For all their denunciations of ‘fake news,’ the current administration has become a leading purveyor of it
The threat to the West posed by Kremlin lies—what is properly termed disinformation—is something that I and a few other specialists have raised the alarm over for years. After 2016, when Moscow weaponized disinformation to influence our presidential election, this problem is finally getting the public attention it merits, not least because identical Russian espionage techniques are currently aimed at France and Germany, which have their own elections coming up.
The previous administration ignored this rising problem, shuttering a tiny State Department effort to counter Russian propaganda only months before the Kremlin lie machine went into overdrive against President Obama’s own party. As I’ve pointed out, Obama and his White House bear part of the blame for the Russian havoc wrought last year on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, thanks to their abject unwillingness to confront Vladimir Putin. By refusing to seriously confront Kremlin disinformation and deception, President Obama got more of both.
Now this problem, which shows no signs of going away, has become even more dangerous, since the new administration has taken to parroting Russian disinformation when it suits their political needs. A propaganda loop has emerged with Kremlin lies emerging on Putin regime outlets like RT and Sputnik, then being pushed by far-right conspiracy websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars, and finally winding up on Fox News where they receive a mass audience.
President Donald Trump is part of that audience, and this disinformation cycle is what led to his infamous tweetstorm two weekends ago that plunged our politics into chaos over his unfounded allegation that his predecessor “wiretapped” Trump Tower. That narrative has now utterly imploded, having been denounced by numerous authorities—including the former Director of National Intelligence plus the House and Senate Intelligence Committees—while late last week British intelligence and the prime minister office joined the fray after the White House implied that London had spied on Trump Tower at Obama’s behest.
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The President tried to blame the Brits for his own self-created debacle. That wasn’t smart.
The bizarre saga of Donald Trump’s wiretapping hoax has taken a turn for the even stranger. Earlier this week I laid out how the president’s effort to pin high crimes on his predecessor without evidence—specifically the allegation that President Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year—was falling apart in public. Our Intelligence Community indicated it wasn’t true, and then Congress began to pile on.
On Wednesday, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, including its notably Trumpophile chair, Rep. Devin Nunes, flatly stated that no wiretapping occurred. This rendered the White House’s tweet-based campaign null and void. The whole self-created debacle had alarming implications for the Trump administration, as I explained:
This is the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships—not high-functioning democratic republics. Neither does any of this inspire confidence that when a genuine crisis hits this White House—as will almost certainly happen eventually—President Trump will possess the self-discipline or grasp on reality to function as the effective leader he must be. If the current White House occupant doesn’t learn from this self-created debacle, even stormier seas are ahead for his presidency—and our country.
Wednesday was a bad day for the White House, but Thursday turned out to be even worse. First, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, sided with his team against the president, explaining forthrightly that “no such wiretap existed.” Then the Senate joined in, with its intelligence committee’s leadership releasing a statement even stronger than its House counterpart. It minced no words:
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President Obama never wiretapped Donald Trump—that was fake news
Less than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump set the political world afire with a series of pre-dawn tweets publicly accusing Barack Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower during last year’s presidential campaign. The White House provided no evidence for this explosive claim, which, if true, meant that our 44th president and our Intelligence Community engaged in conspiratorial high crimes against our current president.
There was no reason to take these Trumpian flights of fancy seriously, despite the immense seriousness of the charges made against Obama, yet the president’s hardcore fans accepted this unique tweetstorm hook, line and sinker. Strong denials from a host of top intelligence officials, explaining that President Trump’s accusations were preposterous, cut no ice among White House true believers, who castigate any media coverage they dislike as “fake news.”
As I explained shortly after this strange scandal broke, while some of Trump’s associates seem to have wound up on Western intelligence radar in 2016 due to their frequent calls to top Kremlin officials—senior spies and politicos in Moscow who are very much the targets of Western spy services—the notion was absurd:
The scenario painted by President Trump of his predecessor tasking the IC with wiretapping Trump Tower simply could not have happened without a far-reaching and highly illegal conspiracy involving the White House and several of our spy agencies, above all the National Security Agency. My friends still at NSA, where I served as the technical director of the Agency’s biggest operational division, have told me without exception that Trump’s accusation is wholly false, a kooky fantasy.
Over the last week-and-a-half, just how kooky the president’s fantasy was has become painfully evident. To resolve this touchy matter, the House Intelligence Committee ordered the Department of Justice to hand over evidence of any “wiretapping” by Monday—a deadline that came and went without anything proffered. On Monday afternoon, the DoJ lamely asked Congress for an extension, but there’s no reason to think they will find what the White House seeks, no matter how much time they’re granted.
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Carter Page part of a pro-Putin gang that pushed the President’s mounting Russia problems to crisis levels
Last week I explained in this column how President Donald Trump, despite facing serious political challenges over his murky ties to the Kremlin, was fortunate to have opponents more motivated by partisanship than truth-telling. As long as that state of affairs continued, the commander-in-chief was likely to avoid the thorough scrutiny which his apparent links to Moscow actually merit.
A lot has changed in just a few days. Last week began promisingly for the president, with his joint address to Congress on Tuesday evening earning better reviews than many had anticipated. Then it all unraveled the next day, when it was reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a key member of the White House inner circle, had two discussions with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in Washington, during the 2016 election campaign.
It’s hardly abnormal for sitting senators—as Sessions was last year—to meet with foreign diplomats, even Russian ones, but the precise capacity in which he chatted with Kislyak suddenly became important. Was Sessions parleying with the Kremlin’s emissary as a senator or as a top advisor to Donald Trump?
To make matters worse, Sessions couldn’t exactly recall what he and Moscow’s man in Washington had discussed. To say nothing of the fact that Sessions seemed to have recently failed to tell the complete truth under oath when he was asked about some of this during his Senate confirmation hearings as attorney general. Sessions volunteered, “I did not have communications with the Russians”—a statement that seems untrue by any normal definition.
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Kremlin ties could unravel the new administration—but Dems wounded own cause by downplaying Russian threat for so long
Throughout the six weeks since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has been buffeted by waves of allegations regarding his links to Russia. Leaks about calls to the Russian embassy in Washington led to the embarrassing resignation of Mike Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor, after just three weeks on the job. Further leaks indicated that the Intelligence Community intercepted numerous calls last year, during the election campaign, between members of Trump’s inner circle and senior Russian intelligence officials. For a new White House still finding its way, shadowy Kremlin ties have become more than a mere distraction.
Many in Washington, including at least a few of our spies, think the administration will eventually be overwhelmed by its shady relationship with Vladimir Putin and his unpleasant regime. The president’s ham-handed efforts to dismiss the Russia story as “fake news” have not quieted his critics, by no means all of whom are on the Left. Rumors of unsavory connections to the Kremlin swirled around Trump throughout the presidential race, but neither his rivals nor the media dug as deeply into those allegations as they should have. To compensate, parts of the mainstream media have now gone into overdrive, searching meticulously for proof of unethical and perhaps illegal ties between the White House and Putin.
So far no smoking gun has emerged. But, as someone who tried to shed light on Trump’s questionable Kremlin links long before the election, I’m relieved to see this issue finally getting the attention it merits, but in not every case is late better than never. Allegations of serious misdeeds—espionage and perhaps worse—not supported by hard evidence inevitably smack of trying to overturn a democratic election, ex post facto, by undemocratic means.
New evidence links the Kremlin to efforts to destabilize Montenegro and slow its path to NATO
Southeastern Europe is entering a period of renewed instability after almost two decades of relative tranquility. As I explained in a recent column, the disastrous wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 solved some political problems but created others. And now the Balkans are at the precipice of renewed conflicts—in no small part due to Kremlin meddling.
The most direct target of malign Russian plotting has been Montenegro, the smallest republic to emerge from the wreckage of Yugoslavia. With less than three-quarters of a million people, tiny Montenegro possesses a stunning Adriatic coastline, an important geo-strategic position, and a political-cum-business elite that is vibrantly corrupt even by outrageous regional standards.
Montenegro began setting a more Western course for itself in 2006, when it separated peacefully from neighboring Serbia, finishing off the last vestiges of the failed Yugoslav federation. The little country is now on track to join NATO, having received a formal admission offer in late 2015, which will give the Atlantic Alliance control of the entire Adriatic coastline, while cutting Serbia off from the sea permanently.
Public opinion in Montenegro is split about joining NATO. While most opinion polls show a majority in favor, a strong minority remains opposed. This division is about more than the Atlantic Alliance and reflects the country’s complex identity. While three-quarters of Montenegro’s people are South Slavs who share a language and the Orthodox religion with big brother Serbia (there are also significant minorities of Albanians and Slavic Muslims), that majority is split between those who identify as Serbs and those who consider themselves Montenegrins.
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No secret entrenched bureaucracy is plotting to overthrow Donald Trump
As Donald Trump’s White House fumbles mounted in his first month in office, including several insults casually aimed at our Intelligence Community, something close to all-out war between the president and the country’s spies has broken through the surface. Faced with a commander-in-chief who compares them to Nazi Germany and accuses them of being “very anti-American,” intelligence professionals have fought back with leaks, per time-tested tradition.
In particular, IC sources have informed journalists—this one included—about signals intelligence intercepts of phone calls to the Russian embassy in Washington which led to the early downfall of National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. Additional SIGINT collected by the National Security Agency demonstrated that several members of Trump’s inner circle maintained contacts with Moscow in the months before the November 8 election. In neither case did anyone inform the media of the content of those calls, but the mere fact that they had been intercepted posed problems for the new administration.
These revelations have been highly embarrassing to the White House, and led to denunciations of leakers by the president on down, as well as assurances that the malefactors who talked to the press without authorization will be tracked down and punished. This drama has an unavoidably Nixonian flair, since that vindictive president, too, waged a war on leakers—ultimately leading to the break-in at the Watergate, which unraveled Richard Nixon’s presidency.