The Active Measures Orchestra: An Examination of Russian Influence Operations Abroad

Beyond Disinformation: The Other Tools Moscow Uses in Influence Operations

While disinformation campaigns often take the headlines, Moscow uses a diverse toolkit of techniques, often involving more direct methods to influence the affairs of other states.

Russian cyber operations, now well known for their role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, have also been used to exert influence to achieve policy objectives in Europe. The 2007 DDoS attack on Estonia brought attention to large-scale attacks but network probing and small-scale hacks sometimes go unnoticed. DNC-style hacks have targeted European political figures and institutions in Germany (2015), Lithuania (2016), Norway (2017), France (2017), and Montenegro (2017). Nongovernment actors have also been targeted: in 2015 France’s TV5Monde was taken off the air, and in 2016 World Anti-Doping Agency data was stolen. Crucially, critical infrastructure remains vulnerable, as evidenced by attacks on Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016.

Moscow has also long understood that money talks. The Kremlin’s financing of France’s far-right National Front best exemplifies its efforts to influence the domestic politics of other nations through direct — or indirect — financial support. However, the Kremlin has also established subtle ties to other political parties, notably with far-right parties like Lega Nord in Italy or Ataka in Bulgaria. Another approach has been to establish connections with individual leaders who have pro-Russian sympathies, such as Hungary’s Bela Kovacs and Poland’s Mateusz Pikorski. Influence also extends beyond formal politics, with the launch of fight clubs linked to Russian military intelligence (GRU) in addition to the state-sponsored mafia networks that have permeated Europe. Most egregiously, Russia’s direction of the recent coup attempt in Montenegro shows Moscow’s willingness to use any means possible to undermine — or even overthrow — a democratically elected government.

These political actions can generate tangible economic benefits for Moscow, which then give rise to networks that influence European politics to Russian advantage. For instance, pipeline projects offer potentially lucrative business deals while simultaneously resulting in greater European energy dependence on Russian exports. While former German chancellor and newly elected Rosneft board member Gerhard Schröder claims that the ongoing Nord Stream 2 project is pure business, Russia’s history of petro-politics suggests geopolitical objectives well beyond profits. Beyond Russia’s use of energy exports to exact concessions from Ukraine, Russia has also pressured Belarus, making the resumption of gas deliveries conditional upon Minsk’s acceptance of Eurasian Economic Union customs policy. Russia’s energy politics do not stop at hydrocarbons — nuclear energy is another instrument of influence. In 2012, through a combination of lobbying, covert political action, and disinformation, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom managed to sabotage a Lithuanian-Japanese deal to build a nuclear power plant in Lithuania. Further, Russia plans to build a nuclear plant in Finland, a country already reliant on Russian gas exports, and to expand existing reactors in Hungary as part of a 30-year secret agreement.

Conclusion

Russian techniques continue to adapt and evolve. Occupied with putting out a seemingly endless set of fires, the West is playing catch-up as Russia continues to implement its strategy of undermining democracies. But with Russia using the same toolkit and exhibiting similar tactical patterns on both sides of the Atlantic, the United States has much to learn from our European partners and allies. We need to develop new mechanisms to share information about threats and effective countermeasures, and work in concert to develop a playbook to defend against, deter, and raise the cost of Moscow’s activities. This needs to include building resilience and shoring up our own vulnerabilities. It also needs to include addressing the toolkit of Russian active measures holistically and breaking out of stovepiped responses to each Russian tactic to devise countermeasures to the range of hybrid threats. We also need to recognize that Russian strategic objectives go well beyond the 2016 presidential election, and that the threat we face is to the foundations of our democracy.

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Pro-Kremlin Outlets Rally Around RT

On September 29, Peskov said that President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Security Council discussed the issue — an extraordinary declaration, given that the council’s permanent members include the prime minister, speakers of the two houses of parliament, ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs, and the heads of domestic and foreign intelligence.

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At Intersection of Russia Probe and Social Media: Trump’s Digital Chief

“This was a data crime that occurred, carried out at least by Russia, possibly with cooperation with Trump campaign officials, so any Trump campaign official that worked on data, I think, would be relevant to talk to,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Spokesmen for Facebook and Twitter have said they are looking to bolster transparency and toughen safeguards against improper use of their platforms.

Facebook is set to participate in public hearings on Nov. 1 held by the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Twitter and Google will take part in the Senate hearing.

The House panel also has contacted Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company paid $5 million by the Trump campaign last year that worked together with Mr. Parscale’s firm, for information related to the Russia probe, a Cambridge Analytica spokesman said.

The House panel referred questions to the company, whose spokesman said it would fully cooperate with the probe but added that Cambridge Analytica itself isn’t under investigation. “There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company,” he said.

[Although Cambridge Analytica has not yet filed as a foreign agent under FARA, its parent company SCL Social, Ltd. has, as of October 6, 2017, for efforts to engineer an anti-Qatar campaign on behalf of the National Media Council of UAE.

On March 27 2017,  Andreae & Associates filed a FARA registration for lobbying on behalf of SCL Social (Romania).

In 2005-2006, in the space of less than a year, SCL’s timeline looks like:

  • SCL worked somewhere in the middle of the famed Orange Revolution, with Russia on one side and Ukraine on the other
  • SCL acquired a new 23% major shareholder, Iran expat Vincent Tchenguiz, injecting big cash flow

— Tchenguiz was hanging out with who is now the most infamous modern-day Russian spy, hero, and pro-Crimean-rebel mascot, Anna Chapman, in 2005–6

— Tchenguiz did a little business in Libya with Orange Revolution antagonist and accused Kremlin/Bratva intermediary Dmytro Firtash in 2005–6

The White House referred questions to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, which declined to comment.

While broadcast stations are required to disclose to the Federal Communications Commission how much they earn from political campaigns and groups and where those dollars are directed, social-media companies don’t have to disclose what share of their advertising revenue comes from political ads.

Facebook has turned over the Russia-backed ads to congressional investigators and the House Intelligence Committee has said it will make them public soon. Facebook said in a statement earlier this month that it is “building new tools” that would allow users to see ads run by a specific individual or group, even if those ads aren’t targeted to that particular user.

Steven Passwaiter, vice president at Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising, said his firm is planning to track digital ads for the first time this year, but won’t be able to include ads on social-media platforms such as Facebook, the primary platform used by the Trump campaign.

“Facebook is a walled garden,” said Mr. Passwaiter. “You really don’t get the ability to look in.”

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Trump-Russia: Twitter to brief Russia probe on ads

Washington: Twitter is expected to brief US congressional investigators soon on whether Russia used its advertising platform to promote divisive social and political messages during the 2016 election, Senator Mark Warner says.

The news came a day after Facebook said an operation likely based in Russia had placed thousands of US ads with polarising views on topics such as immigration, race and gay rights on the social media site during a two-year-period through May 2017.

Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Thursday said the suspected Russian placement of such ads may have gone far beyond what Facebook disclosed, and that Twitter and other technology companies should also examine the issue.

demographically micro-targeted digital ads“It was my belief that the Russians were using those sites to interfere in our elections, and the first reaction from Facebook was, ‘No. You’re crazy.'” Warner said at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance conference in Washington,

“I think what we saw yesterday in terms of their brief was the tip of the iceberg,” Warner said.

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What Does it Mean that Mueller Got a Warrant to Obtain Facebook Data?

The Wall Street Journal and CNN recently reported that Facebook provided data about Russian advertising purchases made in the run-up to the 2016 election to Special Counsel Robert Mueller pursuant to a search warrant. According to the WSJ and CNN reports, Facebook produced copies of the ads, detailed information about the accounts that purchased the ads, and information about how the ads were targeted at Facebook users in the United States. Mueller’s choice to send Facebook a warrant and not a subpoena or a (d) order under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) (though he certainly may have sent Facebook and other providers additional legal process, including subpoenas and (d) orders) provides insight into the kind of information he may have been seeking and the kind of information he may have obtained.

Under its policies, Facebook requires a probable cause warrant to “compel the disclosure of the stored contents of any account, which may include messages, photos, videos, timeline posts, and location information” to the government. This is because Facebook, like other large tech companies, has adopted the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation (in United States v. Warshak) of ECPA and the Fourth Amendment as requiring a warrant to obtain emails. This matters because Congress enacted ECPA in 1986, when Mark Zuckerberg was just two-years old, roughly 15 years before Facebook would be conceived in a Harvard University dorm. ECPA has not been updated since, and, as a result, technology companies and courts are tasked with applying its antiquated language to govern the compelled disclosure of data held by modern tech companies like Facebook.

In addition, Mueller may have also chosen to get a warrant because a warrant increases the scope of the information that Facebook can disclose about the accounts that purchased the ads, including information that is clearly covered by ECPA. A warrant places content information contained within those accounts, like communications and location histories, etc. within investigative reach. In general, such information is likely to be of little utility for identifying individuals since these accounts were probably fake ones generated by Russian misinformation farms. Still, during the course of an investigation, a lead can come from anywhere — including a random message sent by a bored propagandist from a fake account to another, real, account. The vast amount of data and large number of accounts that can be obtained with a single warrant makes such a lead all the more likely. Trolls beware.

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Google uncovered Russia-backed ads on YouTube, Gmail : source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Google has discovered Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads on its YouTube, Gmail and Google Search products in an effort to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a person briefed on the company’s probe told Reuters on Monday.

The ads do not appear to be from the same Kremlin-affiliated entity that bought ads on Facebook Inc (FB.O), but may indicate a broader Russian online disinformation effort, according to the source, who was not authorized to discuss details of the confidential investigation by Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google.

Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) said separately on Monday that it was looking at whether Russians bought U.S. election ads on its Bing search engine or other Microsoft-owned products and platforms. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment further.

The revelation about Google is likely to fuel further scrutiny of the role that Silicon Valley technology giants may have unwittingly played during last year’s election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow’s goal was to help elect Donald Trump.

Google did not deny the story, and in a statement pointed to its existing ad policies that limit political ad targeting and prohibit targeting based on race or religion.

“We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries,” a Google spokeswoman said on Monday.

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Jack Abramoff is back — as a registered lobbyist

Felonious former lobbyist Jack Abramoff is officially a lobbyist again.

Or, at least, Abramoff was for several months during late 2016 and early 2017, as he attempted to schedule a meeting between Donald Trump and the controversial president of the Republic of Congo, according to Department of Justice records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Abramoff, the documents detail, was aiding an Italian national hoping to earn a consulting contract with the Republic of Congo that, in part, sought to polish its image in the United States.   

There’s no evidence that a meeting or phone call between Trump and Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso ever took place.

But the revelation that Abramoff formally registered as an agent working to advance the interests of a foreign government stands in stark contrast to the political reformist image Abramoff has cut for himself since he emerged from federal prison in 2010.

Abramoff this month filed his retroactive lobbying disclosures at the request of the Department of Justice and promptly terminated his association with the Italian national — Costel Iancu of the firm Global Scructures Group in Bucharest, Romania — and the Congolese government.

Abramoff, reached Wednesday evening, referred questions to his lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg of law firm Arent Fox.

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Robert Mueller Subpoenas an Associate of the Man Who Hired Michael Flynn as a Lobbyist

The special prosecutor investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has subpoenaed an associate of Gen. Michael Flynn’s Turkish lobbying client. The subpoena, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, ordered Sezgin Baran Korkmaz to testify before a grand jury in Washington on Sept. 22.

“The grand jury is conducting an investigation of possible violations of federal criminal laws involving the Foreign Agents Registration Act, among other offenses,” a letter accompanying the subpoena stated. The letter is signed by Robert Mueller and Zainab Ahmad, a senior assistant special counsel who specializes in prosecuting terrorism. Korkmaz did not respond to requests for comment.

There are no indications of direct links between Korkmaz and Flynn, who briefly served as Donald Trump’s national security adviser. But Korkmaz, 39, is a close ally of Ekim Alptekin, the 40-year-old Turkish businessman who hired Flynn to lobby for Turkish interests shortly before the election. Korkmaz, a Turkish national, said in a radio interview in May that he started as a dishwasher at age 13 and is now bringing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. to Turkey. His company invests in a range of industries in Turkey, the Middle East, the U.S. and Russia, and he has invested in several projects that involve people accused or convicted of crimes.

Some of Korkmaz’s colleagues and investing partners have come under scrutiny — or worse — by criminal authorities. The U.S. sister company of Korkmaz’s operation, known as SBK Holdings USA, is led by Levon Termendzhyan, a Russian fuel trader with a long rap sheet, according to court records. Termendzhyan has been charged with, but found not guilty of, tax fraud and armed assault. He was convicted of battery in 2013.

Since 2013, Korkmaz’s SBK has managed $500 million of investments in Turkey from another of Termendzhyan’s companies and from a third American company called Washakie Renewable Energy. The latter is part of a conglomerate controlled by the Kingston Group, a fundamentalist Mormon clan.

In 2011, Utah’s then-attorney general called the Kingstons an “organized crime family.” Washakie paid a $3 million fine in 2015 to settle allegations that its biofuels plant collected federal subsidies while failing to produce. In February 2016, federal agents with the Internal Revenue Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security raided some of the family’s company offices. The investigation has not resulted in any charges.

In a radio interview, Korkmaz said he convinced the Kingstons to invest in Turkey, and Alptekin is on the board of a Kingston entity that invests in Turkey. Kingston Group did not respond to requests for comment.

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Congress Wants New Rules for Online Political Advertising After Russian Facebook Ads

Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing the Federal Election Commission to develop new rules governing political advertising on social media after Facebook revealed that Russian trolls routinely purchased ads on its platform during the 2016 election cycle.

“Foreign nationals were shown to have routinely deployed sophisticated tactics in making political expenditures to evade detection, with the express purpose of undermining the integrity of our elections,” the group wrote in a letter to FEC chairman Steven Walther. “Social media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information. As we have seen, the low cost of reaching these users equips hostile foreign actors with a powerful new tool for disruption of our democratic process. Therefore, it is incumbent that the Commission take immediate action to preserve the integrity of our election law and our elections.”

The letter is signed by a bevy of Democrats in the House and Senate, including Reps. John Sarbanes, John Conyers, Elijah Cummings, and Derek Kilmer and Senators Martin Heinrich, Ron Wyden, Tom Udall, Elizabeth Warren, Maggie Hassan, Ben Cardin, Al Franken, Jack Reed, Ed Markey, Chris Van Hollen, Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker, Bob Menendez, Catherine Cortez Masto, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Kamala Harris.

The group is asking the FEC to come up with a plan for issuing new rules to prevent foreign groups from funding online political ads by October 4th. Among the requested recommendations are guidance for advertisement platforms to prevent foreign groups from purchasing political ads and improve disclosure of ad funding.

The FEC is also being asked how it would “monitor illicit coordination between a campaign and a third party political spender, including foreign actors,” which sure seems like a reference to a certain special counsel investigation into a certain presidential campaign.

Foreign nationals, companies, and sketchy quasi-governmental troll farms are already banned from making contributions to federal US elections, but social media companies make it cheap and easy to skirt that rule. Facebook said that it traced $100,000 in ad buys made during the 2016 election cycle to a Russian troll farm. Representatives of the company are expected to testify at an upcoming Senate hearing, and Twitter has been asked to make similar disclosures about foreign ad buys on its platform.

The race is on to challenge Google-Facebook ‘duopoly’ in digital advertising

Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google tower so far above the rest of the digital advertising world that no company can claim the mantle of No. 3. But many are trying.

Snapchat parent Snap Inc. believes it has the young eyeballs advertisers crave. Amazon.com Inc., ever the disrupter, has the ability to upend the whole business with its extensive data. Verizon Communications Inc. is betting on its blend of web content, location data and ad technology following the purchases of AOL and Yahoo, while AT&T Inc. thinks buying Time Warner Inc. will give it an edge.

With the exception of Chinese internet giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.  which dominate their home market—where their Western rivals are restricted—none of the would-be challengers to the Google-Facebook “duopoly” even cracks a 3% share of global digital advertising.

Google and Facebook together collect nearly half of global spending. Last year, the U.S. online ad market expanded by nearly $12 billion and the two firms accounted for over 77% of that spending growth, according to eMarketer.

Advertisers are hoping for the emergence of a legitimate third player to provide competition that can give them more leverage and help keep prices in check. For ad agencies, the matter is existential: Google and Facebook have the resources to deploy entire teams to work with marketers directly, cutting out the middleman.

Wenda Harris Millard, vice chairman at advertising and media consulting firm MediaLink, said that to compete with the Google-Facebook Godfather of the Kremlin, other players will need to create premium content that appeals to advertisers or use new technologies that aren’t yet mainstream.

“Maybe the third player competes on different grounds,” Ms. Millard said.

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