January 9, 2018

Posted by orrinj at 7:41 PM


Mashhad's Rebuke to Rouhani (Mohammad Ali Shabani, 1/08/18, CEP)

Mashhad is also home to Ahmad Alamolhoda, a hardline cleric hand-picked by the Supreme Leader to preside over the Friday prayers in the city. When the longstanding custodian of al-Ridha's shrine passed away in March 2016, the conservative camp--still soul searching with only one year until Hassan Rouhani's expected bid for reelection--saw an opportunity to appoint as its head Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric largely unknown to the public, and who just so happens to be Alamolhoda's son-in-law. Showered with coverage from conservative outlets, he suddenly shot to fame. Just over a year later, having coopted fellow Mashhad-born Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the longtime mayor of Tehran, Raisi presented a serious challenge to Hassan Rouhani. Though he lost the election, Raisi did get close to 16 million votes, a real feat considering the deep divisions among the conservatives. 

Entering his second term, Rouhani had no intentions of giving his rivals a free pass. When he addressed parliament about next year's budget bill on December 10, he pulled no punches. He spoke openly of unaccountable centers of power in an animated tone, attacking their grip on everything from real estate to the foreign currency market. This seems to have been the straw that broke the (conservative) camel's back. 

With U.S. President Donald Trump decertifying the nuclear deal in October and threatening to refuse to issue sanctions waivers, the duo from Mashhad and some of their conservative allies are said to have smelled an opportunity. Although there is no concrete evidence, in Tehran, everyone seems to "know" that Alamolhoda, his son-in-law and some of their associates plotted to undermine and embarrass Rouhani by instigating protests planned to build up to Dey 9 (December 30), the official anniversary of the "defeat" of the 2009 Green Movement. 

They oppose reform for the same reason western Shiaphobes do.
Posted by orrinj at 7:38 PM


New rechargeable batteries that use iron instead of cobalt could be a game changer for electric cars (Irina Slav, 1/09/18, OilPrice.com)

The idea of using iron in batteries isn't new, but so far, attempts to substitute the cheap metal for costlier cobalt and other metals have ended in disaster. Christopher Wolverton, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, had two problems to solve to make his battery work. First, replace cobalt with iron. Second, trick oxygen into taking part in the reaction that moves the lithium ions from the anode to the cathode and back again as the battery is charged and discharged.

The second challenge was the bigger one. The widespread opinion in science circles is that using oxygen in the reaction taking place in a rechargeable battery makes the concoction inside unstable and oxygen escapes, making the reaction irreversible and the battery non-rechargeable. That's why Wolverton and his team first made the battery on a computer to see if it would work. Surprisingly for all, it did--and better than the most popular lithium-ion batteries.

The iron battery uses four lithium ions instead of just one like current batteries do. For now, it can only utilize one of these, but there's potential for making use of all four, considerably increasing the battery's efficiency.

Posted by orrinj at 6:47 PM


The Ghan: three-hour train epic on track for ratings record but some viewers rail against 'slow TV' (Naaman Zhou,  9 Jan '18, The Guardian)

The experimental SBS documentary The Ghan divided opinion on its way to nabbing half a million viewers across the country.

Marketed as Australia's first foray into the Norwegian genre of slow TV, the program followed the famous passenger train on its 3,000km trip from Adelaide to Darwin, and has been so popular SBS is planning to release an extended 17-hour cut.

Aired on Sunday night without ad breaks, the documentary showed a driver's seat view of outback scenery, train tracks and text explaining the local history of each new area - with a focus on Indigenous history and early European, Chinese and Afghan immigrants.

It became SBS's highest-performing program of the past 12 months, according to the station's director of TV and online content, Marshall Heald.

Posted by orrinj at 6:41 PM


Who is attacking Russia's main base in Syria? A new mystery emerges in the war. (Liz Sly, January 9, 2018, Washington Post)

In the most recent and unusual of the attacks, more than a dozen armed drones descended from an unknown location onto Russia's vast Kmeimim air base in northwestern Latakia province, the headquarters of Russia's military operations in Syria, and on the nearby Russian naval base at Tartus. [...]

"They thought the base was secure, but now it seems it is vulnerable," he said. Among the questions being asked in Moscow, he said, are whether the Russian military had adequately secured the base and whether it had failed to detect the acquisition of new technology by its adversaries.

The attacks also raise questions about the sustainability of Russia's gains in Syria, said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. In December, Putin visited the Khmeimim base and said Russia would start to wind its presence down because the war in Syria is essentially over.

The events of recent days are a demonstration "that whoever conducted these attacks can still penetrate regime areas and impose costs on the Russians," she said. "The gains the regime has made are not secure and are at high risk of being temporary."

Perhaps the biggest question of all, however, is who was responsible. What makes the attacks especially unusual is that there has been no claim, triggering a frenzy of speculation in the Russian and Syrian news media over who may have carried them out.

Russia's Defense Ministry on Tuesday appeared to accuse the United States for supplying the technology for the drone attack, saying that assault required a higher level of expertise than any armed group in Syria is known to possess. Compounding the suspicions, the ministry said in a statement on its Facebook page that a U.S. Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was in the skies above the area for four hours during the drone assault.

Posted by orrinj at 6:39 PM


Posted by orrinj at 5:40 PM


Trump Plans to Attend the World Economic Forum in Davos (MAGGIE HABERMAN and MICHAEL D. SHEAR, JAN. 9, 2018, NY Times)

Mr. Trump's planned appearance at an event that is synonymous with wealth and elite prestige comes as he enters the second year of a term he won on a message of economic populism.

Presidents have rarely attended the forum in Davos, in part out of a concern that it would send the wrong message to be rubbing shoulders with some of the world's richest individuals.

Mr. Trump won the 2016 election in part by attacking elites in the United States and promising to "drain the swamp" in Washington of lobbyists, corporate influence and members of the establishment -- the very description of those who regularly attend the Davos forum.

The event in Switzerland is a global symbol of everything that Mr. Trump's former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, railed against during the presidential campaign and the first seven months in the administration.

But Mr. Trump has also spent a lifetime as a real estate mogul and television personality seeking to be accepted by the financial and media elite in New York and around the world. His decision to travel to Davos as president may represent his desire to prove that he has achieved that goal.

Some of Mr. Trump's advisers were befuddled by his planned trip, coming a year after his team decided not to send a representative to the 2017 gathering.

It's only the 9th and this is the most hilarious year in the history of the presidency already. Hopefully, he brings that glowing ball the sheiks gave him, so he can be illuminated with the Illuminati.

Posted by orrinj at 5:35 PM


Trump Holds Meeting to Show He's in Charge, Instead Proves Opposite (Jonathan Chait, 1/09/18, New York)

Michael Wolff had reported that Mitch McConnell said of the president, "He'll sign anything we put in front of him." (The line, intentionally or not, echoes a joke about Will Ferrell's clueless, pompous Ron Burgundy character: "Anything you put on that 'prompter, Burgundy will read.")

During the meeting, Trump put on full display his lack of interest in, or understanding of, public policy. The meeting centered on Trump's signature policy issue, immigration, which his staff no doubt considered safe. (Imagine if they had to talk about something like health care.) At one point, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein proposes that they pass a bill to formalize deferred action for child arrivals (DACA). Trump gives his enthusiastic ascent.

This promise so alarms his fellow Republicans that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is forced to interject with an explanation that, actually, Trump doesn't like this idea at all.

At another point, Trump echoes McConnell's assessment by saying he will sign anything they put before him...

Posted by orrinj at 5:30 PM


From Sea to Shining Sea : Why have conservatives abandoned the coasts? (Kevin D. Williamson, January 7, 2018, National Review)

In 2018, our politics isn't about policy. It's about Kulturkampf, which means it is about enemies. For contemporary Republicans, especially those of the Trump-oriented persuasion, that means the people they denounce as "elites" and "globalists." Trump denounces "elites" and "globalists," and his partisans find this satisfying. He also spent his first year in office giving those "elites" and "globalists" practically everything they wanted in terms of his policy agenda, including a very large corporate tax cut and the imposition of a territorial tax system -- two proposals near and dear to the pinstriped hearts of multinational executives around the world but of relatively little interest to pissed-off underemployed white guys in Garbutt.

The self-respecting nationalist-populist might ask why it is that Lloyd Blankfein got his tax cut before they got their wall -- if politics were about policy. But it isn't. The self-respecting nationalist-populist might wonder why Trump is talking about how great the stock market is doing when 2017 saw the weakest growth in jobs since 2010. They might wonder why two of the most important figures in Trumpworld -- Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and recently exiled consigliere Steve Bannon -- both are products of Goldman Sachs and Hollywood, detestable coastal elites if ever there were any.

Oh, but let's talk about Rosie O'Donnell . . . 

Politics can be about policy, and the Democratic-dominated parts of the country could use a dose of good conservative thinking when it comes to improving their terrible public schools, reducing crime, sorting out their pension messes, and improving the standard of living for non-billionaires in high-priced coastal states. The cities need Republicans, and Republicans need the cities -- assuming that they do not want to be a political party that dominates only those parts of the country where the people aren't. Some will say: "California -- let it burn!" Considering the cultural excesses of the tech industry, my colleague Heather Wilhelm suggested in these pages last week that we "Wall Off Silicon Valley." She was being funny, but not everybody is joking.

The "Real American" sneering at New York and California is tied up in silly and romantic notions about virtue. Not that virtue is silly or that venerating it is romantic. Far from it: Virtue is essential to the healthy and peaceful functioning of a free republic. What's silly is the notion that virtue cannot be found, practiced, or taught in Los Angeles, and what's daftly romantic is the notion that it somehow sprouts up out of the ground wherever corn and wheat do. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:25 PM


As Electric Cars' Prospects Brighten, Japan Fears Being Left Behind (JONATHAN SOBLE, JAN. 9, 2018, NY Times)

Japan is scrambling to ensure it has a future in an electric-car world. Toyota, the country's largest automaker, pioneered gasoline-electric hybrids but has long been skeptical about consumers' appetite for cars that run on batteries alone. Now, under pressure from foreign rivals like Tesla, the company says it is developing a batch of new electric models.

The Japanese government has made managing the shift to next-generation vehicles a priority, but critics say its approach lacks focus. It has bet big on hydrogen fuel cells, an alternative technology to plug-in rechargeable batteries that is struggling to win widespread support.

The fear is that, once again, Japan will miss a big technological shift.

In the consumer electronics sector, the transition to new products like flat-screen televisions and digital music players undermined once-ubiquitous Japanese brands. Innovation in the digital era became the domain of Silicon Valley, while mass production shifted to China.

As a result, some storied names in the world of technology -- Sharp, Toshiba, Sanyo -- have either disappeared or no longer resonate with the world's consumers the way they once did.

"What really puts Japan on the defensive is the idea that the tech revolution is coming to the car industry," said James Kondo, a visiting professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo who has worked with technology companies in the United States and Japan.

"The industry is at the center of everything, not just economically but psychologically, and it's facing fundamental change," he added.

Cars that don't burn gasoline or diesel account for a tiny sliver of the world market today, but their prospects are looking brighter.

Batteries are becoming more powerful even as their prices tumble. China, the world's biggest automobile market, is betting big on electric cars. France and Britain have announced they will phase out fossil-fuel-burning vehicles in an effort to fight climate change.

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 PM


Fusion co-founder: Dossier author feared Trump was being blackmailed (Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju and Marshall Cohen, 1/09/18, CNN)

Simpson's testimony was released Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who posted the transcript of the August 2017 Senate Judiciary Committee interview that took place behind closed doors.

Feinstein issued the transcript of the 10-hour interview without the support of committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who had argued the committee needed to temporarily protect certain information while an investigation was ongoing.

Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said that Feinstein released the transcript without consulting Grassley and suggested it could jeopardize the committee's ability to interview future witnesses.

"Feinstein's unilateral decision was made as the committee is still trying to secure testimony from other witnesses, including Jared Kushner," Foy said in a statement. "Her action undermines the integrity of the committee's oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid voluntary testimony relating to the independent recollections of future witnesses."

The transcript is likely to provide Democrats a counterargument to the Republican charges that the dossier was a political document paid for by Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

In a statement, California's senior senator said she was releasing the transcript with the support of the committee's Democrats.

"After speaking with majority and minority committee staff for 10 hours, Glenn Simpson requested the transcript of his interview be released publicly. The American people deserve the opportunity to see what he said and judge for themselves," said Feinstein. "The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public."

In a statement, Fusion GPS said it "commends Sen. Feinstein for her courage. The transcript of Glenn Simpson's lengthy responses to the Senate Judiciary Committee's questioning speaks for itself."

It's our nickel; all the testimony should be public.

Posted by orrinj at 5:14 PM



The coal industry says that thousands of miners will lose their livelihoods and hundreds of thousands could lose their pensions and healthcare, thanks to a ruling by an obscure energy panel that defied President Donald Trump.

The Federal Energy Regulation Committee, a group of regulators comprised mostly of Trump appointees, rejected a request by the Department of Energy to prop up coal and nuclear power plants with a new rule that would underwrite some fuel costs.

Hard to believe we could find a more status quo president than the UR, but we managed it.

Posted by orrinj at 5:09 PM


The Decline of Anti-Trumpism (David Brooks, JAN. 8, 2018, NY Times)

The anti-Trump movement suffers from insularity. Most of the people who detest Trump don't know anybody who works with him or supports him. 


Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


Putin's road from Damascus: After the "victory," what? (Pavel K. Baev, January 8, 2018, Brookings)

It was somewhat incongruous, therefore, that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to declare Russian victory in Syria last month--Russia hasn't even met the very narrow definition of "victory" as ensuring the survival of the Bashar Assad regime. He ordered the withdrawal of the main part of Russia's military grouping, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that 38 planes and some support units had returned home. The thing is: This amounts to less than half of total Russian forces there, not even counting the private contractors. The planned expansion of Russian air and naval bases demands more troops for keeping them secure, and it is necessary to increase the number of Russian advisers if the Syrian army aims at launching new offensives, for instance against the Idlib enclave.

Russia remains stuck in the Syrian trap and at best, its perceived success will gradually fade into a stalemate. Meanwhile, the variety of bad options is rich, and the worst-case scenario of a sudden collapse of the Assad regime is not far-fetched.

Greatest War Ever.
Posted by orrinj at 4:56 PM


The perfect MLB GIF for every occasion  (Ted Berg, January 9, 2018, For the Win)

Posted by orrinj at 4:40 PM



Dossier Allegation: Russia sought the lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed in the aftermath of Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. According to the Dossier, multiple Russian individuals discussed "lifting of western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine."

Subsequent Reporting: In January, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen reportedly delivered a plan to Michael Flynn under which the United States would lift its sanctions against Russia in exchange for Russia temporarily withdrawing its forces from Crimea pending a Ukrainian referendum on whether to "lease" Crimea to Russia. Furthermore, the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya who attended the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower alleges that Donald Trump, Jr. suggested that a future Trump administration would consider lifting the sanctions placed on Russia under the Magnitsky Act. Since becoming president, Trump has repeatedly undermined U.S. sanctions against Russia, both by questioning the utility of sanctions already in place and by delaying the implementation of newly passed legislation.

Moscow Project assessment: Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: Russia was behind the DNC hack. In July 2016, Steele reported that a source "acknowledged that the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the WikiLeaks platform."

Subsequent Reporting: The U.S. intelligence committee publicly detailed its conclusion as to the provenance of the emails in January 2017, several months after Steele first reported on it.

Moscow Project assessment: Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: One proposed quid pro quo for Russian email hacking was the Trump campaign's removal of support for lethal weapons to Ukraine in the GOP platform.  Steele wrote that "the operation [to leak emails via WikiLeaks] had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team. In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defense commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine."

Subsequent Reporting: In his recently-unsealed plea deal with the FBI, George Papadopoulos says that "the Professor" informed him that the Russian government possessed thousands of emails that would be potentially damaging to Clinton, a fact Papadopoulos relayed to multiple senior campaign officials. In his testimony before Congress, Carter Page appeared to confirm that the Trump campaign successfully lobbied to soften language in the Republican Party platform regarding lethal assistance to Ukraine, which the campaign had previously denied. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the U.S.'s financial commitment to NATO both during the campaign and during his administration.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: Carter Page met with an official in the Russian presidential administration. The dossier claimed that an official who was close to Sergey Ivanov told a colleague that Igor Diveykin, Putin's deputy chief for internal policy, had secretly met with Page in Moscow; the dossier alleges that during this meeting, Diveykin claimed he wanted to give the Trump campaign kompromat on Clinton.

Subsequent Reporting: In his testimony, Page denied meeting with Diveykin but did admit to a "chat" with a different high-ranking Russian official, the deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: The Russian government's efforts to cultivate Trump involved his business. Along with the offer of opposition research on Clinton, Steele reports that "The Kremlin's cultivation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia ... However, so far, for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these."

Subsequent Reporting: The Washington Post reported in August 2017 that the Trump Organization pursued a deal to develop Trump Tower Moscow during his run for president. According to The New York Times, the real-estate developer Felix Sater wrote to the Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen, "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected." CNN later reported that the Trump Organization signed a letter of intent to develop the project, but ultimately pulled out of the deal.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: Manafort and Page served as key conduits to Russia. The dossier notes that the "well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [the TRUMP campaign] and the Russian leadership ... was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate's campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries."

Subsequent Reporting: In July 2017, Manafort was identified as one of three high-level Trump campaign officials (along with Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr.) to attend the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower, which was described in an email setting up the meeting as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Page has admitted that he met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich on his July 2016 trip. Manafort also reportedly suggested to his longtime deputy Konstantin Kilimnik that they set up secret campaign briefings for the Russian oligarch and known Putin associate Oleg Deripaska.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: Carter Page met with Rosneft. The Dossier claimed that a source close to Putin ally Igor Sechin reported on a secret meeting between Sechin and Page in July 2016, during which they discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia. It also claimed that Sechin offered Page the brokerage fee for the sale of 19% of Rosneft, in exchange for lifting sanctions. 

Subsequent Reporting: Page admitted to having met with Andrey Baranov, the head of investor relations at Rosneft; he denied discussing sanctions with Baranov, but said that Baranov "may have briefly mentioned" the Rosneft sale. Page denies meeting with Igor Sechin and no further reporting has contradicted his statements.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Dossier Allegation: Along with Trump, the Russian government engaged with "several high profile US players, including [Jill] STEIN, [Carter] PAGE and (former DIA Director Michael Flynn), and fund[ed] their recent visits to Moscow."

Subsequent Reporting: By the time of Steele's report, Michael Flynn and Jill Stein had already attended the RT Gala in December 2015, where they sat at the same table as Russian President Vladimir Putin; Carter Page's July 2016 trip to Moscow was also public knowledge. Whether the Russian government paid for their trips remains unknown. Documents released to the public in March 2017 revealed that Flynn was paid by Russian government-linked entities in 2015. Stein also frequently appeared on the Russian propaganda news channel RT during the 2016 election.

Moscow Project assessment: Partially Corroborated.

Posted by orrinj at 4:20 PM


The Secret to Understanding Kamala Harris : And why it's making her a flash point in the Democratic Party. (JAMILAH KING, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2018, Mother Jones)

Harris has long tried to bridge the tricky divide between social progressivism and the work required as a prosecutor--sometimes more successfully than others. As San Francisco's district attorney, for instance, she steadfastly refused to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer, but later, as California's attorney general, she defended the state's right to use capital punishment. In 2012, she helped win a massive, $25 billion settlement with Wells Fargo and other financial institutions for foreclosure abuses, but a year later she declined to prosecute Steven Mnuchin's OneWest Bank for foreclosure violations. In 2014, she co-sponsored a bill to outlaw the so-called gay-panic defense in California, a legal strategy that often shielded perpetrators of violent crimes against LGBT people from serious punishment, but a year later she sought to block gender reassignment surgery for a transgender prison inmate.

As a woman of color, she embodies two key Democratic constituencies, and she is beloved by the wing of the party that broke for Hillary Clinton. But among those on the far left, including many die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters, she's an object of disdain, a Hillary-bot with weak progressive credentials. While that segment of the left might oppose anyone who isn't one particular septuagenarian, the Week summed up this critique when it slammed Harris for her "rather Hillary Clinton-esque tendency to say the right thing but not follow through."

The contradiction boils down to this: Harris is not interested in crusading from the outside; her mission is to reform the system from within. And no chapter of her life better reveals this dynamic than her days as a newly elected district attorney in San Francisco, working to get one radical program off the ground. [...]

In 2004, after Harris defeated two-term incumbent Terence Hallinan to become San Francisco's district attorney--the first woman and the first person of color to hold the position--she approached Simon about joining that office.

"I never wanted to work for The Man," Simon says. "And she was like, 'You'd be working for this black woman.'" When Simon demurred, Harris made her case more plainly: "You can bring your advocacy into the office, but do you forever want to be on the stairs yelling and begging for people to support you, your cause? Why can't you fix it from the inside?"

It's a Democratic party where she lacks Bernie's street cred.

Posted by orrinj at 4:12 PM


Hamas Co-Founder Accidentally Shoots Himself In The Head (Aiden Pink, 1/09/18, The Forward)

One of the founders of the Palestinian terror group Hamas has been hospitalized after being shot in the head while inspecting his gun.

Posted by orrinj at 2:23 PM


Fusion GPS Founder's Senate Judiciary Testimony Released (TIM MAK, 1/09/18, NPR)

The former British intelligence officer who authored the infamous Russia dossier wanted to show it to the FBI because he was concerned that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was being "blackmailed."

Christopher Steele told the political research firm that hired him, Fusion GPS, that what he uncovered from Russian sources was serious enough to bring to the attention of U.S. law enforcement authorities, according to a transcript released on Tuesday.

The transcript, of an interview that Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson did with the Senate Judiciary Committee, was released on Tuesday by the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

Steele went to the FBI with the initial reports that would later form the dossier on alleged Trump-Russia ties as early as late June or early July of 2016, Simpson testified.

"Chris said he was very concerned about whether this represented a national security threat and said ... he thought we were obligated to tell someone in government," Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"He thought from his perspective there was ... a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed."

Simpson said he neither encouraged nor discouraged Steele about going to the FBI.

"This was like, you know, you're driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911," Simpson told investigators. He likened the sense of responsibility he said Steele felt to the professional duties that attorneys have in some cases to report a crime if they learn of one.

Steele eventually met with an FBI legal attache in Rome in September 2016, more than two months after the initial outreach.

Steele later told to Simpson that he believed the FBI would consider his information credible because the Bureau had corroborating intelligence, including from a human source within the Trump organization.

Posted by orrinj at 11:33 AM


The Steele Dossier in 2018: Everyone's Favorite Weapon (John Sipher, January 9, 2018, Just Security)

At first glance, there is not a lot of new information since I last wrote to help us come to a definitive conclusion.  However, continued patterns of behavior by the Trump team and leaks of information over the past few months have added a bit more credibility to the dossier, particularly with respect to the overarching narrative of collusion.  Mr. Steele himself was quoted in a book by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, offering his assessment that 70-90% of the dossier is accurate.

At the same time - and this point deserves special emphasis - there is nothing new to disprove the allegations.  As far as I'm aware, nobody has produced any serious evidence besmirching Mr. Steele or Orbis.  Aside from instances such as personal protestations by Carter Page and Michael Cohen and comments that Mr. Steele had made spelling mistakes in his reports, there has yet to be any proof that the events described in the dossier did not happen.  Efforts to ascribe personal bias to Mr. Steele are undercut by an understanding of the basics tenets of clandestine intelligence collection.  Raw intelligence reports, like those produced by Mr. Steele, are not finished analytical products or a means to share commentary or personal views.  The reports are merely efforts to accurately pass on information from sources with direct access to the information.

A few have suggested that the material might be part and parcel of a Russian disinformation and deception campaign.  I personally find it plausible that at some point in 2016 the Russians could have become aware Mr. Steele was fishing for information and, concerned with what he was finding, successfully seeded some material to his sources.  However, I find it highly unlikely that they could have controlled the entire effort from the start.  The Russians are very good at these "wilderness of mirrors" games but they are not ten feet tall.  A more robust discussion of that issue will have to be left for another time.  At the very least we need to ask ourselves why would the Russians attempt to mislead Steele unless they thought he was onto something?

More Recent Revelations

So, what new information do we have to evaluate the dossier?

On the side of adding credibility to the Orbis reporting, the Papadopoulos revelations, the Harding book, and Fusion GPS op-ed provide additional context that bolsters Mr. Steele's reporting.  We learned that Mr. Steele's sources were not paid, and that he felt so strongly about the information he uncovered, that he chose to go directly to the FBI.

As I mentioned in my previous piece, I take seriously the fact that Mr. Steele chose to share his work with the British and U.S. intelligence community.  The Harding book and the Simpson and Fritsch op-ed confirmed that it was Steele who approached the FBI in an effort to report his concerns and validate his reporting.  From my experience, there are a lot of groups providing some form of business intelligence.  However, very little of their information would stand up to serious scrutiny by professional intelligence services with access to legal collection tools and worldwide scope.  Most would probably only stand behind their material to a limited extent.  However, the fact that Mr. Steele was more than willing to expose his reporting to scrutiny and accountability by the best in the world, suggests that he was confident in his sources.  If there was nothing there, the FBI would gladly send him packing.

Jared Kushner's failure to turn over to Senate investigators an e-mail exchange - with the subject line "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite" - also hinted at possible efforts by the campaign to collude with Russia.  Although Kushner initially told campaign staff to turn down a request from Putin crony and alleged criminal Alexander Torshin to meet with then-candidate Trump, Donald Trump Jr. ultimately met the Russian at a May 2016 NRA dinner event.  Again, we only learned this only after Kushner was confronted with previously withheld material.

What's more, Harding's book reports that Mr. Steele utilized several of the same sources that he had relied on for previous work in support of clients in Ukraine and the FBI's FIFA investigation, which led to high-profile indictments.  The fact that these sources had demonstrated reliability in significant prior cases is important.  Orbis' record of success with clients depended on accurate reporting, and a proven track record is part of the process involved in validating and vetting sources.  Of course, we still don't have enough information on Steele's sources to have confidence in their reliability and their access to information on the Kremlin, but their having reported accurately over time provides us greater confidence than we had previously.  Steele's faith in his sources is probably why he himself attributes a high level of confidence to the dossier.

While the new information is only a sliver of what we would need to reach any conclusive assessments, it nonetheless helps to refute those partisan critics who claim that Mr. Steele's work is essentially contrived.  If he invented information from his sources, or his sources invented information, it follows that he also likely did so in his previous work with the FBI on the 2015 FIFA investigation.  Since that relationship led to the successful indictment of 14 leaders of the world soccer governing body for money laundering and collusion, it is hard to conclude that he is a swindler.

The Steele information first proved useful as a means to understand the now well-known June 2016 meeting between senior members of the Trump campaign and the Russian team including the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.  It provided some context to Russian intelligence efforts to seek a quid-pro-quo with the Trump team.  While we do not have many more details about the meeting since my earlier piece, we have more input from key players who ascribe a level of concern to the meeting.  The offer of stolen or comprising material on Ms. Clinton that was downplayed by the Trump team, was nonetheless seen in a wholly different light by some associates.  Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has called the meeting "treasonous," and, in terms of demonstrated loyalties, both Mr. Steele and the Australian government approached the FBI when they became aware of Russia's possession of derogatory information.  Again, it is not proof, but it bolsters the possibility that Mr. Steele got wind of a possible "conspiracy of cooperation" before it was public knowledge.

The revelation that Donald Trump Jr. was engaged in communication with Wikileaks also supports this thesis.  As I noted in a separate article, Trump Jr.'s communication with Wikileaks can be read as yet another means to support a conspiratorial relationship with Russia.  If the Russians had stolen material and the Trump team was interested in weaponizing it, Wikileaks was a ready vehicle to provide both sides with plausible deniability.  At the very least, it is troubling that Donald Trump Jr. was willing to engage with WikiLeaks even though it had known ties to Russia, and the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security had only recently implicated the organization in aiding the dissemination of stolen material from U.S. persons and institutions in the election.

While there is less information arguing against the dossier, it is impossible to be confident in many of the allegations in the reports.  We still don't have enough information on the sources, their level of access and reliability, and how Mr. Steele gathered the information.  While he was trained in the tools of clandestine collection, he no longer had access to the powerful capabilities of the British or American intelligence agencies.  He could not travel to Russia and meet sources without finding himself under heavy surveillance (even if he could get a visa).  As a private citizen, he was unlikely to travel in alias.  E-mail and electronic communication in and out of Russia is heavily monitored.  I suspect that Mr. Steele used cut-outs to contact his sources, or met them when they traveled outside Russia.  In any case, we just don't have nearly enough public information to validate his sources.

Instead, we have to do all we can to look at the allegations themselves.  As noted in various reports, some of the allegations have proven to be true, or at least likely.  At the same time, a large portion of the information is yet unverified.  Of course, this is not surprising because we do not have the tools of professional investigators that can help run the leads to ground (travel and phone records, access to foreign partners, eavesdropping or means to compel cooperation).  More importantly perhaps, we cannot uncover the information because it was part of a secret effort by a hostile foreign intelligence service in the first place.

In any event, at this point it's less about using public information to validate the dossier, than it is the complete inability of Trump supporters to provide an alternate narrative. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:46 AM


Michael Wolff: Trump 'Aware Of Who's Jewish In A Way That Feels Creepy' (Aiden Pink, 1/08/18, The Forward)

The author of the bombshell new book exposing the inner workings of the White House said in an interview on Monday that President Trump is "aware of who is Jewish in a way that feels creepy." [...]

When asked by host Katy Tur whether he thinks Trump is anti-Semitic, Wolff demurred, saying that former White House chief advisor Steve Bannon -- himself accused of anti-Semitism -- thought Trump was a racist but not an anti-Semite.

Posted by orrinj at 6:56 AM


Nervous Trump Lawyers Worry He'll Commit Perjury In Front Of Mueller (Eric Boehlert, January 9, 2018, Shareblue.com)

Mueller is also reportedly investigating whether Trump tried to obstruct justice when he fired then-FBI Director James Comey. Trump quickly announced on national television that he fired Comey because of his handling of the Russia investigation.

That occurred last May. Since then, Trump's aides have not allowed him to sit down for a one-on-one interview with a legitimate TV news reporter since he blurted out his reasoning for firing Comey.

In other words, that's likely what Trump's lawyers are trying to avoid with a Mueller interrogation -- Trump accidentally telling the truth, or Trump simply making stuff up.

TRUMP: A TRUE STORY : The mogul, in a 2007 deposition, had to face up to a series of falsehoods and exaggerations. And he did. Sort of. (David A. Fahrenthold and Robert O'Harrow Jr.,  August 10, 2016, Washington Post)

For the first of many times that day, Trump was about to be caught saying something that wasn't true.

It was a mid-December morning in 2007 -- the start of an interrogation unlike anything else in the public record of Trump's life.

Trump had brought it on himself. He had sued a reporter, accusing him of being reckless and dishonest in a book that raised questions about Trump's net worth. The reporter's attorneys turned the tables and brought Trump in for a deposition.

For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on the same theme: Trump's honesty.

The lawyers confronted the mogul with his past statements -- and with his company's internal documents, which often showed those statements had been incorrect or invented. The lawyers were relentless. Trump, the bigger-than-life mogul, was vulnerable -- cornered, out-prepared and under oath.

Thirty times, they caught him.

Trump had misstated sales at his condo buildings. Inflated the price of membership at one of his golf clubs. Overstated the depth of his past debts and the number of his employees.

That deposition -- 170 transcribed pages -- offers extraordinary insights into Trump's relationship with the truth. Trump's falsehoods were unstrategic -- needless, highly specific, easy to disprove. When caught, Trump sometimes blamed others for the error or explained that the untrue thing really was true, in his mind, because he saw the situation more positively than others did.

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 AM


Kellyanne Conway Disappears Amid 'Fire And Fury' (Eric Boehlert, January 9, 2018, Shareblue.com)

[C]onway was one of the key Trump aides who helped secure Wolff's exclusive access to the White House in the first place. In other words, Conway helped Wolff write a book that completely trashes Trump.

Appearing on "Morning Joe" on Monday and speaking with Mike Barnicle, Wolff confirmed that it was Conway and Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon who opened doors for him:

BARNICLE: Who was the original contact for you to get you into the White House?

WOLFF: Beyond Trump himself who was completely, you know, "Sure." It seemed like he didn't care that much. But then it was Bannon and Kellyanne.

This isn't surprising. "He was seen having lunch at the fading Manhattan media power lunch joint Michael's with special counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, which turned heads even at a restaurant known for star sightings," Buzzfeed reported last winter, when Wolff was angling for White House access.

As for the contents of the finished book, Wolff did Conway no favors either, portraying her as someone who was privately aware of the Trump administration absurdities, but who publicly cheered them on:

In private, in the Off position, she seemed to regard Trump as a figure of exhausting exaggeration or even absurdity--or, at least, if you regarded him that way, she seemed to suggest that she might, too. She illustrated her opinion of her boss with a whole series of facial expressions: eyes rolling, mouth agape, head snapping back. But in the On position, she metamorphosed into believer, protector, defender, and handler.

At times, Conway's fulsome defense of Trump last year was too much even for some top aides to take, according to Wolff, and she was temporarily taken off the air.

...and replace them with this insert on the Conway Scenic Railway...

Posted by orrinj at 6:47 AM


Google and Others Are Building AI Systems That Doubt Themselves : AI will make better decisions by embracing uncertainty. (Will Knight  January 9, 2018, MIT Technology Review)

The most powerful approach in AI, deep learning, is gaining a new capability: a sense of uncertainty.

Researchers at Uber and Google are working on modifications to the two most popular deep-learning frameworks that will enable them to handle probability. This will provide a way for the smartest AI programs to measure their confidence in a prediction or a decision--essentially, to know when they should doubt themselves.

Deep learning, which involves feeding example data to a large and powerful neural network, has been an enormous success over the past few years, enabling machines to recognize objects in images or transcribe speech almost perfectly. But it requires lots of training data and computing power, and it can be surprisingly brittle.

Somewhat counterintuitively, this self-doubt offers one fix. The new approach could be useful in critical scenarios involving self-driving cars and other autonomous machines.

 "You would like a system that gives you a measure of how certain it is," says Dustin Tran, who is working on this problem at Google. "If a self-driving car doesn't know its level of uncertainty, it can make a fatal error, and that can be catastrophic."

The work reflects the realization that uncertainty is a key aspect of human reasoning and intelligence. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:36 AM


Is Liberal Zionism Dead? (Michelle Goldberg, JAN. 8, 2018, NY Times)

[T]he alternative to a two-state solution is one state, a greater Israel that includes the occupied territories. That state can be Jewish or it can be democratic, but it cannot be both. Trump's embassy decision was thus another nail in the coffin of liberal Zionism. [...]

[I]f the possibility of Palestinian statehood is foreclosed, Israel will be responsible for all the territory under its control. There will be one state; the question is what sort of state it will be. Some on the Israeli right foresee a system in which most Palestinians will remain stateless indefinitely, living under a set of laws different from those governing Israeli citizens. Yoav Kish, a Likud member of Parliament, has drawn up a plan in which Palestinians in the West Bank will have limited local administrative sovereignty; rather than citizens they will be "Residents of the Autonomy." Supporters of Israel hate it when people use the word "apartheid" to describe the country, but we don't have another term for a political system in which one ethnic group rules over another, confining it to small islands of territory and denying it full political representation.

The word "apartheid" will become increasingly inescapable as a small but growing number of Palestinians turn from fighting for independence to demanding equal rights in the system they are living under. "If the Israelis insist now on finishing the process of killing the two-state solution, the only alternative we have as Palestinians is one fully democratic, one-state solution," Barghouti says, in which everyone has "totally equal rights."

Needless to say, Israel will accept no such thing. Though demographics in the region are as contested as everything else, Palestinians are likely to soon become a majority of the population in Israel and the occupied territories. If all of them were given the right to vote, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.

But most of the world -- including most of the Jewish diaspora -- will have a hard time coming up with a decent justification for opposing a Palestinian campaign for equal rights. Israel's apologists will be left mimicking the argument that William F. Buckley once made about the Jim Crow South. In 1957, he asked rhetorically whether the white South was entitled to prevail "politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically." The "sobering answer," he concluded, was yes, given the white community's superior civilization.

It's impossible to say how long Israel could sustain such a system. But the dream of liberal Zionism would be dead. Maybe, with the far right in power both here and there, it already is.

Posted by orrinj at 5:37 AM


Trump Ends U.S. Status for Salvadorans (Franco Ordonez And Anita Kumar, 1/09/18, McClatchy)

The Trump administration is ending a special immigration status for about 200,000 Salvadorans who were allowed to live and work legally in the United States since the 2001 earthquakes that killed 1,100 people and displaced more than 1 million.

The Department of Homeland Security said the conditions in El Salvador that had been used to justify the special protections, known as Temporary Protective Status, are no longer applicable.

The benefit will be extended 18 more months until September 2019, to give Salvadorans time to prepare to return home.

The tighter the noose gets the more red meat he needs to feed his nativist core to keep defending him.