Democrats donate Franken PAC contributions to charity

from December 6, 2017 at 02:46PM http://bit.ly/2jcPIQS

US Senator Al Franken, (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a number of his fellow Democrats have stated that they have donated the money their campaigns received from Midwest Values PAC, a political action committee affiliated with Franken.  

So far in the 2018 election cycle, Midwest Values PAC has contributed $145,500 to 26 candidates, including 17 of Franken’s Senate colleagues.

At least 21 Democrats who have received contributions from Franken’s PAC this election cycle have pledged to return or donate to charities the PAC contributions, according to official statements and news reports.

Abby Finkenauer, who is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa, has reportedly donated the $1,500 she received in late September from the Midwest Values PAC.

In a statement issued by her campaign, Finkenauer said, “I’ve decided to donate Senator Franken’s donation to my campaign to the Riverview Center, a nonprofit in Iowa that helps individuals affected by sexual assault.”

Last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a tweet that she will donate the $30,000 she’s received from Franken’s PAC over the past three election cycles to a food bank.

Similarly, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also said in a tweet that he will donate the $25,000 he’s received from the PAC to the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) donated $20,000 she has received to WOVIN: the Women Veterans Initiative on November 16th.

*Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last month donated the $20,000 she received during the 2012 and 2018 cycles to Girls Inc. of Lynn. Warren also donated to charity contributions from former film executive Harvey Weinstein after he was accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Democratic congressional candidate Angie Craig from Franken’s home state of Minnesota are among others who have reportedly vowed to donate contributions from Midwest Values.

Representatives who have remained mum about their intentions include Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

On December 7th, Franken announced his intention to resign from the Senate.

*UPDATE: Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office told MassLive in mid-November that contributions from Midwest Values PAC were donated to charity.

The post Democrats donate Franken PAC contributions to charity appeared first on OpenSecrets Blog.

Read more at: OpenSecrets Blog http://bit.ly/1vZELhI

Robert Mueller Just Obtained Trump’s Personal Banking Information

from December 5, 2017 at 07:39AM http://bit.ly/2BKUeua

Photo Credit: katz / Shutterstock


Donald Trump’s personal banking information has formally been turned over to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating whether the president’s campaign conspired with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election.

Bloomberg reported early on Tuesday that Deutsche Bank, the German bank that serves as Trump’s biggest lender, had been forced to submit documents about its client relationship with the president after Mueller issued the bank with a subpoena for information.

The new revelation makes it clear that Mueller and his team are investigating the president’s financial transactions. It is not clear whether Mueller is interested in the bank accounts because they are connected to the Russia probe or if he is investigating another matter.

The news could also elicit a strong reaction from the president, who has previously said that any attempt to investigate his personal business dealings would go beyond Mueller’s investigative mandate and would represent a “violation”.

Trump has consistently denied any collusion between his campaign and Russia and has stated that he did not have any business dealings in Russia. Since then, news has emerged that the Trump Organization sold a significant number of its properties to Russian clients and explored opening a hotel in Moscow, though the plan never came to fruition.

The president has repeatedly criticised the Mueller investigation and, this weekend, alleged that the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters”. The attack followed the guilty plea of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who is now cooperating with federal investigators.

Mueller’s investigators have, according to previous media reports, examined Russian purchases of Trump-owned apartments, the president’s involvement with Russian associates in a development in SoHo, New York, and the president’s 2008 sale of his Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev.

News of the subpoena was not unexpected. The Guardian reported in July that executives at the bank were anticipating they would receive a formal demand for banking records about the president and had already established informal contacts with Mueller’s investigators.

But the development nevertheless represents a significant blow to the president personally and indicates that Mueller is not limiting his probe to Trump campaign officials.

Deutsche Bank has for months been the subject of intense scrutiny – especially by Democrats on Capitol Hill – because of its dealings with the president and his family, who are also clients. Trump owes the bank about $300m in loans that were extended to him before he became president.

The Guardian reported in February that the bank had launched a review of Trump’s account earlier this year to gauge whether there were any connections to Russia and had not discovered anything suspicious.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser in the White House; her husband, Jared Kushner, who is also a presidential adviser; and Kushner’s mother, Seryl Stadtmauer, are all clients of Deutsche Bank.

 


Stephanie Kirchgaessner is the Rome correspondent for the Guardian.







Read more at: Alternet http://bit.ly/2kwQVCk

Before Our Very Eyes, Trump Is Undoing the Work of Our Country’s Founders

from December 5, 2017 at 06:09AM http://bit.ly/2zPs8fY

Painful as it is, we can only fight him if we pay attention.

Don’t look away. I mean it! Keep on staring just like you’ve been doing, just like we’ve all been doing since he rode down that escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and, while you have your eyes on him, I’ll tell you exactly why you shouldn’t stop.

To begin with, it’s time to think of Donald J. Trump in a different light.  After all, isn’t he really our own UnFounding Father?  While the Founding Fathers were responsible for two crucial documents, the Declaration of Independence (1,458 words) and the Constitution (4,543 words), our twenty-first century UnFounding Father only writes passages of 140 characters or less. (Sad!)  Other people have authored “his” books. (“I put lipstick on a pig,” said one of his ghostwriters.)  He reportedly doesn’t often read books himself (though according to ex-wife Ivana, he once had a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside).  He’s never seen a magazine cover he didn’t want to be on (or at least that he didn’t want to claim, however spuriously, he had decided not to be on).  He recently indicated that he thought the Constitution had at least one extra article, “Article XII,” which he promised to “protect,” even though it didn’t exist.  (My best guess: he believed it said, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved neither to the States respectively, nor to the people, but to Trump and his heirs and there will be no inheritance tax on them.”)

None of this should be surprising since, for him, the Constitution is undoubtedly a hearsay document, as is much of the rest of life.  Still, at 71, who could doubt that he himself has the constitution of an ox, thanks perhaps to those Big Macs he reportedly adores, the Trump Steaks he tried to peddle, and the taco bowls (“I love Hispanics!”) that he once swore he gobbles down.  As someone capable of changing his mind on almost anything (other than himself), his attention span tends to be short.  So briefing him on the state of the world, if you happen to be in the U.S. Intelligence Community, is evidently a challenging task. You reportedly want to keep it, well, brief — no more than a page per topic, three topics per visit, lots of visuals.  And don’t forget to skip the “nuance,” as well as any dissenting or conflicting views (especially on him, since that’s the rare subject he truly cares about).

His daily briefings reportedly have only a quarter of the information President Obama’s had, perhaps because the world’s gotten simpler since those godforsaken days.  Thank you, Rocket Man!  And to give him credit where it’s due, he’s done a remarkably thorough job of turning the Oval Office into a business venture for himself and his kids.  (Hey, if you happen to be a foreign diplomat, lobbyist, industry group of any sort, cabinet member, or White House adviser who wants anything from the Oval Office, let me recommend the new Trump International Hotel just down the block on Pennsylvania Avenue for a meal or an event!  There’s no better way to curry favor, even if you happen to be an Indian businessman and there’s no curry on the menu.  Don’t miss those $24 chocolate cigars!)  For the rest of us, we’ve gained immeasurably from his business ventures since his election.  Otherwise, how would we know what the once-obscure word “emoluments” actually meant. 

Thank you, big guy!

He’s Da Man!

Keep in mind, though, that none of this makes him any less historic.  As a start, it’s indisputable that no one has ever gotten the day-after-day media coverage he has.  Not another president, general, politician, movie star, not even O.J. after the car chase. He’s Da Man!

Since that escalator ride, he’s been in the news (and in all our faces) in a way once unimaginable. Cable news talking heads and talk-show hosts can’t stop gabbling about him.  It’s the sort of 24/7 attention that normally accompanies terrorist attacks in the United States or Europe, presidential assassinations, or major hurricanes.  But with him, we’re talking about more or less every hour of every day for almost two-and-a-half years without a break.  It’s been no different on newspaper front pages.  No one’s ever stormed the headlines more regularly.  And I haven’t even mentioned the social media universe.  There, he has, if anything, an even more obsessional audience of tens of millions for his daily tweets, which instantly become The News and then, of course, the fodder for those yakking cableheads and talk-show hosts.  Think of him not so much as a him at all but as a perpetual motion machine of breaking headlines.

Part of that’s certainly attributable to the fact that no presidential candidate or president has ever had his knack for attracting the cameras and gluing eyeballs.  Give him credit for a media version of horse sense that’s remarkable.  It’s a talent of a special sort fit for a special moment.  What catnip is for cats, he is for TV cameras. He was the Kardashian candidate and now he’s the Kardashian president.

But that’s the lesser part of the tale.  To grasp why we can’t help staring at him, why we essentially have no choice but to do so, you need to understand something else: this sort of attention hasn’t been a fluke.  It doesn’t represent a Trumpian black hole in time or an anomaly in our history, and neither does he.  Of course, he’s Donald J. Trump in all his… well, not glory, but [you fill in the word here].  However, he’s also a symptom.  He didn’t create this particular media moment or this American world of ours either.  He just grasped how it worked at some intuitive level and rode it (or perhaps it rode him) all the way to the White House. 

He’s gotten so much attention in part because he rose in (or, in his case, descended into) a changed media landscape that most of us hadn’t even begun to grasp.  He didn’t, however, create that landscape either.  If anything, it created him.  What he did was make himself the essence of it.  He was what a news media in crisis needed, as staffs were being decimated, finances challenged by the online world, reporters disappearing.  He came on the scene, politically speaking, just when a once-upon-a-time sense of the “news” was morphing into so many focus groups on what would glue eyeballs, while coverage was increasingly being recalibrated for a series of designated 24/7 events, each generally filled with horror, fear, and plenty of weeping people.  Think: terror attacks, mass killings, and anything involving “extreme weather” with all its photogenic damage.  

By the time The Donald set foot on that escalator, our world of news was already devolving into a set of 24/7 zombie apocalypse events.  Otherwise, he and his rants, his red face and strange orange comb-over wouldn’t have made much sense at all.  He would have been an unimaginable candidate before the media went into crisis, experienced what might be thought of as its own news inequality gap, and began refocusing on a few singular events of particularly resonant horror.  These, in turn, regularly wiped away most of the rest of what was actually happening on this planet, while giving media units with smaller staffs and fewer resources the opportunity to put all their attention and energy into a set of eye-gluing, funds- and staff-preserving spectacles.  As CBS Chairman Les Moonves put it bluntly during the 2016 presidential campaign, speaking of the focus on Trump’s candidacy and antics, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

In the end, it wasn’t Trump who brought it on; it was the media.  And all of this took place in the midst of the rise of a social media scene in which “fake news” was becoming the order of the day and millions of eyeballs could be reached directly by any conspiracy nut or, for that matter, presidential candidate with the moxie to do it.

It was, in other words, the perfect moment for a billionaire salesman-cum-conman-cum-reality-TV-sensation to descend that escalator.  Donald Trump was neither a media mistake, nor an out-of-space-and-time experience.  He was a man made for our unfounding media moment.

The President as Chameleon

And this same way of thinking about him is applicable to so much else.  As our UnFounding Father, he’s inconceivable without an American world that was already experiencing various kinds of incipient unfounding. 

Whatever he might now be fathering, he himself was the child, for instance, of a distinctly plutocratic moment.  If we have our first billionaire in the White House, it’s only because by 2015 this country’s democratic politics had devolved (with a little helping hand from the Supreme Court) into a set of 1%, or perhaps even .01%, elections. 

An American inequality gap that first began to almost imperceptibly widen in the 1970s has, by now, reached Grand Canyon proportions.  Before it hits its ultimate moment, it may make the nineteenth-century version of a Gilded Age look like an era of moderation.  Since 1980, stunningly enough, the share of national income of the richest 1% has doubled.  If all that American wealth hadn’t gushed upward, if it hadn’t produced a raft of billionaires, as well as hordes of multi-millionaires and millionaires, with so many interests to protect, we would never have experienced such prodigious top-down funding of elections; the building of a 1% democracy, that is, would have been inconceivable.  If the Republican Party hadn’t been sold to the Koch Brothers and the Democratic Party hadn’t gone all neoliberal on us, can you really imagine working class voters putting their faith in a billionaire to make America great again for them? I doubt it.

Similarly, if this country hadn’t been pursuing its never-ending war on terror so assiduously and unsuccessfully these last 16 years, while Washington was being transformed into a war capital, the national security state was rising to prominence as a kind of shadow government, and the funding of the U.S. military hadn’t become the only truly bipartisan issue in Congress, Trumpism would never have been conceivable. In our American world, The Donald’s tendency toward authoritarianism is often treated as if it were a unique attribute of his.  To believe that, however, you would have to overlook the growth in this century of a distinctly authoritarian spirit in Washington.  You would have to ignore what it meant for the national security state to be ever more embedded in our ruling city. You would have to forget about the American intelligence community’s development of an historically unprecedented surveillance machinery aimed not just at the world but at American citizens as well.

The Donald’s surprising decision to surround himself with “my generals” in a fashion never before seen in Washington, even in wartime, was treated in a similarly anomalous fashion.  And yet, given the Washington he entered, it was anything but.  During the election campaign, candidate Trump referred to those same generals as “rubble,” while deriding the losing wars they had been fighting for so long.  He seemed in some way to grasp that this was a country and a citizenry increasingly being unmade by war.

Still, it took him next to no time as president to tack to where Washington had been heading since 9/11.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, he might better be thought of as our chameleon president: a Democrat who became a fervent Republican, a billionaire businessman who somehow convinced rural white working class voters that he was their man, a former globalizer who’s taken off like a bat out of hell after globalizing trade pacts of every sort. He’s a man ready to alter his positions to fit the moment when it comes to everything except himself.

The Dumbfounding Father of Twenty-First-Century America

Let me mention just one more aspect of this Trumpian moment: climate-change denial.  At a time of such planetary stress, in his fervent promotion of a fossil-fuelized America — of coal miningpipelines, and fracking, among other things — in his essential rejection of the very idea of climate change, in his appointment of one climate-change denier after another to key positions in his administration, in his decision to make the United States the only country on the planet not to take part in the Paris climate agreement, he seems like an almost inexplicable manifestation of anti-scientific frenzy.  And yet think back.  He’s now the head of the party that, in recent years, sold itself to Big Energy, lock, stock, and barrel.  This, at the very moment when the oil giants were suppressing their own research on climate change and pouring money into organizations that would promote climate-change-denial disinformation campaigns.  By default, he has now become the head of what can only be called the party of climate-change denial.  In that sense, he couldn’t be more in the spirit of his times.

Okay, it’s true. He’s presidentially bizarre in ways no one expects a leader to be (other than, perhaps, some strange autocratic ruler in Central Asia).  And he’s certainly potentially dangerous.  But he’s something else, too: just what late twentieth and twenty-first century America prepared us for (even though we didn’t know it).  He’s the essence of where this country now is and seems to be headed.

So don’t imagine that he’s getting too much attention in the land of the rich and home of the craven.  Instead, look at him carefully.  Now, stare at him again.  And keep looking.  If you don’t take him in, you won’t understand what this moment actually is.  Yes, he’s the Dumbfounding Father of twenty-first-century America and that’s distracting, but he’s also the ultimate symptom of the unfounding of this nation, of the moment when — to slightly adapt a Cole Porter line — Plymouth Rock finally landed on us.

Truly, don’t look away from the unbelievable figure now in the White House because how else will you know where we are? And until we grasp that, until we understand that he isn’t an aberration but the zeitgeist and that simply removing him from the Oval Office won’t solve our problems, we aren’t anywhere at all.

 

Read more at: Alternet http://bit.ly/2kwQVCk

Trump’s Transition Team Colluded With Israel. Why Isn’t That News?

from December 5, 2017 at 08:42AM http://bit.ly/2insVxx

Did the Trump campaign collude with Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election? Maybe. We await Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s next move to learn more about that. But in the meantime, why aren’t more members of Congress or the media discussing the Trump transition team’s pretty brazen collusion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undermine both U.S. government policy and international law? Shouldn’t that be treated as a major scandal?

Thanks to Mueller’s ongoing investigation, we now know that prior to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, members of his inner circle went to bat on behalf of Israel, and specifically on behalf of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, behind the scenes and in opposition to official U.S. foreign policy. That’s the kind of collusion with a foreign state that has gotten a lot of attention with respect to the Kremlin – but colluding with Israel seems to be of far less interest, strangely.

It’s the kind of collusion with a foreign state that has gotten a lot of attention with respect to the Kremlin — but colluding with Israel seems to be of far less interest, strangely.

Here’s what we learned last week when Mueller’s team unveiled its plea deal with Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. In December 2016, the United Nations Security Council was debating a draft resolution that condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories as a “flagrant violation under international law” that was “dangerously imperiling the viability” of an independent Palestinian state.

The Obama administration had made it clear that the U.S. was planning to abstain on the resolution, while noting that “the settlements have no legal validity” and observing how “the settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the … two-state solution.” (Rhetorically, at least, U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements has been a long-standing and bipartisan position for decades: Ronald Reagan called for “a real settlement freeze” in 1982 while George H.W. Bush tried to curb Israeli settlement-building plans by briefly cutting off U.S. loan guarantees to the Jewish state in 1991.)

So what did members of the Trump team do, as they listened to loud objections to the U.N. resolution from the Netanyahu government while counting down the days till Trump’s inauguration in January 2017?

“On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team directed Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution,” reads the statement of offense against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. “On or about December 22, 2016, Flynn contacted the Russian Ambassador about the pending vote. Flynn informed the Russian Ambassador about the incoming administration’s opposition to the resolution, and requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution.”

Who was the “very senior member” of the transition team who “directed” Flynn to do all this? Multiple news outlets have confirmed that it was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and main point man on the Middle East peace process. “Jared called Flynn and told him you need to get on the phone to every member of the Security Council and tell them to delay the vote,” a Trump transition official revealed to BuzzFeed News on Friday, adding that Kushner told Flynn “this was a top priority for the president.”

According to BuzzFeed, “After hanging up, Flynn told the entire room [at the Trump transition team HQ] that they’d have to start pushing to lobby against the U.N. vote, saying ‘the president wants this done ASAP.’” Flynn’s guilty plea, BuzzFeed continued, revealed “for the first time how Trump transition officials solicited Russia’s help to head off the UN vote and undermine the Obama administration’s policy on Middle East peace before ever setting foot in the White House.”

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 3: White House Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner speaks during a conversation with Haim Saban at the Saban Forum, December 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Saban Forum is a US-Israeli dialogue, hosted by the Brookings Institution. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

White House Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner speaks during a conversation with Haim Saban at the Saban Forum, Dec. 3, 2017 in Washington.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

None of this has been contested. In fact, on Sunday, Kushner made a rare public appearance at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Trump administration’s plans for the Middle East and was welcomed by the forum’s sponsor, the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, who said he “personally wanted to thank” Kushner for “taking steps to try and get the United Nations Security Council to not go along with what ended up being an abstention by the U.S.” Kushner’s response? The first son-in-law smiled, nodded, and mouthed “thank you” to Saban.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have been pretty forthcoming about their own role in all of this, too. On Monday, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and a close friend and ally of Netanyahu, told Politico’s Susan Glasser that, in December 2016, “obviously we reached out to [the Trump transition team] in the hope that they would help us,” and “we were hopeful that they would speak” to other governments “in order to prevent this vote from happening.”

The Trump transition team reached out to the Russian government in order to undermine the U.S. government because the Israeli government asked them to.

Got that? The Trump transition team — in the form of key Trump advisers Kushner and Flynn — reached out to the Russian government in order to undermine the U.S. government because the Israeli government asked them to.

Where’s the outrage? How is the sheer “scope and audacity” of the Trump-Netanyahu backchannels — to quote one U.S. official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on this issue — not a bigger story? For a start, as University of Chicago law professors Daniel Hemel and Eric Posner argued in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, the much-mocked Logan Act of 1799 remains “a serious criminal statute that bars citizens from undermining the foreign policy actions of the sitting president.” These two legal scholars point out that “if Mr. Flynn violated the Logan Act, then so did the ‘very senior’ official who directed his actions. If that official is Mr. Kushner, then Mr. Kushner could go to jail.”

Then there is the issue of Middle East policy itself. It wasn’t outsourced to the Israelis by Trump and Co. only during the transition or only over settlements. The outsourcing has continued in office. Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — another key Israeli demand that every single previous president, Republican and Democrat, has resisted. The decision on Jerusalem is so contentious that it both undermines any chance of reviving the peace process and threatens to cost lives — not just those of Israelis and Palestinians, but of Americans too.

What was it that James Mattis, secretary of defense and former head of U.S. Central Command, said back in 2013 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado? He pointed out that the chances of a two-state solution were “starting to ebb because of the settlements,” before adding: “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”

Until Mueller issues his final report, we can all agree to disagree on whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. For now, however, what we do know for sure and what seems beyond doubt is that Flynn and Kushner colluded with Netanyahu and Dermer, on behalf of Trump, to make America not great again, but much less secure.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Trump’s own defense secretary. 

Top photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jared Kushner in Jerusalem on June 21, 2017.

The post Trump’s Transition Team Colluded With Israel. Why Isn’t That News? appeared first on The Intercept.

Read more at: The Intercept http://bit.ly/1QabwCe

The Government Is Trying to Make It Impossible For Reality Winner to Defend Herself in Court

from December 5, 2017 at 09:24AM http://bit.ly/2jjT1Tg

The investigation into potential Russian interference of the 2016 presidential election continues to dominate headlines, but one aspect of the saga has fallen completely away from public view: the case of former NSA contractor Reality Winner. Little attention is paid to the Trump administration’s first prosecution in its war on leaks, and the person being prosecuted for allegedly attempting to shine light on hackers’ attempts to probe the U.S. election infrastructure.

The Justice Department is now engaged in a multi-pronged effort to hamstring Winner’s defense against charges of violating the Espionage Act behind cumbersome classification rules, cut off any attempt by Winner to argue her alleged disclosures did not harm national security, and, according to her lawyers, were unconstitutionally keeping parts of the case hidden from public view.

The efforts on the part of the prosecutors represent a broad push by the government to hamper Winner’s attempt to defend herself.

In a brief filed on November 27, Winner’s defense team accused federal prosecutors of using secrecy rules to stifle their ability to do even basic research about the case. They’re arguing that a number of limitations and concerns have arisen that present a serious obstacle to the defense’s ability to gather evidence and prepare its case, and that are contrary to the Constitution and the presumption of openness in federal courts.”

The restrictions imposed by the government for operating under the law impose a huge burden on the defense team. And the stringent rules, along with other arguments the prosecution is making to the judge, could leave Winner little room to make her case.

The efforts on the part of the prosecutors represent a broad push by the government to hamper Winner’s attempt to defend herself. They are seeking to prevent Winner’s lawyers from citing public news articles in open court, restricting their ability to research those public articles even in private, hiding several aspects of the case completely from public view, and arguing that someone charged under the Espionage Act is not even allowed to bring up the fact that her actions never harmed national security.

A key part of the defense’s argument may hinge on the fact that nothing Winner is alleged to have leaked actually damaged national security and that similar information was likely already in the public domain. If the defense can prove that, then they can show that she did not violate the Espionage Act, which requires the “national defense information” released to have been “closely held” — a true secret, in other words. (The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, has taken steps to provide independent support for Winner’s legal defense through the Press Freedom Defense Fund. First Look also contributed $50,000 in matching funds to the Stand With Reality campaign, which I co-founded.)

A key part of the defense’s argument may hinge on the fact that nothing Winner is alleged to have leaked actually damaged national security.

The law, however it’s being interpreted by the judge, as of now, bars the defense from citing this information — news articles, mostly — in its public legal briefs, and the prosecution is now trying to tie the defense’s hands by making it difficult to even research this information in private.

Winner’s defense team, which is already limited by the number of security clearances obtained in a timely fashion, is only allowed to discuss classified aspects of the case — defined so broadly to encompass virtually everything they do — in one of two government-designated Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities. Because the defense team is located in multiple states, research and communication among Winner’s lawyers are incredibly cumbersome and slow. What’s more, the lawyers are only allowed to discuss the case with Winner herself in one of these SCIFs.

While the prosecutors are afforded a classified email system so they can communicate with each other more freely and easily, the defense team is not. The defense team is prohibited from doing internet searches for public news articles outside the SCIF if they may contain classified information — even those that don’t cite Winner’s alleged leak. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of public news articles on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election that contain such information. But, because they can’t take the information out of the SCIF in any form, the defense cannot run standard Google searches for these types of articles to determine how they are related to the case.

The government’s restrictions on the defense are of a piece with its first major win early on in the case: Prosecutors convinced a judge that the defense shouldn’t be allowed to cite any news articles that may or may not contain classified information in any briefs open for public view.

On top of all this, several weeks ago, the government made sweeping arguments attempting to prohibit the defense team from making any argument related to national security at all — either publicly or behind closed doors. The Justice Department wrote in a little noticed brief in October that “the government is not required to prove: (1) that the disclosure of the classified intelligence reporting could threaten the national security of the United States, or (2) the specific mens rea requirements alleged by the Defendant, including intent to injure the United States.”

The Justice Department is contending that it doesn’t matter if Winner didn’t intend to harm the United States; it doesn’t matter if the document didn’t actually harm national security; and it didn’t even matter if the document could potentially could harm national security. Prosecutors are essentially arguing the national security implications of the leak are totally irrelevant and therefore, shouldn’t even come up at trial.

The defense accused the prosecution of violating the Constitution by entirely hiding aspects of the case from public view.

It’s bad enough that the trial has faded from public attention, but in the same November 27 brief, the defense accused the prosecution of violating the Constitution by entirely hiding aspects of the case from public view.

Many of the briefs in the case are filed under seal because they allegedly contain classified information. Instead of posting those documents on the public docket in redacted form, as the prosecutors are required to do by a protective order they already agreed to, the government has been forgoing even making the existence of such filings public at all.

Even if some of the information is classified, the public still has the right to know these briefs exist, and there’s plenty of case law to back it up. It’s not only a violation of Winner’s rights to a public trial as a defendant, but a violation of the public’s right to know how the government is prosecuting the case.

On Monday, months into the ongoing case, the government placed at least some of the classified filings on the public docket. But it’s still unclear how many and when other portions will be made available. And it doesn’t bode well that the government had to apparently be forced into complying with the law on public filings by a defense motion accusing it of violating the constitution.

With all the restrictions put on Winner’s defense team, it’s plain to see that leakers and whistleblowers tried under a law made for spies cannot get anything close to resembling a fair trial.

Top photo: Reality Winner is depicted in this courtroom sketch during her hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Augusta, Ga., on June 8, 2017.

The post The Government Is Trying to Make It Impossible For Reality Winner to Defend Herself in Court appeared first on The Intercept.

Read more at: The Intercept http://bit.ly/1QabwCe

This Israeli Presentation on How to Make Drone Strikes More “Efficient” Disturbed Its Audience

from December 5, 2017 at 10:00AM http://bit.ly/2jjSVuS

Research backed by the U.S. and Israeli military scandalized a conference near Tel Aviv earlier this year after a presentation showed how the findings would help drone operators more easily locate people — including targets — fleeing their strikes and better navigate areas rendered unrecognizable by prior destruction.

The doctoral student who presented the research demonstrated how pioneering data visualization techniques could show a drone operator, using lines and arrows of varying thickness, which direction fast-moving people and vehicles were most likely to travel, for example, at an intersection or while fleeing a building. The presentation clearly angered at least some of the crowd, including the moderator, prompting hostile questions.

“The guy’s talk (and its video documentation) revealed much of what’s very wrong about UAV warfare,” said Mushon Zer-Aviv, a web designer and activist and an organizer of the conference, the data visualization confab known as ISVIS.

The incident at ISVIS underscores the extent to which drone warfare’s deeply technological basis and inhumanity has become a major part of global pubic debate around its use. Once viewed (and still promoted) as an efficient, safer way to target terrorists, the growing ubiquity of lethal drone strikes in global hotspots is increasingly seen as helping to create wastelands and fomenting the sort of terroristic support it’s designed to eradicate.

Part of the controversy over the research presentation traces back to the desensitized environment in which drone pilots operate, which is not frequently seen by outsiders. In this world, the pilots ask questions that might sound absurd outside the context of aerial robot-aided killing: What happens when you want to kill someone, but they’ve run into a building, and you’re not sure where they’ll exit? What happens when a town has been so thoroughly destroyed, you can’t recognize it anymore and get lost?

The presenter of the drone material, Yuval Zak, told the Intercept he was surprised by the audience reaction and hostile questioning after his presentation. “The conversation changed from dealing with visualization and improving information presentation on a … map to a discussion about the ethical issues of using drones,” he wrote in an email. “But the focus of the conference and my paper is entirely different.” The technology he presented could just as easily be used for policing and search and rescue as for drone strikes, he said — any time-critical scenario involving a map.

Still, Zer-Aviv said he was stunned as the presentation unfolded. He was the co-chair of ISVIS, which has billed itself as Israel’s first data visualization event, bringing together “design, engineering, and psychological perspectives on visualization.” Like many conferences in any field, ISVIS put out an open call for presentations, hoping to bring a sampling of the burgeoning world of data visualization under one roof at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan.

“What is gained and what is lost in the transition from data, through images, to insights?” read the ISVIS manifesto. The programming looked thoughtful and sharp, covering topics from storytelling and journalism to political activism and aesthetics. One session promised to explain how “for museum curators it is imperative to learn, analyze, and understand the behavior patterns of the visitors,” in part through “recent developments in the field of indoor positioning systems.”

This sort of work is central to a lot of applied data science: how to make things we’re already doing more efficient, more effective, less laborious. But what if we’re talking about shooting missiles at people from flying robots? Should drone warfare, already so remote and clinical, receive further layers of software abstraction? Should killing be engineered to be more efficient?

These were the sorts of urgent, necessary questions that Zak ignored. His presentation focused on nuts and bolts, presuming that drone warfare ought to be made more efficient in the first place. His slides indicated his work was part of a “research collaboration between Ben-Gurion University,” the Israeli military, and the U.S. Research, Development, and Engineering Command’s Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, or, in poetic Pentagon-speak, RDECOM AMRDEC.

The ISVIS organizers were “obviously very curious” when Zak submitted his talk, said Zer-Aviv, and decided to place it in a segment titled “Power and Change,” alongside a presentation on feminist data visualization. “This panel was expected to take on visualizations use both by those in power and by citizens who may want to grapple with or oppose this power,” explained Zer-Aviv.

Yuval Zak speaks at an Israeli data visualization conference.

Zak opened his presentation with a startling statement that must have, somehow, felt matter-of-fact:

It has been said that in the upcoming round of combat, for example, the Israel Air Force will knock down some 1,000 buildings or more, so anyone who goes into Gaza won’t even be able to identify what he thought he should be able to see there.

Herein lies the problem confronting Israeli’s high-tech air power, as Zak’s team sees it: What happens when you’ve so devastated an urban area that it’s no longer recognizable? How will you navigate, for the purposes of killing and destruction, a place that you’ve been transforming by said killing and destruction? Therein lies a main problem of drone warfare, relying heavily on sensor-laden robots that are still operated by humans with finite memories and with visual processing easily confused by rubble and ruin. This is where Zak’s research comes in. He explained in his remarks that the goal of his research was “at the end of the day, to improve the efficiency of unmanned drone operators in the army in their missions.”

Zak then described the work environment of the drone operator, who has video from the aircraft and a map, typically with some sort of overlay, which might show existing forces. “What he does not have,” Zak said, “is some sort of aggregate information about past missions.”

In other words, he takes off, he knows where the enemy is expected to be, where our forces are expected to be. He won’t know how the enemy acted in yesterday’s mission unless he remembers, he won’t know how he acted in last week’s mission or two weeks ago and even so, he has an information load and coping with it is very difficult for him.

The issue at hand, then, boils down to one with which an MBA candidate or Deloitte consultant might grapple: How can our organization make sense of an over-abundance of data and increase employee productivity by leveraging 21st century software techniques? The only difference here is that the organization in question is interested in the business of killing, and an increase in employee productivity means killing more easily. Israel’s record of civilian deaths in the course of its unmanned drone campaigns is already well-documented.

Zak covered four different visualization techniques explored during his research, noting that the first in the series was “a visualization that most of the [drone] operators we consulted liked very much.” Suppose you’re tailing a person or a car filled with people. Now, you’re piloting a drone equipped with a litany of hard-to-pronounce imaging sensors capable of incredible visual detail, day or night. But one thing the cameras and lasers can’t discern is what a person on the ground, at a street intersection, for instance, will do next:

You’re following a vehicle, a suspect, you come to a junction, and you have the possibility of going straight, turning right, or turning left. In other words, not you, the target you’re following. So what is the probability that that target turns to each of the directions at the junction? When we can display this probability with either a number that we add to the visualization or using the thickness of the line, and some filtering can be done about this, perhaps the time, the type of target, the date, if it’s a moving target, a vehicle or a pedestrian.

The drone operators Zak has been working with, he said, were particularly tickled by this visualization because there are missions during which “they follow a vehicle and … sometimes lose it, because you go into some kind of a cloud, and then they get out of the cloud, and they want to know ‘OK, we’ve lost the target, and there was a junction, so where do we look for it?’”

It’s unclear where the data necessary for such a narrow prediction is coming from, and it’s not the only example of its kind Zak trotted out. Other visualizations under consideration by the Israeli-American research team include one for following individuals as they might flee on foot, in which drone operators would receive a colorful visual display of “the probability of entering and exiting each door in each building,” designated by arrows of varying thickness, and a system for tracking a “permanent target” like Ismail Haniyeh, senior Hamas leader and former Palestinian Authority head. For people like Haniyeh, Zak said “we can build a movement grid for him, where the places where he was and the probabilities are shown via the thickness of the lines or of those dots.” The “surveillance grid for an individual target received a very high efficiency ranking” from drone operators, Zak noted with pride. It’s a bit like Netflix suggestions, only for people to fire missiles at.

Zak quickly lost the crowd.“I think no one in the room really expected this,” Zer-Aviv told The Intercept. Sure enough, according to a transcript of the Q&A session following Zak’s talk, the first question was actually a denunciation: “I’m just saying that when you hurt so many people, not all of whom are Ismail Haniyeh, for these purposes, we can look a bit less self-satisfied,” an audience member said. “Not everything is inherently honorable.”

The segment’s moderator tried to press Zak on this point:

We hear a lot of talk these days about predictive policing. About using algorithms, too, to make certain policy decisions. Be it policing policy, in our case, it is targeted assassination policy. Making life-and-death decisions based on data. What is the role both of your data processing and of the visualizations in these complex ethical questions?

In his reply, Zak sidestepped the ethical issues, stating that, “In the big picture, our job is to make the work of a drone operator more efficient.” He added that his visualization work would not take two targets and determine “that one has to be destroyed and that one not.” This role, he said, is made “by people who … view video screens and evaluate the situation based on that.”

In his email to The Intercept, Zak stated that the benefits of increased accuracy for drone operators go beyond efficient killing:

If an operator has better information, there will be less chance of errors or accidents.

Most UAV accidents and mishaps are related to human errors so the technology calls for developing UAVs holistically, which includes human factors in addition to technology. Unfortunately, most UAVs are developed to achieve certain technical goals, without considering the human cognitive limitations in operating the system, or the decision-making process. This is where our research can contribute to improving operators’ performance.

For example, take a reported U.S. case in which UAV operators failed to observe and report on the presence of children in a suspected crowd in Afghanistan, causing a helicopter to kill 23 civilians. These are precisely the incidents we aim to avoid by improving operators’ abilities to focus.

If you can make those video screens as rich and information-packed as possible, well, why wouldn’t you? Isn’t it smarter? Better? But these completely ethics-agnostic replies — so reminiscent of Silicon Valley accountability dodging — are basically the “guns don’t kill people” of drone warfare. Accountability lies with the button-pushers, the reasoning goes, rather than the people who designed and built the buttons in the first place. The view of drone operators as merely passive consumers of content who need the best content available in order to make the best decisions possible allows us to avoid uncomfortable questions and debates over whether this system ought to be used to frequently in the first place and allows critics to be waved off with promises of better data just around the corner. Maybe the problem with the so-called kill chain used to authorize robotic killing isn’t that it’s an abstracted, desensitizing, information-centric form of remote assassination, but that we’re just not throwing enough good data in the war sluice?

Top photo: A picture shows an Israeli army unmanned aerial vehicle landing in an airfield, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on Jan. 20, 2015, two days after an Israeli airstrike killed six Hezbollah members in the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights.

The post This Israeli Presentation on How to Make Drone Strikes More “Efficient” Disturbed Its Audience appeared first on The Intercept.

Read more at: The Intercept http://bit.ly/1QabwCe

Facebook Allowed Political Ads That Were Actually Scams and Malware

from December 5, 2017 at 05:14AM http://bit.ly/2AUpqcV

In September, an ad with the headline, “New Approval Ratings For President Trump Announced And It’s Not Going The Way You Think,” targeted Facebook users in the U.S. who were over 40 and labeled as “very liberal” by the tech company.

“Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump and his policies, it’s fair to say that his appointment as President of the United States is one of the most…,” ran the text. “Learn more.”

At least some people who clicked on this come-on found their computers frozen. Their screens displayed a warning and a computer-generated voice informed them that their machine had been “infected with viruses, spywares and pornwares,” and that their credit card information and other personal data had been stolen — and offered a phone number to call to fix it.

Actually, the freeze was temporary, and restarting the computer would have unlocked it. But worried users who called the number would have been asked to pay to restore their access, according to computer security experts who have tracked the scam for more than a year.

This ad, which targeted Facebook users in the U.S. who were over 40 and labeled as “very liberal” by the tech company, led some people to a scam site that froze their computers and tried to trick them into paying for bogus tech support.

Russian disinformation isn’t the only deceptive political advertising on Facebook. The pitch designed to lure President Donald Trump’s critics is one of more than a dozen politically themed advertisements masking consumer rip-offs that ProPublica has identified since launching an effort in September to monitor paid political messages on the world’s largest social network. As the American public becomes ever more polarized along partisan lines, swindlers who used to capitalize on curiosity about celebrities or sports are now exploiting political passions.

“Those political ads, especially right now if you look at the U.S., they are actually getting more clicks,” said Jérôme Segura, lead malware intelligence analyst at anti-malware company Malwarebytes. “Where there are clicks, there is going to be interest from bad guys.”

The ads, supplied by ProPublica readers through our Political Ad Collector tool, lured Facebook viewers with provocative statements about hot-button figures such as former President Barack Obama, Ivanka Trump, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway.

Clicking on the headline, “Sponsors Pull out From His Show Over This?” — over a photo of Hannity with MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow — led to a page styled to look like the Fox News website. It offered a free bottle of Testo-Max HD, which it described as a cure for erectile dysfunction, although it isn’t approved by the FDA. People who sign up for such free nostrums are typically asked to provide credit card information to pay for shipping and are then automatically charged almost $100 a month, according to reviews online.

Another ad we collected led people to a webpage styled to look like the Fox News site. The scam site falsely said commentator Sean Hannity was hawking free trials of a pill called Testo-Max HD, which it claimed could cure erectile dysfunction.

Although these scams represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 8,000 politically themed advertisements assembled by the Political Ad Collector, they raise doubts about Facebook’s ability to monitor paid political messages. In each case, the ads ran afoul of guidelines Facebook has developed to curb misleading and malicious advertising. Many of the scams had also been flagged by users, fact-checking groups and cybersecurity services — even the Federal Trade Commission — long before they appeared on the social network.

Moreover, most of the sites may have warranted special attention because they had been registered within the 30 days before users sent them to our Political Ad Collector. Paul Vixie, the co-founder of San Mateo, California-based computer security company Farsight Security, said new website domains are more likely to be shady, because fraudsters often shut sites down after days or even minutes and open new ones to stay ahead of authorities looking to catch them.

As the midterm elections heat up, such cons are likely to proliferate, along with more devious forms of information warfare. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently said in an interview with Axios that the social network had missed “more subtle” election interference in part because its security team had been focused on “the biggest threats” of malware and phishing — tricking people into revealing their personal information. Based on ProPublica’s findings, it’s unclear if the world’s largest social network can handle either challenge.

Facebook officials told ProPublica that the company is trying to improve its ability to stop harmful advertising, including malware and frauds, but is aware some bad ads get through its defenses. “There is no tolerable amount of malware on the site. The tolerance is zero, but unfortunately that’s not the same as zero occurrence,” said Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ads. Goldman said of the 14 deceptive ads ProPublica identified, 12 were removed by Facebook before ProPublica contacted the company in November. Facebook took down the other two after ProPublica alerted it to the ads.

He declined to identify the specific tools, such as computer virus databases or popular fact-checking website Snopes.com, that Facebook uses to inspect ads. “It’s bad if the bad guys learn how we enforce,” he said.

To be sure, malicious advertising — also called “malvertising” — likely will never be stopped fully, several cybersecurity researchers said. Segura said other internet ad companies, not just Facebook, showed similar lapses by letting such ads through. Still, the persistence of these ads on Facebook suggests the company doesn’t have adequate oversight in place to stop problematic ads before they run.

Malvertising tactics that have been reported publicly, “should be dealt with and done,” Segura said. Instead, they continue to show up — including in the Facebook ads collected by ProPublica — indicating that “the core issue hasn’t been addressed,” he said.

Traditionally, Facebook has been reluctant to review ads before they show up on its platform. In a recent video announcement outlining the company’s response to misleading political ads from Russia during the 2016 election, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that stance. “Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without an advertiser ever speaking to someone at Facebook,” he said. “We don’t check what people say before they say it and frankly, I don’t think society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want.”

Under pressure from its users and lawmakers, Facebook has said it is trying to become more proactive, instituting rules to evaluate ads and posts and block or limit those it deems misleading.

The social networking giant has long had rules against fraudulent ads and those that lead people to “any software that results in an unexpected or deceptive experience.” Last year, it rolled out a policy to prevent “low quality or disruptive content” providers from placing ads, saying that ads should “link to landing pages that include significant and original content that is relevant” to the ad, and that they should not “include deceptive ad copy that incentivizes people to click.” In May, Facebook announced it had stepped up measures against “misleading, sensational and spammy” ads and posts. The company said it had used artificial intelligence to figure out which new pages shared on Facebook were likely to be low quality, which the company defined as having “little substantive content” or a lot of shocking or scammy ads. If its algorithms determined a post was likely to link to that sort of web page, it said, the post “may not be eligible” to be used in advertising.

Since 2014, Facebook has also intensified its efforts to crack down on so-called “clickbait,” which it says includes “headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.”

All the consumer rip-off ads recorded by ProPublica violated one or more of these rules.

It is unclear how many people have been cheated by such ads on Facebook. ProPublica’s sample is not random or representative, and the vast majority of politically themed ads ProPublica saw were legitimate. But what seems like a small annoyance for the social network can be a big headache for hundreds or thousands of people. For example, Facebook recently told lawmakers that only about 0.004 percent of the content on its news feed from June 2015 to August 2017 was related to the Russian Internet Research Agency’s influence campaign — but that meant 126 million Americans may have seen such items.


The Facebook scams are the latest in a long line of deceptive campaigns using digital ad technology, said Robyn Caplan, a researcher who studies algorithms and media at the New York-based Data & Society Research Institute.

They are “building off of really well-worn techniques with advertising in the ’90s,” she said. At that time, scammers started using techniques to manipulate search engine algorithms and promote their own pages. “Clickbait” and similar tactics arose as a way to entice web users.

On Facebook, though, hucksters can take their manipulation to the next level because the company gathers so much data about people and allows advertisers to target messages based on that data. So scammers can ensure their clickbait is seen by the people they think are most likely to fall for their outrageous headlines.

The political scam ads identified by ProPublica had certain traits in common. At least seven were associated with a scheme that sends readers to a web page containing a snippet of malicious computer code, or malware, to lock up the user’s computer. Those included the ad featuring Trump’s approval rating, as well as ones headlined “Ivanka Trump Has Actually Responded to Her Dad’s ‘Incestuous Comments’ About Her” — which were also targeted at “very liberal” people over 40 — and “This Barack Obama Quote About Donald Trump Is Absolutely Terrifying,” for which we couldn’t identify the target audience.

Typically, after their computers are frozen, users are instructed to call a toll-free number. Our calls to that number in the weeks after the ads ran went unanswered, but people who track this particular hoax say the perpetrators usually ask for money or login information to fix the person’s machine.

These attacks, known as “tech support scams,” have been a common problem for several years, said Will Maxson, the assistant director of the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission who has been fighting them since 2013.

When Facebook users clicked on some of these fraudulent ads, they were taken to a page with a snippet of malicious computer code, or malware, to freeze their computers. They were then instructed to call a number for tech support, even though they could have unlocked the screen by simply restarting the computer.

Maxson said when he started, the scammers called potential victims on the phone and claimed to be from Microsoft or Apple. They have since also adopted more sophisticated techniques, including the computer-locking code seen by ProPublica.

We couldn’t figure out who was behind the tech support scams we found. The accounts used fake names such as Facts WorldWide and News Express. Website registrations for the sites used in the ads, which had addresses such as poolparty9.info and factsforyou.info, used a service that masked the actual address. Clues on one related site and in the malicious code pointed to people in India, but such details can be easy to fake, and attempts to contact the people went unanswered.

Facebook isn’t the only company to have overlooked the tech support scam. The ad about Trump’s approval rating used a known flaw in web-browsing software that can be exploited to eat up all available memory, making the computer freeze. This browser vulnerability was first reported in 2014 and has been used by tech-support fraudsters for about a year, Segura, the malware researcher, said. But Safari and Microsoft’s newest browser, Edge, were the only ones with a fix when the ads ran. A spokesman for Google, which makes the Chrome browser, said the company had introduced an “initial patch” for the bug in September but was still working on improving protections against the flaw. A spokesman for Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, said the organization plans to fix the problem in an upcoming version.

Even if this flaw were fixed, there are other vulnerabilities that tech support fraudsters commonly use to lock up computers, such as trapping a user in a pop-up screen.


To hide their activities from Facebook’s automated scanning tools, almost all of the scammers used a technique called cloaking. Typically, cloaking involves running bad content only at certain times or to selected audiences, redirecting some people to a separate website, or automatically altering the content depending on who is looking. In August, Facebook issued a press release detailing how the company was using artificial intelligence to uncover cloaking.

One version of the ad about Trump’s approval ratings sent users to a site named poolparty9.info. When we first saw it on Sept. 25, that site automatically funneled many users to another site — more-updates.tech — which had the bad code to lock up their machines. When we rechecked the ad later, poolparty9.info was blank and didn’t send people anywhere else. Presumably, computer security experts told us, poolparty9 would have kept any Facebook scanners it detected on the same blank page, rather than referring them to more-updates.tech.

The shady ads we saw used outrageous headlines about political figures to lure people to click. Facebook said all the ads violated at least one of its policies, including those against fraud and malware.

Cloaking also protected a set of ads proclaiming that Kellyanne Conway was leaving the White House. The reasons for her departure given in the linked article changed depending on the user’s choice of browser. In Firefox, the site said she quit her job to sell Allura Skin cream, but when an automated internet archiving service — similar to a tool that a company like Facebook might employ to scan ads —visited the same site, the story merely said Conway had left, and didn’t say what she planned to do.

ProPublica’s tool collected at least five different versions of the Conway-related ad. They linked to sites such as cashmillionaire.info and jumping-jimmies.info, which were registered using the email address freemoneyteam@hotmail.com, according to DomainTools, a Seattle-based computer forensics service. These sites encourage visitors to sign up for a free trial of skin cream and ask for credit card information to pay only for shipping. But consumers are then charged nearly $100 automatically for each small vial of cream, according to Snopes.

Cloaking is supposed to trick companies like Facebook by showing them legitimate websites and pages. But in these cases, even the sites that were supposed to pass inspection actually violated Facebook’s rules against clickbait and low-quality content and could have indicated to Facebook that something was amiss.

Many of the decoy sites offered outlandish or false information. For example, another version of the Trump ad sent people to liveyourpassion9.info, which offered content such as “10 Fantastic and Bizarre Caterpillar Facts” and “10 Most Bizarre Planets You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”

Most of the ads affiliated with the scam that locked people’s computers included links to Facebook pages, not just outside websites. While these Facebook pages may have been intended to enhance credibility, they typically posted either almost no content, or content that was just copied from elsewhere on the web. Many of the Facebook pages and the outside websites used for cloaking featured similar teasers, such as “GET ALL THE LATEST FACTS ALL OVER THE WORLD.” A Google search for that phrase turns up a handful of dubious Facebook pages and outside websites operating since June, suggesting that the scam was rolling months before ProPublica saw the ads this fall.

In addition, several of the decoy websites were associated with computer servers known to be problematic. DomainTools gave several of them a “risk score” that indicates they are worth further security review. One was classified as actively dangerous by an antivirus company nearly a month before ProPublica’s tool saw the ad.


Facebook failed to unveil the cloaking and detect the flimflams despite many prior specific warnings about the ads. Most notably, the Conway scam had been reported in May by Snopes, with which Facebook has partnered in an effort to block advertising by purveyors of fake news. Snopes found an overwhelming number of almost identical advertisements that falsely claimed Conway and other celebrities had started careers in skin care. Snopes pointed out that the free trials of skin care products could actually cost consumers almost $100. The Federal Trade Commission has fined advertisers for similar behavior.

A Facebook page associated with another ad carried more than 100 comments from users warning that this was “fake fake fake” and “clearly a scam!,” including comments posted weeks before ProPublica gathered the ad. This ad, aimed at users who were over 18 and had recently been in Switzerland, trumpeted, “Anonymous shocks Donald Trump by revealing system which made him rich!” The advertisers claimed to offer access to a stock-trading scheme promoted by the hacker collective Anonymous. They sought a minimum deposit of $250 and said “our system will quadruple this in just 24 hours.” They described their “system” as “limited to binary options,” a scheme that involves betting on whether a stock or commodity will go above or below a certain price. The FBI cited binary options earlier this year as a common vehicle for identity theft and other fraud.

Advertisers who trumpeted “Anonymous shocks Donald Trump by revealing system which made him rich!” offered access to what they portrayed as a stock-trading tool promoted by the hacker collective Anonymous. They sought a minimum deposit of $250 and said “our system will quadruple this in just 24 hours.” The FBI has cited this type of scheme as a common vehicle for fraud and identity theft.

“I just wonder why Facebook keeps suggesting these. This should be checked before actually sending this to people,” one Facebook user complained.

The audio file used in the Trump approval ad and other tech support scams to tell people that their computers were infected was flagged as a cybersecurity risk over a year ago. And one of the sites hosting the bad code, more-updates.tech, had been marked as malicious by a widely used service almost two weeks before our tool collected it.

Goldman, the Facebook official, would not specify which services Facebook relies on to tell it whether an ad might be a problem. He also said the company doesn’t make decisions on an ad based on any one indicator.

Facebook users have been complaining for more than a year about fake political headlines leading to sites that locked their computers, according to a review of Facebook’s online help forums.

Cath Nelesen, an Arizona retiree, posted on such a help forum in October 2016, asking “how to stop a hack” that she had seen two times in one week. Nelesen, who describes herself as a “staunch Hillary supporter,” told ProPublica she clicked on an “unbelievable” link about the election. She didn’t recall exactly what it said but thought it may have falsely asserted that Hillary Clinton had been arrested.

She clearly remembered what happened next, though: “Immediately there was a message that I was infected by malware and needed to call an 800 number affiliated with Microsoft,” Nelesen said. Her son-in-law had worked for Microsoft, and had told her of swindlers claiming to be Microsoft tech support. So she realized it might be a hoax, but she didn’t know how to regain control of her computer.

“Finally I turned off and prayed,” she said. When she turned the computer back on, it worked — possibly due to the prayer, but more likely because the code that locked up the screen only works when the harmful webpage is open.

She complained to Facebook and received a generic answer about the importance of reporting problems and avoiding spam. “It was completely worthless to me,” Nelesen said. “You’d think if you report something to somebody the problem would stop, but that isn’t the way it goes. I wouldn’t depend on Facebook for any help.”

Read more at: ProPublica: Articles and Investigations http://bit.ly/2fhNkT9

Prosecutors: Manafort Wrote Op-Ed With Colleague ‘Assessed To Have Ties’ In Russia

from December 4, 2017 at 03:04PM http://bit.ly/2Ay4kOL

WASHINGTON (AP) — While facing several felony charges, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been working on an op-ed essay with a longtime colleague “assessed to have ties” to a Russian intelligence service, according to court papers filed Monday by prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller.

In the court filing, prosecutors say Manafort and the colleague sought to publish the op-ed under someone else’s name and intended it to influence public opinion about his work in Ukraine. The op-ed was being drafted as late as last week, with Manafort currently under house arrest. Prosecutors did not name the colleague but noted the person is based in Russia.

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Read more at: All TPM News http://bit.ly/1kKyqV3

WaPo: Roy Moore Accuser Shares New Details About Their Relationship

from December 4, 2017 at 03:04PM http://bit.ly/2B2jRcI

One of the women included in the Washington Post’s first report on Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged relationships and sexual misconduct with teenagers presented more proof of their relationship Monday.

After Debbie Wesson Gibson saw a Nov. 27 video of Moore saying “I do not know any of these women,” the Post reported, she found a graduation card from Moore in a scrapbook in her attic.

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Tribes Granted Reservoir Protections In Dakota Access Oil Spill Response Plan

from December 4, 2017 at 11:14AM http://bit.ly/2zQ8zE8

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The Army Corps of Engineers and the developer of the Dakota Access pipeline must complete an oil spill response plan for the stretch of pipe beneath the Missouri River in North Dakota, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg’s order grants a request by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes for additional measures to protect the river’s Lake Oahe reservoir. The tribes draw drinking water from the lake and also consider it sacred.

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