Breaking News -- United States
White House stands ground after Russia probe confirmed, says no
The White House stood its ground Monday after FBI Director James Comey confirmed the bureau is probing possible “links” between the Russian government and Trump campaign associates, and knocked down President Trump’s claim that his predecessor wiretapped him.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in response, maintained there’s “no evidence” of collusion with Russia – and said Trump is not withdrawing his allegation against former President Barack Obama, either.
The pushback followed a daylong House intelligence committee hearing where Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testified. Comey used the forum to confirm for the first time that the bureau is probing Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, including possible Trump team ties.
As Trump himself joined the fray on Twitter, Spicer said “nothing has changed” with regard to allegations of Trump-Russia connections.
“Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there’s no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion … and we take them at their word,” Spicer said.
Spicer said that while the FBI is investigating the circumstances of the 2016 campaign, “there is no evidence, according to the people that have been briefed, of any collusion or activity that leads them to believe that that exists.”
He added, “My point to you is that despite the narrative that gets played over and over again …every person Republican and Democrat that has been briefed on it has come to the same conclusion, that there is no collusion and that that’s over.”
At the same time, Spicer said Trump was not prepared to withdraw and apologize for his controversial allegation that Obama directed wiretapping against him.
“This is one in a series of hearings that will be happening,” Spicer said. “There’s a lot of areas that still need to be covered.”
At the hearing, Comey said he has “no information” to support the series of tweets Trump put out earlier this month alleging wiretapping by the Obama administration.
As for the Russia probe, Comey was careful in his testimony not to confirm any details of what the bureau’s Russia investigation has uncovered or dismissed, saying he could not comment further since the probe is “open” and “ongoing.”
But he used his opening statement to address head-on the probe that has been the subject of news reports for months. He noted while the FBI normally would not confirm ongoing investigations, he could make an exception for such “unusual” circumstances.
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said. “That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
He added that this probe will “include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
The White House swiftly pushed back on Twitter, with the official @POTUS account used to highlight one section of the hearing where Rogers and Comey both said they have no evidence that Russian cyber-actors changed vote tallies in swing states.
“The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” the presidential account tweeted.
Republican lawmakers at the hearing repeatedly drew attention to ex-Obama intelligence director James Clapper’s past statement that they found no evidence of Trump campaign-Russia collusion. Comey, asked about that statement, said “I think he’s right” to characterize the intelligence community’s findings that way.
The @POTUS account then highlighted Comey’s response, tweeting a clip of his answer.
Echoing the White House, committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., also closed Monday’s hearing by saying they also “don’t have any evidence” of collusion between Trump and Russia officials.
But Democrats maintained throughout Monday’s hearing that various Russian contacts with associates of the Trump campaign raise troubling questions, not the least of which was former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador; revelations that he misled Vice President Pence on the matter led to his resignation earlier this year.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said after the hearing that it’s in the “public interest” for the FBI to be conducting a criminal probe of Russian meddling in the election
In his opening statement, Schiff said, “If the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history.”
FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at Breitbart, InfoWars news sites
by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon
Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry into the use of bots.
Russia-generated bots are one piece of a cyber puzzle that counterintelligence agents have sought to solve for nearly a year to determine the extent of the Moscow government’s electronic broadside.
“This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Bureau director James Comey confirmed Monday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing what long has been reported: t`hat the FBI is investigating possible links between individuals in the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian campaign to influence the election and whether there was any coordination between the two.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of multiple congressional panels examining Russia’s intervention, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that there was “circumstantial evidence of collusion.” There also is “direct evidence . . . of deception, and that’s where we begin the investigation,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California.
U.S. intelligence agencies charged in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the offensive, in which cyber operatives also hacked tens of thousands of emails from Democratic National Committee staff, Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and other Democrats.
A top priority of investigators is to determine who delivered those hacked emails to WikiLeaks, a London-based transparency site that published them online, the sources said. News stories about the emails embarrassed Clinton at key points in the campaign. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has denied that the Russian government was the source of the email dump.
As for the bots, they carried links not only to news stories but also to Democratic emails posted on WikiLeaks, especially those hacked from Podesta and made public in October, said Philip Howard, a professor at the Oxford University Internet Institute who has researched the bot attacks.
Howard said that, as an example, bots had spread links to fictional stories that accused Clinton of involvement in running a child-sex ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlor. The posts inspired a North Carolina man to drive to Washington and fire an assault weapon in the restaurant, according to police reports.
Howard’s study of bot-generated Twitter traffic during last fall’s Trump-Clinton campaign debates showed that bot messages favorable to Trump significantly outnumbered those sympathetic to Clinton.
He said his research showed that Americans who call themselves “patriotic programmers” also activated bots to aid Trump. In interviews, they described coding the computer commands in their spare time, Howard said.
Unlike counterintelligence investigators with more cyber-sleuthing capabilities, Howard has not established that Russia was the source of the bot attacks he studied.
Russia also used “trolls,” hundreds of computer operatives who pretended to be Trump supporters and posted stories or comments on the internet complimentary to Trump or disparaging to Clinton. Sources close to the inquiry said those operatives likely worked from a facility in St. Petersburg, Russia, dedicated to that tactic.
“Russian bots and internet trolls sought to propagate stories underground,” said Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration whose job focused on Russia. “Those stories got amplified by fringe elements of our media like Breitbart.”
“They very carefully timed release of information to shift the news cycle away from stories that clearly hurt Mr. Trump, such as his inappropriate conduct over the years,” he said, referring to the October release of a video in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. That event corresponded with a surge in bot-related traffic spreading anti-Clinton stories.
An additional Russian tool was the news from its prime propaganda machine, Russia Today, with a global television and digital media operation and a U.S. arm, RT America.
Last Nov. 19, Breitbart announced that its website traffic had set a record the previous 31 days with 300 million page views, driven substantially by social media.
Breitbart, which has drawn criticism for pursuing a white nationalist agenda, was formerly led by Stephen Bannon, who became chief executive officer of Trump’s election campaign last August and now serves as Trump’s strategic adviser in the White House. The news site’s former national security editor, Sebastian Gorka, was a national security adviser to Trump’s campaign and presidential transition team. He now works as a key Trump counterterrorism adviser.
Breitbart’s chief executive officer, Larry Solov, did not respond to phone and email requests seeking comment.
Bannon and Gorka have controversial profiles. Bannon has been accused of taking anti-immigrant and racist positions. Last week, the Jewish newspaper Forward reported that Gorka had taken a lifelong loyalty oath to a Hungarian far-right group that for decades was allied with the Nazi Party.
The White House declined to respond to questions about Gorka.
Breitbart is partially owned by Robert Mercer, the wealthy co-chief executive of a New York hedge fund and a co-owner of Cambridge Analytica, a small, London-based firm credited with giving Trump a significant advantage in gauging voter priorities last year by providing his campaign with at least 5,000 data points on each of 220 million Americans.
InfoWars is published by Alex Jones, a Texas-based conservative talk show host known for embracing conspiracy theories such as one asserting that the U.S. government was involved in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During the 2016 campaign, InfoWars.com was a loyal Trump public relations tool. Trump was on Jones’ show and praised his reporting.
“It’s the major source of everything,” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and campaign adviser, said last fall. Stone, who has regularly appeared on Jones’ show and was on Monday, has said he invites an FBI investigation into his campaign role. The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked Stone to preserve documents in connection with the Russian election inquiry.
Jones responded to questions from McClatchy on his talk show.
“I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘I’m not a Russian stooge,’ because it’s a (expletive) lie,” he said, denying any contact with the Kremlin operatives about bots. He said this issue stemmed from “this whole ridiculous narrative of the bitching left.”
“It’s as if we didn’t build InfoWars,” he said. “It’s as if we don’t have a huge audience.”
Noting he had appeared on RT “probably 100 times or more,” he said sarcastically, “There’s my Russian connection.”
Boosted by bots, the surge in readership for such websites amplified Clinton’s negatives. Some stories falsely described her health problems as dire. Jones said Monday that people gravitated to his website “because we were the first to report Hillary Clinton falling down.” He referred to Clinton appearing to collapse last Sept. 11 after visiting the World Trade Center memorial. She was diagnosed with pneumonia.
“The full impact of the bots was subterranean and corrosive,” Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, told McClatchy in an interview. “The distribution channels were being flooded with this information. . . . We perhaps underestimated the strategy of pushing fake news out through social media and how it impacted the race.”
Donna Brazile, the former interim director of the DNC, said that neither the party committee nor the Clinton campaign had used bots to widen the reach of their anti-Trump messages.
At least one of the congressional committees investigating the Russian meddling is looking into the bots.
The Senate Intelligence Committee “intends to look actively at ‘fake’ news and the ways that Russian bots and trolls were used to influence the election,” said Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s ranking Democrat.
Russia’s offensive might have been anticipated from a speech a top Kremlin official made in February 2016.
In the speech in Moscow, Andrey Krutskikh told a conference of Russian computer security officials that the Putin government would be unleashing a cyber nuclear attack reminiscent of Russia’s 1949 development of the atom bomb. Krutskikh, whose speech was first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and independently confirmed by McClatchy, also reportedly said the offensive would cause U.S. officials to gain respect for Russia’s cyber capabilities.
“Russia has again figured out from its old Soviet playbook that its greatest weapon in the world is information,” said Lauren Goodrich, senior Eurasia analyst at the Stratfor Corp., a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas. “Its information and disinformation campaigns have skyrocketed.”
She said the Kremlin’s budget for “public information” had quadrupled this year as it mounted similar cyber attacks on behalf of right-wing candidates in France, Germany and other European countries.
Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent.
North Korea to Tillerson: We Are Ready for ‘Any War the U.S. Would Like’
by Frances Martel
North Korea’s foreign ministry warned Monday that its government is prepared to go to war with the United States, following remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which he said the Trump administration was prepared for a military engagement with the communist dictatorship should they strike U.S. allies.
“The U.S. should face up to the situation of the world with its eyes wide open. The DPRK has the will and capability to fully respond to any war the U.S. would like to ignite,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying, according to the South Korean newswire service Yonhap.
“If the businessmen-turned-U.S.-authorities thought that they would frighten the DPRK, they would soon know that their method would not work on the latter,” the spokesman continued. “The world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won by the DPRK in the recent ground jet test of Korean-style high-thrust engine will carry.”
Addressing Secretary Tillerson directly, the spokesman said he was “repeating what Obama touted much sanctions [sic] until he left the White House. What matters is that neither Obama nor Tillerson knows the reason why the DPRK had to have access to nuclear weapons and why it is dynamically bolstering up the nuclear force.”
The North Korean official appeared to be responding to Tillerson’s statements in South Korea on Friday where he told reporters that the Trump administration would not back down in protecting its allies in Seoul and Tokyo. “The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said, clarifying to one reporter that these options did include a military last resort.
Tillerson also repeated on multiple stops during his Asia trip that he hoped to see North Korea’s closest ally, China, take steps to ensure that Pyongyang abides by United Nations sanctions. In China, Tillerson emphasized issues on which the two nations agreed, though reports suggest that he privately urged Beijing to cut economic ties with North Korea.
Pyongyang appears to have received the message. In addition to the foreign ministry’s response, the Rodong Sinmun, a state propaganda newspaper, published a column Monday arguing that North Korea needs nuclear weapons because the United States will invade it if it does not threaten a nuclear attack. “Our army and people will continuously bolster up our nuclear deterrent for self-defense down the road under the conditions that high-level U.S. government officials adamantly stick to their hostile policy toward us,” the column read.
In addition to public statements, North Korea tested a new rocket engine model on Sunday at the orders of dictator Kim Jong-un. The Rodong reported that Kim applauded the test as a success:
He noted that the success made in the current test marked a great event of historic significance as it declared a new birth of the Juche-based rocket industry which has radically turned into a development-and creation-oriented industry both in name and in reality by completely doing away with dogmatism, conservatism and formalism left in the field of rocket industry and the dependence on the technology of other countries.
Kim said of the test, “the whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries.”
The rocket engine, experts presume, is meant to fuel the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). North Korea has been developing nuclear technology in the hopes of creating a nuclear weapon with enough reach to successfully strike U.S. soil. Reuters corroborated the claims in North Korean media that the rocket engine test was an advance in the nation’s weapons technology, citing the South Korean defense ministry.
|(Disclaimer) What to Look For in World Events: Audio & Text Video|