Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Loudmouth in the White House



I said the other day that Donald Trump looked far too cosy during his recent meeting with Russian officials at the White House - and event to which the President banned the American press from attending, allowing only a Russian photographer to be present on the day.

But the BBC alleges that Mr Trump actually shared classified information with his Russian guests whom he seems very friendly with it has to be said.

The President has dismissed the accusation as 'fake news', but he would say that - wouldn't he and he has a terrible track record for being a boastful braggart.


  




Trump 'shared classified information with Russia'
Image copyright - AFP Image caption - Mr Trump (centre) jokes with Mr Lavrov (left) and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak

President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information about so-called Islamic State (IS) to Russia's foreign minister, US media report.

The information, related to the use of laptops on aircraft, came from a partner of the US which had not given permission for it to be shared with Russia, says the Washington Post.

Mr Trump received Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office last week.

National Security Adviser HR McMaster dismissed the reporting as "false".

The Trump campaign's alleged links to Moscow have dogged his presidency and are part of several investigations.

But the president has dismissed such allegations as "fake news".

During the election campaign, Mr Trump repeatedly criticised his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for how she handled sensitive material.

Russia: The scandal Trump can't shake

A knife in the back? Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

The fallout from this story could be enormous and not just because there is a boundless trove of Republican quotes over the past year - directed at Mrs Clinton - about the utmost importance of protecting top-secret information.

There is the Russian connection, of course.

The FBI is currently investigating the Trump campaign for possible ties to Russian interests. Meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak featured prominently in the firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Russian investigation matters.

Then there is the question of whether US allies will be more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence information with the US, lest the president put sources at risk.

This will only stoke accusations by Trump critics that the president is undisciplined and inexperienced in the delicacies of foreign policy, where his shoot-from-the hip style presents an ongoing danger.

Finally, it is worth remembering the simmering feud Mr Trump has had with the US intelligence community. It took less than a week for this highly embarrassing story to leak. If the revelation was a knife twisted in the president's back, it is not hard to suspect where it came from.

Read more:
Russia: The scandal Trump can't shake
Trump and Comey: What is the firestorm about?
Could Trump be guilty of obstruction of justice?
The verdict on Trump so far

What actually happened?

In a conversation with the Russian foreign minister and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office, the president revealed details that could lead to the exposure of a source of information, officials told the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The discussion was about an IS plot. The president reportedly went "off-script", revealing specifics of the plot, thought to centre on the use of laptop computers on aircraft, and the city from which that threat had been detected.

The intelligence disclosed came from a US ally and was considered too sensitive to share with other US allies, the papers report.

Others present realised the mistake and scrambled to "contain the damage" by informing the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), says the Post.

Mr Trump's actions would not be illegal, as the US president has the authority to declassify information.

The meeting came a day after Mr Trump fired his FBI chief, James Comey, sparking criticism that he had done so because the FBI was investigating alleged Russian ties.

The Trump-Comey firestorm explained
What has the White House said?

National Security Adviser HR McMaster told reporters that the story, "as reported", was "false".


Media caption - US National Security Adviser HR McMaster: "I was in the room, it didn't happen"

"The president and foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation," he said.

"At no time - at no time - were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."

In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed the point that "the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations".

The Washington Post, which first broke the story, said this did not amount to a denial.

Speaking to the BBC, reporter Greg Jaffe said the Post's story made it clear the president did not disclose sources or methods.

But he added: "Our story says that the nature of the information provided would have allowed the Russians to 'reverse engineer' to discover the sources and methods. He said so much that they could figure it out."

What has the reaction been?

The Senate's second-highest ranked Democrat, Dick Durbin, said Mr Trump's actions appeared to be "dangerous" and reckless".

A spokesman for Paul Ryan, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said: "We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secrets is paramount.

"The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration."

The Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said the story was "very, very troubling" if true.

"Obviously they're in a downward spiral right now and they've got to figure out a way to come to grips" with it, he told Bloomberg.


Trump's Body Language (12/05/17)



Notice the very warm body language between Donald Trump and the Russian visitors he welcomed to the White House the other day - foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

Compare and contrast with the boorish behaviour exhibited by Trump when Angela Merkel visited the White House back in April.

The man is a clown and an ill-mannered one to boot.


  

Trump's Russian Ties (27/04/17)



The BBC's Paul Wood provides an excellent summary on Donald Trump's curious ties with Russia which the American tycoon just can't shake off.

Now Donald Trump's bizarre accusations of 'spying' against Barack Obama have been dismissed by the FBI, National Security Agency and America's Department of Justice , but as Paul Wood observes: 

"Increasingly, the American people are being asked to choose between two unpalatable versions of events: abuse of power by one president or treason that put another in the White House." 

Quite so - and I know which way I think the chips will finally fall.

   

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-39435786

Trump Russia dossier key claim 'verified'
By Paul Wood - BBC News

BBC US & Canada


Image copyright 0 BBC/FACEBOOK

Trump takes office

How much has Trump achieved so far? 
Russia: The scandal Trump can't shake 
Are things as bad as Trump says? 
The people around Donald Trump 

The BBC has learned that US officials "verified" a key claim in a report about Kremlin involvement in Donald Trump's election - that a Russian diplomat in Washington was in fact a spy.

So far, no single piece of evidence has been made public proving that the Trump campaign joined with Russia to steal the US presidency - nothing.

But the FBI Director, James Comey, told a hushed committee room in Congress last week that this is precisely what his agents are investigating.

Stop to let that thought reverberate for a moment.

"Investigation is not proof," said the president's spokesman.

Trump's supporters are entitled to ask why - with the FBI's powers to subpoena witnesses and threaten charges of obstructing justice - nothing damning has emerged.

Perhaps there is nothing to find. But some former senior officials say it is because of failings in the inquiry, of which more later.

The roadmap for the investigation, publicly acknowledged now for the first time, comes from Christopher Steele, once of Britain's secret intelligence service MI6.

He wrote a series of reports for political opponents of Donald Trump about Trump and Russia.

Steele's "dossier", as the material came to be known, contains a number of highly contested claims.

At one point he wrote: "A leading Russian diplomat, Mikhail KULAGIN, had been withdrawn from Washington at short notice because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation… would be exposed in the media there."

There was no diplomat called Kulagin in the Russian embassy; there was a Kalugin.

One of Trump's allies, Roger Stone, said to me of Steele, scornfully: "If 007 wants to be taken seriously, he ought to learn how to spell."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Kalugin was head of the embassy's economics section.



Image copyright - GETTY IMAGES Image caption - The Russian embassy in Washington, where Kalugin worked

He had gone home in August 2016 at the end of a six-year posting.

The man himself emailed journalists to complain about a "stream of lies and fake news about my person".

If anyone looks like a harmless economist, rather than a tough, arrogant KGB man, it is the bland-faced Kalugin.

But sources I know and trust have told me the US government identified Kalugin as a spy while he was still at the embassy.

It is not clear if the American intelligence agencies already believed this when they got Steele's report on the "diplomat", as early as May 2016.

But it is a judgment they made using their own methods, outside the dossier.

A retired member of a US intelligence agency told me that Kalugin was being kept under surveillance before he left the US.

In addition, State Department staff who dealt with Russia did not come across Kalugin, as would have been expected with a simple diplomat.

"Nobody had met him," one former official said. "It's classic. Just classic [of Russian intelligence]."

Last month, the McClatchy news website said he was under "scrutiny" by the FBI as he left the US. They did not report, as my sources say, that he was a member of one of Russia's spying organisations, the SVR or GRU.

Image copyright - COURTESY CGTN AMERICA Image caption - Mikhail Kalugin, Head of Economic Section for the Russian Embassy in the US, in an interview with CGTN America

Steele's work remains fiercely controversial, to some a "dodgy dossier" concocted by President Trump's enemies.

But on this vitally important point - Kalugin's status as a "spy under diplomatic cover" - people who saw the intelligence agree with the dossier, adding weight to Steele's other claims.

But then they knew him already.

I understand - from former officials - that from 2013-16, Steele gave the US government extensive information on Russia and Ukraine.

This was work done for private clients, but which Steele wanted the US authorities to see.

One former senior official who saw these reports told me: "It was found to be of value by the people whose job it was to look at Russia every day.

"They said things like, 'How can he get this so quickly? This fits exactly with what we have.' It was validated many times." 

Russia; The scandal Trump can't shake
Russian media no longer dazzled by Trump
Echoes of Watergate resurface

Another who dealt with this material in government said: "Sometimes he would get spun by somebody. [But] it was always 80% there."

None of these reports touched on the nature of Trump's relationship with Russia.

But last June, Steele began sending pages of what would later be called his dossier.

In light of his earlier work, the US intelligence community saw him as "credible" (their highest praise).

The FBI thought the same; they had worked with Steele going back to his days in MI6. 

Image copyright - PA Image caption - Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who wrote the dossiers on Trump's team and Russia

He flew to Rome in August to talk to the FBI.

Then in early October, he came to the US and was extensively debriefed by them, over a week.

He gave the FBI the names of some of his informants, the so-called "key" to the dossier.

But the CIA never interviewed him, and never sought to.

This comes from several people who are in a position to know.

They are alarmed at how the investigation is going, and worry it is being fumbled.

One said: "The FBI doesn't know about Russia, the CIA knows about Russia.

"Any sources Steele has in Russia, the FBI doesn't know how to evaluate.

"The Agency does… Who's running this thing from Moscow? The FBI just aren't capable on that side, of even understanding what Chris has."

Another reflected growing frustration with the inquiry among some who served in the Obama administration: "We used to call them the Feebs. They would make the simple cases, but never see, let alone understand and go after, the bigger picture."

(My editors have asked me to explain, for readers outside North America, that feeb is slang for someone feeble-minded, used above as a contraction of the initials FBI.)

I understand that Steele himself did not ask to brief the CIA because he had a long-standing relationship with the FBI.

The Russia people at the CIA had moved on and he felt he did not have the personal contacts he would need.

The CIA and the FBI would not comment on any of this. But the FBI is said to have a large presence at the US embassy in Moscow and has long experience of investigating Russian organised crime in the US.

The FBI director, Comey, also said in his testimony to Congress: "This investigation began in late July, so for counter-intelligence investigation that's a fairly short period of time."

Several sources have told me that late last year Steele himself grew increasingly disillusioned with the FBI's progress.

"He really thought that what he had would sway the election," said one.

So in October, pages from his reports were given to a few journalists, including me.

Most news organisations that got this material decided it was not solid enough to publish.

These pages from the dossier were not handed over directly by Steele himself, but came from the political research company that paid him.

In early December, the whole thing, 35 pages, was sent to Senator John McCain, who pressed the FBI director to investigate exhaustively.

The following month, the intelligence agencies briefed both then-President Barack Obama and Trump about the dossier - and the entire contents were published by Buzzfeed.

In the report, Steele spoke of an "established operational liaison between the TRUMP team and the Kremlin… an intelligence exchange had been running between them for at least 8 years."

Members of the Obama administration believe, based on analysis they saw from the intelligence community, that the information exchange claimed by Steele continued into the election.

"This is a three-headed operation," said one former official, setting out the case, based on the intelligence: Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated "bots", then on Russia's English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US "news" sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls. 

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The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of "microtargeting". Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters.

"You are stealing the stuff and pushing it back into the US body politic," said the former official, "you know where to target that stuff when you're pushing it back."

This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed.

Image copyright - GETTY IMAGES Image caption - Trump has accused his predecessor of "wire tapping" him, without any proof

"If you need to ensure that white women in Pennsylvania don't vote or independents get pissed in Michigan so they stay home: that's voter suppression. You can figure what your target demographics and locations are from the voter rolls. Then you can use that to target your bot."

This is the "big picture" some accuse the FBI of failing to see.

It is, so far, all allegation - and not just the parts concerning Donald Trump and his people.

For instance, the US intelligence agencies said last October that the voter rolls had been "scanned and probed" from a server in Russia.

But the Russian government was never shown to have been responsible.

There are either a series of coincidences or there is a conspiracy of such reach and sophistication that it may take years to unravel.

"I hear a lot of people comparing this to Watergate," said Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

"Let me just tell you, the complexity of this case is unlike anything we've ever seen.

"Watergate doesn't even come close. That was a burglary in the Metro section of the Washington Post.

"It doesn't have the international waypoints [of this]. Russia's M.O. is to avoid attribution. This investigation is going to take time."

In his testimony, the FBI director gave away nothing of the details of the inquiry. As I wrote in January, it is being done by a "counter-intelligence taskforce" that includes the CIA, with the FBI leading.

I wrote then that the secret US intelligence court had granted an order, a so-called Fisa warrant, to intercept the electronic records of two Russian banks.

The White House cited this report several times as evidence for President Trump's tweets that "Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower… This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"

It isn't.

Since Watergate, no president can simply order the CIA or FBI to tap someone's phone.

I wrote that: "Neither Trump nor his associates are named in the Fisa order."

If they were, the court would have to see "probable cause" that they were agents of a foreign power.

It is possible that the communications of Trump associates were picked up in monitoring of foreign entities, such as the Russian banks, so-called "incidental collection".

This is presumably what the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, is talking about when he asks Congress to investigate an "abuse of power" by the Obama administration.

Comey was careful in his testimony to say the investigation was into "co-ordination" rather than collusion.

"Collusion is not a term, a legal term of art," he said, "and it's one I haven't used here today, as we're investigating to see whether there was any co-ordination…"

Image copyright - AFP Image caption - Comey's testimony confirmed there was an open investigation over the links between the Trump campaign and Russia - but not much more

"Explicit or implicit coordination?" a Congressman asked.

"Knowing or unknowing," Comey replied.

The investigation, then, is into a range of possibilities: at one end, unwitting co-operation with Russia by members of the Trump campaign; at the other conscious "co-ordination".

Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager, Robby Mook, said that if Trump's aides knew of Russia's plans, there should be charges of treason.

Trump's enemies ask us to believe that some of his people were either traitors or dupes.

The president himself has another version of events: there was no "co-ordination"; the whole thing is a monstrous lie created by the Obama administration, fed by the intelligence community and amplified by the "dishonest" media, billowing black clouds of smoke but no fire.

When the dossier was released, he tweeted: "Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

These two stories cannot be reconciled.

With each new drip of information, option three - the chance that this is all a giant mistake, an improbable series of coincidences - seems further out of reach.

Increasingly, the American people are being asked to choose between two unpalatable versions of events: abuse of power by one president or treason that put another in the White House.

It cannot be both.