Streetwise Professor

May 15, 2014

Laundering Stories

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:26 pm

The Russians are among the world’s greatest money launderers, if not the world’s greatest money launderers. (Just ask Bank of New York.) But before wholesale money laundering began in the 1990s, the Soviets were passed masters at laundering stories. Falsehoods, truth be told.

It worked like this. The KGB would plant stories in obscure publications in places like Pakistan. Some of these stories would be picked up by more established publications. Eventually, a few of these stories would make their way through the media food chain and appear in whole or in part in mainstream western publications, including some of the most prestigious ones like the NYT and WaPo.

I strongly suspect this is what is going on with a story that appeared in the German paper Bild am Sonntag on Sunday.

Russia has been pushing for months the story that American mercenaries from Blackwater or its successor firms Academi or Greystone have been employed in Ukraine to fight the separatists. This story first appeared in March. It got a second life in the aftermath of the fire in Odessa that resulted in the deaths of 40 separatists. There were accounts allegedly originating with ex-SBU (the Ukrainian equivalent to the FSB) agents that English speakers were directing the assault on the building that went up in flames. As if giving orders in English to Ukrainian soccer hooligans would be incredibly effective.

But the story went viral on Sunday with the Bild account. It stated that the German intelligence service, the BND, had reported to Merkel on 29 April that 400 Academi mercenaries were operating in eastern Ukraine, specifically in Slavyansk.

German intelligence has confirmed the presence of American mercenaries! QED!

Not so fast.

What was the source of the BND information? According to the Bild story, it was . . . wait for it . . . American intelligence.

So we are supposed to believe that US intelligence revealed what would have to be a highly classified operation that would almost certainly require a Presidential finding  to a foreign intelligence service. An operation that if disclosed would play right into Russian hands and have devastating effects on the US. And disclosing such an operation to the intelligence service of a country with which the US currently has a very fraught relationship in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, no less.

As if.

I think I can reconstruct what actually happened. The Germans approached the US and asked about the rife rumors (originating in Russia and among pro-Russian elements in Ukraine) about American mercenaries operating in Ukraine. The US said Ha!. The BND duly reported this to Merkel. They told Bild that they had made a report to Merkel, who then reported that the BND had briefed Merkel about the story, insinuating that the BND had confirmed that mercenaries were in fact operating in Ukraine.

Bild is a rather dodgy tabloid. Respectable enough to be a credible source for the Russians, but hardly a pillar of establishment journalism.

Note that I haven’t linked to the Bild story. That’s because I haven’t been able to find a link. If you search the Bild website for “Academi” or “Blackwater” the search returns a story from early March. Sunday’s story is not online. That should raise  alarms.

Further note that no other more reputable publication has confirmed the Bild story, or found other reliable sources stating that US mercenaries are in Ukraine. In particular, no US publication has. Some of the many online sites that have run with the Bild story make a big deal out of this, insinuating that US publications are protecting the government.

Again: as if. The NYT and WaPo have run extremely damaging stories involving US intelligence operations, most notably related to Snowden revelations. So they are going to spike this story?

You know the way journalism works. If a blockbuster story breaks, every other major publication assigns its best reporters to the story, to see whether it can be confirmed, and to develop additional sources and/or different angles.

You know that’s what happened in response to the Bild story. But so far, not a peep from any major paper or news service. Meaning that either these outlets have found nothing, or are covering up to protect the US government.

So let’s say that you believe that the NYT and WaPo and AP and whoever are stonewalling to protect the administration or the CIA or the Pentagon. What about foreign papers? I am thinking specifically about Der Spiegel, the newsmag that runs Snowden story after Snowden story written by Laura Poitras, Holger Stark, and sometimes Jake Appelbaum.

You think that Spiegel would be running cover for the US? Hardly. Yet all the Spiegel has done is run a story repeating the Bild allegation.

So what we have is a single, rather marginal western publication running a story that story that echoes a Russian propaganda theme. It is highly implausible that the alleged ultimate source of the information-US intelligence-would in fact reveal it as described.  (Intelligence personnel who want to undermine administration policies they disagree with usually go directly to their pet reporters at the NYT or WaPo.) No other publication corroborates the story. The MO is similar to classic Soviet information operations.

So I totally  believe. Totally.

Some other reasons to doubt. The Ukrainian operation in Slavyansk and the Donbass generally has been hesitant and ineffectual. Hardly what one would expect from a force stiffened by 400 mercs. Moreover, one supposed reason to deploy the Academi force was to disrupt the referendum in the region. But the referendum went on, virtually undisturbed.

And I repeat: “American mercenaries in Ukraine” is a major Russian propaganda theme.  Lavrov reiterated it only yesterday, in his long interview with Bloomberg. He did it in his characteristically oily way, saying that Russian questions about American mercenaries had not been answered. In fact, they have been, rather emphatically.  It’s just that Lavrov is not willing to acknowledge this, wanting to keep the story going.

Given the impossibility of proving the negative, the mercenary story cannot be disproved. But everything about the story undermines its plausibility, not least its all too convenient echoing of Russian propaganda.

No. This has every sign of being a speciality of Russian information operations: a laundered story, originating from Russian sources and then put through several spin cycles involving western publications, emerging clean enough to convince those who want to believe that the US is the malign actor in this drama.

It cannot be emphasized enough that information warfare has been a central part of Russian operations in Ukraine. It also cannot be emphasized enough that the Ukrainians, but also the Americans, have been woefully overmatched in this war.

And speaking of overmatched, there is no doubt that Lavrov overmatches Kerry, and ridiculously so. Although every word out of Lavrov’s mouth was more mendacious than the one that preceded it, he is a far more impressive figure than Kerry. Whereas Kerry comes off as a posing, bloviating, superficial grandstander (probably because he is  a posing, bloviating, superficial grandstander), Lavrov comes off as a formidable and focused foe, and one who speaks English impeccably. No wonder he pwns Kerry every time they meet in Geneva.

Or to put it another way: it’s no wonder Lavrov takes Kerry to the cleaners. Just like he launders agitprop like the US mercenaries in Ukraine story.


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  1. Quick prof, denounce this group of America-hating treehugger peaceniks who propagate into the global warming lie. Don’t they consume Murdoch media like you do and know about Climategate?

    A brass-studded group of former generals and admirals warned Tuesday that the accelerating pace of climate change poses a real and growing risk to U.S. security, and expressed frustration at political polarization that makes it harder for the United States to address the issue.

    The report, released late Tuesday by the CNA Corporation’s Military Advisory Board, is an update to the group’s 2007 study that first highlighted in a significant way the possible security risks posed by extreme weather, food and water shortages, and melting ice that is opening the Arctic. The authors, sixteen former three- and four-star generals and admirals, said the update was prompted by “growing concern over the lack of comprehensive action by both the United States and the international community” on climate change.

    “Politically charged debate has silenced sound public discourse,” the group said, adding “we believe that congressional action is warranted — and it is needed now.” Taking aim at those who have criticized the Pentagon under the Obama administration for making energy and climate change core concerns for the Defense Dept., the officers said that “political concerns and budgetary limitations cannot be allowed to dominate what is essentially a salient national security concern for our nation.”

    The report highlights a number of worries about the security impacts of climate change that have gone from hypothetical to happening. That includes the rapid opening of the Arctic Ocean–where neither the United States nor the rest of the international community is prepared for the pace of change, the report notes– drought and water stresses that drive instability in already shaky parts of the world, and the threat to the U.S. military’s domestic bases and installations from extreme weather and rising sea levels.

    The dire predictions come just a week after Pentagon officials and a bevy of former high-ranking officers, some of whom are also on the advisory board, said that the Obama administration’s latest National Climate Assessment underscored the here-and-now threats that climate change poses to U.S. security.

    One example of the way that climate change is helping create fresh security headaches is found in Mali, the report says. The triple whammy of climate change, desertification, and resulting ethnic tension overwhelmed the Malian government in recent years. As a result, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot off the terror group that had once been confined to North Africa, took over the northern part of the country, where it remains today.

    Another way in which climate change is shaping the military’s mission, the report said, is found in the Asia-Pacific region. Stronger and more frequent storms, coupled with densely populated coastlines, are turning natural-disaster response into a core part of U.S. Pacific Command’s responsibilities, and becoming a crucial element of the U.S. military “rebalancing” to Asia. Joint humanitarian assistance and disaster response drills with Asian militaries are becoming part and parcel of the Pentagon’s pivot to Asia.

    And that’s the easy part; “the volatile mixture of population growth, instability due to the growing influence of nonstate actors, and the inevitable competition over scarce resources will be multiplied and exaggerated by climate change,” the report said.

    “I am afraid we will soon start getting into varsity-level instability,” retired Adm. David Titley, the first chair of the Navy’s task force on climate change, said in the report.

    Among the members of the advisory board who signed off on the study, titled “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change,” are former senior officers from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as retired Royal Navy Adm. Neil Morisetti, recently the climate-change envoy for the British Foreign Secretary.

    Comment by keepupthegoodwork — May 16, 2014 @ 6:09 am

  2. Let me summarize the previous commenter: “oh, look, a squirrel!”

    Comment by ETat — May 17, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

  3. @ETat. Exactly. I might reply later, but there is so much BS to sort through it’s hard to know where to begin.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 17, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

  4. No need. Extreme verbosity in comments has lately become a trademark of Russian “active measures”/propaganda. Which stems from a well-known defect of Russian intellectual culture: inability to clearly formulate a point. “Spreading a thought over a tree”, as the ancient Russian book says.

    Comment by LL — May 18, 2014 @ 5:58 am

  5. > inability to clearly formulate a point

    more likely, inability to think of a better way to obfuscate the absence of any point.

    Comment by Ivan — May 18, 2014 @ 7:07 am

  6. The expensive “story laundering” is only needed in the west, though. The brainwashed domestic audience is quite content with more primitive techniques: .

    Comment by Ivan — May 18, 2014 @ 7:17 am

  7. Somehow, you missed the story online:

    Comment by Bypass — May 21, 2014 @ 7:51 am

  8. Sorry, that was today’s. Here’s the one from Sunday:

    Comment by Bypass — May 21, 2014 @ 7:52 am

  9. Further, the word choice of the article from Sunday makes it clear that the authors do not buy the story. But they run it anyway, because – it’s Bild. Fun times.

    Comment by Bypass — May 21, 2014 @ 7:56 am

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