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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.
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch’s week did not improve on Wednesday.
Fresh off a hiding Tuesday from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), Stretch appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) read the social media executive the riot act for what he called a refusal to take the problem of foreign interference in elections seriously.
“In meetings with your leadership as you became more aware of this problem, you aggressively promoted the fact that you took down 30,000 accounts around the French elections,” Warner told Stretch. “Now you say not all of those were Russian related. Have you gone back and cross checked those accounts you took down in France to see if they were active in the American election?”
Stretch tried to give a discursive answer, but Warner cut him off. “The accounts related to Russian accounts that you took down, your leadership bragged about how proactive you were in the French election process,” Warner said, “did you check those accounts to see if any of them were active in the American elections?”
Stretch tried for a second non-answer, which appeared to anger Warner. “Just please answer my question,” he said. “Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian related to see if they played any role in the American election?”
Stretch said he was “trying to answer the question.”
“The answer is yes or no,” snapped Warner. Facebook, he said, had looked at the 470 American accounts identified for payment in rubles. Had it applied the same techniques to the accounts seeking to interfere in the European elections “to see if those accounts were active in the United States?”
“I will have to come back to you on that, senator,” Stretch said.
Warner was irate. “Sir, we had this hearing scheduled for months,” he said. “I find your answer very disappointing. On the question of we just discovered you had 80,000 views in terms of Russian views on Facebook. We discover in the last 48 hours 120,000 Russian-based posts on Instagram. Have you done any similar analysis on those 120,000 posts? Know the 80,000 reached 126 million Americans. Have you done the same analysis on the 120,000 posts on Instagram?”
Stretch answered that Facebook had indeed analyzed those posts.
“How many Americans did those touch?” Warner asked.
Far more than Facebook had initially admitted, it turned out. “The data on Instagram is not as complete, but the data we have indicates that beginning in October of 2016, those Instagram posts reached an additional 16 million people in addition to the 126 million people that we identify,” Stretch said.
“Now we’re seeing the Russian activity is roughly at 150 million Americans without knowing how many times they were reshared,” Warner said.
Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer, quickly issued a comment, which also did not answer the question of whether the accounts run in Germany and France were active in the American election. Stamos did say that “[a]ll of the accounts disabled automatically [in the sweep of European disinfo accounts] are still included in our searches for organized disinformation actors like the Internet Research Agency.”
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that his company had taken down the account of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, who lives in the US, on the strength of a report filed to the tech giant by the Chinese government.
Guo, a billionaire living in New York City who is a harsh critic of the Chinese government, published on Facebook “sometimes outlandish tales of deep corruption among family members of top Communist Party officials,” the New York Times wrote a month ago, as it reported that Guo’s account had been taken down.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the pointed question: “[Guo’s] Facebook account was blocked, and Facebook has informed us that he violated terms of service. I think he published personal identifying information about individuals and that violated the terms of service. I understand that argument. My question, what I want to be clear is was there any pressure from the Chinese government to block his account?”
Stretch, initially, appeared to mislead Rubio in his answer: “No, senator, we reviewed a report on that account and analyzed it through regular channels using our regular procedures,” he said. “The blocking was not of the account in its entirety, but I believe was of specific posts that violated our policy.”
Rubio was dubious. “You can testify that you did not come under pressure from the Chinese government or any of its representatives or people working for them to block his account or to block whatever it is you blocked?” he asked.
Put in those terms, Stretch could not, in fact, pull off a denial. “I want to make sure I’m being precise and clear,” he said. “We did receive a report from representatives of the Chinese government about the account. We analyzed that report as we would any other and took action solely based on our policies.”
That was Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, in a moment that seemed to stretch out to an hour during Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian election interference on social media.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all sent their lawyers to answer lawmakers’ questions, but Kennedy, who began his question round by complimenting Stretch’s resume, was prepared. In just a few minutes, he forced Stretch to admit that Facebook had far less insight into its advertisers than it did into each individual user.
“Mr. Stretch, how many advertisers does Facebook have?” Kennedy asked sleepily, after thanking the three tech giants for being American companies.
“We have approximately 5 million advertisers on a monthly basis, Senator,” Stretch replied.
“Did China run ads in the last election cycle? That tried to impact our election?” Kennedy asked.
“Not that I’m aware of, senator,” Stretch answered.
“Not that you’re aware of. Did Turkmenistan?”
Kennedy asked about ads from Turkmenistan and from North Korea, each time getting a variation of “I’m not aware” in response.
“How could you be aware?” Kennedy eventually snapped. “I mean, this is—this—you’ve got 5 million advertisers? And you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all of those advertisements? If I want to hire a lawyer, if I wanted to hire you when you were in private practice, you have an incredible resume, and say, let’s go through about four shell corporations. I want to go through four or five shell corporations, because I want to hide my identity. You’re telling me you have the ability to go—to trace through all of these corporations and find the true identity of every one of your advertisers. You’re not telling me that, are you?”
After a little more back-and-forth, Stretch, exasperated, caved.
“To your question about seeing essentially behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no,” he said. “We cannot see behind the activity.”
Kennedy then appeared to switch gears. Were he to join Facebook as an advertiser, he would need to buy targeted advertising, he told Stretch, “and you can help me narrow down. Because that’s your business model. You collect data, and lease it out to companies who use that data to sell people products, services and candidates. Isn’t that basically your business model?”
Stretch seemed to sense what was coming. “Senator, we do provide targeted advertising. We don’t actually share the data of individuals with advertisers,” he said.
“Right,” Kennedy replied. “Do you have a profile on me?”
After a beat Stretch replied: “Senator, if you’re a Facebook user, we would permit you to be targeted with an advertisement based on your characteristics and your likes, along with other people who share similar characteristics.”
That raised an even less comfortable question from Kennedy, who proposed, “Let’s suppose your CEO came to you—not you, but somebody who could do it in your company. Maybe you could. And said, ‘I want to know everything we can find out about Sen. Graham. I want to know the movies he likes, I want to know the bars he goes to. I want to know who his friends are. I want to know what schools he goes—went to.’ You could do that, couldn’t you?”
Stretch said Facebook could not know those things, which Kennedy wasn’t buying.
“You can’t put a name to a face to a piece of data?” Kennedy asked. “You’re telling me that?”
“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users,” Stretch replied.
“I understand,” Kennedy said. “But you can get around that to find that identity, can’t you?”
Stretch dropped the “we” for his next answer: “No, senator. I cannot.”
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on Tuesday offered broad details about the way Russian ads were targeted on the platform, something journalists and citizen groups have been agitating for.
Stretch said only a quarter of the ads were specifically geotargeted, however.
“The advertising targeting that was used, in the main, was a combination of very broad geographic targeting,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Most of the ads, about 75 percent of we have given you, was targeted to the United States as a whole. And a quarter of the ads were targeted at a more granular level to states. And they were targeted to interest groups. So we have various what we call like-based or interest-based targeting that was apparently intended to attract people who were following the causes you’ve identified.”
A Google executive told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the company had discovered two Russian-operated ad accounts that spent $4,700, and also had found 1,100 YouTube videos it suspects were part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.
“On YouTube, we found 18 channels with approximately 1,100 videos that were uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort, and that contained political content,” Richard Salgado, himself a former Department of Justice official, told the committee.
“These videos mostly had low view counts, just 3 percent of them had more than 5,000 views. And constituted only around 43 hours of YouTube content,” he continued. “While this is relatively small, people watch over 1 billion hours of YouTube content a day, 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute, we understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.”
Salgado observed that while YouTube doesn’t offer geotargeting, links to the suspected Russian videos were often posted to platforms that did. He also obliquely referred to “safeguards we had in place in advance of the election” that limited Google’s exposure to the Russian campaign.
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the social media portion of Russia’s 2016 election interference opened Tuesday with portentous statements from Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the latter of whom rattled off some numbers that gave the fullest picture yet of the extent of the disinformation campaign.
“Facebook has identified 470 accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency,” Feinstein said, referring to a Russian troll farm. “Twitter has identified 2,752 IRA-related accounts and almost 37,000 Russian linked accounts that generated automated election content. From what we’ve seen so far, Russian backed trolls used fake accounts on Facebook for more than 3,000 paid advertisements.”
Reports out Monday said Facebook would tell lawmakers that those advertisements reached approximately 126 million people.
The Twitter revelations, however, are far more significant: The platform appears to have identified not just the accounts run directly by Russian trolls working for the IRA (now the Federal News Agency, or FAN), but 37,000 automated accounts that generated information that would promote Russian interests in the American election.
Twitter and Facebook representatives opened their statements with apologies and began to detail how they planned to review previous posts and change rules to thwart future disinformation campaigns.
During the Trump administration’s very first week in office, the seeds were planted for the initial charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Thanks to an indictment unsealed Monday morning, we now know former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied about the extent of his Russian contacts in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 27, exactly one week after the inauguration. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to making false statements in that interview about his Russian contacts.
Mueller’s appointment didn’t come until May, after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election—and the collection of evidence for that investigation had already begun before Trump had even taken his hand off the Bible. The day before inauguration, the New York Times reported that law enforcement and intelligence sources were already looking at intercepted communications and financial records “as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.” Comey later testified before Congress that the FBI investigation into those links began in July 2016; Manafort was arrested on Monday.
Papadopoulos wasn’t even the first campaign adviser accused of misleading the FBI during the initial week of Trump’s presidency: Three days before Papadopoulos’ interview, Michael Flynn, at the time Trump’s national security advisor, denied to FBI investigators that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—even though the Washington Post cited U.S. officials saying Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office.
The same day that Papadopoulos met with the FBI, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House Counsel Don McGahn to share her concerns about Flynn’s “underlying conduct” for a second time.
The following Monday, Trump fired Yates.
Under oath before Congress, Yates later asserted that problems with Flynn went much farther than being “compromised by the Russians,” as she said the Justice Department believed under her tenure.
“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said in May. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Mueller’s investigators are looking into Flynn’s failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and transition, as well as his work on a lobbying contract for a Turkish businessman, and whether he played any role in a former GOP operative’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Flynn has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
That same Friday Papadopoulos lied and McGahn met Yates, Trump also surprised Comey with a private dinner, just the two men alone.
“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told him, according to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey interpreted the dinner as “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” he told the committee.
Trump went on to fire Comey on May 9, giving rise to Mueller’s appointment.
Paul Manafort financed a lavish lifestyle with money laundered through offshore accounts, with expenditures including more than $1.3 million in purchases at Beverly Hills and New York clothing stores and more than $1 million on antique rugs, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday. Manafort pled not guilty.
The 12-count indictment against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates charges that more than $75 million “flowed through” those offshore accounts. It alleges Manafort took $18 million through the accounts, while Gates is accused of transferring $3 million from those accounts to ones he controlled.
The bulk of Manafort’s alleged years-long spending spree took the form of $12 million in untaxed money he spent on luxury items and home improvements. The indictment spells out how Manafort would have one of his 15 offshore accounts—12 in Cyprus, two in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and one in the United Kingdom—wire in cash to each vendor for his purchases.
The list of Manafort’s lavish expenditures from his offshore accounts runs across eight of the indictment’s 31 pages. More than $5.4 million went to a “home improvement company” in the Hamptons from a mix of Cypriot entities, notably LOAV Advisors and Yiakora Ventures (An NBC News story about the Manafort’s debts to Russian oligarch and Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska said Manafort’s other companies were a primary influence over Yiakura’s business dealings).
Manafort, whose house in Water Mill, New York is among the assets prosecutors have proposed seizing, began spending from offshore accounts at that vendor in 2008 and continued, often several times a month, until August 2014. He also spent quite a bit on lawn care: a Hamptons-based landscaper lists expenditures totaling $164,740.
The indictment charges that he wired money to an Alexandria, Virginia rug merchant nine times, from as little as $7,400 to as much as $250,000.
Talking Points Memo called around Monday afternoon to rug merchants in Alexandria. At J&J Oriental, a salesperson promised a call back; at Domimex Antiques and Rugs, the proprietor said, “If you hear of anybody who has that kind of money to spend, please send them to me!”
TPM was not the first outlet to contact Art Underfoot, where the person who answered the phone said, “So many reporters have called me! I wish [Manafort] did! I am so poor!”
Not everyone was willing to chime in, however. A person who answered the phone at Herat Oriental told TPM “no comment” and hung up after a reporter identified himself.
Accounts associated with Manafort also made 34 transfers to an unnamed New York clothing store totaling nearly $850,000, and nine transfers to a Beverly Hills clothing store totaling $520,440. He patronized a Florida art gallery in 2011 and again in 2013, where his tab ran to $31,900.
A New York housekeeping service also earned $20,000 in three installments from accounts associated with Manafort.
Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates were hit with a 12-count indictment unsealed Monday that alleges a wide-ranging money laundering conspiracy and multiple violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Both will plead not guilty.
The charges focus not on collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government but on Manafort’s own alleged money laundering activities, which the indictment says personally netted him $18 million and Gates $3 million. According to the indictment, the money in question came from under-the-table lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions, the party of former president Victor Yanukovych. The two men held offshore accounts that allegedly handled more than $75 million over the nine years covered by the charges.
Manafort and Gates were each indicted on one count of conspiracy against the U.S., one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making a false and misleading FARA statement and a separate count of making a false statement. Manafort was also indicted on four counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, while Gates was indicted on three counts of the same.
The indictment charges that Manafort “represented falsely that he did not have authority over any foreign bank accounts,” and, in a complicated tax dodge, Manafort “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts,” depriving the U.S. of tax revenue, according to the indictment.
It also alleges that Manafort, who was not registered as a foreign agent, took steps to “develop a false and misleading cover story” that would conceal his work for the Party of Regions in order to distance himself from the Government of Ukraine.
In the indictment, the government proposes seizing four of Manafort’s real estate properties—three in New York and one in Arlington, Virginia—as well as his life insurance policy.
Wading into the debate over the effect of Russian meddling on the 2016 election, on Thursday Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein played down the impact of Russian-backed ads posted on various online platforms.
“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”
No assessment of Russian interference in the election has attempted to measure whether or not that interference was effective, but all of them concurred that it happened. The extent of the Russia-backed ads, intended to sow division during the election, on major platforms like Facebook and Twitter has only become publicly known in recent weeks.
Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general for the Russia investigation, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing Mueller’s probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously recused himself from matters relating to Russian interference.
Rosenstein hedged in his remarks, referring to Russian election tampering as “alleged” and in the hypothetical in the podcast interview published Thursday. Despite affirmative public assessments of Russian meddling by the intelligence community as far back as October, Rosenstein’s strongest assessment was that “if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”
Rosenstein referred the matter to the intelligence agencies when asked what kinds of consequences the Department of Justice could mete out to the Russian government for meddling in the 2016 election.
“Combating cyber-threats is a role the Justice Department has something to do with,” the DOJ’s second-in-command admitted, “but the primary responsibility for dealing with those threats falls on the intelligence community.”
Target USA’s network, PodcastOne, distributed Rosenstein’s full quote playing down Russian attempted election tampering.
“I think, what you need to recognize is that there have been a number of public reports about alleged Russian activities related to the election, including a report of the intelligence community, and what you’ve asked about public information, you have in an unclassified version of a report that reflects the assessments of our intelligence community. There have also been public reports, recently, about allegations of Russian advertisements, for example, that were posted on various networks. And so, there are a lot of public sources of information out there, and I think what people need to keep in mind is that there’s a distinction between people trying to sway American elections, and succeeding in swaying American elections. I think one of our responsibilities is to make sure that people understand, you know, what the risks are, but also that they make their own determinations. You know, American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for. I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments. I think people are more thoughtful about that in the way that they make their decisions. But nonetheless, you know, if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”
On a separate topic, Rosenstein was more certain about his views on the role whistleblowers: Setting aside legal considerations, “any responsible person” has “a moral obligation not to disclose things if it’s going to cause harm,” he said.
People who distribute information to the press, Rosenstein asserted, do not count as whistleblowers. “There are accepted ways in which you can raise concerns if you work for the government and you have access to information that you believe represents a violation of law or policy,” he told Green. “There are lawful ways for you to raise those issues. But leaking it publicly in a way that’s going to harm national security is not one of those authorized ways.”