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Biden admin threatens harsh sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine


Michael_Novakhov
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The Biden administration warned on Wednesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would trigger xe2x80x9chigh impactxe2x80x9d U.S. sanctions that would surpass any previously imposed on Moscow.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in the Latvian capital of Riga after meeting with his NATO counterparts, said Russiaxe2x80x99s large-scale troop buildup on Ukrainexe2x80x99s border and other pressure tactics resembled steps Moscow took before it invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized the Crimean peninsula.

xe2x80x9cNow, wexe2x80x99ve seen this playbook before in 2014, when Russia last invaded Ukraine. Then as now they significantly increased combat forces along the border. Then as now they intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor to justify pre-planned military action,xe2x80x9d Blinken said.

But it remained unclear if Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to order an invasion, Blinken told reporters.

xe2x80x9cNow, we donxe2x80x99t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade,” he said. “We do know that hexe2x80x99s putting in place the capacity to do so in short order should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intentions, and time, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.”

CIA Director William Burns recently traveled to Moscow to convey Washingtonxe2x80x99s concerns, to urge a return to diplomacy to resolve the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukraine government, and to make clear xe2x80x9cthe severe consequences should Russia follow the path of confrontation in military action,xe2x80x9d Blinken said.

xe2x80x9cWexe2x80x99ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we have refrained from pursuing in the past,xe2x80x9d Blinken said.

Russia has deployed tens of thousands of combat troops on Ukrainexe2x80x99s border but has denied any aggressive plans toward Ukraine, saying it is only responding to what it calls provocative actions by Ukraine and NATO countries.

Blinken said the U.S. is urging Russia to reverse its troop buildup, pull back heavy weapons and recommit to the diplomatic process set up to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

xe2x80x9cThatxe2x80x99s how we can turn back from a crisis that will have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for our bilateral relations with Moscow, for Russiaxe2x80x99s relations with Europe and for international peace and security,xe2x80x9d Blinken said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier that Russia would face serious political and economic consequences if it invades Ukraine.xc2xa0

The head of Ukrainexe2x80x99s military intelligence saidxc2xa0recently that Russia had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukrainexe2x80x99s borders and was preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February.

Ukraine, which wants to join the NATO military alliance, received deliveries of U.S. ammunition and Javelin missiles earlier this year, prompting criticism from Moscow.

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Dan De Lucexc2xa0is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.xc2xa0

Abigail Williams is a producer and reporter for NBC News covering the State Department.

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Ghislaine Maxwell Trial: Accuser Disputes FBI Account of Alleged Abuse


Michael_Novakhov
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The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell continued on Wednesday in federal court in downtown Manhattan, where the British socialite is facing sex-trafficking charges for allegedly assisting her late associate, Jeffrey Epstein, in abusing underage girls. In todayxe2x80x99s testimony, the defense cross-examined the governmentxe2x80x99s first alleged-victim witness, who, to protect her privacy, is known simply as xe2x80x9cJane.xe2x80x9d (Her testimony began yesterday.) Citing notes from Janexe2x80x99s previous unrecorded interviews with the government, Maxwellxe2x80x99s attorney Laura Menninger pointed out apparent inconsistencies and implied Jane had changed her story over time. Jane largely refused to engage, repeating xe2x80x9cI donxe2x80x99t recallxe2x80x9d and suggesting multiple times that the FBIxe2x80x99s notes from her interview could have been wrong.xc2xa0

The defense questioned inconsistent statements on whether Epstein had approached her alone at Interlochen Performing Arts Camp when she was 14 or if a woman xe2x80x94 Maxwell xe2x80x94 had been with him. In 2019, the attorney pointed out, Jane told the government that Maxwell had walked by with her dog. On Tuesday, Jane testified that Maxwell and Epstein had approached her together. xe2x80x9cThe FBI got it wrong again?xe2x80x9d Menninger said. xe2x80x9cMaybe they typed it up wrong,xe2x80x9d Jane said.

nn

During yesterdayxe2x80x99s direct examination from the prosecution, Jane said shexe2x80x99d first seen Maxwell naked was on an occasion when Epstein and Maxwell had led her upstairs and began fondling each other and giggling, then told Jane to take her clothes off before Epstein began masturbating. On Wednesday, defense pointed to notes from a 2019 interview where Jane had reportedly said she did not have a specific memory of the first time she saw Maxwell nude. Asked if she remembered saying this in an interview with the government, Jane said, xe2x80x9cI donxe2x80x99t recall.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0xc2xa0

Defense brought up more instances where they claimed Jane had changed her story, trying to impeach her credibility as a witness. One was regarding the timing of when the alleged abuse started; whether shexe2x80x99d told the government that she wasnxe2x80x99t sure if Maxwell had touched her; whether shexe2x80x99d told the government she was unsure if Maxwell had ever seen her performing oral sex on Epstein; and whether shexe2x80x99d told the government her first trip to New York with Epstein had been free from abuse. In each instance, she answered xe2x80x9cI donxe2x80x99t knowxe2x80x9d or xe2x80x9cI donxe2x80x99t recall.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0

In excruciating back-and-forths, Jane would say she didnxe2x80x99t remember saying something, at which point Menninger would ask her to consult documentation of her conversations with the government. xe2x80x9cWith all due respect,xe2x80x9d Jane said during questioning about the timing of a trip to New York to see The Lion King on Broadway in the late 1990s. xe2x80x9cI didnxe2x80x99t write this and Ixe2x80x99ve never seen this document before.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0

At one point, Jane seemed to point to the vagaries of remembering traumatic events over time. Menninger pointed to a 2019 interview where shexe2x80x99d supposedly said she was not sure if Maxwell had ever called her house in Florida to arrange meetings with Epstein. This was in contrast to what shexe2x80x99d said on Tuesday xe2x80x94 that Maxwell or an assistant had called her house to arrange her visits. xe2x80x9cMemory is not linear,xe2x80x9d she said.

During the course of the cross-examination, Jane confirmed she had flown on Epsteinxe2x80x99s plane with Prince Andrew and celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang, and that Epstein had brought her to Mar-a-Lago, where he introduced her to Donald Trump, whom she did not accuse of any wrongdoing. She was 14 years old at the time.xc2xa0

nn

The defense homed in on Janexe2x80x99s acting career and a prior appearance on a reality TV show. Menninger asked if she could cry on command. xe2x80x9cThatxe2x80x99s not really how it works,xe2x80x9d Jane said. She said reality TV doesnxe2x80x99t represent reality and when the prosecution asked she said she understood the difference between acting on tv and testifying in court. xe2x80x9cActing on television is not real, and testifying in court is real xe2x80x94 is the truth,xe2x80x9d she said during redirect examination from prosecution.

On Tuesday afternoon, a former boyfriend of Janexe2x80x99s corroborated portions of Janexe2x80x99s testimony. The witness, whom the court is calling xe2x80x9cMatt,xe2x80x9d said he dated Jane between 2006 and 2014, that he remains friends with her, and that they work on the same soap opera. He said Jane told him about her familyxe2x80x98s money struggles, and said she had had a xe2x80x9crough, brutalxe2x80x9d relationship with her mother. He also said that she had told him about Epstein helping her family pay bills and that she had had to do things she didnxe2x80x99t want to do to get the money. When he had pressed for details, he told the jury shexe2x80x99d said, xe2x80x9cMatt, the money wasnxe2x80x99t fucking free.xe2x80x9d

A longtime vice president of finance at Interlochen also testified, sharing documentation of a lodge on the arts center property that Epstein had donated money to fund, as well as correspondence with Maxwell expressing gratitude for the donation and discussing plans for a future visit by Epstein to the campus.

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CIA publishes new account describing


Michael_Novakhov
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The U.S. intelligence community faced xe2x80x9cgreater challengesxe2x80x9d in briefing former President Trump than it had confronted in almost five decades, when President-elect Nixon was taking office, according to a new account published by the CIAxe2x80x99s internal research center. xc2xa0

As was well-documented during his time in office, Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s tense relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies worsened amid politically charged investigations into his campaignxe2x80x99s contacts with Russia, leading to a xe2x80x9cbadly strainedxe2x80x9d rapport early in his presidency, former CIA officer Robert Helgerson writes in an update to his book, xe2x80x9cGetting to Know the President.xe2x80x9d xc2xa0

The book is featured among other unclassified materials on the CIAxe2x80x99s xe2x80x9cCenter for the Study of Intelligencexe2x80x9d website, but is for educational purposes and not an official product of the agency or reflective of its position, according to a disclaimer.xc2xa0

It was first published in 1996 and is a running historical account, dating back to the Truman administration, of how the intelligence community briefs newly elected presidents. Its latest chapter includes insights from the senior intelligence officials who oversaw the pre-election briefings offered to the presidential candidates in 2016, as well as briefings during the presidential transition and the delivery of the Presidentxe2x80x99s Daily Brief (PDB) throughout Trumpxe2x80x99s presidency. xc2xa0xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cFor the Intelligence Community, the Trump transition was far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents,xe2x80x9d Helgerson says. xe2x80x9cTrump was like Nixon, suspicious and insecure about the intelligence process, but unlike Nixon in the way he reacted. Rather than shut the [intelligence community] out, Trump engaged with it, but attacked it publicly,xe2x80x9d he writes. xc2xa0

The director of Central Intelligence during Nixonxe2x80x99s presidency, Richard Helms, talked about the xe2x80x9crockyxe2x80x9d relationship between Nixon and the intelligence community in a 1982 interview that is included in thexc2xa0 book. Nixon xe2x80x9cwould constantlyxe2x80xa6pick on the [CIA] for not having properly judged what the Soviets were going to do with various kinds of weaponry. And obviously, he was being selective, but he would make nasty remarks about this and say this obviously had to be sharpened up.xe2x80x9d

Nixon mostly declined to receive the PDB, not because he wasnxe2x80x99t engaged with foreign policy xe2x80x94 he instead delegated this to his then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Throughout his presidency, according to the book, a courier would deliver the PDB to Kissingerxe2x80x99s office. Kissinger would then send Nixon the PDB xe2x80x9calong with material from the State Department, the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs, and others,xe2x80x9d and then xe2x80x9cNixon would keep the material on his desk, reading it at his convenience throughout the day.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0

The latest installment of the book, a 40-page account, details Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s first ever briefing, which took place in Augustxc2xa0 2016 at the FBI field office in New York City. Mr. Trump, then still the Republican presidential nominee, was xe2x80x9cprimarily a listener,xe2x80x9d the document says, xe2x80x9creflecting the fact that the material was new to him.xe2x80x9d At his second briefing in September, Mr. Trump asked xe2x80x9cnumerous questions,xe2x80x9d many of which xe2x80x9creflected his interest in financial and trade matters and in press reports about Russiaxe2x80x99s reported interference in the U.S. election campaign,xe2x80x9d the account says. xc2xa0

The briefings during the transition were led by a group of 14 intelligence officials hand-picked by Ted Gistaro, a veteran CIA analyst who later served as former President Trumpxe2x80x99s briefer. They hailed from the CIA, FBI, State Department and other agencies, and were the xe2x80x9clargest and most organizationally diverse group of experts ever deployed for transition briefings,xe2x80x9d according to the document.xc2xa0

Overall, Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s briefings began with a delay, because his team xe2x80x9cwas not fully prepared to launch transition operations, apparently having not expected to win the election,xe2x80x9d Helgerson writes. xc2xa0

And while the earliest sessions were substantive, they could also be meandering, according to former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who said Mr. Trump xe2x80x9cwas prone to fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hourxe2x80x99s discussion.xe2x80x9d xc2xa0

Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s already charged relationship with the intelligence community took a turn for the worse after he was briefed on the contents of a dossier xe2x80x93 whose most salacious claims have since been discredited xe2x80x93 that was compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Despite efforts by Clapper to explain that the intelligence community had not relied on the dossier to arrive at its assessments of Russiaxe2x80x99s 2016 election interference xe2x80x93 and had not leaked the document to the media xe2x80x93 Trump remained unpersuaded and embittered. xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cGistaro recalled that when they met for their next PDB briefing session, Trump xe2x80x98vented for 10 minutes about how we [the IC] were out to destroy him.xe2x80x99 Gistaro did not believe that Trump ever accepted subsequent IC disavowals of responsibility for the dossier,xe2x80x9d Helgerson writes, using an abbreviation for xe2x80x9cintelligence community.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0

Still, Clapper also said that Mr. Trump, despite more negative public bluster, sometimes complimented the intelligence community, praising and expressing gratitude for the work of his briefers. The book notes that he was particularly appreciative of the CIAxe2x80x99s material on foreign leaders with whom he was dealing in the early weeks of his time in office. xc2xa0

Overall, Helgerson writes that behind closed doors, Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s interactions with intelligence officials were more amicable than was apparent on Twitter, where the president often expressed frustration with what he called a xe2x80x9cDeep Statexe2x80x9d seeking to undermine his presidency.xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cEven during times when President Trump publicly expressed great irritation with the ICxe2x80x94most notably in 2019 when an [intelligence community] employee filed a whistle-blower complaint concerning the presidentxe2x80x99s efforts to have Ukraine investigate a political opponent, Joe Bidenxe2x80x94briefings continued as usual and Trumpxe2x80x99s demeanor during the sessions remained the same,xe2x80x9d Helgerson notes. xc2xa0

Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s briefings were most frequent at the beginning of his administration; they averaged 2.5 sessions a week and lasted between 40-60 minutes, but tapered off over time. In what marked a break from recent convention, Trump was not briefed on covert action programs for the first several weeks of his administration, though other members of his administration, including CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, were. xc2xa0

Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s intelligence briefers customized his PDB to his preferred format and consumption habits, as is traditionally done for incoming presidents. xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cOn most days, Trumpxe2x80x99s PDB comprised three one-page items describing new developments abroad, plus brief updates of ongoing crises in the Middle East,xe2x80x9d the account says. xe2x80x9cThe goal was to make the PDB shorter and tighter, with declarative sentences and no feature-length pieces.xe2x80x9dxc2xa0

Though the PDB was published every day, Mr. Trump only received an oral briefing two to three times a week, when xe2x80x9che relied on the briefer to orally summarize the significance of the most important issues,xe2x80x9d the account states. xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cA few subjects and areas of the world were notable by their relative absence. Regarding Europe, only NATO budget issues, Turkey, and approaching elections in France and Germany stimulated much discussion. Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia received almost no attention,xe2x80x9d Helgerson writes. xc2xa0

Of Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s approach to the PDB, Gistaro, his first briefer, said, xe2x80x9cHe touched it. He doesnxe2x80x99t really read anything.xe2x80x9d Gistaroxe2x80x99s successor, Beth Sanner, adopted a xe2x80x9cstory-tellingxe2x80x9d approach to the briefings that included a one-page outline and a set of graphics, Helgerson recounts. xc2xa0

Sanner also led Mr. Trumpxe2x80x99s last briefing before he left for Mar-a-Lago for the holidays in 2020. He received no briefings in the final month of his presidency, and notably none following the January 6 attack on the Capitol. xc2xa0

xe2x80x9cTrump had his own way of receiving intelligence informationxe2x80x94and a uniquely rough way of dealing publicly with the ICxe2x80x94but it was a system in which he digested the key points offered by the briefers, asked questions, engaged in discussion, made his own priority interests known, and used the information as a basis for discussions with his policy advisers,xe2x80x9d Helgerson observes, adding, xe2x80x9cThe system worked, but it struggled.xe2x80x9d xc2xa0

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NATO Pushes Back Against Russian President Putin’s ‘Red Lines’ Over Ukraine


Michael_Novakhov
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Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, has categorically rejected Russia’s right to dictate how Ukraine does or doesn’t interact with the alliance. This comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that an expansion of NATO’s presence in Ukraine, especially the deployment of any long-range missiles capable of striking Moscow, would be a “red line” issue for the Kremlin. All of this follows major Russian troop movements that have prompted concerns that a new, larger-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, may come in a matter of weeks. xc2xa0

Stoltenberg made his remarks to reporters earlier today in Riga, Latvia, where the top diplomats from all of NATO’s 30 members have been meeting to discuss the situation surrounding Ukraine, as well as the current Belarusian border crisis and arms control issues, among other matters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attended this gathering, has raised concerns in the past, as have others, that what is happening along Belarus’ western borders with NATO member states, which you can read more about here, appears to be a deliberate distraction from Russian moves around Ukraine.xc2xa0

“It’s only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decides when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors,” Stoltenberg said. “They try to re-establish some kind of acceptance that Russia has a right to control what neighbors do or not do.”

“I myself come from a small country bordering Russia, and I’m very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the north, trying to decide what Norway as a small independent country can do or not do,” the Secretary-General, who is Norwegian, continued. “And that’s exactly the same for Ukraine.”

“So this idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong,” he added. “It’s to respect the sovereignty of the will of the Ukrainian people. So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO.”

This is not the first time Stoltenberg has spoken out against countries establishing spheres of influence over smaller nations, nor is the first time Russia has criticized NATO’s involvement in Ukraine and the Ukrainian government’s interest in joining the alliance. However, his comments today follow remarks from Russian President Putin yesterday during an online investment forum in which he declared that any new deployments of NATO forces and materiel to Ukraine would be crossing a “red line” for his country. He specifically highlighted concerns about the potential arrival of long-range hypersonic missiles with the ability to hit Moscow in “five minutes.”

“The emergence of such threats represents a xe2x80x98red linexe2x80x99 for us,” Putin said. “I hope that it will not get to that and common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.”

He also reiterated criticisms about NATO exercises and other movements near Russia’s borders. For weeks now, Putin and other Russian officials have rejected concerns about Russia’s military movements near Ukraine and have sought to frame the alliance’s actions as being the real source of provocations in the region. This is a common rhetorical tack that the Kremlin has taken on many issues in the past to deflect from its own malign activities.

Various NATO members, including the United States and Canada, do have established security assistance missions in Ukraine that include rotating troop deployments. Exercises involving Ukraine and NATO nations are not uncommon, either. Though ties between the Ukrainian military and the alliance go back decades, this cooperation grew in the aftermath of Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Since then, the Kremlin has also been actively supporting ostensibly local “separatist” groups, which have strong ties to Russian intelligence agencies, in their fight against Ukrainian government forces in that country’s eastern Donbass region.xc2xa0

There have certainly been calls for NATO to send forces to Ukraine to help deter Russia from taking any new military action, but, despite reported deliberations, there have been no indications yet that any member states are actually preparing to do so. There have also been reported discussions among NATO members, including the United States, about increasing deliveries of weapons and other equipment to the Ukrainian military.

However, there does not appear to be any discussion about a NATO deployment to Ukraine of ground-based surface-to-surface missiles able to strike Moscow. The American-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) is the only ground-based weapon anywhere in service within the alliance that would even have the capability to hit the Russian capital from Ukrainian territory, and, even then, the launches would have to occur very close to Ukraine’s northern border with Russia for that to work. ATACMS’ maximum range is around 310 miles, while the shortest distance between Moscow and the Ukrainian border is around 280 miles.

For its part, Ukraine has threatened to use its own short-range ballistic missiles against targets in Russia in the event of a full-scale open conflict between the two countries.

With all this in mind, Putin’s comments about this notional missile deployment are extremely curious, and there is the distinct possibility that he might have been making references to other current or future NATO capabilities. This Russian president might be trying to leverage the situation to secure commitments from NATO to limit the deployment anywhere in Europe of ground-based hypersonic missiles or other long-range missiles that the United States now has in development.xc2xa0

He has already threatened in the past to adopt a standing posture targeting the United States with hypersonic weapons if the U.S. military deploys missiles that had been prohibited under the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, in Europe. The U.S. Army expects to field a variety of new missiles, including hypersonic types, that would have previously been banned under the INF in the coming years and just recently re-activated an artillery command in Europe to, among other things, manage the future deployment of such weapons to the region.

Putin could be trying to similarly force NATO’s hand in some way on the matter of new air and missile defenses in or around Ukraine. A new U.S. military Aegis Ashore missile defense site is slated to become operational next year, joining another Aegis Ashore facility already in Romania. The Russian government has long alleged that Aegis Ashore could be used to launch surface-to-surface missiles, as well as anti-missile interceptors, something the U.S. government has categorically denied. Last year, Putin put forward an offer to limit his country’s deployment of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles, which violated the terms of the INF and led to the collapse of that treaty, in exchange for the ability to inspect Aegis Ashore sites in Europe. xc2xa0

Regardless, there has been no talk of establishing an Aegis Ashore site in Ukraine. There have been calls, including from members of Congress in the United States, to bolster the Ukrainian military’s own air and missile defense capabilities.

Separately, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said yesterday, seemingly unprompted, that he might ask Putin to deploy nuclear weapons to his country if similar systems appeared in neighboring Poland. There had been talk last year about the possibility of relocating U.S. B61 nuclear bombs from Germany to Poland if the German government decided to drop out of a NATO nuclear sharing agreement.

Of course, Putin’s red lines could simply be designed to muddy the waters around his intentions regarding Ukraine. As The War Zonenhas explored in the past, the Kremlin certainly has reasons why it might be considering a new military intervention, chiefly a need to secure a ready source of fresh water for Crimea.

At the same time, Ukrainian and American officials have stressed that, despite the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders, an actual invasion is not necessarily inevitable.xc2xa0

“We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade,” Secretary Blinken said in his own remarks at the NATO meeting in Latvia. “We do know that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so on short order, should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intention, and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.”

“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past,” he added. NATO is “prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine” and “prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank.”

The Kremlin might be content to try to bring down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, including by leveraging internal discontent. Zelensky just recently accused Russia of attempting to launch a coup against him but has provided limited evidence of this so far.xc2xa0

Questions have been raised about whether or not these allegations might be, at least in part, an effort to neuter Zelensky’s domestic political opponents, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Zelensky has said that Akhmetov’s name came up in relation to the apparent plot, but he has said he doesn’t believe that Ukraine’s richest man was involved directly. There was a protest in Kyiv today, the organizers of which accused Zelensky of making up the coup claims, but also saw speakers call out Russia’s aggression against the country.

Whatever the case, the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s top domestic intelligence agency, also known by its Ukrainian acronym SBU, announced this week that it was investigating the alleged coup. This came after it emerged that Zelensky had fired Oleksandr Rusnak, the head of the SBU’s counterintelligence department, which officials in Ukraine insist is unrelated.

Another possibility is that Putin’s red line comments might just be an appeal to the nationalist sentiments of domestic audiences. In an example of the often highly provocative rhetoric being pushed internally in Russia, Dmitry Kiselyov, a prominent host on the state-run Russia-1 television network, declared last week that the country could destroy the GPS satellite navigation constellation with anti-satellite weapons if NATO refused to respect the Kremlin’s previous red lines regarding Ukraine. This followed a widely condemned Russian test of a ground-launched anti-satellite interceptor on Nov. 15, which destroyed a defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence satellite and created a dangerous cloud of debris.

There is no indication whatsoever that this reflects actual Russian policy at present, and Kiselyov is well known for making these kinds of inflammatory, but unsubstantiated, pronouncements. He was previously responsible for an equally provocative segment back in 2019 in which he outlined various bases that Russian submarines could strike in the United States with Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles in a future conflict. U.S. military facilities that had been closed for years at that point were bizarrely listed among the potential targets.

All told, it remains to be seen how Putin’s newly declared “red lines” and the reaction from NATO will actually impact the still-evolving crisis in and around Ukraine.

Contact the author: <a href=”mailto:joe@thedrive.com”>joe@thedrive.com</a>

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CIA Files Say Staffers Committed Sex Crimes Involving Children. They Weren’t Prosecuted.


Michael_Novakhov
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Over the past 14 years, the Central Intelligence Agency has secretly amassed credible evidence that at least 10 of its employees and contractors committed sexual crimes involving children.

Though most of these cases were referred to US attorneys for prosecution, only one of the individuals was ever charged with a crime. Prosecutors sent the rest of the cases back to the CIA to handle internally, meaning few faced any consequences beyond the possible loss of their jobs and security clearances. That marks a striking deviation from how sex crimes involving children have been handled at other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration. CIA insiders say the agency resists prosecution of its staff for fear the cases will reveal state secrets.

The revelations are contained in hundreds of internal agency reports obtained by BuzzFeed News through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

One employee had sexual contact with a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. He was fired. A second employee purchased three sexually explicit videos of young girls, filmed by their mothers. He resigned. A third employee estimated that he had viewed up to 1,400 sexually abusive images of children while on agency assignments. The records do not say what action, if any, the CIA took against him. A contractor who arranged for sex with an undercover FBI agent posing as a child had his contract revoked.

Only one of the individuals cited in these documents was charged with a crime. In that case, as in the only previously known case of a CIA staffer being charged with child sexual crimes, the employee was also under investigation for mishandling classified material.

nn

n Got a tip? You can email <a href=”mailto:tips@buzzfeed.com”>tips@buzzfeed.com</a>. To learn how to reach us securely, go to <a href=”http://tips.buzzfeed.com”>tips.buzzfeed.com</a>.n

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The CIA did not answer detailed questions, saying only that the agency xe2x80x9ctakes all allegations of possible criminal misconduct committed by personnel seriously.xe2x80x9d

A spokesperson for the Eastern District of Virginia, where many of the criminal referrals were sent, also did not answer detailed questions, saying the district xe2x80x9ctakes seriously its responsibility to hold accountable federal government employees who violate federal law within our jurisdiction.xe2x80x9d

Four former officials who are familiar with how internal investigations work at intelligence agencies told BuzzFeed News there are many reasons that prosecutors might not pursue a criminal case. One of them, familiar with the workings of the CIAxe2x80x99s Office of the Inspector General, said the agency is concerned that in a criminal case, it could lose control of sensitive information.

The former official, who reviewed the declassified inspector general reports, characterized the concern from CIA lawyers as, xe2x80x9cWe canxe2x80x99t have these people testify, they may inadvertently be forced to disclose sources and methods.xe2x80x9d

The official, who noted the agency has had a problem with child abuse images stretching back decades, said they understand the need to protect xe2x80x9csensitive and classified equities.xe2x80x9d However, xe2x80x9cfor crimes of a certain class whether itxe2x80x99s an intelligence agency or not, you just have to figure out how to prosecute these people.xe2x80x9d

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Sexual crimes involving children, including the viewing of images of abuse, have been uncovered at other agencies that handle sensitive information. In a November 2009 report, the Department of Defense acknowledged that dozens of Pentagon staff members or contractors had such images. In 2014, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community found that two officials from the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees Americaxe2x80x99s spy satellites, acknowledged viewing images of child sexual abuse during polygraph examinations.

At a symposium in 2016, Daniel Payne, a top Pentagon security official, said that when workersxe2x80x99 computers were examined, xe2x80x9cthe amount of child porn I see is just unbelievable.xe2x80x9d

The child abuse revelations are drawn from an unprecedented release of reports by the CIAxe2x80x99s Office of the Inspector General.

BuzzFeed News gained access to these documents after a decadelong pursuit, which included 13 public records requests and three separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

Those requests, the earliest of which date back to 2012, were for investigations closed by the Office of the Inspector General, which acts independently of the agency to examine misconduct by employees or contractors.

New requests were filed each subsequent year. At first the CIA did not respond to the requests; then, it said it would take years to provide any documents. Those requests were followed in 2014, 2015, and 2020 by lawsuits, and the agency entered into negotiations about what documents to release. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the process by a year, but the agency finally began to release the documents in March and will release the final set in December.

BuzzFeed News is publishing the reports here for public review.

Among more than 3,000 pages, covering the years 2004 to 2019, are investigations big and small involving billing irregularities by contractors, a spy who expensed a visit to an overseas xe2x80x9cgentlemanxe2x80x99s club,xe2x80x9d and an employee who used government computer systems to resell more than 700 items purchased at yard sales.

Other reports have been the subject of previous news coverage, such as the CIAxe2x80x99s involvement in the production of the film Zero Dark Thirty, the torture of detainees held at black site prisons, and a decades-old operation in Peru that led to the death of missionaries.

More recent reports show that a CIA employee was investigated in October 2018 for using agency computer systems and databases to conduct xe2x80x9cunofficial searchesxe2x80x9d on her brother, and that the inspector general substantiated allegations in a January 2018 memorandum that another CIA employee violated the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by civil servants in the executive branch.

The documents also reveal the pattern of sexual abuse cases, whereby internal investigators unearthed evidence of sexual crimes involving children but federal prosecutors brought no charges.

As is typical of intelligence documents, the records have been heavily redacted. Among the information that has been hidden are the names of the accused employees and contractors and details about their jobs at the CIA. The agency cites privacy reasons, national security, and a federal law that exempts the CIA from disclosing details about its operations.

xe2x80x9cNot knowing the identities of the suspects is a hindrance in identifying these cases and why they were declined,xe2x80x9d the spokesperson for the Eastern District of Virginia said.

Of the 10 workers who the inspector general found had committed sexual crimes involving children, five were fired or resigned. Four others were referred to a personnel board or the Office of Security, which investigates classified leaks and is responsible for the safety of CIA facilities.

The outcome of one case xe2x80x94 in which 10 child sexual abuse images were discovered on a CIA computer that had been left unattended xe2x80x94 is unknown. The employee to whom that device was assigned said he switched computers while he was overseas. He denied using it to view such material.

In an eleventh case, the inspector general received a complaint in November 2016 that an employee used a government computer to view child sexual abuse images. Although the investigators couldnxe2x80x99t corroborate the allegation, they discovered that he had shown a xe2x80x9cconsistent interest and pattern of [redacted] conversations involving sexual activities between adults and minors.xe2x80x9d

The inspector general alerted security officials and the Directorate of Science and Technology because the accusation raised xe2x80x9cpotential security and accountability issues.xe2x80x9d Details of how the case was resolved, and any penalties the employee faced, are redacted.

Beyond the CIAxe2x80x99s handling of these cases, questions linger over why US attorneys chose not to charge anyone, even when they seemed to have significant evidence.

Prosecutors generally have wide discretion over whether to bring criminal charges. They can judge the evidence too old or weak, consider a crime victimxe2x80x99s desire to proceed with prosecution, and weigh the chances of convincing a jury.

xe2x80x9cThe occupation or employer of the suspect does not factor into that evaluation,xe2x80x9d the spokesperson for the US Attorneyxe2x80x99s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said. xe2x80x9cWhile we cannot comment on the reasons why specific cases were declined, we do take very seriously any allegation that our prosecutors declined a potential case based on an improper assessment of the relevant factors.xe2x80x9d

It appears that at least half of the sexual abuse investigations originated with a confession. The documents do not spell out the circumstances surrounding those statements, or whether they emerged during grueling xe2x80x9cfull-scopexe2x80x9d polygraph examinations that can probe every part of CIA employeesxe2x80x99 and contractorsxe2x80x99 lives.

During those screenings, one former intelligence official told BuzzFeed News, it is not uncommon for a candidate to admit unlawful behavior in order to prove they arenxe2x80x99t lying xe2x80x94 only later to realize that their statement might have sunk their chance to work for the agency and even put them in legal jeopardy.

Such statements are sent to the inspector general, which then tries to collect evidence proving the crime occurred. But that gives the subject time to delete or destroy evidence, said the former official.

Thatxe2x80x99s what happened in January 2010, when a CIA contractor logged into a chatroom using an agency IP address and solicited sex from an FBI agent posing as a child. The contractor acknowledged an obsession with child sexual abuse images, but by the time the inspector general obtained a search warrant and seized the manxe2x80x99s computer, someone had xe2x80x9cremoved the hard drives and thrown them away,xe2x80x9d according to the reports.

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Another CIA employee signed an affidavit admitting he used a government laptop to view photographs and videos of girls as young as 10 being abused by an xe2x80x9colder guy.xe2x80x9d

The employee acknowledged that he first began seeking child sexual abuse images while he was in college, and viewed as many as 1,400 while on assignment for the agency. He told CIA investigators that he was xe2x80x9ctruly sorryxe2x80x9d but also said xe2x80x9che did not understand that it was a violation of agency policy to access child pornography until he took the Agency Information Security Course.xe2x80x9d

When the inspector general examined the manxe2x80x99s computers, however, no such images were visible. A federal prosecutor declined to charge the man in xe2x80x9cfavor of administrative actionxe2x80x9d by the CIA. The personnel boardxe2x80x99s recommendation is redacted.

But in several of the cases, prosecutors had plenty to go on.

During an investigation that ended in August 2009, an official with a security clearance acknowledged having sexual contact with two girls, ages 2 and 6, and downloading illicit images while working for the CIA. The inspector general started a broad inquiry and attempted to identify the victims.

The investigators found that he had xe2x80x9cextensivelyxe2x80x9d downloaded abuse material, such as 63 videos of children between 8 and 16. The man regularly used government Wi-Fi to download the material, he distributed it to others, and he brought the photos back into the US after he returned from a trip overseas.

Despite the admissions and the evidence that investigators found on his devices, prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia declined to take up a criminal case. They told the inspector general there were xe2x80x9ctaint issues,xe2x80x9d a term that is sometimes used to refer to mishandled evidence. The attorneys also said that the girls in those videos had not been xe2x80x9cpreviously identified child pornography victims,xe2x80x9d making it harder to prove they were minors.

By contrast, in the only two cases known to have led to criminal charges, both parties were also accused of serious offenses related to classified information.

According to an Aug. 6, 2013, inspector general report, an investigation into a CIA contractor suspected of being in possession of child sexual abuse images turned up classified material stored on his personal hard drive and xe2x80x9cnumerous technical documents related to the Agency’s systemsxe2x80x9d on his laptop. The contractor was fired and stripped of his security clearance. He later pleaded guilty to the child abuse charges and registered as a sex offender. The report says the contractor was sentenced, but the details, along with his name, were redacted.

In the other case, CIA software engineer Joshua Schulte was charged in 2018 with possession of child sexual abuse images as part of a much larger investigation into the largest leak of classified information in the agencyxe2x80x99s history. Known as Vault 7 and published by WikiLeaks, the trove of documents revealed secret tools that the CIA used to hack into computers. It was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Schulte faces a separate trial on the child sexual abuse charges. He has pleaded not guilty. xe2x97x8f

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Read the CIA inspector general reports on child abuse

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Read the hundreds of reports from the CIA inspector general obtained by BuzzFeed News

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Discredited Steele Dossier Doesn’t Undercut Russia Inquiry


Michael_Novakhov
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When the F.B.I. interviewed Mr. Danchenko in 2017, he told the bureau that he thought the tenor of the dossier was more conclusive than was justified; for example, Mr. Danchenko portrayed the blackmail tape story as rumors and speculation that he was not able to confirm. He also said a key source had called him without identifying himself, and that he had guessed at the sourcexe2x80x99s identity. The indictment accuses Mr. Danchenko of lying about that call and of concealing that a Democratic Party-linked public relations executive was his source for a claim about Trump campaign office politics.

Did the F.B.I. open the investigation because of the dossier?

No. Mr. Trump and his allies have insinuated that the F.B.I. based the Russia investigation on the dossier. But when counterintelligence agents launched the effort on July 30, 2016, they did not yet know about the dossier. An inspector general report established that Mr. Steelexe2x80x99s reports reached that counterintelligence team on Sept. 19, 2016.

The basis for the investigation was instead that WikiLeaks had disrupted the Democratic National Convention by releasing Democratic emails believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers, and that an Australian diplomat said a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser had bragged to him about apparent outreach from Russia involving an offer to help the campaign by anonymously releasing information damaging to Mrs. Clinton.

Did the F.B.I. take any investigative step based on the dossier?

Yes. The F.B.I. took the dossier seriously based on Mr. Steelexe2x80x99s reputation, and used some of it xe2x80x94 without independent verification xe2x80x94 for a narrow purpose that led to a dead end and became a political debacle. It included several claims from Mr. Steelexe2x80x99s memos in applications to wiretap Carter A. Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser with ties to Russia. In 2019, the Justice Departmentxe2x80x99s inspector general sharply criticized the F.B.I. for numerous flaws in those wiretap applications.

While the dossier-tainted wiretap of Mr. Page has received significant attention, it was a small part of the overall investigation, which issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communications records, made 13 requests to foreign governments under mutual legal assistance treaties, and interviewed about 500 witnesses. Mr. Page was not charged with a crime, and only a handful of the 448 pages in the Mueller report focus on him.

Did investigators rely on the dossier for their findings?

No. The Mueller report does not present claims from the dossier as evidence, and many of the issues focused on by investigators did not come up in the dossier.

The dossier makes no mention, for example, of a July 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and senior campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr., who eagerly accepted the request for a meeting after being told they were bringing dirt on Mrs. Clinton.

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Behind China’s secret societies and crime syndicates


Michael_Novakhov
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Secret societies and criminal organisations have been part of the fabric of Chinese society and politics since the beginning of the 20th Century. But we arenxe2x80x99t talking about the next blockbuster film about crime syndicates of Shanghai, this is a real story of Chinese politicians and criminals working in tandem.

On Monday, Macau police arrested Alvin Chau, junket boss and CEO of Suncity xe2x80x94 one of the worldxe2x80x99s biggest junket companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Junket system is a gambling operation in Macau that attracts high-end gamblers from across the world.

According to Chinese state media, Chauxe2x80x99s operations include 12,000 gaming agents and 80,000 gambling members. He has been arrested for setting up overseas gambling platforms and is said to have ties with Macau xe2x80x98triadxe2x80x99xc2xa0 xe2x80x94 a term used for Chinese transnational organised crime groups.

Following Chauxe2x80x99s arrest, the Suncity stock on Hong Kong bourse plunged 48 per cent at a time when other gambling-related stocks have also recently slumped.

In 2019, Chau was barred from entering Australia after concerns about xe2x80x9clarge-scale money laundering activitiesxe2x80x9d through his partnership with Crown Resorts, Australiaxe2x80x99s largest gaming group.

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Also Read: China filling Hong Kong with xe2x80x98patriotsxe2x80x99 means a new Macao is in the making


Chinaxe2x80x99s secret societies

The history of Chinese politicians mingling with secret societies goes back to Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen who had an extensive association with underground networks in Shanghai. Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Yat-senxe2x80x99s successor, relied on a secret society named xe2x80x9cGreen Gangxe2x80x9d to collect information on communists.

After coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cracked down on the xe2x80x9cGreen Gangxe2x80x9d for its ties with Chiang Kai Shekxe2x80x99s Kuomintang and its involvement in the 1927 Shanghai anti-communist attack.

The CCP forced out the Chinese triads and secret societies from the mainland during the Chinese civil war. These societies and triads moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where they continued to operate.

CCPxe2x80x99s relationship with triads began to change under Deng Xiaoping xe2x80x94 Chinaxe2x80x99s leader between 1978 and 1989.

On 23 May 1982, Deng Xiaoping met Hong Kong tycoons Li Ka-shing and Henry Fok to establish ties with the cityxe2x80x99s triads. Xiaoping said in 1984, that xe2x80x9cnot all triads are bad, many of them were good, and many are patriotsxe2x80x9d. The idea of patriotic triads legitimised the criminal organisations and gave them the immunity to operate.

The key to understanding CCPxe2x80x99s relationship with the triads is through the United Front Work Department. United Front is a political tool used by the CCP to create divisions while achieving its agenda through non-government entities and affiliated individuals. United Front groups can often be private Chinese citizens living outside of China as students or workers.

The United Front Department and the Chinese intelligence agencies work in tandem with triads to run their businesses, launder money, and seek political influence in the West. United Front organisations are usually hidden behind innocuous-sounding non-governmental organisations. Theyxe2x80x99re also called a xe2x80x9cmagic weaponxe2x80x9d by the party.


Also Read: China propaganda now in Spanish, German, Russian. And Weibo gushes over Fordxe2x80x99s India exit


CCP-triad linkup

Over the years, the CCP has come to use these organisations to achieve various political goals in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. The CCP has used the triads to attack civil society activists, journalists and other opponents in Hong Kong.

In Taiwan, a party named China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) was founded by organised crime member Chang An-Le, who has sought to do Beijingxe2x80x99s bidding. Chang An-Le, also known as xe2x80x98White Wolfxe2x80x99, is a convicted extortionist, heroin trafficker and kidnapper, who has close ties with CCP princelings. The xe2x80x98Bamboo Unionxe2x80x99 xe2x80x93 Chang original triad xe2x80x93 has moved drugs and firearms in the region.

Chang doesnxe2x80x99t hide his ties with the CCP and has acknowledged meeting the party princelings. He has openly called China to invade Taiwan militarily. xe2x80x9cBecause my country is China, and I am on the Chinese Communist Partyxe2x80x99s side, so these Taiwanese laws cannot apply to me,xe2x80x9d Chang had said in the past.

Taiwanxe2x80x99s ruling Democratic Progressive Party members have called on the judiciary to charge Chang An-Le for endangering Taiwanxe2x80x99s national security law. He is one of the many actors in Taiwan who have ties to Beijing and seek to create a more favourable political environment for CCP in Taiwan.

Canada has been one of the xe2x80x9cpermissive targetsxe2x80x9d of triads, Chinese intelligence, and the United Front Department. Canadian journalist Sam Cooper described in his recent book the story of how Chinese intelligence, gambling, triads, and money launderers have operated in public view. Canadaxe2x80x99s real estate and casino gambling are the targets of Chinese intelligence and triads to launder money.

xe2x80x9cThe implication is that Chinese organized crime networks are not just laundering drug cash through casino junkets. They also use casinos and real estate investment to produce cash for Chinese Communist Party operations in North America, including political bribes. In intelligence-speak, this would be called threat-financing,xe2x80x9d Cooper writes in his book, xe2x80x98Willful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West.xe2x80x99

Chinaxe2x80x99s presence in Canada and Australia have given the CCP access to the Westxe2x80x99s corridors of power. United Front groups have a history of harassing overseas Chinese who speak out against CCP. xe2x80x9cChinese intelligence services have set up xe2x80x98front companiesxe2x80x99 in Canada solely for espionage purposes, including theft of business secretsxe2x80xa6 The companies have regular contacts with the triad gangs,xe2x80x9d Cooperxe2x80x99s book adds.


Also Read: China has a negative celebrity list of 88, as Xi doubles down on 3rd term


Chauxe2x80x99s involvement

The recently apprehended Alvin Chau is no outsider to the party, and has served as a member of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Chinese Peoplexe2x80x99s Political Consultative Conference (PCC). The Conference is a political advisory body of the CCP and a central element of the United Front system.

In 2011, Chau entered the movie production business with Sun Entertainment Culture Company. The company has produced movies such as xe2x80x98From Vegas to Macauxe2x80x99 trilogy (2014, 2015, 2016) and xe2x80x98Kung Fu Junglexe2x80x99 (2014). Chauxe2x80x99s movies often mix Chinese patriotism with gambling, deceit, gangs and drama. Chinese social media users are now questioning Chauxe2x80x99s filmsxe2x80x99 patriotism and the role of money laundering in movie production.

Chinaxe2x80x99s border controls because of zero-Covid policy and strict laws have always made it difficult for Macau gambling operations to attract foreign gamblers. There are signs that a coordinated political crackdown might be on the way ahead of the Digital Yuan rollout. The licences given to Macau casinos are about to expire in June 2022.

The world has only recently learned about the intersection between the CCP, Chinese intelligence, triads, and gambling operations. Xi Jinping might be trying to root out the intersecting influence of triad and CCP factions, which may become a cause of trouble for him.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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