Trump – Putin – Russian Mafia – Mogilevich Connections Circle
Question: “Is Robert Mueller Examining Trump’s Links to Mogilevich?” – from TrumP Россия. M.N.: “Answer: Most definitely, he is. And this “connection” might certainly hold the clue…”
Mueller investigation pursues a multi-prong strategy, as any good investigation should. One of these strategies is exploring the hypothetical connections within the hypothetical Trump – Putin – Russian Mafia – Mogilevich – Firtash – Sater – Russian Oligarchs circle. Mogilevich appears to be the key knot.
By the way, it would be most improbable if the German, and the larger framework of the European Intelligence Services were not interested in observing and possibly manipulating this hypothetical circle of connections.
Semion Mogilevich remains a subject of fascination in the Trump-Russia story.
I’ve written before about Mogilevich’s ties to Trump Tower and how the man called the most powerful Mobster in the world may be a subject of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper dive into the world of Semion Mogilevich to understand who he is and what it means for Trump to be connected to him.
If you want cut to the chase, here you go: Having a relationship with Mogilevich was in some ways like having a relationship with Putin himself.
Semion Mogilevich and Donald Trump both were born in June of 1946, only two weeks apart, in vastly different circumstances. Trump, as we know, was the son of a wealthy New York developer. Mogilevich was born to a Jewish family in Kiev and before he began his life of crime he earned an economics degree.
Calling Mogilevich a Mobster is a bit misleading. He is a Mobster, but he’s much more than a Russian version of Tony Soprano.
Mogilevich is better described as a secret billionaire who made his fortune in the murky gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. US Attorney Michael Mukasey said in 2008 that Mogilevich “exerts influence over large portions of the natural gas industry in parts of what used to be the Soviet Union.”
The man called “the Brainy Don” also ran a publicly-traded company that defrauded investors in the United States and Canada out of $150 million. He sells weapons and drugs, arranges contract killings, runs prostitutes — all on an international scale. He has connections and influence at the very top of the Russian oligarchy. But the biggest sign of his power and influence is that he today lives free in Russia.
How is this possible? How can an international criminal live openly in Moscow?
To understand this, consider this secretly recorded conversation between then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Ihor Smeshko, who was then head of Ukraine’s military intelligence:
Smeshko: “So, this is why [the American FBI] thinks that Mogilevich’s organization, it is working completely under the cover of SBU [Ukraine’s secret service.] This is why there is this kind of cooperation there!”
Kuchma: “He [Mogilevich] has bought a dacha in Moscow, he keeps coming.
Smeshko: “He has received a passport already. By the way, the passport in Moscow is in a different name. And what is level in Moscow is … Korzhakov [the head of Boris Yeltsin’s personal security] sent two colonels to Mogilevich in Budapest in order to receive damaging information on a person … He himself did not meet them. His organization’s lieutenant, [Igor] Korol, met these colonels and gave them the documents relating to ‘Nordex’. Mogilevich has the most powerful analytical intelligence service. But Mogilevich himself is an extremely valuable agent of KGB, PGU … When they wanted to … Mogilevich … When the Soviet Union collapsed UKGB ‘K’ command did not exist yet. When one colonel wanted to he is retired, he lives there when he tried to arrest him, he got his pennyworth, they told him ‘Stop meddling! This is PGU [SVR, Russian foreign intelligence service] elite’. He has connections with [Russian businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly] Chubais.”
This conversation, which was secretly recorded by a Kuchma bodyguard, is difficult to follow, but it gives you a sense of Mogilevich’s power and reach. First, he ran his own powerful intelligence service that was useful to a Russian president. He was an agent of the KGB in the days of the Soviet Union and remains a source to modern Russian intelligence. And he is protected by powerful interests in Russia.
These tapes were of great interest to Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB officer who was poisoned in a London hotel in 2006 with radioactive Polonium-210. Litvinenko, who hated Putin, had a role in transcribing them and publicizing them.
The British inquiry into his death went into considerable detail of the conversations on these tapes and his writings, which contain a few other fascinating bits of information on Mogilevich. In an email, Litvinenko revealed that Mogilevich had sold arms to al Qaida:
“I know beyond the doubt that Mogilevich is FSB’s long-standing agent and all his actions including the contact with al Qaida are controlled by FSB — the Russian special services. For this very reason, the FSB is hiding Mogilevich from the FBI.”
In Russia, criminals and intelligence services aren’t adversaries. They are birds of a feather. They share information. The Mob helps the state, and in return, Russian criminals like Mogilevich get to share in the riches and remain free.
As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian history and security issues, writes,
“The Russian state is highly criminalized, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.”
Mogilevich’s ties to the Russian political “upperworld” go deep. Very deep.
In another secretly recorded conversation in 2000, Ukrainian PM Kuchma discusses Mogilevich with Leonid Derkach, the former head of the Ukrainian security services.
Kuchma: “Have you found Mogilevich?”
Derkach: “I found him.”
Kuchma: “So, are you two working now?”
Derkach: “We’re working. We have another meeting tomorrow. He arrives incognito.
Later in the discussion Derkach revealed a few details about Mogilevich.
Derkach: “He’s on good terms with Putin. He and Putin have been in contact since Putin was still in Leningrad.”
Kuchma: “I hope we won’t have any problems because of this.”
Derkach: “They have their own affairs”
According to Litvinenko, the poisoned ex-FSB agent, Putin was Mogilevich’s “krisha” or protector in Russian underworld slang.
And this was a relationship that dated back to the early 1990s when the future Russian president was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg.
“Mogilevich have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993,” Litvinenko says in broken English on a tape made before his death.
Back in 1993 and 1994, Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He was known in St. Petersburg as the man who could get things done. His approach to the criminal world was a practical one, Karen Dawisha writes in Putin’s Kleptocracy.
The mafia and the KGB had always had points of intersection and conflict — the 1990s were no different, and the mafia had its uses. It was global, it could move money, it could hide money, and in any case, some of the money would come back to St. Petersburg for investment. So how did Putin operate? First and foremost, he made illegal activity legal.
Most countries, even corrupt ones, go after their biggest criminals. But in Russia, criminals have their uses.
One of these points where the interests of Mogilevich and Putin merge is in the natural gas trade. RosUkrEngero (RUE), a murky Swiss company that acts as an intermediary in gas sales between Russia and Ukraine is seen as a joint venture of sorts between the two men.
RUE is half owned by Gazprom, the Russian gas giant that is run by Putin’s cronies. The other half is nominally owned by two Ukrainian businessmen: Dmitry Firtash and a minority partner. But the U.S. government suspects that Mogilevich (see here) is the man behind the curtain at RUE.
The world was closely watching in 2008 when Russian police arrested Mogilevich on a tax evasion scheme. He posted bail and was released a year later. Charges were dropped in 2011.
Mogilevich is part of the story, the tragedy really, of modern Russia.
Russia is a country rich in natural resources. It has great wealth below the ground. Above ground the wealth is shared by a small number of individuals who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin allowed this select few to enrich themselves by siphoning billions out of the country’s natural gas and oil fields, its steel and nickel mills, its fertilizer plants, the state railroads, and many more industries. In return for unimaginable wealth, these oligarchs pledged absolute fealty to Putin.
This is an operation that Mogilevich knew very well. Enriching yourself and your friends in exchange for loyalty — that’s the job of a Mafia Don. Which is exactly what Putin is.
As Sen. John McCain told late night host Seth Meyers, Russia is a “a gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”
As we noted earlier here and here, among the many dictators, despots, and shady foreigners who called Trump Tower home were members of the Russian Mafia with connections to Semion Mogilevich, said to be the most dangerous Mobster in the world.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Trump’s links to Russia, may also be taking an interest in Trump’s ties to Mogilevich, a man the FBI says is involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.
As described in Wired, among the prosecutors and investigators hired by Mueller, is one Lisa Page:
Also, while the Special Counsel’s office has yet to make any formal announcements about Mueller’s team, it appears he has recruited an experienced Justice Department trial attorney, Lisa Page, a little-known figure outside the halls of Main Justice but one whose résumé boasts intriguing hints about where Mueller’s Russia investigation might lead. Page has deep experience with money laundering and organized crime cases, including investigations where she’s partnered with an FBI task force in Budapest, Hungary, that focuses on eastern European organized crime. That Budapest task force helped put together the still-unfolding money laundering case against Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash…
The hiring of Page, which was confirmed by a Mueller spokesman in The New York Times, gives the special counsel a team member with knowledge of not only Dmitry Firtash, but of the man who is believed to stand behind him: Semion Mogilevich.
Full disclosure: Firtash hired the Washington law firm Akin Gump to clear him of links to Mogilevich. I profiled Akin Gump partner Mark MacDougall in this 2008 piece.
Firtash, pictured above, made his fortune in the 2000s in the natural gas sector. In 2004, Firtash and a minority partner emerged with 50 percent ownership of a murky Swiss company called RosUkrEnergo (RUE). RUE extracts gas from Central Asia and acts an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine for the delivery of gas. The other half of RUE is held by Gazprom, the gas giant controlled by the Russian government, which shows that Firtash has close ties with the Kremlin.
Billions of dollars flowed through RUE and some of that money was allegedly siphoned off by Semion Mogilevich, who U.S. government officials say (see here) is the man behind the curtain at the gas company. One of the few willing to say this publicly was Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a political enemy of Firtash, who got thrown in jail for her troubles. Notably, Firtash’s stake in RUE remained a secret for two years.
Intelligence Online, a Paris-based news organization with deep sources in the spy world, published this handy chart of the Firtash/Mogilevich connections, under the headline “The Tip of the Mogilevich Iceberg:”
Firtash admitted to William Taylor, the US ambassador to the Ukraine, that he has had dealings with Mogilevich, according to a 2008 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks:
(S) The Ambassador asked Firtash to address his alleged ties to Russian organized crime bosses like Semyon Mogilievich. Firtash answered that many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union, adding that when a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets.” He noted that it was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member at the same time. Firtash acknowledged that he needed, and received, permission from Mogilievich when he established various businesses, but he denied any close relationship to him.
And in this October 2009 press release, the FBI took note of Mogilevich’s control of natural gas supplies. “Through his extensive international criminal network, Mogilevich controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Eastern Europe,” the bureau wrote in a veiled reference to RUE.
The question is what is the nature of the relationship between Firtash and Mogilevich. Is it a thing of the past, as Firtash insists? Or is Firtash a front man for Mogilevich?
Presumably, the FBI — and, by extension, Lisa Page — knows the answer. The bureau has been investigating Firtash since 2006, according to The New York Times. A year before that, the FBI passed their counterparts in the Austrian police a confidential report naming Firtash as a “senior member” of the Semion Mogilevich Organization, according to a 2008 report by Roman Kupchinsky, an analyst with Radio Free Europe.
Page’s work in Budapest involved her deeply in the Firtash/Mogilevich world. The Wired article suggests she worked on the case that led to Firtash’s arrest in Vienna in 2014. Firtash was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago on charges of plotting a bribery scheme to set up a $500 million titanium business in India. He remains free after a Russian billionaire friend posted bail of $174 million but cannot leave Austria.
And Budapest is also a home of sorts for Mogilevich. He resided in Budapest when he ran a pump-and-dump scheme through a publicly traded front company called YBM Magnex Inc. Mogilevich was indicted in 2003 on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering in YBM Magnex.
So, what does this have to do with President Trump?
Firtash was a business partner of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics. Manafort advised Viktor Yanukovych on his successful 2010 campaign for the presidency of Ukraine. He resigned from the Trump campaign after The New York Times found a handwritten ledger showing that Yanukovych paid Manfort $12.7 million in cash.
While he was assisting Yanukovych, Manafort became business partners with Firtash. The two men explored developing a 65-floor tower on the site of the Drake Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
A 2011 lawsuit filed in New York by Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, called this partnership between Firtash and Manafort a means of laundering the proceeds of gas deals between the Ukraine and Russia. Firtash says that the lawsuit was full of lies, but he confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that he did put $25 million in an escrow account for the developers of the Drake project that Manafort helped him set up. The deal collapsed and the tower was never built.
It’s a good bet to say that we only know a little of this story, which is buried in the files of the FBI and the US intelligence community. But Trump Tower’s role as a home away from home for Russian mobsters with Mogilevich and his unhinged, self-destructive reactions to anyone probing into Russia suggests that there is more, much more to come. Stay tuned.
Federal agents arrested nine reputed members of a Brooklyn-based Russian organized crime syndicate Wednesday with close ties to an underworld group in Eastern Europe known as Thieves in Law, authorities said.
A 10-count indictment unsealed in Brooklyn Federal Court charges them with racketeering, extortion, loansharking, marijuana trafficking and illegal gambling.
“The defendants, all of whom are members of the transnational enterprise, report abroad to high-ranking organized crime members living in Eastern Europe,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew Jacobs and Andrey Spektor stated in court papers.
The Thieves in Law helped the Brooklyn mobsters collect extortion debts from victims living outside the U.S., the prosecutors stated.
One victim who owed the Brooklyn mobsters $200,000 was tracked down in Israel and other family members were in Russia with the help of the Thieves.
The Brooklyn mobsters operated in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, sources said. High-stakes poker games were set up at a building on Coney Island Ave. which from the outside appeared to be an auto leasing and private security business.
One defendant, Aleksey Tsvetkov, was previously convicted of racketeering in 2005 and deported to the Ukraine. But Tsvetkov was allowed to return to the U.S. and granted asylum after claiming that he was tortured when he returned to his homeland.
Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and the NYPD also busted Leonid Gershman, Renat Yusufov, Igor Krugly, Vyacheslav Malkeyev, Isok Aronov, Yusuf Pardilov, and Librado Rivera.
The leader of the syndicate is indicted but remains a fugitive, officials said.
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The White House is playing defense after President Trump’s comments over the last couple days about the NFL. CBS News White House and senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan joins CBSN to discuss whether this is a distraction for the president in the midst of a busy week in Washington.
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International–El Confidencial–8 hours ago
Aleksander Greenberg appeared in the company of one of the leaders of Arnold Tamm’s criminal community.
The Russian businessman and the owner of football club Marbella Aleksander Greenberg is detained in Spain within special operation on the detention of members of the Solntsevo organized criminal group, El Mundo reports.
According to the newspaper, the Spanish law enforcement authorities detained Greenberg together with Arnold Tamm – Arnold Spivakovsky, ex-CEO of Kosmos hotel complex and also former chairman of the board of directors of hotel association Intourist. The newspaper calls him one of the leaders of the group.
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“Follow the money.” These are the words most closely associated with Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s famous Watergate source, as memorably portrayed by Hal Holbrook in the movie version of “All the President’s Men.” As it happens, the phrase never appears in the book of that title, in which Woodward and Carl Bernstein chronicled their Washington Post investigations, and it is not spoken in a new movie, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” about the real-life person who was Deep Throat, which opens this Friday. But Felt’s sentiment, if not his exact words—about the central role that money often plays in political scandals—strikes a resonant chord at a time when the nation is confronting another crisis of political legitimacy.
Felt, who was the deputy associate director of the F.B.I., died, at the age of ninety-five, in 2008, three years after confirming his identity as Deep Throat, a secret that Woodward and Bernstein had kept for more than three decades. In the new movie, Liam Neeson plays Felt with a kind of lugubrious sincerity. He’s an unhappy man, beset by professional and personal woes, and he makes his secret alliance with Woodward for reasons that are both admirable and vengeful. (Felt is appalled by Watergate, but he’s also bitter that he was passed over for the directorship of the F.B.I., following the death of his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, in 1972.) The follow-the-money sentiment refers to Felt’s instruction to Woodward to examine how the Watergate burglary was financed. Who paid the five men who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972? Who paid for their lawyers after they were caught? Woodward learned that the money came from Nixon campaign contributors and people associated with the Committee for the Reëlection of the President (the notorious CREEP).
Woodward and Bernstein unravelled some of those ties, but they were never the heart of the scandal or the reason that President Richard Nixon was ultimately forced from office. In crude terms, Watergate was more about power than about money; Nixon approved of the Watergate break-in and then stage-managed the coverup because he wanted to win reëlection. Nixon came from humble roots. In his Checkers speech, in 1952, while defending himself against charges involving a political-expense fund, he painstakingly and defiantly detailed his financial standing—“It isn’t very much”—and noted that his wife, Pat, wore not a fur coat but “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” Whatever Nixon’s many flaws, few would argue that personal enrichment was a key motivator of his life.
The same can be said of Nixon’s inner circle, including John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean—none of whom sought to gain financially through Nixon’s political victories. Led by Nixon, they primarily wanted to use the Presidency to advance their ideological goals and to punish their political enemies. In Watergate, to follow the money was to learn only part of the story.
The opposite appears to be true in the case of Donald Trump and the 2016 campaign. It’s hard to believe that Trump ever thought he was actually going to become President, but it is clear that he thought that he could use the campaign to enrich himself—which, after all, has been the motivating force of his life. (In announcing his run for office, he said, “I’m very rich.”) The campaign was an exercise in brand management, an attempt to leverage the Trump name into bigger deals around the world. Paul Manafort, who had had dealings with both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and was, for a time, Trump’s campaign chairman, seems to be among those who recognized the possibilities of seeking wealth abroad and power at home. His dealings are now a focus of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
At this point, the precise nature of Trump’s connections to Russia remains a mystery, but, whether through staging a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, or pursuing the construction of a hotel in that city, Trump hoped to profit from the oligarchs who control the Russian economy. In turn, their patron, Vladimir Putin, wanted to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming President. At the heart of the current investigations is whether and to what extent these two objectives merged.
Almost certainly, the key to answering that question is financial. Money played an important role in Watergate, but it was a means to an end—political power. For Trump, money has been the end in itself. At the moment, it appears that he may survive his scandal in the way that Nixon could not surmount his. But if Trump is to fall, it will likely be in part because the investigators take the advice of Holbrook’s Mark Felt, and really do follow the money.
WASHINGTON — The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is resigning, he said in an email Tuesday, a few weeks after he complained that President Donald Trump appeared to have “condoned police misconduct.”
In the email to DEA staffers, Chuck Rosenberg, who became acting administrator in 2015, gave no reason for his departure, which takes effect on Sunday.
A spokesperson for the DEA confirmed Rosenberg’s resignation but wouldn’t comment on a report in The New York Times, which quoted law enforcement officials as saying Rosenberg had become convinced that Trump “had little respect for the law.”
Rosenberg, 57, was kept on by Trump, but his future with the administration came into doubt after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey — a close associate whom Rosenberg had served as chief of staff.
But Rosenberg has already publicly criticized the president, saying in a memo to the agency’s employees on July 29 that Trump’s remarks in a speech to law enforcement officers “condoned police misconduct.”
Rosenberg sent the memo a day after Trump appeared to encourage law enforcement officers not to take care to protect suspects in custody.
Aug. 1: Disregard the President’s Comment on Police Use of Force, DEA Chief Says 1:30
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough,” Trump said July 28 in an address in Selden, New York. “I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.'”
Rosenberg said in the memo: “We have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.” He listed “core values” that he said were fundamental to the agency: “Rule of Law, Respect and Compassion, Service, Devotion, Integrity, [and] Accountability.”
“This is how we conduct ourselves. This is how we treat those whom we encounter in our work: victims, witnesses, subjects, and defendants. This is who we are.”
Trump to police officers: Don’t be too nice 11:08
Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a similar message to police on Aug. 1, saying in a speech before the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives that officers should conduct themselves “in a lawful way” and promising to prosecute officers who violate use-of-force laws.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time that Trump’s remarks had been blown out of proportion, telling reporters, “It was a joke.”
Kristin Donnelly reported from Washington. Alex Johnson reported from Los Angeles.
In the Skeloses’ case, the panel found that the judge’s explanation to the jury of an official action was too broad, and that the jury may have convicted the Skeloses for conduct that, under the McDonnell ruling, was not unlawful.
“Because we cannot conclude that the instructional error as to ‘official acts’ was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the panel said, “we are obliged to vacate defendants’ convictions in their entirety and to remand the case for a new trial.”
The ruling capped a remarkable recent turn of fortune in New York’s power circles: Mr. Bharara was fired by the Trump administration in March; Mr. Silver’s conviction was overturned this summer; and now the Skelos verdicts have been set aside.
But the appellate panel on Tuesday made it clear that the government’s evidence was still sufficient to allow a properly instructed jury to convict the Skeloses, finding that there was enough evidence to establish that there had been a quid pro quo arrangement in each of the schemes at issue.
Federal prosecutors said they intended to move quickly to retry Mr. Skelos and his son, just as they have done with Mr. Silver, who is currently scheduled to be retried in April. Mr. Skelos and Mr. Silver both forfeited their seats upon their convictions.
“We look forward to a prompt retrial where we will have another opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence of Dean Skelos and Adam Skelos’s guilt, and again give the public the justice it deserves,” Joon H. Kim, the acting United States attorney in Manhattan, said.
Mr. Bharara said on Twitter on Tuesday that the ruling was not unexpected but was still disappointing. The Supreme Court “made it harder to punish corruption, but justice should prevail here,” Mr. Bharara wrote.
Mr. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, and his son were convicted in December 2015 of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. Prosecutors had accused the men of abusing the father’s office to pressure a Manhattan developer, a medical malpractice insurer and an environmental technology company to provide the son with hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting work, a no-show job and a direct payment of $20,000.
The evidence at the four-week trial offered a raw, unvarnished look at dysfunction and nepotism in Albany. All three companies — Glenwood Management, Physicians’ Reciprocal Insurers and AbTech Industries — had relied on Senator Skelos for legislation that was critical to their businesses, prosecutors had said.
Prosecutors had argued that AbTech hired Adam Skelos after his father repeatedly pressured Glenwood to find him employment, and that AbTech needed his father on its side to win a $12 million storm water treatment contract in Nassau County, on Long Island. The panel cited a so-called “hostage email” sent to AbTech, warning that unless they paid Adam Skelos more, his father might withdraw his support for the contract.
The Skeloses’ lawyers had argued in their appeal that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions, but the panel rejected that position.
“The abundant record evidence that Dean Skelos traded his vote for legislation beneficial to P.R.I. and Glenwood in exchange for benefits to his son,” the panel said, “is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to infer the existence of a quid pro quo arrangement” with regard to two of the schemes.
Alexandra A. E. Shapiro, Mr. Skelos’s lawyer, said her client was grateful for the ruling and looked forward to the next steps in the case.
“We believe that as events unfold, it is going to become clear that this is a case that never should have been brought,” she said.
Adam Skelos’s lawyer, Robert A. Culp, said that he and his client were “very gratified” by the ruling.
The trial judge, Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, had allowed the Skeloses to remain free on bail pending their appeals. Judge Wood had sentenced Dean Skelos to five years in prison and gave Adam Skelos six and a half years.
The appeals panel included Judges Ralph K. Winter, Reena Raggi and Alvin K. Hellerstein.
Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, who introduced the other measure, said his concern was more about checks and balances than any particular action by Mr. Trump. Legislation, he said, would “lower the temperature” around the investigation and buy Mr. Mueller time and space to finish his work.
“We are not here to clip any one president’s wings, but to create a check on any future presidents,” Mr. Tillis said.
The two bills share much in common, and both try to build on the existing Justice Department statute governing special counsels to ensure that any firing is for good cause.
Mr. Graham’s bill, introduced with Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, would require the attorney general — or a deputy — to petition a panel of federal judges for permission to remove a special counsel.
Mr. Tillis’s bill, in contrast, would allow for a judicial review process after a special counsel is fired. The attorney general would have to prove good cause for removal, and a panel of three federal judges would have 14 days to reach a decision. The bill was introduced with Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and a bipartisan pair of representatives have introduced parallel legislation in the House.
Mr. Mueller was appointed in May, after the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and was given broad latitude to investigate Mr. Trump and his associates. But the statute under which he was appointed affords Mr. Mueller, or other future special counsels, few formal job protections. If he wished, Mr. Trump could order top Justice Department officials to fire Mr. Mueller.
Supporters of the Judiciary Committee measures repeatedly alluded on Tuesday to comments and actions made by Mr. Trump about the investigation that they said made their work necessary. Most saliently, in a late-July interview, Mr. Trump told The New York Times that Mr. Mueller’s team was rife with conflicts of interest and warned that investigators would be crossing a red line if they began to look at Trump family finances beyond any relationship to Russia.
Separating themselves from the Republicans, committee Democrats said those comments, and Mr. Trump’s repeated hostility toward investigators, made the need for action urgent.
“Simply put, I have strenuous concern about President Trump’s respect for the rule of law,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in an opening statement. “The president must know that Congress will not stand idly by if he attempts to undermine independent criminal investigations.”
The committee’s chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, did not make his leanings toward the bills known, but he made clear in his opening statement that he saw an important role for Congress to oversee special counsel investigations.
The Judiciary Committee is one of several congressional committees investigating Mr. Trump’s links to Russia. The committee’s particular interest stems from Mr. Comey’s firing, but it has outlined a broad investigation into several other matters, from the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
Tuesday’s discussion frequently returned to a 1988 Supreme Court case that weighed the constitutionality of the now-expired independent counsel statute, put in place after the Watergate scandal. In the ruling, the court voted 7 to 1 that the counsel statute did not violate the separation of powers doctrine and was therefore lawful.
But the decision came with a powerful dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, which in the years since has gained a widespread following.
Independent counsels, such as Kenneth W. Starr, had considerably broader powers and more latitude than today’s special counsels, but the constitutional scholars and members of the committee repeatedly used the decision and the dissent to make arguments for and against the constitutionality of the proposed protection bills.
Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, both Republicans, appeared most skeptical that the bills were constitutionally supportable.
“The overriding concern I have whenever we are talking about this area is that bad things happen when we depart from the three-branch structure of the federal government,” Mr. Lee said.
Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale, told the panel that he expected either measure could be vetoed by the president or invalidated by the courts. Other legal scholars disagreed.
The National Security Agency is currently conducting surveillance on more than 100,000 foreign nationals outside the US, several senior US officials revealed Monday, highlighting cases in which so-called Section 702 authorities have helped the intelligence community identify cybersecurity threats from hostile governments, stop malicious cyberattacks and disrupt ISIS terror plots.
Adopted under the 2008 FISA act, 702 surveillance allows the NSA to legally monitor emails and phone calls of foreign nationals outside of the US — but the controversial statute could expire in December if it is not reauthorized by Congress.
While the surveillance authorities outlined in Section 702 are specifically limited to overseas foreign targets, the law is controversial because it sometimes incidentally collects communications of US citizens, too.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has consistently advocated for additional privacy protections and criticized Section 702 for threatening the liberties of Americans who could have their communications collected under parts of the statute.
In April, Wyden applauded the NSA’s announcement that it would no longer collect emails on the basis that they were merely about foreign targets — a practice previously allowed under Section 702.
“This change ends a practice that could result in Americans’ communications being collected without a warrant merely for mentioning a foreign target,” Wyden said in a written statement at the time.
“For years, I’ve repeatedly raised concerns that this amounted to an end run around the Fourth Amendment. This transparency should be commended,” he said.
Efforts to reauthorize the law could face renewed opposition amid a broader debate over the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly doubted claims that Russia interfered in the election and raised questions about the use of a surveillance practice known as “unmasking” — or revealing the identities of Americans who were communicating with foreign officials under surveillance by the US intelligence community.
“We’ve seen illegal leaking of classified materials, including the identities of American citizens unmasked in intelligence reports,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CNN earlier this month. “That’s why the President called for Congress to investigate this matter and why the Department of Justice and Intelligence Community are doing all they can to stamp out this dangerous trend that undermines our national security.”
However, the Trump administration is pushing Congress to reauthorize the Section 702 program without changes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote to congressional leaders earlier this month, arguing that intelligence gathering under FISA has sufficient checks in place to protect against government overreach.
When asked if he was aware of any improper use of information about Americans incidentally collected through 702 surveillance by any administration, a senior government official authorized to speak for the NSA said: “Absolutely not … totally zero” such cases.
‘Irreplaceable’ surveillance for NSA
Top intelligence and law enforcement officials have argued that Section 702 surveillance authorities protect the US from terrorism, weapons proliferation and foreign espionage despite public criticism from some lawmakers pushing for better privacy protections.
“This is clearly a major issue for the intelligence community,” Coats told reporters on Monday. “It is one of our absolute top priorities this year.”
A senior government official authorized to speak for the NSA called it “the single most important operational statute that the NSA has” and described it as “irreplaceable.”
That same official also detailed a previously unknown example of where 702 surveillance allowed the NSA to identify a cybersecurity threat from a hostile foreign government and stop malicious cyberattacks against the US.
And a senior NSA analyst who joined the agency three months before September 11, 2001 detailed how essential 702 surveillance has been to the agency’s work since its adoption in 2008.
Prior to the adoption of 702, “US intelligence was fighting an information age threat with regulations written for the age of the telephone,” the analyst said.
Its arrival in 2008 was a “game-changer” as it gave the NSA the “agility and flexibility” to fight terror threats, the analyst added, noting that the law “no longer gives a terrorist plotter in Pakistan the same protections as a US citizen.”
The analyst and other senior government officials detailed the numerous protections and standards they still must follow under the 2008 statute, including at least three analysts reviewing any request, followed by a review by Justice Department attorneys.
A senior US official authorized to speak for the FBI added two additional examples in which 702 authorities were instrumental in disrupting terror plots.
Surveillance played a key role in stopping ISIS plots by attackers recruited by Shawn Parson — a Trinidadian ISIS online recruiter who was later killed in Syria, according to that official.
It also helped identify the location of the Istanbul nightclub attacker in January 2017 — later facilitating an arrest in that case.
Despite public criticism from lawmakers, a senior government official authorized to speak for the DOJ said they “all have full confidence Congress will reauthorize.”
Donald Trump could become a two-term president. His path to re-election is not very hard to see.
Start with the fact that political math is not especially complex. In all but the most unusual presidential elections, there is little doubt about how 80 percent of the electorate will vote. Around 40 percent will vote for the Democrat, no matter whom he or she may be, and about 40 percent is sure to vote Republican. The more wobbly 20 percent is less predictable, although, in recent elections, most of those voters also ended up splitting fairly evenly between the parties. The tiny percentage of true swing voters in key states is the cohort that makes the decisive choice for one candidate or the other.
Right now, President Trump is more unpopular than any president at this point in a first term has been. Nevertheless, about 30 percent of voters appear unshakable in their loyalty to him. Mr. Trump has a rock-solid base. And, as bad as things have gone for him, thus far, there are hints that better days could be ahead.
For President Trump, the hurricanes have been good news. Reports from the watery disasters in Texas and Florida indicate that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has done a very good job coordinating relief efforts. FEMA’s inept performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seriously undercut the political standing of President George W. Bush. FEMA’s expert work this time is reflecting well on Mr. Trump. There is no logic to this, of course. The substantial organizational improvements made in the agency mostly took place during President Barack Obama’s two terms. But the hurricanes roared in on President Trump’s watch, and he is receiving the political benefit.
After months of floundering and failure in the Republican-controlled Congress, Mr. Trump has turned to the Democrats to get some deals done. He quickly agreed to a short-term Democratic plan for a debt ceiling hike to prevent a government shutdown and he appears to have also come to a general agreement about how to reconstitute the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that will codify a permanent legal status for 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
This collusion with Democrats has inflamed the political world. GOP congressional leaders feel rebuffed by their own president. Anti-immigrant agitators and right wing pundits who saw Mr. Trump as their champion are now screaming about betrayal. But average voters probably see it very differently. Most people like the idea of the parties working together to get things done. Most people did not want the DACA beneficiaries — the young “Dreamers” — to be sent to Mexico or whatever country they were born in. And most voters do not care about the prerogatives of Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
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President Trump is said to be giddy about the positive response he has received in the mainstream media for cutting deals with Democrats. Mr. Trump likes praise, and he likes to notch up wins. It is possible he will continue to look for deals with Democratic leaders, even on health care where Republicans have utterly failed to deliver. Right now, a bipartisan plan to retool Obamacare is being hammered out in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. If committee members can come up with something — and if the latest attempt to repeal Obamacare fizzles like all past attempts — it would be very opportune for Mr. Trump to lay claim to the bipartisan scheme and boast of another job well done.
Mr. Trump will never stop his embarrassing, childish and sometimes self-defeating tweets. But those bursts of nonsense are starting to feel like background noise that we are learning to live with. Yes, Mr. Trump’s tweets continue to grab headlines, but the real changes being wrought by the Trump administration get less notice. Cabinet members, such as Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, are busy dismantling the federal bureaucracy and catering to the wishes of big corporations and polluting industries. That is shocking stuff, but the average American does not pay close attention to any of it. The negative effects that will come with the elimination of regulations and safeguards to the environment and the financial industry will probably not affect the calculations of swing voters in 2020.
When that election year rolls around, President Trump’s bombastic, divisive style may have become normalized and less worrying to many people, especially if he can claim a handful of significant bipartisan achievements. His popularity might have inched up by then. A challenge in the Republican primaries from someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have fizzled out because the dysfunctional GOP has concluded Mr. Trump is their best bet to hold on to power.
And, after a series of hotly contested Democratic primaries with a gaggle of candidates and no clear frontrunner, the Democrats could end up with a presidential nominee whose pandering to the progressive base of the party is not so attractive to the broader electorate — or at least to that crucial segment of white working class voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio who tipped the Electoral College to President Trump in 2016.
So, Mr. Trump could win again. All he has to do is seem a little less crazy, make a few popular deals that lend him the aura of effectiveness and get lucky in who his opponent will be. None of that is impossible to imagine.
Of course, one person could upset this bright scenario. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion with Russia could produce solid, indisputable proof that Mr. Trump committed an impeachable offense. That is not hard to imagine, either.
Though a former judge, Moore is more of an outsider. Like Trump, he has shown utter contempt for the rule of law. Moore was notoriously removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 after he refused a federal judge’s order to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments that he had installed in the court. He was reinstated to the bench 10 years later, but left when he was suspended without pay for rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage; his position was that humans were not “at liberty to redefine reality.” He has calledIslam a “false religion,” claimed that there is “no such thing as evolution,” and suggested that the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment for America’s sins.
Moore’s main line of attack at the Thursday debate was to connect Strange to the loathed Washington establishment. “Will an elitist Washington establishment with unlimited millions of dollars … in special money be able to control the people of Alabama?” he asked. “I think not.” But Moore didn’t restrict himself to jabbing Strange, stating that Trump has been “redirected” by Washington insiders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from working to fulfill his campaign promises. “President Trump had it right when he ran, he said he was going to get rid of lobbyists,” Moore said. “You don’t get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending one to the United States Senate.”
Moore was right in one sense: Trump endorsed Strange under pressure from one of McConnell’s associates, among others. According to The Washington Post, the White House was divided on whether to support Strange, since his loss would put Trump in an embarrassing position. But a series of Republican officials, including Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, convinced him to go to bat for the man known as “Big Luther,” arguing that if Strange didn’t win it could prompt a wave of retirements by incumbents wary of inciting the wrath of the base.
In a reflection of the GOP’s biggest fears, Sarah Palin and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka held a rally for Moore the same night as the debate in Montgomery, enthusiastically hailing him as the candidate that would drain the swamp. “Getting the job of the temporary Senate seat, being handed the job by the politician who’s now gone because corruption, whatever,” Palin said, referring to Bentley’s appointment of Strange. “I don’t know what you guys call it, but up in Alaska we call it quid pro quo, which I think is an old Eskimo term for that which fertilizes the swamp.”
She went on to call Strange “Mitch McConnell’s guy,” stressing that it was Moore who was better aligned with Trump’s agenda, including banning transgender individuals from the military and building the wall on the Mexican border. “[Moore] was deplorable before being deplorable was cool,” she said. Gorka said, “Tuesday is November 8 all over again: The voters can choose corruption or choose America.”
Facebook is now enmeshed in several investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Last week, the company agreed to give Congress 3,000 political ads linked to Russian actors that it sold and ran during the 2016 election cycle; it previously had handed that information to special investigator Robert Mueller. But the details of how the social-networking giant found itself at the center of all of this, and, crucially, what that could mean for President Trump, can easily get lost amid competing headlines around healthcare, hurricanes, and a steadily escalating nuclear standoff with North Korea.
To help, we’re here to walk you through everything we know—and don’t know—about Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, and the subsequent investigations. We’ll update this list of questions and answers as we learn more.
What did Facebook give Mueller?
In early September, Facebook said it had identified $150,000 of political ads purchased by fake accounts linked to Russia. It attributed about $100,000 of the total, or 3,000 ads, to 470 accounts related to a Russian propaganda group called Internet Research Agency. It found another 2,000 ads worth $50,000 by searching for ads purchased through US internet addresses whose accounts were set to the Russian language. The ads touched on hot-button social issues such as immigration and LGBT rights and, according to a report from The Washington Post, included content aimed at stoking racial resentment against blacks and Muslims. About 25 percent of the ads geographically targeted certain regions of the United States. The majority of these ads ran in 2015.
After suspending the accounts and writing a vague blog post on the subject, Facebook remained largely silent about what the ads contained, who they reached, or how they were discovered. But on Sept. 21, Facebook confirmed it had shared the the ads with Mueller’s team and would do the same with Congressional investigators. Facebook has not yet agreed to meet with Congress for further questioning.
How did Facebook find these ads?
The only detail Facebook has shared publicly is that it looked for American IP addresses set to the Russian language, then “fanned out,” from there, as the Facebook spokesperson put it. That makes it impossible to know whether Facebook has identified all suspect ads, or just those the Russians were laziest about hiding. The Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on whether Mueller’s team has access to the company’s investigative process.
It’s likely, however, that Facebook’s search has not covered everything. On Sept. 21, during a Facebook Live address, CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted as much, saying, “We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government.” We know, for instance, that Internet Research Agency, the propaganda group, has officially shut down. But similar firms, including one called Glavset, operate with the same people at the same addresses. The Facebook spokesperson would not discuss whether its investigation would have caught these other shell companies.
What changes did Zuckerberg announce, and will they make a difference?
During his Facebook Live, Zuckerberg outlined how the company plans to overhaul its election-integrity processes. For starters, it will require political advertisers to disclose–on the ads—who paid for the ad. It will also require political advertisers to publicly catalog all of the variations of ads that they target to different Facebook audiences. The goal here is to make it easier for the public to see when politicians send different messages to different groups of people. President Trump has been criticized for using so-called “dark posts” to send messages about the border wall to core supporters that conflict with his more public statements. That kind of targeted advertising is par for the course in the internet age, but now, Facebook says it will ensure that when it’s used in politics, the public has more visibility into those messages. Facebook also said it would add 250 people to its election-integrity team to more thoroughly vet who’s buying political ads.
And yet, the question remains: What constitutes a political ad? Are campaigns and Super PACs the only ones subject to this disclosure on Facebook? Or will anyone who wants to advertise about a political issue be subject to the same scrutiny? And what about fake news publishers that pay to boost their own articles? Facebook isn’t providing much detail about how it will implement its plan, but answers to those questions are critical to understanding how effective this self-regulation will be.
Could Russians have placed other ads that Facebook hasn’t yet identified?
Absolutely. In the case of the $150,000 in ads, one digital breadcrumb led to the next, until Facebook uncovered a cohesive effort by the Internet Research Agency to spread misleading information to American voters. It’s easier to spot such a coordinated campaign than it is to find every ally of Vladimir Putin who might have spent a few thousand dollars to give a fake news story some extra exposure. Facebook sold $27 billion in ads in 2016. Combing through that pile of cash for signs of Russian dirty work is a tremendously complex, if not impossible, task.
Is there anything the government can do about this?
Facebook has never been particularly welcoming of government intervention. In 2011, it asked the Federal Election Commission to exempt it from rules requiring political advertisers to disclose in an ad who paid for that ad. Facebook argued its ads should be regulated as “small items,” like campaign buttons. The FEC failed to reach a decision on the issue, so Facebook and other platforms have been allowed to host political ads with no disclosures.
Now, some members of Congress are looking to change that. Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar are working on a bill that would require those disclosures and also require tech platforms with more than 1 million users to publicly track all “electioneering communication” purchased by anyone spending at least $10,000 on the platform. The FEC defines electioneering communication as ads “that refer to a federal candidate, are targeted to voters and appear within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.” For now, the term applies only to broadcast ads.
The FEC is also re-opening comments on rules related to online political ads—the same rules the FEC failed to clarify back in 2011. Last week, 20 members of Congress sent a letter to the FEC urging the agency to develop guidelines for platforms like Facebook.
Were these Facebook ads the only way that foreigners tried to influence the 2016 election??
Hardly. Earlier this year, WIRED investigated a wave of fake news sites that emerged in Macedonia last year. The fake news creators wrote phony blogs about Hillary Clinton’s health or the Pope endorsing Trump, and then posted them in key Facebook groups to attract attention. Once the posts drew sufficient traffic, their creators placed Google Ads on their sites to make some extra money. These mostly teenage hoaxsters never needed to touch Facebook’s advertising tools.
Did the Russians use other platforms as well?
Yes. The group Securing Democracy tracks 600 Russia-linked Twitter accounts and analyzes the role they play in promoting certain hashtags. When Twitter meets with Congressional investigators , the use of bots by foreign agents will be central to the conversation. Google, meanwhile, has said it found no evidence of Russians buying ads. But Facebook told WIRED the same thing earlier this summer, before its recent disclosure.
How did the Russians decide which Americans to target with the Facebook ads?
The short answer is we don’t know. There are suspicions that the Russians might have had help from the Trump campaign or its allies. But the Russians may not have needed more than the targeting tools Facebook offers to every advertiser.
Facebook allows any advertiser to upload lists of names or email addresses that it would like to target. In most states, voter files are publicly available for free or for purchase. Advertisers can then design so-called lookalike audiences that have lots in common with the original list. They can target ads based on geography, profession, and interest. Facebook knows the news you read, the posts you like, and what you shop for, along with a million other things about you. The company stitches this information together to make educated guesses about what kind of person you are.
Armed with so much data, a Russian operative would hardly need to call in help. That doesn’t mean they didn’t. It just means we have no evidence so far that they did.
What kind of evidence would there be?
One way to find out if the Trump campaign helped Internet Research Agency would be to compare the targeting criteria the campaign used on Facebook to the targeting criteria the Russian propagandists used. If both groups targeted the same audience, that’s worth looking into. Investigators could do the same with any further suspicious accounts Facebook unearths.
What about Cambridge Analytica? Could it have been involved?
Cambridge Analytica was President Trump’s data-mining firm during the 2016 election. The Trump team, led by digital director Brad Parscale, worked with Cambridge, as well as the Republican National Committee, to analyze data about the American electorate to guide decisions about where and how to advertise on television and online. That’s not unusual. Hillary Clinton’s campaign tapped similar analyses from a data-analytics firm called BlueLabs, as well as the Democratic National Committee.
What is unusual about Cambridge Analytica is its backstory. The company, which is an American spinoff of the UK-based firm SCL Elections, is financially backed by billionaire financier Robert Mercer, who spends liberally to advance his fiercely conservative views.
Cambridge has also been accused of amassing data from Facebook users—such as what they like on the site and who their friends are—via silly personality quizzes. (Facebook has since closed this privacy gap.) Cambridge combined those results with data from elsewhere to sort people into categories based on their personality types, so advertisers could send them specially tailored messages. Cambridge calls this approach psychographic targeting, as opposed to demographic targeting.
During the election cycle, some Republican operatives outside the Trump campaign accused the company of overselling its technical wizardry. Now, Cambridge’s approach is viewed by some, including Hillary Clinton, as a form of ugly psychological warfare that was unleashed on the American electorate.
Its parent company, SCL, has been known to use questionable methods in other countries’ elections. In Trinidad, it reportedly staged graffiti to give voters the impression that SCL’s client had the support of Trinidadian youth. And Cambridge is currently being investigated in the UK for the role it may have played in swaying voters to support Brexit. It’s worth noting, though, that the UK has stricter laws around how citizens’ data can be used near elections. The US does not have the same protections.
Is Cambridge involved with these Russian ads on Facebook?
Not as far as we know. While Cambridge helped the Trump campaign target its own advertisements, there’s no evidence so far that Cambridge did the same for any Russians. Whether any connection exists, of course, is a key question both Mueller’s team and Congress will continue to investigate.
In a recent BBC interview, Theresa Hong, the former digital content director for the Trump campaign, said Facebook, Google, and Twitter had offices inside the Trump campaign headquarters during the campaign. Is that normal?
Tech companies regularly assign dedicated staffers to political campaigns that advertise on their platforms. Clinton’s campaign also worked closely with Facebook and other tech companies, if not physically side-by-side.
Still, perhaps the least secretive part of the whole affair is the outsized role digital advertising played in the Trump campaign’s strategy. Shortly after the election, Parscale told WIRED, “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.” The Trump campaign ran as many as 50,000 variants of its ads each day on Facebook, tweaking the look and messaging to see which got the most traction. Days after the election, Andrew Bleeker, who ran digital advertising for the Clinton campaign, acknowledged that the Trump team used digital platforms “extremely well.” He said the Trump campaign “spent a higher percentage of their spending on digital than we did.”
Could Facebook have prevented this?
That’s complicated. Obviously, Facebook was bluffing when it told the FEC in 2011 that disclosing who paid for campaign ads right on the ad would be impractical. That’s what Zuckerberg recently announced.
Still, it’s unclear if those steps would have prevented Russia from spreading misinformation on Facebook. For starters, while the ads Internet Research Agency purchased were about election issues, they weren’t explicitly about the 2016 election. It’s not clear those would have been considered election ads under FEC guidelines. And even if they were, the Supreme Court has given nonprofit groups wide latitude to raise money to influence elections both online and offline without revealing their donors. That’s why it’s called dark money.
Senator Warner recently said, “[Facebook] took down 50,000 accounts in France. I find it hard to believe they’ve only been able to identify 470 accounts in America.” What did he mean, and does he have a point?
Yes and no. In April, Facebook disclosed that it suspended 30,000 accounts, not 50,000, that were spreading fake news in France ahead of elections there. It did not explicitly tie those accounts to Russian actors. Instead, it identified those accounts after updating its tools for identifying fake accounts, adding flags on accounts that, for instance, repeatedly post the same content or suddenly produce a spike in activity.
That means the French example is not directly comparable to the election ads purchased by accounts that Facebook connected to Russia. Facebook is not asserting that those 470 accounts represent the totality of fake accounts on the platform. They’re merely the accounts Facebook has so far linked to Russia. That said, Warner’s point is well taken: without more information on how Facebook found those accounts, it’s impossible to know what the company may have missed.
ProPublica recently found that it’s possible to target ads on Facebook to categories of people who identify as “Jew haters” and other anti-Semitic terms. How does that relate to this?
These are distinct issues, but there is some overlap. ProPublica recently reported that it had purchased $30 of ads, targeted at users Facebook thought might be interested in terms like “Jew hater,” “how to burn Jews,” and “why Jews ruin the world.” Facebook’s advertising tool had scraped these terms from users’ profiles and turned them into categories advertisers could target. Those categories comprised a tiny subset of the 2 billion Facebook users, but ProPublica showed that it could assemble such a cohort and send its members targeted ads in 15 minutes. Facebook temporarily changed its ad tool to prevent these user-generated terms from being turned into advertising categories.
The company views this as a separate issue from Russian ads. And yet, both incidents point to a lack of oversight of Facebook’s advertising platform. The reason Russians could easily buy political ads to sway American voters is the same reason anyone can target ads to neo-Nazis: Facebook’s advertising systems are largely automated, and anyone can set up an ad campaign with little human oversight from Facebook.
Last week, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg issued a statement saying Facebook had restored the ability of advertisers to target user-generated terms, but had taken measures to weed out the bad ones. It’s also adding additional human oversight to the process of selling ads, and is setting up a system through which anyone can report abuses of the ad tool. Something tells us they’re in for an onslaught.