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Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

Mother Jones

On April 10, a group of lawyers, scientists, judges, crime lab technicians, law enforcement officers, and academics gathered in Washington, DC, for the final quarterly meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group whose two-year charter expired in late April. The two-day meeting of the commission was a no-frills bureaucratic affair—a few dozen attendees seated in rectangle formation facing each other to deliberate and listen to expert panels. But the bland exterior could not mask ripples of tension. Had the 2016 presidential election turned out differently, the commission’s charter would likely have been renewed. But under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, members arrived that morning fearing that their efforts to reform the field of forensic science would be cut short. Shortly after 9 a.m., Andrew Goldsmith, a career Justice Department attorney, delivered the bad news: The commission was coming to an end.

Follow-up questions from a few commissioners revealed more bad news. Efforts to improve forensic science and expert testimony, initiated under the previous administration, were now on hold. Kent Rochford, the acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the research arm of the Commerce Department, acknowledged that ongoing pilot studies into bite-mark and firearm analyses would not be completed. A representative from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Kira Antell, conceded that a project to create guidelines for expert forensic testimony had been paused as well. The message was clear: The era of independent scientific review of forensics is over.

Julia Leighton, a commission member and retired public defender, conveyed the disappointed mood of the room when she spoke a few minutes later. “We have to understand the importance of this juncture that we’re at, where we’re really grappling with, frankly, are we telling the truth as a matter of science to judges and jurors?” she said. “And that can’t be put on hold. It is inconsistent with the Department of Justice’s mission to put that on hold.”

For years, scientists and defense attorneys have fought an uphill battle to bring scientific rigor into a field that, despite its name, is largely devoid of science. Evidence regularly presented in court rooms—such as bite-mark, hair, and lead bullet analysis—that for decades have been employed by prosecutors to convict and even execute defendants are actually incapable of definitively linking an individual to a crime. Other methods, including fingerprint analysis, are less rigorous and more subjective than experts—and popular culture—let on.

But on the witness stand, experts routinely overstate the certainty of their forensic methods. In 2015, the FBI completed a review of 268 trial transcripts in which the bureau’s experts used microscopic hair analysis to incriminate a defendant. The results showed that bureau experts submitted scientifically invalid testimony at least 95 percent of the time. Among those cases with faulty evidence, 33 defendants received the death penalty and 9 had been executed. No court has banned bite-mark evidence despite a consensus among scientists that the discipline is entirely subjective. One study found that forensic dentists couldn’t even agree if markings were caused by human teeth. Until this month, the National Commission on Forensic Science was the most important group moving forensics into the modern scientific era.

A few minutes after the commission learned of its fate, the Justice Department publicly announced its next steps. A new Justice Department Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, established by executive order in February to “support law enforcement” and “restore public safety,” would now oversee forensic science. Sessions, the press release said, would appoint a senior forensic adviser and the department would conduct a “needs assessment of forensic science laboratories that examines workload, backlog, personnel and equipment needs of public crime laboratories.” Rather than an independent body that uses science to evaluate forensics, the new administration seemed to be basing its forensic policies largely on increasing conviction rates for law enforcement.

Forensic science is a mess. Historically under the sole purview of cops and prosecutors, the advent of DNA evidence exposed the failures of older forensic methods. Fingerprint identification became standard practice in police departments around the early years of the 20th century and for decades was considered the gold standard of forensic science. Firearm or “tool mark” evidence connecting a bullet to a specific gun was also in full swing in the early 20th century—and played a major role of the famous, flawed case against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921.

The use of bite marks to identify a suspect began with an actual witch hunt. In 1692, authorities from Salem, Massachusetts, arrested the Reverend George Burroughs for allegedly biting, pinching, and choking girls in order to turn them into witches. During the trial, Burroughs’ mouth was pried open to compare his teeth to the markings found on the injured girls. Twenty years after he was hanged, the colonial government of Massachusetts compensated Burroughs’ children for his wrongful death. Bite-mark evidence should have been put to bed then, but in 1975 a California appeals court upheld a conviction for manslaughter based on bite-mark evidence—even though the court acknowledged a lack of scientific research to support such evidence. Soon, the practice became widespread around the country.

These forensic methods and others were largely developed by law enforcement and guarded from the rigorous testing and peer review used in every other scientific field. As molecular biologist Eric Landler observed in 1989, “At present, forensic science is virtually unregulated—with the paradoxical result that clinical laboratories must meet higher standards to be allowed to diagnose strep throat than forensic labs must meet to put a defendant on death row.”

DNA emerged as a reliable tool in the late 1980s. It has since exonerated tens of thousands of suspects during criminal investigations and more than 349 convicted defendants, according to the Innocence Project. “I think what we’ve seen with the DNA exonerations,” Paul Giannelli, a member of the commission, told Mother Jones at its final meeting, “is that there’s a heck of a lot more innocent people in prison than anyone dreamed of.”

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a landmark study that shook the field of forensics. Only nuclear DNA analysis, the report found, could “consistently, and with a high degree of certainty,” link an individual to a crime. Around the country, it noted, crime labs lack uniform standards, practices, accreditation, and oversight. And forensic methods that involve expert analysis, as opposed to laboratory testing, really weren’t science at all. NAS proposed creating an independent agency to advance the field of forensic science outside the purview of the Justice Department. “The potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science are too great,” the report reads. “In sum, the committee concluded that advancing science in the forensic science enterprise is not likely to be achieved within the confines of DOJ.”

Reasons to sever the forensic science research from the Justice Department were numerous. In the early 2000s, the National Academy ditched a planned review of forensic methods after the Departments of Justice and Defense claimed a right to review the study before publication—in other words, the government was reserving the right to alter a scientific study. About the same time, the FBI commissioned its own studies as proof that its method of analyzing fingerprints was sound. In one, the bureau sent the 10-digit fingerprint profile of a defendant and two prints from the crime scene to multiple analysts and asked them for a comparison. When 27 percent of the respondents did not find a match, the FBI asked those respondents for a do-over, this time pointing out exactly what markings the experts should look at to connect the crime scene prints to the defendant. The resulting “test,” Giannelli noted in a 2010 law review article, “was rigged.” Yet cracks began to emerge in the FBI’s own methodology. In a 2002 case, an examiner from Scotland Yard, the London police force, testified that the proficiency tests administered to fingerprint analysts at the FBI were incapable of assessing analysts’ abilities. “If I gave my experts these tests, they’d fall about laughing,” he said.

In 2004, Congress gave the Justice Department money to fund forensic labs with the requirement that grantees turn over investigations into serious misconduct and negligence to outside investigators. But the Justice Department’s inspector general repeatedly found that the National Institute of Justice was handing out millions in grants without enforcing the oversight requirements. “That one anecdote is illustrative of their general approach to forensics, which is they just want more,” says Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. “They don’t really care about the quality of it, they don’t really care about the accuracy of it. They just want more of it.”

The independent government agency the 2009 NAS report called for never came to be, but in 2013 advocates for reform got the next best thing, the National Commission on Forensic Science. Though it was stacked with Justice Department employees as well as representatives of law enforcement and crime labs—a bloc large enough to veto proposals—the commission was prolific during its four-year existence, issuing dozens of recommendations on forensic standards, testing, and accreditation. At the commission’s urging, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had adopted new accreditation policies for Justice Department labs. Another recommendation Lynch adopted required experts at federal labs to stop saying “reasonable scientific certainty” on the witness stand, which experts had regularly used to bolster their findings. The phrase, the commission concluded, has no scientific meaning and instead conveys a false sense of certainty. Even beyond federal cases, with the commission’s recommendation in hand, a defense attorney could damage the credibility of an expert witness who uses the misleading phrase.

Now, reform advocates see progress halting, and even backsliding, under the new administration. “Definitely bite marks should be terminated,” Giannelli said. “Hair evidence, the way it’s been used, should be terminated. Testimony with respect to fingerprints and firearms identification should acknowledge the limitations of those disciplines, because right now I think the juries are being misled.” He continued: “One of the risks that I see is we’ll go back to the time when there is not science in forensic science.”

Sessions is known as a strong supporter of the use of forensics. As a former prosecutor himself, the attorney general has long supported increased funding for crime labs so that law enforcement can get test results faster. During his 20-year career in the US Senate, he pushed to increase DNA testing—a bipartisan issue. But when it comes to regulating local crime labs or subjecting forensics to scientific studies, Sessions has been a skeptic. Questions about the reliability of forensic methods irked him because they hurt prosecutors’ ability to win convictions based on forensic evidence; calls for more oversight contradicted his desire to see local law enforcement unencumbered by federal oversight or regulation. Given this history, it wasn’t a surprise that Sessions chose to end the commission and bring forensic science research back under the direct supervision of the Justice Department.

In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bombshell 2009 NAS report. In his opening statement, Sessions, the committee’s top ranking Republican at the time, expressed skepticism of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept the idea that they seem to suggest that fingerprints is not a proven technology,” he said. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain.” Instead, Sessions’ worried that the NAS report would be used by defense attorneys during cross-examination to discredit exerts, leaving prosecutors “to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial.”

The hearing took place in the shadow of new information about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 after he was found guilty of murdering his three children by setting fire to their home. The principal evidence prosecutors used against Willingham was the findings of two fire investigators who claimed that the conflagration could only have been caused by arson. Yet even before Willingham’s execution, the arson evidence against him had been debunked by a premier fire expert, though Texas’ clemency process had failed to heed the report. In August 2009, a few weeks before the Senate hearing, a fire scientist hired to review the case issued a blistering report denouncing the original investigators’ work as “characteristic of mystics or psychics,” not scientists. A few weeks later, The New Yorker published a detailed investigation of the Willingham case. Based on flawed forensic science, an innocent man had been executed.

When Sessions had his turn to question the witness panel, he brought up the Willingham case. Sessions read extensively from a piece of commentary submitted to a small Texas newspaper by John Jackson, one of the prosecutors in the Willingham case, who had gone on to become a local judge. In his op-ed, Jackson claimed that despite the flawed forensic evidence, Willingham was guilty, and listed bullet points intended to prove Willingham’s guilt. But Jackson’s points read like someone in denial of the newfound facts about the case—in fact, the author of The New Yorker piece, David Grann, had already written his own rebuttal to Jackson’s list by the time of the Senate hearing. Still, Sessions proceeded to read several misleading facts about the case. “That does not excuse a flawed forensic report,” Sessions concluded. “But it looks like there was other evidence in the case indicating guilt.”

The 2009 investigation into the Willingham case was the work of Texas’ own Forensic Science Commission—a state-level version of the national commission that Sessions just closed down. In the last few years, the Texas commission has received increased funding and responsibilities from the state Legislature, becoming a national leader in reviewing the scientific validity of forensic disciplines. It has taken up issues such as hair analysis and problems with DNA testing, and last year it recommended a ban on using bite-mark evidence in the courtroom. Texas, not Washington, is now carrying the torch for forensic reformers.

At the final meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, the group held a session on wrongful convictions, featuring Keith Harward, who had served 33 years in Virginia for a rape and murder based on bite-mark evidence before being exonerated by DNA evidence. When the panel ended, a few members expressed a sense of helplessness now that the commission was shutting down. John Hollway, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, rose to apologize to Harward for the decades he lost in prison. “Your story brings up the tragedy of putting this commission on hold,” said Hollway, who was not a commission member but was involved in subcommittee work. Hollway said he worried that “we will lose time to help the other people like you who are incarcerated improperly or, worse, the people who are still to be incarcerated improperly because we cannot solve these problems yet.”

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Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

Mother Jones

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When a big story breaks while I’m at lunch, it can be a real pain in the ass. Instead of following it in real time, I have to rush around later trying to piece together what’s happened. On the other hand, sometimes this is a blessing, because by the time I get to the story it’s clearer what the real issue is. I think today is an example of the latter.

For starters, here’s a nutshell summary of what happened. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, took the stage a few hours ago to declare himself “alarmed.” He believes that some of Donald Trump’s transition team might have been “incidentally” recorded during surveillance of foreign nationals. He won’t say who. Nor will he say who the foreign nationals were, other than “not Russian.” And as soon as he was done with his press conference, he trotted off to the White House to brief President Trump.

There are several problems here. First, Nunes didn’t share any of this with Democrats on the committee. Second, incidental collection is both routine and inevitable in foreign surveillance. Congress has had ample opportunity to rein it in if they wanted to, and they never have. Third, if this was part of a criminal investigation, Nunes may have jeopardized it by going public. Fourth, the chair of the Intelligence Committee isn’t supposed to be briefing the president on the status of an investigation into the president’s activities.

This is plenty to embarrass the great state of California, from which Nunes hails. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is the biggest issue. This one is:

He claims to have gotten the information personally from an unspecified source, and had not yet met with FBI Director James Comey to review the raw intelligence intercepts he was provided. Why would he go public without first consulting spies to see if what he had was actually worth sharing with the public?

Oh. This is one of those deals where the Republican chair of a committee gets some information; releases a tiny snippet that makes Republicans look good; and then eventually is forced to release the entire transcript, which turns out to be nothing at all like the snippet. We’ve seen this gong show a dozen times in the past few years.

My advice: ignore everything Nunes said. He’s obviously carrying water for Trump, hoping to drive headlines that vaguely suggest the Obama administration really was listening in on Trump’s phone calls. I gather that he’s succeeded on that score. For now, though, there’s no telling what this raw intel really says. Eventually the intelligence community will provide analysis, and committee Democrats will get to see the transcripts too. Then we’ll have a fighting chance of knowing whether it’s important or not. In the meantime, everything Nunes said is literally worthless. He’s not “probably right” or “probably wrong.” He’s nothing.

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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

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The Republican in Charge of the Trump-Russia Probe Just Pulled a Crazy Political Stunt

Mother Jones

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the lawmaker overseeing one of the main investigations of the Trump-Russia scandal, went rogue on Wednesday when he told reporters that a source had provided him information that indicates that the US intelligence community collected intelligence on Trump associates—possibly Donald Trump himself—in the course of authorized surveillance aimed at other targets. Nunes, who chairs the House intelligence committee, said this happened during the transition period and was unrelated Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign or to Trump associates’ connections to Russia. Without revealing any real evidence of wrongdoing, Nunes suggested that something amiss had occurred when the identity of these Trump-related people were noted in reports disseminated in intelligence channels.

Nunes’ theatrical press conferences—not one but two!—indicated he was perhaps more concerned about politics than national security and the protection of civil liberties. At his first presser, held in the Capitol, Nunes described the materials he had been given as “normal incidental collection” and “all legally collected foreign intelligence.” Nonetheless, he said, he was “alarmed” by the fact that some of the Trump associates had been “unmasked” in the reports. (“Incidental collection” refers to Americans whose communications are monitored not because they are the target of the surveillance, but because the person they are communicating with is the target. The identities of these non-targeted Americans generally are supposed to remain hidden in intelligence reports, but there are rules that allow their identities to be unmasked in such reports when that provides needed context.)

Still, Nunes said he was rushing to the White House—without even having spoken to the Democratic members of his committee about this—to brief Trump immediately. “They need to see it,” Nunes told reporters before he dashed off to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But when asked whether Trump was specifically and intentionally targeted—a sensational claim that would bolster Trump’s widely debunked March 4 tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of “wire tapping”—Nunes said he wasn’t sure. In fact, nothing Nunes said would back up Trump’s tweets. He was referring to legally authorized surveillance conducted under a court order that targeted a foreign intelligence source but that happened to also pick up Americans—not an uncommon occurrence.

At his White House press conference—following his meeting with Trump—a reporter asked, “But just to clarify, this is not intentional spying on Donald Trump?”

“I have no idea,” Nunes replied. “We won’t know that until we get to the bottom of: Did people ask for the unmasking of additional names within the president-elect’s transition team?”

This was a disingenuous response. Nunes had earlier acknowledged he was only referring to officially authorized surveillance, which could not be ordered by a president. (There’s a whole process through which the FBI and other intelligence agencies go to a special court to receive permission to conduct surveillance.) Yet here was Nunes slyly hinting that well, just maybe, this would back up Trump’s fact-free charge. This was the tell. If he were only concerned with the unmasking of Americans caught up in incidental collection, Nunes could have instructed his committee staff to examine the matter and worked with Democrats on the committee on how best to handle the matter. Instead, he ran to the White House to share his information with the fellow who is the subject of an investigation Nunes is overseeing. Nunes was pulling a political stunt to provide Trump some cover.

And Trump took the cover. After Nunes’ briefing, the president told reporters that he felt “somewhat” vindicated by what Nunes reported to the public on Wednesday. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.” The revelations, though, don’t vindicate Trump at all; he accused President Obama of directing the phones in Trump Tower to be tapped in October. Nunes’ new information refers to incidental collection after the election. Trump compared the situation to “Nixon/Watergate,” and called Obama a “Bad (or sick) guy!” Nunes made clear the surveillance was legal. Trump suggested Obama had somehow broken the law.

Adding to the political nature of what Nunes did is the fact that he didn’t consult with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House committee, before he briefed Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, reporters (twice), and the White House.

“I’m going to be meeting with Mr. Schiff at some point to talk about where we go with this investigation,” Nunes told reporters when the issue came up after he briefed the president. “I had to brief the speaker first, then I had to talk to the CIA director, the NSA director, and I’m waiting to talk to the FBI director…Then I went and talked to all of you…and then I voted, and then I said I was coming here to brief the president, and then I’ll be glad to talk to others later.”

Schiff issued a statement Wednesday afternoon slamming Nunes’ actions.

“This information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been,” Schiff said. “Indeed it appears that committee members only learned about this when Nunes discussed the matter this afternoon with the press. Nunes also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation. I have expressed my grave concerns with Nunes that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.”

Schiff added that Nunes told him that most of the names within the intelligence reports were, in fact, masked, “but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties.” This means that the intelligence agencies followed the law, Schiff said, and “moreover, the unmasking of a US Person’s name is fully appropriate when it is necessary to understand the context of collected foreign intelligence information.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), accused Nunes of leaking classified information.

Jeremy Bash, who formerly served as chief counsel for the Democrats on the committee, said Wednesday that what Nunes did was unprecedented and very concerning.

“I don’t think in the 40 years of the committee’s existence, since the post-Watergate-era reforms, with the Church and Pike committees that emerged from those scandals, I have never heard of a chairman of an oversight committee going to brief the president of the United States about concerns he has about things he’s read in intelligence reports,” Bash told MSNBC Wednesday afternoon. “The job of the committee is to do oversight of the executive branch, not to bring them into their investigation or tip them off to things they may be looking at. I’ve got to believe that other members of the committee are horrified at what they just witnessed.”

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The Republican in Charge of the Trump-Russia Probe Just Pulled a Crazy Political Stunt

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Paul Manafort Tried to Help Russian Oligarch Suspected of Mob Ties Get a US Visa

Mother Jones

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On Wednesday morning, the Associated Press released a bombshell report revealing that Paul Manafort, who ran Donald Trump’s campaign for several months, had secretly worked for a Russian billionaire a decade ago to promote Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The news service noted that Manafort “proposed in a confidential strategy plan…that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” Manafort pitched this idea to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally, and in 2006 signed a $10 million annual contract for the project. The AP’s report shows Trump’s campaign was managed by an operative who had received millions from a Putin crony to bolster the Russian leader’s image in the United States at a time when US-Russia relations were tense.

Manafort’s relationship with Deripaska began at least several years before they inked this contract when the Russian oligarch was banned from entering the United States due to his suspected connections to Russian organized crime. In the early 2000s, the aluminum magnate enlisted Manafort, a veteran lobbyist and fixer with a reputation for representing foreign despots and thugs, to help him secure a visa so he could travel to the United States, according to a source with knowledge of the arrangement,

In the late 1990s, the US State Department had refused to allow Deripaska (reportedly one of the richest men in Russia) visit the United States. As the Guardian reported in 2008:

A senior former State Department official said US officials who considered Deripaska’s case in 1998 believed he was associated with several Russians involved in organised crime, including Anton Malevsky, head of the notorious Ismailovskaya Brotherhood. Others believed by the US authorities to be his associates were involved in the so-called Aluminium Wars during the mid-1990s which resulted in dozens of killings. Deripaska has always strenuously denied any links to organised crime.

The State Department official said: “There are four grounds that are relevant in Deripaska’s case. Number three is, does this person have criminal associations and relationships? That’s the one that applied to Deripaska.”

In 2000, Deripaska, who was looking to list his company on the London Stock Exchange, hired former US Senator Bob Dole and the law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird, where Dole worked, to bolster his image and lobby the State Department. Dole won permission for Deripaska to make a short trip to the United States in December 2000, and the oligarch delivered lectures at Harvard University and a Washington, DC think tank. But, according to the Guardian, Deripaska, during this visit, was “interviewed by the FBI, which led to a second ban on his entering the US.”

This is about the time when Manafort began assisting Deripaska on the visa issue, according to the source with knowledge of this deal. Manafort also retained a publicity expert to generate positive stories about Deripaska, this source said.

The Deripaska visa matter continued on for years, and Deripaska kept Dole and his firm on the payroll. In 2005, Alston & Bird was paid about $260,000 for its work on behalf of Deripaska. That year, the oligarch received a multi-entry visa, in part so he could talk to FBI investigators. But in July 2006, the visa was revoked. The Wall Street Journal reported this happened after “concerns were raised about the accuracy of statements he made in a meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

In 2006, Manafort’s business partner at the time, Rick Davis, set up meetings overseas between Sen. John McCain, a harsh Putin critic, and Deripaska. A McCain aide later said these were just “social and incidental” contacts that occurred while McCain was traveling abroad on official business.

Deripaska did get into the United States in 2009—under unusual circumstances. The Journal reported that Deripaska, who was “barred entry to the US for years due to US government concerns about possible ties to organized crime” had “visited the country twice this year under secret arrangements made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” The newspaper noted:

Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska met with FBI agents in August and earlier this month as part of a continuing criminal probe, according to two administration officials. The focus of that probe couldn’t be learned.

Mr. Deripaska used the opportunity of his recent US visits to meet with top executives of U.S. investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The aluminum giant he controls, UC Rusal, is preparing for an initial public offering, a vital part of Mr. Deripaska’s efforts to save his debt-burdened business…

Mr. Deripaska’s recent visits were arranged outside of regular State Department visa procedures because the US. continues to have concerns about Mr. Deripaska’s business associations, according to administration officials. Instead, FBI officials arranged for a limited-entry permit from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as allowed in special cases related to sensitive matters, officials said.

Another person familiar with the case said there was some opposition from other US agencies to Mr. Deripaska’s visits, but that the FBI prevailed. The FBI had previously been at loggerheads with the State Department over Mr. Deripaska; FBI officials have said they were getting interesting information from him, this person said.

This did not ultimately resolve the issue. In 2010, Deripaska remained banned from regular travel to the United States, and the Russian foreign ministry retained another DC lobbying firm to work on this.

The AP reported that Manafort maintained a business relationship with Deripaska until at least 2009, though “they had a falling out laid bare in 2014 in a Cayman Islands bankruptcy court. The billionaire gave Manafort nearly $19 million to invest in a Ukrainian TV company called Black Sea Cable, according to legal filings by Deripaska’s representatives. It said that after taking the money, Manafort and his associates stopped responding to Deripaska’s queries about how the funds had been used.” The news service also noted that “Manafort did not disclose details about the lobbying work to the Justice Department during the period the contract was in place,” and it pointed out under “the Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby in the US on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the department. Willfully failing to register is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, though the government rarely files criminal charges.”

Manafort told AP, “I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments. My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia’s political interests.” Manafort did not respond to a Mother Jones request for comment regarding his work for Deripaska on the visa issue.

A spokesman for Manafort did forward a general statement Manafort had sent to reporters: “I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests. For example, one of the projects involved supporting a referendum in Montenegro that allowed that country to choose membership in the EU, a measure that Russia opposed. I did not work for the Russian government. Once again, smear and innuendo are being used to paint a false picture. I look forward to meeting with those conducting serious investigations of these issues to discuss the actual facts.”

Asked if Manafort would address his work for Deripaska on the travel visa, the spokesman replied, “I do not expect I will get an answer about something that happened 15 years ago. I apologize.”

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Paul Manafort Tried to Help Russian Oligarch Suspected of Mob Ties Get a US Visa

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Trump: Obama Tapped My Phone, He’s a Sick Guy

Mother Jones

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It’s Saturday. I figured I’d sleep in and eat breakfast before I checked in on the news. After all, how much can happen on a Saturday morn—

Oh FFS. Fine. Let’s hear the evidence:

Then, just to show how serious this is, an hour later Trump tweets about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “pathetic” ratings on Celebrity Apprentice. Then it’s off to the golf course.

So what’s going on? Did Obama really tapp Trump Tower during the sacred election process? I hope so! If he did, it would mean a judge had found probable cause that Trump had committed a crime of some kind.

Alternatively, it could mean that the FBI or the NSA was listening to a foreign phone call and Trump was on the other end. That would be great too.

Or, of course, Trump might be full of shit. Sadly, this is the most likely possibility. But you never know. Maybe there’s some real dirt here and Trump is trying to get ahead of it. When it leaks, he’ll try to convince everyone that the real issue is all the illegal leaks. Or the Nixonian/McCarthyite use of wiretaps. Or the fact that Obama is a sleaze, which is guaranteed to excite the base.

In any case, our next White House press briefing should be interesting, don’t you think?

UPDATE: Hmmph. Breitbart News ran a story yesterday summarizing a Mark Levin radio show that outlined a bunch of stuff that’s already been reported, including the fact that a FISA warrant was obtained to monitor the communications of some Trump aides:

In summary: the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign; continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found; then relaxed the NSA rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government, virtually ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.

Is that it? The Washington Post reports that the Breitbart story “has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff.” How boring.

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Trump: Obama Tapped My Phone, He’s a Sick Guy

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