Spy fail

Burn After Reading GRU

Suspected GRU operative

The GRU, what happened to you?

It must go down as one of the most embarrassing months ever for Russia’s military intelligence.

In the 30 days since Theresa May revealed the cover identities of the Salisbury poison suspects, the secretive GRU (now GU) has been publicly exposed by rival intelligence agencies and online sleuths, with an assist from Russia’s own president.

Despite attempts to stonewall public inquiry, the GRU’s dissection has been clinical. The agency has always had a reputation for daring, bolstered by its affiliation with special forces commando units and agents who have seen live combat.

But in dispatching agents to the Netherlands who could, just using Google, be easily exposed as graduates of an elite GRU academy, the agency appears reckless and absurdly sloppy.

In response to the surreal interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects, I wrote: “I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?” It gets worse:

[…] And then came Thursday’s bombshell: four men outed by Dutch investigators for attempting to hack into the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (as well as Malaysia’s investigation into a downed jetliner).

The alleged spies were caught carrying enough telephones to fill an electronics store. Moreover, like all meticulous Russians on a business trip, they held on to their taxi receipts from GRU headquarters.

At a glance, it’s hard to square such ridiculous incompetence with the idea that Putin and his operatives are crafty enough to destroy Western democracy. In any case, the GRU’s epic fails do seem to indicate the declining value of human intelligence in the age of the internet.

Putin doesn’t like Skripal much

Of that we can be reasonably certain:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has labelled poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal a “traitor” and a “scumbag”.

In a speech, he complained that the media were treating Mr Skripal as “some kind of human rights defender”, insisting he had betrayed his country.

Mr Skripal and his daughter survived an attack in Salisbury, which the UK says was carried out by two agents of Russian military intelligence.

But a British woman died in another poisoning that police say was linked.

UK authorities believe Mr Skripal’s door in the southern English city was targeted with the nerve agent Novichok.

It was sprayed from a modified perfume bottle that was later picked up and given to Dawn Sturgess, who died in July, they say.

Last month, President Putin insisted that the suspects named by UK police were civilians not criminals, and urged them to come forward. They later gave a televised interview.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Putin had him poisoned, of course, although the evidence appears to point in that direction. But then there’s this strange report that Skripal himself rules out the idea of Moscow’s involvement:

The former employee of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who was poisoned in Salisbury, UK, said he does not believe that the Russian special services could have been involved in the attempted murder. He said this in a statement to BBC journalist Mark Urban, who published an excerpt of the conversation in his book called The Skripal Files.

The reporter was able to talk to Skripal when the ex-colonel regained consciousness. The book says that the intelligence officer had to go through a difficult process of psychological adaptation.

Urban claims that Skripal refused to believe in the Kremlin’s involvement in what happened. Moreover, the former GRU colonel said he supported Russia’s policy, such as the reunification of the Crimea and Russia. However, Skripal did not say what his theory was regarding the incident.

And then there is the absolutely bizarre, hilarious televised interview mentioned above, in which the two poisoning suspects protest their innocence to RT. It really needs to be seen (or read) to be believed:

RT interview Boshirov Petrov

What were Petrov and Boshirov doing in the UK?

Petrov: Our friends have been recommending that we visit this wonderful city for a long time already.

Boshirov: It’s a touristic city. There’s a famous cathedral there, the Salisbury cathedral. It’s famous not just in all of Europe, it’s famous all over the world I think. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first clock made in the world that still runs.

Petrov: In fact, we planned to go to London and let loose, so to speak, it wasn’t a business trip. We planned to go to London and in Salisbury in one day. In England on March 2 and March 3 there was a transport collapse – snow so powerful – we couldn’t get back.

Petrov: We were there three days. We came on March 2, we looked at the train schedule.

Boshirov: We planned to go for one day and look around. Salisbury is a normal touristic city.

Petrov: We came to Salisbury on the March 3, we were there for, we tried to walk around the city, but since the city was covered in snow, we were able to only for a half an hour, we got wet.

Boshirov: No media, no TV channels are showing that on that day, the third, there was a collapse in that city, a snow collapse, it was impossible to go anywhere, we got wet to the knees.

Petrov: Of course we went to visit Stonehenge, Old Sarum, the cathedral of the Virgin Mary, but it didn’t work out because it was slush, as we’d say in Russian, total slush. We got wet, returned to the train station and went back on the next train.

What did they do in Salisbury?

Boshirov: We were drinking hot coffee because we had gotten all wet, on the third we spent no more than an hour there.

Petrov: The trains were going with big gaps because of the transport collapse, we went back to London and continued our travels.

Boshirov: We walked around London. On the third yes (an hour in Salisbury).

Petrov: It wasn’t possible to go anywhere. On March 4 we returned because London had thawed out, it was warm weather.

Boshirov: The sun was shining.

Petrov:We wanted to visit Old Sarum and the cathedral, we decided to finish this task on March 4. To visit them.

Boshirov: To see this famous cathedral, to look at Old Sarum. We saw them.

Petrov: On March 4 we saw them, but again around lunch snow started, that’s why we left early.

Boshirov: The cathedral is very beautiful, there are lots of tourists there, there are lots of Russian tourists, there are lots of Russian-speaking tourists there.

Petrov: There should be many photographs (with us). Of course we took pictures.

Boshirov: We were sitting in the park, we were sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee. We were walking around and enjoying this English Gothic, this beauty.

Petrov: For some reason they’re not showing this. They’re only showing us at the train station.

Did they visit Sergei Skripal’s house?

Petrov: Maybe we went by there.

Boshirov: Do you know where the Skripals’ home is? I don’t.

Petrov: If we would have known where it was.

Boshirov: Maybe we passed by it, maybe we didn’t pass by it, I don’t know, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard this surname, I didn’t know anything about them before this situation, this nightmare with us started.

Did they have Novichok in a perfume bottle?

Boshirov: No.

Petrov: I think this is total nonsense.

On and on it goes, like a bad Coen brothers movie. A total PR disaster for these guys and for Putin. I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?

The complexities and unknowns of the Skripal affair are way above my pay grade, but it is entertaining to watch.

Steven Seagal to run a Russian territory bordering North Korea?

How great would this be if it really happened? Via Max Seddon, FT’s Moscow correspondent:

Steven Seagal is prepared to resolve Vladivostok’s political crisis and step in as governor. “I represent the interests of President Putin,” he says.

And here’s the linked story, after a pass through Google Translate (Vladivostok is the administrative center of the Primorsky Krai region):

Segal announced his desire to become the governor of Primorsky Krai

VLADIVOSTOK, September 26 (Itar-Tass) – RIA Novosti. The actor, businessman and special representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Russian-American humanitarian relations Stephen Sigal said that he would like to become the governor of Primorye.

“With pleasure, I represent the interests of President Putin,” the actor replied to the question of whether he wants to lead the region.

Seagal, who received Russian citizenship in November 2016, reported that his ancestors on the paternal line “from here.” “Every time I want to learn Primorski Krai, see more and become your governor,” added the American actor who arrived in Vladivostok within the framework of the international film festival of the Pacific Rim countries.

The Primorye Electoral Commission, last week, on the recommendation of the CEC of Russia, found the results of the elections of the head of the region invalid. Vrio Governor Andrei Tarasenko said that he believes the decision to cancel the election results is correct. The candidate from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Andrey Ischenko said that he will challenge the results in three territories – in Ussuriysk, Artem and Nakhodka. He noted that the lawsuits are ready, and some of them have already been filed. The date of the next elections in the region has not yet been appointed, but it is expected that the deputies can approve it until the middle of October.

“Meridians of the Quiet” – the traditional annual festival of cinema in Vladivostok, this year it is held from 21 to 27 September. The president of the festival was the director and producer Alexander Rodnyansky, the main jury included Russian director Alexei German Jr. and Filipino producer Bianca Balbuena.

Over two million people live in Primorsky Krai, which borders North Korea.

Primorsky Krai

Primorsky Krai

Disappointingly, Seagal’s agent later said the actor had been “half-joking”:

Steven Seagal was granted Russian citizenship in November 2016 under a law that allows foreigners to be naturalized in recognition of their services to Russia or their general achievements.

The actor also holds US and Serbian citizenship and thus cannot actually run for a governor’s office, according to Russian laws. While the whole statement turned out to be a “half-joke,” Russian political parties took it quite seriously.

The Communist party (KPRF) said it already has its own candidate for the post of region’s governor, yet it was ready to cooperate with Seagal. Parliamentary spokesman for the communists, Ivan Melnikov, suggested that the martial arts icon might actually have a few ideas on cultivating sports and healthy lifestyle in the region.

Liberal Democrats (LDPR), in turn, said that Seagal was an unlikely fit for the governor’s post, but might be able to lead a “popular militia” of sorts in the region instead. The party, however, was quite suspicious over the statement, and guessed correctly it was a “joke.”

Daily links: Fentanyl and state failure

China is the main source of the insanely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl in the US, which killed more than 27,000 people in the 12 months through November 2017. “The biggest difficulty China faces in opioid control is that such drugs are in enormous demand in the US,” an official of China’s equivalent of the DEA is quoted as saying. The Opium Wars in reverse?

The trade deficit has sliced $457.2 billion off the US economy’s cumulative inflation-adjusted growth, or 14.33%, from the start of the recovery in mid-2009 through the first quarter of 2018, according to last week’s revised GDP figures. But we are told that trade deficits don’t matter.

Britain is probably not going to run out of food in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that the British government cannot guarantee food security for its people, and seemingly expects the food industry to take all the responsibility for stockpiling goods. Meanwhile, the food industry has absolutely no plans to do this.

A simulation models the release and spread of a moderately lethal and moderately contagious virus. It kills off 150 million people over the course of 20 months, including 15 to 20 million people in the US.

Over 100,000 Russians marched last month in the city of Yekaterinburg to mark the centennial of the slaughter of the Romanov imperial family by rabid Communists.

Duterte publicly destroys more than A$8 million worth of contraband luxury cars in the Philippines:

Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”

Daily links: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

China targets the Bay Area

Is Silicon Valley the soft underbelly of the US? “There’s a full-on epidemic of espionage on the West Coast right now,” according to this article in Politico.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has given Putin’s regime an outsized role in the national conversation on espionage. But talk to former intel officials, and many will say that China poses an equal, if not greater, long-term threat. “The Chinese just have vast resources,” said Kathleen Puckett, who worked counterintelligence in the Bay Area from 1979 to 2007. “They have all the time in the world, and all the patience in the world. Which is what you need more than anything.” (China’s Embassy in Washington, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Because of California’s economic and political importance, as well as its large, well-established, and influential émigré and Chinese-American communities, the People’s Republic places great weight on its intelligence activities here, said multiple former intelligence officials. Indeed, two told me that California is the only U.S. state to which the Ministry of State Security—China’s main foreign intelligence agency—has had a dedicated unit, focused on political intelligence and influence operations. (China has had a similar unit for Washington.)

And if California is elevated among Chinese interests, San Francisco is like “nirvana” to the MSS, said one former official, because of the potential to target community leaders and local politicians who may later become mayors, governors or congressmen. Their efforts are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

There are some extraordinary revelations about alleged Chinese espionage and influence activities in San Francisco, including the suspected co-opting of local power broker Rose Pak by Chinese intelligence. The article also reveals that Chinese officials are believed to have bused in 6,000 to 8,000 J-Visa holding students from across California to disrupt anti-Beijing protests in San Francisco during the 2008 Olympic torch relay. There’s much more, so read the whole thing.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Bill Browder

Bill Browder

From the NY Times:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a surprise offer to Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, at the news conference on Monday concluding the summit meeting between him and President Trump.

The Kremlin, Mr. Putin said, would allow Mr. Mueller and his team to travel to Russia and be present at the questioning of 12 Russian military intelligence officers the special counsel indicted last week for hacking into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In exchange, however, the United States would have to permit Russian law enforcement officials to take part in interrogations of people “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” He singled out one man: William F. Browder.

A London-based financier who led a global human rights crusade against the Kremlin that has resulted in sanctions being leveled against numerous Russian officials, Mr. Browder, 54, is a source of deep frustration for the Kremlin, which has gone to great lengths to shut him down. In May, he was arrested and briefly detained in Spain by officers acting on a Moscow-issued Interpol red notice, the sixth the Russians have filed against him. […]

“Business associates of his have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

Additionally, Mr. Putin declared, “we have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions.”

Mr. Putin offered no evidence to support his claims about money moving to the Clinton campaign, let alone with assistance from intelligence officers. […]

It was not clear from where Mr. Putin derived the $400 million figure, or whether he was referring to the Ziffs or possibly other donors as well. Former Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Here’s Browder’s full response to the press conference.

What did Putin have in mind by making such an extraordinary allegation — the only really surprising aspect of the event? I expect we’ll find out.

Daily links: Putin, Ortega, and Kubrick

Axios describes the Russian president as “an enemy of the United States,” which is interesting because I wasn’t aware that Congress had declared war on the Russian Federation… and I doubt Axios would use such inflammatory and hysterical language to describe the president of China which, you may recall, has been accused of all sorts of damaging cyber espionage against the US, including stealing private information on tens of millions of government employees and other Americans.

Don’t mess with Florida: Trump reportedly read Putin the riot act over a campaign video illustrating nuclear missiles raining down on the state.

Russia to consider lifting a four-year-old ban on US adoptions. A good sign?

A lost, nearly complete Stanley Kubrick screenplay has been found, and it sounds sorta creepy.

An estimated 350 people have been killed in protests against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega since April. It’s curious how little media attention the events in America’s backyard tend to receive.

At least 42 people, all believed to be Chinese tourists, died when their ferry in Thailand capsized. The Thai defense minister alleged that the ferry was illegally operated by a Chinese firm, concluding that “The Chinese did it to the Chinese,” then later walked back his comments.