The Justice Department is dropping charges against two companies controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian businessman and confidante of President Vladmir Putin. It was Prigozhin who financed the Internet Research Agency and its social media blitz in support of Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
As time went on the the case brought by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller grew weaker, apparently because of a decision to not to declassify some information that would have been used in a trail.
The case was one of the signature indictments from Mueller’s two-year Russia investigation. Together with a separate case against Russian government hackers accused of breaking into Democratic email accounts, it revealed a sweeping Russian effort to influence, or interfere in, the race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Concord was the sole defendant in the case to enter an appearance in Washington’s federal court and contest the allegations.
The dropping of charges is another setback for the U.S. government’s effort to prove Russian interference. I don’t think it proves Mueller’s case was a “hoax.” It shows the difficulty of making a case based on “national security” information. I wrote about how secrecy muted Mueller’s case against Prigozhin and the IRA in Just Security last year.
The U.S. prosecutors explained the decision like this, according to Politico.
“In light of the defendant’s conduct, however, its ephemeral presence and immunity to just punishment, the risk of exposure of law enforcement’s tools and techniques, and the post-indictment change in the proof available at trial, the balance of equities has shifted. It is no longer in the best interests of justice or the country’s national security to continue this prosecution,” Demers and Shea added.
They said the indictment would remain in place against Prigozhin and 12 other Russian nationals, as well as the company alleged to have coordinated the online rabble-rousing, the Internet Research Agency.
Trump appeared to celebrate the dropping of the charges and the scuttling of the trial as more evidence of the flaws of Mueller’s operation. Late Monday night, the president retweeted another user’s comment about the developments: “How embarrassing for Team Mueller.”
Then there’s this tidbit, from Politico
While prosecutors were not specific in their public filing, one disclosed at a recent court hearing that the Justice Department planned to introduce a mystery witness who they said would implicate Prigozhin in election interference outside Russia. It is unclear whether that person is an intelligence asset, defector or someone else.
Intelligence officials also may have concluded that revealing certain evidence against Concord could put at risk Russians who helped the U.S. conclude that the 2016 activities were directed by the Kremlin. One such Russian with Kremlin ties was housed by the CIA in the Washington suburbs until his identity became public last year.
President Trump’s ongoing purge of the intelligence community, along with Bernie Sanders’ surge in the Democratic presidential race, has triggered an unprecedented intervention of U.S. intelligence agencies in the U.S. presidential election on factually dubious grounds.
Former CIA director John Brennan sees a “full-blown national security crisis” in President Trump’s latest moves against the intelligence community. Brennan charges, “Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.” But congressional representatives, both Democratic and Republican, who heard a briefing by the intelligence community about the 2020 election earlier this month say the case for Russian interference is “overstated.”
On February 21, it was leaked to the Washington Post that “U.S. officials,” meaning members of the intelligence community, had confidentially briefed Sanders about alleged Russian efforts to help his 2020 presidential campaign.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller documented how the Russians intervened on Trump’s behalf in 2016, while finding no evidence of criminal conspiracy. Mueller did not investigate the Russians’ efforts on behalf of Sanders, but the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University did. In a study of social media generated by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Oxford analysts found that the IRA initially generated propaganda designed to boost all rivals to Hillary Clinton in 2015. As Trump advanced, they focused almost entirely on motivating Trump supporters and demobilizing black voters. In short, the Russians helped Trump hundreds of thousand times more than they boosted Sanders.
The leak to the Post, on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, gave the opposite impression: that help for Trump and Sanders was somehow comparable. The insinuation could only have been politically motivated.
What’s driving the U.S. intelligence community intervention in presidential politics is not just fear of Trump, but fear of losing control of the presidency. From 1947 to 2017, the CIA and other secret agencies sometimes clashed with presidents, especially Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Carter. But since the end of the Cold War, under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, the secret agencies had no such problem.
Under Trump, the intelligence community has seen a vast loss of influence. Trump is contemptuous of the CIA’s daily briefing. As demonstrated by his pressure campaign on Ukraine, his foreign policies are mostly transactional. Trump is not guided by the policy process or even any consistent doctrine, other than advancing his political and business interests. He’s not someone who is interested in doing business with the intelligence community.
The intelligence community fears the rise of Sanders for a different reason. The socialist senator rejects the national security ideology that guided the intelligence community in the Cold War and the war on terror. Sanders’ position is increasingly attractive, especially to young voters, and thus increasingly threatening to the former spy chiefs who yearn for a return to the pre-Trump status quo. A Sanders presidency, like a second term for Trump, would thwart that dream. Sanders is not interested in national security business as usual either.
In the face of Trump’s lawless behavior, and Sanders’ rise, the intelligence community is inserting itself into presidential politics in a way unseen since former CIA director George H.W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. Key to this intervention is the intelligence community’s self-image as a disinterested party in the 2020 election.
Former House Intelligence Committee chair Jane Harman says Trump’s ongoing purge of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is a threat to those who “speak truth to power.” As the pseudonymous former CIA officer “Alex Finley” tweeted Monday, the “‘Deep state’ is actually the group that wants to defend rule of law (and thus gets in the way of those screaming ‘DEEP STATE’ and corrupting for their own gain).”
Self-image, however, is not the same as reality. When it comes to Trump’s corruption, Brennan and Co. have ample evidence to support their case. But the CIA is simply not credible as a “defender of the rule of law.” The Reagan-Bush Iran-contra conspiracy, the Bush-Cheney torture regime, and the Bush-Obama mass surveillance program demonstrate that the law is a malleable thing for intelligence community leaders. A more realistic take on the 2020 election is that the U.S. intelligence community is not a conspiracy but a self-interested political faction that is seeking to defend its power and policy preferences. The national security faction is not large electorally. It benefits from the official secrecy around its activities. It is assisted by generally sympathetic coverage from major news organizations.
The problem for Brennan and Co. is that “national security” has lost its power to mobilize public opinion. On both the right and the left, the pronouncements of the intelligence community no longer command popular assent.
Trump’s acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial was one sign. The national security arguments driving the House-passed articles of impeachment were the weakest link in a case that persuaded only one Republican senator to vote for Trump’s removal. Sanders’ success is another sign.
In the era of endless war, Democratic voters have become skeptical of national security claims—from Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, to the notion that torture “works,” to “progress” in Afghanistan, to the supreme importance of Ukraine—because they have so often turned out to be more self-serving than true.
The prospect of a Trump gaining control of the U.S. intelligence community is scary. So is the intervention of the U.S. intelligence community in presidential politics.
The long-impending constitutional crisis has arrived, courtesy of a CIA whistleblower. If his or her complaint was conceived as a covert political action operation, it could not have been more effective. The nine-page letter did what Robert Mueller’s 448-page opus did not: jump-start the impeachment process. The day after Trump acknowledged he spoke with the Ukrainian president about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, seven freshman Democrats, six of them with national security experience, came out for impeachment. Nancy Pelosi, an impeachment skeptic, relented and allowed impeachment proceedings to begin. “The facts changed the situation,” she said.
No, says the president and his defenders. It’s just “BULLSHIT,” tweeted the rattled Trump. His conversation with the Ukrainian president was “perfect,” he intones. To doubt its perfection is to join the ongoing “deep state” conspiracy to get him.
Trump’s defenders, while awash in bad faith and lies, are correct about one thing: there is a subterranean conflict that pulses beneath partisan clashes between congressional Democrats and the Republican president. It is a clash of bureaucratic factions, fought with leaked (or planted) narratives disseminated by allies in the media.
This is the traditional way of Washington politics, now whipped to a froth by the convulsions of a dysfunctional and deregulated political system. Not only do U.S. intelligence agencies see the American presidency is vulnerable to manipulation (or capture) by pro-Trump intelligence services in Moscow, Riyadh, and Jerusalem, but the president himself is viewed as a threat to the national security process.
The crisis runs even deeper than Watergate, which had the effect of empowering Congress and reining in the intelligence agencies. As in Watergate, the Trump crisis pits a president who says there are no limits on his freedom of action against the institutional forces of the CIA and FBI. These agencies were, and are, adept at defending their interests in the Washington press corps. As in Watergate, the interests of the agencies and the Democrats overlap—they both seek to curb and remove a lawless president.
The CIA-White House power struggle is much more naked than during Watergate. In the early 1970s, the agency abhorred the very idea of a “media presence.” The imperious director Richard Helms occasionally testified in Congress, but he gave no interviews. He cultivated senior editors but betrayed few secrets. The CIA, respectable and feared, had many Republican defenders on Capitol Hill. No more.
Today, the Agency is more public and politicized. The agency’s suspicions of Trump crystallized as he marched to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Trump’s arriviste style and proud ignorance were provocative to the agency’s buttoned-down style. So was his “isolationism” and hostility to the shibboleths of free trade and national security. Damaging leaks of classified information from national security sources began even before he took the oath of office.
Since then, the political profile of the CIA has grown. Former directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden have become cable TV regulars, along with a diverse cast of former officers. In 2018, two CIA formers were elected to Congress, and the agency launched its Twitter and Instagram feeds (which, Edward Snowden observes, amount to state-sanctioned propaganda repackaged as adorable social media.)
Publicity is not necessarily an advantage for covert operators. Unlike Nixon, Trump is willing to mobilize popular hostility to his bureaucratic antagonists. Privately, Nixon raged and plotted against the CIA and FBI, but publicly he championed those agencies. He couldn’t and wouldn’t make them a political issue.
Nonetheless, Trump has taken a punch, apparently from the CIA, that has him raging incoherently in public. The whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky transformed Washington’s political reality by capturing Trump, the recidivist, in action.
Last spring, Mueller’s cautious report detailed how Trump’s entourage solicited help from the Russian state agents without ever quite conspiring with them. Mueller documented how Trump obstructed his investigation but left it to others to bring charges. “No collusion,” Trump crowed.
But, barely a day after Mueller’s July 24 appearance before Congress, Trump couldn’t help but do what he had just denied: He sought to collude. The White House summary of his conversation with Zelensky essentially confirmed the whistleblower’s narrative that Trump had tried to solicit—if not extort—a foreign government into helping his 2020 election campaign. Thanks to the CIA officer’s report, the case for impeachment suddenly had a simple narrative and a new urgency.
The role of the CIA is unsettling. President Harry Truman initially opposed the creation of the CIA in 1945 because he feared creating an “American Gestapo,” a secret police force. The agency’s involvement in American politics today is hardly unprecedented. In the early 1990s, four senior agency officers were indicted for leading roles in the Iran-contra conspiracy to bypass a congressional ban on CIA activities in Central America. But, in that case, the agency and the presidency were aligned. President George H.W. Bush, a former director, pardoned the indicted men on the advice of Attorney General Bill Barr. The agency suffered little for its intervention in domestic politics.
Now the CIA and the White House are at war. In comparison with an unstable president, a rogue attorney general, and a coterie of conspiracy theorists, the agency’s credibility is higher than usual. But the Ukrainian revelations, coming from an employee of a law-breaking, not law-making, organization, has to be treated with care.
First of all, meddling in (and profiting from) Ukrainian politics is the norm in the U.S. political class, as Yasha Levine notes. Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign manager, reaped coin in Kiev. So did Tad Devine, a strategist for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. So did Hunter Biden. That doesn’t excuse Trump’s mafioso-like demand for “a favor” from the Ukraine president, but it does explain why he might have thought it was business as usual.
“I do not trust the CIA when it comes to whistleblowers,” says John Kiriakou, a former operations officer turned whistleblower who went to jail for 30 months for confirming details of the CIA’s torture regime to a reporter. “The CIA is protecting itself. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about me. They don’t care about the presidency. They care about themselves.”
The complaint, Kiriakou speculated in a phone interview, was written by “a committee of spies.” He speculated that the whistleblower was advised by CIA superiors, including lawyers, before submitting the complaint to the inspector general in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The New York Times has reported that the whistleblower only shared the complaint anonymously with CIA lawyers. That said, Kiriakou added, “I want to believe the guy. I think his identity should be protected and more people should come forward.”
I asked Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to ex-CIA director Michael Hayden, if he thought the whistleblower’s complaint had been vetted by the agency.
“I’m not going to speculate about something like that,” he replied. “The whistleblower statute was written to protect the identity of the whistleblower, so I would assume he or she wouldn’t want others to know. My reading of the complaint is that it sounds like the whistleblower coordinated with others working on Ukraine issues across the inter-agency [process.] I think they were all concerned that the stated policy of the U.S. government was not being adhered to.”
Under fire from the president, the agency suddenly needs the intelligence oversight process. The post-Watergate reforms—the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts—brought the agency under more supervision, which it consistently resisted. Five years ago, the CIA was stonewalling the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture investigation.
Now the agency embraces oversight to ward off a hostile president.
“Congressional oversight of executive branch activities is a vitally important constitutional tool in maintaining our democracy,” wrote former acting CIA director Michael Morell and coauthor David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security, in a Washington Post column last month. “It is particularly important for intelligence activities because the intelligence community consists of secret organizations operating in a democracy.”
It’s easy to mock Morell’s commitment to democracy given the agency’s record of anti-democratic dirty tricks. The fact that Morell is a Post columnist (and CBS News contributor) illuminates the alignment of the liberal media and the clandestine service. But Morell’s take on the current crisis is hard to fault.
Thanks to a “radical change in our politics … many partisan actors today seek advantage by rejecting bedrock institutions and norms while a significant portion of the electorate responds with nihilistic glee,” wrote Morell and Kris. “As applied to the oversight of intelligence, this convergence is very dangerous, because those institutions and norms are a major part of what keeps the intelligence community properly in check.”
In other words, the beleaguered CIA is looking for allies on Capitol Hill, especially among liberals and Democrats who want stronger oversight. Trump’s impeachment, like Nixon’s, will likely strengthen the hand of those who want to curb the CIA.
“From what we know so far, this looks very much like the story of Mark Felt and Watergate,” says historian Bruce Schulman of Boston University. Felt was the senior FBI official who served as confidential source for the Washington Post’s Watergate reporters as they investigated President Nixon’s abuses of power in the early 1970s.
“There’s a career employee, a lifer, who doesn’t like the way the White House wants to use his or her agency,” Schulman went on. “He or she wants to push back. What’s different is that in the post-Watergate environment, they don’t have to leak to the Post. There are new institutions and processes through which that can happen.”
A president who is out of control confronts an agency that wants to show Congress and the public that it is under control. All of which underscores the new reality of Washington’s impeachment season: nobody’s in control.
The consistently excellent Lobelog describes how Vladimir Putin is using the the Russian private military company, Wagner, for deniable and lucrative military operations in the Middle East and Africa.
The story, by Nicolai Due-Gundersen does not mention the CEO of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, but does demonstrate that Wagner is a tool of Putin’s statecraft. Prigozhin is best known in the United States as one of the 13 employees of the now-rebranded Internal Research Agency who was indicted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. As the financier of the IRA, he was charged with fraudulent actions in attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
Prigozhin is an important character in the murky Trump-Russia story. His exploits knit together Putin’s efforts to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to install himself as the kingmaker of the Middle East. Prigozhin assists in both endeavors.
While financing the IRA in 2016, Prigozhin was also setting up Wagner, a Russian equivalent of Blackwater, the private military company (PMC) set up by Erik Prince. Like Blackwater, Wagner is manned by former special forces soldiers. Like Blackwater, Wagner operates in war zones.
Putin’s use of Wagner forces in Syria should especially interest those who doubt Mueller’s claim that Putin effectively controlled the IRA. The Wagner story shows that Yevgeny Prigozhin executes Putin’s plans.
From the Lobelog story
Wagner Group is only the latest advance in Russia’s flirtation with private warfare. While not the first state to engage in foreign adventures with mercenaries, Russia is setting a dangerous new trend—namely, using mercenaries solely for combat rather than for logistical and peripheral support of their armed forces.
Dr. Kiril Avramov and journalist Ruslan Trad argue that Syria is being used as “an experimental playground” for Russia to perfect “hybrid proxy warfare, blurring the lines between official foreign policy and private groups, Russian action and that of independent parties” to create an ambiguous grey zone of privatised and state-driven combat. “Publicly, [Wagner’s] designation was solely security provision, however, as it became evident in 2018, for the past two years, the company has been very actively involved in training, intelligence collection and forward operations on behalf of Assad’s army. On paper, no official links between the Russian forces in Syria and Wagner exist. [Yet], Wagner personnel are actively augmenting the Russian troops on the ground”.
The story asserts that the Russian PMC is reaping the spoils of war in Syria. If true, the arrangement shows that the Syrian civil war is also a war for oil. In return for protecting or recapturing Assad’s oil field, Prigozhin’s company gets a cut of the profit. While American PMCs operate throughout the Middle East, I have never heard of case where they received a cut of oil filed income.
In addition to being contracted by Assad in exchange for 25% of the profits from assigned oil fields, Wagner Group has recently expanded into Africa. By the start of 2018, Wagner Group had been hired by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to bolster his regime’s security. Wagner staff were expected to ingratiate themselves with a leader wanted for war crimes (he’s since been deposed) so as to gain Russian trade deals for the gold, diamonds and uranium they were being paid to guard.
Due-Gundersen’s conclusion is apt.
A new Cold War has begun, rooted in a warfare of subversion, guerrilla tactics, corruption and strategic alliances in conflict zones. The US and its allies are watching closely.
you talk to people who knew Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III when he was a
young man, you will hear a lot of what you already know. He was hard-working,
lacrosse playing, straight arrow who served in the U.S. Marines between
studying in the privileged precincts of Princeton and University of Virginia
will also hear some finer details. Friends and faculty describe a temperamentally conservative young man who
was comfortable with liberal ideas. Mueller was more methodical than ingenious,
his classmate say, a plodder not a plotter. “Not among
Princeton’s best and brightest,” said one otherwise admiring alumnus. And he
possessed a self-effacing quality that resulted in more than a few saying their
memories of him were dim.
Mueller is now reportedly in the last stages of his investigation of President Trump and his entourage for possible collusion with Russian state agents. His final report (if the recalcitrant Attorney General William Barr makes it public) will set the stage for the last two years of President Trump’s first term.
Whatever Mueller finds, his formative years are prologue to the fury to come.
Mueller’s intellectual formation took shape in his undergraduate thesis for the Department of Politics, submitted in April 1966. His topic: international law and apartheid. In 121 pages of dry prose he analyzed the 1962 decision of the International Court of Justice to accept jurisdiction for a case challenging South Africa’s imposition of apartheid in the territory known as Southwest Africa, now the independent nation of Namibia.
Mueller thanked his thesis adviser Richard Falk, a leftist
scholar for his “stimulating guidance.”
But when a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education called Falk last
year to ask him about Mueller’s thesis, he initially did not
remember its author.
Falk re-read Mueller’s 1966 thesis, “I was extremely impressed with the
maturity and sophistication of the analysis, which was quite unusual for
someone who had not attended law school,” he wrote
in The Nation. “Even though, from my perspective, it sided too strongly with
the conservative interpretation of these complex issues, he did it in a
judicious way and was very fair in his assessment of the opposing view.”
Falk noted the similarity between the situation facing the ICJ in 1962 and the special prosecutor today.
his antipathy to apartheid, Mueller clearly believed that the rejectionists had
the better of the narrow legal arguments. Yet, as suggested, this did not
resolve the issue for Mueller. He set forth an argument showing that South
Africa had pursued an oppressive set of policies and practices that were
imposed on the native population in draconian fashion.
other words,” Falk continued, “Mueller considers the larger purposes of the law
in this context to be the promotion of justice, respect for international law
and human rights, and even the maintenance of peace.”
It was a situation, Falk said, where the opposing views were “both based on
sound legal reasoning, producing a situation in which there is no way to
distinguish legal right and wrong on the merits, thus making non-legal factors
such as human rights, peace, and justice potentially decisive.”
“Yet that wider context,” Falk went on, “… the
court must show proper respect for sovereign rights, avoid the issuance of
ineffective decisions, and not be seen as engaging in judicial legislation.”
Falk’s point: As special prosecutor, Mueller
can’t afford to trample the rights of the accused, bring weak cases to court,
or act as a legislator.
How Mueller balances his legal findings about Trump and Co. with “the larger purposes of the law” will define his report on the president and the Russians.
After graduation, Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps and served two tours in Vietnam. He returned to enroll in UVA Law School in 1970. He joined the law review and received his degree in 1973. His style was unobtrusive.
One classmate, Howard Meyers, now an attorney in Philadelphia,
said via email, “As a student, he was smart, hard-working and articulate… Bob
was also well liked and indeed admired by others who knew him during law
Otherwise, Meyers declined to comment.
“My impression is that Bob wouldn’t want his role as Special Prosecutor to be about him personally, but rather about the job that he and his colleagues are doing on the tasks assigned to them,” Meyers wrote. “I obviously can’t speak to those issues.”
McIntosh, now head of a private school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says he and Mueller
worked as junior editors on the law review “doing mundane things like
was the kind of person who conducted himself with credibility, the kind of
person who inspires confidence,” McIntosh said in a phone interview. “Of all
the positive things, I have read about him, nothing has been overstated. He is
all of that and more. “
on some people he made no deep impression. John Jeffries, editor of the UVA Law Review in 1972-73, said
via email that “Bob and I
were classmates and friends, but not intimate, and I am not in a position to
describe his intellectual formation.”
If history is any guide, Mueller’s forthcoming
Trump-Russia report will be long on facts, process and rule of law, short on
personality and anything but the most pedestrian politics. But unlike the young
man, it will not be forgettable.