6:18 AM 12/12/2018 – sundar pichai: a goat or the scapegoat? – Google Search | Google: The New Global Censor or the Greedy Gatekeeper? Or both?
There are many actors in the whole Google/diversity drama, but I’d say the one who’s behaved the worst is the C.E.O., Sundar Pichai.
The first actor is James Damore, who wrote the memo. In it, he was trying to explain why 80 percent of Google’s tech employees are male. He agreed that there are large cultural biases but also pointed to a genetic component. Then he described some of the ways the distribution of qualities differs across male and female populations.
Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.
When it comes to the genetic differences between male and female brains, I’d say the mainstream view is that male and female abilities are the same across the vast majority of domains — I.Q., the ability to do math, etc. But there are some ways that male and female brains are, on average, different. There seems to be more connectivity between the hemispheres, on average, in female brains. Prenatal exposure to different levels of androgen does seem to produce different effects throughout the life span.
In his memo, Damore cites a series of studies, making the case, for example, that men tend to be more interested in things and women more interested in people. (Interest is not the same as ability.) Several scientists in the field have backed up his summary of the data. “Despite how it’s been portrayed, the memo was fair and factually accurate,” Debra Soh wrote in The Globe and Mail in Toronto.
Geoffrey Miller, a prominent evolutionary psychologist, wrote in Quillette, “For what it’s worth, I think that almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate.”
Damore was especially careful to say this research applies only to populations, not individuals: “Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population-level distributions.”
That’s the crucial point. But of course we don’t live as populations; we live our individual lives.
We should all have a lot of sympathy for the second group of actors in this drama, the women in tech who felt the memo made their lives harder. Picture yourself in a hostile male-dominated environment, getting interrupted at meetings, being ignored, having your abilities doubted, and along comes some guy arguing that women are on average less status hungry and more vulnerable to stress. Of course you’d object.
What we have is a legitimate tension. Damore is describing a truth on one level; his sensible critics are describing a different truth, one that exists on another level. He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality. It takes a little subtlety to harmonize these strands, but it’s doable.
Of course subtlety is in hibernation in modern America. The third player in the drama is Google’s diversity officer, Danielle Brown. She didn’t wrestle with any of the evidence behind Damore’s memo. She just wrote his views “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” This is ideology obliterating reason.
The fourth actor is the media. The coverage of the memo has been atrocious.
As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” Various reporters and critics apparently decided that Damore opposes all things Enlightened People believe and therefore they don’t have to afford him the basic standards of intellectual fairness.
The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos.
Which brings us to Pichai, the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”
That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.
Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a nonleadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.
Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a nonleadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai told lawmakers Tuesday that more than 100 employees at Google have been involved in developing a censored search product for users in China, providing important new details about the scope and extent of its controversial effort to reenter the Chinese search market.
Pichai, who sat for several hours of broad questioning by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, was grilled about the company’s China plans. The Google CEO sidestepped many of the questions by repeating that “right now, there are no plans to launch a search service in China.”
But the repeated, and increasingly specific, questions eventually forced Pichai to divulge some details about the internal workings of the censored search project, known as Dragonfly.
“We have explored what search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China, that’s what we explored,” Pichai said at one point.
“The number of engineers on the project have varied over time. At one point, we had over 100 people working on it is my understanding,” he said in response to questions about the size of the project.
Internal and external tensions have been high concerning the potential for a censored Google search product in China since details of the effort were reported earlier this year by the online news organization The Intercept. At one point during Tuesday’s hearings, a protester barged in and held up a sign that combined the company name and the Chinese flag.
Google offered a censored search engine in China years ago, but the company shut down the service in 2010, saying that the Chinese government’s censorship requirements had become too onerous and violated the company’s ethics. Dragonfly would represent a major reversal of Google’s stance, positioning the company to tap into the world’s largest internet market.
While Google has acknowledged the existence of the Dragonfly project in the past, it has provided few details about it until now.
Here are some of Pichai’s most important China comments from Tuesday’s hearing:
Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania): Did Google create a prototype for a censored search engine in China?
Pichai: We have explored what search could look like if it were to be launched in a country like China, that’s what we explored.
Rothfus: How many months was the project ongoing?
Pichai: We have had the project underway for a while, and there have been other projects underway for a while, and we have never launched them too.
Rothfus: How many people?
Pichai: The number of engineers on the project have varied over time.
Pichai: At one point, we had over 100 people working on it is my understanding.
In an earlier exchange with Rep. David Cicilline, Pichai was a bit more evasive in answering questions about the China project:
Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island):
Are any employees currently having product meetings on this Chinese project? And if not, when did those end?
Pichai: We have taken on an internal effort, but right now there are no plans to launch a search service in China, as I said earlier.
Cicilline: Are there any current discussions with any member of the Chinese government on launching this app?
Pichai: Currently, we are not in discussions around launching a search project in China.
Cicilline: Are there any current discussions with members of the Chinese government about this?
Pichai: This effort currently is an internal effort. I’m happy to, be transparent to the extent we take steps towards launching a product in China.
Cicilline: And who at Google is leading the Dragonfly effort?
Pichai: Our efforts around building search is undertaken by our search teams, but these are distributed efforts. It’s a limited effort internally currently.
Cicilline: Will you, Mr. Pichai, rule out launching a tool for surveillance and censorship in China while you are CEO of Google?
Pichai: Congressman, I commit to engaging. One of the things that’s important to us as a company, we have a stated mission of providing users with information, and so we always think it’s in our duty to explore possibilities to give users access to information. I have a commitment, but as I’ve said earlier on this we’ll be very thoughtful and we’ll engage wide as we make progress.
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. lawmakers’ grilling of Google CEO Sundar Pichai may have sounded like a broken record, but it amplified the prickly issues facing tech companies as Democrats prepare to take control of the House next month.
The 3 1/2-hour hearing Tuesday hit upon familiar themes — online privacy, data protection and the danger of digital monopolies — that are poised to come into even sharper focus next year.
Here are some of the hurdles that Google parent Alphabet Inc., Facebook, Amazon and other tech companies are likely to face when the 116th Congress convenes.
Looming over the tech industry is the possibility of government regulation intended to protect people’s data. One model for lawmakers may be Europe, where new rules governing data and privacy went into effect this year.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tried to pin down Pichai on privacy during Tuesday’s hearing. “I’ve got an iPhone,” Poe said, waving his device. “Can Google track me when I move?” If he moved to the left toward his Democratic colleagues on the panel, would Google know?
“Not by default,” Pichai answered. Poe demanded a yes or no answer, but Pichai indicated it was complicated.
Other lawmakers questioned whether regular people know how much data Google can collect about them and how to stop being tracked. Privacy, of course, is also a huge issue for Facebook, which has spent nearly a year trying to recover from the Cambridge Analytica data mining scandal.
SEARCHING FOR BIAS
Lawmakers from both parties seem determined to re-examine whether Google rigs its search results to promote its own services and its own political agenda, too. President Donald Trump also has complained about the issue (without evidence ).
European regulators already have concluded Google manipulated its search engine to gain an unfair advantage over other online shopping sites in the lucrative e-commerce market, and fined the company $2.8 billion. Google disputes those findings and is still appealing the decision reached in 2017.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission opened a similar investigation into Google’s business practices in 2011. That probe concluded 19 months later without finding any serious misconduct and didn’t require any meaningful changes to how the company operates. But internal documents later surfaced that indicated the FTC’s board had brushed off some recommendations of staff lawyers who believed Google was tinkering with its search results in way that stifled competition.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told Pichai he intended to work with the FTC to draw up a regulatory framework to prevent Google from throttling its rivals through its search engine, which handles two out of every three queries in the U.S.
Numerous lawmakers also asserted that Google uses its search engine as a propaganda machine that highlights news and opinions supporting its own view of how the world should be. The prevailing consensus so far is that the alleged bias most frequently falls on the left-leaning side of most debates, although that pendulum could swing now that Democrats will be the majority party in the House.
Following the latest events in and around the Black Sea, two old questions are reappearing. Both are inviting us for a repeated elaboration:
If a Monroe doctrine (about the hemispheric security exclusivity) is recognised at one corner of the globe, do we have a moral right or legal ground to negate it at the other corner? This irrespectively from the fact that Gorbachev-Yeltsin Russia unilaterally renounced the similar doctrine – the Brezhnev doctrine about irreversibility of communist gains.
Clearly, the ‘might-makes-right’ as a conduct in international relations cannot be selectively accepted. Either it is acknowledged to all who can effectively self-prescribe and maintain such a monopoly of coercion, or it is absolutely (revoked and) condemned as contrary to behaviour among the civilised nations.
Next to the first question is a right of pre-emption.
It is apparent that within the Black Sea theatre, Russia acts in an unwilling, pre-emptive and rather defensive mode. That is not a regime change action on the other continent following the rational of extra security demand by exclusive few. Fairly, it is an equalising reactive attempt within the near abroad. For the last 25 years, all the NATO military interventions were outside its membership zone; none of the few Russian interventions over the same period was outside the parameter of former USSR.
Before closing, let us take a closer look on the problem from a larger historical perspective.
Una hysteria Importante
Historically speaking, the process of Christianization of Europe that was used as the justification tool to (either intimidate or corrupt, so to say to) pacify the invading tribes, which demolished the Roman Empire and brought to an end the Antique age, was running parallel on two tracks. The Roman Curia/Vatican conducted one of them by its hammer: the Holy Roman Empire. The second was run by the cluster of Rusophone Slavic Kaganates, who receiving (the orthodox or true/authentic, so-called Eastern version of) Christianity from Byzantium, and past its collapse, have taken over a mission of Christianization, while forming its first state of Kiev Russia (and thereafter, its first historic empire). Thus, to the eastern edge of Europe, Russophones have lived in an intact, nearly a hermetic world of universalism for centuries: one empire, one Tsar, one religion and one language.
Everything in between Central Europe and Russia is Eastern Europe, rather a historic novelty on the political map of Europe. Very formation of the Atlantic Europe’s present shape dates back to 14th–15th century, of Central Europe to the mid-late 19th century, while a contemporary Eastern Europe only started emerging between the end of WWI and the collapse of the Soviet Union – meaning, less than 100 years at best, slightly over two decades in the most cases. No wonder that the dominant political culture of the Eastern Europeans resonates residual fears and reflects deeply insecure small nations. Captive and restive, they are short in territorial depth, in demographic projection, in natural resources and in a direct access to open (warm) seas. After all, these are short in historio-cultural verticals, and in the bigger picture-driven long-term policies. Eastern Europeans are exercising the nationhood and sovereignty from quite a recently, thus, too often uncertain over the side and page of history. Therefore, they are often dismissive, hectic and suspectful, nearly neuralgic and xenophobic, with frequent overtones.
Years of Useful Idiot
The latest loss of Russophone Europe in its geopolitical and ideological confrontation with the West meant colossal changes in Eastern Europe. One may look into geopolitical surrounding of at the-time largest eastern European state, Poland, as an illustration of how dramatic was it. All three land neighbors of Poland; Eastern Germany (as the only country to join the EU without any accession procedure, but by pure act of Anschluss), Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union have disappeared overnight. At present, Polish border countries are a two-decade-old novelty on the European political map. Further on, if we wish to compare the number of dissolutions of states worldwide over the last 50 years, the Old continent suffered as many as all other continents combined: American continent – none, Asia – one (Indonesia/ East Timor), Africa – two (Sudan/South Sudan and Ethiopia/Eritrea), and Europe – three.
Interestingly, each and every dissolution in Europe was primarily related to Slavs (Slavic peo-ples) living in multiethnic and multi-linguistic (not in the Atlantic Europe’s conscripted pure single-nation) state. Additionally, all three European fragmentations – meaning, every second dissolution in the world – were situated exclusively and only in Eastern Europe. That region has witnessed a total dissolution of Czechoslovakia (western Slavs) and Yugoslavia (southern Slavs, in 3 waves), while one state disappeared from Eastern Europe (DDR) as to strengthen and enlarge the front of Central Europe (Western Germany). Finally, countless centripetal turbulences severely affected Eastern Europe following the dissolution of the Soviet Union (eastern Slavs) on its frontiers.
Irredentism in the UK, Spain, Belgium, France and Italy, or Denmark (over Faroe Islands and Greenland) is far elder, stronger and deeper. However, all dissolutions in Eastern Europe took place irreversibly and overnight, while Atlantic Europe remained intact, with Central Europe even enlarging territorially and expanding economically.
Deindustrialized, incapacitated, demoralized, over-indebted, re-feudalized, rarified and de-Slavicized
Finally, East is sharply aged and depopulated –the worst of its kind ever– which in return will make any future prospect of a full and decisive generational interval simply impossible. Honduras-ization of Eastern Europe is full and complete. Hence, is it safe to say that if the post-WWII Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was overt and brutal, this one is subtle but subversive and deeply corrosive?
The key (nonintentional) consequence of the Soviet occupation was that the Eastern European states –as a sort of their tacit, firm but low-tempered rebellion – preserved their sense of nationhood. However, they had essential means at disposal to do so: the right to work was highly illuminated in and protected by the national constitutions, so were other socio-economic rights such as the right to culture, language, arts and similar segments of collective nation’s memory. Today’s East, deprived and deceived, silently witnesses the progressive metastasis of its national tissue.
Ergo, euphemisms such as countries in transition or new Europe cannot hide a disconsolate fact that Eastern Europe has been treated for 25 years as defeated belligerent, as spoils of war which the West won in its war against communist Russia.
It concludes that (self-)fragmented, deindustrialized and re-feudalized, rapidly aged rarified and depopulated, (and de-Slavicized) Eastern Europe is probably the least influential region of the world – one of the very few underachievers. Obediently submissive and therefore, rigid in dynamic environment of the promising 21st century, Eastern Europeans are among last remaining passive downloaders and slow-receivers on the otherwise blossoming stage of the world’s creativity, politics and economy. Seems, Europe still despises its own victims…
Admittedly, by the early 1990s, the ‘security hole’– Eastern Europe, has been approached in multifold fashion: Besides the (pre-Maastricht EC and post-Maastricht) EU and NATO, there was the Council of Europe, the CSCE (after the 1993 Budapest summit, OSCE), the EBRD and EIB. All of them were sending the political, economic, human dimension, commercial signals, assistance and expertise. These moves were making both sides very nervous; Russia becoming assertive (on its former peripheries) and Eastern Europe defiantly dismissive. Until this very day, each of them is portraying the NATO enterprise as the central security consideration: One as a must-go, and another as a no-go.
No wonder that the absolute pivot of Eastern Europe, and the second largest of all Slavic states – Ukraine, is a grand hostage of that very dilemma: Between the eastern pan-Slavic hegemony and western ‘imperialism of free market’. Additionally, the country suffers from the consolidated Klepto-corporate takeover as well as the rapid re-Nazification.
For Ukraine, Russia is a geographic, socio-historic, cultural and linguistic reality. Presently, this reality is far less reflected upon than the seducing, but rather distant Euro-Atlantic club. Ukraine for Russia; it represents more than a lame western-flank’ geopolitical pivot, or to say, the first collateral in the infamous policy of containment that the West had continuously pursued against Russia ever since the 18th century.
For Moscow, Kiev is an emotional place – an indispensable bond of historio-civilizational attachment – something that makes and sustains Russia both Christian and European. Putin clearly redlined it: Sudden annexation of Crimea (return to its pre-1954 status) was an unpleasant and humiliating surprise that brought a lot of foreign policy hangover for both the NATO and EU.
Nevertheless, for the Atlantist alarmists (incl. the Partition studies participants and those working for the Hate industry), military lobbyists and other cold-war mentality ‘deep-state’ structures on all sides, this situation offers a perfect raison d’etre.
Thus drifting chopped off and away, a failed state beyond rehabilitation, Ukraine itself is a prisoner of this domesticated security drama. Yet again, the false dilemma so tragically imploded within this blue state, of a 50:50 polarized and deterritorialized population, over the question where the country belongs – in space, time and side of history. Conclusively, Eastern Europe is further twisting, while gradually combusted between Ukrainization and Pakistanization. The rest of Europe is already shifting the costs of its own foreign policy journey by ‘fracking’ its households with a considerably (politically) higher energy bills.
Earlier version of the text was published by the Vision & Global Trends
French Gendarmes patrol past wooden barracks shops at the traditional Christkindelsmaerik (Christ Child market) closed the day after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 12, 2018.. (photo credit: VINCENT KESSLER/ REUTERS)
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On Tuesday night a man shot at a crowd in central Strasboug. Three were killed and 12 injured in the attack that took place next to a Christmas market. By Wednesday morning security forces were still hunting the suspect, who is known to counter-terrorism services. He initially fled in a taxi from the city of 270,000 which is located near the German border.
According to reports the perpetrator appears to have acted alone. This conjurs up memories of the murder of 12 people in the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin. The perpetrator in the Germany attack, who was born in Tunisia in 1992 had been in prison in Italy where he was allegedly “radicalized.” German security services had warned of his terrorist connections in the spring of 2016 and he was supposed to be deported.
According to France 24 the suspect in the Strasbourg shooting was also known to police. He is 29 years old and was born in Strasbourg. He was confronted by soldiers who have been deployed in French cities as part of Operation Sentinelle. These soldiers were deployed after the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130. The Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has said the suspect “sowed terror” at three places in the city. The reference to “three places” leaves more questions about what happened. It appears that the reference is to the suspect coming into contact twice with security forces and exchanging fire with them.
As with many attacks in Europe over the last several years the suspect was already known to security and police. He had served a sentence and been convicted of unspecified crimes in both France and Germany, according to reports. In 2016 he was “flagged by anti-terrorist services,” France 24 reported. “He had been reported by the General Directorate for Internal Security.” The intelligence agency had even visited him in prison and taken account of his “religious proselytism.” Yet, even with this long rap sheet and being monitored by security forces, he carried out an armed robbery on Tuesday before the attack. During a search of his apartment grenades were found which leads to questions about how a man who was well known for violent proclivities and apparently religious extremism was able to acquire his arsenal.
The attack took place within one kilometer of the European Parliament, which has taken the attack in stride. Antonio Tajani, the president of the parliament, tweeted the parliament would not be intimidated. “Let us move on,” he wrote. But residents and others may want more answers. One man told the BBC that he had attempted to aid a victim of the attack, waiting for 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. “A doctor told us on the phone that it was senseless,” to continue to aid the dead victim. This leads to questions about why medical services took so long to reach the scene.
The attack in Strasbourg is among the most serious incidents this year in Europe, after a spate of ISIS-inspired attacks between 2015 and 2017. However the background of the alleged perpetrator appears to fit a much larger pattern, particularly in France. Mohammed Merah, the perpetrator of the Toulouse and Montaubon attacks, was born in Toulouse. A petty criminal he then went to Afghanistan and Pakistan and was placed under surveillance in 2006 and again in 2009. He went to Egypt and Pakistan and was followed by security service upon his return in 2011. Yet despite all this he was able to acquire weapons and between March 11 and 19 went on a spree of killing, targeting soldiers and then a Jewish school.
Next Up: 4dfd9e84-751f-4672-9102-01d99578ca87
One of the suspects in the November 2015 Paris attacks had a similar long rap sheet. Arrested for armed robbery in 2010, convicted for theft twice, breaking and entering once, and convicted of theft again in 2012. Then the suspect went to Syria, engaged in extremism, and returned to Europe. A second member of the cell that planned the 2015 Paris attack was named Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He too was arrested in 2010 for breaking into a garage, spent time in three prisons, and then went to Syria. He was even convicted of abduction and video in Syria showed him next to “bloody corpses” as he bragged he had loaded trucks with the bodies of “infidels.” Nevertheless he was able to return to Europe via Greece and is alleged to have helped plan four attacks in the spring of 2015 before being tracked down after the Paris attacks.
Similarly the 2016 Brussels terror attack was carried out by men who had a long history of criminal and terrorist activity. Ibrahim EL Bakraoui had been involved in a robbery and gun battle with police in 2010. He was released in 2014 and travelled to Turkey before returning to Belgium. Another perpetrator, named Khalid El Bakraoui had been involved in “several” carjackings and had been caught with numerous illegal AK-47s. He was also convicted of “robbery and kidnapping” in 2009. Yet for all these crimes he received only several years in prison.
Almost every major attack in Europe in the last several years has fit this pattern. The 2017 Stockholm truck attack was also carried out by a perpetrator who had connections to jihadist groups and was involved in other criminal activities prior to the attack. He was also known to security services.
French authorities have not released a motive behind the Strasbourg attack although counter-terrorism prosecutors have opened and investigation. They had also not released the suspect’s name or a photo by Wednesday morning, despite there being a major manhunt. The French deputy interior minister was quoted in Reuters saying it was not clear if the suspect was still in France. This will lead to many questions about how the man was able to obtain weapons and why he was able to elude police throughout the day Tuesday before the attack, despite being wanted for another crime.
The problem for security services in many European countries still appears to be the gap between surveillance of members of the criminal-terrorist extremist nexus, and prosecuting perpetrators for crimes such as acquiring illegal firearms. In almost every incident the perpetrators are known and some have been involved in numerous serious crimes. Yet they have received short sentences and usually been able to go on to commit new crimes while acquiring weapons. There also appears to be a continuing issue involving coordinating between countries. If the suspect in Strasbourg was able to get to Germany, despite clashes with security forces, that will lead to questions about how quickly the Germans were alerted. The suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack also was able to cross numerous borders before being tracked down in Italy. Why police did not release the photo, description or details about the perpetrator more than 12 hours after the incident was also unclear. Eventually these details will be explained, but the incident shows that despite deploying soldiers as part of the wide-ranging Sintinelle operation, there are issues relating to response time and when to interdict suspects during the process of monitoring them.
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The top spy has failed the task, Tymchuk notes, as the world has become aware of Russia’s involvement in radicalizing mass protests.
Dmytro Tymchuk, the coordinator of the Ukrainian-based Information Resistance OSINT community, has said head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia (formerly known as the GRU), Igor Kostyukov, who was appointed to the post on December 10, had to prove himself by fulfilling a task to destabilize the situation around the protests in France.
The new top spy has failed, Tymchuk notes, as the world has become aware of Russia’s involvement in radicalizing mass actions, TSN reports.
Kostyukov replaced former leader Igor Korobov who had recently died, reportedly of a long illness. He was acting head of the Main Directorate for some time. Under Korobov’s leadership, the agency had been shamed with numerous failures, such as a foiled coup in Montenegro or a Petrov-Boshirov failure in Salisbury. However, the France developments were going rather well for Russia.
“The sky seemed to be clear for Kostyukov ahead of his appointment: Korobov was appointed a scapegoat for the agency’s old failures and sins, while Putin promised to return the letter ‘R’ [‘razvedyvatelnoye’ – intelligence] to the official name of the structure. In addition, the GRU was successfully riding the wave of French protests – the trolls were reoriented from the American and British directions to the French one, to slam down on Macron, change the protests’ agenda from economic to political issues, and shape up the ‘necessary’ public opinion. The GRU has also deployed scores of its operatives and assets. And, of course, they also attracted all sorts of radical scum, financed by Russian military intelligence, to radicalize protest sentiments and provoke confrontations [with law enforcement],” Tymchuk wrote on Facebook.
The GRU was already expecting Macron to be forced to step down when a pair of Frenchmen spoiled everything on Saturday, December 8, when they were photographed during Paris protests boasting a flag of the so-called “DPR” and exposed Russia’s involvement in the riots.
“Despite the fact that the Kremlin and its entire propaganda army are now trying to absurdly justify and vindicate themselves, we can be sure that the French intelligence services, which have launched an investigation, will prove that Russian intel meddled in France’s internal affairs, as it did before in Montenegro, the United States, and Britain,” Tymchuk said.
A look at where the investigations related to President Donald Trump stand and what may lie ahead for him.
WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT?
Trump is facing criminal investigations in Washington and New York.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. Trump also plays a central role in a separate case in New York, where prosecutors have implicated him in a crime. They say Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal hush money payments to two women as a way to quash potential sex scandals during the campaign.
SO … DID THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN COLLUDE WITH RUSSIA?
There is no smoking gun when it comes to the question of Russia collusion. But the evidence so far shows a broad range of Trump associates had Russia-related contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign and transition period, and that several lied about the communication.
There is also evidence that some people in Trump’s orbit were discussing a possible email dump from WikiLeaks before it occurred. American intelligence agencies and Mueller have said Russia was the source of hacked material released by WikiLeaks during the campaign that was damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort.
OTHER QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
—WHAT ABOUT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE? That is another unresolved question that Mueller is pursuing. Investigators have examined key episodes such as Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his fury over the recusal from the investigation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
—WHAT DOES TRUMP HAVE TO SAY ABOUT ALL THIS? Trump has repeatedly slammed the Mueller investigation as a witch hunt and insisted there was “NO COLLUSION” with Russia. He also says his now-former lawyer, Cohen, lied to get a lighter sentence in New York.
—WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW TODAY? Two former Trump aides pleaded their case to judges Tuesday in hopes of easing the punishment they could face for their crimes.
Lawyers for former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn asked a judge Tuesday to spare him prison time, saying he had devoted his career to his country and taken responsibility for an “uncharacteristic error in judgment.” Flynn has admitted lying to the FBI just days after Trump took office about conversations he had during the transition with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States.
Also Tuesday, lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort said they were still deciding whether to dispute allegations that he lied to investigators and breached a plea agreement. Manafort has been convicted in Washington and Virginia of crimes related to years of Ukrainian political consulting work. Although the charges don’t directly touch Trump, Manafort was a central figure during the campaign, which means he could pass along potentially damaging information.
TIME magazine named special counsel Robert Mueller near the top of its shortlist for Person of The Year 2018, painting a picture of a dedicated no-nonsense prosecutor keeping his high-profile and fast-moving investigation insulated from the political firestorm surrounding it.
According to those who know him best, Mueller “is the kind of man who flicks the lights off and on at his home to inform guests that it’s time to leave a social gathering,” TIME wrote.
Mueller, a former FBI director of 12 years and seasoned federal prosecutor, was named by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as the special counsel in May 2017 to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the campaign of President Donald Trump illegally collaborated with Moscow to tilt the race in Trump’s favor.
Since taking over the probe, Mueller’s team has charged five Americans once affiliated with Trump’s campaign or administration, 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian intelligence officers, three Russian companies, and two other people with crimes.
Even as Mueller’s investigation closes in on some of Trump’s top allies, colleagues describe Mueller as fiercely loyal to procedure and duty-driven, qualities they say stem from his early life experience serving in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War after college.
Mueller is also notoriously tough on his subordinates, known to “chew out” FBI special agents whose work didn’t match his standards and interrupt attorneys at the DOJ by asking “What is the issue?” when they didn’t explain things concisely enough.
But Mueller didn’t fare as well when he interjected with that same question while his wife of 52 years, Ann Mueller (neé Cabell Standish), was telling him about a tough day she had, as he recounted in a 2013 commencement address at the College of William & Mary.
“I am your wife,” Mueller recalled her replying. “I am not one of your attorneys. Do not ever ask me, ‘What is the issue?’ You will sit there and you will listen until I am finished.”
That night, I did learn the importance of listening to those around you—truly listening—before making judgment, before taking action,” Mueller added. “I also learned to use that question sparingly, and never, ever with my wife.”
Sergiy Lazarev, a former official of the Defence Ministry, who was detained for leaking data about Ukraine’s planes to Russia
Counterintelligence revealed GRU undercover agent “Sokrat”. He hopes for exchange.
Lazarev was recruited in Russia, where he visited his sister. Russians were interested in the secret information of the Ukrainian military aviation, and Lazarev exchanged military secrets for a residence permit in Russia.
“Sokrat” was leaking information about Ukraine’s planes to Russia for three years in a row. The amount of the information he shared remains unknown. The laptop the Russian intelligence gave him looks like a cheap computer. But the software it has destroys all the traces of the contacts.
“After data transmission, it eliminated the data and the route it followed. We failed to restore its route,” Oleksandr Tkachuk, a cybersecurity expert, says.
“Sokrat” slipped up when he expressed interest in the airbase near Kyiv. His operation failed. Now, “Sokrat” is kept in Lukyanivska prison.
Earlier, it was reported that ex-officer who spied for Russia’s benefit for 20 years was arrested in Austria.
Ukraine’s service for foreign intelligence began the official procedure of withdrawal from the CIS Agreement on Cooperation of Intelligence and Security Services. The press office of the Ukrainian authority reported that on Tuesday evening.
The original agreement was signed in 1992.
‘The part of Ukrainian intelligence in this agreement, standing next to the Russian special services is an absurd thing, taking into account the armed aggression of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which lasts for four years now. The Ukrainian intelligence found out that the Russian special services used a powerful resource to prevent Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Kremlin’s influence orbit. It gets more and more obvious that the respective large-scale operation was conducted by the Russian special services in Ukraine far before the open armed attack on our state in 2014’, the Ukrainian authority states.
Previously, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko signed the decree, which stipulates Ukraine’s withdrawal from all authorities of the CIS. He also added that Ukraine would reconsider the international agreements signed within the CIS, retreating from those, which do not meet the country’s national interests.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is facing escalating criminal investigations in Washington and New York that are examining not only whether his campaign coordinated with the Kremlin but also whether he illegally bought the silence of two women who say they had sex with him.
A look at the nearly three dozen people charged by special counsel Robert Mueller and unanswered questions about what may lie ahead for the president — labeled “Individual-1” in court papers — and his administration:
WHAT’S THE LATEST?
Special counsel Robert Mueller
AP FILE, 2013
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan for the first time connected the president to a federal crime, accusing him of orchestrating hush-money payments during the campaign by his longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, to a porn star and a former Playboy model. Cohen is due to be sentenced this week.
Mueller’s office, meanwhile, detailed lies they say former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told them even after he agreed to plead guilty and cooperate.
And prosecutors are preparing for the sentencing hearing next week of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied to the FBI about his Russian contacts.
* * *
Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia?
That remains unclear, though there is mounting evidence of direct contact throughout the campaign between Trump associates and Moscow and evidence that individuals in Trump’s orbit were discussing a possible email dump from WikiLeaks before it occurred.
American intelligence agencies and Mueller have said Russia was the source of hacked material released by WikiLeaks during the campaign that damaged Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort.
Additional ties between Russians and Trump aides were alleged within the last week. Prosecutors revealed that a Russian contacted Cohen in 2015 and offered “political synergy” between Russia and the Republican campaign. A person familiar with the matter confirmed that that person is a former Russian Olympic athlete named Dmitry Klokov.
Trump and his lawyers have returned a list of written answers on the collusion question to Mueller, but it’s unclear whether investigators will return with more questions.
Former FBI Director James Comey
Did the president obstruct the investigation?
That is another unresolved question that Mueller is pursuing. Investigators have examined key episodes such as Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his fury over the recusal from the investigation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
* * *
THE AMERICAN DEFENDANTS
Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman
— Paul Manafort: He has been convicted in Washington and Virginia of crimes related to years of Ukrainian political consulting work, including allegations he concealed his foreign government work from the United States and failed to pay taxes on it. Although the charges don’t directly touch Trump, he’s nonetheless remained a figure of considerable intrigue and enjoys the continued sympathy of the president, who has left open the door for a pardon.
— Rick Gates: The longtime associate of Manafort and key Trump campaign aide was indicted last year alongside his mentor but months later split from him by pleading guilty to unregistered foreign lobbying work and agreeing to cooperate with Mueller. No sentencing date has been scheduled for Gates, indicating that his cooperation with investigators is continuing.
Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn
— Michael Flynn: He has admitted lying to the FBI just days after Trump took office by telling agents that he had never discussed sanctions with the-then Russian ambassador to the United States. The White House said Flynn had misled administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the conversation and ousted him weeks later. He’s since become a vital cooperator for Mueller, having met 19 times with investigators. Prosecutors aren’t recommending any prison time when he’s sentenced next week.
Michael Cohen, former lawyer to President Donald Trump
— Michael Cohen: He’s at the center of not only Mueller’s investigation but also a separate investigation into hush-money payments. In Mueller’s investigation, Cohen has admitted lying to Congress about a proposed real estate development in Moscow. He told lawmakers the negotiations were done in January 2016 when in fact they stretched deep into the campaign. He also pleaded guilty in New York to campaign finance violations stemming from the payments, with prosecutors saying he “acted in coordination and at the direction of Individual-1” — Trump.
George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who triggered the Russia investigation
— George Papadopoulos: The former foreign policy adviser recently finished a 14-day prison sentence after admitting lying to the FBI about a 2016 conversation with a Maltese professor who told him Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails.
* * *
Russian President Vladimir Putin
— Twelve military intelligence officers were charged in July with hacking the email accounts of Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic Party and then facilitating the release of tens of thousands of private communications. It remains perhaps the most direct example of what American intelligence officials say was a broad conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.
That indictment did not accuse any Americans of participating in the conspiracy, though it did include an eye-catching detail: The Russian hackers, prosecutors say, made an attempt to break into Clinton’s network just hours after Trump appeared to invite them to do so. In a July 27, 2016, speech, Trump urged Russia to look for emails that Clinton said she had deleted from her tenure as secretary of state.
“Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
— A separate indictment charges 13 Russians with using a covert social media propaganda campaign to sow discord among Americans in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors say the scheme was run by a Russia-based troll farm that relied on bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the election.
* * *
— Konstantin Kilimnik: The Ukrainian native, who U.S. authorities say has ties to Russian intelligence, was indicted on obstruction of justice charges involving Manafort. The men are accused of trying to persuade two witnesses to lie about the nature of political consulting and lobbying work they carried out for Ukrainian interests.
— Richard Pinedo: The California man was sentenced in October to six months in prison for unwittingly aiding the Russian troll farm by selling stolen identifications and bank account numbers that were used by Russians to establish PayPal accounts and purchase advertisements on Facebook.
Alex van der Zwaan
— Alex van der Zwaan: The Dutch attorney became the first person punished with prison in the Mueller investigation when he was given a monthlong sentence for lying to investigators about his contacts with Gates and Kilimnik and about a report prepared by his law firm about the trial of a former Ukrainian prime minister.
* * *
OTHER NAMES YOU MAY HAVE HEARD
— Roger Stone: The longtime Trump confidant and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” of Republican politics has been under investigation for months as prosecutors try to establish what knowledge he may have had about plans by WikiLeaks to release the stolen Democratic emails in the weeks before the election. Although a 2016 Stone tweet — “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel” — appeared to presage the disclosure of hacked emails, Stone has said he had no inside knowledge about the content, source or timing of WikiLeaks’ disclosure.
AP FILE, 2008
— Jerome Corsi: A conspiracy theorist and Stone friend, he’s been under intense pressure from Mueller and even turned down a plea offer that would have required him to admit intentionally lying about a 2016 conversation he had with Stone about WikiLeaks. It’s unclear when or if he will be indicted, but based on draft documents Corsi has released, prosecutors appear to believe that he misled them about email exchanges involving Assange and the purloined emails.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
— Julian Assange: Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia inadvertently disclosed the existence of a sealed criminal complaint against the WikiLeaks founder, though no details have been publicly announced. Assange, under Justice Department scrutiny for years for WikiLeaks’ role in publishing government secrets, has been an important figure in the Mueller probe as investigators examine how WikiLeaks obtained the stolen emails and whether any Americans were involved in coordinating that effort.
Donald Trump Jr.
— Donald Trump Jr.: The president’s eldest son has attracted scrutiny for his role in arranging a Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 — also attended by Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — at which he expected to receive damaging information on Clinton. He has said the meeting was a waste of time because he didn’t receive anything interesting from the attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya. Both he and his father have suggested that anyone in that position would have taken the meeting in hopes of getting dirt on a political opponent. The meeting has been of interest to investigators, who have called multiple participants before the grand jury.
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Police community support officers outside the Salisbury, England, residence of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal, two days after he and his daughter fell ill from the effects of a nerve agent in March. (Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images)
The initial plan was a Cold War classic — brutal yet simple. Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison designed to produce an agonizing and untraceable death.
Understanding Russia’s global influence
But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours, according to British and U.S. officials who closely followed the events, a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway, this one involving scores of operatives and accomplices and a scheme straight out of the Kremlin’s 21st-century communications playbook — the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear.
Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately, the first of 46 bogus story lines put out by Russian-controlled media and Twitter accounts and even by senior Russian officials, according to a tabulation by The Washington Post — all of them sowing doubt about Russia’s involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. Ranging from the plausible to the fantastical, the stories blamed a toxic spill, Ukrainian activists, the CIA, British Prime Minister Theresa May and even Skripal himself.
The brazenness of the attempt to kill a Russian defector turned British citizen at his home in southwest England outraged Western governments and led to the expulsion of some 150 Russian diplomats by more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Yet, more than eight months later, analysts see a potential for greater harm in the kind of heavily coordinated propaganda barrage Russia launched after the assassination attempt failed.
A TV interview with two suspected Russian assassins
After Sergei Skripal was poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent, the Kremlin spin machine went into overdrive, building to a TV interview with the suspects. (Jason Aldag, Joby Warrick/The Washington Post)
Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014, each aimed, officials say, at undermining Western and international investigative bodies and making it harder for ordinary citizens to separate fact from falsehood. They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia’s arsenal — both foreign policy tool and asymmetrical weapon, one that Western institutions and technology companies are struggling to counter.
“Dismissing it as fake news misses the point,” said a Western security official who requested anonymity in discussing ongoing investigations into the Russian campaign. “It’s about undermining key pillars of democracy and the rule of law.”
Variations on the technique existed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union used propaganda to create alternative realities. In the early years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russian officials and state-owned broadcasters promoted false narratives to explain the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security official who died in 2006 after being exposed to a radioactive toxin in London.
But the disinformation campaigns now emanating from Russia are of a different breed, said intelligence officials and analysts. Engineered for the social media age, they fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people but to bewilder them.
“The mission seems to be to confuse, to muddy the waters,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a former Russian-television producer and author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a memoir that describes the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the news. The ultimate aim, he said, is to foster an environment in which “people begin giving up on the facts.”
A blizzard of falsehoods
After two would-be assassins bungled their attempt to poison Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain, the Kremlin launched a high-powered disinformation campaign to create confusion over what really happened, Western agencies say. Russia media disseminated as many as 46 false stories and conspiracy theories in an attempt to sow doubt about whether Moscow was involved in the crime. Many of the phony tales were spread across social media and repeated by senior politicians.
March 4, 2018
State-controlled Russian media spring into action with stories pushing back against suggestions that the Kremlin was involved.
March 12, 2018
Russian news outlets and social media rush out dozens of alternative explanations and possible culprits.
Spring and Summer
Senior Russian leaders echo false stories that have been circulating in the press and on social media.
Sept. 5, 2018
Russian media and top officials claim the two men were tourists, say evidence was faked.
Moscow has repeatedly rejected such accusations, while suggesting that Britain is responsible for any confusion over what happened in the Skripal case. “Nine months has passed and so far we have not been presented with any official results of the investigation,” Russia’s London Embassy said in a statement to The Post. “The Embassy still has no access to our Russian citizens,” a reference to Skripal and his Russian daughter, Yulia Skripal, who was also sickened in the attack.
Yet the same tactics that were observed in the wake of the Skripal poisoning have been employed multiple times since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in each case following roughly the same script. When pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew members, Russian officials and media outlets sought to pin the blame on the Ukrainian government, suggesting at one point that corpses had been trucked to the crash site to make the death toll appear higher.
State-controlled Russian media unleashed a fusillade of falsehoods after the assassination of reformist politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015 and after at least three deadly chemical weapons attacks against civilians by Syria’s pro-Russian government.
And apart from these concerted campaigns, there is a daily churn of false or distorted reports that seem designed to exploit the divisions in Western society and politics, especially on issues such as race, violence and sexual rights, and that are pushed by droves of operatives posing as ordinary citizens on social media accounts.
While many of the individual stories are easily debunked, the campaigns have had a discernible impact, as measured by opinion polls and, occasionally, public statements by Western politicians casting doubt on the findings of the intelligence agencies of their own governments. In October 2015, months after U.S. and European investigators concluded that Flight 17 had been brought down by a Russian missile fired by separatists, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN that the culprit was “probably Russia” but suggested that the truth was unknowable.
“To be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure,” he said.
Results such as these have encouraged what private groups say is a massive and ever-increasing investment by Moscow, which has placed numerous news outlets fully or partly on its payroll and operates at least one troll factory in which scores of employees disseminate pro-Kremlin messages using thousands of fake social media accounts.
The cost of this matrix is about $1.3 billion a year, according to Russian budget documents — a modest sum, considering the benefits, said Jakub Kalensky, until recently an official with the East StratCom Task Force, a rapid-response team created by the European Union to counter Russian disinformation. Unlike the covert operations used by Russia to influence foreign elections, Russia’s distortion campaigns rarely invite retaliation, he said.
“For Russia, they are a cost-effective method for disrupting and undermining us,” Kalensky said. “You can have quite a good result for the money spent.”
A Salisbury housing complex is cordoned off after the death of 44-year-old woman who was exposed to Novichok, the nerve agent that sickened Sergei Skripal and his daughter. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A botched ‘hit’
By any objective measure, the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal was an unalloyed disaster, the kind of intelligence-agency face plant that might have toppled a government if the operation had been carried out by a Western democracy. For the Kremlin, however, the bungled killing was quickly seized on as a public-relations opportunity.
A Russian military intelligence officer who was released to Britain as part of a spy swap in 2010, Skripal was the object of special scorn for Putin, who would publicly deride him as a traitor and a “scumbag.” Skripal had been convicted in Russia in 2006 of treason for spying for Britain and was serving a 13-year sentence at the time of the swap.
British investigators say two operatives from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, were dispatched to Skripal’s adopted hometown with a perfume bottle filled with Novichok — a deadly nerve agent developed by Soviet scientists in the 1980s — with the aim of quietly poisoning the 67-year-old pensioner.
Almost nothing went according to plan. The operatives came up short in their quest to kill Skripal. He fell gravely ill along with his daughter, but both recovered after being aggressively treated by doctors for exposure to a suspected nerve agent. Moreover, investigators say, the Russian agents compounded their failure with the inadvertent death of a British woman who became ill after her boyfriend stumbled upon a discarded vial of Novichok and gave it to her, thinking it was perfume.
A security-camera image shows the suspect named as Alexander Petrov at London’s Gatwick Airport on March 2. (Metropolitan Police/AP) The suspect named as Ruslan Boshirov, at Gatwick on March 2. (Metropolitan Police/AP)
British investigators quickly identified the toxin as a Russian nerve agent and then publicly identified the suspected hit men, who were repeatedly caught on camera as they wandered around in Salisbury on March 4. Their cover story — the two claimed to be tourists visiting the city’s 13th-century cathedral — was riddled with holes. Surveillance camera footage showed the men walking not toward the cathedral but in the opposite direction, toward the residential neighborhood where Skripal lived. The exiled Russian was poisoned the same day.
“They failed to kill their target, and they failed to be covert,” said retired Rear Adm. John Gower, who oversaw nuclear, chemical and biological defense policy for Britain’s Defense Ministry. “Because of those failures, Russia had to pivot really quickly.”
And so, when the real facts became problematic, Gower said, Russia quickly manufactured new ones. Dozens of them.
A parade of false stories
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine swung into action in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt. Following a playbook already honed in response to events in Syria and Ukraine, Kremlin-controlled outlets produced a plethora of possible explanations. On March 6, two days after the poisoning, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti was already quoting an anesthesiologist saying that the manner of Skripal’s poisoning suggested he was a drug addict and had overdosed.
On March 8 alone, pro-Kremlin news outlets published five phony narratives about the events in Salisbury, offering explanations for Skripal’s illness that included an attempted suicide by Skripal and his daughter and a chemical-weapons leak at the nearby military laboratory at Porton Down.
Dmitry Kiselyov — the host of the program “Vesti Nedeli” (“News of the Week”) on the Rossiya 1 network and a leading figure in the country’s propaganda hierarchy — picked up the baton on March 11. He said that because Skripal was already “completely wrung out and of little interest” as a source, his poisoning was only advantageous to the British to “nourish their Russophobia” and organize a boycott of the summer’s World Cup soccer tournament in Russia.
Then it was the Skripals’ pets turn in the spotlight — two guinea pigs and a fluffy Persian cat named Nesh Van Drake. The lack of information about their condition, Russian officials said in remarks that were broadcast on state TV, showed the British were surely covering something up.
“Where are these pets now?” Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, asked at a Security Council meeting on April 5. “What has happened to them? Why has nobody said anything about them? Their condition is very important evidence.”
The theories kept coming: Was it someone from the Baltics? Was Skripal poisoned on MI5-sponsored trips to chemical labs in the Czech Republic and Spain? Could it be a British government plot to distract attention from Brexit — or even from a pedophilia scandal in the western English town of Telford?
The Skripal affair, RIA Novosti columnist Ivan Danilov wrote, “will continue as long as the government of Theresa May needs it to resolve its own internal problems.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at a roundtable for international news agencies on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in May, rejected Britain’s assertion that a military-grade nerve agent sickened the Skripals. (Clive Marshall/Press Association/AP)
British officials and experts who studied the events say the false narratives emerged from a Russian information ecosystem in which news outlets and social media networks are increasingly intertwined with the country’s intelligence apparatus and official communications organs. While independent media voices flourished briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Putin years have been marked by assassinations of prominent journalists and the silencing or muting of dissent. In recent years, the control over many of the largest news outlets has become nearly absolute, officials and analysts say.
Putin brought Russia’s privately owned, freewheeling TV networks to heel in one of his first major moves as president. The Kremlin now controls all of Russia’s main national television channels — and half of all Russians say television is their most trusted source of news. The channels deliver a strident, conspiratorial, pro-Kremlin message in hours of lavishly produced talk shows and newsmagazine programs every night.
That domestic propaganda machine is backed up by state-owned news agencies, RIA Novosti and Tass, and a stable of pro-Kremlin newspapers and websites. The government expects to spend $303 million on state broadcaster VGTRK and $293 million on RT, the international broadcaster, this year, according to the latest official figures.
Although the Internet in Russia is mostly uncensored and reporting critical of Putin is widely available in print, online and on the radio, the government’s voice is by far the loudest in Russia’s media landscape.
Providing further amplification are social media “troll” factories — including one in St. Petersburg known as the Internet Research Agency, described in a Justice Department indictment earlier this year — where hundreds of workers are paid to disseminate false stories on the Internet, under official direction, U.S. officials said. After a crisis, Russia’s information network lurches into action, promoting stories and theories favored by the Kremlin, often with remarkable creativity, say officials and analysts.
“Different parts of the system echo each other, so the stories build momentum,” said Ben Nimmo, a British-based researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analyzes government disinformation campaigns.
Russian politicians and diplomats then chime in, often ridiculing any official investigation and denouncing claims of Russian involvement, Nimmo said. Russian diplomats — and on multiple occasions, Putin himself — publicly scoffed at Britain’s claims that Russian operatives were behind the Skripal poisoning. The Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London echoed several of the false stories from social media, suggesting that Skripal was a British spy and theorizing that British military scientists had synthesized their own batch of Novichok, with help from a Soviet chemist who defected to the West.
“In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury,” the embassy tweeted, in an allusion to Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective created by novelist Agatha Christie. Some British officials regard such denials as beyond cynical, as the use of Novichok in the poisoning was widely seen as deliberate — a subtle, unspoken claim of responsibility intended to warn other dissidents not to cross Moscow.
Some of the attempts to reshape the Skripal narrative backfired. After British officials on Sept. 5 released surveillance photographs of a pair of Russians suspected of carrying out the plot, RT aired an interview in which the two men claimed that they had been mere tourists in Britain. Their story began to unravel days later when a report by the investigative news site Bellingcat assembled compelling evidence that both men were GRU officers.
The suspects in the Skripal attack, named as Ruslan Boshirov, left, and Alexander Petrov — identities that British officials said were aliases — were captured by a surveillance camera at the Salisbury train station on March 3. (Metropolitan Police/Getty Images)
The men made no effort in the RT interview to explain the traces of Novichok police discovered in their hotel room and instead made an awkward attempt to explain why they made two quick trips to Salisbury over a wintry March weekend. One of them described a desire to see the Salisbury cathedral’s “123-meter spire” and ancient clock, two features that appear on the cathedral’s Wikipedia entry.
Pro-Kremlin media also started pushing the story line that the two men might be gay — and, by implication, could not possibly be part of Russia’s military intelligence service. The “Vesti” news show ran a segment depicting Salisbury as imbued with a spirit of “modern European tolerance” and full of gay bars. In fact, a local newspaper said the town’s sole gay bar had closed three months before the Skripal poisoning.
Yet, even as the alibi attempt turned into farce, Russia’s Foreign Ministry continued to claim that Britain had concocted evidence to frame the men for a crime they could not possibly have committed. “There is no proof,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote in a Facebook posting on Sept. 26, asserting that Britain was seeking to divert the public’s attention from the real story of “what happened in Salisbury.”
As the false stories began to be picked apart, Russia responded with “a mixture of defiance and desperation,” Nimmo said. “You can see the Russian propaganda machine struggling over what to do.”
And yet by then, it no longer mattered. By multiple measures, Moscow had mostly succeeded in achieving the outcome it wanted most — doubt.
A bewildered public
Last month, an independent pollster set out to measure how ordinary Russians viewed the events in Salisbury. The result: Despite lab reports, surveillance photographs and a detailed criminal complaint by British investigators, Russians overwhelmingly rejected the notion that their government was involved in the attack.
Nearly 3 in 10 of the Russians surveyed said they believed Britain was behind the poisoning, while 56 percent agreed with the comment “It could have been anyone,” according to the Levada Center poll, conducted during the third week of October. Only 3 percent were willing to attribute the assassination attempt to Russia’s intelligence agencies.
Indeed, the Kremlin managed to turn the botched assassination and the ensuing Western uproar to Putin’s political advantage. The Russian presidential election was on March 18, and Putin was looking for high voter turnout to legitimize another six-year term. The Skripal affair allowed the Kremlin to turn the public’s attention away from domestic problems and back to the confrontation between Russia and the West — a winning issue for Putin.
By quickly accusing Russia of being behind the poisoning, Britain’s May gave Putin a “pre-election present,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser turned prominent Putin critic, said at the time. “She angered the voters a little bit and gave him another three to five percentage points of turnout.”
Levada sociologist Denis Volkov said the result showed the compelling nature of the us-vs.-them narrative constructed by the Kremlin and state media over the past two decades. In that reality, the West is bent on stopping Russia from returning to great-power status after it brought the country to its knees in the 1990s. The story line builds on many Russians’ memories of chaos, violence and poverty in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In focus groups, Volkov said, people sometimes acknowledged the likelihood of Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning after initially rejecting it. After all, the respondents said, Russia was in a new Cold War with the West, and since the United States and its allies were lying, cheating and killing, Russia had to as well.
“They’ll say, ‘Sure, yeah, we might’ve done it,’ ” Volkov said. “ ‘But what’s the problem? Everyone’s doing it. There’s a war going on, even if it’s a cold war, between Russia and the West. So it’s okay to do it. The main thing is to deny everything.’ ”
Russia’s propaganda organs targeting foreign audiences — the television network RT and the web of radio stations and websites called Sputnik — also promote an anti-American narrative. While Russia’s domestic messaging builds on Russians’ bitterness stemming from the instability after the Soviet collapse, Moscow’s foreign propaganda message capitalizes on an aversion to what is seen as U.S. hegemony and hypocrisy in many parts of the world.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, at a September meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York during which Britain announced its latest findings in the Skripal investigation, pointing to two Russian suspects. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
It’s less clear how effective RT and Sputnik are in pushing Russia’s message abroad. In Britain, the Kremlin’s version of the events in Salisbury has been widely debunked by independent news media. But in central and eastern Europe, where Russian channels in multiple languages are part of the standard cable-TV lineup, the contradictory claims have left viewers confused and bewildered — precisely what the designers of the propaganda campaign intended, said Kalensky, the former E.U. investigator.
“The strategy is to spread as many versions of events as possible and don’t worry that they sometimes contradict themselves,” Kalensky said. “It’s not the purpose to persuade someone with one version of events. The goal for Russia is achieve a state in which the average media consumer says, ‘There are too many versions of events, and I’ll never know the truth.’ ”
Even in the West, government agencies fear that Russia’s efforts are contributing to a growing distrust in traditional sources of information and blurring the line between fact and fiction. While RT’s viewership is relatively small in the West, its stories are frequently recycled on right-wing websites and media outlets.
Just as often, the stream flows in the opposite direction. False stories that first appear on obscure conservative news sites become fodder for Russian TV talk shows. Since the start of the Trump era, Russian channels regularly echo the U.S. president’s allegations about an American “deep state” and his depictions of the mainstream media as “fake news.”
The resulting muddle was highlighted by Putin himself, who, while standing next to President Trump during their July summit in Helsinki, seemed to distill the Kremlin’s approach to the news while responding to a question about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“As for who to believe, who you can’t believe, can you believe at all?” Putin mused, before answering his own questions: “You can’t believe anyone.”
Joby Warrick joined The Washington Post’s National staff in 1996. He has covered national security, the environment and the Middle East and writes about terrorism. He is the author of two books, including 2015’s “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” which was awarded a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Follow
Anton Troianovski is The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously spent nine years at the Wall Street Journal, most recently as Berlin correspondent. Follow