Plea Agreement Hints at Justice Department’s Expanded Reading of the Foreign Agents Registration Act

In recent months, we have highlighted trends of increased enforcement and increasingly aggressive interpretation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act by the Department of Justice.  These trends are evidenced in the Justice Department’s announcement last week that the President of the Pakistan American League, Nasir Adhem Chaudhry of Maryland, had agreed to plead guilty for failure to register under FARA.  The case is unusual in several respects.

FARA prosecutions themselves are few and far between.  In 2016, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General reported that, over the last 50 years, the Justice Department had brought only seven criminal FARA cases.  Any FARA prosecution itself is therefore inherently notable.  Moreover, while criminal penalties have always been possible, the FARA Unit has typically adopted a “voluntary compliance” posture, often seeking to resolve matters through the filing of late registrations and reports.  The fact that FARA charges were filed at all therefore suggests a continued shift away from voluntary compliance and towards criminal prosecutions.

The case is also notable because the plea agreement’s stipulated facts focus primarily on Mr. Chaudhry’s “information gathering” role for the Government of Pakistan, stating that Mr. Chaudhry engaged in activities “to obtain and manage information on … the status of the United States Government’s policies regarding Pakistan, and its views of, and intentions towards, Pakistan.”  For example, he allegedly made contacts at think tanks “to obtain in-depth information regarding the United States government’s policies towards Pakistan.”  This heavy focus on information gathering is curious because information gathering for a foreign principal, without more, has not in the past necessarily been viewed by the Department of Justice as triggering FARA registration.  Rather, FARA registration can be required by, among other things, engaging in activities that are intended to influence the U.S. Government or a section of the public with respect to U.S. domestic or foreign policies.  In addition, acting as a “political consultant” might trigger FARA, but DOJ had previously interpreted this provision narrowly, telling Congress in 1989 that the term “political consultant” requires more than “merely advising the foreign principal,” and instead requires such things as “arranging meetings with U.S. Government officials on its behalf or accompanying the principal to such meetings.”  Thus, many of the key facts listed in the stipulation — which emphasize Mr. Chaudhry’s information gathering and, to a lesser degree, his political consulting roles — do not obviously support a FARA charge as the statute has previously been interpreted.

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Homeland Security to Compile Database of Journalists, Bloggers

• Seeks contractor that can monitor 290,000 global news sources

• ‘Media influencer’ database to note `sentiment’ of coverage

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to monitor hundreds of thousands of news sources around the world and compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents, and bloggers to identify top “media influencers.”

It’s seeking a contractor that can help it monitor traditional news sources as well as social media and identify “any and all” coverage related to the agency or a particular event, according to a request for information released April 3.

The data to be collected includes a publication’s “sentiment” as well as geographical spread, top posters, languages, momentum, and circulation. No value for the contract was disclosed.

“Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers,” according to the statement. DHS agencies have “a critical need to incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach federal, state, local, tribal, and private partners,” it said.

The DHS wants to track more than 290,000 global news sources, including online, print, broadcast, cable, and radio, as well as trade and industry publications, local, national and international outlets, and social media, according to the documents. It also wants the ability to track media coverage in more than 100 languages including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian, with instant translation of articles into English.

The request comes amid heightened concern about accuracy in media and the potential for foreigners to influence U.S. elections and policy through “fake news.” Nineteen lawmakers including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, asking whether Qatar-based Al Jazeera should register as a foreign agent because it “often directly undermines” U.S. interests with favorable coverage of Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

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Australia to introduce safeguards against covert foreign interference

The government has announced details of its long-foreshadowed crackdown on foreign political donations, along with plans to update Australia’s criminal code to counter foreign espionage and covert interference.

The attorney general, George Brandis, said the government wanted to introduce a “foreign influence transparency scheme” to force individuals and organisations to declare if they are acting on behalf of a foreign power to influence Australia’s politics.

“The threat of covert foreign interference is a problem of the highest order and it is getting worse,” Brandis said on Tuesday. “The director general of Asio, the agency primarily responsible for investigating espionage and foreign interference, has advised that foreign intelligence activity against Australia continues to occur on an unprecedented scale.”

The Asio chief, Duncan Lewis, said in June following the airing of a Four Corners investigation into Chinese donations that he had become so worried about the influence of foreign donations that he organised meetings with the Coalition and Labor to warn them they could be compromised.

Brandis said a review of Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws was now complete.

“Before the end of this year … the government will introduce legislation arising from my review, including legislation which comprehensively revises our espionage, sabotage, treason and secrecy offences, and introduces a new category of offences criminalising certain acts of covert foreign interference,” he said.

The government’s measures will include:

  • Legislation to ban foreign political donations
  • Legislation to enhance and reform the espionage and foreign interference-related offences in the Criminal Code
  • Introducing a foreign influence transparency scheme, modeled – in part – on the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act

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Investigators probe Trump knowledge of campaign’s Russia dealings: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has questioned Sam Clovis, co-chairman of President Donald Trump’s election campaign, to determine if Trump or top aides knew of the extent of the campaign team’s contacts with Russia, two sources familiar with the investigation said on Friday.

The focus of the questions put to Clovis by Mueller’s team has not been previously reported.

“The ultimate question Mueller is after is whether candidate Trump and then President-elect Trump knew of the discussions going on with Russia, and who approved or even directed them,” said one source. “That is still just a question.”

Clovis testified in late October before the grand jury in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He is also cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the same issues.

Contacted late on Friday, the White House declined to comment.

One of the sources described Clovis as “another domino” after former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over his own contacts with Russians during the 2016 election campaign.

“The investigators now know what Papadopoulos was doing on the Russian front, which he initially tried to conceal, and who he told that to,” said the other source. “Now [they] want to know whether Clovis and others reported these activities and others related to Russia, and if so, to whom,” this source said.

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Design for Misuse

Last Friday, New Yorker editor David Remnick interviewed Apple design chief Jony Ive as part of the magazine’s TechFest. Midway through the conversation came an interesting (and widely reported) exchange in which Ive expressed some regret about people’s use of his most celebrated creation, the iPhone:

Remnick: There’s a ubiquity about the iPhone and its imitators. And I wonder, … do you have any sense of how much you’ve changed life and the way daily life is lived, and the way our brains work? And how do you feel about it? Is it pure joy? Are you ambivalent about it in any way?

Ive: No, there’s — there’s certainly an awareness. I mean, I tend to be so completely preoccupied with what we’re working on at the moment. That tends to take the oxygen. Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse. …

Remnick: How can — how can they be misused? What’s a misuse of an iPhone?

Ive: I think perhaps constant use.

Remnick: Yes.


It’s good to see Ive admitting that there may be a problem with people’s compulsive use of smartphones. But, as Business Insider‘s Kif Leswing and others have pointed out, there’s something cynical about the designer’s attempt to shift the blame to the owners of the iPhone for “misusing” it. Remnick didn’t follow up by asking Ive to describe particular design decisions that he and his team have made to deter the iPhone’s “constant use,” but it would have been a fair question, and I’m pretty sure Ive wouldn’t have had much of an answer.

Everything we know about the iPhone and its development and refinement suggests it has been consciously and meticulously designed and marketed to encourage people to use it as much as possible, to treat it, even, as a fetish. Here, for example, is how Apple is promoting the new iPhone X at its web store:

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Can Democracy Survive Facebook?

In De Tocqueville’s shadow

When he wrote the seminal work Democracy in America (1835), the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville found the idea of overthrowing the aristocracy in favour of spreading power among the people utterly irresistible.

Scholars quibble over whether he interpreted the flourishing of democracy as an inevitable fact in America. With the benefit of recent experience, we can say it is nothing of the sort.

Democracy does remain stable in the US, for now: it is competently run at national and state level, and the prospect of people being denied the vote is minimal. But democracy is a rugged fabric with unreliable threads, and in Washington and elsewhere, some are starting to fray.

Voter suppression is a big issue; so too is a hyper-partisan media that prefers heat to light; and a lobbying industry that is rampant and mostly serves the rich. Moreover, the Constitution contains immense wisdom, but needs an update.

And to this list of worries we can now add the use by foreign powers of technology platforms to spread disinformation, sow division and poison the public domain.

We discovered this week that 126 million Americans could potentially have seen around 80,000 posts originating with the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory emanating from Russia.

That came in leaked testimony ahead of the appearance before Congress of senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Google, commenting for the first time on an internal investigation, said it had discovered ads looking suspiciously Russian, and 18 YouTube channels also linked to the Kremlin. Meanwhile Twitter found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian mischief – ten times more than they had previously indicated to lawmakers.

Anti-social media

It is vital to keep a sense of perspective about this. As my distinguished colleague Mark Frankel has pointed out, the large figure of 126 million is the potential reach of these ads.

That doesn’t mean all those people saw them – and, vitally, even if they did see them, it doesn’t mean that they would have been persuaded to vote differently. In any case, this represents a tiny fraction – 0.004% – of the immense volume of content on Facebook over a two-year period.

Why, then, ask whether Facebook represents a potentially mortal threat to democracy?

For four reasons in fact. Facebook’s response to this crisis shows a company grappling with what it has unleashed; the threat from filter bubbles; the immense volume of data online; and because of a pattern of exploitation of this social media platform around the world.

Let’s take these in reverse.

In September, it was revealed that Bell Pottinger behaved disgracefully in South Africa, poisoning the well of public debate. The company has apologised profusely and been split up.

What we know is that social media was a vital tool for this propaganda exercise, and it stands to reason that, because Facebook has the most users of any social media platform, it is most attractive to propagandists.

As to the question of data, this weekend John Lanchester wrote the cover piecefor The Sunday Times Magazine, in which he argued that Facebook was the biggest surveillance enterprise in history, and could destroy civilisation.

The former is true, the latter is not. It is absolutely the case that Facebook has acquired a volume of personal data which is hard to fathom. This might be seen as more of a worry for those who care about privacy than democracy; but the point about it is it could get into the wrong hands.

Companies like Facebook sell advertisers personal data that we have all readily given them. They say they go to great pains to keep it safe, and would never sell it to unsavoury types. But insiders from Cambridge Analytica to the Kremlin are already using this data to micro-target voters.

As to the threat from online echo chambers, so much has been written about this that I feel I won’t add to it here. Suffice to say there is a real danger that people live in walled gardens online, exposed only to information that reinforces their prejudices.

That’s why we might call it anti-social media – though of course it’s not Facebook’s fault that we like to follow who we like to follow.

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Paul Manafort, Ex-Chairman of Trump Campaign, and Associate Plead Not Guilty to Money Laundering

Mr. Manafort, a veteran Republican strategist, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 to help keep delegates from breaking with Mr. Trump in favor of establishment Republican candidates. Mr. Trump soon promoted him to chairman and chief strategist, a job that gave him control over day-to-day operations of the campaign.

But Mr. Trump fired Mr. Manafort just months later, after reports that he received more than $12 million in undisclosed payments from Viktor F. Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president and a pro-Russia politician. Mr. Manafort spent years as a political consultant for Mr. Yanukovych.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched a stealth campaign of hacking and propaganda to try to damage Hillary Clinton and help Mr. Trump win the election. The Justice Department appointed Mr. Mueller III as special counsel in May to lead the investigation into the Russian operations and to determine whether anyone around Mr. Trump was involved.

Mr. Trump has denied any such collusion, and no evidence has surfaced publicly to contradict him. At the same time, Mr. Trump and his advisers this year repeatedly denied any contacts with Russians during the campaign, only to have journalists uncover one undisclosed meeting after another.

The New York Times revealed in July that Mr. Manafort and others close to Mr. Trump met with Russians last year, on the promise of receiving damaging political information about Mrs. Clinton.

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Did Jared Kushner’s Data Operation Help Select Facebook Targets for the Russians?

The headlines were about Facebook admitting it had sold ad space to Russian groups trying to sway the 2016 presidential campaign. But investigators shrugged: they’d known or assumed for months that Facebook, as well as Twitter and other social-media platforms, were a tool used in the Kremlin’s campaign. “The only thing that’s surprising is that more revelations like this haven’t come out sooner,” said Congressman Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “And I expect that more will.”

SCL Group Cambridge AnalyticaMapping the full Russian propaganda effort is important. Yet investigators in the House, Senate, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office are equally focused on a more explosive question: did any Americans help target the memes and fake news to crucial swing districts and wavering voter demographics? “By Americans, you mean, like, the Trump campaign?” a source close to one of the investigations said with a dark laugh. Indeed: probers are intrigued by the role of Jared Kushner, the now-president’s son-in-law, who eagerly took credit for crafting the Trump campaign’s online efforts in a rare interview right after the 2016 election. “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner told Steven Bertoni of Forbes. “We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff . . . We basically had to build a $400 million operation with 1,500 people operating in 50 states, in five months to then be taken apart. We started really from scratch.”

Kushner’s chat with Forbes has provided a veritable bakery’s worth of investigatory bread crumbs to follow. Brad Parscale, who Kushner hired to run the campaign’s San Antonio-based Internet operation, has agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee.

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Russia Probe Now Investigating Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s ‘Psychographic’ Data Gurus

A recent Vanity Fair piece highlighted speculation among Washington Democrats that the Trump campaign’s data operation could point to collusion between Trump and Russia.

Cambridge purports to go beyond the typical voter targeting—relying on online clues like Facebook Likes to give a hint at a user’s political leanings and construct a picture of a voter’s mental state. The “psychographic” picture Cambridge ostensibly provides to a campaign is the ability to tailor a specific message based on personality type – angry, fearful, optimistic and so forth – rather than simply aiming ads at voters from likely convivial candidates.

Those purported capabilities have generated some speculation that there was a Russian link to the outfit, as Vanity Fair detailed. The Kremlin-orchestrated propaganda efforts on Facebook have evinced a level of sophistication surprising for a foreign entity, prompting speculation that Russians may have received some kind of targeting help. Such targeting reached voters in states where Clinton enjoyed a traditional advantage but went for Trump, including Michigan and Wisconsin, CNN reported.

As The Daily Beast and others have reported, Russian propaganda on Facebook and other social-media platforms passed itself off as authentic American voices; targeting refugees, posing as an American Muslim group and backing an Atlanta-based duo supporting Black Lives Matter. Depending on which cohort was being targeted, the efforts encouraged pro-Trump voters to intensify political participation, black voters to abandon Hillary Clinton for Trump, and Muslim voters to consider Clinton an Islamophobe.

The congressional inquiry is not the only one Cambridge Analytica is facing. The UK Information Commissioner, Britain’s privacy watchdog, in March began examining the firm’s role in the successful 2016 push to persuade British voters to “Brexit” the European Union. But Cambridge has said it never actually advised the campaign beyond initial discussions, despite’s own statements that the firm “will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters.”

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The Cambridge Six Poke Out the Five Eyes: Cambridge Analytica, the ‘psychographic’ data firm behind Donald Trump, eyes Australian move

The company amassed up to 5000 data points on every American adult and conducted hundreds of thousands of personality surveys, combining them to pinpoint millions of possible Trump voters. Their analysis of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – the rust-belt states that unexpectedly fell to the Republican candidate – proved prescient, while most traditional pollsters ended up on the wrong side of history.

Cambridge Analytica chief executive officer Alexander Nix said big data was being used to do things considered impossible only five years ago. A better understanding of target audiences not only shapes political messaging but helps determine the allocation of campaign resources, which battleground electorates to visit and where to buy advertising .

“The sheer volume of data is allowing us to look at audiences in ever increasing granularity, to start to understand exactly what messages individuals need to receive,” he told Fairfax Media.

 The company’s point of difference from existing micro-targeting outfits, Mr Nix said, is the scale of its data “particularly in countries like the United States where the data legislation is more permissive, which allows us a truly holistic understanding of that audience” and the ability to “synthesise” it with the psychographic information.

Doing the work is a large team of PhD-wielding scientists, including cosmologists and physicists.  “Data science is not a panacea,” Mr Nix said, contending that it is a powerful tool allowing a political campaign to boost a “really good candidate with clear, sound policies that are well articulated, that resonate with the electorate”.

Cambridge Analytica is a recently established offshoot of the SCL Group, a behavioural communications company that has operated in over 100 countries since the 1990s. As well as political and commercial campaigns, the company has worked extensively with governments on “psychological warfare” and the use of soft power in armed conflict.

Now, Mr Nix said the time might be right look at the Australian market.

An impending trip “will be an opportunity to understand a little bit more about the landscape there”, he said, when asked about Australian interest in the company’s work. “The timing is propitious. I think now might be a good time, given our recent work in countries like the United States, to maybe have a dialogue.”

Australia’s compulsory voting system means the company would focus on undecided and swinging voters rather than impacting turnout as it did in the US.

While the firm is strongly associated with the Republican side of politics in the US and the ‘Leave’ campaign in Britain, it has backed campaigns across the political spectrum. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of right-wing website Breitbart News who now serves as White House chief strategist, was reportedly on the company’s board.

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