to American territory,” the statement reads.

The ministry also warned that after being handed over to the US justice system, Russian citizens often encounter extremely biased attitudes.

“Through various means, including direct threats, they attempt to coerce Russians into pleading guilty, despite the fact that the charges of them are far-fetched. Those who refuse get sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms.”

And, as I noted earlier, Trey Gowdy — one of the few members of Congress who has seen where Mueller is going with this investigation — cited the import of the counterintelligence case against Russia in a Sunday appearance.

CHRIS WALLACE: Congressman, we’ll get to your concerns about the FBI and the Department of Justice in a moment. But — but let me begin first with this. Do you still trust, after all you’ve heard, do you still trust Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation?

REP. TREY GOWDY, R-SC, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: One hundred percent, particularly if he’s given the time, the resources and the independence to do his job. Chris, he didn’t apply for the job. He’s where he is because we have an attorney general who had to recuse himself. So Mueller didn’t raise his hand and say, hey, pick me. We, as a country, asked him to do this.

And, by the way, he’s got two — there are two components to his jurisdiction. There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016. So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.

Schumer and other Democrats demanding answers about this visit might think about any ways the Russians might be working to undermine Mueller’s investigation or transparency that might come of it.

Three weeks of oversight free covert action

The timing of this visit is particularly concerning for another reason. In the three week continuing resolution to fund the government passed on January 22, the House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen added language that would allow the Administration to shift money funding intelligence activities around without telling Congress. It allows funds to,

“be obligated and expended notwithstanding section 504(a)(1) of the National Security Act of 1947.”

Section 504(a)(1) is the piece of the law that requires intelligence agencies to spend money on the program the money was appropriated for. “Appropriated funds available to an intelligence agency may be obligated or expended for an intelligence or intelligence-related activity only if those funds were specifically authorized by the Congress for use for such activities; or …”

The “or” refers to the intelligence community’s obligation to inform Congress of any deviation. But without any obligation to spend funds as specifically authorized, there is no obligation to inform Congress if that’s not happening.

Since the only real way to prohibit the Executive is to prohibit them to spend money on certain things, the change allows the Trump Administration to do things they’ve been specifically prohibited from doing for the three week period of the continuing resolution.

Senators Burr and Warner tried to change the language before passage on January 22, to no avail.

This year’s Defense Authorization included a whole slew of limits on Executive Branch activity, including mandating a report if the Executive cooperates with Russia on Syria and prohibiting any military cooperation until such time as Russia leaves Ukraine. It’s possible the Trump Administration would claim those appropriations-tied requirements could be ignored during the time of the continuing resolution.

Which just happened to cover the period of the Russian visit.

Our friends are getting nervous

Meanwhile, both before and after the visit, our allies have found ways to raise concerns about sharing intelligence with the US in light of Trump’s coziness with Russia. A key subtext of the stories revealing that Netherlands’ AIVD saw Russian hackers targeting the Democrats via a hacked security camera was that Rick Ledgett’s disclosure of that operation last year had raised concerns about sharing with the US.

President elect Donald Trump categorically refuses to explicitly acknowledge the Russian interference. It would tarnish the gleam of his electoral victory. He has also frequently praised Russia, and president Putin in particular. This is one of the reasons the American intelligence services eagerly leak information: to prove that the Russians did in fact interfere with the elections. And that is why intelligence services have told American media about the amazing access of a ‘western ally’.

This has led to anger in Zoetermeer and The Hague. Some Dutchmen even feel betrayed. It’s absolutely not done to reveal the methods of a friendly intelligence service, especially if you’re benefiting from their intelligence. But no matter how vehemently the heads of the AIVD and MIVD express their displeasure, they don’t feel understood by the Americans. It’s made the AIVD and MIVD a lot more cautious when it comes to sharing intelligence. They’ve become increasingly suspicious since Trump was elected president.

Then, the author of a book on Israeli’s assassinations has suggested that the intelligence Trump shared with the Russians goes beyond what got publicly reported, goes to the heart of Israeli intelligence operations.

DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature.

Finally, a piece on the Nunes memo out today suggests the British will be less likely to share intelligence with Trump’s administration after the release of the memo (though this is admittedly based on US congressional claims, not British sources).

Britain’s spy agencies risk having their intelligence methods revealed if Donald Trump releases a controversial memo about the FBI, congressional figures have warned.

The UK will be less likely to share confidential information if the secret memo about the Russian investigation is made public, according to those opposing its release.

Clearly, this meeting goes beyond counterterrorism cooperation. And given the way that both Treasury and CIA have acted contemptuously in the aftermath of the visit, Schumer and others should be far more aggressive in seeking answers about what this visit really entailed.

Update: I’ve added the section on Section 504.

[Photo: STIL via Unsplash]

Angry Mom: Oh, Honey — If Anybody’s ‘Out of Touch’, It’s You

I wasn’t going to waste my time on the over-privileged, excessively-pampered trophy wife Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stupidly took with him on a recent taxpayer-funded business trip.

But after thinking about her rude, snotty, and insanely ill-informed reply to someone who took issue with her gross display of wealth, I think I should expend a few words.

Mrs. Mnuchin believes she and her spouse contribute more to the country than whomever it was who critiqued her behavior.

No. They and their kind are leeches. Bloodsuckers. Literally part of the great vampire squid empire Matt Taibbi described.

They do not add value to this country. They chew at its foundations in great, monster-sized bites.

And they believe they are entitled to do so.

But they’re wealthy! Look at all the money they have, one might say.

What did they do to make that wealth? They inherited much of it, especially in his case — they had access to pre-existing capital.

Meanwhile, nearly half of this country’s citizens can’t put their hands on $400 or more in cash in the event of an emergency.

This, in spite of the fact roughly half of the country has some money in an investment account. Let me guess that much of this is a 401K established through an employer and it’s not liquid. It’s also money managed by financial industry professionals like Steve Mnuchin who don’t do a lot actively with the Average Joe’s 401K but use them in the aggregate to take positions in the stock market while skimming off a living through fees — and the Average Joe only has $104,000 saved by the time they retire, on which to live the rest of their life.

Yeah, but these Mnuchins must have worked hard to get through those private schools, one might say.

Prove it. How many times do these uber wealthy ever really show anybody their grades to get a six-figure entry-level job out of college? Mnuchin’s father was a partner at Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin himself rubbed shoulders with a network of uber wealthy as a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones society. With that background it’s not hard to get one’s foot in the door AND draw a salary more than twice that of the Average Joe.

Ditto for Mrs. Mnuchin, who also attended private schools in Scotland and a private university in the U.S.

Average Joe or Josephine doesn’t have either the family money to go to expensive private prep schools or attend a four-year university without being massively in debt. The Average Joe Junior who graduated last year had more than $37,000 of student loan debt which will take them on average 10-21 years to pay off.

(Gee, I wonder who benefits from the interest on these loans…Bueller? Bueller?)

Deplaning from her taxpayer-subsidized flight, Mrs. Mnuchin’s attire, from the top of her over-processed hair to the ends of her manicured toes, was roughly equal in cost to the average student loan debt — her Birkin handbag alone costs about $20,000.

The same Average Joe/Josephine/Junior also faces a job market with deeply entrenched wage stagnation, making savings difficult after paying on school loans.

They also face difficulty before they graduate if they hold down a minimum wage job; there’s no place in the U.S. where rent on a one-bedroom apartment is affordable for a full-time minimum wage worker, let alone one who is trying to go to school full-time.

After graduation, long-stagnant entry level wages may help ease the pinch, but then there’s the challenge of rising health care costs which have not abated even though the ACA makes access to health insurance easier.

Good luck finding a way to afford having children. Diapers alone will cost $750 to $1200 a year.

Don’t even get me started on transportation costs. And Boomer-aged pundits pule about Millennials killing all the things…

But surely these uber wealthy people must have earned some of their wealth, one might foolishly claim.

Oh, yes, definitely. They earned it by capturing legislatures and regulatory bodies, and by putting a squeeze play on both investment analysts and regulations. They’ve used them to insure they never actually pay taxes appropriate to the amount of public resources they or their investment portfolio consumed. They’ve demanded quarter-after-quarter profits off the backs of the Average Joe/Josephine/Junior, insisting corporate management maintain low wages to offset other rising costs like rent. They’ll reward upper management with ridiculous compensation packages if they can maintain profits and sack them if they don’t. And then because foreign investors are driving up the price of property, they sink those profits into the same bubble and continue to lean on corporate management for profits even as they increase other business costs through increased rents.

They earned that wealth by sucking the lifeblood out of the kind of people Mrs. Mnuchin talk down to so defensively, even after they’d just paid for her air travel.

I would be so incredibly embarrassed as a parent if my adult children ever acted like Mrs. Mnuchin — blind and stupid about her privilege, ungrateful to the people upon whom her lifestyle has been built, wasteful of an opportunity to be a better human.

And incredibly out of touch with Americans.

And I’d be just as embarrassed if my kids ever acted like Mr. Mnuchin, too, but that’s another chapter.