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  • The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System
    by Ben Dreyfuss on June 5, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    On Monday, the Intercept published a classified internal NSA document noting that Russian military intelligence mounted an operation to hack at least one US voting software supplier—which provided software related to voter registration files—in the months prior to last year's presidential contest. It has previously been reported that Russia attempted to hack into voter registration systems, but this NSA document provides details of how one such operation occurred. According to the Intercept: The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the US election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light. While the document provides a rare window into the NSA's understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying "raw" intelligence on which the analysis is based. A US intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive. The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document: Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations. Go read the whole thing. […]

  • Trump's Tweets Threaten His Travel Ban's Chances in Court
    by Pema Levy on June 5, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    President Donald Trump began the week with a barrage of early-morning tweets blasting the courts for blocking his travel ban executive order. But in doing so, he may have just made it more likely that the courts will keep blocking the ban. People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017 The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017 The Justice Dept. should ask for an expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court - & seek much tougher version! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017 In any event we are EXTREME VETTING people coming into the U.S. in order to help keep our country safe. The courts are slow and political! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017   These tweets followed upon several from over the weekend about the ban and the terrorist attack in London, including this one from Saturday evening: We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 3, 2017 In January, Trump signed an executive order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, as well as halting the refugee resettlement program for 120 days (and indefinitely for Syrian refugees). When the courts blocked it, rather than appeal to the Supreme Court, Trump signed a modified version of the order. The new ban repealed the old one, reduced the number of banned countries from seven to six, and added exceptions and waivers. Still, federal courts in Maryland and Hawaii blocked it, and now the Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court to have this second version of the ban reinstated. The biggest question in the litigation over the ban is whether the courts should focus solely on the text of the order or also consider Trump's comments from the campaign trail, and even during his presidency, to determine whether the order uses national security as a pretext for banning Muslims from the country. The president's lawyers argue that the courts should focus on the text of the order and defer to the president's authority over national security. Trump's tweets Monday morning and over the weekend make it harder for the courts to justify doing that. The travel ban is supposed to be a temporary remedy until the government can review its vetting procedures. But Trump's tweets make it appear that the ban itself is his goal. Trump repeatedly and defiantly uses the word "ban" when his administration has instead sought to call it a pause.  The tweets "undermine the government's best argument—that courts ought not look beyond the four corners of the Executive Order itself," Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security and constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law, says via email. "Whether or not then-Candidate Trump's statements should matter (a point on which reasonable folks will likely continue to disagree), the more President Trump says while the litigation is ongoing tending to suggest that the Order is pretextual, the harder it is to convince even sympathetic judges and justices that only the text of the Order matters." And once the courts start looking at the president's statements, it's not hard to find ones that raise questions about anti-Muslim motivations. Even the president's allies acknowledge his tweets are a problem. George Conway, the husband of top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, responded to Trump on Twitter by pointing out that the work of the Office of the Solicitor General—which is defending the travel ban in court—just got harder. These tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won't help OSG get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad. https://t.co/zVhcyfm8Hr — George Conway (@gtconway3d) June 5, 2017 Conway, who recently withdrew his name from consideration for a post at the Justice Department, then followed up to clarify his position. 2) ... and of course, my wonderful wife. Which is why I said what I said this morning. Every sensible lawyer in WHCO and every political ... — George Conway (@gtconway3d) June 5, 2017 3) ... appointee at DOJ wd agree with me (as some have already told me). The pt cannot be stressed enough that tweets on legal matters ... — George Conway (@gtconway3d) June 5, 2017 4) ... seriously undermine Admin agenda and POTUS--and those who support him, as I do, need to reinforce that pt and not be shy about it. — George Conway (@gtconway3d) June 5, 2017 Trump may soon see his tweets used against him in court. Omar Jadwat, the ACLU attorney who argued the case before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, told the Washington Post this morning that the ACLU's legal team is considering adding Trump's tweets to its arguments before the Supreme Court. "The tweets really undermine the factual narrative that the president's lawyers have been trying to put forth, which is that regardless of what the president has actually said in the past, the second ban is kosher if you look at it entirely on its own terms," Jadwat told the Post. […]

  • Republican Congressman on Suspected Islamic Radicals: "Kill Them All"
    by David Corn and Hannah Levintova on June 5, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    In response to the London terror attack, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) had an extreme proposal: kill anyone suspected of being an Islamic radical. On his campaign Faceboook page, Higgins, a former police officer, posted this message: The free world…all of Christendom…is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identity them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all. The post went up early on Sunday morning. On Saturday evening, suspected terrorists killed seven people during an attack on London Bridge. ISIS has claimed credit for these murders. With his declaration that Christendom is "at war with Islamic horror," Higgins was embracing a theme of the far right: the fight against extremist jihadists is part of a fundamental clash between Christian society and Islam. And in this Facebook post, he was calling for killing not just terrorists found guilty of heinous actions, but anyone suspected of such an act. He did not explain how the United States could determine how to identify radicalized Islamists in order to deny them entry to the United States. It was unclear whether his proposal to deny any assistance to any nation that harbors "these heathen animals" would apply to England, France, Indonesia, Spain, and other nations where jihadist cells have committed horrific acts of violence. Higgins office refused to allow a Mother Jones reporter to speak to a spokesman for the congressman. But in an email, his spokesman confirmed the Facebook post was authentic. In late January, Higgins delivered a fiery floor speech attacking Democrats and the "liberal media" for opposing President Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban. He declared that "radical Islamic horror has gripped the world and…unbelievably…been allowed into our own nation with wanton disregard." Shortly before running for Congress, Higgins resigned from his post as the public information officer of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, where he had earned a reputation as the "Cajun John Wayne" for his tough-talking CrimeStopper videos. Higgins abruptly quit after his boss, the sheriff, ordered him to tone down his unprofessional comments. "I repeatedly told him to stop saying things like, 'You have no brain cells,' or making comments that were totally disrespectful and demeaning," the sheriff said. "I don't do well reined in," Higgins noted at the time. "Although I love and respect my sheriff, I must resign." Update: Higgins' campaign spokesman, Chris Comeaux, told Mother Jones in an email: "Rep. Higgins is referring to terrorists. He's advocating for hunting down and killing all of the terrorists. This is an idea all of America & Britain should be united behind." […]

  • How Trump and His Allies Have Run With Russian Propaganda
    by Denise Clifton on June 5, 2017 at 10:30 am

    The concept is straight from the Soviet playbook: Plant false information and use it to influence the attitudes of another country’s people and government. This “active measures” technique from the Cold War era appears to have been resurrected with alarming success by the Kremlin in its attack on the 2016 presidential election—and has been echoed in tactics used by President Donald Trump and his associates, according to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts, a former FBI agent, recently testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Key to this equation have been RT and Sputnik international, two Russian state-sponsored news outlets. Both reach only relatively small audiences in the US (RT is estimated to reach about 8 million people via cable television), but their impact has been magnified greatly online, with their stories reposted on what Watts calls “gray” conspiracy sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars. Twitter bots and other social media accounts further amplify the stories. And in several cases, Trump or his associates have directly cited phony Russian propaganda in a speech or interview. Here are some examples: A false report of a terrorist attack at a NATO base in Turkey: Last July, RT and Sputnik each reported on a fire at the Incirlik base, framing it as potential sabotage. Pro-Russian and pro-Trump Twitter accounts spread and magnified the false reports, but mainstream news organizations didn’t pick up the report because it wasn’t true, as Watts explained in a piece for the Daily Beast. Yet, in mid August, Paul Manafort—Trump’s campaign chairman at the time—escalated the story to a terrorist attack, complaining on CNN that US media outlets were not adequately covering it. Politifact debunked Manafort’s claims, noting that Turkish authorities had reported small, peaceful demonstrations outside the base, but no actual assault on the base. The case of the phony Benghazi email: On October 10, Wikileaks released a batch of emails hacked from campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account. About 5 pm ET that day, Sputnik News published a story about leaked Clinton campaign emails with the headline “Hillary confidante: Benghazi was ‘preventable’; State Department negligent.” Roughly an hour later, Trump told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania that Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal had called the Benghazi attack “almost certainly preventable.” “This just came out a little while ago,” Trump said. Those words weren’t actually Blumenthal’s and Sputnik later deleted the story – but by then the headline had spread far and wide. False claims of pervasive voter fraud: RT has been attempting to delegitimize the American electoral process since 2012 by calling the U.S. voting system fraudulent, according to the declassified version of the report the Director of National Intelligence released this past January. In his Senate testimony, Watts called this the “number one theme" pushed by Russian outlets. In October 2016, a Kremlin-controlled think tank circulated a strategy document that said Russia should end its pro-Trump propaganda “and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency,” according to a Reuters investigation.  That same month, Trump pushed hard on the theme that the election was rigged; on Oct. 17 Trump tweeted “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.” The sources his campaign pointed to were all debunked by Politifact, which noted that Trump had also tweeted in 2012 about dead voters delivering Obama’s win. The Swedish attack that wasn’t: Trump’s strategy of running with false information didn’t stop when he won the election – and hasn’t been limited to Russian-owned media properties: He’s also used Fox News reports in a similar way. In February, Trump appeared to imply at a Florida rally that a terrorist attack had occurred the previous night in Sweden. Sweden itself had no idea what he meant and the Swedish Embassy reached out to ask for clarification. Twitter users, including many Swedes, ridiculed Trump’s statement, with references ranging from IKEA to the Swedish Chef character from the “Muppets.” Trump later said that he was referring to a Fox News story on violence allegedly perpetrated by refugees. That report, which aired the night before Trump’s rally, did not mention a specific terror-related attack; it focused on reports that rape and gun violence had increased since Sweden began taking in a record number of refugees in 2015. Wiretapping claims pushed by a Fox News personality: In March, even though Trump's claim about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower had been directly debunked by top US intelligence officials, the president seized on a baseless claim by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano that British spies had wiretapped Trump at former President Obama’s request. Fox News later disavowed Napolitano’s statement. Trump continued to repeat his conviction that he’d been wiretapped, even though American and British intelligence officials insist there is no basis for the claims. The murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich: Trump allies recently pushed another story that started as a conspiracy theory online and was fueled by Russian news outlets. Fox’s Sean Hannity aired several segments focusing on the unsubstantiated claim that Rich was behind the Clinton campaign email leaks and then murdered for his actions, even though police have said he was likely killed in a robbery attempt. When the claims were thoroughly debunked, Fox retracted the story from its website – but not before it had been spread by Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Even after Fox pulled the story, Gingrich told the Washington Post, “I think it is worth looking at.” In his Senate testimony, Watts noted that Trump is vulnerable to further manipulation by the Russians: He warned that Russian-linked Twitter accounts are actively trying to engage the president by sending him conspiracy theories. “Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country, get some agreement about the facts,” Watts said, “we’re going to have a big problem.&rdquo […]

  • Imagine Being Pulled Off Death Row and Then Being Put Back on It
    by Nathalie Baptiste on June 5, 2017 at 10:00 am

    In 1994, Marcus Robinson, who is black, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the 1991 killing of Erik Tornblom, a white teenager, in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He spent nearly 20 years on death row, but in 2012 his sentence was changed to life without a chance of parole. He was one of four death row inmates whose sentences were commuted by a judge who found that racial discrimination had played a role in their trials. The reason their cases were reviewed at all was because of a 2009 North Carolina law known as the Racial Justice Act, which allowed judges to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants were able to prove racial bias in their charge, jury selection, or sentence. "The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state's harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals," former Gov. Bev Perdue said when she signed the bill into law, "the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice." At 21, Robinson was the youngest person sentenced to death in North Carolina. When he was three, he was hospitalized with severe seizures after being physically abused by his father and was diagnosed with permanent brain dysfunction. However, those weren't the only troubling aspects of his case. Racial discrimination in jury selection has been prohibited since it was banned by the Supreme Court in its 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky, but Robinson's trial was infected with it. The prosecutor in the case, John Dickson, disproportionately refused eligible black potential jurors. For example, he struck one black potential juror because the man had been once charged with public drunkenness. However, he accepted two "nonblack" people with DWI convictions. Of the eligible members of the pool, he struck half the black people and only 14 percent of the nonblack members. In the end, Robinson was tried by a 12-person jury that included only three people of color—one Native American individual and two black people. Racial discrimination in jury selection was not uncommon in the North Carolina criminal justice system. A comprehensive Michigan State University study looked at more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 cases from 1990 to 2010. Researchers found that statewide prosecutors struck 52.6 percent of eligible potential black jurors and only 25.7 percent of all other potential jurors. This bias was reflected on death row. Of the 147 people on North Carolina's death row, 35 inmates were sentenced by all-white juries; 38 by juries with just one black member. Under the Racial Justice Act, death row inmates had one year from when the bill became law to file a motion. Nearly all the state's 145 death row inmates filed claims, but only Robison and three others—Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters—obtained hearings. In 2012, Robinson's was the first. At the Superior Court of Cumberland County, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that race had played a significant role in the trial and Robinson was resentenced to life without parole. North Carolina appealed the decision to the state's Supreme Court. An immediate outcry followed the decision. The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys issued a statement saying, "Capital cases reflect the most brutal and heinous offenders in our society. Whether the death penalty is an appropriate sentence for murderers should be addressed by our lawmakers in the General Assembly, not masked as claims (of) racism in our courts."   The ruling attracted lots of publicity from across the country and North Carolina lawmakers were outraged. "There are definitely signs in the legislative record that there were some [lawmakers] that really wanted to see executions move forward," Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project who also represents Robinson, says. Legislative staffers circulated talking points for lawmakers with arguments that the RJA turns "district attorneys into racists and convicted murderers into victims," describing the law as "an end-run around the death penalty and an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment." The day Judge Weeks resentenced Robinson, the Senate president pro tempore for the state Legislature, Phillip Berger, expressed concern that Robinson could be eligible for parole. He suggested Robinson—who had just turned 18 when he committed the crime and would not have been considered a juvenile—would be ineligible for life in prison without a chance of parole, citing a US Supreme Court ruling that prohibited juveniles from receiving life sentences without parole. "We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our community, and I expect the state to appeal this decision," he said. "Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe the Racial Justice Act is an ill-conceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice." The state Legislature took on the challenge and voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act in 2013. This made it impossible for those on death row to even attempt to have their sentences reviewed for racial bias, but it left the fates of the four who had been moved to life imprisonment unclear. "The state's district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement at the time. Even though the law was still in effect when the four inmates' sentences were reduced, they weren't safe from death row just yet. Robinson's sentenced had been legally reduced, but the legal battle was just beginning. In 2015, after nearly two years from the initial hearing, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Superior Court to reconsider the reduced sentences for Robinson, Augustine, Golphin, and Walters, saying the judge failed to give the state enough time to prepare for the "complex" proceedings. This past January, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that because the RJA had been repealed, the four defendants could no longer use the law to reduce their sentences. "North Carolina vowed to undertake an unprecedented look at the role of racial bias in capital sentencing," says Stubbs. But now, "the state Legislature explicitly turned from its commitment and repealed the law." Robinson is back on death row at Central Prison in the state's capital of Raleigh. In the petition to the state Supreme Court, Robinson's lawyers point out that the Double Jeopardy Clause—the law that prevents someone from being tried twice for the same crime—bars North Carolina from trying to reimpose the death penalty because the 2012 RJA hearing acquitted him of capital punishment. "He's never been resentenced to death," Stubbs says. "They have no basis to hold him on death row." […]