How to Read Bob Mueller’s Hand

The Facebook angle

Until recently, there was very little that indicated Mueller was far along in investigating the efforts of Russian operatives to undermine our election. That changed when the Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller obtained information from Facebook via search warrant. That news is extraordinarily important because it indicates he presented evidence that convinced a federal judge there was good reason to believe that foreign individuals committed a crime by making a “contribution” in connection with an election and that evidence of that crime existed on Facebook.

Before we knew of the search warrant, Mueller’s efforts to obtain information about Russian interference in the election could have been an effort to gather counterintelligence or run out every lead. Now, it looks like he has his sights on specific foreign individuals and their interference in our election.

That also opens up Trump associates to criminal liability. Someone is guilty of “aiding and abetting” when they know a crime is being committed and actively help to make it succeed. So if a Trump associate knew about the foreign contributions that Mueller’s search warrant focused on and helped that effort in a tangible way, they could be charged.

In addition, anyone who agreed to be part of the Russian effort in any way could be charged with criminal conspiracy. They wouldn’t need to be involved in the whole operation or know who else was involved. but they would have to agree to be part of some piece of it.

If Mueller brings charges against Americans who worked with Russians to undermine in the election, those could potentially be the most explosive and wide-ranging charges but also the most difficult to defend legally. I doubt jurors would have much patience for technical legal defenses, however, if there were solid evidence that the American worked with a Russian operative.

Following the money

Lastly, there have been reports Mueller has subpoenaed numerous financial records, and his decision to involve the IRS criminal investigation unit indicates he is looking at tax charges against someone. But it’s unlikely he would bring very wide-ranging tax or money laundering charges. Money laundering can be difficult to prove because it requires a prosecutor to prove an underlying crime, such as bribery or tax evasion.

Mueller’s investigation appears to be proceeding at a rapid pace, but we should not expect it to conclude this year. When it does, any charges that Mueller brings will likely be narrower and more targeted than many observers expect, although the recent Facebook search warrant could result in explosive charges involving cooperation with Russian operatives.

Regardless of what charges are ultimately brought, you can expect them to be carefully considered and limited to what Mueller can readily prove. Proving criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury is a weighty burden, and a veteran prosecutor like Mueller will not bring charges unless he is confident he can prove them.

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Foreign Agents May Have Orchestrated 17 Pro-Trump Rallies in Florida

The “Being Patriotic” page, which posted pro-Trump and anti-Clinton memes, also promoted events in other cities and states, including a pro-Trump rally in Manhattan on September 11, 2016; “Miners for Trump” events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in October 2016; and an anti-Clinton protest outside of her New York campaign headquarters in July 2016. Ultimately, the page shut down in August 2017, as Facebook was closing accounts associated with a Russian troll factory that had purchased $100,000 of ads from Facebook. It is believed that those ads had the potential to have reached 70 million Facebook users.

The latest revelations have turned into a major headache for Facebook, which is now under pressure on Capitol Hill to turn over more information about the apparent Russian propaganda campaign and to take steps to prevent being manipulated by foreign agents in the future. On Wednesday, Democratic leaders in Congress—including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and Cory Booker, sent a letter to the F.E.C. about the Facebook ads, asking the commission to consider new rules preventing foreign nationals from using online-advertising platforms like Facebook and Twitter to sway U.S. elections. “Social-media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly detailed information,” the group of Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to F.E.C. chairman Steven Walther. “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.”

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Russian news agency RT now under scrutiny as foreign agent

The Justice Department action was quickly applauded by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a chief sponsor of a bill in Congress to strengthen Justice Department enforcement of FARA in order to curb Russian propaganda in the United States. Shaheen said she was “very encouraged” by the FBI’s inquiry into Sputnik, and, if accurate, its letter to the RT affiliate was “long overdue.”

“There’s ample evidence that RT America is coordinating with the Russian government to spread disinformation and undermine our democratic process,” Shaheen added: “We can’t allow foreign agents, particularly those working on behalf of our adversaries, to skirt our laws.”

But Simonyan, the RT editor who formerly served on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign staff, strongly hinted that any Justice Department actions could have repercussions for the U.S. news organizations that operate in Moscow.

“I wonder how U.S. media outlets, which have no problems while working in Moscow, and that are not required to register as foreign agents, will treat this initiative,” she said. She also blasted the Justice Department’s action as part of a “war” against freedom of the press and journalists. “Those who invented [freedom of speech] have buried it,” she said.

There is an exemption in FARA for news organizations and media outlets. Foreign media outlets in this country have rarely registered under the law. Any Justice Department action targeting RT and Sputnik could have major implications for state-owned media outlets from other countries. If the Russian news organizations were required to register, they would not be banned from operating. However, they would be required to file reports about their content and finances and their news products would have to be labeled as government propaganda. The news services’ executives could technically face criminal charges and fined if they are found to have willfully failed to register.

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Amid complicated relations with U.S., Turkey hires longtime Trump lobbyist Brian Ballard

The contract with Turkey is the firm’s highest profile foreign client and could be its most controversial amid unrest in the nation under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Turkey protested to the U.S. ambassador in Ankara that U.S. officials took “aggressive and unprofessional actions” against Turkish bodyguards in Washington last week when they beat protesters demonstrating against Erdogan. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday denounced the violent clash and told “Fox News Sunday” that State Department had called in the ambassador of Turkey to discuss the incident and say “that this is simply unacceptable.”

Meantime, amid a special counsel’s examining of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Trump’s former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, has come under increasing scrutiny for his Turkish lobbying, which was also linked to a Russian oil deal.

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Mueller Probe Has ‘Red-Hot’ Focus on Social Media, Officials Say

The NSA had some knowledge before the election of the computer infrastructure Russia was using, but it was looking abroad and not at what was happening through social media in the U.S., Ledgett said in an interview.

“The surprise was the integration into a whole campaign,” Ledgett said. “It’s the amplification of some stories and the suppression of other stories to bias you. That’s really hard to fight against. That’s where people need to think critically.”

One hurdle for the government in responding to such state-coordinated attacks is that there are constitutional concerns about intelligence agencies monitoring social media, one official said.

Going forward, the government should probably share information about influence operations by foreign adversaries with U.S. social-media companies, Ledgett said. Ultimately, though, the companies have to police themselves, and individuals need to be educated consumers of information, Ledgett said.

The U.S. response is seen as complicated, though, because it lacks policy direction from the top. Coordination across multiple agencies probably will be required, including from the FBI, the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Election Commission.

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Sputnik, the Russian news agency, is under investigation by the FBI

WASHINGTON — The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing.

The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.

Feinberg said the interview was focused on Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.”

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Facebook says it sold political ads to Russian company during 2016 election

In May, Time Magazine reported that U.S. intelligence officials had discovered evidence that Russian agents had purchased ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. A Facebook spokesman told the magazine that the company had no evidence of such buys.

Under federal law and Federal Election Commission regulations, both foreign nationals and foreign governments are prohibited from making contributions or spending money to influence a federal, state or local election in the United States. The ban includes independent expenditures made in connection with an election.

Those banned from such spending include foreign citizens, foreign governments, foreign political parties, foreign corporations, foreign associations and foreign partnerships, according to the FEC. (Permanent residents who hold green cards, however, are not considered foreign nationals.) Violators face civil penalties, as well as criminal prosecution if they are found to have knowingly broken the law.

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Digital Celebrities Rely On New Trade Group to Set Ad Disclosure Rules

An Influencer Marketing Council, comprised of brands, talent agencies and other influencer representatives, launched this week. Members are tasked with outlining a set of best practices for paid posts that are, in effect, ads.

Influencer marketing has become more widespread, with more than 200,000 such posts a month just on Facebook Inc.’s Instagram, according to Captiv8, one of the groups on the new council. About half of marketers plan to increase their influencer budgets this year, says eMarketer. The top players are meeting this week in Anaheim, California, for the Vidcon conference, which draws thousands of fans of digital celebrities.

“We don’t want to be in the business of tricking consumers,” said Blaise D’Sylva, vice president of media at beverage giant Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. and a founding member of the new council.

Disclosing paid posts is getting a little simpler, as applications including Instagram start to give influencers the option to use a standard label. But what about the grey areas, like when social media stars get expensive gifts and trips for free? Does that make their related posts ads? “Those are some of the things that we have to figure out and define,” D’Sylva said.

The council hasn’t yet discussed its goals with the FTC. Krishna Subramanian, co-founder of Captiv8, hopes the group can represent the influencer market in discussions with regulators, as well as with Facebook, Snap Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube. The committee aims to publish guidelines, along with examples, in a few months, so others in the industry can comment and help revise them, he said.

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Instagram adds ‘paid partnership’ feature, the formal alternative to #ad or #spon

For Instagram, introducing this tool is a huge, long overdue step to bring more transparency on the platform for creators, brands, and all of the more than 700 million monthly active users who are often exposed to such posts.

Since its founding in 2012, Instagram let the system operate as the Wild West, where celebrities and influencers would chose from a handful of hashtags, like #ad, #spon, and #sp, to include in the caption of their Instagram posts as a disclosure.

Instagram tested this product back in February, Mashable first reported. But it still took until now before Instagram would even comment on the existence of a feature. They had, however, been speaking with creators and brands about the tools.

“This is something I’ve been talking to our creators about with a while. In terms of how long it’s taken us to get here, we wanted to be very careful about it. We want to make a product that serves the creators, the brands and also the community,” said Charles Porch, creative program director at Instagram.

Instagram also added analytics — reach and engagement metrics — that are shared directly with the selected brand when the tool is used. Brands can see these numbers on their Facebook Page manager, and creators can see it in the app.

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Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort files as foreign agent for Ukraine work

A consulting firm led by Paul Manafort, who chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for several months last year, retroactively filed forms Tuesday showing that his firm received $17.1 million over two years from a political party that dominated Ukraine before its leader fled to Russia in 2014.

Manafort disclosed the total payments his firm received between 2012 and 2014 in a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing late Tuesday that was submitted to the U.S. Justice Department. The report makes Manafort the second former senior Trump adviser to acknowledge the need to disclose work for foreign interests.

Manafort is one of a number of Trump associates whose campaign activities are being scrutinized by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller’s team has been consolidating inquiries into matters unrelated to the election.

Manafort and a former associate in his consulting business, Richard Gates, who also worked for the Trump campaign, disclosed their lobbying campaign on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions in an 87-page document which described the gross receipts the firm received and some details of efforts undertaken to influence U.S. policy toward Ukraine. The filing shows the firm spent nearly $4 million to advance the party’s interests through polling and local salaries in Ukraine, activity that does not ordinarily require U.S. disclosure. The filing does not show how much Manafort made personally in Ukraine or how much his firm netted after expenses.

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Little known law is key to Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort probes

Investigators examining activities of former White House national security adviser Mike Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are looking at whether their work for foreign interests violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, and related laws, the people said.

The inquiries focus on Mr. Flynn’s work involving Turkey and Mr. Manafort’s work involving Ukraine, they said.

Any resulting prosecutions would mark the highest-profile enforcement in years of laws that Washington influence peddlers regard as having little consequence.