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 on: Jan 12, 2017, 09:39 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Tillerson’s foreign policy: Russia first

By Dana Milbank Opinion writer January 11 at 9:56 PM
Washington Post

In New York on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump dismissed as “crap” the intelligence reports suggesting Russia has compromising information on him.

Trump knows this because, as he tweeted, Russia called it “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION.” And if Vladimir Putin’s government says something, it must be true.

But whether or not Russia has such blackmail potential may be beside the point. Trump and his incoming administration are already doing exactly what Putin wants.

As Trump was giving his first post-election news conference in Trump Tower, his nominee to be secretary of state was testifying in Washington — and Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief, showed why he earned Putin’s Order of Friendship award.

It was early in the nine-hour hearing when Tillerson said he might recommend revoking President Obama’s actions punishing Russia for its cyberattack during the American election, which Tillerson acknowledged was probably approved by Putin.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) followed that with a blunt question: “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”

“I would not use that term,” the Russian Order of Friendship laureate replied.

Rubio offered to “help” Tillerson reach that conclusion, describing his targeting of schools and markets in Syria that have killed thousands of civilians, and his earlier attacks on Chechnya, where he killed 300,000 civilians using cluster munitions and bombs that kill by asphyxiation. “You are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military . . . have conducted war crimes?”

“I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” the nominee replied.

Rubio went on to ask about the broadly held view that Putin has approved the killing of “countless” opponents, dissidents and journalists.

“I do not have sufficient information to make that claim,” Tillerson replied.

“Do you think that was coincidental?” Rubio pressed.

Tillerson said “these things happen” to “people who speak up for freedom,” but he would need to know more.

Rubio was angry. “None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” he said. “These people are dead.”

It was a big moment for the man Trump called Lil’ Marco. But it’s ominous that there aren’t more like him and John McCain speaking up now.

Putin has managed to achieve in a few months of cyberwarfare what his Soviet predecessors failed to do in 45 years of the Cold War: creating a pliable American government, willing to overlook human rights abuses in the interest of commerce.

Trump on Wednesday tweeted that the leaked intelligence report was “one last shot at me” and asked: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” But his liaison with Russia feels more Eastern Bloc than Third Reich. Trump has a slate of pro-Russia advisers talking about a more conciliatory approach to Putin, and their statements have echoed Kremlin statements. Trump acknowledged that “I think it was Russia” that did the election hacking, but rather than regard it as an act of war, he praised the outcome: “It shouldn’t be done,” he said, but “look at what was learned from that hacking.”

Tillerson offered a few welcome departures from his would-be boss’s positions: He embraced the Magnitsky law punishing human rights abuses and said Russia’s annexation of Crimea would not be recognized. He was more supportive of NATO than Trump has been.

But Tillerson didn’t mention the election hacking in his opening statement, and, in response to Rubio, he said he would “have concerns” with legislation imposing mandatory sanctions on those who commit cyberattacks on the United States.

Other responses were equally unnerving. Tillerson told Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that he had not yet discussed Russia with Trump, and he asserted that “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.” Congressional lobbying records show Exxon lobbied on many Russia sanctions bills.

Asked by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) about how he would avoid being undermined as chief diplomat by the president’s “quickly drafted, not vetted” tweets on world affairs, Tillerson replied, “I have his cellphone number.”

“We’ll hope for the best there — unless you have anything else to add,” Young said. Tillerson didn’t.

The nominee didn’t rule out the creation of a registry of Muslims. He declined to say that China is one of the world’s worst human rights violators. He wouldn’t criticize drug raids in the Philippines that have killed 6,200. And he said he couldn’t make a “true determination” whether Saudi Arabia violates human rights.

It was grim to see an incoming American secretary of state avert his gaze from human rights abuses in Russia and across the globe. Rubio said it “demoralizes” billions of people. “That cannot be who we are in the 21st century,” Rubio told Tillerson.

But apparently it already is.


Trump’s Russia problem: Six questions still unanswered

By Jennifer Rubin January 11 at 2:12 PM
Washington Post

President-elect Donald Trump, to no one’s surprise, chose to attack BuzzFeed for releasing a salacious, unconfirmed 35-page dossier from a claimed former member of British intelligence. He will get some sympathy — from the press, no less — in condemning the publication of unproven allegations. However, he leaves a raft of questions and puts Republicans on the spot in a number of ways:

1. Asked at the end of the news conference if he could say that no one connected with his campaign had contact with Russia, he did not reply. He answered the remainder of the question having to do with Vladimir Putin’s hacking. “Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it.” Because the allegation concerns the incoming president of the United States, shouldn’t an independent commission or prosecutor be enlisted to investigate, at the very least, that part of the issue?

2. Trump seems to think it is a good thing Putin wanted him, and that having Trump like him is an asset. This naive, childlike belief in one’s own specialness is not unique. President Obama’s supporters often argued his mere presence on the international stage would help U.S. relations. Will Trump try to get Putin to like him, or, as his secretary of state nominee suggested, respond with strength when Russia acts in ways contrary to international norms?

3. For the first time, Trump said of the hacking, “I think it was Russia.” Later he said that others hack too, quite different from saying other countries were responsible for the Democratic National Committee hacks. Why have he and his surrogates consistently tried to deflect blame from Russia or insisted other countries were responsible? If he now accepts that the intelligence community has been right all along, was the advice he was getting from his own staff faulty or misguided?

4. Republicans who oppose an independent commission, or at least a select committee, and do not want to get to the bottom of his campaign’s relationship, if any, with Russia during the campaign may rightly be accused of failing to uphold their constitutional obligations. Common Cause issued a statement Wednesday that read in part:

    President-elect Trump must call for a Joint Bipartisan Select Committee if he wants to clear his name and answer questions concerning the extent to which Russian government interference helped him win the presidency. Trump’s continued dismissals of the U.S. intelligence community’s findings of a coordinated effort authorized by Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence agencies waging a concerted campaign to help elect him to the presidency are deeply troubling. Blaming the Democratic National Committee for being hacked by Russian intelligence agency assets is irresponsible as is his praise of the information hacked and released by the Russians. If President-elect Trump truly wants to put the 2016 election behind him and confirm the legitimacy of his election he must call for a Select Committee to investigate the matter immediately.

    The Select Committee must be comprised of equal numbers of Republican and Democrats to avoid partisan gamesmanship over this vitally important investigation. Too often in the past the party in power – both Democrats and Republicans – has withheld the findings of investigations. The goal of the Select Committee must be to reassure the American people about the security and integrity of our election process. Breaches must be identified and solutions proposed.  It is in President-elect Trump’s, and more importantly the nation’s, best interest to fully investigate and vet all the allegations, learn what we can, and move forward. If there is nothing to hide and no concern about the hacks, that will come out clearly through the Select Committee process.

Continuing to allow him to withhold his tax information (which may reveal additional Russia ties) flies in the face of Republicans’ promise to act as a check on Trump. If they continue to defer, voters in 2018 may conclude that a Democratic majority in the House or Senate is needed. Will Republicans stop giving Trump a free pass?

5. Rex Tillerson said he never discussed Russia with Trump. Surely, this was a jaw-dropping oversight on Trump’s part, unless he won’t allow Tillerson to do much. If so, are they on the same page, and who will speak for the president on Russia?

6. The tough bipartisan sanctions bill will likely pass Congress by an overwhelming majority. Will Trump veto it or lobby Congress not to act? (He seemed to take issue with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) when told Graham he was one of the co-sponsors. Trump acts as if sanctions directed at Russia are a challenge to him.)

Trump’s presidency will begin under a cloud. His relationship with Russia, his ability to act purely in American interests rather than his own, and his obliviousness to the degree to which unanswered questions will dog every decision remotely related to Russia (Is he afraid Putin has something on him? Does he have a loan with a Russian bank?) go to the center of his ability to lead. The sooner he puts questions to rest, the better. Otherwise his presidency, pardon the phrase, will be compromised.


Trump says he has ‘nothing to do with Russia.’ The past 30 years show otherwise

Trump denies business dealings with Russia

By Michael Kranish January 11 at 8:33 PM
Washington Post

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that he has “NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

Trump, however, has a long history with Russia, trying repeatedly to build luxury properties in Moscow, holding a beauty pageant there and benefiting from heavy investments from Russians in his properties around the world.

It is not possible to verify whether Trump does not have current deals or loans with Russian entities because he has refused to release his tax returns. But a look at Trump’s record since the 1980s shows that he and his family long have been interested in trying to do business there. The connection became a matter of curiosity during the 2016 presidential race. A Russian official was quoted saying his government had been in contact with Trump’s campaign, and the candidate repeatedly praised Russian President Vladi­mir Putin while urging the country’s leaders to hack into his opponent’s emails.

The connections go back 30 years.

Trump first visited Moscow in 1987 in an effort to make real estate deals. As he told it in a Playboy interview, two Russian fighter planes accompanied his jet to the airport, and he had insisted on having two Russian colonels fly with him. He stayed at the National Hotel, overlooking the Kremlin, and said that the Soviets wanted him to build two luxury hotels.The Soviet ambassador had visited Trump in New York City and said his daughter had “adored” Trump Tower and suggested a Moscow version, according to a Newsweek account of the visit published at the time. Trump visited a number of potential sites around Moscow.

Trump said he told Soviet officials that he did not know how to arrange financing because the government owned the land. Trump said he was told: “No problem, Mr. Trump. We will work out lease arrangements.”

Trump said he responded, “I want ownership, not leases.” The Soviets said they would create a committee of seven government representatives and three Trump associates to resolve problems.

Trump said in the 1990 interview that he was “very unimpressed” with the Soviet system, which he called “a disaster.” “What you will see there soon is a revolution,” he added. He said his “problem” with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was that he was “not a firm enough hand.”

Trump did not wind up making a deal, but he soon tried again.

In 1996, Trump sought to build luxury condominiums in Moscow, but the deal never happened. Trump tried again in 2005, signing a deal for a possible Trump building in a converted pencil factory, but this also failed to materialize.

The Trumps were undaunted. Donald Trump Jr. traveled to Russia six times in an 18-month period, starting around 2006, to try to make deals. His father seemed convinced it would happen.

“Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” the senior Trump said in 2007. “We will be in Moscow at some point.”

The following year, Trump Jr. appeared at a real estate conference in which he said the company had tried to invest in Russia. He acknowledged that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The Trump company sold condos to Russian investors, and the senior Trump received $95 million for a Palm Beach mansion in 2008 from Russian oligarch ­Dmitry Rybolovlev, more than twice the $41 million of Trump’s original purchase price, according to property records.

“The closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach, Florida,” Trump said in July. “Palm Beach is a very expensive place. There was a man who went bankrupt, and I bought the house for $40 million, and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million including brokerage commissions.. . . I guess probably I sell condos to Russians, okay?”

Trump’s ambition to build in Russia was still unfulfilled, and he made another effort in 2013. He traveled that year to Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant at the 7,300-seat Crocus City Hall. Trump sent a tweet in search of Russia’s leader: “Do you think ­Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow -if so, will he become my new best friend?”

Putin did not attend the pageant, but Trump used the occasion to visit with Russian officials and seek out real estate opportunities. He spoke with a developer named Aras Agalarov, who said he talked with Trump about developing adjoining towers in Moscow. Trump sounded sure he would strike a deal, tweeting: “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”

During his time promoting the pageant in Moscow, Trump lavished praise on Putin, and the Russian leader responded with a “friendly letter” to him, Agalarov told The Washington Post last year. Agalarov’s son, Emin, visited Trump in New York after the businessman announced his presidential bid, and he said Trump criticized the U.S. government “for not being able to be friends with Russia.”

Trump’s friendly view toward Russia escalated during the campaign. In July, Trump encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

U.S. intelligence agencies subsequently said that Russia, under Putin’s direction, was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails as part of an effort to undermine Clinton and help Trump. The emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were also hacked and released, much to Clinton’s embarrassment.Podesta wrote in The Post that he believed he was the “direct target of Russian hacking.”

In September, Trump again praised Putin, saying he is “a leader far more than our president has been.” Asked to explain, Trump said, “He does have an 82 percent approval rating. . . I think when he calls me brilliant , I’ll take it as a compliment, okay?”

Trump’s statements highlighted his tendency to value those who stroke his ego and his admiration for leaders who project power — two attributes of which Moscow seemed to be well aware.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state-run Interfax news agency that his country had “contacts” with Trump’s campaign. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said. The campaign denied such talks.

Ryabkov did not say who Russia talked to. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort managed an investment fund for a Putin ally, and he was cited in a corruption probe in Ukraine, where investigators were looking into illegal payments from a pro-Russian party that had hired Manafort when he was a political consultant. Manafort denied wrongdoing and said that he had not received improper payments. He also said he had nothing to do with weakening of the Republican Party platform language that suggested U.S. military support for Ukraine.

Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — who led “lock her up” chants about Clinton — sat next to Putin at a 2015 dinner. Flynn told The Post last year that he gave a paid speech at an anniversary party for the RT television network in Moscow, a network on which Trump later appeared.

Trump stood by his warm words for Putin and Russia at his Wednesday news conference, even as he acknowledged that “I think it was Russia” that hacked the DNC emails. Addressing an unverified memo that said Russia had collected compromising material about him — which he called “fake news” — Trump said he believed Russian denials that they had not collected such information. He followed that by welcoming Putin’s friendship.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said.


The Trump dossier is silly — except for one thing

By Charles Lane Opinion writer January 11 at 7:15 PM
Washington Post

Anyone who reads the unconfirmed report on Russia’s purported ties to President-elect Donald Trump has to agree with the media organizations that balked at publishing it — until BuzzFeed decided to let Americans “make up their own minds.”

The document’s provenance seems to be a dirt-digging contract issued to an ex-British spy by Trump’s political opponents; it’s a pastiche of claims from unnamed sources, marred by spelling errors and including a tale about a Russia-Trump conspiracy hatched in a city, Prague, that Trump’s purported representative at the purported meeting says he’s never visited.

It culminates in the assertion that Russian intelligence controls Trump via possession of a video showing him disgustingly engaged with prostitutes in Moscow, a classic KGB-style kompromat (blackmail) scenario that seemed a little too vivid even before Trump ridiculed it at a news conference Wednesday.

There remains, however, one blindingly obvious, utterly true and, so far, insufficiently explained fact: Trump favors Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, and Putin favors him.

You hardly need a clandestine “Source A” to know that RT, the Kremlin’s global media network, has consistently apologized for Trump. Nor is there much doubt that the Putin regime hacked Democratic Party documents harmful to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and used WikiLeaks as a front for their release, as even Trump fleetingly and grudgingly conceded Wednesday.

Through it all, Trump has dodged the issue of Russian meddling in the election and changed the subject to the purported benefits of closer relations with Moscow, insisting Wednesday that “if Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”

There needs to be more focus on why this bizarre bromance is so dangerous, even if its origins lie in nothing more sinister than the misguided foreign-policy musings of a celebrity real estate mogul.

Basically, the risks are the same as they would be in allying with any corrupt, dictatorial regime — magnified many times over by Putin’s geopolitical and ideological pretensions, which are ambitious indeed.

Whatever its other defects, the leaked document describes those rather well: Putin aims to “encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance” so as to foster “a return to 19th-century ‘Great Power’ politics . . . rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War II.”

Trump’s big idea is an alliance with Moscow against the Islamic State, which his designated national security adviser, the Russophilic Michael T. Flynn, has promoted for years on the grounds that our “common enemy” is radical Islam.

The problem is twofold: Russia may not have all that much to offer; despite its supposed hostility toward the terrorist group, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter says Moscow has done “virtually zero” to fight the Islamic State while otherwise waging war, in alliance with Iran, against Bashar al-Assad’s enemies in Syria.

And what little help Russia might supply the Trump administration would not be free. Such trade-offs are a commonplace of U.S. intelligence liaisons with dictatorships, past and present. When dictatorships helped us against, say, Soviet-backed guerrillas during the Cold War, the assistance often came in return for an American blind eye to corruption and human rights violations.

If Putin cooperated against the Islamic State, his price would surely be American indulgence of his designs against Ukraine and, over time, other European states. He would also likely try to penetrate U.S. intelligence, stealing those secrets and technology the Trump administration did not share.

On a subtler — but no less real — level, close partnership with Putin would legitimize his brand of illiberal rule by making it seem effective against a greater evil, terrorism; conversely, it would delegitimize liberal-democratic politics.

This is precisely the sort of devil’s bargain people have in mind when they warn against “letting the terrorists win.”

At least our Western European Cold War allies in NATO were mostly democratic, obviating moral dilemmas; and the United States redeemed its compromise at Yalta, which let the Soviets dominate Eastern Europe, by supporting democracy in that area after 1989.

Even after recent financial crises and democratic backsliding, Europe could have much to offer in the fight against the Islamic State; from Paris to Berlin, events over the past year show that jihadist terrorism is more of a European-American common enemy than a Russian-American one.

Yet instead of urging revitalized transatlantic relations, with NATO as its anchor, and instead of emphasizing values as a bulwark against terrorism, Trump disparages democratic leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany and celebrates Putin’s “strength.”

It would be a profound historical irony, and a profound historical tragedy, if a President Trump were to cozy up to Putin’s Russia at the expense of democracy and self-determination for Europe and other regions. It would be kompromat on an international scale.


After the Trump dossier, James Comey is running out of excuses

By James Downie
January 11 at 8:38 AM
Washington Post

The rash of stories on Donald Trump and Russia published Tuesday leave many questions unanswered. The allegations, as sensational as some are and as damning as others are, are just that: allegations. Intelligence agencies (not to mention countless news outlets) have sought to verify them for months now, with little or no success. Though it might be nice to imagine Trump’s presidency collapsing before it’s even begun, the fact remains that we know little more now than we did last week about Trump’s ties to Russia and whether Vladimir Putin’s government has compromising information on the president-elect. There is one thing we do know, though: FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the election last October — controversial at the time — looks completely indefensible now.

A few hours before the explosive CNN and BuzzFeed reports landed on Tuesday, Comey was at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the director whether the FBI has “investigated these reported relationships [between the Trump campaign and Russia]?” Comey replied, “I would never comment on investigations … in an open forum like this.” When Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pressed Comey on the same question later in the hearing, he repeated that “especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation.” (King dryly replied, “The irony of your making that statement here, I cannot avoid.”)

So Comey understands that the FBI weighing in publicly on open investigations, when charges are still being proved, is unwise. Doing so puts those being investigated at the mercy of innuendo and rumor. Yet Comey ditched this rule when he notified Congress 11 days before the election that the FBI was looking into whether there were previously unrevealed emails from Hillary Clinton on a laptop belonging to her aide’s estranged husband. (It should also be noted that this followed months of anti-Clinton leaks from Rudy Giuliani’s friends in the FBI’s New York field office.)

Worse, the search warrant for the emails unsealed in December shows that, as The Post reported at the time, investigators “had no new evidence of actual wrongdoing” on Clinton’s part. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported Tuesday that the FBI thought the allegations of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia credible enough that they sought a wiretap on four members of Trump’s team.

In other words, while Comey stayed silent about new accusations against Trump, he piped up about a big nothing-burger against Clinton.

Despite a second letter later clearing Clinton (again) of wrongdoing, the blow Comey’s letter struck against Clinton’s poll numbers is obvious, with clear declines across almost every major demographic group in the last two weeks of the election. The letter was the most decisive of several factors in Trump’s late comeback. To be clear, this is not to blame Clinton’s loss entirely on Comey. Clinton likely could have withstood the letter’s damage if she’d made a few different strategic decisions, such as shoring up so-called “blue wall” states like Michigan rather than campaigning in long-shot states like Texas.

But Comey’s behavior remains inexcusable. It is a shocking and disturbing double standard: staying silent on allegations against one candidate despite reams of new information, while reviving allegations against another candidate despite absolutely no new information. Doing so two weeks before Election Day compounds the terrible error. It is unlikely that a Trump administration will punish Comey for this mistake. History, however, will not judge him so kindly.

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:35 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

How the Trump dossier came to light: secret sources, a retired spy and John McCain

What began as opposition research during the Republican primary slowly grew from a covert investigation into an extraordinary but unverified global story

Julian Borger in Washington
Thursday 12 January 2017 10.36 GMT

The extraordinary but unverified documents published on Tuesday on Donald Trump’s ties with Moscow began life as a piece of opposition research, which has become as much a part of US politics as yard signs and coloured balloons.

There is a small industry of research and investigative firms in Washington, typically staffed by a mix of former journalists and security officials, adept at finding information about politicians that the politicians would rather stay hidden. The firms often do not know who exactly is hiring them; the request could come from a law firm acting on behalf of a client from one of the parties.

In this case, the request for opposition research on Donald Trump came from one of his Republican opponents in the primary campaign. The research firm then hired one of its sub-contractors who it used regularly on all things Russian: a retired western European former counter-intelligence official, with a long history of dealing with the shadow world of Moscow’s spooks and siloviki (securocrats).

By the time the contractor had started his research, however, the Republican primary was over. The original client had dropped out, but the firm that had hired him had found a new, Democratic client. This was not necessarily the Hillary Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee. Opposition research is frequently financed by wealthy individuals who have donated all they can and are looking for other ways to help.

By July, the counter-intelligence contractor had collected a significant amount of material based on Russian sources who he had grown to trust over the years – not just in Moscow, but also among oligarchs living in the west. He delivered his reports, but the gravity of their contents weighed on him. If the allegations were real, their implications were overwhelming.

He delivered a set to former colleagues in the FBI, whose counter-intelligence division would be the appropriate body to investigate. It is believed he also passed a copy to his own country’s intelligence service, but it felt constrained in what action it could take and left it up to the Americans to do their own investigation and draw their own conclusions.

As summer turned to autumn, the investigator was asked for more information by the FBI but heard nothing back about any investigation. The bureau seemed obsessed instead with classified material that flowed through a private email server set up by Clinton’s aides. The FBI’s director, James Comey, threw the election into a spin 11 days before the vote by announcing his investigators were examining newly discovered material.

The former intelligence official grew concerned that there was a cover-up in progress. On a trip to New York in October, he was persuaded to tell his story to David Corn, the Washington editor of Mother Jones, who first reported the existence of the material on 31 October.

The FBI however continued to refuse to comment on the issue, despite reports that it had requested and perhaps acquired a warrant for further investigation from the Foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court. The silence was not altogether surprising. The FBI counter-intelligence division, headquartered in Washington, is extremely secretive, much more so than the New York field office, which had strong links to former prosecutor and mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was by then working for Trump. The threat of leaks from New York about Clinton emails had reportedly pushed Comey into making his October surprise announcement.

In mid-November, the documents took another route into Washington that ultimately led to them being mentioned in the joint intelligence report on Russian interference that was delivered to President Obama and President-elect Trump. On 18 November, the annual Halifax International Security Forum opened in the Canadian city, bringing together serving and former security and foreign policy officials from around the world.

Senator John McCain, a hawkish Republican, was there and was introduced to a former senior western diplomat who had seen the documents, knew their source and thought him highly reliable. McCain decided the implications were sufficiently alarming to dispatch a trusted emissary, a former US official, to meet the source and find out more.

The emissary hastily arranged a transatlantic flight and met the source at the airport as arranged. (The Guardian has agreed not to specify the city or country where the meeting took place.) The meeting had a certain cold war tradecraft to it, as he was told to look for a man with a copy of the Financial Times. Having found each other, the retired counter-intelligence officer drove the emissary to his house, where they discussed the documents and their background.

The emissary flew back within 24 hours and showed McCain the documents, saying it was hard to impossible to verify them without a proper investigation. McCain said he was reluctant to get involved, lest it be perceived as payback for insulting remarks Trump had made about him during his rambunctious campaign.

However, on 9 December, McCain arranged a one-on-one meeting with Comey, with no aides present, and handed them over.

“Upon examination of the contents, and unable to make a judgment about their accuracy, I delivered the information to the Director of the FBI. That has been the extent of my contact with the FBI or any other government agency regarding this issue,” the senator said in a statement on Wednesday morning.

It is not clear what underpinned the FBI’s decision to include a summary of the documents in its highly classified briefing to the president and president-elect and their top staff, before the bureau had completed its investigation. It may have been as a defensive measure, to prove for posterity that it was not involved in a cover-up, or because its investigators believed them to be credible.

Whatever the motive, it was quickly leaked – first to CNN, which reported on the material on Wednesday. That triggered a controversial decision by BuzzFeed to publish an unredacted version of the documents on its website. It is unclear where the BuzzFeed version came from. The author of the reports had been insistent on blotting out references to his Russian sources in the copies he gave to the press, including the Guardian, out of fear for their safety. The unredacted version could have come from the original client, who commissioned the research, or from intermediaries between the counter-intelligence contractor and the client.


What we know – and what's true – about the Trump-Russia dossier

The dossier includes lurid details from Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow and claims an ‘extensive conspiracy’ between his team and the Kremlin – is it true?

    John McCain passes dossier alleging secret Trump-Russia contacts to FBI

Luke Harding
Wednesday 11 January 2017 16.02 GMT

The big picture

What does the dossier which John McCain passed to FBI chief James Comey say?

It says Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years”. Moscow’s aim is “to encourage splits and divisions in the western alliance” and to upend the “ideals-based international order” set up after the second world war. Putin’s preference, according to the report, is for a return to the “Great Power” politics of the 19th century, where big states pursue their own interests.

The dossier says that Trump was offered “various sweetener business deals” by the Kremlin, but turned them down. The Kremlin also supplied Trump with “a regular flow of intelligence”, including on the Democrats and other political rivals.

Russian spies put together compromising dossiers on both Clinton and Trump, the dossier says. The Clinton one was innocuous and mostly included bugged conversations.

The Trump material, by contrast, was explosive. It includes lurid details from Trump’s visit in 2013 Moscow for the Miss Universe beauty pageant. According to the dossier, Trump stayed in the Ritz Carlton hotel, in the same suite used by Barack Obama. It says Russia’s FSB spy agency obtained compromising sexual material – kompromat – from the hotel suite. “FSB has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him,” it says.

Is it true?

No one could quibble with the report’s section on geopolitics. It’s undoubtedly true that Putin has sought to weaken western institutions and the transatlantic alliance, plus the EU. Over the past 16 years he has sought to re-establish Russia as an indispensable global player, and to challenge what Moscow sees as unfair US hegemony.

The sex claims about Trump are ultimately unknowable and what happened inside the Ritz Carlton is a matter of speculation. Trump dismissed the report in its entirety at his press conference on Wednesday as “fake news”.

“It’s phoney stuff. It didn’t happen,” he said. He also suggested that he was well aware that spying can go on in hotels, including in Russia. “I’m extremely careful. I’m surrounded by bodyguards. In those rooms you have cameras in the strangest places. You can’t see them and you won’t know,” he said.

The FSB, does specialise in covertly recording high-profile targets, and it would certainly have been interested in Trump. But this doesn’t mean it has a tape. Until Putin leaves office – or falls out with Trump – we are unlikely to find out either way, if ever.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied on Wednesday that Russia collects compromising material. This is untrue. In 1999, Russian TV showed footage of Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Skuratov, in bed with two young women. Skuratov had fallen out with Russian’s then president, Boris Yeltsin. The head of the FSB at the time told a press conference that the recording of the orgy was genuine. His name? Vladimir Putin.

The sources

What does the dossier say?

The dossier quotes from a large number of anonymous sources. It cites “a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin”, “a senior Russian foreign ministry figure” and “a senior Russian financial official”. The report claims to have sources from inside the president-elect’s inner circle. We get code letters, but no names. For example, source G is described as “a senior Kremlin official”.

Is it true?

The sourcing is one of the weakest aspects of the Trump dossier. Information inside Russia’s government and its spy agencies is tightly controlled. Putin’s own decision-making circle is extremely small. For example, his decision in 2011 to seek a third term as president was a closely guarded secret. If the report’s author is to be believed, he or she enjoys extraordinary access to figures at the very top of the Kremlin. This is possible, but unlikely. Cables leaked in 2010 from the US embassy in Moscow revealed that American diplomats struggled to find good sources in Moscow. Russia’s capital is a place where rumour, educated speculation, and planted rumour swirl and where even cabinet ministers don’t have the full picture.

The secret meetings

What does the dossier say?

It claims Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was the point-man for surreptitious meetings with the Russian leadership. It alleges that in late August or early September 2016 Cohen flew to Prague, where he met Russian officials at the offices of Rossotrudinichestvo, a Russian government cultural organisation.

Additionally, the dossier alleges that Trump’s foreign policy aide Carter Page visited Moscow in July 2016, where on 7 or 8 July he held a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state oil company Rosneft and Putin’s de facto deputy. The report says that Sechin said that future energy deals depended on a Trump administration’s willingness to lift sanctions, imposed by the Obama administration in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea.

The dossier claims that Page also met Igor Devyekin, a senior official from the presidential administration, who indicated that the Russians had kompromat on Clinton and Trump, and allegedly added that Trump “should bear this in mind”.

Is it true?

Cohen says he has never been to the Czech Republic. He says that he and his son were watching a baseball game in the US on 29 August, a date suggested for the secret rendezvous. Reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post have been to Prague. Thus far, they haven’t been able to verify the story. Czech intelligence officials probably won’t confirm it – if it ever happened – and will be reluctant to antagonise the new US administration.

Page’s visit to Moscow did take place. Who precisely he met there is unclear, though Page has denied seeing Sechin, and has described allegations that he met Russian officials as “complete garbage”. An American oil industry consultant, Page has trenchantly opposed US sanctions on Russia. Trump was asked at his press conference if his team had had any contacts with Russian officials. He didn’t give an answer.

The hacking

What does the dossier say?

It claims there is an “extensive conspiracy” between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin. The plot was sanctioned at the “highest level” and involved Russian diplomatic staff based in the US. It adds that Russia was behind the hack of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails and released them to WikiLeaks for reasons of “plausible deniability”. The dossier says information went in both directions: Trump’s team used moles within the DNC as well as hackers in the US and Russia. The report claims that the Trump campaign fed back to Moscow details on Russian oligarchs living in the US and their families.

Is it true?

Some of the detail is questionable. But the report’s broad conclusion – that Russia was behind the hack of Democratic emails – corresponds with what US intelligence agencies believe. The CIA and FBI have both said publicly that the Kremlin covertly interfered in the US election in order to damage Clinton and help Trump. Obama agrees, and late last month expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US, all of them intelligence officers. The move was taken in response to what Obama said was a cyber-attack by Moscow. He promised further steps, and sanctioned Russia’s military and civilian spy agencies, the GRU and FSB. On Wednesday Trump said Putin was guilty of hacking. Trump said: “He shouldn’t be doing it.” But he suggested the hacking would stop once he became president.

The errors

What does the dossier say?

It refers several times to the “Alpha-Group” of companies. This a basic and inexplicable error. The prominent consortium headed by the oligarch Mikhail Fridman is the Alfa Group. Fridman also runs Russia’s biggest private bank, Alfa Bank.

Is it true?

The spelling blunder dents the report’s credibility. Anyone with genuine intelligence about Fridman and company would get Alfa right. We don’t know if the report’s author has ever lived in Moscow, or speaks Russian. The use of “Alpha” suggests the author hasn’t been to Russia recently, and/or that his or her knowledge of the country is second-hand.
The deal on Ukraine

What does the dossier say?

It says that in return for hacking the Democrats, Trump agreed not to mention Russia’s covert invasion of Ukraine. The issued would be “sidelined”. Instead, Trump would focus on US/Nato defence commitments in the Baltics and eastern Europe. The aim: “to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject”.

Is it true?

Trump said his administration might recognise Russian ownership of Crimea. He suggested that the US should not automatically honour its Nato commitment to defend the alliance’s members, including the Baltic states. He also urged the Kremlin to hack Clinton’s emails. In August, Republican party officials deleted a draft platform calling on the US to give weapons to the Ukraine’s government, which is fighting Kremlin-backed rebels.


Trump dossier: Christopher Steele, ex-MI6 officer, named as author

Director of London-based Orbis Business Intelligence said to be behind document that describes allegedly compromising material held by Russia

Staff and agencies
Thursday 12 January 2017 07.29 GMT

Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, has been identified in reports as the author of a dossier that claims Russia collated a file of compromising information on Donald Trump.

Steele, 52, who runs London-based Orbis Business Intelligence, was widely named as having compiled the dossier, which contains unverified allegations that Russian security officials have material on Trump including lurid sex videos that could be used to blackmail him.

Steele, a former MI6 officer, is one of two directors of Orbis, according to UK company records, along with Christopher Burrows, 58.

The Telegraph said Steele left his home on Wednesday morning as it became clear his name would become public and that he feared a backlash from Moscow.
How the Trump dossier came to light: secret sources, a retired spy and John McCain
Read more

The other director, Burrows, refused to “confirm or deny” that Orbis had produced the report.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Steele repeatedly declined requests for interviews in recent weeks, with an intermediary telling the newspaper the subject was “too hot”.

A neighbour said he was away for a few days, the Wall Street Journal said.

Orbis describes itself as being able to “provide strategic advice, mount intelligence-gathering operations and conduct complex, often cross-border investigations”.

Its website says it was founded in 2009 by former British intelligence professionals and utilises a “global network” of experts and “prominent business figures”.

The firm, based in Grosvenor Gardens, close to London’s upmarket Belgravia area, says it “draws on extensive experience at boardroom level in government, multilateral diplomacy and international business to develop bespoke solutions for clients”.

“Our tailored approach means the directors are closely involved in the execution and detail of every project, supported by an in-house team of experienced investigators and professional intelligence analysts,” it says.

Burrows formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a counsellor, according to his LinedkIn profile, with postings to Brussels and Delhi in the early 2000s.

The dossier has been circulating in Washington for some time as media organisations, uncertain of its credibility, held back from publication. After it finally became public Donald Trump gave a press conference on Wednesday where he hit out over its release and angrily denied the contents.

Reports on Tuesday said the Orbis report was given to US intelligence in 2016 and, after being investigated, formed the basis of a two-page addendum to the US intelligence chiefs’ presentation last Friday to Trump of a classified report on Russian interference in the elections.

The report attributed to Steele says Russia’s intelligence services, directed by President Vladimir Putin, sought to support Trump and hurt his rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election.

It said the Trump campaign maintained regular contact with Russian officials and operatives, and that Moscow held compromising materials on Trump that could be used to pressure him.

None of the content has been substantiated but US intelligence, through its own investigation, has also concluded that Putin ordered a campaign to support Trump against Clinton.

From MI6 to the ‘dirty dossier’

The Reuters news agency, citing former British intelligence officials, said Steele spent years working for MI6 in Russia and Paris, and at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

After leaving MI6 he supplied the FBI with information on corruption at Fifa, international soccer’s governing body. In the summer of 2010, according to emails cited by Reuters, members of a New York-based FBI squad assigned to investigate “Eurasian Organised Crime” met Steele in London to discuss the Fifa allegations. His company assisted football governing bodies in their investigations, Reuters said.

In the US presidential campaign Steele was initially hired by a Washington DC political research firm, to investigate Trump on behalf of Republicans opposed to his candidacy. He was kept on the assignment after Trump won the nomination and his information was circulated to Democratic party figures and members of the media, Reuters said.

Eventually he began dealing with the FBI regarding the dossier, sources told Reuters, but he became frustrated at the bureau’s slow progress and cut off contact. The material then circulated in political and media circles before ultimately making its way into the public domain.

With the Press Association and Agence France-Presse


Trump's trainwreck press conference ushers in a shambolic presidency

Richard Wolffe

It’s safe to say that the Trump administration already looks clueless – and it hasn’t even started yet

Thursday 12 January 2017 10.40 GMT

Donald Trump is not what he seems. The supposed master of media manipulation stumbled so often at his first press conference, it is hard to recall why anyone thought the TV star was good at this stuff in the first place.

If the potentially explosive story embroiling him weren’t so salacious, you might say this is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Instead, it’s safe to say the Trump presidency is already in shambles. And it has yet to reach its official start.

For a showman who promised to restore the Reagan era – and even ripped off Reagan’s slogan – this is just one of the most surprising revelations of the past few days.

Reagan and his advisers knew how to project a sunny image that kept the presidency separate from whatever the pesky media wanted to focus on, such as high unemployment or secret gun-running to enemy states.

Judging from Wednesday’s trainwreck press conference – the first since July – Trump and his handlers have no self-discipline and no strategy to deal with the Russian crisis that has been simmering for the best part of the past year.

Trump attacks media and intelligence community in press conference

They also have no sense of irony or, apparently, reality. The press conference opened with Sean Spicer, the incoming press secretary, condemning the media coverage of Trump’s compromised relationship with Russia as “frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible”.

It seems churlish to have to recall this tweet from Trump in the closing phase of the recent election: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a US citizen so she could use her in the debate?”

This kind of thing makes it hard for the new White House to pass the laugh test, never mind the smell test. It’s heartwarming to know that the president-elect is so concerned about how fake news can destroy real people. If only he had the self-awareness and self-discipline to live by his own words.

In any crisis you generally try to deflect attention from your own misconduct. Instead, Team Trump seems happy to shine a bright light on its own monumental mistakes.

That included the wonderful personal testimony from the incoming vice-president, Mike Pence, who introduced his boss by assuring us that he was full of what he called “energy”. Perhaps Pence has been spending too much time with someone who liked to criticize his primary opponents for having low energy.

Donald Trump is full of many things, but his energy levels are neither relevant nor particularly reassuring at this point.

Besides, if you need your vice-president to attest to your character, you’re such damaged goods that your executive position is already in jeopardy.

Pence’s introduction recalled Al Gore’s sad pep rally on the south lawn of the White House defending Bill Clinton as “one of our greatest presidents” in the late desperate stages of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In many ways, Trump has snowballed all the Clinton scandals into one shock-and-awe transition. He has somehow combined all the anti-Clinton accusations of foreign influence and financial irregularity in the 1996 re-election, with the dubious personal morality of the Lewinsky affair and the never-ending tendency towards cronyism. Only it took the Clintons decades to accrue these kinds of entanglements.

We could compare the relative importance of being Putin’s poodle versus sex with an intern, but what’s the point? After all, Trump can make the case better than any of us.

Without any sense of shame or patriotism, the president-elect celebrated the Russian hacking of the DNC and all those leaked emails. He even bragged about his closeness to the Russian president before claiming – somehow – that Hillary Clinton was the real poodle.

    If this is Trump’s playbook for crisis management, his political opponents should sit back and enjoy the show.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that is called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said. “Do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Give me a break.”

Yes, Mr President-elect. The intelligence reports are indeed calling you an asset in the context of Russia. You may keep using that word but, as in the Princess Bride, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Trump will never learn from his mistakes. Suspecting the recent Russia revelations are the work of the intelligence agencies, Trump continues to wage war on his own spies. He could offer no proof of such a betrayal but continued to trash the CIA in public all the same.

This kind of struggle does not end well for sitting presidents, as Richard Nixon discovered. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s biggest source, known as Deep Throat, was in fact the deputy director of the FBI.

You might think that the main purpose of Trump’s press conference was to squash the Russia dossier news. But no – that was just the first few minutes of the affair.

After a rambling introduction about carmakers, veterans affairs and his inaugural celebrations, Trump finally arrived at his desired topic of the day: the non-resolution of the conflicts of interest that will embroil his presidency from now until he leaves the Oval Office.

A table stacked with yellow envelopes was supposed to represent all the documents Trump signed to disentangle his business affairs from his presidency, by passing management control of the Trump Organization to his sons.

Rather like a suitcase supposedly full of cash, it was hard to tell if any of the documents were real without, you know, releasing them to the press like his tax returns. Instead, we were forced to listen to his personal attorney assuring us there was a wall being built between the presidency and the Trump Organization.

That wall is about as solid as Trump’s other proposed wall on the southern border, given that there is no divestment. Why not? As the Trump attorney explained, a fire sale of Trump assets would be unfair to the president-elect and it was impossible to find an independent trustee competent enough to do so anyway.

Oh yes, and such a divestment would involve a lot of third-party debt, despite Trump’s claims that he has no debt.

The more details that emerge from Team Trump, the worse Trump looks. Of course the Russian dossier couldn’t be true, said the president-elect: “I’m also very much a germophobe, by the way.”

If this is Trump’s playbook for crisis management, his political opponents should sit back and enjoy the show. Like a dog that returns to his vomit, this president-elect just can’t help himself. Let the follies begin.


Trump packed news conference with paid staffers to cheer and jeer as he bashed reporters

Elizabeth Preza
Raw Story
11 Jan 2017 at 20:49 ET                   

When Donald Trump berated and attacked CNN’s Jim Acosta at his first press conference in 168 days, several attendees clapped and cheered in support of his tirade on “fake news.”

As it turns out, several of those attendees were actually paid staffers, who joined the news conference to provide moral support to the president-elect, Politico reports.

Trump called the Q&A “very familiarity territory,” despite it being his first time willingly facing the press since winning the election. “We stopped giving them [interviews] because we’re getting quite a bit of inaccurate news,” Trump reasoned to the room.

The paid staffers, alongs with his children and Mike Pence, bolstered Trump as he bashed the media and intelligence communities. At one point attendees shouted “no!” when the president-elect rhetorically asked, “do you honestly believe that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Putin than me?”

Politico also reports the staffers cheered when Trump jeered at a reporter asking about his tax returns. “The only ones who care about my tax returns are the reporters,” Trump insisted, to his supporters’ delight.

More than 250 journalists attended Trump’s news conference, but as the AP notes, only Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle received a reserved seat. He used his special destination to ask the president-elect about “all the problems that we’ve seen throughout the media.”

“What reforms do you recommend for this industry here?” Boyle, who works for the website formerly run by Trump senior advisor Steve Bannon, asked the president-elect.

“Some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody,” Trump told Boyle. “I could name them, but I won’t bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They’re very, very dishonest people, but I think it’s just something we’re going to have to live with.”

“I guess the advantage I have is that I can speak back,” he said, as a room packed his own paid staffers cheered.

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:25 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Romania's corruption fight is a smokescreen to weaken its democracy

Turning a blind eye to this abuse of power risks encouraging other European nations to follow its example
European Union flags act as curtains at a voting booth at Romania’s recent parliamentary elections.

David Clark
Tuesday 10 January 2017 08.00 GMT

The recent rise of the populist right in Hungary and Poland has raised the alarm about the future of democracy in Europe, as constitutional safeguards, media pluralism and civil society come under sustained attack.

But there is another threat hiding in plain sight: the abuse of anti-corruption laws in Romania, a country often lauded as an example of successful reform in central and eastern Europe.

The country has been praised by EU leaders for its crackdown on graft, and its national anti-corruption body has been held up as a model for others to follow. But scratch beneath the surface and all is not as it appears.

In compiling a recent report for the Henry Jackson Society thinktank we found a body ofevidence to suggest that the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) is abusing its power and reverting to communist-era methods to serve its own interests and pursue political vendettas.

Significantly, the critics include a number of former supporters, including Traian Băsescu, Romania’s president from 2004 to 2014, who initiated the country’s first major anti-corruption drive but has now accused the agency of violating human rights and acting outside the constitution.

Conviction rates in Romanian corruption cases are astonishingly high at 92%, and a close look at the methods used by the DNA reveals why. Almost all of the most high-profile cases involve one kind of procedural violation or another.

There are examples of guilty verdicts secured with the uncorroborated evidence of witnesses who testify in exchange for immunity. Suspects are sometimes told that if they do not cooperate then family members could also face prosecution.

Pre-trial detention is used as another form of leverage (despite the non-violent nature of the crimes in question) and edited transcripts of telephone intercepts are routinely leaked to the media to discredit defendants in advance of their trials.

We have also seen cases where judges who have ruled against the DNA subsequently found themselves under investigation, and cases where people in the highest echelons of government have accused their critics of corruption on national television.

In May 2014, the then socialist prime minister, Victor Ponta, suggested that Dan Adamescu, the owner of a critical newspaper, România Liberă, would shortly be arrested for corruption. Adamescu was detained a few days later and subsequently convicted of bribery after a legal process riddled with violations.

The case is in danger of turning the British courts into an extension of the dysfunctional legal system, after the Romanian authorities issued a European arrest warrant last year to secure the extradition of Adamescu’s son Alexander. The only evidence against the younger Adamescu appears to be that he has continued to campaign for his father.

Some of the most troubling allegations in Romania, however, concern the close relationship between the DNA and the Romanian intelligence service (SRI), the successor to the feared communist-era Securitate secret police.

The DNA relies on the SRI to intercept about 20,000 telephone calls each year and has acknowledged that the intelligence agency also plays a role in initiating investigations.

In 2015, one SRI general sparked outrage by describing the courts as a “tactical field” of operations and alluding to his agency’s role in influencing the outcome of cases. Judges and lawyers responded by demanding an inquiry into longstanding suspicions that the SRI has continued the old Securitate practice of placing undercover agents in the judiciary, but the government refused.

The case of Alina Bica, head of the agency responsible for countering organised crime and terrorism, illustrates the power of the DNA-SRI nexus.

Bica was arrested by the DNA on corruption charges in 2014 and her experience followed a familiar pattern. She spent months in pre-trial detention, her husband was arrested and efforts were made to destroy her reputation with media leaks.

Bica claimed she was detained after refusing to arrest individuals whose names were suggested by the SRI. When she cited lack of evidence, she was told: “You will not end well.”

None of these details are reflected in the European commission’s monitoring reports on Romania, which paint the country’s fight against corruption in an optimistic light.

But by turning a blind eye, the European Union risks encouraging other countries in the region to follow Romania’s example, using the “fight against corruption” as a smokescreen to weaken democratic standards.

It is an environment that provides the perfect breeding ground for the type of creeping authoritarianism we are seeing in Hungary and Poland.

David Clark was a special adviser at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001 and now works as a freelance foreign policy commentator and consultant

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:23 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Russian yoga fans alarmed at arrest of teacher under new law

Yogi accused of illegal missionary activity after giving philosophy talk at festival amid clampdown on ‘non-traditional’ religion

Tom Balmforth for RFE/RL, part of the New East network
Thursday 12 January 2017 08.00 GMT

A yoga teacher in Russia has been charged with illegal missionary activity under a controversial new law designed to fight terrorism.

Computer programmer Dmitry Ugay was detained by police in St Petersburg in October while giving a talk at a festival about the philosophy behind yoga.

Ugay says he was stopped 40 minutes into his discussion, put into a car and taken to a police station without being informed of his apparent offence.

The 44-year-old now faces a fine for allegedly conducting illegal missionary activity, an administrative offence under the new Yarovaya law, a package of legal amendments intended to fight terrorism that is named after its author, the MP Irina Yarovaya.

Ugay’s court hearing in St Petersburg has been adjourned until next week, the state legal news agency Rapsi reported.

Signed off by Vladimir Putin in July, the Yarovaya amendments include restrictions on religious groups and missionary activity that could put pressure on followers outside what the government considers “traditional” religions.

Yoga has a strong following in Russia, with even the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, joining in. In 2007, during his first stint in office, Medvedev was quoted as saying that “little by little, I’m mastering yoga”.

His comments won him fans described as “Medvedev’s Girls”, who performed exercises on Red Square to promote yoga.

    BusinessCentralAsia (@BCAmagazine)

    Medvedev's Girls, members of Internet community supporting Dmitry Medvedev, practice yoga outside Moscow's Red Square
    June 23, 2015

Police detained Ugay at the festival after he was accused of being a missionary monk by a complainant, Nail Nasibulin.

Speaking to the Meduza news portal on Monday, Nasibulin alleged that Ugay had been

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:21 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Sudan's social media campaign of civil dissent boosts hopes of change

After stay-at-home strikes close businesses and schools, President Omar al-Bashir challenges activists to take to the streets

Simona Foltyn in Khartoum
Wednesday 11 January 2017 07.00 GMT

At first, a social media campaign calling on Sudanese people to participate in a stay-at-home strike seemed doomed to fail: only a quarter of the population have access to the internet. And looking back at Sudan’s history, political mobilisation had occurred through unions, not social media. But, somehow, it worked.

On 27 November, the capital awoke to half-empty streets as many businesses and schools in Khartoum remained closed. Another stay-at-home strike, coupled with a boycott of government transactions, followed on 19 December. By then, what had begun as a protest against subsidy cuts had morphed into a movement advocating for broader change.

Members of the ruling party denied widespread participation in the civil disobedience campaign. But in a sign of growing unease, President Omar al-Bashir challenged the activists “to come out on to the streets”, vowing that “this regime will not be overthrown by keyboards”. The government didn’t respond to the Guardian’s repeated requests for comment.

The civil disobedience campaign is the biggest show of public dissent since September 2013, when security forces crushed street protests that some thought would force Bashir, who took power in a 1989 military coup, to step down.

“People went to the street, they protested – and they were killed,” said one young activist who helped to organise the demonstrations as part of a movement called Sudan Change Now. “But the regime did not fall. To me, it was a shock,” added the activist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of being targeted.

According to rights groups, 200 people died when security forces opened fire on demonstrators (the government put the death toll at around 80), while hundreds of dissidents were reportedly arrested.

With fear of a repeat of the 2013 violence still hanging over the capital, activists say the non-confrontational nature of the campaign was key in drawing widespread support.

“You will not be arrested for posting on social media,” said Amna Osman, 23, a psychology student and one of many political activists who quickly latched on to the social media campaign. Osman was among those detained in September 2013.

The call for civil disobedience came just weeks after the official conclusion of a government-led national dialogue, highlighting public disenchantment with a process that promised far-reaching reforms in the aftermath of the 2013 protests, but failed to bring about genuine change.

A final document summarising the outcome of the dialogue, produced in October and seen by the Guardian, outlined a series of recommendations and constitutional amendments to be implemented by a new government that incorporates other parties.

But even as the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) declared the successful completion of the dialogue, security forces continued to tighten their grip on the media and the opposition.

More than 20 members of the Sudanese Congress party were arrested in November. The same month, at least four independent newspapers had one or more of their editions confiscated, while the independent Al-Tayar newspaper was shut down for three days in December.

Most of Sudan’s major opposition parties boycotted the dialogue, claiming the ruling party wasn’t willing to make genuine concessions, such as curtailing the power of the presidency and the sprawling national security apparatus.

“What we are getting is more of the same,” said Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, who leads the Reform Now Movement, an opposition party that has been part of the national dialogue. “We will see the same bloated kind of government, intended not to deliver goods to the people, but to incorporate as many parties as possible under the wing of the NCP.” He said every request by his party to hold a political rally had been denied in 2016.

In light of the narrowing political space, many say civil disobedience is the only viable channel through which to demand change. However, despite the initial success of social media in mobilising some segments of society, activists fear the movement could soon fizzle out.

“There cannot be a hashtag revolution in Sudan,” said Mohammed Naji, a young doctor and activist in Khartoum. “If there is no clear plan for the people, by a body they know, organising them and leading them to change, I doubt that this movement will continue.”

In weighing the campaign’s chances of success, Naji points to Sudan’s 1964 and 1985 revolutions, when professional and student unions took the lead in rallying the population to demand regime change. Back then, unions wielded vast influence over society, organising shutdowns and public demonstrations that paralysed the country, eventually prompting the military to step in and call for fresh elections.

When Bashir took power in 1989, the unions were dismantled or placed under the control of the ruling party, smothering what was once a vibrant civil society.

“The regime knows that if there is danger for them, it will be from the professional organisations because history says that,” said Naji.

Yet there are signs that professional sectors are beginning to organise again, albeit in an informal way.

Recently, Naji helped to mobilise doctors across Sudan to demand more resources for the public healthcare sector. Using social media, the Central Committee for Doctors organised a series of strikes in October and November. More than 100 doctors were reportedly arrested, but eventually the government released the detainees and agreed to address their grievances. The doctors’ initiative prompted other professionals to follow suit and served as a catalyst for the 27 November call for civil disobedience.

“We saw it as a victory,” said Naji. But much more would need to be done to bring about meaningful change, not least mobilising Sudan’s rural population and uniting Sudan’s disjointed opposition to build a political platform for the way forward. Only then, Naji believes, would people be willing to take to the streets once again.

“If we get to the street without organisation, without having a clear plan, I think we will lose,” said Naji at the end of 2016. “We have been patient for 27 years. We can be patient for a few more months.”

• Simona Foltyn’s reporting from Sudan was funded by The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:19 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Number of Nigerian women trafficked to Italy for sex almost doubled in 2016

Life of forced prostitution awaits majority of the 11,009 Nigerian women who arrived on Italy’s shores last year, says International Organisation for Migration

Annie Kelly
Thursday 12 January 2017 12.35 GMT

The number of Nigerian women travelling by boat from Libya to Italy almost doubled last year, with the vast majority of new arrivals victims of sex trafficking and exploitation, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The IOM believes approximately 80% of the 11,009 Nigerian women registered at landing points in Sicily in 2016 were trafficked, and will go on to live a life of forced prostitution in Italy and other countries in Europe.

The figure is almost double that of 2015, when 5,600 women were registered by the IOM. The 2016 figures represent an almost eightfold increase from 2014, when 1,450 Nigerian women were registered at landing points in Sicily.

“We have seen a huge increase in the number of Nigerian women arriving last year,” said Carlotta Santarossa, a counter-trafficking project manager for the IOM.

“According to our indicators we believe the majority of Nigerian women who are arriving into Italy are victims of trafficking and are likely to end up exploited in Italy or other European countries. In Italy the numbers are too high to provide all of them them with the services they need.”

The IOM said the increase reflected a dramatic rise in the overall numbers of Nigerian men, women and children being registered at landing points in Italy. According to the agency’s latest figures, 37,500 of the 180,000 migrants arriving in Italy by sea last year were Nigerian, the first time they have eclipsed Eritreans as the largest national group. The total number for 2015 was 22,000. About 3,000 of the 37,000 Nigerian migrants were unaccompanied minors.

Alberto Mossino, director of Piam Onlus, an anti-trafficking NGO working with Nigerian migrants, said the increase in Nigerians arriving by sea is indicative of the power of the highly organised trafficking gangs operating alongside Libyan militias to control migrant flows from north Africa.

“Before, migrants could arrive alone in Libya and make their way by boat to Europe,” he said. “Now, it is too dangerous: there is civil war and it is only the Nigerian and Eritrean trafficking gangs who are able to transport large numbers of people through the country, where militias are controlling the borders and ports.

“These are not smuggling gangs, their intention is to exploit and profit from the migrants they are transporting along the way, and women are the most lucrative cargo.”

According to surveys conducted by the IOM at landing points last year, more than 70% of migrants travelling overland through north Africa to Europe showed indications of human trafficking, organ trafficking and exploitation along the way.

Among those questioned, 49% reported having being held in a location against their will, often for ransom. The majority of the cases occurred in Libya.

“Libya is a black hole at present, from a humanitarian point of view – all migrants arriving from Libya have faced violence and human rights violations,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the IOM in Italy.

Mossino said existing anti-trafficking services were at gridlock, with the Italian government providing only 1,600 places for victims of trafficking at specialist shelters.

“If there are 11,000 women arriving in one year, there is simply no way of providing them with any help or security,” he said. “There is nothing we can do to help them.”

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:16 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
New fertility procedure may lead to 'embryo farming', warn researchers

Technique could also lead parents to create ‘ideal’ future children only –possible impact on society must be planned for now, say specialists

Ian Sample Science editor
Wednesday 11 January 2017 19.00 GMT

A new lab procedure that could allow fertility clinics to make sperm and eggs from people’s skin may lead to “embryo farming” on a massive scale and drive parents to have only “ideal” future children, researchers warn.

Legal and medical specialists in the US say that while the procedure – known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) – has only been demonstrated in mice so far, the field is progressing so fast that the dramatic impact it could have on society must be planned for now.

“We try not to take a position on these issues except to point out that before too long we may well be facing them, and we might do well to start the conversation now,” said Eli Adashi, professor of medical science at Brown University in Rhode Island.

The creation of sperm and eggs from other tissues has become possible through a flurry of recent advances in which scientists have learned first to reprogram adult cells into a younger, more versatile state, and then to grow them into functioning sex cells. In October, scientists in Japan announced for the first time the birth of baby mice from eggs made with their parent’s skin.

The technology is still in its infancy and illegal to attempt in humans in the UK and the US. But, writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Adashi, along with Glenn Cohen, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, argue that it may be possible to make human eggs and sperm from skin “in the not too distant future”.

IVG could offer fresh hope for infertile people, including those who are unable to have children after cancer treatment. Because chemotherapy can destroy reproductive cells, patients sometimes store their sperm or ovarian tissue to use once they have recovered. With IVG, it may be possible to collect skin cells from a patient and turn them into healthy sperm or eggs for use in IVF later on. The procedure could transform IVF in other ways too, the researchers say, by making egg donors obsolete and replacing the standard hormonal stimulation that is used to make women produce eggs.

But alongside its potential benefits, IVG throws up a host of situations that pose fresh legal and ethical questions. If the procedure ever became simple and inexpensive, clinics could manufacture almost limitless supplies of sperm, eggs and embryos. “IVG might raise the specter of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,” the researchers write.

For a couple having fertility treatment, IVG could mean that instead of doctors choosing the best from half a dozen or so embryos, they could select from a pool of hundreds. And while that may be a benefit, it could intensify “concerns about parents selecting for their ‘ideal’ future child”, the authors write.

Cohen said he and his colleagues were not expressing their personal views on how IVG might be used. Instead, they wanted to start a debate about the potential ramifications of using the procedure in humans. Offering up one example, Cohen said: “For those who oppose embryo destruction, creating, say 100 embryos when you are only going to use five for implantation may seem problematic.”

What were previously no more than science fiction scenarios may become more realistic with IVG, the researchers suggest. In one extreme example described by Cohen, skin cells might be collected from Brad Pitt’s hotel bathtub and used to make sperm for insemination. “Should the law criminalise such an action? If it takes place, should the law consider the source of the skin cells to be a legal parent to the child, or should it distinguish between an individual’s genetic and legal parentage?” the researchers ask in the article.

In another hypothetical situation, IVG could be used to make sperm and eggs from more than two people. These could then be combined to make children with three or more genetic parents. The case raises serious questions about the rights and responsibilities of each contributing parent, the authors write.

It will take many more studies, including experiments in monkeys and other animals, before scientists know whether IVG is effective and safe enough to attempt in people. The first steps in humans will be to make sperm from a man’s skin cells and eggs from a woman’s skin. In principle, it would be possible to make sperm from a woman’s skin cells, and use them to fertilise her own eggs.

“When new technologies come out, the law is often accused of playing catch-up,” Cohen said. “Far better to think and discuss on the front end, even if some of this never comes to pass, than scramble on the back end to gap-fill, in my humble opinion.”

“With science and medicine hurtling forward at breakneck speed, the rapid transformation of reproductive and regenerative medicine may surprise us,” the authors conclude. “Before the inevitable, society will be well advised to strike and maintain a vigorous public conversation on the ethical challenges of IVG.”

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:14 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Swansea Bay tidal lagoon backed by government review

Ex-energy minister Charles Hendry urges ministers to approve plans, which could provide UK with reliable and clean electricity

Adam Vaughan
Thursday 12 January 2017 12.48 GMT

A new generation of tidal lagoons that could provide the UK with reliable and clean electricity has been enthusiastically backed by a government-commissioned review.

The report by a former energy minister urged the government to move to the final stages of negotiations with Tidal Lagoon Power, the company that wants to build a small trial lagoon in Swansea Bay and five larger ones later.

Environmental groups, engineers and investors welcomed Charles Hendry’s verdict, although some conservationists raised concerns over the local impact on birds and fish and one expert raised concerns over costs.

But Hendry said he believed the evidence was clear that tidal lagoons could be cost-effective and affordable.

“I would strongly caution against ruling out tidal lagoons because of the hopes of other cheaper alternatives being available in the future.”

He suggested the Swansea “pathfinder” lagoon would cost households around 30p each a year over the first 30 years, with the five proposed full-scale lagoons each adding less than 50p over the first 60 years. Analysts said that if 10 large lagoons were built by 2030, it would add £8 to £9 to the average annual household energy bill.

While the report concluded Swansea would be a “no regrets option”, it said the government should wait until that pilot project was complete before green-lighting a series of large-scale lagoons.

Hendry’s review was far more positive than many expected when it was commissioned by the government last February, when appetite for tidal power seemed to be cooling. But it is still far from clear whether Tidal Lagoon Power will start construction in Swansea in 2018 as it hopes.

Negotiations on a guaranteed price for the electricity the lagoon would generate are still ongoing with the government. The exact figure is expected to be similar to the £92.50 per megawatt hour agreed for the Hinkley C nuclear power station, but over as many as 90 years rather than the 35-year Hinkley deal.

“As a pathfinder, as a trial to see it works, yes I think it’s a sensible thing to do [on cost],” said John Feddersen, CEO of analysts Aurora Energy Research. The group said that if 10 lagoons were built in the UK by 2030, they would provide 10% of the UK power generation and cut carbon emissions by 36%.

WWF said tidal power had “considerable potential for generating clean electricity” and Greenpeace hailed the Swansea project as “an opportunity to lead in generating clean power from Britain’s tides”.

Dr Athanasios Angeloudis, at the department of earth science and engineering at Imperial College London, said: “The UK is blessed with some of the largest tidal energy resources in the world and this outcome should be seen as a landmark step towards making the first significant contribution to the national electricity mix from this sustainable energy source.”

But the Wildlife Trusts Wales, which manages more than 200 nature reserves, said it had concerns over the local ecological impact of Swansea and the five other lagoons. The Policy Exchange thinktank, meanwhile, said it would be a folly for government to go ahead with the technology, arguing it was too expensive.

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:12 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Solar power to rise from Chernobyl's nuclear ashes

Chinese companies plan to spend $1bn building a giant solar farm on land contaminated by the nuclear disaster in Ukraine, reports Climate News Network

Kieran Cooke for Climate News Network, part of the Guardian Environment Network
Thursday 12 January 2017 12.33 GMT

It was the worst nuclear accident in history, directly causing the deaths of 50 people, with at least an additional 4,000 fatalities believed to be caused by exposure to radiation.

The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine also resulted in vast areas of land being contaminated by nuclear fallout, with a 30-kilometre exclusion zone, which encompassed the town of Pripyat, being declared in the area round the facility.

Now two companies from China plan to build a one-gigawatt solar power plant on 2,500 hectares of land in the exclusion zone to the south of the Chernobyl plant.

Ukrainian officials say the companies estimate they will spend up to $1bn on the project over the next two years.

A subsidiary of Golden Concord Holdings (GLC), one of China’s biggest renewable energy concerns, will supply and install solar panels at the site, while a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Machinery Corporation (Sinomach) will build and run the plant.

“It is cheap land, and abundant sunlight constitutes a solid foundation for the project,” says Ostap Semerak, Ukraine’s minister of environment and natural resources.

“In addition, the remaining electric transmission facilities are ready for reuse.”

In a press release, GLC state work on the solar plant will probably start this year and talk of the advantages of building the facility.

“There will be remarkable social benefits and economical ones as we try to renovate the once-damaged area with green and renewable energy,” says Shu Hua, chairman of the GLC subsidiary.

“We are glad that we are making joint efforts with Ukraine to rebuild the community for the local people.”

Radiation that escaped as a result of the explosion at Chernobyl reached as far away as the mountains and hills of Wales in the UK, and a substantial portion of the radioactive dust released fell on farmlands in Belarus, north of Ukraine.

Until now, the exclusion zone, including the town of Pripyat, has been out of bounds for most people, with only limited farming activity permitted on lands that are still regarded as contaminated.

Many former residents of the area are allowed back only once or twice a year for visits – to their old homes or to tend their relatives’ graves. However, a growing number of tourists have been visiting the Chernobyl area recently.

There has also been renewed interest in Chernobyl due to recent major engineering work at the plant, with a new steel-clad sarcophagus – described as the largest movable land-based structure ever built – being wheeled into position over much of the structure, to prevent any further leaks of radiation.

As yet, neither the Ukrainians nor the Chinese have disclosed the safety measures that will be adopted during the construction of the solar plant.

Ecologists who have visited the exclusion zone around Chernobyl say that there is an abundance of wildlife in the area, with substantial populations of elk, deer, wild boar and wolves.

Other researchers say there is still evidence of contamination, with limited insect activity, and disease in many smaller mammals

 on: Jan 12, 2017, 07:11 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
World's largest tropical peatland with vast carbon-storage capacity found in Congo

Carbon-rich peatlands in remote Congo basin could store three years’ worth of world’s fossil fuel emissions, say scientists

Georgia Brown
Wednesday 11 January 2017 18.00 GMT

Scientists have discovered the world’s largest tropical peatland in the remote Congo swamps, estimated to store the equivalent of three year’s worth of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions.

Researchers mapped the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the central Congo basin and found they cover 145,500 sq km – an area larger than England. The swamps could lock in 30bn tonnes of carbon that was previously not known to exist, making the region one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth.

The UK-Congolese research team, co-led by Prof Simon Lewis and Dr Greta Dargie, from the University of Leeds and University College London, first discovered the swamps five years ago. Their research, published in Nature on Wednesday, combined three year’s worth of peat analysis with satellite data to estimate that the Congo basin peatlands store the equivalent of nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon.

Lewis said: “Our research shows that the peat in the central Congo basin covers a colossal amount of land. It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics.

“We have also found 30bn tonnes of carbon that nobody knew existed. The peat covers only 4% of the whole Congo basin, but stores the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96%.

“These peatlands hold nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon, that’s about 20 years’ of the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America.”

Peat is an organic wetland soil made from part-decomposed plant debris, more commonly found in cool environments, such as northern Russia, Europe and Canada. Healthy peatlands act as carbon sinks, removing carbon from the atmosphere through plant growth. Further decomposition of the peat is prevented by its waterlogged environment, locking up carbon. Year-round waterlogging is needed for peat to form in the tropics.

If peatlands dry out, either through changes in land use such as drainage for agriculture or reduced rainfall, further decomposition resumes, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Lewis said: “Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when are left intact, and so maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority. Our new results show that carbon has been building up in the Congo basin’s peat for nearly 11,000 years.

“If the Congo basin peatland complex was to be destroyed, this would release billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.”

Because of their remote location, the peatlands in the Congo basin are relatively undisturbed, but because they are so newly discovered, they are not protected by conservation plans. They could face threats from drainage for agricultural plantations, particularly for palm oil, as is happening in Indonesia.

The study places the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo (RoC) as the second and third most important countries in the world for tropical peat carbon stocks. In first place is Indonesia, that contains tropical peatlands across the islands of Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea. However, the islands have suffered damage or loss to about 94,000 km2 of peatland over recent decades, primarily due to forest fires or drainage for agricultural use.

The peat may also be vulnerable to the effects of climate change – increased evaporation due to rising temperatures or reduced rainfall could cause it to dry out and begin to release its carbon to the atmosphere.

The study’s co-author Dr Ifo Suspense, from the Université Marien Ngouabi in the RoC capital Brazzaville, said: “The discovery of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands could have a large impact on the climate and conservation policies of the Congo. The maintenance and protection of this peatland complex, alongside protecting our forests, could be central Africa’s great contribution to the global climate change problem.
The new study found that the central Congo peatlands cover 145,500 square kilometres – an area larger than England.

“It is of the utmost importance that governments, conservation and scientific communities work with the people of the Cuvette Centrale to improve local livelihoods without compromising the integrity of this globally significant region of Earth.”

In addition to their status as a globally important region for carbon storage, the Congo basin swamps are refuges for endangered species including lowland gorillas and forest elephants.

Dr Emma Stokes, director of the central Africa program of the Wildlife Conservation Society said: “This research highlights the immense significance of these swamp forests for the stability of our climate. However, these forests, in the geographical heart of Africa, are also a vital refuge for many thousands of great apes, elephants and other large forest mammals that are threatened by developments in the surrounding landscape.

“The RoC government is considering the expansion of Lac Télé community reserve, a move that could safeguard an additional 50,000 sq km of swamp forest – much of it overlying peat – from future disturbance. We strongly support this move and commend the RoC government for this initiative. We urge both countries to continue efforts to protect these habitats from industrial transformation.”

Dargie said: “With so many of the world’s tropical peatlands under threat from land development and the need to reduce carbon emissions to zero over the coming decades, it is essential that the Congo basin peatlands remain intact.”

She added: “The sheer expanse of these peatlands makes central Africa home to the world’s most extensive peatland complex. It is astonishing that in 2016 discoveries like this can still be made.”

• This article was amended on 12 January 2017. The headline on an earlier version referred to the peatland discovered in Congo as the world’s largest.

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