It’s always the cover-up

The investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, and the assorted wiretapping allegations that have accompanied it, have to be turned over to an independent investigator or, at least, a select Congressional committee with equal Republican and Democratic membership. I say this as somebody who remains largely unconvinced that this story is as big a scandal as some Democrats have made out, let alone that it’s going to end with Donald Trump being frog marched off to USP Lewisburg or wherever.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem believing that the Russian government tried through various means to influence the November election, just as I’d have no problem believing that the US was fucking around with May’s Iranian election. There’s plenty of evidence to show that we’ve tried to manipulate other countries’ elections in the past, so why should Russia be any different? But it’s a long way from “Russia tried to influence the election” or even “Russia did influence the election” to “Russia and the Trump campaign colluded to influence the election.” I don’t have any particular problem believing that charge either, but so far nobody’s produced anything other than circumstantial evidence to support it.

Of course, plenty of Congressional investigations have been launched with far less to go on than circumstantial evidence and plausibility, so investigate away as far as I’m concerned. But therein lies the problem. A big chunk of the investigation was supposed to be handled by Devin Nunes’s House Intelligence Committee, and Nunes has now conclusively demonstrated that he can’t be trusted to handle it.

Continue reading

The importance of circumspection

Cybersecurity is, along with many other things, not my forte. So if I get terms wrong here or otherwise screw up, please leave some constructive criticism in the comments.

The story of this weekend was the release of almost 20,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers by…somebody (we’re getting to that) at some point in the past couple of months, and distributed via WikiLeaks. The emails are very embarrassing, as you’d expect, and in particular appear to confirm the suspicions of Bernie Sanders supporters (and Sanders himself) that the DNC was effectively working on behalf of Hillary Clinton throughout the primary process, when it was supposed to be a neutral party. This is not exactly revelatory, but it’s one thing for a candidate’s partisans to suspect that the party is screwing their candidate over, and quite another for tangible proof of that screwing over to suddenly surface. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has, mercifully, agreed to step down from that job after this week’s convention, something she could have done years ago to the party’s great benefit. The hope is that Sanders supporters will be mollified enough at her departure to put aside their renewed frustration with the primary process and stay in, or come in to, the Clinton camp. We’ll see.

While the Democrats actually are in disarray, the more controversial aspect of this story has to do with the provenance of the DNC hack. Ostensibly the hack was conducted by one person, “Guccifer 2.0.” The problem is that nobody really has any idea who “Guccifer 2.0” is or if he/she even exists. By contrast, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike investigated the DNC intrusion a month ago, well before these emails were released, and concluded that they were undertaken by two adversaries, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear,” that are known to be connected to Russian intelligence agencies. Further research since CrowdStrike announced its findings seems to support the idea that the hackers were Russian, at least to my again admittedly untrained eyes. There are also people who will tell you that WikiLeaks is basically an arm of Russian intelligence itself, though I’m unconvinced of that. The CrowdStrike piece, of whose existence I have to shamefully admit I had no idea until a couple of hours ago, strikes me as the most definitive collection of evidence in support of the new conspiracy du jour, that Russia hacked the DNC and released these emails in order to help Donald Trump, because Vladimir Putin wants Trump to be elected in November.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall put together probably the most comprehensive collection of the evidence being used to suggest that Trump is working, albeit probably unwittingly, on behalf of Putin’s nefarious schemes for world domination. It’s a compelling collection of what are still largely circumstantial links, but the whole thing takes on a “where there’s smoke” kind of a feel. The upshot is that: Continue reading

Today’s great deed in conservation

I’m not one of those “Al Gore is a big fat hypocrite for talking about global warming because he flies on airplanes” clowns. But I think there may be a teeny problem with the way we’re describing Paul Allen in the first line of this story:

A yacht owned by Microsoft co-founder and marine conservationist Paul Allen has ploughed into a sensitive reef in the Cayman Islands, destroying the majority of coral on the protected ecosystem.

The MV Tatoosh, a 300ft yacht owned by the billionaire Allen, ripped up 14,000 square feet of coral reef in the West Bay replenishment zone, according to local officials. About 80% of the reef, situated in a protected area, was destroyed by the ship’s chain. It is thought that Allen was not on board at the time.

Yeah, I don’t think you can still be a “marine conservationist” after something like this. They should revoke your membership, or at least put you in a timeout, something.

I especially like this bit of PR-speak:

According to a statement from Allen’s investment firm Vulcan, the incident occurred on 14 January. “When [the MV Tatoosh] crew was alerted by a diver that her anchor chain may have impacted coral in the area, the crew promptly, and on their own accord, relocated their position to ensure the reef was protected,” it said, adding that the crew was aiding investigations into the damage.

“Your honor, when my client was alerted by a passerby that the car he was driving may have run over a pedestrian, then backed over the same pedestrian in reverse, and then run over the pedestrian a third time, he promptly, and on his own accord, relocated his position to ensure the pedestrian was protected. I know the word ‘hero’ is overused these days, but if you ask me…”

Oh, and in case you were wondering, not only is Allen a “marine conservationist,” he specifically gives money toward researching coral reefs:

The incident comes just five months after Allen announced support for research to “stabilize and restore coral reefs,” one of several philanthropic projects he has aided through Vulcan.

Well, oops. Maybe he could fund a study on how to strengthen coral reefs so they can survive a collision with a yacht.


Paul Allen’s coral eliminator yacht, the Tatoosh (Wikimedia | Oxam Hartog)

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

Looking ahead to the 2016 Summer Poolympics

Rio de Janeiro, as you may know, is hosting the Olympics this August. I’m sure many people are very excited. I’m not sure that any potential participants in the open-water swimming or sailing events are too excited, though, since it appears they’ll be competing in the microbial equivalent of an open sewer:

A new round of testing by The Associated Press shows the city’s Olympic waterways are as rife with pathogens far offshore as they are nearer land, where raw sewage flows into them from fetid rivers and storm drains. That means there is no dilution factor in the bay or lagoon where events will take place and no less risk to the health of athletes like sailors competing farther from the shore.

“Those virus levels are widespread. It’s not just along the shoreline but it’s elsewhere in the water, therefore it’s going to increase the exposure of the people who come into contact with those waters,” said Kristina Mena, an expert in waterborne viruses and an associate professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “We’re talking about an extreme environment, where the pollution is so high that exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely.”

In July, the AP reported that its first round of tests showed disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe. Experts said athletes were competing in the viral equivalent of raw sewage and exposure to dangerous health risks almost certain.

The Rio Olympic committee is only required to test the water for bacterial contamination, which they claim is within safe limits (independent tests have shown otherwise), but the real problem is the water’s viral content, which is, again, equivalent to raw sewage according to most testing. Brazil had promised to address sewage concerns when it won the bid to host these games, but, well, oops. The water is so bad that a University of Texas expert in waterborne viruses named Kristina Mena told the AP that anyone ingesting as little as 3 teaspoons of the stuff has a 99% chance of getting sick. I don’t know about you, but I probably ingest more than that doing a couple of laps in a pool, nevermind trying to swim the 1500 meters that an Olympic triathlete is expected to cover. And sailors are at risk too; this whole story came out after sailors doing test runs in Rio’s bay “mysteriously” started getting sick right afterward.

Rio has just been hit with another potential health risk leading into this summer’s Games: the arrival of the Zika virus, which among other things can cause birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. That’s largely out of their control, though. This sewage business was very much in their control, and unfortunately a lot of Olympic competitors are in for a very unpleasant experience because they failed to do anything about it.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

Somebody’s got some explaining to do

North Korea announced today that it has arrested a University of Virginia student on charges of “we felt like it” and “he picked the wrong day to be in Pyongyang”:

Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, was detained Jan. 2 at Pyongyang airport as he prepared to leave after a five-day trip over the New Year’s holiday, said Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, the agency that organized the trip.

This was four days before North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test, and makes Warmbier the third Westerner known to be held in North Korea — a move that is certain to elevate already high tensions.

But Warmbier’s detention was not made public until Friday, when the official Korean Central News Agency said it was questioning him about taking part in “anti-state activity.”

The brief statement gave no further information about the accusations or the current status of the student.

You can blame the North Korean government for arresting this kid, but that’s kind of like blaming the scorpion for stinging the frog–this is what they do.

kju looking

Well, this and also looking at things

I don’t blame Warmbier; 21 year olds are supposed to do questionable things out of a spirit of adventure, and the rest of the world needs more people willing to go see what North Korea is really like, frankly. I hope he’s freed in short order, though I fear he won’t be.

It’s believed North Korea is currently holding two Westerners, one of whom (a Canadian pastor) has been sentenced to life in a labor camp for, well, something (probably proselytizing, but these charges are always deliberately vague). There have been past instances of Americans picked up in North Korea who were freed a few months later, but obviously you can’t extrapolate from one single case to another. If the North Koreans picked up Warmbier as a hedge against new sanctions stemming from their “hydrogen bomb” test a couple of weeks ago, then I suspect they’ll be out of luck (and, unfortunately, so will Warmbier).

You know who I do blame, a little bit? Young Pioneer Tours. Continue reading

SATSQ, Saudi anti-terror coalition edition

Brookings’ Bruce Reidel asks an important question:

Are the Saudis finally getting serious about the anti-ISIS fight?

Obviously it’s still early, but so far? No:

At least two nations said they were taken by surprise by the Saudi announcement that they were part of a 34 nation coalition. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said he had to contact the embassy in Saudi Arabia to learn more about their participation in the coalition, while the Lebanese foreign minister claimed his country was not a member. The Lebanese prime minister later clarified that they would be apart of the Saudi-led alliance, though the foreign ministry (currently ran by a pro-Iran/Syria minister and clashes with the pro-Saudi PM) says they weren’t consulted.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasizes that this move undermines Lebanon’s distinguished stance on the definition of terrorism and the classification of terrorist organizations,” a statement from the ministry said.

The Pakistanis, meanwhile, are still waiting for clarification. Pakistan rejected Saudi attempts to include it in the coalition fighting against the Houthis in Yemen earlier this year. The country has remain steadfast in its opposition to getting involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.

There are lots of potential problems with the Saudi anti-terror alliance, but even I, as cynical as I can be, didn’t imagine that one of them would be “the Saudis decided to include countries in the alliance without asking them beforehand.” Is there any way to look at this that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the Saudis just slapped this whole thing together to make a big splash?

Undoubtedly, the Saudis figure that Lebanon and Pakistan owe them, since Riyadh has doled out a considerable amount of money to both of those countries over the years. But apparently all that money still wasn’t enough to buy the Saudis an unconditional “yes” from either country. I wonder if any of the other countries that are supposedly in this alliance were also surprised to find out that they’d signed on.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

Don’t invite an Assad to Capitol Hill

You won’t often (or ever again, maybe) see me link to something from Josh Rogin, the Bloomberg View columnist who, along with his fellow traveler Eli Lake, covers matters of war and peace well, mostly war. But he’s got the only reporting on this story that I can find, and I really wanted to write something about it, so here we are. Earlier this week the Middle East Policy Council was supposed to hold its annual “Capitol Hill briefing,” at the Rayburn House Office Building, and this year’s subject was a retrospective on the first year of the coalition campaign against ISIS (I’m working on a piece for LobeLog on that topic at the moment, or rather I’m writing this because I was working on that piece but I hit a little temporary block). I was planning to watch the event via livestream (ideally I’d go see these things in person, but while I take pretty good notes I do not take verbatim quotes very well unless I can pause and rewind and all the stuff that a livestream lets you do that you can’t do if you’re there in person). Anyway, I turned on the livestream and was surprised to find that the panel was not in Rayburn but was instead doing an online-only event from MEPC’s offices.

This seemed odd, but I had a theory. One of the panelists was a fellow by the name of Siwar al-Assad. His last name may ring a bell. Siwar is Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, the son of Rifaat al-Assad, formerly a general in the Syrian army working for Bashar’s dad (Rifaat’s older brother) Hafez. Rifaat was directly responsible (though obviously Hafez gave the order) for the Hama Massacre in February 1982, where 20,000 Syrians who had started an uprising against the Assad regime were slaughtered by a Syrian army unit commanded by Rifaat. Later, Rifaat tried to launch a coup against his brother, and while he did get appointed Vice President as result, Hafez actually promoted him in order to sever his ties to the army units formerly under his command, and when it was safe to do so Hafez sent Rifaat into exile in France, from which he has periodically protested Bashar’s accession to power and argued that he (Rifaat) should actually be running Syria.

Siwar al-Assad, looking very respectable

Continue reading