The Trump Justice Department has decided to open a criminal investigation into the origins into the FBI’s investigation into the links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Leading this investigation is a veteran federal prosecutor named John Durham.
The New York Times reports that Durham wants to interview former officials who ran the CIA in 2016. Some CIA officials have retained criminal lawyers in anticipation of being questioned.
Durham has investigated the CIA before in a case that I know very well. And the outcome of that investigation tells us a lot about what justice means when it comes to the actions of the U.S. intelligence community.
In 2009, Durham was tapped to investigate the homicide of an Iraqi prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi’s corpse appears in the gruesome photos taken by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. Grinning soldiers flash thumbs up over his decomposing body.
Al-Jamadi was a “high-value target,” suspecting of supplying explosives in the October 2003 bombing of a Red Cross facility in Baghdad that killed 12 and a group of Navy SEALs was sent out to go and get him. The SEALs captured al-Jamadi in his home the following month in a nighttime raid. They had returned to their base. There, the SEAL and CIA team that captured ai-Jamadi took turns punching, kicking and striking him with their rifles after he was detained in a small area in the Navy camp at Baghdad International Airport known as the “Romper Room.”
A CIA interrogator threatened him, saying: “I’m going to barbecue you if you don’t tell me the information.” A government report states that another CIA security guard recalled al-Jamadi saying he was dying. “You’ll be wishing you were dying,” the interrogator replied.
Al-Jamadi was handed over to the CIA. The next day, he was dead.
A group of Navy SEALs was being prosecuted for abusing al-Jamadi – but, critically, not for killing him. Exactly how al-Jamadi died was shrouded in mystery and the CIA was working very hard to keep it that way. A team of young CIA lawyers sat with us journalists during the courtroom proceedings in a San Diego Navy base. When one of the SEALs’ defense lawyers asked a curious question – “what position was al-Jamadi in when he died?” – a CIA lawyer stood up and objected. “That’s classified,” he said.
Back then, when I working for The Associated Press, I found out that al-Jamadi had died in the shower room at Abu Ghraib a position known as a “Palestinian hanging” – a position that human rights groups condemn as torture.
His arms, which were handcuffed behind his back, were attached by a chain to the wall behind him. If he tried to sit or lie down his arms would be wrenched up painfully behind his back. And that’s how he died, with his arms wrenched behind his back. One Army guard, Sgt. Jeffery Frost, told investigators he was surprised al-Jamadi’s arms “didn’t pop out of their sockets.”
This was a crucifixion. “Asphyxia is what he died from — as in a crucifixion,” said the military pathologist who ruled the case a homicide.
There were only two people in the room with al-Jamadi when he died, a CIA interrogator and a translator. The interrogator’s name, I found out later, was Mark B. Swanner.
Swanner told guards that al-Jamadi was “playing possum” — faking it — and then watched as guards struggled to get him on his feet. But the guards realized it was useless.
“After we found out he was dead, they were nervous,” Spc. Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. “They didn’t know what the hell to do.” Blood was cleaned up. Evidence was disposed of and al-Jamadi was spirited out of the prison with an IV attached to his lifeless arm to make it appear that he was still alive.
But years later, all that had come of it was that a bunch of Navy SEALs were spending their life savings hiring defense attorneys. Of the 10 who were accused, nine ended up with nonjudicial punishment. A SEAL officer was acquitted at trial.
As for Swanner, nothing was happening to him. The CIA’s Inspector General referred the case to the Justice Department, but nothing happened. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote a big story about Swanner. Still nothing.
In August 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed Durham to review roughly a dozen cases of alleged abuse against “war on terror” suspects that had gone dormant. He narrowed the cases down to two: Al-Jamadi and an Afghani named Gul Rahman.
Durham convened a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia and began calling witnesses. TIME magazine obtained a subpoena signed by Durham that stated “the grand jury is conducting an investigation of possible violations of federal criminal laws involving War Crimes (18 USC/2441), Torture (18 USC 243OA) and related federal offenses.”
Once again, the Navy SEALs who captured al-Jamadi were called up to testify. One SEAL called me after he received a subpoena. He was angry and upset that he had to go through the whole ordeal all over again. I put him in touch with a DC attorney I knew who agreed to help him out.
Three years went by. In 2012, Holder announced that “based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The word “admissible” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.
Durham had looked at whether Swanner had used “unauthorized” interrogation techniques. “The approach taken in the inquiry was not to prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the justice department’s Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees,” the Guardian wrote.
In other words, CIA officers were immune from prosecution as long as they stayed within the guidelines of the dubious “Torture Memo” drafted in 2002 by John Yoo that was withdrawn, reinstated, and ultimately rescinded by President Obama. Although Yoo’s memo only applied to one high-level al Qaida suspect, the CIA treated it as a generalized authorization to use the “enhanced” techniques on detainees held at black sites.
According to Yoo’s memo, placing a prisoner on the floor with legs extended and arms raised above his head was authorized as a “stress position.” Yoo said such a position “falls far below the threshold of severe physical pain” that would constitute torture.
The legal reasoning here, as applied to Swanner, appears to have been equally tortured, for it implies that although al-Jamadi was crucified to death he didn’t experience severe physical pain.
When Durham’s decision was announced, the CIA breathed a sigh of relief; human rights advocates called it a scandal. “Continuing impunity threatens to undermine the universally recognized prohibition on torture and other abusive treatment,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The question is whether John Durham will find a way to do what he failed to in the al-Jamadi case: prosecute CIA officials for daring to investigate a presidential campaign that, as the Muller Report found, welcomed offers of Russian assistance.
It may be that investigating a presidential candidate carries greater risks than crucifying a man to death.
The block is East 64th Street in Manhattan between Madison and Fifth avenues, one of the poshest in the city.
Residents and owners have over the years included Trump’s children, the family of Jared Kushner, a Russian oligarch, a Soviet-born billionaire and major GOP donor, and the family of another Russian oligarch friendly with Ivanka.
The story of East 64th Street isn’t a story of collusion over a cup of borrowed sugar, but rather a story about the global elite — people from all over the world who are connected by networks of money, power and influence that concentrate themselves in cities like New York and London.
Just across the street from Central Park, you’ll find the limestone mansion that Trump’s children once called home. Don Junior, Ivanka and Eric Trump moved into 10 E. 64th Street after their mother, Ivana, was granted sole custody in her tumultuous 1992 divorce. Ivana still lives in the building.
Across the street, at 11 E. 64 Street, sits a mansion owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch and aluminum tycoon who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Deripaska’s stake in the building was revealed in a case brought in New York by Alexander Gliklad, who was seeking billions in dollars from Deripaska:
U.S. government sanctions prevent Deripaska from selling the pied-a-terre he purchased a decade ago for $42.5 million from art dealer Alec Wildenstein.
Complicating matters, Deripaska’s house was occupied last year by the ex-wife and children of Roman Abramovich, another Russian oligarch connected to Putin who is perhaps best known for his ownership of London’s Chelsea Football Club.
Dasha Zhukova, Abramovich’s ex-wife, listed her address as 11 East 64th Street on this New York City property record a year ago:
Perhaps not coincidentally, Dasha Zhukova happens to be good friends with Ivanka Trump. The two women have known each other for more than a decade and were photographed together at the U.S. Open tennis tournament during the 2016 presidential election. Abramovich and Kusher have met three to four times in social settings, Bloomberg reported.
Another owner on East 64th Street is Ukrainian-born Len Blavatnick, one of the richest men in the world. Blavatnik spent $90 million to buy a Gilded Age limestone townhouse at 19 E. 64th St.
Blavatnik is a business partner of his 64th Street neighbor, Oleg Deripaska. The two have stakes in Rusal, one of the world’s biggest aluminum producers, although Deripaska was recently forced by the U.S. government to give up control of the company.
One of Rusal’s major shareholders, SUAL Partners Limited, was founded by Blavatnik and the sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Blavatnik resigned from Rusal’s board two days after Donald Trump was elected president.
Blavatnik, who is now a citizen of both Britain and America, donated $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration
During the 2016 election, Blavatnik contributed another $6.35 million to leading Republican candidates and incumbent senators.
The top recipient was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who raked in $2.5 million for his GOP Senate Leadership Fund under the names of two of Blavatnik’s holding companies, Access Industries and AI Altep Holdings.
Marco Rubio’s Conservative Solutions PAC and his Florida First Project received $1.5 million through Blavatnik’s two holding companies. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina received $800,000 from Blavatnik’s company. Ohio Governor John Kasich took $250,000 from Blavatnik and Arizona Senator John McCain another $200,000.
Blavatnik had tried to buy 19 E. 64th St. for years. He even sued the previous owners, the Wildenstein family, when an earlier deal fell through. His lawsuit describes the building in almost loving terms:
The Kushners long had a presence on the block as well. A family company purchased 26 E. 64th Street in 1989 and sold it 2007, the same year that Jared met Ivanka.
Finally, the last person I could find connected to Trump on this fascinating block was Verina Hixon, who used to rent an apartment at 14 E. 64th Street. She was kicked out for nonpayment of maintenance fees.
Hixon’s story is just as wild as any of her better-known neighbors. The Daily Beast ran a story about her titled “The Party Girl Who Brought Trump to His Knees.”
In 1982, the Austrian-born, Swiss-educated Hixon bought four apartments in Trump Tower for $10 million. The apartments were widely believed to belong to Hixon’s “friend,” John Cody, head of a local Teamsters union that was closely linked to the Cosa Nostra. Cody went to jail, Hixon went bankrupt and lost the Trump Tower apartments.
She found a new home on East 64th Street where she befriended Ivana Trump. Ivana visited Hixon’s $20 million chalet in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Ivana brought along her dachshunds who relieved themselves all over Hixon’s home and that was the end of their friendship.
“July 2015: That is when the Russian investigation started, not July 2016. That is the big coverup.”
Editor’s note: There is an updated version of this post available here.
Not long ago, I had an email exchange with Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, about his relationship with Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist who was sentenced to prison after she tried to set up a backchannel between the Trump camapign and the Kremlin.
Byrne told me three high-ranking officials (whom he calls “X,Y, and Z”) in the Obama administration directed him to “resume a romantic relationship” with Butina. He says the Russia investigation started when he contacted the FBI (which he refers to as the “Men in Black”) about Butina in July 2015. Byrne says he has a “non-standard relationship” with the FBI.
I have concerns about Byrne’s credibility, as I noted in a previous post, and I’ve tried, with limited success, to verify his claims. What I’ve been able to confirm is that Byrne and Butina did meet in July 2015. Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, has confirmed that they did have a romantic relationship. Driscoll also says the government “flatly denied” his speculation that Byrne was a government informant.
The Justice Department declined my request for comment, although, interestingly, my email was routed to Peter Carr, former spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Carr is now with the Office of Professional Responsibility, which will be handling any investigation into Byrne’s claims.
So there things stood until this week, when Byrne’s story took on a life of its own. Overstock issued a press release in which Byrne announced, “I am the notorious ‘missing Chapter 1’ of the Russian investigation.” (The company’s stock fell more than 30 percent on the news.) On Thursday, The New York Times followed up with a story on Byrne’s claims.
I believe people need to hear what Byrne told me, so here goes:
Q. You met Maria Butina at Freedom Fest in July 2015.
Q. You began dating shortly thereafter.
A. No. We had an intellectual discussion for 90 minutes. She knew all about me already.
She told me there was a circle in Russia of about 150 liberals, from across the Russian power structure, including the oligarchs. They watched my videos on liberalism. They know about my relationship with Milton Friedman. They discuss things I say and write.
They had sent her with a message for me to come to Moscow to speak on Bitcoin, then go to the Altai Mountains to a resort that would be shut down for three days so I could meet with 40-45 people from across the Russian power structure — government, oligarchs — to discuss liberalism, John Stuart Mill, Hayek, etc.
We parted after meeting that day in Vegas, her stipulating that we would text to make future arrangements and that she would be texting me under the guise of us having a romantic relationship.
I reported that night to my clearance authority (where I once kept a low level clearance due to some minor advisory work I do in foreign policy).
I gave a description of the situation and wanted to know:
- May I introduce her to some senior thinkers in the foreign policy establishment (My hope was to Yenta her in to talking to some senior thinkers in the foreign policy establishment whom I know through the Council on Foreign Relations. I thought she would be interesting for someone to spend an afternoon talking to, and perhaps her dreams of a back channel for peace might ring a bell with someone.)
- Is it OK if I travel to Russia on her invitation?
- Or should I cut her out of my life as being a security risk?
I learned later that my report “sent up a flare over Washington” that very night. July 2015: That is when the Russian investigation started, not July 2016. That is the big coverup.
I got contacted by Men In Black (I do not like using the acronym “FBI”). They were unclear, but seemed to suggest that I should learn more then they would decide, but were not sure. It went back and forth for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Maria was writing me, asking me to Moscow, then Montenegro, then Rome, Paris, etc. Watching my YouTube videos on liberalism. Pretending to be in love.
Finally, in September, I sent word to the U.S. government that I was not going to meet Maria again (lest I get in some hassle with the U.S. government) unless I was given the word “Greenlight.” They sent: “Greenlight.”
So I went to meet her for the second time in September 2015 at hotel room in New York City with the idea that we would spend a few days talking, getting to know each other, a possible trip to Russia and the purposes thereof. It was a two-bedroom suite. She arrived first. When I arrived, she made clear immediately (as in, less than three seconds) that she had not been pretending and wanted to make it romantic. I was putty in her hands.
Q. You had done some work for the FBI in the past?
A. I helped the Men in Black twice before.
[Note: Byrne forwarded two links to me. One is a Sports Illustrated story that discusses Byrne’s friendship with ex-NBA player Bison Dele, who disappeared while sailing in the South Pacific in 2002. The other is a link to his talk about naked short selling and corruption on Wall Street, Deepcapturethemovie.com]
Q. What happened next with you and Butina?
A. I saw her sporadically (every 4-6 weeks?) from September 2015 through March 2016. Initially my estimation was:
- 66% chance this is an opportunity of some kind. Maybe just getting a chance to preach the gospel of Liberalism and freedom in Russia. Maybe some good contacts. Maybe push the peace ball a couple of yards down the field.
- 33% chance this is a risk
The Men In Black’s lack of responsiveness or concern was odd.
As the September 2015-March 2016 wore on, my estimation changed. Maria was spending less time talking about John Locke and John Stuart Mill, more time talking about the political circles in which she was swanking around.
She let me know [Alexander] Torshin, had told her to focus on Hillary, Rubio, Cruz, and Trump. Whichever of the four won, she was to have a contact in their administration.
[Note: Torshin was the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia who prosecutors say was directing Butina’s activities in the United States]
This kind of talk was especially concerning. So the Men in Black’s lack of apparent interest or concern was frustrating to me.
Around February, she asked me to fly to Russia, give a talk in St. Petersburg on Liberalism and Bitcoin, then spend an hour with Putin (who would be in town). The Men in Black studied, came back, said it was too dangerous, don’t go, break up with Maria. So I did. (I was also stage four of two things at once at the time, and they were on the brink of starting to yank out organs, so I was not going to argue.)
The Men in Black then had me get involved with a corruption case involving a federal official. That ran a couple of months. Something deeply unusual and troubling came out of that experience that led me to wonder if I was involved in law enforcement or political espionage.
On July 1, 2016, they came back and said, “What a mistake we made. Russia, Russia, Russia. We want you to know that the U.S. government never asks something like this but we are here to ask you to rekindle a romantic relationship with Maria. The orders are coming from X, Y, and Z.”
[Byrne declined to name these officials.]
“The USA never, ever does this, but these circumstances are so extraordinary, that you are being asked to do this. We want to remind you that you can refuse.”
And the agents were clearly extremely discomfitted and unhappy about the whole thing. But the request came from X, Y, and Z.
I decided that I had gotten sucked into what was starting to seem a lot more like political espionage than law enforcement. I knew this was all going to end up in front of a jury, or in television, or in the history books, and I did not want to disgrace our country or Maria by carrying out those orders. I would have if I had thought them legitimate. I’ve done lots of stranger things for our country, but this smelled like skunk, so I decided to do two things instead:
- Lie to the feds. I would wine and dine and romance Maria, and give the public perception that we were once again romantically involved. I would blow her away with being this unbelievably romantic gentleman to her. I would report that I was back in the saddle, but all the while 100% NEVER TOUCH HER. I knew I had to be 100% pure on that bright line, so when the day came that it was all unearthed (which I knew would happen), the record would show that actually I had not laid a finger on her. (I understand that she and her lawyer have confirmed to other journalists that I was a total gentleman to her).
- Set up X,Y, Z for felony charges down the road
Q. You conveyed all of this to the Justice Department, including the name of the three higher-ups in the Obama administration in April 2019?
A. Yes on April 30 I told them all of this, including that the U.S. government had know all about Maria in July 2015 from me, and had known about each of her subsequent meetings (e.g. Don Jr.) before she had them, and had let them all occur.
[Note: On May 20, 2016, Butina and Torshin attended the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky and shared a table with Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner.]
I learned that Maria was transferred 9 days later from a SHU unit [solitary confinement] in a prison in Virginia to the nicest women’s camp in the federal system. So I give great compliments to the DOJ. Nothing happens in 9 days normally. But I think they heard my story, checked out some of the basic claims, and moved her out of isolation by the end of the following week (May 9). The following Wednesday they announced John Durham.
[Note: John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, is investingating the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. News broke about his investigation on May 13. The Washington Post reported that the investigation had been picked “in recent weeks.”]
Q. It’s a fascinating story, but I need to report it out. Is there someone who can corroborate this?
Sara Carter has had some recent confirmation from the Department of Justice. I don’t know what your connections are like there, but that’s why you get paid the big bucks! I’m not in the convincing business. I am simply in the business or letting the world know what happend.
I watched this unfold for the last year knowing I had a lot of the answers, and in late June decided (and was advised by my rabbi) that I had a moral duty to come forward. So I have. It is proving interesting to see how long it takes the world to get it.
[Note: Byrne’s “rabbi” is Warren Buffett. Byrne’s father, John, was the CEO GEICO, one of Buffett’s companies, and Patrick has known Buffett for years.)
Ok, Seth, I have qualms. From what you have written so far, I fear that when you learn the full truth you will seek to distort it because it conflicts with some things you have written so far. On the other hand, I have it on good authority that you are a legitimate, honest reporter. I have given you a ton. I have a mountain more. Let us see how you represent what I have told you before going any further.
The company that links Paul Manafort, Anthony Pellicano, the Mafia, and action star Steven Seagal
Bruce Bigelow was a San Diego journalist and friend of mine who sadly passed away after a hiking trip in Utah at the age of 63.
A few weeks before his untimely death last year, Bruce and I shared a beer at a local bar in San Diego with game three of the NBA finals playing the background.
Bruce had spotted my book in Barnes & Noble and he wanted to catch up. He also had a story he wanted to share with me about a strange little company in San Diego that tried to sell the finest in Soviet technology.
Eurotech, Ltd. was trying to bring to market a foam that that had been developed in Russia and used to control the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4.
It might sound like the setup for a bad joke but Eurotech had convinced some investors to part with their money. The company’s shares had soared more than 800 percent in a few months from 1996 to January 1997. “Not bad for an enterprise with no sales, four employees and a strategy focused on striking deals in the risky, raucous business world of Russia,” as Bruce put it in his story.
At first glance, Eurotech seemed respectable. The chairman of the publicly-traded company was James D. Watkins, a retired Navy admiral and former chief of Navy operations who had served as energy secretary in the first Bush administration.
Things were less clear on close inspection. One Eurotech board member, Karl Krobath, was a business advisor to Nordex GmbH. That’s a name that ran alarm bells in the CIA in the 1990s, which suspected Nordex of smuggling drugs, weapons, and even nuclear technology for the Russian Mafia. Eurotech also was introducing automated parking garage technology in Moscow’s Arbat district in partnership with the notoriously corrupt local mayor’s office.
To Bruce, Eurotech looked like a classic “pump-and-dump” stock scam, where a company cashes out on sales of illegally inflated stocks. Eurotech’s shares were sold in private placements that evaded disclosure to the U.S. Securities and Exchange. As readers of my book know, this is the same murky world that Felix Sater operated in the 1990s in his days at the Mafia-linked White Rock Partners.
Bruce did a little digging and learned that no one working at Chernobyl had ever heard of Eurotech or its foam, called Ekor, and the company’s claims that it was part of a $3.1 billion cleanup was dubious, at best.
Bruce’s story, which ran in February 1997, left a mark. The Nordex advisor left the board followed shortly by the rest of the board and the company moved to Virginia.
A few days after Bruce’s story ran, he noticed someone sitting in a car parked on the street outside his house. The car stayed around for several days. An editor told Bruce he was just being paranoid.
Around the same time, he got a call from a private investigator in Los Angeles, who told Bruce that he was taking over press operations for Eurotech. If he had any questions for the company, this investigator told Bruce, he was the man to call.
I asked Bruce if he felt threatened. “No, it was just qualitatively different,” he told me. “This was not a typical PR/marketing firm. So it felt more intimidating in that sense.”
The private eye’s name was Anthony Pellicano.
I wrote to Pellicano at the Terminal Island prison in San Pedro where he was serving his 15-year sentence on 78 counts of wiretapping, racketeering, conspiracy and wire fraud.
Pellicano didn’t know anything about who was parked outside Bruce’s house and barely remembered Eurotech except for a possible connection to the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.
But Pellicano has other interesting ties to the Eurotech story.
His case unraveled in 2002 when Los Angeles Times journalist Anita Busch walked out to her car to find a dead fish with a red rose in its mouth on the cracked windshield along with a note that read “Stop.” Busch believed that the threat was related to a story she was working on involving a dispute between actor Steven Seagal and his former producer, Julius R. Nasso. The FBI soon learned that Pellicano was behind the fish incident. Seagal was one of Pellicano’s clients.
Nasso, an associate of the Gambino organized crime family, had produced 10 films starring Seagal, including On Deadly Ground and Under Siege 2, and Out for Justice but their relationship ended in 1999. Nasso sued Seagal for $60 million.
(Interestingly, Nasso has an uncle, also named Julius Nasso, who ran a concrete company that partnered with S&A Concrete, the Mob-connected firm that built Trump Tower.)
Seagal claims that in February 2001 he was visiting Nasso in Brooklyn when he was ordered into a car and ushered into the back room of a Brooklyn steakhouse, Gage & Tollner. There, Seagal was threatened by a Gambino family captain, who told Seagal that he would be required to pay earnings from his movies to Nasso. The feds were listening in and the extortion plot got Nasso sentenced to prison for a year.
Around the same time of Seagal’s back room meeting in the steakhouse, Nasso purchased 500,000 shares of Eurotech at 33 cents a share.
How did Nasso come to learn about this company trying to market Russian foam? Probably through his friend and partner, Paul Manafort.
In January 2001, Eurotech agreed to pay Paul Manafort $300,000 a year to help it bring its superfoam to market. Eurotech subsequently hired Davis Manafort to raise capital on its behalf in exchange for a 4 percent finder’s fee. The guy who hired Trump’s future campaign chairman was the late Don Hahnfeldt, a one-time Florida lawmaker.
In addition, Manafort acquired 2,500,000 shares of Eurotech at 33 1/3 cents per share, through one of his companies, John Hannah LLC.
That name might ring a bell. John Hannah LLC is the same company that paid $3.675 million in 2006 for Manafort’s apartment 43G in Trump Tower.
On the same day that Manafort acquired his shares in Eurotech, Julius Nasso also acquired 500,000 shares in the company.
Nasso and Manafort, along with producer Paul Cohen and actor Danny Aiello, were partners together in a short-lived film production and distribution company formed in 2001 called Manhattan Pictures International. Another investor in Manhattan Pictures was Fred Trump’s right-hand man, Brad Zackson.
Manafort apparently saw film making as a natural extension of his work representing corrupt dictators around the world like Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko.
“In many respects, a lot of what makes a film successful also makes lobbying successful,” Manafort told the New York Daily News. “You need to understand the demographics of the country whether it’s a candidate or a motion picture. In films, like successful campaigns, you need to know how to create messages.”
The company produced Enigma, starring Kate Winslet, and a few other films and then shut down.
During a search of Paul Manafort’s storage locker, the FBI came across some boxes relating to Manhattan Pictures and Julius Nasso.
Manafort is now in prison. Nasso, out of prison, is back producing movies. And his old friend Steven Seagal has gotten very, very close to the president of Russia. He’s now Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the United States.
Updates with additional background.
The name of Aron Shaviv, a British-born Israeli campaign consultant with an impressive resume, has surfaced lately in investigations of underhanded election plots by Russia.
The Senate Intelligence Committee recently took an interest in Mr. Shaviv as part of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government.
According to a scoop by independent journalist Scott Stedman, Shaviv’s name was mentioned in a subpoena issued in April 2019 by the Senate Intelligence Committee to Walter Soriano, a British security consultant whose connections to Israeli intelligence and Russian oligarchs was the subject of one of my previous posts.
On his website, Shaviv claims to have helped elect 14 heads of state, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It’s unknown whether Shaviv did any work for the Trump campaign or why the Senate Intelligence Committee is interested in him. But that isn’t the end of his problems.
One country that’s absent from Shaviv’s impressive roster of clients is the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro. Shaviv was the chief consultant for the pro-Russian party Democratic Front in the 2016 Montenegrin parliamentary elections.
My friend Alon Eisenberg pointed me to a report this week in The Times of Israel that suggested Shaviv had another, less overt mission there. According to prosecutors in Montenegro, Shaviv took part in a plot led by two Russian military intelligence officers to overthrow Montenegro’s government and stop it from joining NATO. Police broke up the plot on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections.
Shaviv’s partner in this was an ex-CIA officer named Joseph Assad, who was working as Shaviv’s security consultant. Prosecutors suspected that Assad’s real job in Montenegro was to help coup plotters flee the country after assassinating the country’s prime minister, The New York Times reported.
“During the investigation that was launched against Joseph Assad and eight others for creating a criminal organization and attempting terrorism, the prosecutors found evidence that Shaviv, a UK and Israeli citizen, also committed a crime. So we have ordered an extension of the investigation,” Cadjenovic told Balkan Insight.
In the run up to the Montenegrin parliamentary elections, one of Shaviv’s companies received 1.5 million Euros from a Czech company — codenamed “S.” The Czech company’s CEO and representatives are Russian, Cadjenovic said. Assad was paid out of this fund.
Four men identified as ex-FBI agents are also said to be under investigation for their role in the attempted coup backed by Russia.
Shaviv was born in Oxford, England in 1979 and made aliyah to Israel as a teenager. He became a captain in the Israeli Defense Forces and served as a “field agent for a civilian intelligence agency,” according to an archived version of his company’s website.
Shaviv got his start in politics in 2006 working for Avigdor Lieberman, an influential Israeli politician who has long been investigated — but never charged — for receiving millions of dollars from Russian oligarchs like the notorious Michael Cherney and others connected to Vladimir Putin.
While working in government for Lieberman, then the minister of strategic affairs, Shaviv set up a private consulting firm, Shaviv Strategy & Campaigns, began consulting for politicians throughout Europe and Africa. Shaviv’s clients include past and current presidents and prime ministers of Israel, Thailand, Cambodia, Poland, Romania, Kenya, Congo, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Serbia and the European Commission, according to the company’s website, which also cites its work for U.S. presidential elections.
In 2012, Shaviv played a role in the U.S. presidential election. He ran iVoteIsrael, which sought to get U.S. citizens living in Israel to vote in the American election with messages like this:
Shaviv said iVoteIsrael received its financial backing from the “[Sheldon] Adelsons of the world.” Reporters found that iVoteIsrael’s corporate filings listed the Manhattan address of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. iVoteIsrael claimed 80,000 Americans living in Israel voted in 2012, with the majority overwhelmingly casting ballots for Republican Mitt Romney.
In 2015, Shaviv was campaign manager and chief strategist for Netanyahu’s re-election. As the vote approached, polls showed Netanyahu on the verge of losing. But then on Election Day, in a move straight out of the Cambridge Analytica playbook, Netanyahu bombarded right-wing voters with millions of fearmongering text messages warning them — falsely — that Arabs were going to the polls in “droves.” Netanyahu won.
See this excellent report, featuring Shaviv, on how Netanyahu won:
The iVoteIsrael campaign won Shaviv a political consulting award from Campaigns & Elections and the Netanyahu campaign victory earned him international consultant of the year honors from American Association of Political Consultants.
But Montenegro and his alleged role in an attempted coup has cast a dark shadow over his bright career. He tweeted that he has been “PNGed” — presumably a reference to being made persona non grata — after the alleged coup attempt.
In May 2017, Shaviv said there are two theories about what happened in Montenegro.
“The first theory would be to believe that it is a failed Russian operation involving an Israeli political consultant, a retired Serbian general, a former CIA agent and some villagers with hunting rifles,” a Democratic Front press statement quoted Shaviv as saying.
But, “if there is anything to be learned from the recent past, Russian military operations neither look like that nor fail like that.”