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Can Trump Ever Be Convinced That Russia Is Behind Election Meddling?

Mother Jones

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President-elect Donald Trump met on Friday with the heads of several US intelligence agencies for a personal briefing about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 president election. But it’s still unclear whether Trump believes what he was apparently told—or what it would take to convince him to accept the government’s findings that Moscow hacked Democratic targets to help Trump win the election.

After the briefing, Trump issued a statement noting that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee.” But he did not say he accepts the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow did so during the 2016 campaign and was behind the leaking of Democratic emails through WikiLeaks and other sites. Trump did insist that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.” Given that Trump repeatedly cited the WikiLeaks material during the campaign, his claim that Russian hacking had no effect on the election is hard to prove.

The meeting comes a day after several top intelligence officials briefed a Senate committee on the matter. Hours after the Senate hearing, the Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials claim to have identified people who passed stolen Democratic emails and other materials to WikiLeaks and that intercepted communications between senior Russian government officials revealed Vladimir Putin’s regime had celebrated Trump’s victory. Several other media outlets later confirmed the Post‘s account.

Trump tweeted that reporters were given access to the materials because of “Politics!” and later questioned how the government could be confident in its conclusions, pointing to a report that the Democratic National Committee blocked or delayed access to its servers, according to the FBI. (The DNC and others noted that it was not necessary or customary for FBI investigators to access the servers in order to investigate the hack.) On Friday, Trump tweeted that he was “asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing.”

On Friday morning, before his briefing, Trump told the New York Times that the intense focus on Russian hacking is “a political witch hunt” led by people embarrassed that Trump won in November.

“Making this about the election and not the subversion of a foreign government is beyond disturbing,” a former CIA official tells Mother Jones. “This isn’t about politics; it’s about espionage. He needs to get his head wrapped around the fact that he will be the target the moment he steps into office as POTUS.”

The Trump transition team and Hope Hicks, his campaign spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment. Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has complained this week that reporters have gone too far in declaring Russia the culprit.

But security researchers say there is plenty of information in the public domain to conclude that the Russian government was involved in the hacks. That involvement was first reported by the Washington Post in June and has since been bolstered by several formal government announcements. The most recent government report, issued jointly by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on December 29, offered a basic outline of the US government’s conclusions and explained some of the technical evidence that led the US intelligence community to pin the blame on Russia.

“The evidence is airtight,” says Dave Aitel, a former NSA research scientist who now runs a security research firm. “I don’t know anyone in the industry that takes the doubts seriously. Within the industry, it’s not a question.”

Matt Tait, a security researcher and former information security specialist for the Government Communications Headquarters, the United Kingdom’s version of the National Security Agency, said the information that’s been presented so far by the US government and private security research firms who have investigated the hacks supports the case against the Russians.

“The public evidence for this hack is unusual in how compelling it is compared with almost all other breaches, and that to people who are motivated and technical enough to go through it properly, it provides a solid case even without access to the secret sources and methods used by the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Tait writes in an email to Mother Jones.

“There is additional information that the IC could provide,” he adds, “but frankly, for people who are not persuaded by the evidence that is currently public, I suspect there is no quantity of additional evidence that the IC could release that will be persuasive to those people.”

But Jeffrey Carr, a private information security researcher, believes there needs to be more independent vetting of the intelligence community’s conclusions. “I want to see a chain of verifiable evidence available for peer review that is internally consistent, that is not dependent solely upon technical evidence, and that brings us to reasonable certainty as defined by international law,” he wrote on Medium this month.

Still, it’s not clear that anything would convince Trump to accept Russia’s role in the hacks. “Based on the already overwhelming public evidence, what—short of a video of Putin himself at the keyboard—could change Trump’s mind?” former NSA lawyer Susan Hennessey tweeted Friday morning. Her next tweet: “Trump isn’t actually interested in being persuaded by evidence. His only question is whether he can maintain plausible deniability.”

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Can Trump Ever Be Convinced That Russia Is Behind Election Meddling?

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2016 Is the Most Policy-Heavy Election in Decades

Mother Jones

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It’s conventional wisdom that this year’s presidential campaign is one of the most policy-free of all time. The reason is obvious: Donald Trump is a policy void. He knows nothing, doesn’t want to know anything, and brags frequently about how everything you need to know to be president can be learned in an hour or two. His milieu is entertainment and insults, not policy wonkery.

I think this view is wrong, and I’d like to present a thoughtful, nuanced argument against it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that in me at the moment. Instead, here’s a quickie blog-length micro-essay making my case.

Among political junkies, “policy” means white papers. It means understanding the details of how government programs work. It means charts and tables. It means historical context. It means stuff generally written by folks with PhDs who have deep subject matter expertise.

This is my meat and drink. If this blog had a mission statement, it would be something like this: Bringing policy lite to the masses. I like reading academic papers and trying to explain them in plain English that any ordinary educated person can understand. I like historical context. I respect folks with deep subject matter expertise. I adore charts and tables. And I want to spread all this stuff to more people.

But we live in a country where a third of the population can’t name the three branches of government and something like 95 percent probably have no idea how Social Security works. Feel free to sneer if you must, but most people just aren’t interested in policy deep dives. And why should they be? Being a political junkie is basically a hobby, like collecting stamps or writing bad poetry. You probably aren’t interested in that stuff, and there’s no reason lots of people should be interested in your hobby.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about political issues. Many of them care more than you do. They just don’t have much a jones for white papers. Nonetheless, all of these things are policy:

Building a wall to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico.
Keeping troops in Afghanistan.
Changing our strategy for destroying ISIS.
Improving relations with Russia.
Toughening visa requirements to keep potential terrorists out of the country.
Expanding or repealing Obamacare.
Signing an agreement with Iran to halt their nuclear program.
Making college free.
Halting new trade agreements until they’re made better for American workers.
Spending more on the military.
Insisting that treaty allies pay a higher share of defense costs.
Creating a federal maternity leave and child care program.
Tackling climate change.
Whether we should make America more energy independent via more clean power or more extraction of fossil fuels.
Profiling Muslims and surveilling mosques to stay ahead of Islamic terrorism.
Appointing liberal vs. conservative Supreme Court justices.
Routine stop-and-frisk as a way of combating crime.
Raising the minimum wage.
Rebuilding infrastructure.

This is a long list, and it doesn’t even include the usual evergreens (abortion, guns, tax cuts) or stuff that hasn’t broken through enough to really affect things (vets, charter schools, NSA spying). In a nutshell, then, I’d argue not only that 2016 is a policy-heavy year, but that thanks to Donald Trump’s, um, earthy approach to things, the differences in policy between the two candidates are sharper than in nearly any election during my adult life. Lack of detail is irrelevant. Nor does it matter if you don’t like Trump’s earthiness. For the average Joe and Jane, Trump’s coarse approach makes his positions more policy-centric than arguments over whether we should use chained CPI for Social Security COLAs or support a public option for Obamacare.

There is, obviously, a vast rhetorical gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but their policy gap is equally far-reaching. And my guess is that more people know about their policy differences than in any year in recent memory. If anything, 2016 has featured more policy topics making it into the spotlight than usual. It’s the year that policy truly took over an American presidential election.

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2016 Is the Most Policy-Heavy Election in Decades

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The NSA spied on top-secret climate negotiations between world leaders

The NSA spied on top-secret climate negotiations between world leaders

By on 24 Feb 2016commentsShare

Climate negotiations between the world’s powerhouses usually take place behind closed doors — unless, that is, the U.S. government is secretly listening in.

A batch of documents released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday reveal that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spied on communications regarding international climate change agreements, including negotiations in 2008 between United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the NSA had reportedly been spying on for decades. The NSA listened in on a private meeting between the two leaders ahead of a 2009 conference in Copenhagen, and gleaned information about their hopes that the European Union play a major role in climate change mitigation, adding Merkel thought the “tough issue” would involve carbon trading.

An excerpt from one of the NSA memos reads:

Ban Ki-moon, in an exchange on 10 December with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pointed out that the world would be watching the EU with “keen interest” for reassurances that it will maintain its leadership role in combating climate change … Ban also maintained that since the new U.S. administration will have a very engaging and proactive attitude on the issue, the time is right for the EU and the whole world to create conditions necessary for reaching a meaningful deal at the 2009 UN Climate Talks … Merkel believed that the climate-change issue should be discussed at the heads-of-state level, otherwise it would not work.

In a statement, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused “a country intent on protecting its largest oil companies” of bugging Ki-moon’s efforts to save the planet.

It’s not the first time we’ve discovered that the NSA has attempted to spy on other countries’ efforts to combat climate change. In 2014, world governments were furious to learn from a batch of documents released by the whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA had monitored communications between leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India, China, and several other countries. The NSA funneled information about other countries’ positions on climate change issues to U.S. negotiators for the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen — a gathering widely considered to be a failure.

The newest climate memos, part of a larger group of WikiLeaks documents spanning 2007 to 2011, give rare insight into leaders’ hopes for the Copenhagen summit.

It’s not clear exactly what kind of advantage the U.S. managed to gain by intercepting communications between Ki-moon and Merkel, but it likely didn’t make the outcome of the Copenhagen conference any better. Just as we finally learn the full extent of the political maneuvering behind Copenhagen, the world has mostly moved on: In December, the world reached a new climate accord in Paris — one that, hopefully, will lead to real and lasting change.

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The NSA spied on top-secret climate negotiations between world leaders

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BREAKING: The United States Spies on Israel

Mother Jones

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The latest outrage in conservative circles is the NSA’s surveillance program. They aren’t outraged by spying on American citizens, of course—though more on that later. They’re outraged by spying on Israel. You see, when NSA surveillance of foreign leaders was exposed by Edward Snowden, President Obama promised to stop it—but with exceptions. And it turns out that Israel was one of those exceptions. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

There was little debate over Israel. “Going dark on Bibi? Of course we wouldn’t do that,” a senior U.S. official said, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname.

That’s not exactly surprising. I don’t imagine George W. Bush ever contemplated going dark on Bibi either—or any other Israeli leader, for that matter. Nor, quite obviously, have the Israelis ever eased up on their spying of us.

So what’s the outrage? First of all, NSA surveillance allowed Obama to keep current on Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to undermine his negotiations with Iran. Charles Krauthammer finds that outrageous:

This was about trying to get through the Congress the Iran agreement. That is not a validated “national security” purpose. This is a way to win a battle with Congress….And that is, I think, a violation of the power of the executive interfering with legitimate activities and interactions of the Congress.

Spare me. The executive branch negotiates treaties. Netanyahu was doing everything he could to torpedo an active negotiation. So Obama kept an eye on him. Right or wrong, there isn’t a president in history who wouldn’t have done the same thing.

But it turns out there was one thing even the White House was concerned about: when you spy on Bibi, you’re also going to end up spying on members of Congress, since Bibi talks to them all the time. When this happens, the intercepted information is supposed to be “minimized,” and that’s especially the case when it comes to members of Congress. Apparently the NSA did this, delivering only Bibi’s side of intercepted communications. Still, Republicans in Congress are suspicious.

I can’t say that I blame them. On the other hand, my sympathy is pretty limited since this is a very general problem, and Republicans in Congress seem aggressively uninterested in it when it affects anyone other than themselves.

So that’s that. The NSA spied on Netanyahu. That’s a nothingburger. Of course they spied on Netanyahu. And the NSA says that they properly minimized the congressional end of any conversations between Netanyahu and a member of Congress. Since conservatives insist that we should take their word for this in general, why shouldn’t we take their word for it now? Wake me up if it turns out there’s anything more to this story.

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BREAKING: The United States Spies on Israel

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Six Embarrassing Things Republicans Said About Cybersecurity Last Night

Mother Jones

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Huge hacks, Internet-savvy terrorists, and controversial legislation has made cybersecurity big news this year, but candidates from both parties barely mentioned the topic until Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas. That’s when Republican candidates finally addressed cybersecurity and Internet privacy at length, but the results weren’t always pretty. Here are some of the lowlights:

1. Candidates demand encryption “backdoors.” Again: “There is a big problem. It’s called encryption,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who delivered the night’s sharpest attack on encrypted Internet tools that allegedly help terrorists evade US law enforcement and intelligence services. Kasich, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and former New York Gov. George Pataki, called for “backdoors,” or methods of decrypting message that would allow the government a way to read them. It was the latest episode in a debate that’s grown louder since the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, California; there have been claims that both sets of attackers used encrypted messages to evade detection, though none of those claims have been proven. Nevertheless, key members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said they’re working on a bill mandating backdoors in the wake of the attacks.

But encryption is also a vital part of the Internet’s basic infrastructure, and millions of people now use encrypted apps and programs to protect the privacy of their emails and messages. And giving the government access to encryption means allowing anyone else, including criminals, hackers, and foreign governments, access into those messages as well, according to cryptography experts.

2. Santorum thinks metadata isn’t personal information: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was one of several candidates who wanted to undo the USA Freedom Act, the law passed in May that ended the National Security Agency’s ability to engage in a mass collection of the phone records of Americans. Santorum brushed the law aside, arguing the program didn’t impinge on people’s privacy. “This metadata collection is not collecting people’s phone calls, their voices, they’re not collecting information that’s personal,” he said at the undercard debate.

The first part is true, but the second isn’t even close. Metadata includes phone numbers, location data, call times, and other information that intelligence agencies use to create create extensive, detailed profiles of a target—or anyone else.

3. Donald Trump doesn’t understand how the Internet works: Trump again called for shutting down at least parts of the Internet to try and stop ISIS from using online tools to recruit and plan attacks. “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” he said. Whether or not that’s possible—and it’s probably not, given that many people in Syria rely on satellite connections after years of war—it would likely be horrible for Syrians and Iraqis, whose countries’ communications’ infrastructures have been heavily damaged by war. Many Syrians rely on Internet connections to maintain contact with family and the outside world, and human rights activists rely on the web to document atrocities by the Assad regime and ISIS.

4. Fiorina comes up short on the tech test: Fiorina is trying to cast herself as the field’s technology expert thanks to her years leading Hewlett-Packard, one of the country’s biggest tech companies. “A lifetime of politics is not necessarily the right kind of experience anymore. It matters that you understand technology,” she told the conservative website Breitbart in a pre-debate interview on Tuesday. But her evidence of tech-savvy during the debate was nothing more than a story about helping the NSA in the days after 9/11 by sending them a large shipment of servers. Fiorina’s other big suggestion was to ask the private sector for help in improving cybersecurity, something that already routinely happens.

Fiorina also seemed clueless about the state of cybersecurity laws during the Breitbart interview. She claimed the Obama administration had ignored critical legislation that would let private companies share information on cyberattacks with the government. But at the same time the Republicans were debating on stage on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) was wedging that same legislation, which Congress debated for months, into the trillion-dollar spending deal approved later that night.

5. Bush cheers China’s hacking of journalists: The Washington Post reported on Monday that when China stole millions of US government personnel records, it also got the information of journalists who had applied for government credentials—and Jeb Bush seemed pretty happy about it. “Maybe that’s the only part that’s good news, so you guys can get a feel for what it’s like now to see this type of attack,” said the former Florida governor, breaking briefly into an awkward half-smile.

6. Lindsay Graham says to get a flip phone: “This is why I own a flip phone, you don’t have to worry about all this stuff,” Graham quipped. Actually, your flip phone, in addition to being terrible, would still leave its records all over your cell carrier’s network for the government to access. Please do not listen to this awful advice. Also, Lindsey Graham now has an iPhone.

To be fair, cybersecurity also prompted the night’s most substantive exchange. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio attacked Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz along with others who voted for the USA Freedom Act, which prevents the NSA from accessing or collecting records in bulk without a ruling from a federal judge. It’s proponents say the Act protects Americans from unconstitutional surveillance while making intelligence more effective, because investigators must target specific data and not drown in huge amounts of records. Both men hit back hard supporting the case for NSA reform. Cruz defended the law—and its national security benefits—so well that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Senate’s most outspoken privacy advocate, backed him up in a press release issued during the debate.

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Six Embarrassing Things Republicans Said About Cybersecurity Last Night

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