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Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

In July of 2016, Donald Trump, Jr. met a 42-year-old Russian attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya who had promised him damaging information about then-candidate Hillary Clinton. One of his father’s contacts, a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, had arranged the meeting as a favor to a client of his, the Azeri real estate developer and pop singer Emin. Goldstone had worked with the Trumps on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. There were other reasons to take the meeting, too: Emin’s father, Aras Agalarov, is the 51st-richest man in Russia and an instrumental figure in the President’s aborted foray into Russian real estate: the Moscow tower he tried—and failed—to erect.

Trump Jr. has said he knew absolutely nothing about Veselnitskaya before their meeting, not even her name. She turned out to use the promise of information that could help his father’s campaign as a pretext to discuss reinstating a popular Russian-American adoption program, according to his version of events. What could be more harmless?

In fact, Veselnitskaya was already a key figure for the defense in one of the most notorious money-laundering scandals in recent memory, encompassing $230 million in public funds allegedly stolen from the Russians by a network of corrupt bureaucrats and routed into real estate sales, including some in Manhattan, through ironclad Swiss bank accounts. And she was accused of lobbying U.S. officials for a Russian NGO that sought to overturn the Russian ban on U.S. adoptions, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Veselnitskaya’s Facebook page paints a picture of a conservative Russian woman eager to defend her government from insults, hawkish on Israel and deeply concerned about American politics. “Liberalism is a fucking mental disorder,” she wrote on July 1, 2016—American liberalism. She also had derisive remarks for Brooklyn-born Muslim organizer Linda Sarsour and crusading former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was ousted by Trump. “The current U.S. Attorney General (Sally Yates) stated that all lawyers working for the government do not have the right to defend the government and trump orders!” Veselnitskaya wrote on Jan. 31. “In such cases, the general should resign.”

Veselnitskaya received her degree from Kutafin Moscow State Law University in 1998. In 2013, she agreed to represent Denis Katsyv, the son of Russian railroad baron Petr Katsyv and owner of the Prevezon group. The younger Katsyv was accused of collaborating with corrupt Russian officials in the money-laundering scheme. Then-U.S. attorney and “Sheriff of Wall Street” Preet Bharara led the charge against Prevezon; the company, his office said, had used cash from the theft to buy condos in Bharara’s jurisdiction.

Katsyv had been Veselnitskaya’s highest-profile client by far, and his defense would be a world-historic success not just for the wealthy real estate investor, but for the Russian establishment under President Vladimir Putin.

Until this weekend, the closest Veselnitskaya had come to the public eye was as a footnote to the compounding scandal of the Prevezon affair. Veselnitskaya had come to the United States with Katsyv, who was to be deposed by Bharara’s team. Not only wasn’t she deposed herself, she didn’t attend her client’s deposition in person. But after the deposition, she moved to the Plaza Hotel for the remaining two nights of her stay at a cost of $995 per night. Her firm then billed the U.S. government for the entire stay, as well as a single meal for five that included eight grappas, two bottles of wine, eighteen dishes and a bill that came to nearly $800. The group’s total expenses topped $50,000, and they promised to file more.

The legal proceedings in which Veselnitskaya was enmeshed contain a spy novel’s-worth of twists, turns and tragic, suspicious accidents. Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing accountant who called attention to Russian bureaucrats’ alleged widespread embezzlement, was arrested and detained without trial for nearly a year until his death in 2009 from what prison staff described as “pancreonecrosis, ruptured abdominal membrane and toxic shock,” according to the U.S. government’s suit against Prevezon. The Russian Interior Ministry later revised the cause of death to heart failure. When Magnitsky’s family examined his body, they found bruises and that his fingers had been broken, according to an early draft of a report by then-president Dmitry Medvedev’s own investigative committee.

The incident led to a controversial piece of legislation: 2012’s Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned 18 Russian officials believed by the US to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death. Five days later, the Russian parliament voted to ban adoptions of Russian children by Americans, a move understood to be retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. Putin, by that time president of Russia again, also began to compile an “anti-Magnitsky” list of his own, according to the New York Times. Bharara was among the prominent names on it.

Trump Jr.’s conversation with Veselnitskaya, to his disappointment, focused on “a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government,” he said in a Sunday statement. That may be a roundabout way of saying Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss sanctions on Russian officials. Veselnitskaya campaigned unsuccessfully to keep Magnitsky’s name off the punitive 2012 law, according to the Times, and then, through an NGO called The Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF), to have it repealed, supposedly for the sake of Russian children who could find American homes if the adoption ban were lifted in response.

The latter activity got Veselnitskaya some unwanted attention. She is not named on HRAGIF’s list of lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but she was accused of lobbying U.S. politicians, according to an email provided to Sen. Grassley by Hermitage Capital in a complaint (Magnitsky was at work for Hermitage CEO William Browder when he discovered the alleged money-laundering scheme). HRAGIF listed only two lobbyists, one of whom is Renit Akhmetsin, the former agent for the Russian FSB security service who in April met with Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) in Berlin to discuss Prevezon. Russian friendliness to Rohrbacher has been a bone of contention with the FBI and the butt of “jokes” from Rohrbacher’s fellow Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told colleagues in an audio recording that surfaced in May: “There’s two people I think Putin pays, Rohrabacher and Trump.”

Magnitsky’s death, and the original theft by Russian bureaucrats, are believed by many, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), to be the work of the Klyuev Group, a network of criminals working in the Russian government to enrich themselves at the expense of Russian citizens (its exploits are chronicled in English in a number of articles by reporter Michael Weiss). Magnitsky and others sought to expose what they believed was hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of graft by the group.

The suit against Prevezon never went to trial. On March 11, Donald Trump fired Bharara, and on March 21, Nikolai Gorokhov, the Magnitsky family’s attorney and a key witness for the prosecution, fell from the fourth floor of an apartment building, apparently when a rope broke while he and others were trying to move a bathtub in through the window. He sustained head injuries.

The United States settled its case against Prevezon and its associated companies in May for $6 million, a fraction of the judgment a guilty verdict would likely have brought. Veselnitskaya declared victory on Facebook: “[A] 4-Year-old battle of the American State with a Russian citizen is over. With the Russians,” she wrote on Facebook.

This post has been updated.

As experts try to determine the depth of foreign espionage operations during the 2016 race, everything is starting to look like a cyberattack—and that’s by design.

For months on Twitter, in digital news and on cable TV, self-appointed pundits have been jumping at the shadows of the Russian hacking attacks on several components of the 2016 election. Experts say that paranoia is not merely a devastatingly effective side effect, but often the entire point of an intelligence operation: It causes the public to fear the erosion of democracy and paralyzes investigators who could repair problems like America’s elderly and unsophisticated voting machines, since every new revelation seems to reveal further cracks in the system.

Bloomberg has reported that 39 states’ election systems were subject to hacking attacks, including the previously confirmed theft of information from voter rolls in Illinois. Department of Homeland Security officials have said that 21 states were targeted, but the agency refuses to investigate. Given those reports, paranoia feels almost prudent.

The cyberattacks have damaged confidence in American democracy and shifted focus to finger-pointing at a time when repairing voting infrastructure could not be more urgent, said computer scientist J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan.

“NSA put those pieces together in April 2017 [according to an agency report leaked by The Intercept],” Halderman tells TPM. “There are still components of this that, within the intelligence community, are only now being able to be understood. That’s alarming. We need the election system to give us evidence that the election has been won before it’s certified.”

Lack of trust can destroy the courage to do anything except read conspiracy theories on the internet and despair, Halderman said. “The doubt at some point becomes the story, because it becomes an indication that the system isn’t doing its job.”

Toni Gidwani, formerly the leader of analyst teams at the Defense Intelligence Agency and now director of research operations at ThreatConnect, said the attacks during the 2016 U.S. elections are consistent with the modus operandi of Russian intelligence services as they operate throughout Europe. Despair is often their goal, she said.

“It’s a valid objective to just inject doubt into the integrity of the system,” Gidwani told TPM. “Just by showing that these machines are vulnerable even if you don’t change a single vote, may create doubt that the system is valid.”

Worsened public confidence in government, she said, is a consistent objective in intelligence operations, especially from Russia. “It’s a much lower bar to achieve than concretely affecting the outcome [of the vote].”

It would be shocking, espionage expert Mark Galeotti told TPM, if Russian hacking teams weren’t scanning U.S. election systems for vulnerabilities.

“Spies’ jobs are to hoover up all the information they can,” said Galeotti, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations with a specialization in Russian security, and author of the upcoming “Vory: The Story of the Russian Mafia” from Yale University Press. “Let’s not pretend that the NSA isn’t trying to get into any Russian system it can, or any German, French or British system for that matter. It’s the nature of intelligence.”

In fact, even the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other party operatives wasn’t completely beyond the pale–it was their distribution that crossed a red line, he argued.

“Russian cyberwarfare that we’ve seen so far has not really been cyberwarfare,” Galeotti said. “It’s phishing a few email addresses. None of this is really mission-critical stuff.”

In the disinformation campaign waged by Russia during the 2016 election, Galeotti sees the hand of both the GRU–likely the sponsor of the much discussed Fancy Bear hacking team–and its competitive sister agency, the FSB, which conducted operations through a less-discussed group called Cozy Bear. The GRU trained a disciplined internal team of hackers, he explained, while the FSB, more prone to risk-taking, acquired talented freelancers with threats, bribes, or some combination of the two, among them the recently arrested team behind the Yahoo hack.

“As I understand it, it wasn’t the GRU that said, ‘Let’s leak this,’ it was the FSB,” Galeotti said, referring to the stolen emails. The more cautious GRU acquired the emails, but “it was the FSB that pitched the idea of using it for a political operation, and there’s no question that it had sanction from the top,” he told TPM.

The resulting chaos means that much–too much–is now read as evidence of foreign intervention and subversion, even day-to-day information collection operations. Many experts in the field believe the problem is not that foreign powers are putting their puppets into office through stealing elections, but that election systems are low-hanging information fruit.

“I think the Russians have stumbled – probably accidentally, and not because they’re that much cleverer – onto the new kind of warfare, which is not kinetic,” said Galeotti.

“We are in this half-war-half-peace situation, which is very unlike the Cold War,” he continued. “Are we at war with the Russians, a non-shooting, non-kinetic political war? The Russians clearly think so, but the intelligence community has not been given permission to respond in kind.”

Pressure to examine voting machines used in the 2016 election grows daily as evidence builds that Russian hacking attacks were broader and deeper than previously known. And the Department of Homeland Security has a simple response:

No.

DHS officials from former secretary Jeh Johnson to acting Director of Cyber Division Samuel Liles may be adamant that machines were not affected, but the agency has not in fact opened up a single voting machine since November to check.

Asked about the decision, a DHS official told TPM: “In a September 2016 Intelligence Assessment, DHS and our partners determined that there was no indication that adversaries were planning cyber activity that would change the outcome of the coming US election.”

According to the most recent reports, 39 states were targeted by Russian hackers, and DHS has cited–without providing details–domestic attacks in its own reports as well.

“Although we continue to judge all newly available information, DHS has not fundamentally altered our prior assessments,” the department told TPM.

Computer scientists have been critical of that decision. “They have performed computer forensics on no election equipment whatsoever,” said J. Alex Halderman, who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week about the vulnerability of election systems. “That would be one of the most direct ways of establishing in the equipment whether it’s been penetrated by attackers. We have not taken every step we could.”

Voting machines, especially the electronic machines still used in several states, are so insecure that an attack on them is likely to be successful, according to a report from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice out Thursday morning. David Dill, a voting systems expert and professor of computer science at Stanford University quoted in the report, said hackers can easily breach election systems regardless of whether they’re able to coordinate widely enough to alter a general election result.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t try to hack voting machines and I don’t know what would stop them,” Dill told TPM. “Any statement that says ‘We haven’t see evidence of X’ also means ‘We haven’t lifted a finger to investigate.’”

DHS told TPM Wednesday afternoon it was confident in “multiple checks and redundancies in US election infrastructure” and referred to the testimony of Liles and Jeannette Manfra, DHS undersecretary for cybersecurity, who said US electoral systems were fortified by “diversity of systems, non-Internet connected voting machines, pre-election testing, and processes for media, campaign, and election officials to check, audit, and validate results.”

The new Brennan Center report, however, details the dangers of voting machines that aren’t properly secured, particularly the effect on public confidence of a very public successful hack, whether or not it managed to swing an election. “In the current hyper-partisan environment,” the authors noted, “evidence of this kind of hack could lead to accusations by each side that the other is rigging the election.”

While forensic examinations would answer many questions vital to researchers trying to improve voting systems, the potential for eroded confidence in those systems may help to explain DHS’ reluctance to seek out hard evidence. The department said most attacks were simple scanning, rather than attempts to alter tallies or poll books.

Evidence always seems to stop with “we don’t know:” An NSA report leaked to The Intercept in June detailed a phishing operation by the Russian military intelligence agency GRU on voting hardware maker VR Systems that in turn targeted voting officials. Like DHS, the NSA said it was unclear whether those officials’ machines had been compromised.

Some of the paralysis around how to move forward is a result of tensions between DHS and states angry about the designation of their election systems as “critical infrastructure” in January, just before President Trump took office. Then-secretary Johnson even acknowledged at the time that the designation was controversial to many state election officials, who see the offer of federal assistance, often with strings attached, as an attempted takeover (Johnson testified last week that when a critical infrastructure designation was first floated to state officials in August, the reaction “ranged from neutral to negative”).

“They’re in this strange position where they had a lot of pushback from election officials over federal overreach and in some ways they’re in a little bit of a bind,” said the Brennan Center’s Larry Norden, one of the authors of its report.

Everyone knows what has to be fixed, Norden says, but no one wants to go first. “The states want the counties to act, the counties want the state to pay for things, the states may want the money but they don’t want any of the mandates that come with the money,” he says. “There are investigations but there are no positive solutions yet.”

Current auditing processes, which vary wildly from state to state, are frequently arduous and sometimes nonsensical. In Virginia, where the margin of victory is often very shallow, it is illegal to audit the vote except when the margin is more than 10 percent—and only then if the local election official agrees, and after the election has been certified. When that audit takes place, it can’t change the outcome of the election, even if the audit reveals a completely different tally.

Cybersecurity expert Jeremy J. Epstein says the Virginia rule illustrates why widespread changes to voting standards are so difficult: Every place has different rules. In many states, “localities have almost no ability to raise funds,” Epstein observes. “Even if the state wants to do something, getting 130 localities in Virginia to do something that requires action at a local level is very hard to do.”

The dangers are real: Some voting machines still use Windows XP, which Microsoft hasn’t updated in years. Epstein has personally demonstrated huge security flaws in others. In 2015, he successfully campaigned to decertify the AVS WinVote machine, a touchscreen device that used a woefully outdated and insecure wireless protocol called WEP, which can be hacked in three minutes. Epstein pulled off the hack successfully and was able to retrieve the WinVote’s factory-set passwords: “abcde” and “admin.”

Halderman, too, has dramatically demonstrated how easy it is to take over voting machines, in one case simply by loading a voting machine with a memory card filled with malicious software that can then hitch a ride on that machine back to the central location where the votes are tallied (Machines are left unguarded so often that Ed Felten, who worked in the Obama White House as a deputy chief technology officer, used to make a tradition of posting pictures of them to his and Halderman’s blog, Freedom to Tinker).

In fact, Halderman testified before the Senate Intelligence panel that not only could he successfully breach voting machines himself, but he had made the process part of his assigned coursework.

“I know firsthand how easy it can be to manipulate computerized voting machines,” he told the Senate. “As part of security testing, I’ve performed attacks on widely used voting machines, and I’ve had students successfully attack machines under my supervision.”

These computer scientists agree the problem is urgent and nonpartisan, and no less a Trump ally than Rudy Giuliani said Wednesday that he believed the problem was serious, too. Even in the polarized post-election environment, Norden says he thinks legislators may be able to agree on the issue need to secure voting systems.

“The intelligence community has been pretty clear that while [the Russian hacking teams] may have favored Trump in the election, their interest is in undermining our democracy,” said Norden. “Regardless of party, I think we all share the idea that democracy is essential to the country.”

 

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