How (Not) To Report On Russian Disinformation 

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From Aric Toler at bellingcat, a short course in how read news stories about Russian disinformation.

Case in point: a bad New York Times story that hyped a Swedish blogger all out proportion.

To be sure, there is such a thing as Russian disinformation, and it warrants coverage from journalists and researchers. However, the way that this topic is covered in many large Western outlets is not always as precise as it could be, and often lacks sufficient context and nuance. This issue came into focus this week when the New York Times published an article with a glaring inaccuracy about Russian disinformation — an article which was then shared by President Obama.

Source: bellingcat – How (Not) To Report On Russian Disinformation – bellingcat

Britain Names New MI5 Chief: The Spy Who Investigated 2018 Novichok Attack  

Mishkin & Chepiga
Would-be GRU assassins talk to RT. It didn’t go well. (Credit: RT)

His name is Kenneth McCallum. MI5 is the British domestic security service, the equivalent of America’s FBI.

MI5, established in 1909 to counter German espionage ahead of World War One, is tasked with protecting British national security. Its main job is currently countering international terrorism though it is also a counter-intelligence agency. It employs about 4,000 people. MI5 said one of McCallum’s top priorities was enabling the agency to seize the fast-moving opportunities provided by technology, including machine learning.

McCallum’s credential include the Skripal case.

After former Russian double agent [Sergey] Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned with a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as “Novichok” in 2018, McCallum led the agency’s response to the attempted murder, MI5 said.

The British concluded that two agents of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, were responsible for the attack.

Source: Britain Names New MI5 Chief: The Spy Who Investigated 2018 Novichok Attack – The New York Times

Bellingcat: The Implausible ‘False Flag’ Theory About a Syrian Chemical Attack

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Victims of a chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria

Last year I reviewed the evidence of the chemical attack in Douma, Syria and came away unconvinced by the “false flag” scenario advanced by some critics of U.S. policy. While the U.S. is known to mount “false flag” operations, the evidence from Douma does not support the claim that an attack was staged to blame the Syrian government for someone else’s actions.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded the April 2018 attack was perpetrated by Syria and used chlorine to kill dozens of people. One investigator working with OPCW said that the impact crater on the roof the building where the victims lived cast doubt on whether the deadly ordance had been from the air or manually.

Even if the the so-called OPCW whistleblower, Ian Henderson, was correct about the ordance, the question remains, what is the better alternative? If the facts don’t support a Syrian chemical attack, do they support the critics’ scenario of a “managed massacre,” in which the victims were supposedly killed elsewhere and then brought to the building where a munition was found.

The investigative team at bellingcat, the crowd-sourced geolocation site that has examined the case (as well as Russian assassinations and civilian casualties in Yemen), argues that the “managed massacre” scenario is absurd.

The first thing to understand is the scene of the attack: a densely populated urban neighborhood in a war zone.

To give an idea of how dire the situation was, the Douma pocket surrendered less than 24 hours after this chemical attack, bringing an end to fighting in this area. The bombardment was so intense that medical workers could not move through the city. Any potential plan that would have included placing these cylinders manually must have been carried out under this intense bombardment and chaos.

The idea of mounting a “false flag” operation is such an environment is fanciful, bellingcat notes.

In order to create the scene observed in open source materials, the bodies of at least 34 people, including men, women and children, would have had to have been obtained — possibly via mass murder. The victims would have had to be killed in a way that left no obvious visible trauma. All these bodies would have had to be fresh to account for livor and rigor mortis. 

Either these people were killed in a way that produced a frothy discharge, or the froth was added later to bodies of people who were already dead. The Russian and Syrian presentation at the UN claimed that bodies were transported in from another location and that nobody in the building was affected by any gas. There are, of course, no images or videos showing any of these 34 bodies being unloaded from the cars they were allegedly transported in. No witnesses interviewed immediately after the attack by journalists or the OPCW reported bodies being transported into this location. 

Source: bellingcat – The OPCW Douma Leaks Part 3: We Need To Talk About A “False Flag” Attack – bellingcat

I haven’t seen a convincing answer to these arguments.

Why Russian Media Identified the Alleged CIA Agent, While U.S. Outlets Did Not

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Mulitple Russian news sites identified the CIA spy exfiltrated from Russia because of concerns about his safety, while U.S. news outlets did not. He is Oleg Smolenkov, an assistant to a top foreign policy adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

American outlets reported the asset fed the CIA secrets for years and was able to photograph top-secret documents. But they didn’t report his name, even though they claim to know it, at least not until the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Smolenkov had been living under his real name in suburban Washington.

Two Russian business newspapers Vedomisti and Kommersant, reported yesterday that Smolenkov was the spy. So did Bellingcat, the international investigative site.

Here’s what Meduza an independent news site said while American newspapers were holding back.

Smolenkov also worked at the Russian Embassy in the United States, when [Yuri] Ushakov was the ambassador, and then in the apparatus of the government of the Russian Federation, where Ushakov was deputy head.In the presidential administration, the source claims, Smolenkov had access to “Very sensitive information,” including intelligence information. Another source of Vedomosti in the power structures said that Smolenkov did not have access to classified data, but he could find out such information/

Why the difference? By all accounts, the U.S. media has greater freedom than Russian media. But in this case, Russia media acted more freely.

That’s because U.S journalists deferred to their sources in the intelligence community who said identifying Smolenkov would endanger him. To defy the sources’ desire for continuing secrecy would threaten the journalists’s access to inside sources.

Russian journalists had no such concerns because they have no such sources.

As China Absorbs Xinjiang, Mosques Are Disappearing |

Satellite image of the Imam Asim Shrine in Xinjiang Province, a pilgrimage site that has been dismantled in the last two years. Credit: Digital Globe/ Planet Labs

The scope of Chinese social engineering in the western province of Xinjiang is amazing and appalling. The province, home to the non-Chinese Uighur people, most of the Muslim, is now subject to surveillance and “re-education”on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world.

Now Bellingcat, the online investigative site, says the Chinese government is systematically dismantling the province’s mosques.

From The Guardian

more than two dozen Islamic religious sites that have been partly or completely demolished in Xinjiang since 2016, according to an investigation by the Guardian and open-source journalism site Bellingcat that offers new evidence of large-scale mosque razing in the Chinese territory where rights groups say Muslim minorities suffer severe religious repression. Using satellite imagery, the Guardian and Bellingcat open-source analyst Nick Waters checked the locations of 100 mosques and shrines identified by fo

China’s Ministry of State Security

The conclusions rely on satellite photography with confirmation from current and former residents. The Chinese government says Muslims in the province have freedom of religion. But the scale of the de-construction found in a survey of 91 mosques and shrine sites suggests a deliberate and coordinated effort that could have only emanated from the Chinese government and its Ministry of State Security. .

31 mosques and two major shrines, including the Imam Asim complex and another site, suffered significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018.

Of those, 15 mosques and both shrines appear to have been completely or almost completely razed. The rest of the damaged mosques had gatehouses, domes, and minarets removed.

A further nine locations identified by former Xinjiang residents as mosques, but where buildings did not have obvious indicators of being a mosque such as minarets or domes, also appeared to have been destroyed.

The goal, it seems, is to bend the local culture to agenda of the Chinese government.

Beijing is open about its goal of “sinicising” religions like Islam and Christianity to better fit China’s “national conditions”. In January, China passed a five-year plan to “guide Islam to be compatible with socialism”. In a speech in late March, party secretary ChenQuanguo who has overseen the crackdown since 2016said the government in Xinjiang must “improve the conditions of religious places to guide “religion and socialism to adapt to each other”.

Removing Islamic buildings or features is one way of doing that, according to researchers.

“The Islamic architecture of Xinjiang, closely related to Indian and Central Asian styles, puts on public display the region’s links to the wider Islamic world,” said David Brophy, a historian of Xinjiang at the University of Sydney. “Destroying this architecture serves to smooth the path for efforts to shape a new ‘sinicised’ Uighur Islam.”

Researchers say the destruction of shrines that were once sites of mass pilgrimages, a key practice for Uighur Muslims, represent a new form of assault on their culture.

Source: Revealed: new evidence of China’s mission to raze the mosques of Xinjiang | World news | The Guardian