Smoke Signals from the Swamp: The Russians and their trollsMore Info
Who knew? You have to hand it to him: Here in the land of a thousand leaks, Mueller continually shocks and surprises.
On Feb. 16, 2018, in United States of America v. Internet Research Agency LLC, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering, and a list of Russians as long as the characters who appear in the first few chapters of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Mueller and the Grand Jury charged:
“Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016. Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (‘Trump Campaign’) and disparaging Hillary Clinton. Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.” (Emphasis added.)
Now let me stress the significance of this. These activities were illegal: “The United States of America, through its departments and agencies, regulates the activities of foreign individuals and entities in and affecting the United States in order to prevent, disclose, and counteract improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and on the U.S. political system. U.S. laws ban foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. And U.S. law requires certain foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States to obtain a visa by providing truthful and accurate information to the government. Various federal agencies, including the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of State, are charged with enforcing these laws.”
Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, in his Feb. 16, 2018, statement told us: “The indictment charges thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 Presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called “information warfare against the United States,” with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
But not surprisingly, various Republicans and the conservative media and the president himself took refuge in what Mueller hadn’t charged while ignoring the astounding reality of what he did charge. So what was it about this extraordinarily detailed indictment that caught the president’s attention:
The president took this occasion not to register fury over what the Russians did or to detail the actions he would take to punish them, but rather to highlight what Rosenstein had clearly acknowledged toward the end of his statement. To remind us all what Mueller hadn’t yet proved: “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
When you look at the official statement, it’s quite obvious how the White House tried to distort this aspect of the Mueller probe: “Earlier today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced indictments against 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 Presidential election, which began in 2014 before the President declared his candidacy. President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates — that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.
“President Trump says, ‘it is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.’” (Emphasis added.)
It is important to point out that, despite some skepticism among the American people, Mueller convinced an American grand jury that the Russians waged a more-than-$1-million-a-month criminal information war against us. Purchasing false credentials. Entering the country illegally. Posing as Americans. Planting false information. And yet for the White House, the partisan attacks, the wild and false allegations and far-fetched theories were coming from Washington, D.C., not Moscow. From Congressional committees, from journalists, from their own Department of Justice and FBI:
I suspect that few people have taken the time to study the indictment, so let’s spend a little time going over some of the details. Regarding the White House’s main claim that the Trump campaign has been cleared: Tweets and press releases notwithstanding, the investigation proceeds and Mueller has shown us time and time again that we have no clue who’s been telling him what and who is about to be charged.
We are still sitting in our seats and there are plot twists we probably haven’t anticipated. I know Donald wants to leave the theater and take the family home to watch Fox News but, for the rest of us, the curtain hasn’t yet come down and we want to know how this ends.
For example, there’s this: “Defendant INTERNET RESEARCH AGENCY LLC (‘ORGANIZATION’) is a Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes. Defendants MIKHAIL IVANOVICH BYSTROV [et al] … worked in various capacities to carry out Defendant ORGANIZATION’s interference operations targeting the United States. From in or around 2014 to the present, Defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
Now, I am not an attorney but one or more of these persons known and unknown might very well be American citizens. And part of a conspiracy.
These efforts to defraud our government and to interfere with our electoral process, including the election candidate Donald Trump won, required money. These funds were provided by “Defendant YEVGENIY VIKTOROVICH PRIGOZHIN and companies he controlled, including Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC and CONCORD CATERING.” (Emphasis added.)
This “Project Lakhta” was a robust operation. The indictment reveals that: “the ORGANIZATION employed hundreds of individuals for its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support. The ORGANIZATION’s annual budget totaled the equivalent of millions of U.S. dollars …
“The ORGANIZATION was headed by a management group and organized into departments, including: a graphics department; a data analysis department; a search-engine optimization (‘SEO’) department; an information-technology (‘IT’) department to maintain the digital infrastructure used in the ORGANIZATION’s operations; and a finance department to budget and allocate funding …
“The ORGANIZATION sought, in part, to conduct what it called ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media.
“By in or around September 2016, the ORGANIZATION’s monthly budget for Project Lakhta submitted to CONCORD exceeded 73 million Russian rubles (over 1,250,000 U.S. dollars), including approximately one million rubles in bonus payments …
“To conceal its involvement, CONCORD labeled the monies paid to the ORGANIZATION for Project Lakhta as payments related to software support and development. To further conceal the source of funds, CONCORD distributed monies to the ORGANIZATION through approximately fourteen bank accounts held in the names of CONCORD affiliates …”
I suspect, like President Trump, Prigozhin didn’t really want to show CNN his tax returns.
Perhaps expenses for the “software and development” to wage information wars are tax deductible in Putin’s Russia.
It’s important to note that, before Internet Research Agency turned its sights on destabilizing our election, they had practiced on their own people. According to Dmitry Volchek, a reporter for Radio Free Europe: “Internet Research, which is officially run by a retired police colonel named Mikhail Bystrov, was first exposed as a ‘troll farm’ by the Independent Novaya Gazeta weekly newspaper in late 2013 … The Kremlin’s footprint in the Russian Internet has grown considerably since massive antigovernment protests broke out in Moscow in 2011-12 — protests that were largely organized online. Although, with some notable exceptions online news is still largely uncensored, a growing array of voices — many suspected of being trolls — sometimes cloud online conversations with disinformation.”
The Russian-language English-translated news site Meduza – now located in Riga, Latvia, because it was unsafe to stay in Moscow – provides some historical context: “On February 26, 2012, Moscow witnessed ‘White Circle,’ one of the last major demonstrations in the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ that followed contested parliamentary elections in December 2011. Uniting under the slogan ‘For honest elections!’ participants held hands and stood side-by-side, forming a human chain around Moscow’s Garden Ring road. It was a peaceful rally, and police didn’t detain a single protester. But one strange incident did catch the attention of law enforcement: As soon as the demonstration began, a minivan pulled up to the curb at Sakharov Prospekt. Men jumped out of the vehicle, set up a table on the sidewalk, and started serving ‘White-Circle’ participants hot tea and cookies …
“It later turned out, however, that the men and their tea and cookies came from another company altogether, organized by Dmitry Koshara, the director of development for the Prigozhin-owned business Concord-Catering. The company sent three trucks with tea and cookies to ‘White-Circle’ demonstrators. Koshara then reached an arrangement with the organizers of the ‘For Honest Elections!’ movement: at the next opposition rally, on March 5 in Pushkin Square, security guards from Concord would be in the crowd.
“From all appearances, Prigozhin was absolutely unsympathetic to the political opposition. Koshara was working for him to gather information about future rallies and about the leaders of the protest movement. According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, it turns out he was also collecting materials that would later be used in ‘Anatomy of Protest,’ a controversial documentary that aired on the television network NTV that accused the opposition of plotting a coup. Koshara now says that every fifth account registered on the ‘White-Circle’ website, 26feb.ru, was one of his bots. (Emphasis added.)
“In September 2013, journalists discovered that Prigozhin owned the infamous ‘troll factory’ … Officially, the founder and CEO of the ‘Internet Research Agency’ was the retired police colonel Mikhail Bystrov, but the agency was created with the help of several people close to Prigozhin. For example, Maria Kuprashevich, who worked in the PR department at Concord, played an important role at the “troll factory” …
Dmitry Volchek provides a look inside the factory. He writes that, in 2014: “Tatiana N decided she wanted a higher salary than the average journalist can expect. After responding to an advertisement in the popular HeadHunter job-search website, she became a Kremlin-paid Internet troll. Tatiana – who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that her last name not be used – worked out of a 2,500-square-meter warehouse in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. The job paid 40,000 rubles [about $711] a month, significantly more than the 25,000-30,000 most journalists make. But it came, she said, ‘with pain.’ … Tatiana joined a round-the-clock operation in which an army of trolls disseminated pro-Kremlin and anti-Western talking points on blogs and in the comments sections of news websites in Russia and abroad …
“‘So you write, write, write, from the point of view of anyone,’ Tatiana, 22, says. ‘You could be [posing as] a housewife who bakes dumplings and suddenly decides: “I have an opinion about what Putin said! And this action by Vladimir Vladimirovich saves Russia.” …
“One assignment instructed trolls how to frame the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov: Either it was orchestrated by Ukrainian oligarchs to frame Russia and harm Moscow’s relations with the West, or it was carried out by Nemtsov’s supporters as a ‘provocation’ ahead of opposition protests. Lena N, another former employee, says she stopped working at Internet Research after refusing to blog the company line about Nemtsov’s killing. ‘It was necessary to bring people to believe that the killing of Boris Nemtsov was a provocation before the march and a murder carried out by his own [supporters],’ she says.”
After growing success influencing social media in Russia, the trolls turned their attention to the West.
So how did they use their monthly 73 million Russian rubles to influence Americans? “Defendants and their co-conspirators, through fraud and deceit, created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop certain fictitious U.S. personas into “leader[s] of public opinion” in the United States. ORGANIZATION employees, referred to as ‘specialists,’ were tasked to create social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons. The specialists were divided into day-shift and night-shift hours and instructed to make posts in accordance with the appropriate U.S. time zone.”
Located in St. Petersburg, these folks spent 12 hours a day creating posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Specialists were instructed to write about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues. Specialists were directed to create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements …
“ORGANIZATION-controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including ‘Secured Borders’); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including ‘Blacktivist’); religion (with group names including ‘United Muslims of America’ and ‘Army of Jesus’); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including ‘South United’ and ‘Heart of Texas’). By 2016, the size of many ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.
“Starting at least in or around 2015, Defendants and their co·conspirators began to purchase advertisements on online social media sites to promote ORGANIZATION-controlled social media groups, spending thousands of U.S. dollars every month … To measure the impact of their online social media operations, Defendants and their coconspirators tracked the performance of content they posted over social media. They tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reposts), changes in audience size, and other metrics. Defendants and their co-conspirators received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts.”
Following the issuance of the Mueller indictment, the Washington Post spoke with Marat Mindiyarov, a 43-year-old former teacher who, like Tatiana N, had begun working for Internet Research Agency in a department for Russian domestic consumption. When “he took a test in December 2014 to move to the factory’s ‘Facebook department’ targeting the U.S. market, Mindiyarov recalled, he was asked to write an essay about Hillary Clinton …”
Here’s the Washington Post Q&A: “How did you end up at the troll factory? I worked there from November 2014 to February 2015. I ended up there totally by accident — I happened to be unemployed, and this place had work right by my house. So I went there. I realized quickly that this was the kind of place where I only wanted to spend enough time until I got my salary and I could leave.”
“How did it feel inside? I arrived there, and I immediately felt like a character in the book “1984” by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white. Your first feeling, when you ended up there, was that you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line. The volumes were colossal — there were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths. It was like being in Orwell’s world.”
“What sorts of untruths did you write? My untruths amounted to posting comments. I worked in the commenting department — I had to comment on the news. No one asked me my opinion. My opinions were already written for me, and I had to write in my own words that which I was ordered to write …”
“Where were you writing this? We were commenting on Russian sites — all sorts of them, LiveJournal for example, and all the Russian news websites. Wherever a given news item appeared on Russian websites, trolls were immediately created to provide the illusion of support.”
“What was the working environment like — was it really like a factory? There were two shifts of 12 hours, day and night. You had to arrive exactly on time, that is, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There were production norms, for example, 135 comments of 200 characters each. … You come in and spend all day in a room with the blinds closed and 20 computers. There were multiple such rooms spread over four floors. It was like a production line, everyone was busy, everyone was writing something. You had the feeling that you had arrived in a factory rather than a creative place.”
“How did the trolling work? You got a list of topics to write about. Every piece of news was taken care of by three trolls each, and the three of us would make up an act. We had to make it look like we were not trolls but real people. One of the three trolls would write something negative about the news, the other two would respond, “You are wrong,” and post links and such. And the negative one would eventually act convinced. Those are the kinds of plays we had to act out.”
Where’s Karl Marx when you need him? Worker trolls of the world unite!
The indictment also charged that: “Certain Defendants traveled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants’ operations. Defendants also procured and used computer infrastructure, based partly in the United States, to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection by U.S. regulators and law enforcement.”
We have heard a lot from this administration about illegal immigrants. From a president who consistently tells us we need a wall to make it impossible for Mexicans to come to work in the kitchens of American restaurants and feed our Midwestern cows. And yet we’ve heard nothing from the administration about these Russians who purchased phony American passports, social security numbers, fake drivers’ licenses and established phony Paypal accounts, then entered the country illegally to sabotage our election.
Hard to know which is the greater national security risk: Mexican apple pickers or Russian spies determined to sabotage our free elections?
These illegal immigrants were a hell of a lot better prepared than the poor families who try to go over or under the fences of our southern border: “KRYLOVA and BOGACHEVA, together with other Defendants and co-conspirators, planned travel itineraries, purchased equipment (such as cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones), and discussed security measures (including ‘evacuation scenarios’) for Defendants who traveled to the United States …
“To enter the United States, KRYLOVA, BOGACHEVA, R. BOVDA, and another co-conspirator applied to the U.S. Department of State for visas to travel. During their application process, KRYLOVA, BOGACHEVA, R. BOVDA, and their co-conspirator falsely claimed they were traveling for personal reasons and did not fully disclose their place of employment to hide the fact that they worked for the ORGANIZATION …
“Only KRYLOVA and BOGACHEVA received visas, and from approximately June 4, 2014 through June 26, 2014, KRYLOVA and BOGACHEVA traveled in and around the United States, including stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York to gather intelligence. After the trip, KRYLOVA and BURCHIK exchanged an intelligence report regarding the trip …
“In order to collect additional intelligence, Defendants and their co-conspirators posed as U.S. persons and contacted U.S. political and social activists. For example, starting in or around June 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, posing online as U.S. persons, communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization. During the exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.” After that exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators commonly referred to targeting “purple states” in directing their efforts.”
All of this financed through and directed by a holding company headed by President Vladimir Putin’s “personal chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin.
A New York Times profile of Yevgeny Prigozhin details his rise from nine years in prison for robbery to great wealth and great influence in Putin’s Russia: “Mr. Prigozhin’s critics — including opposition politicians, journalists and activists, the United States Treasury and now the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III — say he has emerged as Mr. Putin’s go-to oligarch …
“‘He is not afraid of dirty tasks,’” said Lyubov Sobol of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization established by the prominent opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny to investigate abuse of state contracts and other illicit schemes. ‘He can fulfill any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria,’ she said. ‘He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him.’
“The United States imposed sanctions against Mr. Prigozhin in December 2016, followed by his two main, publicly acknowledged companies, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering.”
The Times continues: “Boris L. Vishnevsky, an opposition member of the city council in St. Petersburg, who has called for an official investigation into threats by Mr. Prigozhin against journalists, said the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organizing them. ‘This is done by somebody who receives large-scale government contracts,’ he said. ‘The fact that he gets these contracts is a hidden way to pay for his services.’
“When the troll factory was formed in 2013, its basic task was to flood social media with articles and comments that painted Russia under Mr. Putin as stable and comfortable compared to the chaotic, morally corrupt West. The trolls soon branched into overseas operations focused on Russian adversaries like Ukraine and the United States.
“Facebook, Twitter and Google have all identified the Internet Research Agency as a prime source of provocative posts on divisive American issues, including race, religion, gun laws and gay rights, particularly during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook found, for example, that the agency had posted 80,000 pieces of content that reached more than 126 million Americans. Last month, Twitter announced it had started emailing more than 677,000 people in the United States who interacted with accounts from the agency during the election.” (Emphasis added.)
The Times noted, “In just the past five years, Mr. Prigozhin has received government contracts worth $3.1 billion, the Anti-Corruption Foundation reported.”
So, some final thoughts. For the longest time, we were told there was no there there. That while there might be a case of obstruction of justice, there was no collusion with the Russians. Well, Mueller has given us the first critically important there. Multiple crimes involved in a conspiracy. As the indictment puts it, “The conspiracy had as its object impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
I’m not an attorney nor ever portrayed one on television. But here’s some important legal analysis from Sarah Grant, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn, Matt Tait and Benjamin Wittes:
“President Trump has spent the year since his victory casting doubt on the very premise that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Yet here is the Justice Department on the record declaring that the Russia investigation isn’t, in fact, a witchhunt. It isn’t a hoax. It isn’t just a ‘phony Democrat excuse for losing the election,’ as the president has tweeted.
“There really was, the Justice Department is saying, a Russian influence operation to interfere in the U.S. political system during the 2016 presidential election, and it really was at the expense of Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump.
“The U.S. intelligence community, of course, already knew this. It has already shouted it from the rooftops about as loudly as the intelligence community announces its conclusions. The intelligence community, after all, assessed in January 2017 that it had “high confidence” that “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” targeting the U.S. presidential election. Before that, it had warned in October 2016 that the Russian government was behind the hacking and distribution of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. None of these public conclusions stopped Trump from publicly casting doubt on Russian interference.
“But the indictments on Friday reflect a different level of certainty, confidence and evidence. Here the special counsel is stating not merely that he has “high confidence” that the interference happened. He is stating that he can prove the existence of the Russian operation in court beyond a reasonable doubt, using only admissible evidence, and that the operation violated U.S. federal criminal law. And he is laying out an astonishingly specific set of forensic conclusions that reflect an impressive intelligence operation against the very operation on which the indictment reports. Even if the special counsel never gets the chance to prove his allegations in court by bringing any of the indictees before a federal judge, the formal statement that he is prepared and able to do so represents a remarkable rebuke of the president’s claims.”
So what’s next? An attempt to connect the actions of members of the Trump campaign, the transition and presidency with the Russian efforts. Who knows who will appear on stage next: Jeff Sessions, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, George Papadopoulus, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, Brad Parscale, Hope Hicks, Mark Corallo, Josh Raffel, Avi Berkowitz, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump.
I, for one, am not leaving during the intermission.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. INTERNET RESEARCH AGENCY LLC https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477/download
Grand Jury Indicts Thirteen Russian Individuals and Three Russian Companies for Scheme to Interfere in the United States Political System
Feb. 16, 2018
Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding the Russia Indictments
Feb. 16, 2018
“The Trolls Who Came In From The Cold”
Viktor Rezunkov, March 16, 2015, RadioFreeEurope
“A former Russian troll speaks: ‘It was like being in Orwell’s world”
Anton Troianovski, Feb. 17, 2018 Washington Post
“Evgeny Prigozhin’s right to be forgotten What does Vladimir Putin’s favorite chef want to hide from the Internet?”
June 13, 2016, Meduza
“Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian Oligarch Indicted by U.S., Is Known as ‘Putin’s Cook’”
Neil MacFarquhar, Feb. 16, 2018, New York Times
“Russian Influence Campaign: What’s in the Latest Mueller Indictment”
Sarah Grant, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn, Matt Tait, Benjamin Wittes, Feb. 16, 2018, Lawfareblog.com