They apparently haven’t watched Burn After Reading

I think it’s safe to dispense with the idea, being promulgated by certain parties, that US intelligence is behind the Hong Kong protests/riots. One would have to be painfully naive to rule out the possibility of the US exploiting a chaotic situation in Hong Kong for its own ends. Many elements of the US establishment have made it clear that they support the protests. But it stretches credulity to claim that the CIA is capable of orchestrating a massive, open-source protest movement in a large and sophisticated Asian city. Seriously, think about it. As the Big Lychee helpfully reminds us, this is the same agency that saw its entire network in China caught and executed over a two-year period (I posted about this total debacle here). And if the “black hand” of the US is responsible for the current ructions in Hong Kong, was it also responsible for the 2014 democracy movement and the massive 2003 protest against Basic Law Article 23? That seems highly implausible, to say the least.

A Cambridge academic weighs in:

Jeppe Mulich
@jmulich
[Thread] The idea that foreign forces, and specifically the CIA, is either behind or heavily involved in the #antiELAB protests in Hong Kong seems to endure, somehow. So here are a few thoughts on why that is silly.

The first problem with the “foreign black hands” thesis is the underlying assumption that Hongkongers are unable to organize these protests themselves. That somehow they need the guiding hand of foreigners to mobilize.

That there simply is not enough motivation to take to the streets without outsiders stirring up trouble or offering incentives to do so. This is the same logic behind every colonial administrator or crony politician in history

complaining that the only reason the ‘natives’ or the ‘masses’ are protesting their rule is due to foreign troublemakers. It is devaluing the capacity and motivation of ordinary people and, in this case, it’s orientalist to boot.

The second problem with the thesis is that it greatly overestimates the capabilities of the CIA. Don’t get me wrong. The CIA is good at some things, and a lot of those things are deeply troubling and unethical.

Those things include funneling arms and finances to established groups of insurgents or to foreign regimes; extrajudicial rendition and detention; gathering particular types of intelligence and sharing it with select allies;

killing people with drones (sometimes even the intended targets); and supporting the more kinetic divisions of the US forces during on-the-ground military operations. They’ve also had some success with ruining Castro’s cigars and funding abstract expressionist art.

But none of these things are happening or would be relevant in HK today. There is no established insurgent group for the CIA to co-opt. There are no arms being funneled in (protesters use umbrellas, hard hats, dishwashing detergent, and a few Molotovs!)

Langley wouldn’t begin to know who to talk to in this type of leaderless, highly networked movement (look at their failures during the Arab Spring). I doubt they even have enough people proficient in traditional Chinese (let alone Konglish) to keep up with LIHKG and Telegram.

So, the idea of foreign black hands driving HK protests puts too little faith in the capacity of Hongkongers and too much faith in the capacity of those foreign forces. And worse, it plays directly into Beijing’s attempt at discrediting what is in fact a bottom-up mass movement

Failed coup

Juan Guaido Venezuela

Juan Guaido may remain interim president of Venezuela for a while

Looks like plans for a Venezuelan Spring are falling apart. According to Bloomberg, opposition leader Juan Guaido amassed a mini-army of 200 exiled soldiers to storm the Venezuelan border from Colombia… and was stopped by the Colombian government:

Late last month, as U.S. officials joined Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido near a bridge in Colombia to send desperately needed aid to the masses and challenge the rule of Nicolas Maduro, some 200 exiled soldiers were checking their weapons and planning to clear the way for the convoy.

Led by retired General Cliver Alcala, who has been living in Colombia, they were going to drive back the Venezuelan national guardsmen blocking the aid on the other side. The plan was stopped by the Colombian government, which learned of it late and feared violent clashes at a highly public event it promised would be peaceful.

Almost no provisions got in that day and hopes that military commanders would abandon Maduro have so far been dashed. Even though Guaido is back in Caracas, recognized by 50 nations as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the impromptu taking up of arms shows that the push to remove Maduro — hailed by the U.S. as inevitable — is growing increasingly chaotic and risky.

Bloomberg appears to suggest that Guaido is taking order from the US:

There have been other concerns. Guaido was planning to make a tour of European capitals this week to build international support, but the Americans told him he needed to return to Venezuela or he’d lose whatever momentum remained.

He’ll also need to be in Venezuela to serve as Maduro bait:

The Latin American diplomat, who has been in contact with Washington, said the U.S. strategy seems to be to continue to provoke instability in Venezuela in hopes that Maduro will make a move that could warrant more aggressive U.S. action. Bolton and Abrams have said that arresting Guaido would prompt a severe response.

Dunno, given its track record on regime change, maybe the US should sit this one out. Just a suggestion.

This is my concern

Venezuela military Maduro

Unfortunately for the US, Maduro still seems to have these guys in his corner

A sociologist writing in the Guardian shares my concerns about the situation taking shape in Venezuela, and the US involvement therein:

By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge of catastrophe. The hitherto unknown opposition leader’s actions, which appear to be closely coordinated with if not directed by the US, have set in motion a perilous chain of events.

The US recognized Guaidó as president minutes after his declaration. A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó. The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has responded to these actions by breaking relations with the US and ordering US diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours. Guaidó, in turn, told US and other diplomats to stay, a message also put forward by Republican US senator Marco Rubio, a leading opponent of Maduro. The Trump administration is ignoring Maduro’s order, which a senior official called “meaningless.” Another senior Trump official has declared, “All options are on the table,” reiterating a message Trump himself has put forward since 2017.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But a US invasion feels like a real possibility.

This course of action must be firmly rejected. This is not because Maduro deserves anyone’s support or sympathy. It is because of the untold suffering and damage US military intervention would bring to Venezuela and the region, and the vanishingly small likelihood such action could bring the change Venezuela needs.

Senator Rubio’s twitter is remarkably and disturbingly gleeful about the unfolding situation.

@marcorubio

This is a big deal.

But even bigger things are yet to come.

@PattyLaya

Exclusive: The Bank of England has denied Maduro’s request to bring back $1.2 billion from its vaults, following requests from U.S. officials Pompeo and Bolton https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-25/u-k-said-to-deny-maduro-s-bid-to-pull-1-2-billion-of-gold …

12:48 PM – 25 Jan 2019

I wonder what those “bigger things” might be!

The problem, of course, is that Maduro is the guy who actually has the power in Venezuela, whether the US recognizes him or not. Thus we have this:

A standoff is developing at the U.S. Embassy in the Venezuelan capital after a top Socialist Party official threatened to shut off electricity to the complex amid a growing power dispute in the oil-rich nation.

[…]

“They say they don’t recognize Nicolas,” Cabello [a close Maduro ally] said late Wednesday on state television. “OK. Maybe the electricity will go out in that neighborhood, or the gas won’t arrive. If there are no diplomatic relations, no problems.”

The deadline Maduro gave for the U.S. to remove its staff would expire in the afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 26. A refusal to evacuate would test Maduro’s reaction and whether he’d be willing to use force to try to expel them from the country which could in turn trigger a strong reaction from the U.S. including tougher sanctions. The U.S. has been preparing possible oil sanctions, and Trump said on Wednesday that he wouldn’t even rule out military options.

[…]

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, one of the key brokers to resolve the power struggle, publicly backed Maduro Thursday while welcoming dialogue with other governments to find solutions.

Here’s more about the secret maneuvering that led to the Juan Guaido’s self-appointment as leader of the South American nation of 32 million:

The coalition of Latin American governments that joined the U.S. in quickly recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president came together over weeks of secret diplomacy that included whispered messages to activists under constant surveillance and a high-risk foreign trip by the opposition leader challenging President Nicolas Maduro for power, those involved in the talks said.

In mid-December, Guaido quietly traveled to Washington, Colombia and Brazil to brief officials on the opposition’s strategy of mass demonstrations to coincide with Maduro’s expected swearing-in for a second term on Jan. 10 in the face of widespread international condemnation, according to exiled former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an ally.

To leave Venezuela, he sneaked across the lawless border with Colombia, so as not to raise suspicions among immigration officials who sometimes harass opposition figures at the airport and bar them from traveling abroad, said a different anti-government leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements.

Another question: Who is this Juan Guaidó guy, anyway? Reuters provides some background. Amusingly, he was not one of the 10 “leading opposition figures” profiled by Americas Quarterly magazine last year.

The plot thickens!

Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou

The internet is abuzz with more news and speculation related to the stunning arrest of Huawei CFO Wanzhou Meng:

• I previously noted that “This is about as dumb as the US trying to arrest Julian Assange, but with far nastier geopolitical implications.” For what it’s worth, here’s Wikileaks weighing in:

@wikileaks

Editorial comment: The U.S. extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou from Canada, for actions performed in China, is the same extra-territorial invasion through lawfare, that the U.S. government is applying to the UK, by extraditing Assange from the UK, for publishing in the UK.

4:26 PM – 6 Dec 2018

• Comrade Balding, an academic formerly based in Shenzhen, has some very interesting thoughts, among them:

@BaldingsWorld

There’s more coming on Huawei. I just don’t know when it’s going public

8:58 AM – 6 Dec 2018

===

Fact: timing of Huawei arrest is a great big political F+*#?!U

Fact: everyone in China knew she broke the US laws. Obama admin knew Huawei broke the law. Trump admin knew Huawei broke the law.

It’s only political if you think she should get away with it

8:48 AM – 6 Dec 2018

===

FWIW, I’ve know for a few months that there is more coming down the road with Huawei. Have confirmation from multiple unrelated people

2:08 AM – 6 Dec 2018

• The Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post ran this piece Thursday on how Meng told Huawei employees “in an internal talk on compliance that there are scenarios where the company can weigh the costs and accept the risks of not adhering to the rules.” Is China planning to throw Meng under the bus?

• Reuters correspondent “SJ” writes:

@SijiaJ

What happened on December 1? Xi & Trump met, Huawei founders’ daughter got arrested, Danhua Capital founder committed suicide

10:11 PM – 5 Dec 2018

• Wait, who committed suicide? From SCMP reporter Zheping Huang:

@pingroma

Prominent Stanford physics professor and blockchain venture capitalist Zhang Shoucheng died at age 55 on Dec 1 in the US after fighting depression, according to a family statement. Story TK

“Danhua lists 113 U.S. companies in its portfolio, and most of those companies fall within emerging sectors and technologies (such as biotechnology and AI) that the Chinese government has identified as strategic priorities,” the USTR name-checked Zhang’s VC in its Nov. 20 report

10:48 PM – 5 Dec 2018

Odd timing on that. “The family of Stanford professor Zhang Shoucheng, a world-renowned physicist and venture capitalist, denied speculation on Chinese social media that his death was connected to tensions in US-China relations or the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Canada on Saturday.” (SCMP)

• An intriguing piece of gossip:

@maggiexiao

Replying to @BaldingsWorld

Rumor says Meng entered Canada with a Canadian passport. China recently strengthened its no-dual citizenships policy . So that means she voluntarily gave up her Chinese citizenship. If true, does China still have the rights to claim her back?

6:24 PM – 5 Dec 2018

• David Goldman comments:

First, never before has the United States attempted the extraterritorial rendition of a foreign citizen – Meng is a Chinese national – in connection with sanctions violations. It has imposed travel and banking restrictions, but seeking an arrest warrant for this is entirely without precedent. […]

The question is: Who ordered the arrest, and why?

It is possible that President Trump knew about it and sanctioned the arrest, to be sure. But it is unlikely that the president would escalate the conflict with China with the arrest of a senior executive of China’s flagship high-tech manufacturer on the same day that he sought to de-escalate the trade war.

If Trump did not initiate the arrest, who did? There are two alternative possibilities.

The first is that the order came from administration officials who believe that the United States must provoke a confrontation with Beijing now, before China becomes too powerful to intimidate. Some parts of the permanent bureaucracy and the intelligence community believe that China’s economy is fragile and that an economic war would produce an economic crisis and political instability, perhaps even toppling Xi Jinping.

That view may seem fanciful, but it is argued seriously, for example by some former senior officials of the Trump administration.

The second possibility is that Trump’s enemies in the permanent bureaucracy simply want to prevent the president from negotiating a deal with China that would enhance his image and remove risks to economic growth.

Goldman notes that the only American politician to comment publicly on the matter has been Senator Marco Rubio, who earlier this year tried to torpedo Trump’s agreement with Xi regarding ZTE. He “celebrated the arrest” in an email to Axios. Hmm.

• Huawei is in deep trouble and not only in the US. From Reuters: “Japan plans to ban government purchases of equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp to beef up its defenses against intelligence leaks and cyber attacks, sources told Reuters.”

• …And: “Australia and New Zealand have already blocked Huawei from building 5G networks.”

• …And: “Britain’s BT Group said on Wednesday it was removing Huawei’s equipment from the core of its existing 3G and 4G mobile operations and would not use the company in central parts of the next network.”

• I’ll close with Professor Balding again – somewhat off-topic, but it caught my eye:

I think what most people who haven’t spent a lot of time in China don’t get is how abnormal the business, economic, financial, and negotiation climate is. People see the shiny tall glass office buildings and the Ritz and they make the assumption they get it. That’s wrong 1/n

The stories that get out in public are wild. The stories that never make it into the public are at least 10x crazier. The IP theft and theft stories you hear about in public are low hanging fruit where someone falls out of favor in Beijing. I know first hand accounts of 2/n

Flat out 10 ten digit USD thefts. Companies who have valid contracts telling a foreign partner they’re ignoring a contract and they will have them abducted or jailed if they even think about trying to enforce a contract with again 10 digit USD values. You DC/NYC debutantes 3/n

simply do not understand what you are dealing with.The rules are different. You think fentanyl doesn’t get various levels of state protection? Get real. You think this IP theft and gangsterism isn’t quasi official policy? Get real. You need to be realistic about your counterparty

6:14 AM – 6 Dec 2018

Russia to verify moon landings

Buzz Aldrin moon July 1969

I always thought this looked fake

It’s time someone cleared this up once and for all:

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has said that a proposed Russian mission to the moon will be tasked with verifying that the American moon landings were real, though he appeared to be making a joke.

“We have set this objective to fly and verify whether they’ve been there or not,” said Dmitry Rogozin in a video posted Saturday on Twitter.

Rogozin was responding to a question about whether or not NASA actually landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago. He appeared to be joking, as he smirked and shrugged while answering. But conspiracies surrounding NASA’s moon missions are common in Russia.

“Novichok spymaster” dies

GRU director Igor Korobov

GRU director Igor Korobov

The twisty Skripal affair takes another turn as the head of Russia’s GRU, who is viewed as the mastermind of the poisoning, is reported dead:

One of Russia’s highest ranking spies and the powerful head of military intelligence has died “after a long and serious illness,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson told the news agency RIA Novosti. Gen. Col. Igor Korobov, the 63-year old head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), was reported dead early Thursday morning; currently there’s no reports of foul play though officials did not reveal specific details or the circumstances of his death.

Crucially Korobov had been dubbed by the West the “Novichok spymaster” — as the Russian GRU chief ultimately blamed for the Salisbury attack as well as the downing of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which the Kremlin in turn had blamed on pro-Kiev national forces.

Korobov had for two years been under US sanctions, added by US Treasury in December 2016 related to allegations of Russian hacking and “efforts to undermine democracy”. Ironically, however, he was seen at times as a cooperative ally in Washington’s “war on terror” efforts since 9/11. […]

What’s the real story here? As usual… who knows? But here’s a possible clue:

Korobov had been ill since early October, when reports revealed he was severely reprimanded by President Putin himself over mishandling accusations surrounding the alleged Salisbury poison attack the West pinned on Russian intelligence.

The Daily Mail reports:

President Vladimir Putin personally gave a dressing down to the head of Russian spy agency GRU over ‘deep incompetence’ shown in the Salisbury poisonings and other international operations.

GRU chief Col-Gen Igor Korobov, 62, reportedly emerged shaken and in sudden ‘ill health’ after his confrontation with the furious Russian president.

As for the “deep incompetence”: the once-fearsome GRU is apparently not sending its best.

Hope he has a good security detail

Steve Bannon Guo Wengui

Idea for a buddy cop film (Bannon and Guo)

Steve Bannon teams up with Guo Wengui to throw down the gauntlet… against the Chinese government:

Former chief strategist for US President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, has lent his support to exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui in a campaign to investigate China’s ruling elite, the two announced at a press conference in New York on Tuesday.

Bannon introduced the “Rule of Law Fund” which aims to investigate wrongdoing, including the alleged involvement of Chinese officials in the death and disappearance of Chinese individuals. Bannon said he would chair and oversee operations of the initiative. […]

Guo gave a presentation alongside Bannon, and has pledged to back the fund with US$100 million and formally request that the FBI and relevant law enforcement authorities review “voluminous investigative material.”

I can only assume that Bannon understands what he is up against here. Guo, the fugitive real estate tycoon who was visited in his Manhattan penthouse by Chinese security agents last year, has a bit more experience facing off against Beijing.

Among the cases that Guo/Bannon plan to investigate is the death of HNA Group co-founder Wang Jian in France after apparently falling from a wall.

Bannon Guo Wengui fund

IHOP Knows About Bigfoot

A prime example of the lunacy of Twitter is the account “IHOP Knows About Bigfoot” (@IHOPKnows), which I have just had the misfortune of stumbling upon. The account has published only 10 tweets but already has over 1,800 followers. How many of the followers are fake? Is this a weird marketing ploy by the pancake chain?

The account’s inaugural tweet juxtaposes a map of Bigfoot report locations against a map of IHOP’s restaurant empire, hinting at a vast conspiracy:

Make the madness stop!

Google fails to not be evil

Google devil

“Google” by William Blake

Now we know why Google has scrubbed almost all mention of “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct:

Google bosses have forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned.

The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data. […]

The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.

Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”

It’s pretty simple, if you want to operate in China you have to play by the CPC’s rules. There is no way for Google to do that while successfully upholding the values it pretends to care about. Hence the secrecy.

Observatory reopens, but I still believe in aliens

Mulder aliens

An update on that mysterious observatory closure last week is aptly summarized by the Buzzfeed headline, “New Mexico’s Solar Observatory Is Finally Reopening But The Whole Thing Is Still Pretty Weird”:

A solar observatory in the mountains of New Mexico has reopened 10 days after it was suddenly closed and its employees evacuated for a mysterious security threat, baffling locals, the internet, and whipping conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.

On Sunday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), announced that it is reopening the Sunspot Observatory, which it manages, and that employees and the residents who had been forced to leave their homes on the site are now allowed to return.

“AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents,” Shari Lifson, an AURA spokesperson, said in a statement Sunday. “For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.”

The statement provided no further details on the nature of the presumed threat, or on the status of the investigation. […]

Of course, that’s just what the authorities would say if the telescope had detected aliens or an apocalyptic solar storm, isn’t it? 🤔

But even some former NSO employees and other scientists have raised questions about the mysterious shutdown, calling it “fishy” and “pretty weird.”

“Nothing like this has ever happened before at an observatory,” John Varsik, a data scientist and telescope operator at Big Bear Solar Observatory who worked at Sunspot about two decades ago, said Friday.

“It’s all very fishy,” he said.

Here’s a nice rundown of the top theories on the closure.

Perhaps we’ll learn more when the new presidential alert system is rolled out this week:

The Trump administration will send a message to all US mobile phones on Thursday, as it tests an unused alert system that warns the public about national emergencies.

Phones will make a loud tone and have a special vibration according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will send the alert.

The test message will be headlined “Presidential Alert” and will go on to read “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

US mobile phone users will not be able to opt out of the test.

Are we quite sure that’s what the message will say? Because I’m predicting a very special message of a different sort… and the famous five-tone sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind would make for a perfect alert sound.