Under the Radar…aka The Coolest Stories You Missed During the Helsinki Hangover
The hangover from Helsinki continued this week, meaning most people who were outraged in the first 24 hours after Trump met Putin have now moved on to Tweeting about Justin Bieber’s engagement and Instagramming from the beach to calm their nerves. It’s a pity, because this week was awash in eye-popping stories that didn’t make A1 in the dailies.
Count me as one of those who thought that Trump would, if nothing else, be tough on China. But, in one of the biggest stories of the week, Trump manages to only give Chinese company (and Chinese intelligence enabler) ZTE a slap on the wrist. I was, then, one of those who counted on the bipartisan outrage about his decision resulting in tougher treatment for ZTE. Nope — after heavy lobbying, Congress thought better of that too. So you can expect to see Chinese tech with histories of backdoors, viruses and a direct line to Chinese intelligence in our market soon. This is hardly the only significant Chinese offense being discussed this week. China has been using exit bans for leverage over US citizens (usually of Chinese heritage). The Chinese can and, apparently do, force the ex-pats to cooperate in investigations or coerce their Chinese family members to return to China. This should be a huge story — and, after Congress’ towering feat of cowardice with ZTE, it may have to be for China to be held at all accountable. Don’t bank on it seeing too much daylight, however. The Daily Beast’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains that both “the Chinese government and Chinese companies, often with close state ties, have retained lobbying and public-relations firms in the Beltway, in some cases hiring former U.S. officials as personal lobbyists.” Want names? How about former House speaker John Boehner, former U.S. ambassador to China Clark Randt, and former CIA Beijing station chief Randall Phillips?
The story of Russian influence in our government is significant (here is this week’s reminder that it doesn’t begin with Trump). But Chinese influence is even more significant (this is true when it comes to dealing with Iran as well — while there is plenty of justified sturm und drang over the Russian/Iranian activity in Syria, there isn’t nearly enough regarding the Chinese/Iranian relationship). However, these stories that illustrate China’s Cold War against the US are rarely sexy enough to get mainstream traction in pop news or the public imagination. Even a 2800% jump in Chinese brute force attacks on internet-connected devices in Finland that coincided with the Trump-Putin meeting can’t get much play. Defending the practice of “if it bleeds, it leads” — the cinematically evil plots of Vladimir Putin are a much better read. After all, Russia’s ambassador to Sudan was found dead last Wednesday in Khartoum. That’s the seventh Russian diplomat to have died since November last year — five of which died outside of Russia. This is a good primer — it also includes a link to BuzzFeed’s deeper investigation into the deaths. Want more Russian-bred death and destruction? Facial recognition technology has led UK investigators to discover the identities of the GRU hit squad (three men, one woman) who carried out the Novichok attack. Here’s what we know so far. Russian active measures are so prolific these days, hearing about the discovery and ouster of another Russian “illegal” spy in New York seems anticlimactic. Interestingly, the spy was interested in information about high-speed Wall Street trading, automated trading algorithms, and “destabilization of markets.” According to John Schindler, “the potential threat to remove Russia from SWIFT, the international banking information-sharing mechanism, has reduced the Kremlin to fits.”
While the US struggles to figure out how to deal with an enemy like China that has become so enmeshed in American finance and business, cures for Russian aggression appear more straightforward. If you aren’t hip to the Magnitsky Act, you should be. The brainchild of hedge fund manager Bill Browder, signed into law by Barack Obama in 2012, it’s been billed as the greatest threat to Putin, and, judging by Putin’s lobbying of the White House, it appears to live up to the billing. The law blocks targeted Russians and other human rights abusers from entering the U.S., freezes their U.S. assets and prevents them from doing business with American banks. This has devastated many corrupt Russian government officials who often protect their money by keeping it in Western banks where it will be safe from the illegal means (raids, extortion, or fixed court cases) that the officials often use to acquire it.
Donald Trump got Africa-watchers very excited recently by saying, ““Africa right now has got problems like few people would even understand…It is so sad. It is so vicious and violent.” So…if he going to do anything about it? All signs point to “no.” This, despite a decent argument that the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace talks present the US with an opportunity to diversify its friendships in the strategically important Horn of Africa.
Where the US fails to lead, others are willing to step up. Predictably, that means China. Less predictably, that means Russia as well.
Let’s take South Sudan as an example. South Sudan — Since 2013, tens of thousands killed, 4 million displaced, current and constant famine conditions. The US has banned arms sales to South Sudan for several years, but on July 13, the UN Security Council banned all countries from supplying arms there until May 2019. The UN pats itself on the back for doing something meaningful despite abstaining votes from Ethiopia, Russia and China; South Sudan shrugs. South Sudanese officials publicly stated that the government will get whatever help it wants from Ethiopia or Uganda — and that the UN had only pushed South Sudan closer to China and Russia — good news for two countries that covet South Sudan’s oil fields.
Since the end of Operation Observant Compass, the US-led effort to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, US and African Union troops have disappeared from the Central African Republic (CAR). Power abhorring a vacuum and whatnot, it is interesting, if not sadly predictable, that Russia is filling the void. France24 produced one of the best videos I’ve seen on CAR and its issues between the ex-Seleka Muslims and the government (read: UN) trying to unify the country. But the real story begins when the Russian paramilitary teams show up. Russia has been invited into CAR by President Touadera — the fact it is working both sides of the conflict show that it sees value cementing its place in an unstable mineral-rich state. The video doesn’t mention that the Chinese are already mining heavily in CAR. Maybe it’s because the Chinese haven’t brought their troops in. Yet.
Meanwhile, the Chinese activity in Oceana has prompted the Australian military to strike a $26 billion deal with BAE for anti-submarine warships.
Every week, it seems there’s new information on the Paris bomb plot that was foiled when Iranian diplomat Assodolah Assadi was arrested and charged with coordinating the plot. This week’s tidbit is that Mossad spearheaded Assadi’s capture.
From the homefront, the Supreme Court’s judgement in Sessions v. Dimaya regarding the definition of a violent crime has led a judge in Virginia to rule that the language describing a “crime of violence in immigration law is unconstitutionally vague.” As a result, American jihadist/Lashkar-e-Taiba member Seifullah Chapman was released from prison 14 years into an 65-year sentence. Maybe the judge is right, maybe not — I’m not a lawyer. But I hope someone is keeping their eye on this dude.
Let’s backburner why the FBI felt, in the wake of Helsinki, it needed to re-up it’s explanation of Venona and the maturation of US counterintelligence and just read it as a fascinating slice of history. That said, if you were planning on subjecting the world to conspiracy theories gleaned from your vast experience reading the Twitter feeds of Jack Prosobiec or Michael Avanetti, it might be worth poring over.
What do you think about using kids as sources in criminal investigations? The UK has been doing it for a while and the House of Lords is reviewing the practice. I don’t know — it worked for Sherlock Homes, didn’t it?
In case you have been sleeping too well recently, “deepfakes” are about to become the new rage in psychological and information warfare. A “deepfake” is a well-produced video that appears to be real — this example shows “Barack Obama” saying things you wouldn’t expect to hear. While the deepfake can be debunked, it requires time and an honest media — two things that aren’t always a given. For those prone to outrage (that runs the gamut from Hamas to Twitter), a deepfake such as a politician taking a bribe, or soldiers “shown murdering innocent civilians in a war zone,” or “emergency officials ‘announcing’ an impending missile strike on Los Angeles,”can start an inflagration with real-world consequences way before reason and cooler heads can prevail. Oh, and there’s an app for it too. ‘Cuz if disaster is looming, why not make it as accessible and dummy-proof as possible?
Lastly, if you know of a clean one-bedroom with a high-speed router — must have nearby restaurants that deliver — please alert the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. They’re asking for a former friend — Oh, nevermind, I guess they found someplace for him to go.
Until next week…