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September 29, 2017

Russia has reportedly taken an interest in meddling in the Catalonian independence referendum in Spain, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reports, writing that "the Kremlin is using the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe and consolidate its international influence." Courts in Spain ruled earlier this month that the referendum would violate the national constitution, although the autonomous Catalan region is set to vote on its independence on Oct. 1.

El Pais alleges that in the past several weeks, Russia has deployed the same tools that it used to influence America's 2016 presidential election, including fake news articles that are spread through social media by bots:

The definitive proof that those who mobilize the army of pro-Russian bots have chosen to focus on the Catalan independence movement can be seen in the fact that Catalonia has begun to appear in the list of regular topics on social media alongside Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

This is reflected by the results of the Hamilton 68 tool developed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund created in the wake of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. This tool permanently monitors 600 pro-Kremlin accounts, both real and false. In 48 hours from Wednesday to Friday last week, one of the most-used hashtags employed by these profiles was #Catalonia, behind others including #HerpesHillary and #Trump. [El Pais]

El Pais also points to the Russian state-sponsored media organization RT, which has reportedly used its "Spanish-language portal to spread stories on the Catalan crisis with a bias against constitutional legality." Since late August, RT has published 42 articles about the Catalonia referendum, many under fake or misleading headlines.

Russia has denied any interest in the referendum. "This is an internal matter for Spain and we do not see any possible involvement in any way," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. Read the full report in English at El Pais. Jeva Lange

September 11, 2017
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The FBI has opened an investigation into Sputnik News, a Kremlin-funded media agency that has made moves to expand its influence in Washington, D.C., Yahoo News reports. The FBI is apparently seeking to determine if Sputnik is operating as a propaganda machine for Russia, questioning one former Sputnik correspondent on if he "ever got direction from Moscow."

"They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues," the former correspondent, Andrew Feinberg, confirmed to Yahoo News.

The FBI probe is specifically questioning if Sputnik "should be covered by the foreign agents registration law, a 1938 act passed by Congress to combat Nazi propaganda," Yahoo News writes. If Sputnik is indeed found to be attempting to influence Americans' opinions, it would have to henceforth be labeled "foreign propaganda" rather than "news," and could face fines or potential criminal charges.

Sputnik recently took over a Washington, D.C., FM radio station for an all-talk program, a move that comes amid concerning reports that Russia conducted a complicated fake news operation in an attempt to swing the 2016 presidential election. Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia's English-language network RT, warned that the allegations are false and that "there is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI investigation in the same way and will check the work of American journalists in Moscow."

"It's disgusting," Simonyan added. "Freedom of speech is turning in its grave. It was killed by those who created it."

Former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa told Yahoo that the FBI wouldn't simply be probing Sputnik without some "good information."

"The FBI has since the 1970s taken pains not to be perceived in any way as infringing on First Amendment activity," said Rangappa. "But this tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there's a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy." Read the full report at Yahoo News. Jeva Lange

August 25, 2017

Current and former CIA officials are concerned that if "something dicey" turns up in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, then CIA Director Mike Pompeo "would go to the White House with it," The Washington Post reports.

Pompeo has arranged for the Counterintelligence Mission Center to report directly to him, a decision that a former CIA official said was a "real concern for interference and politicization." "Pompeo has attributed his direct supervision of the counterintelligence center to a desire to place a greater emphasis on preventing leaks and protecting classified secrets," The Washington Post writes, adding that both are "core missions of the center that are also top priorities for Trump."

But some critics are nervous, especially since many believe Pompeo has downplayed the seriousness of the Russia investigation: "Of course" Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Pompeo told attendees of the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, before adding, "and the one before that, and the one before that."

Read more about concerns within the department at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange

July 10, 2017

In a shocking statement Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. admitted to meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who had "stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting [Hillary] Clinton." While Trump added that "it quickly became clear that [the lawyer] had no meaningful information," MSNBC justice and security analyst Matthew Miller said Trump's statement in and of itself could be the potential confession of a crime.

"You know, it is a crime to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign national in a campaign," Miller explained to the Morning Joe hosts. "The 'thing of value' has never come up in this context before because we've never had a campaign like this, that potentially colluded with a foreign government, but in other contexts, in bribery cases and extortion cases, a thing of value doesn't have to be money."

"It could be, potentially, accepting information," Miller added.

Miller noted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would almost certainly be looking at Donald Trump Jr.'s statement "and the lies, the repeated lies, the changing statements from Donald Trump Jr. and other people connected to the administration."

"The only way to trust what any of these people say is to put them in the grand jury, put them under oath," Miller said, "where if they lie, if Donald Trump Jr. has the kind of shifting statements to a grand jury that he did to The New York Times, he'll go to jail for that." Jeva Lange

June 29, 2017
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President Trump's former bodyguard and director of Oval Office operations Keith Schiller is on the witness list for the House Intelligence Committee's ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, ABC News reports. Before joining Trump at the White House, Schiller served as Trump's personal bodyguard for nearly 20 years.

The inclusion of Schiller on the witness list is "the latest indication that the investigations are touching Trump's inner circle," ABC News writes. Ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Trump's longtime friend Roger Stone are all expected to voluntarily face congressional investigators in the coming months.

While it wasn't immediately clear what specifically brought Schiller to the attention of investigators, the former New York police officer was entrusted by Trump to hand-deliver the letter firing former FBI Director James Comey to the FBI headquarters. Schiller also traveled with Kushner to Iraq in April alongside National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

"Keith Schiller is not just some bodyguard," said Trump's former political adviser, Michael Caputo. "Nobody knows the score among the advisers better than Keith Schiller." Jeva Lange

June 19, 2017
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has drafted a three-point guide for the Trump administration's relations with Russia, BuzzFeed News reports. The classified document details these three points as: convey to Russian President Vladimir Putin "that aggressive actions against the United States are a losing proposition that will be counterproductive for both sides;" engage Russia "on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States"; and emphasize "the importance of 'strategic stability' with Russia," including "mutual geopolitical goals," BuzzFeed News writes based on conversations with a U.S. official.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer called the strategy "a mixture of pushing back and also engaging on issues where there might be convergence," but added, "If we've learned anything over the last four months, it's that the president could throw it out at any moment."

Tensions are high between the U.S. and Russia. On Monday, Russia criticized the United States for shooting down a Syrian government plane, announcing that any U.S.-led coalition planes that flew west of the Euphrates river would be considered enemy targets. Russia has been backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's civil war.

Russia has also insisted that it be returned suspected intelligence compounds that were seized under former President Barack Obama after news of the country's meddling in last year's presidential election increasingly came to light. The U.S. wants Russia's cooperation in the war against terrorism in the Middle East as well as to put pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program; the State Department additionally wants permits to open a U.S. consular office in St. Petersburg.

As one State Department official put it to BuzzFeed News: "Right now, U.S.-Russia relations are in the gutter. We want to make sure it doesn't flush into the sewer." Jeva Lange

June 8, 2017
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Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak told BuzzFeed News that Russia is talking with the Trump administration "each and every day" about restoring two compounds seized by the U.S. under former President Barack Obama. "We insist that [the property] needs to be returned," Kislyak said. "It's a violation of the Vienna Convention. It belongs to Russia. … It was seized unlawfully."

The properties, in New York and Maryland, were seized in December when Obama expelled 35 Russian "intelligence operatives" following early reports that the Kremlin had tried to influence the U.S. presidential election. The property is used for "recreation for embassy and U.N. diplomats," BuzzFeed News writes. "But for decades, U.S. officials have suspected that it's also been used for espionage based on information from aerial surveillance."

The optics of turning the compounds back to the Russians are not good for the Trump administration, especially amid mounting allegations about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Kremlin operatives. "Returning the compounds to Russian control is unjustifiable," a bipartisan group of senators told the Trump administration in a letter sent Wednesday.

Russia, though, has threatened to give American diplomatic properties the same treatment if immunity is not restored. Jeva Lange

May 30, 2017

American intelligence reportedly discovered that Russia was confident it "had the ability to influence the [Trump] administration through ... derogatory information," people familiar with the intelligence told CNN. The Russian conversations, intercepted during the 2016 campaign, reportedly referred to incriminating financial information that could have been used to sway Trump or his close inner circle, CNN adds.

But the sources, privy to the descriptions of the communications written by U.S. intelligence, cautioned the Russian claims to one another "could have been exaggerated or even made up" as part of a disinformation campaign that the Russians did during the election.

The details of the communication shed new light on information U.S. intelligence received about Russian claims of influence. The contents of the conversations made clear to U.S. officials that Russia was considering ways to influence the election — even if their claims turned out to be false. [CNN]

"This is yet another round of false and unverified claims made by anonymous sources to smear the president," the White House said in a statement. "The reality is, a review of the president's income from the last ten years showed he had virtually no financial ties at all."

The review of Trump's income was done by his paid lawyers, and is not transparent or verifiable because Trump has refused to release his tax returns. An unverified dossier composed by former British spy Christopher Steele also echoed beliefs that Russia held incriminating information about Trump and his inner circle, and could use it to blackmail the administration. Jeva Lange

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