Obama’s secret struggle to retaliate against Putin’s election interference – WP – Friday June 23rd, 2017 at 8:24 AM

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Obama’s secret struggle to retaliate against Putin’s election interference

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Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Hacking Democracy

TimelineThe White House debated various options to punish Russia, but facing obstacles and potential risks, it ultimately failed to exact a heavy toll on the Kremlin for its election interference.

Graphic: The main findings, highlighted

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.

SECRET CIA REPORT ARRIVES AT THE WHITE HOUSE

CIA Director John Brennan first alerts the White House in early August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an operation to defeat or at least damage Hillary Clinton and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The president instructs aides to assess vulnerabilities in the election system and get agencies to agree on the intelligence that Putin was seeking to influence the election.

Brennan calls Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s main security agency, and warns him about interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s efforts to secure the U.S. voting systems run aground when some state officials reject his plan, calling it a federal takeover.

SECRET CIA REPORT ARRIVES AT THE WHITE HOUSE

CIA Director John Brennan first alerts the White House in early August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an operation to defeat or at least damage Hillary Clinton and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The president instructs aides to assess vulnerabilities in the election system and get agencies to agree on the intelligence that Putin was seeking to influence the election.

Brennan calls Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s main security agency, and warns him about interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s efforts to secure the U.S. voting systems run aground when some state officials reject his plan, calling it a federal takeover.

But at the highest levels of government, among those responsible for managing the crisis, the first moment of true foreboding about Russia’s intentions arrived with that CIA intelligence.

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.

It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.

[Putin ‘ordered’ effort to undermine faith in U.S. election and help Trump, report says]

Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.

(Whitney Leaming,Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s national security reporters unveil the deep divisions inside the Obama White House over how to respond to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Inside Obama’s secret struggle to retaliate against Putin’s election interference. (Whitney Leaming, Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

In political terms, Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy. It was a case that took almost no time to solve, traced to the Kremlin through cyber-forensics and intelligence on Putin’s involvement. And yet, because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.

Those closest to Obama defend the administration’s response to Russia’s meddling. They note that by August it was too late to prevent the transfer to WikiLeaks and other groups of the troves of emails that would spill out in the ensuing months. They believe that a series of warnings — including one that Obama delivered to Putin in September — prompted Moscow to abandon any plans of further aggression, such as sabotage of U.S. voting systems.

Denis McDonough Denis McDonough White House chief of staff. McDonough was one of the first few officials to discuss details of the intelligence. , who served as Obama’s chief of staff, said that the administration regarded Russia’s interference as an attack on the “heart of our system.”

“We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” McDonough said in an interview. “Importantly, we did that. It’s also important to establish what happened and what they attempted to do so as to ensure that we take the steps necessary to stop it from happening again.”

But other administration officials look back on the Russia period with remorse.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

The post-election period has been dominated by the overlapping investigations into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia before the election and whether the president sought to obstruct the FBI probe afterward. That spectacle has obscured the magnitude of Moscow’s attempt to hijack a precious and now vulnerable-seeming American democratic process.

Beset by allegations of hidden ties between his campaign and Russia, Trump has shown no inclination to revisit the matter and has denied any collusion or obstruction on his part. As a result, the expulsions and modest sanctions announced by Obama on Dec. 29 continue to stand as the United States’ most forceful response.

“The punishment did not fit the crime,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014. “Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack. And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions.”

The Senate this month passed a bill that would impose additional election- and Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow and limit Trump’s ability to lift them. The measure requires House approval, however, and Trump’s signature.

This account of the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s interference is based on interviews with more than three dozen current and former U.S. officials in senior positions in government, including at the White House, the State, Defense and Homeland Security departments, and U.S. intelligence services. Most agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The White House, the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

‘Deeply concerned’

The CIA breakthrough came at a stage of the presidential campaign when Trump had secured the GOP nomination but was still regarded as a distant long shot. Clinton held comfortable leads in major polls, and Obama expected that he would be transferring power to someone who had served in his Cabinet.

The intelligence on Putin was extraordinary on multiple levels, including as a feat of espionage.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

[Vladimir Putin: From the KGB to president of Russia]

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

In early August, Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines Avril Haines Deputy national security adviser and former deputy director of the CIA under Brennan. and pulling national security adviser Susan E. Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. aside after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough Denis McDonough White House chief of staff. McDonough was one of the first few officials to discuss details of the intelligence. in the Oval Office.

Officials described the president’s reaction as grave. Obama “was deeply concerned and wanted as much information as fast as possible,” a former official said. “He wanted the entire intelligence community all over this.”

Then-CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

Concerns about Russian interference had gathered throughout the summer.

Russia experts had begun to see a troubling pattern of propaganda in which fictitious news stories, assumed to be generated by Moscow, proliferated across social-media platforms.

Officials at the State Department and FBI became alarmed by an unusual spike in requests from Russia for temporary visas for officials with technical skills seeking permission to enter the United States for short-term assignments at Russian facilities. At the FBI’s behest, the State Department delayed approving the visas until after the election.

Meanwhile, the FBI was tracking a flurry of hacking activity against U.S. political parties, think tanks and other targets. Russia had gained entry to DNC systems in the summer of 2015 and spring of 2016, but the breaches did not become public until they were disclosed in a June 2016 report by The Post.

[Russian government hackers penetrated DNC]

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

“We don’t know enough . . . to ascribe motivation,” Clapper said. “Was this just to stir up trouble or was this ultimately to try to influence an election?”

RUSSIA AND THE CONVENTIONS

GOP convention, July 18 to 21

Democratic convention, July 25 to 28

Trump staffers alter

GOP platform on Ukraine

During the Republican National Convention, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks with Trump advisers J.D. Gordon and Carter Page. Gordon would later say he was part of the push to soften the GOP’s national security platform regarding U.S. support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Kislyak meets with Jeff Sessions at a panel at the convention hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

WikiLeaks publishes about 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, days before the party’s national convention. Julian Assange tells NBC there is “no proof” that the information his anti-secrecy group received came from Russia. U.S. officials say WikiLeaks received the data from Russia.

RUSSIA AND THE CONVENTIONS

GOP convention, July 18 to 21

Democratic convention, July 25 to 28

Trump staffers alter GOP

platform on Ukraine

WikiLeaks publishes about 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, days before the party’s national convention. Julian Assange tells NBC there is “no proof” that the information his anti-secrecy group received came from Russia. U.S. officials say WikiLeaks received the data from Russia.

During the Republican National Convention, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks with Trump advisers J.D. Gordon and Carter Page. Gordon would later say he was part of the push to soften the GOP’s national security platform regarding U.S. support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Kislyak meets with Jeff Sessions at a panel at the convention hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Don’t make things worse

The secrecy extended into the White House.

Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. , Haines Avril Haines Deputy national security adviser and former deputy director of the CIA under Brennan. and White House homeland-security adviser Lisa Monaco convened meetings in the Situation Room to weigh the mounting evidence of Russian interference and generate options for how to respond. At first, only four senior security officials were allowed to attend: Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. , Clapper James R. Clapper Director of national intelligence and one of four senior administration officials to participate in meetings in of the Situation Room on how to retaliate against Russia. Clapper would eventually release the Obama administration’s first statement concluding Russia interfered in the election. , Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey. Aides ordinarily allowed entry as “plus-ones” were barred.

Gradually, the circle widened to include Vice President Biden and others. Agendas sent to Cabinet secretaries — including John F. Kerry at the State Department and Ashton B. Carter at the Pentagon — arrived in envelopes that subordinates were not supposed to open. Sometimes the agendas were withheld until participants had taken their seats in the Situation Room.

Throughout his presidency, Obama’s approach to national security challenges was deliberate and cautious. He came into office seeking to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was loath to act without support from allies overseas and firm political footing at home. He was drawn only reluctantly into foreign crises, such as the civil war in Syria, that presented no clear exit for the United States.

Obama’s approach often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse. As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse.

They were concerned that any pre-election response could provoke an escalation from Putin. Moscow’s meddling to that point was seen as deeply concerning but unlikely to materially affect the outcome of the election. Far more worrisome to the Obama team was the prospect of a cyber-assault on voting systems before and on Election Day.

They also worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign. By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.

Before departing for an August vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in December. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

The administration encountered obstacles at every turn.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Jeh Johnson, the homeland-security secretary, was responsible for finding out whether the government could quickly shore up the security of the nation’s archaic patchwork of voting systems. He floated the idea of designating state mechanisms “critical infrastructure,” a label that would have entitled states to receive priority in federal cybersecurity assistance, putting them on a par with U.S. defense contractors and financial networks.

On Aug. 15, Johnson arranged a conference call with dozens of state officials, hoping to enlist their support. He ran into a wall of resistance.

The reaction “ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in congressional testimony Wednesday.

Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.

Stung by the reaction, the White House turned to Congress for help, hoping that a bipartisan appeal to states would be more effective.

In early September, Johnson Jeh Johnson Homeland security secretary. Johnson is tasked with securing voting systems and arranges meetings with dozens of state officials. , Comey James B. Comey FBI director appointed by Obama. Comey was one of four senior officials to participate in meetings in the Situation Room on how to respond to Russia’s interference. Comey particpates in a briefing for members of Congress on Russia’s activities, but the meeting disolves into partisan bickering. and Monaco Lisa Monaco Homeland security adviser. Monaco briefs key members of Congress on the intelligence. arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

With Obama still determined to avoid any appearance of politics, the statement would not carry his signature.

On Oct. 7, the administration offered its first public comment on Russia’s “active measures,” in a three-paragraph statement issued by Johnson Jeh Johnson Homeland security secretary. Johnson is tasked with securing voting systems and arranges meetings with dozens of state officials. and Clapper James R. Clapper Director of national intelligence and one of four senior administration officials to participate in meetings in of the Situation Room on how to retaliate against Russia. Clapper would eventually release the Obama administration’s first statement concluding Russia interfered in the election. . Comey James B. Comey FBI director appointed by Obama. Comey was one of four senior officials to participate in meetings in the Situation Room on how to respond to Russia’s interference. Comey particpates in a briefing for members of Congress on Russia’s activities, but the meeting disolves into partisan bickering. had initially agreed to attach his name, as well, officials said, but changed his mind at the last minute, saying that it was too close to the election for the bureau to be involved.

“The U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” the statement said. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Early drafts accused Putin by name, but the reference was removed out of concern that it might endanger intelligence sources and methods.

The statement was issued around 3:30 p.m., timed for maximum media coverage. Instead, it was quickly drowned out. At 4 p.m., The Post published a story about crude comments Trump had made about women that were captured on an “Access Hollywood” tape. Half an hour later, WikiLeaks published its first batch of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect: It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.

Schiff said that the administration’s justifications for inaction often left him with a sense of “cognitive dissonance.”

“The administration doesn’t need congressional support to issue a statement of attribution or impose sanctions,” Schiff said in a recent interview. He said many groups inadvertently abetted Russia’s campaign, including Republicans who refused to confront Moscow and media organizations that eagerly mined the troves of hacked emails.

“Where Democrats need to take responsibility,” Schiff said, “is that we failed to persuade the country why they should care that a foreign power is meddling in our affairs.”

‘Ample time’ after election

The Situation Room is actually a complex of secure spaces in the basement level of the West Wing. A video feed from the main room courses through some National Security Council offices, allowing senior aides sitting at their desks to see — but not hear — when meetings are underway.

As the Russia-related sessions with Cabinet members began in August, the video feed was shut off. The last time that had happened on a sustained basis, officials said, was in the spring of 2011 during the run-up to the U.S. Special Operations raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

The blacked-out screens were seen as an ominous sign among lower-level White House officials who were largely kept in the dark about the Russia deliberations even as they were tasked with generating options for retaliation against Moscow.

Much of that work was led by the Cyber Response Group, an NSC unit with representatives from the CIA, NSA, State Department and Pentagon.

The early options they discussed were ambitious. They looked at sectorwide economic sanctions and cyberattacks that would take Russian networks temporarily offline. One official informally suggested — though never formally proposed — moving a U.S. naval carrier group into the Baltic Sea as a symbol of resolve.

What those lower-level officials did not know was that the principals and their deputies had by late September all but ruled out any pre-election retaliation against Moscow. They feared that any action would be seen as political and that Putin, motivated by a seething resentment of Clinton, was prepared to go beyond fake news and email dumps.

[The roots of the hostility between Putin and Clinton]

The FBI had detected suspected Russian attempts to penetrate election systems in 21 states, and at least one senior White House official assumed that Moscow would try all 50, officials said. Some officials believed the attempts were meant to be detected to unnerve the Americans. The patchwork nature of the United States’ 3,000 or so voting jurisdictions would make it hard for Russia to swing the outcome, but Moscow could still sow chaos.

“We turned to other scenarios” the Russians might attempt, said Michael Daniel, who was cybersecurity coordinator at the White House, “such as disrupting the voter rolls, deleting every 10th voter [from registries] or flipping two digits in everybody’s address.”

The Moscow International Business Center in Moscow. (Photo by Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

The White House also worried that they had not yet seen the worst of Russia’s campaign. WikiLeaks and DCLeaks, a website set up in June 2016 by hackers believed to be Russian operatives, already had troves of emails. But U.S. officials feared that Russia had more explosive material or was willing to fabricate it.

“Our primary interest in August, September and October was to prevent them from doing the max they could do,” said a senior administration official. “We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures.”

The assumption that Clinton would win contributed to the lack of urgency.

Instead, the administration issued a series of warnings.

Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. delivered the first on Aug. 4 in a blunt phone call with Alexander Bortnikov Alexander Bortnikov Director of the FSB, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB. CIA Director John Brennan is one of the first to warn Bortnikov over Russia’s election interference in a telephone call. Brennan said Bortnikov denied it but told him he would pass on his message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. , the director of the FSB, Russia’s powerful security service.

A month later, Obama confronted Putin directly during a meeting of world leaders in Hangzhou, China. Accompanied only by interpreters, Obama told Putin that “we knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else,” according to a senior aide who subsequently spoke with Obama. Putin responded by demanding proof and accusing the United States of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.

In a subsequent news conference, Obama alluded to the exchange and issued a veiled threat. “We’re moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

There were at least two other warnings.

On Oct. 7, the day that the Clapper-Johnson statement was released, Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak Sergey Kislyak Russian ambassador to the United States since 2008, a career diplomat not considered especially close to Putin. to the White House and handed him a message to relay to Putin.

Then, on Oct. 31, the administration delivered a final pre-election message via a secure channel to Moscow originally created to avert a nuclear exchange. The message noted that the United States had detected malicious activity, originating from servers in Russia, targeting U.S. election systems and warned that meddling would be regarded as unacceptable interference. Russia confirmed the next day that it had received the message but replied only after the election through the same channel, denying the accusation.

As Election Day approached, proponents of taking action against Russia made final, futile appeals to Obama’s top aides: McDonough Denis McDonough White House chief of staff. McDonough was one of the first few officials to discuss details of the intelligence. , Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. and HainesAvril Haines Deputy national security adviser and former deputy director of the CIA under Brennan. . Because their offices were part of a suite of spaces in the West Wing, securing their support on any national security issue came to be known as “moving the suite.”

One of the last to try before the election was Kerry. Often perceived as reluctant to confront Russia, in part to preserve his attempts to negotiate a Syria peace deal, Kerry was at critical moments one of the leading hawks.

In October, Kerry’s top aides had produced an “action memo” that included a package of retaliatory measures including economic sanctions. Knowing the White House was not willing to act before the election, the plan called for the measures to be announced almost immediately after votes had been securely cast and counted.

Kerry signed the memo and urged the White House to convene a principals meeting to discuss the plan, officials said. “The response was basically, ‘Not now,’ ” one official said.

Election Day arrived without penalty for Moscow.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in 2014. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

The ‘tabledrop’

Despite the dire warnings, there were no meltdowns in the United States’ voting infrastructure on Nov. 8, no evidence of hacking-related fraud, crashing of electronic ballots or ma­nipu­la­tion of vote counts.

The outcome itself, however, was a shock.

Suddenly, Obama faced a successor who had praised WikiLeaks and prodded Moscow to steal even more Clinton emails, while dismissing the idea that Russia was any more responsible for the election assault than “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

“The White House was mortified and shocked,” said a former administration official. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.’ ”

At first, there was no outward sign of new resolve.

After his failed pre-election bid, Kerry returned with a fallback proposal, calling for the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate Russian interference and make recommendations on how to protect future elections.

The panel would be modeled on the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, producing a definitive report and making recommendations that led to the overhaul of U.S. intelligence agencies.

“The idea was that if you think doing something aggressive is too inflammatory, then we shouldn’t have a problem getting to the truth about what happened,” said an administration official familiar with the Kerry plan. Trump was expected to oppose such a plan, but setting it in motion before he was sworn in would make it “harder and uglier politically” for him to block.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough Denis McDonough White House chief of staff. McDonough was one of the first few officials to discuss details of the intelligence. signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

McDonough declined to comment on the principals’ committee meeting on the commission or any other sensitive matters but acknowledged that he opposed the idea, in part because he believed it would be premature to do so before U.S. intelligence agencies and Congress had conducted their investigations.

White House staffers listen as President Barack Obama speaks about the election results on Nov. 9, 2016, in the Rose Garden. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

‘Demoralized’

Several officials described the post-election atmosphere at the White House as somber. “It was like a funeral parlor,” according to one official who said that work on Russia and other subjects slowed as officials began to anticipate the damage to Obama’s policies and legacy.

Others disputed that characterization, saying that the NSC carried on with no interruption or diminution of focus. “Nobody got paralyzed by grief,” a high-ranking official said. “We all did our jobs.”

Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. declined to comment on White House deliberations or other sensitive matters but said that the administration always planned to respond to Russia, regardless of the outcome of the election. “We felt it was on our watch and that we had to do something about it. It was our responsibility,” Rice said.

Whatever the case, work on Russia did not resume in earnest until after Thanksgiving, in part because Obama made his last foreign trip.

Rice again ordered NSC staffers to finalize a “menu” of punitive measures to use against Moscow. The list that took shape was a distillation of ideas that had been circulating for months across three main categories: cyber, economic and diplomatic.

Again, the discussion ran into roadblocks.

Spy agencies wanted to maintain their penetrations of Russian networks, not expose them in a cyber-fusillade.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

Several senior administration officials called for imposing sanctions on Putin personally or releasing financial records or other information that would embarrass him. Some objected that the latter proposal would send the wrong message — the United States would be engaging in the same behavior it was condemning. In any case, it was not clear how long it would take U.S. spy agencies to assemble such a Putin dossier.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

A week later, in one of Obama’s final news briefings, he expressed irritation that such a consequential election “came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks.” He scolded news organizations for an “obsession” with titillating material about the Democrats that had dominated coverage.

Then he unloaded on Moscow. “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” he said. “They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”

It was a rare outburst for Obama, one that came amid a wave of internal second-guessing, finger-pointing from members of the defeated Clinton campaign, and the post-election posturing of Putin and Trump.

There was another factor at work, however.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser, said that the DNC email penetrations were initially thought to be in the same vein as previous Russian hacking efforts against targets including the State Department and White House.

“In many ways . . . we dealt with this as a cyberthreat and focused on protecting our cyber infrastructure,” Rhodes said in an interview. “Meanwhile, the Russians were playing this much bigger game, which included elements like released hacked materials, political propaganda and propagating fake news, which they’d pursued in other countries.”

“We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time,” Rhodes said, “and in many ways that complete picture is still being filled in.” Rhodes declined to discuss any sensitive information.

National security adviser Susan E. Rice looks over documents in the Oval Office in October. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

Obama’s darkened mood, the intelligence findings and the approaching transfer of power gave new urgency to NSC deliberations. In mid-December, as Cabinet members took turns citing drawbacks to various proposals for retaliating against Russia, Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. grew impatient and began cutting them off.

“We’re not talking anymore. We’re acting,” she said, according to one participant.

Rice moved swiftly through a list of proposals that had survived months of debate, a menu that allowed principals to vote for what one participant described as “heavy, medium and light” options.

Among those in the Situation Room were Clapper James R. Clapper Director of national intelligence and one of four senior administration officials to participate in meetings in of the Situation Room on how to retaliate against Russia. Clapper would eventually release the Obama administration’s first statement concluding Russia interfered in the election. , Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. , KerryJohn Kerry Secretary of state. Kerry tries to get the administration to confront Russia several times. and Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Rice challenged them go to the “max of their comfort zones,” a second participant said.

Economic sanctions, originally aimed only at Russia’s military intelligence service, were expanded to include the FSB, a domestic successor to the KGB. Four Russian intelligence officials and three companies with links to those services were also named as targets.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[On the Eastern Shore, a 45-acre Russian compound kept its secrets close]

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

Cabinet officials were prompted to vote on whether to close one Russian compound or two, whether to kick out around 10 suspected Russian agents, 20 or 35.

Kerry laid out his department’s concerns. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, had sent a cable warning that Moscow would inevitably expel the same number of Americans from Moscow and that departures of that magnitude would impair the embassy’s ability to function.

The objections were dismissed, and Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. submitted a plan to Obama calling for the seizure of both Russian facilities and the expulsion of 35 suspected spies. Obama signed off on the package and announced the punitive measures on Dec. 29, while on vacation in Hawaii.

By then, the still-forming Trump administration was becoming entangled by questions about contacts with Moscow. On or around that same day that Obama imposed sanctions, Trump’s designated national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, told the Russian ambassador by phone that the sanctions would soon be revisited. Flynn’s false statements about that conversation later cost him his job.

The report that Obama had commissioned was released a week later, on Jan. 6. It was based largely on the work done by the task force Brennan John Brennan CIA director. Brennan first alerts the White House to the Putin intelligence and later briefs Obama in the Oval Office. had established and made public what the CIA had concluded in August, that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton.”

It also carried a note of warning: “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. election to future influence efforts worldwide.”

Sanctions’ ‘minimal’ impact

The punitive measures got several days of media attention before the spotlight returned to Trump, his still-forming administration and, later, the initial rumblings of the Russia crisis that has become a consuming issue for the Trump White House.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

In one previously undisclosed incident on July 6, a Russian military helicopter dropped from the sky to make multiple passes just feet over the hood of a vehicle being driven by the U.S. defense attache, who was accompanied by colleagues, on a stretch of road between Murmansk and Pechenga in northern Russia. The attempt at intimidation was captured on photos the Americans took through the windshield.

An even more harrowing encounter took place the prior month, when a CIA operative returning by taxi to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was tackled and thrown to the ground by a uniformed FSB guard. In a video aired on Russian television, the U.S. operative can be seen struggling to drag himself across the embassy threshold and onto U.S. sovereign territory. He sustained a broken shoulder in the attack.

Though conceived as retaliation for those incidents, the expulsions were adapted and included in the election-related package. The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

A compound near Centreville, Md., that was being used by Russian diplomats is seen in a 2015 satellite photo. The compound was closed in December as part of a U.S. sanctions package. (Photo obtained by The Washington Post; photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

The compounds were even higher on the FBI’s wish list.

At one point in the White House deliberations, intelligence analysts used aerial images of the facilities to show how they had been modified to enhance their espionage capabilities. Slides displayed in the Situation Room showed new chimneys and other features, all presumed to allow for the installation of more-sophisticated eavesdropping equipment aimed at U.S. naval facilities and the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Rice Susan Rice National security adviser. Rice orders the National Security Council to finalize a list of options to use against Moscow. pointed to the FBI’s McCabe Andrew McCabe Deputy FBI director. McCabe was among others in the Situation Room challenged by Rice to go to the “max of their comfort zones” in deciding retaliatory measures. and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

When FBI agents entered the sites, they found them stripped of antennas, electronics, computers, file cabinets and other gear, officials said, their hasty removal leaving visible markings on floors, tables and walls.

Economic sanctions are widely seen as the United States’ most potent lever, short of military force. Russia’s economy is dwarfed by that of the United States, and nearly every major Russian institution and oligarch depends to some degree on access to U.S. and Western financial institutions, networks and credit.

Sanctions that the United States and Europe imposed on Russia in 2014 for its actions in Ukraine were damaging. Coinciding with a sharp drop in oil prices, those measures contributed to a 4 percent contraction in the Russian economy and sent its reserves plunging.

The election-related sanctions, by contrast, have had no such impact.

Officials involved in designing them said that the main targets — Russia’s foreign and military intelligence services, the GRU and FSB, and senior officials at those agencies — have few known holdings abroad or vulnerable assets to freeze.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

A U.S. cyber-weapon

The most difficult measure to evaluate is one that Obama alluded to in only the most oblique fashion when announcing the U.S. response.

“We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” he said in a statement released by the White House.

He was referring, in part, to a cyber operation that was designed to be detected by Moscow but not cause significant damage, officials said. The operation, which entailed implanting computer code in sensitive computer systems that Russia was bound to find, served only as a reminder to Moscow of the United States’ cyber reach.

But Obama also signed the secret finding, officials said, authorizing a new covert program involving the NSA, CIA and U.S. Cyber Command.

Obama declined to comment for this article, but a spokesman issued a statement: “This situation was taken extremely seriously, as is evident by President Obama raising this issue directly with President Putin; 17 intelligence agencies issuing an extraordinary public statement; our homeland security officials working relentlessly to bolster the cyber defenses of voting infrastructure around the country; the President directing a comprehensive intelligence review, and ultimately issuing a robust response including shutting down two Russian compounds, sanctioning nine Russian entities and individuals, and ejecting 35 Russian diplomats from the country.”

The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted,” a former U.S. official said.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Karen DeYoung and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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FBI Official Won’t Say Whether Trump Acted As an “Unwitting Agent” for Russia – Mother Jones

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Cheriss May/ZUMA

A top FBI official investigating the Russian cyberattacks on the 2016 election would not say Wednesday whether President Donald Trump acted as an “unwitting agent” of the Kremlin during his presidential campaign.

Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Moscow “employed a multifaceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process,” including efforts to “discredit” Hillary Clinton and help elect Trump.

Citing Priestap’s description of Russian efforts to “sow discord” in the United States, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked Priestap about the term “unwitting agent,” meaning an official duped into doing the bidding of a foreign power.

“Did Donald Trump become an unwitting agent of the Russians?” Heinrich asked.

Priestap paused for several seconds, with the hearing room silent.

“I can’t really comment on that,” he said.

“I don’t blame you for not answering that question,” Heinrich replied, to laughter.

The exchange recalled an August 2016 op-ed by former CIA Director Michael Morell endorsing Clinton. “Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests—endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States,” Morrell wrote. “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

Later in Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a vocal Trump supporter, tried to turn the tables by implying that Clinton had also undermined confidence in US elections. Cotton asked Priestap if Clinton had acted as an unwitting agent for Russia by blaming her electoral college loss in part on former FBI Director James Comey’s November letter suggesting the agency had reopened an investigation into her email practices, in addition to Russian hacking and other factors.

Priestap also declined to answer Cotton’s question.

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Opinions: Trump’s bluff is called, revealing another self-inflicted legal wound

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Robert Mueller gets a TIME cover: “The lie detector” – Axios

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Robert Mueller gets a TIME cover: “The lie detector”

TIME

These four points — from a TIME cover story by David Von Drehle — set the narrative for special counsel Robert Mueller as he takes the national stage:

  • “Mueller must be careful and measured and honest and open. If he finds offenses, he must lay them out clearly, with every t crossed. If he finds none, he must issue equally clear and compelling exonerations. America is hungry for fair dealers: Mueller can do his part by proving himself to be one.”
  • Investigations like Mueller’s have a way of moving from Topic A to Topic Z, from Ozarks real estate to an intern’s blue dress as one question begets another and clue leads to clue.”
  • “[A]n investigation of Trump’s actions as President … could become a dissection of the inner workings of his private business. The tax returns he has steadfastly refused to publish. The conflicting accounts he and his sons have given about Russian investments in Trump projects. The sharp rise in the number of Trump- branded luxury condos bought by shell corporations since his nomination.”
  • It goes back to the Greeks, who understood that the peril of kings was hubris, and that hubris was an invitation to the avenging goddess called Nemesis. In Robert Mueller, Trump may have found his.”
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1. VIDEO NEWS from mikenova (66 sites): CNN’s YouTube Videos: Intel chiefs: Trump suggested we refute collusion

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From: CNN
Duration: 01:27

Two of the nation’s top intelligence officials told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and Senate investigators that President Donald Trump suggested they say publicly there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians, according to multiple sources.

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1. VIDEO NEWS from mikenova (66 sites)

Robert Mueller Investigation Must Separate Fact From Fiction

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In Washington, the ‘first law of holes’ is one of those shopworn maxims that are so familiar, they need not be spoken. It’s like what you should do if you want a friend in the capital: ‘Get a dog’ goes without saying.

But maybe things are different where Donald Trump came from. And maybe that’s why he didn’t know what to do when he found his young presidency in a small hole involving contacts between a few of his underlings and Russian officials.

Now he’s learning the local folklore the hard way. The first law of holes is, if you’re in one, stop digging. Three times, Trump heard assurances from former FBI director James Comey that the Russia investigation wasn’t aimed at him. Instead of putting his shovel down, though, Trump worked it furiously. According to Comey’s sworn testimony, Trump pushed the G-man for a public exoneration, and when Comey demurred, he may have pressed his case with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers. Unsatisfied, he fired Comey in ham-fisted fashion, then reportedly boasted to Russian visitors that he did it to take pressure off the investigation. Now he’s in the hounded condition of various predecessors: struggling to regain control of the agenda, lashing out at aides, shouting at television sets and peppering his dig-the-hole-deeper tweets with all-caps exasperation.

He blames his enemies, but guess what? All Presidents have enemies. Successful ones try to outsmart them. Trump’s own actions have turned a small hole into a yawning abyss: a special counsel’s investigation that could run from the Oval Office to Trump Tower and command headlines for the next year or more. Trump has traded the anguished Hamlet Comey for the adamantine Marine Robert Mueller, the Justice Department ramrod who remade the FBI after 9/11. As special counsel appointed in the wake of the Comey firing, Mueller has one job, no deadline and bottomless resources, and he is assembling an all-star team of veteran prosecutors whose expert backgrounds go beyond counterintelligence to include money laundering, corporate fraud and the limits of Executive Branch power.

Sensing the trouble he had dug himself into, Trump tweeted, “You are witnessing the single greatest Witch hunt in American political history.” Perhaps all Presidents feel the same way if they find themselves under the withering gaze of a high-profile investigator. Whether called a “special prosecutor” in the Richard Nixon era or “independent counsel” in the Bill Clinton years or “special counsel” today, the specific powers change, but the overall effect is quite the same. Trump’s predecessors could tell him that such investigations are sometimes survivable, but they are not controllable. Trump is at the front end of political cancer treatment: live or die, it will be a draining, miserable experience.

But the President won’t go through it alone. The whole country will be dragged along. From congressional hideaways to country-club fairways, from newsrooms to lunchrooms, from skyscraper to silo, the realization is sinking in: this is going to be with us for quite a while.

So, like hurricane watchers dashing to the grocery store, Washington’s ruling Republicans are trying to jam through a health-care bill before the investigation inundates the capital. Decimated Democrats are squabbling over a party identity to give shape to their rising hopes. Interest groups, having geared up for fights over taxes and regulations, are pivoting to wage war on this new battleground. Out in America, meanwhile, many battered and anxious voters find themselves back at seemingly unmovable square one: Who, or what, can lead the country out of this sour patch of history?

It’s safe to say the investigation won’t be a source of national unity. With Internet speed, pro- and anti-Trump factions have created rational and plausible–yet utterly irreconcilable–histories of an investigation that has barely even begun. To Trump supporters, this is the story of an unconventional agent of change elected to break up a failed status quo. In their view, the elites, with help from their leaky minions embedded throughout the government, have turned on the new President to protect their own power. When Trump fired Comey in hopes of piercing the empty Russia balloon, Comey took his revenge in classic insider style: he arranged to have a friend leak memos that would prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And that turned out to be Mueller, a longtime Comey associate who, despite his straight-arrow reputation, has installed Democratic donors on his prosecutorial dream team.

The veteran Washington knife fighter Newt Gingrich, after initially praising the Mueller appointment, has swung to this version of the story with gusto. He sicced a team of researchers on the question of political activity at the Department of Justice and at law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller had been working. The researchers found this: of more than $600,000 in campaign donations from employees at the two institutions to major presidential nominees in the 2016 election, less than $10,000 went to Trump; the rest went to Hillary Clinton. Gingrich sent the numbers to the White House. “It’s just one more realization of the desperation of the deep state to do everything it can to prevent change,” Gingrich told TIME.

Trump’s foes tell a very different story. Theirs involves a billionaire whose undisclosed business interests may involve rich Russians as financiers and customers. After winning a narrow victory in an election plagued by Russian hacking, the new President surrounded himself with aides and advisers who had undisclosed Russian contacts. And when the FBI opened an investigation, the President abruptly fired the bureau’s director. Comey’s subsequent testimony about his awkward interactions with Trump raised the specter of obstruction of justice–made meatier by the President’s admission that he was trying to make the Russia issue go away. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the matter because of his role with the Trump campaign, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had no choice but to name a special counsel, and the veteran Mueller was an obvious choice.

Is there enough common ground between those two realities to give hope of a clear resolution? The answer hinges on the behavior of the two men now lashed together in a grimly familiar Washington drama. Mueller must be careful and measured and honest and open. If he finds offenses, he must lay them out clearly, with every t crossed. If he finds none, he must issue equally clear and compelling exonerations. America is hungry for fair dealers: Mueller can do his part by proving himself to be one.

Trump’s task is more difficult. To lead the country out of the deep hole he has excavated, he must be patient and disciplined, two qualities so far missing in the unpredictable and instinctive disrupter. Indeed, his White House advisers and GOP leaders in Congress are bracing themselves for a worst-case scenario in which the President trades his shovel for a backhoe by firing Mueller. Two years after his late-in-life entry into politics, Trump has yet to play the role of a healer. His gift for locating sore spots and poking at them is undeniable, but part of a President’s job is to bring people together.

Trump might start by thickening his own skin. The criticism he is taking now is part of the job–and not so different from the attacks he dished out gleefully when he was a private gadfly demanding to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Another of those tried but true Washington maxims should govern Trump’s future tweetrums: he’s in the kitchen now, and he has to learn to take the heat.

The special counsel is, like Trump, the scion of a wealthy family, raised at a boarding school and educated in the Ivy League. But the life choices of Robert Swan Mueller III, 72, suggest a decidedly different temperament from the one that occupies the Oval Office. Unlike Trump, who says he has few if any personal heroes, Mueller’s path was marked by a profound admiration for a role model he met at Princeton, a student a year ahead of him named David Spencer Hackett.

“I played lacrosse with David,” Mueller explained last year in a speech at West Point. “He was not necessarily the best on the team, but he was a determined and a natural leader.” Hackett’s decision to join the Marine Corps, and his death in 1967 while rallying his platoon during an ambush in Vietnam, moved Mueller to follow in Hackett’s footsteps. “Many of us saw in him the person we wanted to be,” Mueller said.

Trump once joked with radio shock jock Howard Stern that chasing women while risking STDs was his version of Vietnam, adding, “It is very dangerous.” He might have chosen a different analogy if he had served as Mueller did. Commissioned in the Marine Corps and trained at Army Ranger School, Lieut. Mueller led a rifle platoon in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Wounded in combat, he received a Bronze Star with a V for valor as well as a Purple Heart and two Navy Commendation Medals.

Mueller told his West Point audience that his military experience instilled in him a desire to continue to serve his country. After earning a law degree from the University of Virginia and learning the ropes as an associate at a large law firm, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, where he rose to chief of the criminal division.

In 1989, Mueller moved to Washington, where he soon took charge of the entire Justice Department’s criminal division. Under his watch, department lawyers prosecuted major cases involving terrorism, organized crime, drugs and money laundering. Although his voter registration said Republican, Mueller earned the confidence of leaders in both parties. In 1998, Democrat Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. Attorney for Northern California. Republican George W. Bush called him back to Washington as Deputy Attorney General, then picked him to lead the FBI in 2001.

Mueller’s first official day at the Hoover Building was Sept. 4. A week later, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington plunged the bureau into one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. Mueller’s challenge was to transform a primarily domestic law-enforcement agency into a global counterterrorism force–while breaking down cultural barriers to information sharing and pulling the paper-pushing bureau into the digital age. Many agents found Mueller to be bullheaded as he shook up personnel rules and rammed through technology updates. And he made mistakes, including a botched investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks in D.C., Florida, New York and New Jersey, in which an innocent man was hounded in the press while Mueller and his agents ignored the real killer. But overall, in the judgment of FBI historian Ronald Kessler, no director in the modern era “has had a greater positive impact on the bureau than Mueller.”

As director, Mueller worked closely with Comey, who was appointed Deputy Attorney General in 2003. Together, they threatened to resign in 2004 over a White House plan to preserve a program of warrantless wiretaps. Their frantic dash to the bedside of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to ward off a delegation of White House arm twisters on a mission to save the program was a heroic high point for friends of Mueller and Comey–and an example of their sanctimony to their detractors. Either way, they won: Bush agreed to make changes to the program. When Mueller’s extended term at the FBI ended in 2013, few were surprised that Obama installed Comey in his place.

Praise was widespread and bipartisan for Mueller’s appointment on May 17 as special counsel. But that enthusiasm was not shared at the White House. As the gravity of his miscalculation sets in, Trump has been lashing about for someone to blame. Attorney General Sessions, one of his earliest supporters, offered to resign after a bawling out from Trump, who feels that he would not be in this pickle if Sessions had not recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump is also furious with the flip-flopping Democrats who went from hating Comey (they blamed his public hand-wringing over her emails for Hillary Clinton’s loss in November) to hailing him as a martyr. “The Democrats should be ashamed,” Trump tweeted. “This is a disgrace!”

And then there’s Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who wrote a memo at Trump’s request that the White House briefly used to justify the Comey firing, then appointed the special counsel. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” the President tweeted. “Witch hunt!” That June 16 outburst caught Capitol Hill Republicans flat-footed. “Is this part of a new plan?” an adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan asked a White House aide. Of course not, the aide answered. “Do you think we would plan to have the President of the United States implicate himself?”

Friends report that the wrathful President discussed the possibility of firing Mueller, an idea that horrifies White House advisers and terrifies veteran congressional Republicans. The last President to try such a thing was Nixon, who sparked the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 by ordering the ouster of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Beyond the disastrous politics of such a move, it’s unclear how Trump could execute this step. Justice Department regulations tightly govern the removal of a special counsel, which can be done “only by the personal action of the Attorney General” and only for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or for other good cause.” With Sessions recused, the power of removal passed to Rosenstein–but his involvement in the Comey firing could force his recusal as well. Rosenstein has assured a Senate committee that he would not carry out an unjustified firing. “If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says,” he averred. If Rosenstein refused to fire the special counsel, the order would go next to another Senate-confirmed Justice official. With the Solicitor General’s office still unfilled, that leaves Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who hasn’t said publicly how she would respond.

Trump’s alternative to this uncertainty might be to exercise his constitutional authority to rewrite the Justice Department regulations, giving himself the firing authority. Such a step would smack of despotism in a capital that cherishes checks on power.

For now, the White House is trying to compartmentalize the investigation, while such allies as Gingrich launch counterattacks. Rather than fire Mueller–and risk sparking a backlash–the plan seems to be to discredit the investigation with voters. The Republican National Committee is cranking out messages designed to make Mueller and Comey the new Hillary and Bill. Their friendship snarls Mueller in a flagrant conflict of interest, the attack goes, and Mueller’s team is rife with partisans. At least three of his recruits have written checks in partisan campaigns, including two–James Quarles and Jeannie Rhee–who gave the maximum allowable amount to Hillary Clinton for her race against Trump last year.

A fact of Washington life that ought to be a maxim, but isn’t: not every important moment gets a headline. One such moment was a largely overlooked exchange in May between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Comey, who still held his job at the FBI.

“It’s not uncommon to seek and use tax returns in a criminal investigation?” asked the Senator, himself a former prosecutor, who was well aware of the answer.

“Not uncommon,” Comey replied on cue. “Especially in complex financial cases, it’s a relatively common tool.”

Whitehouse went on to ask about Russian strategies for compromising U.S. business partners by giving them highly favorable deals and to explore the use of shell corporations in laundering dirty money through untraceable transactions with American companies. “And that’s not a good thing?” Whitehouse asked in conclusion.

Comey: “I don’t think it is.”

Investigations like Mueller’s have a way of moving from Topic A to Topic Z, from Ozarks real estate to an intern’s blue dress as one question begets another and clue leads to clue. The Senator’s questions and Comey’s answers mapped several paths by which an investigation of Trump’s actions as President–Was he trying to obstruct justice?–could become a dissection of the inner workings of his private business. The tax returns he has steadfastly refused to publish. The conflicting accounts he and his sons have given about Russian investments in Trump projects. The sharp rise in the number of Trump-branded luxury condos bought by shell corporations since his nomination, as first reported by USA Today. And so on.

For now, the leak-prone Administration has mostly gone quiet, the better to showcase displays of presidential normalcy. An infrastructure week. A summit with tech CEOs. “The media and the Democrats talk about Russia,” says Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. “The President talks about America.” Mueller-related questions are steered to outside counsel, part of a Sisyphean effort to professionalize the chaotic White House. Still, aides live in the shadow of the boss’s shifting moods.

On Capitol Hill, Vice President Mike Pence is driving Republican leaders hard to change the subject by passing legislation. Even as he hired attorney Richard Cullen–another Comey friend–to guard his own flank in the investigation, Pence shuttled between the White House and Congress, pleading for a win on health care to cheer the embattled President. But the Fourth of July recess loomed with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell still short of a majority for any Trump-blessed reform, leaving lawmakers to face the prospect of going home empty-handed while the President sulks with his Twitter.

It was tempting, as the wheels of another Washington investigation accelerated away from the station, to say that we’ve seen this all before, though never with a protagonist quite like President Trump. In his outsize personality and unmasked audacity, he’s making it clear that this all-too-familiar story has roots much deeper than even the most shopworn Washington lore. It goes back to the Greeks, who understood that the peril of kings was hubris, and that hubris was an invitation to the avenging goddess called Nemesis. In Robert Mueller, Trump may have found his.

–WITH REPORTING BY TESSA BERENSON, MASSIMO CALABRESI, MICHAEL DUFFY, PHILIP ELLIOTT, ZEKE J. MILLER and MICHAEL SCHERER/WASHINGTON

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1. VIDEO NEWS from mikenova (66 sites): FoxNewsChannel’s YouTube Videos: FBI treating Michigan airport attack as an act of terrorism

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From: FoxNewsChannel
Duration: 02:56

FBI: Flint stabbing suspect is a Canadian citizen

FoxNewsChannel’s YouTube Videos

1. VIDEO NEWS from mikenova (66 sites)

Elections 2016 Investigation videos – Google News: Russians hacked 21 election systems, Trump video a distraction -US officials – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Russians hacked 21 election systems, Trump video a distraction -US officials
Thomson Reuters Foundation
WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) – Russian hackers targeted 21 U.S. states’ election systems in the 2016 presidential race, a U.S. official told Congress on Wednesday, but a former official testified that a video of Donald Trump bragging of sexual

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Elections 2016 Investigation videos – Google News

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Attacker Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ Stabs Police Officer in Neck at Mich. Airport

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A police officer at the airport in Flint, Mich. was stabbed in the neck Wednesday in what authorities are looking at as a possible act of terrorism.

Around 9:45 a.m., the still unidentified stabber attacked Jeff Neville, a retired county sheriff now working for Bishop International Airport Public Safety. The suspect is now in custody, and Neville has been rushed to a local hospital. He is in stable condition, according to Michigan State Police.

The FBI is heading the investigation and looking at the stabbing as a “possible terrorist attack,” local media reports.

Michigan State Police announced in a tweet that they were also on the scene of the stabbing and that the airport had been evacuated.

“The officer is in critical condition. Please keep the officer in your prayers,” they urged.

NBC’s Tom Winter reported that the attacker was Canadian-born and yelled “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”

NBC News: The Canadian born suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” before stabbing the officer multiple law enforcement sources say. W/ @anblanx https://twitter.com/Tom_Winter/status/877562881721516032 

The post Attacker Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ Stabs Police Officer in Neck at Mich. Airport appeared first on Washington Free Beacon.

Today’s Headlines and Commentary

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The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Ziglar v. Abbasi  that a group of Arab men who were detained by federal law enforcement after the September 11th attacks cannot sue government officials that ordered or oversaw their detention, reports the Times. The court ruled in a 4-2 decision that a Bivens action, which allows plaintiffs to sue federal officials for certain constitutional violations even if Congress has not created statutory relief, could not apply to the Fifth Amendment violations alleged in this case. The Atlantic has more on what this means for the Bivens doctrine and its potential implications for the ongoing Travel Ban litigation.

A Russian fighter jet came within several feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the Baltic Sea yesterday, ABC News reports. The pilot deemed the interaction unsafe, and said that the Russian aircraft was moving at a high rate of speed, making erratic movements, and at one point flew beneath the U.S. plane.

Tensions continue to rise in the Syrian conflict. Today the New York Times reports that the U.S. shot down a pro-Assad regime drone after it displayed what the Pentagon described in a statement as “hostile intent.” The Iranian-made drone advanced on coalition forces near al-Tanf, a border region near Iraq and Jordan that the U.S. uses to train local partners. This development comes after the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter jet on Sunday after it attacked U.S.-backed forces. The incident prompted a strong reaction from Russia, which threatened to target aircraft west of the Euphrates and to halt communication channels designed to de-escalate potential conflict. In response, CNN reports that Australia has now suspended all air operations in Syria as a precautionary measure.

Google will take on a more ambitious effort to limit the spread of extremist videos and propaganda on YouTube, reports ABC News, including the expansion of artificial intelligence  well as the number of independent reviewers assigned to monitor and flag content. Other tech companies such as Facebook are taking similar measures as well, driven by criticism connected to easy access to violence-promoting content and recent attacks in the U.K. and U.S.

Donald Trump met with top U.S. technology leaders at the White House yesterday and called for an overhaul of the federal government’s computing systems, reports the Wall Street Journal. Trump cited both better services for citizens and increased cybersecurity as driving factors for the shift. However, the Journal also reports that the highly fragmented structure of the government’s systems and a lack of oversight may make the task difficult.

The AP reports that Robert Mueller will meet with top members of the Senate Judiciary committee, including chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), on Wednesday to ensure that the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election does not conflict with congressional inquiries.

Reuters reports that the FBI team investigating the lobbying work of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is focusing on Flynn’s former business partner Bijan Kian. Kian played a key role in securing a contract with Netherlands-based company Inovo, which is controlled by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. The FBI is examining whether Flynn lobbied on behalf of Turkey without making the proper disclosures after Inovo paid Flynn’s consultancy over $500,000 for opposition research on Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government blames for the failed coup attempt last summer.

Wired has an in-depth look at how Russia has bombarded Ukraine with cyberattacks, possibly using the neighboring country as a testing ground for attacks that could target the U.S., especially its crucial infrastructure. Hackers successfully plunged 250,000 Ukrainians into a blackout in December 2015 through a cyberattack on the power grid. A video shows a hacker remotely controlling a Ukrainian power grid computer in an attempt to disrupt the system. Last week, the Daily Beast reported on CrashOverride, a program that could make these types of attacks possible.

Today, voters go to the polls in Georgia’s Sixth District congressional election, widely seen as a bellwether for upcoming midterm elections in 2018 when Democrats hope to take back the House,reports the Times. The contest is the most expensive House race in history, and a win for either side could infuse significant momentum moving forward on both political and policy issues like healthcare. The Hill offers five things to watch, and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has an in-depth look at polling predictions and the implications of the vote.

Today, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on congressional authorizations for the use of military force. The current congressional authorizations for the use of force are over 15 years old. The prepared testimony John Bellinger is available here and the testimony of Kathleen Hicks is here.

Otto Warmbier, the UVA student who was recently sent back to the U.S. in a coma following his detainment in North Korea, has died, Foreign Policy reports. Trump released a statement reaffirming the administration’s resolve to preventing similar tragedies and condemning the brutality of the North Korean regime. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) suggested that any Americans wishing to travel to North Korea should have to sign a waiver recognizing the risks they are assuming. Three Americans remain in North Korean detention, potentially complicating any future negotiations with Pyongyang.

 

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Peter Margulies wrote that to contain Iran, the U.S. will need to make tangible gains on the ground while also gaining moral legitimacy based on international norms.

Julian Ku discussed the potential legal and diplomatic consequences if the U.S. takes a more aggressive stance on deterrence against Chinese military domination in the South China Sea.

Udi Greenberg reviewed The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 by Or Rosenboim.

Bob Bauer examined if the president can be indicted while in office, and how the 25th Amendment could help resolve an “incapacitated presidency.”

Ed Stein provided a comprehensive review of the new and noteworthy aspects of the Senate’s recently passed Russian sanctions amendment.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.

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Reuters: World News: Russian defense minister’s plane buzzed by NATO jet over Baltic

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MOSCOW/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A NATO F-16 fighter jet buzzed a plane carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as it flew over the Baltic Sea, but was seen off by a Russian Sukhoi-27 military jet, Russia said on Wednesday, an account partly disputed by NATO.

Reuters: World News

National Security: Homeland Security official: Russian government actors potentially tried to hack election systems in 21 states

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Most of the hacking was just scanning for vulnerabilities, though a few were successfully exploited.

National Security

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fbi – Google News: Jeh Johnson says he was unaware of FBI Russia probe – PBS NewsHour

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PBS NewsHour
Jeh Johnson says he was unaware of FBI Russia probe
PBS NewsHour
WASHINGTON — Jeh Johnson, the former Homeland Security chief, says he wasn’t aware that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The top Democrat on the House …

fbi – Google News

(3) Истребитель Су-27 отгоняет F-16 НАТО от самолета Шойгу: эксклюзивные кадры – YouTube

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Published on Jun 21, 2017

Телеканал «Звезда» публикует кадры приближения истребителя НАТО F-16 к самолету Министра обороны РФ Сергей Шойгу над Балтийским морем. На видео видно, как российский Су-27 из эскорта сопровождения отгоняет натовский истребитель от пассажирского борта, покачав крыльями.

Подробности на http://tvzvezda.ru

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Russia: NATO Fighter Jets Buzz Plane Carrying Russia’s Defense Minister

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The face-off over the Baltic Sea was the latest aerial encounter between Moscow and the West at a time of heightened tensions.

Russia

donald trump racketeering – Google News: Trump, Russia and a Shadowy Business Partnership – Bloomberg

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Bloomberg
Trump, Russia and a Shadowy Business Partnership
Bloomberg
Robert Mueller is examining whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice when he fired James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Washington Post recently reported. … But Kriss’s assertion that Bayrock was a criminal

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donald trump racketeering – Google News

Comey – Google News: After Comey Drama, Russia Hearings Expected To Focus Back On Russia – NPR

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After Comey Drama, Russia Hearings Expected To Focus Back On Russia
NPR
The Senate and House intelligence committees plan to convene dueling hearings Wednesday, on Russia and the 2016 election. Facebook; Twitter. Google+. Email. Get The Stories That Grabbed Us This Week. Delivered to your inbox every Sunday, these …

Comey – Google News

2016 elections and mental health – Google News: In Trump era, mental health experts are rethinking Goldwater Rule – MyAJC

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MyAJC
In Trump era, mental health experts are rethinking Goldwater Rule
MyAJC
Then came the 2016 presidential election. As Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, battled in a vitriolic campaign, some members of the American Psychiatric Association broke the rule and voiced concerns about what they described as Trump’s …

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2016 elections and mental health – Google News

Russian Intelligence services – Google News: Soviet spymaster Yuri Drozdov dies at 91 – Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Soviet spymaster Yuri Drozdov dies at 91
Atlanta Journal Constitution
The Foreign Intelligence Service, a KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym SVR, said Drozdov died Wednesday. It didn’t give the cause of his death or any other specifics. In 1979, Drozdov came to head a KGB department overseeing a …

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Russian Intelligence services – Google News

Russian Intelligence services – Google News: Legendary Soviet spymaster passes away at 91 – TASS

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Washington Post
Legendary Soviet spymaster passes away at 91
TASS
MOSCOW, June 21. /TASS/. Chief of Soviet covert intelligence, architect and commander of the Vympel reconnaissance and sabotage unit of the Soviet Union’s external intelligence service Yury Drozdov has died at the age of 91, Head of the Press Bureau of …
Soviet spymaster Yuri Drozdov dies at 91Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Russian Intelligence services – Google News


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