Amateurs Take Down Disinformation Network

On Twitter, one of the people I follow and interact with is Steffan Watkins, who follows ships and airplanes. Many sites follow ships and airplanes, and Steffan follows those sites to make sense out of who and what are going where. For example, Steffan knew a government plane was on its way long before we were told that President Trump was in Afghanistan.

He has recently been debunking stories about Russian ships and submarines off the east coast of the United States. This is a perennial story and is sometimes even true! Just as American ships and submarines do, Russian ships travel in many places in international waters. What they don’t do is dock at Mar-a-Lago.

Some of those stories come from real reporters who don’t understand what’s going on and repeat a version of something that is true but trivial. Sometimes their stories are based on dodgy websites that deliver deliberate disinformation, laundered through repetition and rumor.

Steffan doggedly checks out those news stories and sets them straight. That usually means that he debunks them, but occasionally he says yes, that Russian ship is off the coast in international waters on a normal patrol. Not once has he found the more sensational stories to be supported.

That’s what he was doing a couple of weeks ago and found a website that consistently was producing junk news stories and stealing stuff from other sites. They also advertised Trump merchandise.

That intrigued a couple of Israeli hackers, Noam Rotem and Ran Locar, who decided to check the website out. That link has all the detail for the more computer-savvy among us. Here’s their bottom line:

We found a network of dozens of websites operated by an affiliate marketer. Some of the websites pushed pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake-news meant to use patriotism in order to sell unofficial Trump merch to Trump supporters. The technical aspects of the operation allowed us full visibility into not only the operators, but also the unwitting customers.

Many of the web addresses were registered by the same person, identified as Jackson Lin, through a company called Extreme Wisdom. Another company linked to some of the sites is Alabama company Click Wu LLC. They have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on Facebook. The pages have been taken down from Facebook.

Although Rotem and Locar say the motivation is money, it could be that or disinformation or both. It’s part of the stream of junk that flows through social media. It’s particularly  encouraging that a bunch of amateurs exposed it. Now I’d like to see a bigger news operation take it up.

For the rest of us? Be careful what you share or retweet. Know your sources.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

North Korea’s Christmas Present

Back in May, I argued that Donald Trump’s tactic toward North Korea would be to pretend he didn’t hear what was happening as long as he could. I call the tactic “LALALALALA I can’t hear you” and tweet that with news that Trump is keeping it going.

It’s a dangerous tactic, and a number of my national security colleagues have been raising concerns about it. Kim Jong Un has set a deadline of the end of the year for…something. He hasn’t said exactly what, but he has been testing missiles, and his officials have been making unfriendly statements. Kim has said that he is not waiting for the end of the year and has a “Christmas present” for Trump.

Trump’s response so far: LALALALALA and a couple of “Rocket man” tweets. He continues to say that his good friend Kim would not violate the “strong deal” they agreed on in Singapore.

The Singapore statement commits neither North Korea nor the United States to any actions. At most, it might be said to be a statement of principles. And it contains the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which, to North Korea, means a vague future in which the United States leaves South Korea so that the North feels safe enough to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, use the phrase to mean that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before they will even discuss lifting sanctions.

The phrase has historically been used in its North Korean meaning, so they have the better of that argument.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been threatening the South Korean government. In late November, he demanded that South Korea pay five times what it has been for the presence of American troops in that country. In response, South Korea threatened to end intelligence cooperation with the United States and Japan, but backed away from that threat. Although Trump has focused more on his impeachment since then, his demand for more money from South Korea is consistent with his misunderstandings of how alliances work and their benefits to the United States. If he continues to insist on that payment, he will lessen his leverage for negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea has been testing missiles throughout the year. They recently did an engine test that could be for an ICBM that could reach the United States or for a satellite launch. The test was different in a number of ways from earlier tests, but satellite photos of the site don’t contain enough information to fully diagnose it.

All these threads could dovetail in the next few weeks. The negotiations with North Korea are going nowhere, although Special Envoy Stephen Biegun has optimistically suggested he’s ready to meet. North Korea has said that that time has passed. They are getting ready for what they hope will be an impressive weapons test, more likely missile than nuclear.

A further complication has just appeared. China and Russia have drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution that proposes that the Security Council lift sanctions on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles. It also proposes lifting the ban on North Korean workers abroad and would terminate a 2017 requirement that all North Korean workers be repatriated by next week. If the resolution goes to a vote, it will put the US in a difficult position. If the US vetoes, we are the bad guys. If we allow it through, the result is worse than the offer Trump refused at Hanoi.

Trump and Pompeo have shown no sign of movement from the position that North Korea must disarm itself of its nuclear weapons before they will even talk. What Biegun has said so far does not contradict that.

How long can Trump continue with LALALALALA I can’t hear you? We may find out in the next two weeks.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Disinformation Is Coming To A Computer Near You

With the 2020 election coming up, we can expect plenty of disinformation in our news feeds. Disinformation originates in many places – Russia and homegrown United States. It filters up into what we would like to think of as reliable news sources. Those sources, because of their desire to believe that “both sides” have equal claim to truth, can be manipulated.

I’ll continue to post about recognizing that disinformation, because it’s up to all of us to make sure that what we’re sharing is truthful.

The New York Times has a big article from Josh Owens, who worked for Infowars and now says he regrets it. Another article, on Britain’s struggle with Russia over the poisoning, on British soil, of two people with a nerve agent by Russians, contains information about how the Russians use disinformation.

The Times article depicts Alex Jones as violent and demanding that his employees generate outrageously fear-producing stories. Nothing that Infowars touches should be considered reliable. Respectable news organizations should trace stories to their origins and reject anything that has been pushed by Infowars unless it has completely independent backing.

One of the stories Infowars pushed was that Fukushima radiation was showing up on the west coast of the United States. The responsible media dealt reasonably well with that, although it took some time. Here’s what the Washington Post reported in 2014. But I also saw (and debunked) a lot of sharing on social media of maps that weren’t of radiation levels and the dramatic video of radiation measurements on a California beach.

Russian and Republican disinformation flood the zone with alternative stories, designed to turn people off by making it too difficult to figure out what’s right so that people give up. “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.”

After the Skripals were poisoned and the British government began putting out information to its citizens, the Russian government jumped in, attacking the British information for apparent contradictions and offering up multiple explanations of the incident. The point was to make people doubt their own government. The Atlantic article lays this out in full detail for the Skripal incident.

What can you do?

First, stop thinking “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.” I know it’s cool to be cynical, but in doing that, you’re giving up your ability to think critically and make good choices and probably helping to muddy the waters for others.

Second, know who supplied the material you’re sharing on social media. Most of us don’t have time or aren’t set up to trace material back to its Russian or Infowars roots. So if you don’t know that the material came from a reliable source, don’t share it. Just don’t.

Third, if you’re concerned about something you’ve seen, check with an expert. Snopes fact-checks many of the memes you may see. Washington Post has a fact-check column. FactCheck.org is another good resource. You can ask me about science-related stuff.

There is such a thing as fact. You can find it. Or at least avoid spreading disinformation.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Questions For Gordon Sondland

I expect that Jennifer Williams’s and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony this morning will confirm other witnesses’ testimony, with few if any surprises.

The most interesting testimony is likely to come from Kurt Volker (this afternoon) and Gordon Sondland (Wednesday). It is hard to predict what they will say. A report last night said that Sondland is changing his deposition once again. Read More

TAKE THE OIL!

Donald Trump has wondered why the United States didn’t take Iraq’s oil to pay for our invasion. He has insisted that the United States must TAKE THE OIL!

The United States didn’t take the oil because pillaging, theft during war, is a war crime (more here). If a practical reason is needed, oil production and pipelines are extremely vulnerable to sabotage and military action. A continuing military presence would be needed to protect the seized oilfields. Trump seems to believe that the oil can be rapidly pumped from the ground and removed. It can’t.

Trump came into office promising to get American troops out of the Middle East. Many people support that goal. We have been in Afghanistan for eighteen years now. It’s not clear that our presence in the region has improved American security, and now our Saudi partners are dragging us into a war in Yemen. Read More

Why Ukraine?

As the corruption of the Trump administration is exposed, I keep two questions in mind: Why Ukraine? and Why energy? The simple answer is that they are where the money is. The more extended answers will be more interesting.

Natural gas seems to be the current focus in energy, but Michael Flynn had a bizarre plan to partner with the Russians to sell nuclear reactors in the Middle East and continues today in Rick Perry’s dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Information on Ukraine seems to be coming together now, although we almost certainly don’t have the final word. And energy plays a part. Read More

The Impeachment Shapes Up

Every day brings new evidence of Donald Trump’s crimes, or his commiting a new one in front of the television cameras. The scene changes rapidly, but the House Democrats are starting to focus on how to impeach Trump.

Although it is not official, the strategy that has been mentioned is to concentrate on Trump’s abuses of power in his attempts to force the President of Ukraine to comply with his desires to absolve Russia of interference in the 2016 election and to manufacture a scandal against the Bidens that would serve the same purpose as Hillary’s emails. The investigation and current depositions are consistent with this strategy. Read More

What Would It Take For Turkey To Build A Nuclear Bomb?

That was how David Sanger teased his and William Broad’s article on Twitter.

Unfortunately that is not how the article is written. If you want to read it, write it, they say, so here goes.

In September, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads,” but the West insists “we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.” Read More

On the Trail of a Fourth Soviet Spy at Los Alamos

Three Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project are well known – Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall. Fuchs and Greenglass were known publicly in the 1950s, but Hall’s story came out only in the 1990s.

Now more documents have been declassified, and Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, who have done much to illuminate Soviet spying during that time, have found a fourth Soviet spy. They have found his path from the United States to East Germany and then Russia in 1952, escaping from possible arrest. Their article in the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence” lays out what is known about him.

The spy’s name is Oscar Seborer. His story intersects with the FBI’s Project SOLO, in which they turned two members of the Communist Party in the USA. Their communications with Moscow seem to indicate that Seborer furnished information on the atomic bomb project, where he was a technician.

Seborer seems to have operated separately from the other spies, and his reporting seems to have been more to the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) than the civilian KGB. The two intelligence agencies have historically competed.

Klehr and Haynes have uncovered a fair bit of information about Seborer’s family, but not much about what he did at Los Alamos or what information he gave to Moscow. Maybe someone reading this knows something about the Seborer family or, as they called themselves in Russia, the Smiths.

 

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.