Entries in Russia (2)

Tuesday
May162017

Heads Up

The Trump Administration has been flailing its way through its first hundred days like a chimp driving a liquid manure spreader. It has been alternately amusing, enraging, and frightening to sane people all over the world. The man-child at the center of it all is a not-very-bright narcissist with the attention span and self-mastery of the aforementioned primate. Citizens of this country greet each morning with the question, “What next?”

(I blew it on the prediction of arrests. I'm leaving the text in as a warning to myself, but please read this: http://www.minorheresies.com/posts/2017/5/25/heads-up-a-correction.html)

As far as I can tell from the sources I have been following, what’s next is the end of the Trump administration. Indictments, warrants, and arrests.

First, a bit of background. This is a summary of a summary – the whole thing is incredibly convoluted, with more rabbit holes than Watership Down. There are three main areas of criminal behavior in play, all intertwined: Money laundering, collusion with Russia, and computer hacking.

The money laundering has been going on for decades. After his string of bankruptcies, Trump became toxic to American banks. As his son acknowledged back in 2008, a lot of money flowed into the Trump organization from Russia. Why would the Russians risk their money on a man who couldn’t make money with a casino? To understand this you need to understand that the lines of demarcation between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his cronies, Russian billionaire oligarchs, and Russian organized crime aren’t really lines. One group melds into another. What does a Putin ally/oligarch/mobster do when he has a few hundred million dollars gained in a quasi-criminal to criminal business deal? He finds a willing bank such as the seriously corrupted Bank of Cyprus, deposits the money, and then shifts it around the world through a series of shell companies. These are generally holding companies that do no real business themselves, but own shares of other companies. Some of those other companies are also empty shells. Some are companies that purport to do business, like the battery development company Alevo, but they are basically an office and a website and not much else.

But the money has to end up somewhere, and that somewhere tends to be high end real estate – office buildings, hotels, condos, casinos. Someone like Trump becomes useful to the oligarchs; a not so successful businessman with high end properties who regularly needs a bailout and isn’t too picky about where it comes from.

One relatively benign example is the Palm Beach mansion that Trump bought in 2006 for $40 million and sold two years later to the Russian “Fertilizer King” Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million. Rybolovlev was in the process of divorcing his wife and reportedly needed a place to stash some funds away from the legal process. Perhaps coincidentally, at that time Trump needed about $45 million to make a loan payment to Deutsche Bank. The CEO of Deutsche Bank at that time was Josef Ackermann. Deutsche Bank was later fined $630 million for laundering $10 billion in Russian money. Ackermann left Deutsche Bank under a cloud and was later approved as CEO of the Russian-controlled Bank of Cyprus by major shareholder Wilbur Ross. Trump appointed Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce. If you are feeling slightly dizzy after reading this, find a comfy chair. Just about everything in this world of criminal finance goes around in a circle.

One big reason for the focus on Trump’s unreleased tax returns is that they would reveal the web of debt and investment he has with companies that eventually trace back to Russia.

The collusion was a quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin; election assistance for an end to sanctions over Crimea and acceptance of the division of Ukraine. The list of Trump associates who met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak includes Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, foreign policy advisor Carter Page, advisor J. D. Gordon, and Trump himself, briefly, in April of 2016. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and (temporary) National Security Advisor and longtime ally Michael Flynn also had extensive contacts with the Russians. Manafort and Flynn both were on the Russian payroll at one time or another, with Manafort allegedly receiving $12 million for his work for pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich. Sessions perjured himself in front of a Senate committee, telling them he had never met with Kislyak. Flynn lied on his SF-86 security clearance application about his contacts with and payments from Russia, also a felony.

The tell was the Trump campaign’s absolute indifference to the Republican Party platform at the GOP convention, except for the issue of Russia. Trump associates intervened forcefully to excise a section advocating military support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian backed rebels. Sessions met Kislyak on July 18th, Page and Gordon two days later, and then came the Wikileaks dump of hacked Democratic Party emails on July 22nd. Just before the data dump Wikileaks started using two servers based in Russia, those servers owned by Pyotr Chayanov, a Kremlin associated hacker and general nogoodnick. (Who, by the way, corresponded with GOP hatchet man and Trump advisor Roger Stone, who in turn worked in a consulting firm with Paul Manafort.

Which brings me to hacking, in two flavors. One flavor was the straightforward phishing attack that collected the Democratic National Committee emails. The sausage making behind the scenes at the DNC was exposed, at cost to Hillary Clinton. The other flavor was more complex.

There is a company in the UK called Cambridge Analytica. It specializes in analyzing potential voters according to their psychological profile. Here’s an explainer on the methodology, but the short version is that individual voters can be targeted with tailored messages, either in person by canvassers or through Facebook. The point is to discourage unenthusiastic opposition voters and swing wavering voters. The ownership of the company is a bit murky, but a libertarian billionaire named Mercer was a shareholder, as well as Alfa Bank. Remember that name.

The hacking involved was state level voter rolls Here are a couple of background articles, here, and here. This was to augment the data that Cambridge Analytica had mined from Facebook.

People with far more computer savvy than I can dream of have noted and analyzed computer traffic between a server run by the Trump organization, a server at Spectrum Health (a company run by Dick Devos, husband of Betsy DeVos Trump’s Secretary of Education), and a server at Russia-based Alfa Bank. The analyses that I have read point to database transfer and updating between the three servers. The Trump server only communicated with Spectrum and Alfa, and in a way designed to exclude communication with any other entity. It turns out that Alfa Bank owns a big stake in Cambridge Analytica. Russian oligarchs own Alfa Bank.

It certainly looks like hacking by the Russians in order to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. The US intelligence community is sure of it and has said so publicly.

So what is going to happen now? Hold on to your jockstraps, dear readers, for your Minor Heretic is going to throw some lightning. I have been following a handful of citizen/journalists for the past few months, namely Claude Taylor (former Clinton era White House aide), Louise Mensch (former UK Member of Parliament), John Schindler (former NSA, now national security correspondent at the Observer), and a few other pseudonymous types on Twitter. They, as a group, have been a few weeks ahead of the mainstream media, breaking stories on the whole Trump/Russia deal. I share my appreciation of them with a trusted friend who is former NSA and still works under a Top Secret clearance. This person is my reality check on security/intelligence matters.

The summary of recent postings is this: Law enforcement (Department of Justice, FBI, U.S. Attorney) sources say that there are grand juries convened in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia (Hereafter EDVA). It’s general knowledge that NY State Attorney Eric Schneiderman has an investigation going into financial misdeeds by Trump and his associates, with a possible RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) angle. He has hired Preet Bhahara, the U.S. Attorney who was fired by Trump while investigating Russian issues. The EDVA is significant in that it includes Washington DC, it has a secure facility for handling top secret evidence, and that it is nicknamed the “rocket docket” for the relative speed with which it processes cases.

There are sealed indictments, perhaps against as many as 70 individuals. According to DOJ sources the FBI and Federal Marshals have arrest plans drawn up and approved. A big move is imminent. It will probably be lower level people first. That’s how it works – bring in the bit players and get them talking. The problem for the FBI is that a lot of the evidence that got them going on this is highly classified and can’t be used in court. They need cooperating witnesses.

Here’s the most telling bit of public evidence. The EDVA is one of the busiest federal courts in the U.S., averaging 11 cases a day. As of right now the docket is suddenly empty. There are judges with nothing on their schedules for the next week. This is weird. This is unprecedented. It is unsustainable. The EDVA can’t go from 44 cases a week to zero and sit empty for long. Something is up.

Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is going to brief the entire Senate in a closed session on Thursday, ostensibly about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. This is also weird and unprecedented. Usually the AG would brief just a relevant committee.

One of the Twitter cadre of Taylor/Mensch, et al, who goes by Broadsword Six just posted that “A mouse told me tomorrow has potential to be an interesting day. Stay tuned....” Others are quoting sources as saying that arrests are imminent.

I’m thinking that the guys in the Kevlar vests are going to hop in the black SUVs and roll sometime in the next couple of days. I could easily be wrong, but the empty docket in the EDVA says this is happening.

By the time you read this it may be yesterday’s news. Here’s hoping.

Wednesday
Mar052014

Intervention 

So, a nation that was once a semi-autonomous region of a declining empire has something in between a popular uprising and a coup, bringing in a new government hostile to the nearby large nation with a serious military. Said superpower sends in troops on the pretext of protecting members of its society living in that turbulent nation. World leaders in general react negatively, but there’s not much they can do, as the invading nation has a large military and nuclear weapons, as well as a certain amount of economic leverage.

Of course, by now you have now guessed that I am writing about Grenada.

Grenada? You know, the island nation in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela where they grow lots of nutmeg. The one we invaded.

I’ll refresh your memory. Grenada spent a couple of centuries as a British colony before inching its way to independent Commonwealth Nation status in 1974. In 1979 the New Jewel Movement, a Marxist political party, overthrew the elected government and took power. In 1983, a faction of the NJM that thought that the governing group wasn’t Marxist enough had another coup.

At this point the bone of contention with the U.S. was a long runway being built by American, European, and (gasp) Cuban contractors. The Grenadians and Europeans (along with a U.S. congressional investigation) said it was for commercial jets full of tourists. The Reagan administration said it was for military cargo jets full of arms for leftist Central American revolutionaries.

Then there were the medical students. There were a number of U.S. citizens studying at a medical school on the island. When interviewed just before our invasion they said that all was calm and that they were studying for midterms. Reagan decided that they needed rescuing. More accurately, that rescuing them was an excuse that would play well with the slack jawed masses at home.

On October 25th, 1983 we sent in a military force that also included some troops from nearby island nations. It was pretty much a rollover.

Sidebar: As the invasion commenced, Reagan got a call from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, telling him that an invasion would be a violation of international law and an unforgivable attack on the sovereignty of a Commonwealth nation. Consider: When the woman who sent her military to the Falklands, the woman who works in a government that includes Her Majesty the Queen, tells you that you are being too imperialist, listen. Reagan lied to her, as was his habit. Maggie found out about the invasion from other sources. So much for the special relationship.

The United Nations denounced the invasion as "a flagrant violation of international law" in a lopsided vote, with some U.S. aid dependent nations abstaining. Reagan made an offhand comment about the vote not upsetting his breakfast.

We installed a friendly government, which prosecuted the former government and handed out 14 death sentences, and all has been quiet since then. Oddly enough, the Grenadians named their new airport after the Marxist leader who had been killed in the coup of the more Marxist Marxists.

Which, of course, brings me to the Ukraine, Russia, and all that. Putin is a few hairs shy of a dictator, but a popular elected one in a country with a long history of one man rule and a combination of paranoia and resentment towards the west. Ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich was no gift to clean politics either. The opposition that ousted him was violent and is still riddled with fascist elements. There are indications that the U.S. was and is backing the opposition movement. And so on. The situation is short on black and white.

Putin has scored big points at home and has both Europe and Ukraine by the (short hairs) natural gas pipeline, so he’s feeling good about life. He will learn what all invaders learn; the lesson of the dog that actually catches up with the garbage truck he’s been chasing. Once he has the bumper of a huge truckload of stinking political garbage in his jaws, what does he do with it? The markets have spoken, with a drop in the Russian stock market obliterating something like 10% of its value. (Also a rise in interest rates.) The madness of dealing with a factionalized and passionate group of citizens will become apparent soon enough.

For sure, invading other countries is a bad thing. However, John Kerry and others can SMETFO (spare me the false outrage). Kerry’s statement that Russia shouldn’t just invade another country on trumped up pretenses made him the ultimate straight man waiting for the punchline. I’m not just talking about Iraq, or even Iraq and Grenada. The U.S. and Russia/USSR, along with all of the other great powers in their times of power, have spent their time destabilizing smaller countries, fomenting coups, and outright invading. It’s not right, but let’s not look at the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as some kind of sui generis event. And again, with emphasis, spare me the false outrage.