Mike Pence Has Something to Hide on Impeachment

President Trump reminds us every chance he gets to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” of his “perfect” July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president.

But there’s another transcript that we can’t see, as we learned during Tuesday’s impeachment hearing. That’s a September 18th phone call between President Volodymyr Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence.

The news came early in Tuesday morning’s House intelligence committee session featuring Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer serving as Pence’s special advisor for Europe and Russia.

Justin Shur, Williams’ attorney, interrupted Chairman Adam Schiff to announce that “the office of the Vice President has taken the position that the September 18th call is classified.”

Last month, Pence said releasing transcripts of his conversations with Zelensky was fine with him.

I’d have no objection to that, and we’re discussing that with White House Counsel as we speak.

But when people see the transcripts of my calls and when they hear the reporting of our conversation — President Trump’s focus with Ukraine, from the very beginning, was on enlisting more European support and supporting President Zelensky’s efforts to advance reforms that would end an era of corruption in Ukraine.

White House press gaggle with VP Pence, October 10, 2019

But that was then. With the impeachment inquiry underway, Pence changed his mind.

The timing of the move to classify the call means that “the most transparent president in history” has a vice president with something to hide. It also hints that Pence was more deeply involved in Trump’s effort to use the leader of Ukraine as a political prop. 

What’s strange about all this is that as recently as November 7th the Pence-Zelensky phone call wasn’t yet a secret.

The September 18th Phone Call

That’s the day that Jennifer Williams, the Pence aide who testified Tuesday, appeared before the House intelligence committee for her deposition. According to a transcript of the deposition – stamped “UNCLASSIFIED” on every page – Williams described the call in some detail, calling it a “very positive discussion.”

In her deposition, Williams testified that during the now-classified September 18th phone call, Pence had reiterated that the frozen military aid was now being released.

Even though the hold on the aid had been lifted, there were still things that the Ukrainians very much wanted, namely, a visit with the White House with President Trump. It was important for Zelensky, a novice politician, to show Ukrainians that the U.S. president had his back.

In addition, Pence told Zelensky that President Trump was looking forward to meeting him the following week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Williams said that Pence had not provided Zelensky with any specific guidance on what to say to Trump during their upcoming meeting, but did refer to Ukrainian corruption in general terms. The vice president said Trump “would be eager to hear about Zelensky’s progress” on Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms.  

A White House readout of the call stated “The Vice President commended President Zelensky’s administration for its bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”

Pence didn’t go into specifics, but he did discuss corruption. This is key: Several Trump administration officials have testified in depositions that “corruption” was code for the specific investigations that the president had mentioned in his July 25 call.

Tuesday’s surprise announcement that the Pence-Zelensky phone call was now a secret and it couldn’t even be discussed in a public session of Congress lends credence that testimony.

“In other words, no pressure”

The decision to classify the September 18th phone call also raises the question of whether Vice President Pence played a role in something that unfolded when Presidents Zelensky and Trump met September 25 in New York.

Trump and Zelensky’s meeting in New York came on the heels of Trump’s release of a transcript of the July 25 phone call between the two men that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.

During a joint news conference in New York, an uncomfortable-looking Zelenskyy was asked whether he felt pressure during the call with Trump.

“It was normal,” the Ukrainian leader replied. “We spoke about many things.  And I — so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed — pushed me.”

Trump jumped in to state, “In other words, no pressure.”

With Pence classifying his call, I can’t help but wonder whether this was another “favor” the White House had asked of Zelensky. Had Pence’s mentions of “corruption” and the fact that the aid was being released sent some signal in his call that the New York meeting was important to the president?

We do know that Pence did play a role in Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into serving up an investigation that would help him politically, as Williams’ testimony Tuesday showed.

In May, Trump “decided” that Pence would not attend Zelensky’s inauguration, even though the vice president had already accepted the invitation, Williams told the House.

The Warsaw Meeting

On September 1, Pence and Zelensky met in Poland at a commemoration of World War II.

Update: On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified that he briefed Pence about the meeting and the issue of investigations.

“I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations,” Sondland said.

Pence knew what he meant. Sondland agreed that Pence did not ask “Gordon, what are you talking about?’ or “What investigations?’

Pence’s office, now in full damage control mode, denies this.

During that meeting in Warsaw, Zelensky asked the vice president about news articles reporting that $391 million in military aid for Ukraine was being held up. Politico had reported about the hold just a few days earlier. Here’s how Williams described it in her deposition

Once the cameras left the room, the very first question that President Zelensky had was about the status of security assistance. And the VP responded by really expressing our ongoing support for Ukraine, but wanting to hear from President Zelensky, you know, what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back to the President, and also wanting to hear if there was more that European countries could do to support Ukraine.

Deposition of Jennifer Williams

There it is again. Zelensky asks about the security assistance. We support you, Pence responds, but what about the “reform efforts that he could then convey back to the president.” It’s less crude than Trump’s request to “do us a favor” in his July 25 call with Zelensky, but it’s basically the same.

The corruption box is also ticked in the White House readout of the Sept. 1 Pence-Zelensky meeting:

The Vice President met today with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine in Warsaw, Poland, following the Ceremony of the 80th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II. The Vice President conveyed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. He commended President Zelenskyy for his government’s efforts to introduce bold reform legislation to combat corruption and improve the business climate to encourage foreign investment. The leaders also discussed recent progress toward securing Ukraine’s energy independence.

Williams, who attended the meeting, testified Tuesday in her opening statement, that Zelensky also told Pence that withholding military aid would only help Russia.

“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Williams said, referring to what the Ukrainian leader told the U.S. vice president.

Williams said that the two men did not discuss specific investigations that Trump had outlined for Zelensky.

“The vice president responded that Ukraine had the United States’ unwavering support and promised to relay their conversation to President Trump that night,” Williams said.

Pence did speak to Trump that night, but Williams said she wasn’t privy to the conversation. The military aid to Ukraine wasn’t unfrozen for another 10 days.

The Problem with “Letting the Voters Decide” about Donald Trump

Photo via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8M6PhK

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and President Trump’s former UN ambassador, is out with a new book this week. Casting her lot with Trump and his base, Haley says she doesn’t think her former boss has done anything to merit impeachment.

“There’s just nothing impeachable there, and more than that, I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why do we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?” Haley told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell.

Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who was so fond of telling us during the Clinton impeachment hearings that “character matters,” agrees with Haley.

“Let the voters decide who should be president! This impeachment inquiry is a sham and is an attack on our democracy,” Reed tweeted.

“Let the voters decide” is fast becoming the impeachment battle cry of Trump and his band of loyal Republicans who say the president’s only real “crime” was winning the 2016 election.

But Trump’s defenders have it backwards. Impeachment is the only remedy left for a president who has welcomed, solicited, and extorted foreign interference in our elections. Letting the voters decide is a fine idea when elections are free and fair, but there is simply no guarantee that an election will be free and fair as long as Trump’s name is on the ballot.

The framers of the Constitution worried about foreign interference in elections, which they saw as chief among “the most deadly adversaries of republican government.” But the framers surely never anticipated a president like Trump who would make foreign interference in domestic politics an element of his statecraft.

As the impeachment inquiry in Congress has made painfully clear, the scheme that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, cooked up in Ukraine took advantage of a beleaguered country’s need for help battling Russian invaders and sought to use it for Trump’s political advantage back home. Congressionally-appropriated money for Javelin anti-tank weapons was held hostage as the White House tried to coerce Ukraine’s new president into announcing an investigation of a company connected to Joe Biden’s son.

To be sure, politics is a dirty business and candidates have been slinging mud in elections for as long as we’ve had them. But using the power of the presidency to coerce a shaky democracy into investigating the family of a political opponent is so breathtakingly corrupt that it manages to undermine American democracy, damage the rule of law, weaken a U.S. ally, and undermine our national security all at the same time.

The cry of “let the voters decide” signals a retreat to safer ground from the earlier, now abandoned position that no such quid pro quo occurred. An anonymous whistleblower followed by a parade of current and former members of the administration who defied the White House told Congress a sordid story about the administration’s shady goings-on in Ukraine. That led Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who serves as Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, to “refresh” his recollection and concede, contrary to his earlier denials, that not only was there an ultimatum given to Ukraine, but he was the one who had delivered it.

Letting the voters decide might be a plausible if Ukraine were the only instance of foreign interference in a Trump election, but it isn’t. Russia interfered in the 2016 election in what Special Counsel Robert Mueller called a “sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Trump, and the campaign welcomed some offers of Russian assistance, such as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian attorney whose offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton was described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Not much has changed. Offers of help from abroad were still welcome in the Trump campaign, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent Trump’s campaign chairman, his lawyer and a campaign aide to prison for lying about Russia. The president told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June that there was nothing wrong with accepting dirt from foreign governments. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said — a statement that was noted by the anonymous whistleblower in his complaint laying out the details of the president’s efforts to shake down Ukraine.

The trial of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political advisor, is a reminder of the lengths the Trump campaign was willing to go in order to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election. As early as April 2016, Stone was informing the Trump campaign of upcoming Wikileaks email dumps of emails stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian intelligence. Prosecutors said that Stone repeatedly lied to Congress about his contacts with Wikileaks because “the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”

The toxic combination of foreign interference and Trump’s desire to win at all costs also may go a long way to explaining Trump’s strange attraction to tyrants and strongmen like Vladimir Putin. Trump was clearly willing to punish Ukraine because it wasn’t willing to “do us a favor,” as he put it, and help the president politically. Just imagine what Trump would do for a country that did help him win.

As new details emerge, one can’t help but wonder how many other times the Trump White House solicited foreign interference in episodes that we don’t yet know about. How many testimonies collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller might have been “refreshed” had courageous insiders stood up to Trump’s bullying and blown the whistle? How many witnesses were less than forthcoming because of the intimidation Trump openly directed at those who stood in his way?

In the end, impeachment isn’t about who wins, regardless of what Trump says. It’s about whether Congress believes foreign governments belong in our elections and whether a leader who welcomes help from abroad or tries to extort it is worthy of letting the people cast their votes for him.

On Red Sparrows

“There is a colossal institute of co-opted Soviet girls,” an ex-KGB man told a room full of U.S. senators. “There were many, many co-opted Soviet girls with different appearance, different talents.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that day in 1970 was a KGB defector named Yuri Krotkov, testifying under the alias of George Karlin.

Krotkov, a Soviet screenwriter, playwright and radio correspondent who defected in 1963, called these women “swallows” because like the birds, they are “gentle” and “soft.”

Testimony of George Karlin

Krotkov said he “recommended” — procured, one might say — “swallows” for the KGB. “The swallows are clever girls,” Krotkov continued, “they want all sorts of jobs with foreigners, they dream about them, even if it is risky, because they hope, they would marry them, maybe they would go abroad.”

One of his swallows became a mistress to Sukarno, the president of Indonesia. Another was used to seduce Maurice Dejean the French ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1964.

The goal, Krotkov said, was to use these “swallows” to get these foreigners to do something for the KGB.

Today, these sorts of women are better known as “sparrows,” after the best-selling 2013 book Red Sparrow by former CIA officer Jason Matthews (highly recommended, and the way) and film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The closest thing we have to a real-life “swallow” or a “sparrow” these days is Maria Butina, the redheaded Russian graduate student who went to prison for acting as a clandestine Russian foreign agent. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, Alexander Torshin.

Prosecutors initially accused Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job. That allegation was soon withdrawn, with prosecutors saying they had misread a text.

During her time in the United States, Butina did have affairs well-connected older men, such as Paul Erickson, who was well connected in Republican circles. With help from Erickson, Butina infiltrated the National Rifle Association, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA annual meeting, and came very close to a meeting with President Trump. You can read more about that here.

Another man who had a romantic affair with Butina was Patrick Byrne, then the chief executive of Overtstock.com. You can read what Byrne told me about his relationship with Butina and the FBI here.

Maria Butina and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.

A few months ago, I met with Byrne at a hotel in downtown San Diego and he told me a story that, I think, reveals a lot about Maria Butina.

Byrne wrote part of the story last month on his blog, Deep Capture, but his account leaves out what I view as the most revealing part.

In the spring 2018, Byrne was visiting Washington, D.C. when he got a message from Butina. She somehow knew that he was in town and asked to come by his hotel room. Butina had received a master’s degree in international relations from American University and she wanted to show him her diploma. She arrived and after a while pulled out her cellphone and showed him a picture of her transcript.

“…. Then she swiped the screen. I was staring at a subpoena she had received from the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. She told me about being questioned by Senate Intel, about how the forces of the [U.S. government] were closing in on her.”

Missing from that account is something Butina told Byrne in that hotel room. According to Byrne, Butina told him that the Senate Intelligence Committee had spent “about a third of their time” asking about him, Patrick Byrne. “They have a stack of every message, every text, every email we every wrote,” Byrne said Butina told him.

It was the last time Byrne saw Butina. A few weeks later she was arrested on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. Butina pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released last month and returned home to Russia where she was welcomed as a hero.

There’s a good reason why Byrne left out the part about the Senate Intelligence Committee asking about him: It wasn’t true.

I checked with Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. Butina’s Senate testimony isn’t public but he had a copy and he reviewed it at my request. “No reference to Patrick after a pretty close skim,” he emailed me.

I relayed this to Byrne:

According to Byrne, he told her to go home to Russia. She told him she couldn’t. If she did, she would serve 15 years in prison. As Butina’s heroic welcoming in Moscow shows, this, too, was a lie. He told her to the FBI. She said that, as a Russian, she couldn’t.

Some will no doubt say that perhaps Byrne was lying. I don’t think so. When he told me this story, he seemed to believe it. Even so, he encouraged me to go check this account with Driscoll. That’s not something a liar would do.

I think Butina told Byrne a well-crafted lie. Since her testimony was sealed, she knew whatever she told Byrne about would be impossible to verify. Also, it’s no secret that Byrne saw himself at the center of various intrigues. Thus, it was a lie that he would be likely to accept without much fuss.

The question is why. Why would Butina lie to Byrne? Why was she using him and what for? Had someone told her to make this approach Byrne? Did she hope to provoke a reaction? Did she know that Byrne was talking to the FBI?

I wrote Butina several letters in prison to see if she was willing to talk about this. She never responded. As often happens with intelligence-related matters, we are left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a revealing glimpse into the world of woman who was much more than a foreign grad student. A “sparrow” or a “swallow” was a beautiful seductress. Maria Butina was using her brains as well as her body.

Who Is Harry Sargeant III?

As a young journalist, I was taught to write what’s known in the trade as a “nut graf,” a brief summary of what my story was all about.

I regret to inform you that it is beyond my abilities to write a sentence or two that sums up Harry Sargeant III, whose name has surfaced in the congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump and Ukraine.

The best I can do is tell you that it would include the following: Ukraine, President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, CIA, a sex tape, straw donors, prostitutes in a golf cart, “war profiteering,” the CIA, the Jordanian royal family, and overseas bribery allegations.

“Bad news”

Sargeant’s name was mentioned several times in the just-released testimony of Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top advisor on Russia, who says Sargeant was involved in Giuliani’s Ukraine adventures on behalf of President Trump:

Hill goes on to say she learned that Sergeant was “bad news” after speaking with her colleagues in some organization whose name has been redacted, presumably because it’s related to intelligence or national security. And Sargeant had something to do with Hill’s feeling that the current Ukraine mess is her “worst nightmare.”

Q. Dr. Hill, you sajd in the last segment of your testimony that we’re now living your worst nightmare. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? What do you mean by that?

A Well, I was extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal , especially after, you know, people had raised with me these two gentlemen, Parnas and Fruman. And also they’d mentioned this third individual who, I mean, I guess is actually on the list of names that you had because I didn’t recognize all the others of, Harry Sargeant and when I’d spoken to my colleagues who, you know, were based in Florida, including our director for the Western Hemisphere, and he’d mentioned that these people were notorious and that, you know, they’d been involved in all kinds of strange things in Venezuela and, you know, kind of were just well-known for not being aboveboard. And so my early assumption was that it was pushing particular individuals’ business interests.

Sargeant rarely speaks to reporters, but in a press release he put out last month, the former fighter pilot, oil billionaire, and GOP fundraiser, insisted that he “conducts no business of any kind in the Ukraine and has not visited Ukraine, even as a tourist, in well over a decade.”

Regular meetings with President Trump?

Sargeant was responding to was a report by The Associated Press that placed him inside a plot to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company, Naftogaz, and then steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies.

Also involved in the plan were Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two of Rudy Giuliani’s clients who were helping him dig up dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden and his family. Parnas and Fruman were indicted in Manhattan on campaign-finance violations.

“In early March,” the AP wrote, “Fruman, Parnas and Sargeant were touting a plan to replace Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev with another senior executive at the company, Andrew Favorov, according to two individuals who spoke to the AP as well as a memorandum about the meeting that was later submitted to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, formerly known as Kiev.”

“Sargeant told Favorov that he regularly meets with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and that the gas-sales plan had the president’s full support, according to the two people who said Favorov recounted the discussion to them,” the AP wrote.

Sargeant conceded that he did attend a March 2019 dinner with Favorov, Fruman, and Parnas “to offer his views on the global oil and gas industry.” He denies discussing taking part in any venture in Ukraine. “Attending a single, informal dinner in Houston does not place Mr. Sargeant at the center of any Naftogaz or Ukrainian business plan,” Sargeant’s release states.

And what about his regular meetings with Trump at Mar-a-Lago?

Sargeant concludes his statement with a non-denial denial: “Mr. Sargeant is not a member of Mar-a-Lago and has never met there with Donald Trump since Mr. Trump has been President.”

The Sex Tape

But Ukraine is only the beginning of the intrigues that surround Sargeant, whose life is like something ripped from the pages of a spy novel.

Sargeant currently embroiled in a court case in London that involves “video material of a sexual nature” featuring Sargeant and a “successful businesswoman in a heavily regulated industry that is reputation sensitive,” according to court filings obtained by The Financial Times.

Sargeant has sued his brother, Daniel, for unlawfully obtaining sensitive photos and videos that were stored on a corporate server belonging to Sargeant Marine, a large family-owned asphalt company.

The explicit video found its way into the hands of Daniel Hall, who ran a business tracking down assets for wealthy clients. Hall obtained the sex tape as part of an effort to try and force Sargeant to pay a $28.8 million court judgement he owed to one of his former business partners.

Sargeant Marine’s name surfaced in Brazil’s “Car Wash” for allegedly paying bribes to local government officials, but Harry Sargeant says he had nothing to do with that. He was ousted from the business several years earlier amid a vicious dispute that spawned 14 lawsuits around the country He settled the case and walked away in 2015 with $56 million.

Straw Donors and Prostitutes in a Golf Cart

Harry Sargeant is also a major GOP donor and fund-raiser. Or he used to be.

Sargeant, who is close friends with former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, donated more than $1.5 million for Florida politicians and the state Republican Party, according to campaign finance records. Sargeant raised more than $500,000 for the 2008 Republican presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

After he was elected governor in 2006, Crist asked Sargeant to become finance chair at the Florida Republican Party.

Sargeant resigned from the post in 2009 shortly before one of his employees was indicted for making a $5,000 illegal “straw donation” to Crist and $50,000 in illegal donations to three candidates running for president: McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.

The employee, Ala’a al-Ali, a citizen of both Jordan and the Dominican Republic, was a sales coordinator for Sargeant Marine. He remains a fugitive.

Allegations surfaced about a notorious 2009 men-only party in the Bahamas attended by Sargeant and Crist.

One former GOP official who attended the event testified that he saw a golf cart full of women driven by one of Sargeant’s employees at the event.

“I specifically saw a golf cart with young ladies drive by, the extent of why they were there I did not specifically know,” said the official, Delmar Johnson. “But I could presume they were prostitutes.”

The testimony came in the criminal case against former Florida GOP Party Chairman Jim Greer.

The Jordanian Royal Family

So far this story has mentioned Ukraine, Venezuela and Brazil, but there’s another country where Sargeant has major financial interests: Jordan.

Sargeant had deep ties to the Hashemite Kingdom. In 2007, Sargeant introduced his friend, then-Florida Governor Crist, to the King of Jordan.

Jordan was critical to valuable contracts Sargeant was awarded to supply fuel and oil to with the U.S. military. Not long after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, Sargeant emerged quickly set up a business and won a lucrative contract to provide oil, and later, jet fuel, to coalition troops in Iraq. Sargeant hired Marty Martin, formerly a senior CIA operative who ran Alec Station, the unit that hunted Osama bin Laden, for his oil business.

In 2008, not long after he introduced Crist to the King of Jordan, Sargeant was sued by Mohammed Al-Saleh, a member of the Jordanian royal family who is yet another of Sargeant’s disgruntled former business partners.

Al-Saleh, the brother-in-law of the King of Jordan, said he made the whole venture possible by arranging for the Jordanian government to issue a letter authorizing the transport of oil across Jordan.

In a complaint filed in Palm Beach Circuit Court, Al-Saleh claimed that Sargeant had “conspired to swindle” him out of one third of the profits from the Iraq jet fuel contracts. Sargeant, who gave Al-Saleh the nickname of “Crazy Mo,” testified that Al-Saleh tried to blackmail him.

A competitor, Supreme Fuels Trading FZE, filed a separate racketeering lawsuit in federal court claiming that the millions of dollars paid to Al-Saleh and other Jordanian officials were “bribes” meant to ensure that Sargeant’s company was the only bidder on the fuel contracts. (Supreme Fuels won a $5 million judgement against Sargeant.)

Sergeant was ordered to pay $28.8 million to Al-Saleh after a nearly three-week trial in 2011 that was “watched by note-taking men who said they worked for the federal government, included allegations of bribery of top Jordanian officials, shadowy work by a former CIA agent and Congressional claims of war-profiteering,” the Palm Beach Post reported.

“War Profiteering”

By 2008, as the U.S. occupation of Iraq wore on, Sargeant’s Florida company, International Oil Trading Co., had earned profits of $210 million off military fuel deliveries in Iraq.

That eye-popping figure and Sargeant’s connection to GOP straw donors attracted the attention of Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In 2008, Congressman Waxman accused Sargeant of overcharging by 36 cents a gallon for jet fuel and engaging in a “reprehensible form of war profiteering.”

Between 2004 and 2010, Sargeant’s company won four contracts for the supply of fuel to U.S. troops in Iraq through Jordan valued at $3.1 billion.

An audit by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, initiated at Waxman’s request, found that the Pentagon paid Sargeant’s company “$160 [million] to $204 million (or 6 to 7 percent) more for fuel than could be supported by price or cost analysis.”

That, however, was not the final word. Sargeant sued the Defense Department and emerged with a settlement for $40 million.

Yet another Department of Defense internal investigation concluded “no fraud vulnerabilities were identified” in his company’s contracts to provide jet fuel in Iraq.

One thing is clear from all this: Where Sargeant goes, trouble follows.

The Origins of the Internet Research Agency

The Internet troll factory in St. Petersburg was a surprise to Americans during the 2016 election. In Russia, it was an open secret from its very inception.


Payments Weekly and Free Food!!!

In August 2013, an intriguing posting for jobs in St. Petersburg, Russia appeared on social networks:

“Internet operators wanted! Work in a chic office in OLGINO!!!! (m. Old Village), payment 25,960 rubles per month. Objective: posting comments on specialized Internet sites, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks. Screenshot reports. The work schedule is selected individually <….> Payment is weekly, 1,180 per shift (from 8:00 to 16:00, from 10:30 to 18:30, from 14:00 to 22:00). PAYMENTS WEEKLY AND FREE FOOD !!! Official or contractual employment (optional). Training offered! ”

Original wanted ad for the Internet Research Agency

Novaya Gazeta, the fiercely independent Russian newspaper, sent one of its correspondents to find out what it was all about.

Their queries took them to an address in Olgino, a historical neighborhood in St. Petersburg.

The Internet Research Agency’s original location in Olgino.

The Novaya Gazeta reporters were told they would be required to write 100 comments a day on specified articles. As an example, the reporters were told to write that the recently concluded G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was a great honor for Russia.

The goal was to increase the visibility of these articles in the same way that writing reviews on Amazon boosted product sales, the reporters were told. Robots could do the job, but the sites often blocked them so it was decided to have humans do the work.

Within a few years it would be wreaking havoc in elections around the world, but even in its early days, the group had bigger plans.

It was in the process of recruiting people for an even bigger project that would begin in 2014.

The name of the business was the Internet Research Agency.

“Masha Hari”

Maria Kuprashevich

The Novaya Gazeta reporters were able to figure out who was behind the Internet Research Agency almost immediately because they recognized a former colleague.

Her name was Maria Kuprashevich (Марию Купрашевич).

The reporters knew Kuprashevich because she had been sent undercover to work in the advertising department at their newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

In fact, Kuprashevich worked in the PR department of Concord Catering, a company owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.” Novaya Gazeta dubbed her “Masha Hari” after the famous woman who spied for Germany during World War I.

Prigozhin was a convicted criminal whose connections ran all the way to the top chain of Russian command. Prigozhin had been found guilty of robbery and was a member of an organized crime group that practiced fraud and involved “minors in prostitution,” as I wrote in Trump/Russia:

Yevgeny Prigozhin

He served nine years in prison and was released in 1990, opening a hot dog stand as the Soviet Union collapsed around him. He then managed a chain of grocery stores and in 1997 opened a restaurant in an old ship called New Island that became one of St. Petersburg’s hottest restaurants. And it was through that restaurant that Prigozhin not only became wealthy, but fell into Putin’s inner circle.

Russian president Vladimir Putin dined at New Island with French president Jacques Chirac in the summer of 2001. Prigozhin personally served the two heads of state. Putin not only became a regular at New Island, but Prigozhin became the Russian president’s favored caterer, which earned him his derisive nickname. He was awarded lucrative contracts to provide lunches to Moscow schoolchildren and feed Russian soldiers.

In return, the Kremlin called on him to perform jobs that it did not want attributed to the state.

Facing West

The first Western journalist to take note of the Internet Research Agency was Max Seddon, then writing for Buzzfeed (now with The Financial Times).

Seddon got hold of internal organization documents posted online by anonymous hackers.

Seddon’s June 2014 story in Buzzfeed showed that the organization was reaching far beyond Russia’s borders. In the internal documents were guidelines on posting in the comments sections of Fox News, The Huffington Post, The BlazePolitico, and WorldNetDaily.

Few, however, were paying attention.

By the time Seddon’s story ran, the Internet Research Agency had upgraded to a four-story office building on Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg and the troll factory was in full operation.

IRA employees known as “specialists” were expected to create false online personas on these sites known as “sock puppet” accounts complete with fake names and photos.

Specialists had to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they were expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the were expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

“We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” one former employee told The Guardian of London. For this, she was paid 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. English-language trolls could earn up to $1,000 a month.

Working conditions were miserable. Employees were fined for being a few minutes late or not reaching the required number of posts each day. Editors imposed fines if they found posts had been cut and pasted or were ideologically irrelevant.

Another cache of internal documents smuggled out by IRA employees and published by the St. Petersburg publication Moi Region included the following job description:

TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.

Cited in Information Wars by Richard Stengel

The organization’s paid trolls were being given specific themes to write about that included the United States.

The USA

US policies are aimed at achieving a unipolar world. They are ready to destroy any country to achieve their goal.

The EU and NATO act on the orders of the United States. Because of this, Europe cannot establish relations with Russia.

The internal problems of the United States are violence, terrorism, obesity—but they try to teach the whole world how to live!

The only thing America ever gave the world was Coca-Cola and that turned out to be poison.

Stengel, Information Wars

Employees told the Russian news site MR-7 that training was provided by a “bearded, intelligent man” who printed out particularly illiterate posts, passed them around and sighed.

Another journalist even managed to film surreptitiously inside the IRA, which looks like any modern office anywhere:

A Troll Abroad

What Seddon other Russian journalists had caught a glimpse of was a much larger story that would only become clear when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency and its top officials.

According to the special counsel’s indictment, the Internet Research Agency was already planning on interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by May 2014.

The Internet Research Agency had formed a department that was called, among other things, the “translator project.” Its stated goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

The translator project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Anna Bogacheva

Two employees traveled to the United States to “gather intelligence” in June 2014, according to an indictment filed by the special counsel’s office. Aleksandra Krylova, the organization’s third-highest ranking employee, and Anna Bogacheva, director of the translator project’s data analysis group, made stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.

Prior to the trip, the two women had worked with their colleagues to plan itineraries and purchase equipment, including “cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones.” They also worked on various “evacuation scenarios” and other security measures for their trip.

Another employee traveled to Atlanta, Georgia in November 2014.

A memo distributed inside troll factory shows how they had used the intelligence gathered from the U.S. trip to formulate angles of attack that were sure to produce a deliberate provocation:

Main idea:

The ongoing series of accidents in the United States, caused by the lack of American authorities concern for the safety of their citizens.

We are forming a negative post condemning the policy of the American authorities.

News:

In Texas, a three-year-old boy died by accidentally shooting himself with a pistol found in a bag.

Theses:

In Houston, a three-year-old boy found a loaded pistol in his mother’s bag and accidentally shot himself in the head. The child was taken to the hospital by helicopter, but it was not possible to save his life.

According to police, the woman left an open bag with weapons on a shelf and for several minutes went into another room. The child somehow took out a bag and found a gun. So far, no charges have been brought in this case, TASS reports.

In the United States, several similar tragedies have recently occurred. So, in January, in the state of Florida, a two-year-old child died by shooting himself in the chest with a pistol, which he found in the interior of the parent’s car. And a few days earlier in Missouri, a five-year-old boy shot his nine-month-old brother from a revolver found at home.

Output:

The irresponsibility of the American authorities, not paying attention to such incidents, leads to accidents. The weapons that every US citizen has (practically) are in the public domain and, as a result, fall into the hands of children.

Instead of protecting the country’s citizens from weapons and drugs, US authorities continue to develop aggression around the world, not paying attention to what is happening inside the country.

A Terrorist Attack in Louisiana?

On September 11, 2014, residents in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana got a disturbing text message: “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM. Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

Twitter accounts were lighting up with reports of an explosion at a Columbia Chemicals plant.

There was even a screenshot of what looked like CNN’s home page, with the plant explosion leading the news.

There was a Wikipedia page, a YouTube video of a man showing his TV screen with masked ISIS fighters next to footage of an explosion. But if anybody bothered to check, there was no explosion; the CNN page, the Wikipedia page, the YouTube video were all fakes.

As Adrian Chen revealed in his incredible story in The New York Times Magazine it was a hoax pulled off by the Internet Research Agency.

This was a modern twist on an old spy game, one that was very familiar to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the World War II predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, as I wrote in Trump/Russia:

The OSS didn’t have the benefit of social media, but the operatives in its Morale Operations branch used what they called “rumors” as weapons of war against Nazi Germany. According to a now-declassified 1943 field manual, the OSS developed a special class of gossip called “subversive rumors.”

This form of scuttlebutt could be used “to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources” and “to create division among racial, political, [and] religious” groups within a country. Subversive rumors could be used to “create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports.” The OSS believed that the best fake gossip was simple, plausible, and vivid, the more “strong emotional content” the better. “Rarely can [rumors] by themselves change basic attitudes,” the OSS field manual declared in highlighting the limits of their new word-of-mouth weapon. “Their function is to confirm suspicions and beliefs already latent; to give sense and direction to fears, resentments, or hopes that have been built up by more materialistic causes; to tip the balance when public opinion is in a precarious state.”

The Soviet KGB also understood the nature of rumors. The KGB’s Service A was the unit tasked with running aktivnye meropriiatiia—covert “active measures” designed to sow distrust against the West. One example included developing fraudulent info about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Another was Operation Infektion, a KGB-planted rumor that the AIDS virus had escaped from a biological weapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Thousands of people were involved in the active measures operations, which were integrated into the whole of the Soviet government, and they surely would have been familiar to Vladimir Putin, who was just beginning his KGB career in 1980, a time when the CIA estimated that the annual cost of the Soviet Union’s active measures program was no less than $3 billion a year. In the 1990s, the United States asked Russia to stop these rumor campaigns, but Sergei Tretyakov, a high-ranking Russian spy who defected to the United States in 2000, said nothing changed. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.,” Tretyakov said in a 2008 book, Comrade J. “Let me repeat this. Russia is doing everything it can today to undermine and embarrass the U.S.

What the Internet Research Agency really represented was a modern Russian version of the old OSS rumor factory and KGB active measures division. Social media gave the St. Petersburg operatives a power the likes of which neither the OSS nor the KGB could have imagined. The OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors; the KGB planted the AIDS rumor in a newspaper in India. The modern influence operative didn’t have to leave his or her desk in St. Petersburg. In the hands of a spy, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were machines for the rapid transmission of rumors. But one needed to flip through the musty pages of the OSS field manual to see how well their creed holds up today, and just how accurately the St. Petersburg troll factory was able to wreak havoc on the American public during the 2016 presidential election.


In February 2016, an outline of themes for future content was circulating inside the Internet Research Agency. The organization’s “specialists” were instructed to post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”

The Internet Research Agency’s sock puppet accounts would produce pro-Trump social media postings, pro-Trump Twitter accounts, pro-Trump rallies, pro-Trump political ads.

By September, the IRA was spending $1.25 million a month on operations on “Project Lakhta,” which involved Russian domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences in the United States and elsewhere.

More than 80 people were working in the American part of the translator project by July 2016 and employees were posting more than 1,000 pieces of content per week, reaching between 20 and 30 million people in the month of September alone.

Conclusions

  1. When you hear of foreign actors making big plans to influence the West, believe them. Information operations are cheap, and they work.
  2. It’s fairly easy to figure out who is behind these operations, but in Russia it doesn’t matter which oligarch is behind it. They are proxies for the Kremlin.
  3. Russian information operations test out strategies and themes and spend years refining them.
  4. Read critically. Verify everything before you trust it.