Streetwise Professor

February 16, 2018

Now That He’s Tackled the ORGANIZATION, When Will Mueller Indict Grandfather Frost?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:19 pm

Today Mueller indicted 13 Russians for “interfering” in the US election.  The indictment would be hilarious, if it weren’t so tragic: for nigh on a year the country has been transfixed and the government convulsed by an investigation that is descending into farce.

So this is the best that a “dream team” (nightmare would be more like it, given the presence of people like Andrew Weissman) of prosecutors can come up with:

August 18, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators sent money via interstate wire to another real U.S. person recruited by the ORGANIZATION, using one of their false U.S. personas, to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform.

No, really.

The ORGANIZATION. Yeah. Just like the cosa nostra or the Cali Cartel or something. You cannot make up this stuff.

As yet there is no evidence of collusion (which is not a crime, actually), let alone a conspiracy, between anyone in the Trump campaign or administration and any Russian individual or organization. Indeed, the fact that Mueller apparently feels that he can waste his time on such trivialities suggests strongly that there is no evidence of anything untoward, let alone criminal.

Amidst all the harrumphing, all I can say is that if the republic can’t survive such Mickey Mouse efforts as described in the Mueller indictment, it doesn’t deserve to survive.

Deep thinkers like Ben Sasse say that Putin is attempting to raise doubts about American institutions.  That is unnecessary: the institutions are doing a bang up job at that without any foreign assistance.

Further, as I noted in a talk on the forthcoming Russian election at Rice University last week, there is nothing new here. Nothing. The Russians have been doing this (and far worse) continuously since, oh, around November 8, 1917.  They almost certainly did it 99 years later out of habit, rather than conviction, or a sincere belief that it would have any effect.

But it has had an effect, because by obsessing about it the American political class is actually ensuring that Putin and his creatures are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.  This obsession, moreover, is not driven by the real threat posed by the Russian effort, but by the need of the political losers to excuse their failure, and to destroy the usurper who deprived them of what should have been theirs by divine right.

The indictment is all for show, because the Russians are in, well, Russia, and hence out of reach of US law enforcement. Mueller might as well have indicted Putin–or Grandfather Frost, for that matter–for all the real effect it will have.

But Mueller desperately needs to show that he is actually doing something.  In this he has succeeded. He has shown that he is chasing phantoms, and wreaking havoc in the process.  But since he is accountable to no one, and politically sacrosanct, he will go on and on, to serve the political class and to justify his existence. A perfect illustration of the a-constitutional monstrosity that is a special counsel.

Shut. It. Down.

The Answer to Systematic Law Enforcement Failure is Not More Laws

Filed under: Guns,Politics — The Professor @ 4:16 pm

The horrific school shooting in Florida has elicited the same responses from the same people.  Truth be told, there are no easy answers. Or even hard answers.

What adds to the horror is the realization that it was eminently preventable, and should have been prevented. Not by different laws, or more laws, but by merely minimally competent exercise of existing law enforcement authority.  The hours since the shooting have revealed systematic government failures at every level. The school administration, yes, but especially local law enforcement and especially especially the FBI.

The local police responded to 39–yes, 39–separate calls about shooter Nikolas Cruz, yet he was free to buy guns and to kill indiscriminately. Cruz was a textbook case of a dangerous threat who scared the bejezus out of everyone who came in contact with him. But he skated time after time after time.

Even more shockingly, the FBI had at least two separate warnings about Cruz. Very specific warnings.

One warning pointed them to a YouTube video on which Cruz had made threatening and disturbing comments and identified himself. But the FBI claims it couldn’t find him.

The response to the second warning suggests they didn’t try very hard.  This one came more than a month ago from someone “close to” Cruz and specifically stated that he intended to shoot up a school.  If they knew someone close to him, they should have had no problem finding him, right?

Well, that would require that they tried. And today FBI director Wray admitted that the agency had not lifted a finger in response to this very specific threat.  Not. A. Finger.

After all, the FBI obviously had more important things to do. Like fight furiously to protect disclosure of its actions before, during, and after the issuance of the FISA warrant against Carter Page.  Priorities, dontcha know.

I am literally nauseated–yes, literally–at the juxtaposition between the FBI’s appalling inaction in Florida and its frenzied actions in DC.

And this is not the first time someone that someone on the FBI’s radar has committed mass murder–Orlando, San Bernardino, NY bike path, the Tsarnaevs. And why is Stephen Paddock a mystery to them to this day? Perhaps they have derailed many more plots, but this litany of false negatives is beyond disturbing.

What’s the point of passing new laws when those who would be responsible for enforcing them and the existing laws are capable of such systematic failures of omission and commission?

That is not a rhetorical question. The institutional decay in the United States is beyond obvious. Yet the institutions fight tooth and nail to avoid accountability. Before entrusting these institutions with any more power, it would be far better to fix them–which may require a root-and-branch restructuring–so that we can be confident that they can responsibly exercise the vast powers they already wield.  To say that no such confidence is warranted today is beyond cavil.

Putin’s Rock-and-a-Hard-Place Situation in Syria

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:17 am

The Syrian war has been dragging on for a bloody seven years, but now the sh*t is truly getting real–because now it has become a cockpit for global and regional power rivalries. The most fraught development involves the potential for escalating conflict between Iran and its proxies (notably Hezbollah) and Israel–and that puts Vladimir Putin and Russia into a very difficult position.

Last week an Iranian drone allegedly violated Israeli airspace. The Israelis shot down the drone, and then launched a massive attack that apparently destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses, losing an F-16 in the process.  The Israelis also bombed Iranian forces in Syria. Things have settled down a bit since then, but the potential for escalation is clearly present.

Despite Russia’s long-term (and by long-term I mean centuries-long) rivalry with Iran/Persia, the countries have been de facto allies in Syria because both have a strong interest in saving the Assad regime.  But the interests in Assad are vastly different, and now that the Syrian regime’s survival seems assured, those interests are not aligned.

Iran views the Assad regime as vital because under its control Syria is a vital component of Iran’s anti-Israel strategy.  In particular, Syria is the essential logistic bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  With Syria in unfriendly hands, Hezbollah would be completely isolated.  With Syria in Assad’s hands, Iran can funnel massive supplies to Israel’s arch-foe.  Given the centrality of Israel to Iran’s strategic ambitions, Assad is a vital Iranian national interest, and an ongoing national interest.

Putin’s interests in Syria were always more limited.  A naval base (which would be completely useless in a real shooting war given its isolation and Russia’s lack of a real blue water navy), a few airbases, and an ability to reassert Russia as a player in the Middle East. Those objectives have largely been achieved, and Putin was no doubt hoping that the stabilization of the Syrian regime would permit a drawdown of Russian activities there.

Furthermore, Putin has always tried to maintain good relations with Israel.  Netanyahu and other high-ranking Israelis have made numerous trips to Moscow.

But if Iran pushes issues with Israel, the Jewish state’s heretofore relatively benign approach to the Syrian regime (which has involved no more than occasional punitive strikes and a largely hands-off attitude in the Syrian civil war) will change. The regime is Iran’s and Hezbollah’s center of gravity, and if Iran escalates confrontation with Israel either from Lebanon or Syria directly, Israel will hit Assad’s regime very hard.  This will again put its survival at risk, and cost Putin what he has gained so far.

In other words, it is in Russia’s interest to restrain Iran, but it is not clear that Iran can be restrained. Putin has nothing to gain from an Iran-Israel conflict in Syria and Lebanon, and all that he has gained so far is at risk from such a conflict.  For its part, if Iran decides to escalate, it means that it has decided that the Syrian regime’s vulnerability to local forces has been largely eliminated, and it doesn’t really need Russia anymore.

All of which means that Putin is now largely at the mercy of a highly ideological regime with an agenda that not only does Putin not share (the destruction of Israel), but which he actually opposes.

Note that Russia has also been exploring cooperation with Iran’s other arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, especially in the field of energy.  Siding with Iran puts that at risk too.

So what will Putin do? Hard to know. But it is clear he has no real good options.

The other big story involving Russia in Syria relates to the devastating American response to an attack mounted on a base of US-supported fighters where some American advisers were located. The US responded with extreme–and I mean extreme–violence. In response to a battalion-sized attack, they threw just about everything in the arsenal at the assault–artillery, F-15Es, MQ-9 drones, AH-64 Apaches, B-52s(!), and AC-130s.

This extremely forceful response was clearly sending a message.  It reminds me of what Mattis told Iraqi tribal leaders: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.”  The assaulting force was f*cking with the US, and Mattis’ military responded by pretty much killing them all.

They’ll think twice next time. And that’s the point.

The biggest mystery is the identity of “them all.” Was it regime paramilitaries leavened with a few Russians, or a force predominately made up of Russian mercenaries? The Russians first denied Russians were killed, but after some widows went public it admitted to the deaths of 5 Russians.  Other reports, supposedly sourced from Russian military sources, put the casualty toll in the hundreds, with 100-200 KIA. (The Russian government dismisses these reports as “disinformation,” but its credibility is near zero.)

The big question is why was the attack made? A purely regime-directed operation that used Russian mercenaries without the knowledge or approval of the Russian military? (Highly doubtful.) An attempt by the Russians to test the Americans, or to send a message? (If so, the answer was given with extreme prejudice.) One theory floating around in Russia is that the mercenaries (from the firm Вагнер) had become inconvenient to the Russian military and government, and were set up to be destroyed.  I have no idea–I just hope that Mattis, Trump, et al do.

Then there’s the conflict between the US and Turkey over support for Kurdish fighters (who were the only anti-ISIS troops who can, in the words of George Patton, “fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag”).  Turkey has mounted an attack into Syria, and Erdogan has threatened to give the US an “Ottoman slap” if we interfere. (By the way–did the Ottomans have nukes? Just wondering.)

All in all, Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple, and now the potential for a conflict between the big dogs is greater than ever. It’s hard to see this ending well for anyone–Vladimir Putin least of all.

February 10, 2018

Counterintelligence Follies–What a Country!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:02 pm

One thing that seems to have passed without notice in the furore over Carter Page is the utter implausibility of the Russians using him in a high-level clandestine outreach to Donald Trump.  No, implausible not because of Page’s fringe-status–though that would have probably been sufficient–but because of the fact that Page had been in contact with Russian intelligence operatives who were eventually arrested by the FBI.

We now know that Page was one of the individuals (“Male-1”) cited by the FBI agent in the complaint against the three Russians.  Now the Russians might not have known for certain that Page was “Male-1” or anyone else cited in the complaint, but you can be damn sure that they would have identified every American the indicted Russians had been in contact with, and every one of them would have been under suspicion.  Indeed, the detail from the recorded conversation involving Page and his background included in the report would probably have been sufficient for Russian intelligence to identify him.

So we are supposed to believe that less than two years after the indictment, the Russians would have thrown open the doors to Page, granted him an audience with Igor Sechin, and then proceeded to include him in a campaign to bribe an American presidential candidate?  A guy who had already been interviewed by the FBI, and hence was at the very least in the crosshairs of US counterintelligence, and even possibly an asset thereof?  A guy who had been involved in burning three of their operatives?

As. Effing. If.

Except, maybe, as part of an elaborate scheme to spread disinformation about Trump.

But there is no way that that anyone who had come in contact with the indicted Russian agents would have been used as part of a serious operation to bribe a US president.

If the FBI had actually entertained the possibility that the Steele dossier was legitimate (which, of course, they might never have done), they would have had to asked themselves: why would the Russians conspire with a guy that they had every reason to suspect was in league with, or compromised, by the US counterintelligence? That alone should have been sufficient either to discredit the dossier, or conditional on accepting the truth of the dossier, concluding that the Sechin offer was part of a disinformation scheme.

Stephen McIntyre makes an important observation about the dossier’s claims regarding the Page-Sechin meetings.  Specifically, the first mention in the dossier (in July) of the meetings is lacking in specifics regarding (a) the “brokerage fee”, and (b) Page’s assurance that Trump would lift sanctions.  Miraculously, the second mention of the meeting–in a Steele report three months after the alleged meeting–includes these details.  Said details, of course, were included in the FISA application. And get this: the last Steele report that adds these apparently essential details was produced (or should I say “invented”?) 4 days before the FBI approached the court.

You know exactly what happened, don’t you? The FBI tells Steele: “This is all you got? We need more than this.” And like a short order chef, Steele starts cooking, hits the little bell with his spatula, and serves up a steaming pile of hash, made to order.

Which provides further evidence that the FBI knew all along that it was providing fiction to the FISA court.  Unless, of course, you are going to choose option “B”–that the FBI were clueless, credulous morons.  (There is no option “C”.)

In other counterintelligence follies, the NYT reported that the CIA was duped into paying a Russian $100,000 (and had agreed to pay $900,000 more) in exchange for stolen hacking tools and dirt on Trump. The story is sourced to the Russian, and to US officials.

The CIA denies, of course.

It is clear that the story about paying for stolen hacking tools is utter tripe. You don’t pay for what can be–and has been–copied, and what you already own. So if this did happen, it means that what was really bought was dirt on Trump, and that was the intent all along. If this is what went down, then no doubt that the arrangement broke down after the first meeting because the Russian delivered such obvious garbage that even anti-Trump CIA people realized it was worthless.

If this deal did occur, it’s also almost certain that the Russian approached the CIA because word was out that the agency was actively seeking information on Trump, and the Russian sensed an opportunity.

Whether this happened or not is actually far less interesting than why it was leaked.  Maybe the Russian was the one who initiated the contact with the NYT, but somewhere along the line “US officials” corroborated it.

Now who would that be? My guess is that these are pro-Trump officials engaged in a clandestine war with elements in the CIA.

Like Yakov Smirnoff says–“What a country! America–I love it!

February 3, 2018

Sources and Methods

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 6:09 pm

One of the oft’ told horror stories in the runup to the release of the House Intel Committee memo was that it would scandalously harm national security by disclosing sources and methods.

This is largely true! Not the harm national security part.  But the memo did indeed disclose that the FBI used highly disreputable and biased sources obtained by nefarious methods in order to find a backdoor to spying on a presidential campaign, and this is indeed highly scandalous.  If I were the FBI and DOJ, I would want to keep these sources and methods secret too.

It is appalling that this happened in at least one instance.  But it raises an even bigger question: was this truly a one-off (bad enough), or was it representative of a more systematic practice (which would be far worse)?

I can understand why DOJ and the FBI would fight tooth-and-nail (including, if some late reporting is correct, Rosenstein threatening to subpoena House Intel Committee member/staff text and emails) to prevent the revelation of “sources and methods” in this instance.  What was revealed when the rock was turned over was quite shocking, and it cannot rest here. It is necessary to know whether the entire FISA process is routinely corrupted.

February 2, 2018

American Siloviki

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:43 pm

The long anticipated–and by many feared–release of the House Intelligence Committee majority’s letter on the origins of the Carter Page FISA warrant came out today.  From the pre-release wailing, rending of garments, and gnashing of teeth over the grave threat that it posed to national security, one would have thought it would have contained nuclear launch codes and shocking revelations about Area 51.  In fact, it was anticlimactic, and demonstrated what any sentient being should have been able to figure out: that the FBI and DOJ relied upon the dodgy, fundamentally tainted Fusion GPS/Steele/DNC dossier to obtain a FISA warrant to spy on Page–and hence on others in the Trump campaign.

Anticlimactic, but damning and disgusting nonetheless. Particularly given the revelation that Andrew McCabe, erstwhile deputy director of the FBI, admitted under oath that but for the dossier, the FISA warrant would never have been sought in the first place.  It was clearly pivotal, despite all of the desperate attempts in the media and among Congressional Democrats over the last few days to insinuate that Page had long been on counterintelligence radar.  (This actually cuts the other way–if the pre-dossier evidence against him was so strong, why wasn’t he under surveillance until after the dossier was obtained?)

The essence of the memo (just described) doesn’t really require much discussion.  Those facts speak for themselves. A few details do deserve some comment.

One is the use of a tactic that I have mentioned as being characteristic of KGB methods (though they are no doubt a staple of all intelligence services): planting “information” in a media source as a way of laundering it, enhancing its credibility, and getting it into circulation.  The typical use of this technique is to get the planted information (or disinformation) into the media foodchain so that it gets disseminated more widely.  Here the use of the technique was far more sinister. It was recycled through a friendly journalist (Michael Isikoff) who was then cited as corroboration in the FISA application.

The memo leaves some wiggle room for the FBI and DOJ to claim that they didn’t know that Steele had approached Isikoff, but this requires them to claim that they can’t add 2 and 2: once they read the Isikoff article, knowing what Steele had told them they had to have known that Steele was the source. (Steele apparently tried to craft a cover story by pointing the FBI to a report containing similar information prepared by Clinton crony Cody Shearer–thereby providing a possible alternative source for the Isikoff story.)    Furthermore, within a few weeks the FBI learned that Steele was talking to journalists, and they fired him–yet they did not inform the FISA court about that their initial application was tainted in their applications for renewal.  (I further note that since the FBI fired him–that means they hired him!)

And the renewals brings up another issue: one of the signatures on at least one renewal was Rod Rosenstein’s.  You know, the guy who appointed Mueller and who is overseeing the independent counsel investigation for DOJ because of Session’s recusal.  What the holy F? Rosenstein’s involvement in the FISA process, which is deeply embedded in the Russia investigation, means that he is conflicted as hell.  He should have had nothing whatsoever to do with the appointment of the Special Counsel, and nothing to do now with overseeing him.  This is particularly true since Rosenstein’s knowledge must have included the fact that the original warrant was the fruit of a poisoned tree, and that he failed to disclose that to the FISA court.

James Comey’s fingerprints are all over this as well.  I can’t wait to hear his deep exegesis on the ethics of swearing to a court about the veracity of “salacious, unverified” (his words!) info produced by a rabid partisan and paid for by a presidential campaign to get a warrant to spy on Americans.  And to the ethics of withholding material information from the FISA court.

This last is particularly and disgustingly ironic given that one of the FBI’s objections to the release of the memo was that it omitted relevant facts. I can’t imagine what omitted fact would reverse the conclusions that flow from those that are included.  Putting that aside, the FBI’s objections give a new meaning to chutzpah.

The pre-release shrieking about the memo was beyond hysterical.  Among the most hysterical claims (made by Leon Panetta and others) was that a release of the memo would unleash a Constitutional crisis.

Just how would the Chief Executive’s declassification of a document about the actions of parts of the executive branch constitute a Constitutional crisis? The President holds ultimate classification authority, and is responsible for the execution of the laws and the conduct of executive branch departments, agencies, and employees. Disclosing information about the misbehavior of executive branch officials does not represent a Constitutional crisis: if anything, it is the misbehavior of those officials during a presidential election that raise the issue of such a crisis.

Some of the reporting and commentary on this issue has been utterly incredible (in many senses of the word).  For example, Trump overruled current-FBI director Wray’s objection to releasing the memo.  The WaPo framed this as “Trump defies Wray.” Um, who the hell works for whom? If there is defiance going on, it is Wray’s going public with his objections to the actions of his Constitutional superior.  Wray should have raised his objections in private to Trump, and if overruled (as he was, in the event), kept his mouth shut in public, or resigned–and then kept his mouth shut. To lobby publicly (and disingenuously, by raising national security concerns) in an attempt to pressure his superior into doing something is beyond the pale.

Or should be, anyways. But one thing that this entire sordid episode has demonstrated is that the bureaucracy generally, and the intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in particular, consider themselves an independent power, a co-equal–superior actually–branch of government, the Constitution be damned. Trump is deemed the usurper.  Indeed, it is clear that many senior members of the FBI, DOJ, and the intelligence community considered it their right to intervene in the election in order to prevent Trump’s election, and failing that, to kneecap his presidency. And virtually all of the political class in the US is on their side. This is the real Constitutional crisis.

You should view this as a Constitutional danger regardless of your partisan leanings. For ask yourself: would you like the same to be done to your guy (or gal)?

It is also disgustingly ironic that in a fervid controversy about the alleged intervention of the Russian siloviki into an American election reveals that high-ranking American officials in control of the vast powers of US law enforcement and intelligence used siloviki methods (including most likely disinformation planted by Russian siloviki!–you can’t make this up!) in an attempt to influence an American election and then to cripple the winner of that election when their original plotting failed

Indeed, the Russian siloviki have it going for them that they aren’t nauseatingly sanctimonious about their skullduggery–refreshingly cynical is more their style. James Comey and others cannot say the same.

And if you think the siloviki analogy is overwrought, consider the not-so-veiled threats expressed on the pages of the WaPo and NYT and by politicians and political pilot fish (e.g., Ben Rhodes) about how dangerous it is to confront the FBI.  Further proof that this rogue influence must be tamed.

Trump showed stones in confronting the FBI and the political class. But perhaps this just demonstrates that he has a strong survival instinct. He knows that he is in a knife fight for his political life–and perhaps his freedom and fortune–and it seems that he has decided that compromise is impossible so escalation is necessary.

This is not the end.  This is at most the end of a beginning. For the acknowledgement that the FBI and DOJ–and the Obama administration–used under false pretenses a dossier paid for by a political campaign and assembled by rabid partisans to obtain permission to spy on an American just raises other questions. Who other than Page was spied on? Were their names unmasked? What use was made of the information obtained from the Page surveillance? By whom?

Given the Herculean effort required to get the memo released, I doubt that these questions will be answered, and if they are answered, it will only happen in after a political brawl that makes the fight of the last few weeks look like childs’ play. The siloviki and their political handmaidens play rough, and play for keeps.

 

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