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Friday, August 04, 2017

Fusion paranoia

One of the mysteries of Russiagate concerns Fusion GPS, the firm which hired Orbis to compile the Steele dossier. The dossier investigates Trump's dealings with Putin. The urination incident is but one item on the list, and hardly the most important.

We are told that Trump's enemies -- first Republican foes, then Democratic -- commissioned this research. What complicates the situation is the fact that the Russian government also hired Fusion. Russia's goal: Discrediting William Browder and ending the Magnitsky Act, which has made life difficult for Putin and his pals.

We also have to deal with the right-wing propaganda meme that Fusion is controlled by Evil Hillary, the modern world's distaff Adam Weishaupt.

Fusion, Fusion, Fusion...just which side are you on? Are you anti-Putin or pro-Putin? That quandary has seeped into Trump's twitter feed and into the congressional questioning of William Browder.

Perhaps the simplest theory is that Glenn Simpson, head of Fusion GPS, is a gun for hire. The company does oppo research. If your money is green, you get results.The company's ideology will switch on a dime -- or, if not a dime, then X number of dollars.

Here's the latest: The House and Senate intelligence committees are scrambling to talk to Christopher Steele, and so are Mueller's people. This has led to tension between the congressional probes and the Special Counsel. There is also tension between Republicans and Democrats on the committees. Apparently, the Republicans believe that the Dems are secretly in cahoots with Steele.
Steele was contracted during the 2016 campaign by Fusion GPS, a U.S.-based opposition research firm. Republicans have accused Fusion GPS of fostering links to Russia, and say Fusion lobbied on behalf of Kremlin interests without properly registering as a foreign agent, a claim which Fusion denies.

“What is clear is that the president and his allies are desperately trying to smear Fusion GPS because it investigated Donald Trump's ties to Russia,” Tracy Schmaler, a representative for Fusion GPS, said in a statement.
Heretofore, I've been operating under the presumption that Fusion began to work for Russian interests after it dealt with Steele. (Published reports have made the timeline difficult to dope out.) But what if Fusion was already in Russia's orbit?

What if Moscow wanted the Steele dossier to come into existence?

This idea makes a certain degree of Machiavellian sense. We know that the Russians hacked into the Republicans as well as the Democrats. We know that they've done their best to collect kompromat on both parties. Kompromat can be used to insure the victory of a given candidate in a political race -- and to insure that candidate's compliance once he gets into office.

Recall one of Roger Stone's rules: Always use a cut-out. That was a rule in Spookworld long before Roger Stone got involved in politics.

Christopher Steele of MI6 may have been working as a Russian cut-out without knowing it.

Then again: It is also possible that Steele was witting of his ultimate sponsor.

The suggestion may seem ridiculous at first, but don't be too quick to dismiss the idea. There are a number of right-wing British spooks working for Cambridge Analytica, which lists Russian mobster Dmitry Firtash as a board member. I've seen no evidence of a link between Orbis and Cambridge Analytica beyond the fact that both enterprises employ British spooks, but something really weird seems to be going on between a faction of British intelligence and Russia. Right now, I don't have enough data to offer even a wild piece of conjecture as to what that "something" might be.

The ease with which Steele's team acquired his intelligence has always struck me as unusual. For example, in previous posts I identified Boris Ephsteyn as the likeliest candidate for the dossier's "Source E." (I'm not saying that Ephsteyn is definitely the guy; I'm saying that nobody else fits the dossier's description.) For the moment, let us hypothetically presume this theory to be correct. The question then becomes: Why would Ephsteyn blab so freely to Steele about such matters?

It is possible that the "pee pee" incident never occurred. It is also possible that Steele was told this story in order to backstop a fake video. Putin's people may have concocted a cinematic extravaganza which is being held in reserve, just in case Trump needs to be deep-sixed in a hurry.

There is a precedent for this sort of thing.

Decades ago, an eastern bloc intelligence service used lookalike actors to create a video of Ronald Reagan engaged in a rather gross sexual act with Vicky Morgan. (How gross? Viewers have described the use of a strap-on.) I'm not sure of the original purpose of this production, but my understanding is that it was deemed insufficiently convincing. Through a convoluted series of events (partially detailed in various news articles published in Los Angeles after Morgan's death), a copy of the tape ended up in the possession of porn magnate Larry Flynt, who originally believed it to be genuine. He probably still has the thing. I know that he has shown it at various soirees; Frank Zappa (of all people) once gave a first-hand report during a radio interview. I've talked to someone else who has seen the video, although I won't give his name without permission.

Well after the fall of the USSR, former FSB man Vladimir Putin resurrected this grand tradition of videotaped sexual kompromat. Sometimes the evidence is genuine, as it apparently was in the case of Putin's foe Mikhail Kasyanov. Sometimes the evidence is ginned up. For example, most observers don't believe in the bona fides of a video showing Yury Skuratov in bed with two nubile young lovelies. (Skuratov was a prosecutor general who got on Putin's bad side.)

Consider this NYT story from 2016: "Foes of Russia Say Child Pornography Is Planted to Ruin Them."
Old-style kompromat featured doctored photographs, planted drugs, grainy videos of liaisons with prostitutes hired by the K.G.B., and a wide range of other primitive entrapment techniques.

Today, however, kompromat has become allied with the more sophisticated tricks of cybermischief-making, where Russia has proved its prowess in the Baltic States, Georgia and Ukraine.
Side note: I'm sure that such tactics have been used in other countries, including the United States. In a couple of previous posts, I've asked whether nearly every computer contains illegal imagery hidden away in some nearly-inaccessible file, just as the paper money in your wallet probably contains trace amounts of cocaine. Pirated apps might deliver a covert payload. So could that all-too-convenient piece of freeware you use every day -- your media player, your firewall, your image editor. Ubiquitous illegal imagery could serve a "just in case" purpose: If you ever become a nuisance to the Powers-That-Be, a forensic examination of your computer system can "prove" you to be a monster. After the horrifying truth comes out, your loved ones will tell interviewers: "I had no idea..."
Baltimore (and I'm sure many other police units) regularly practice kompromat and carry around extra drugs and guns to plant as "evidence" on ...crime... scenes.

Shame used to be a useful tool for civilization. Not so much anymore.
"Pirated apps might deliver a covert payload. So could that all-too-convenient piece of freeware you use every day -- your media player, your firewall, your image editor."

No need to go to such trouble: The browser you're using to read this is perfectly capable of dropping unknown images onto your PC. Ever cleared your cache, only to find the next time you went to check your bank balance, you had to go through the whole two-factor authentication process (e.g., short-lived password sent to your email or texted to your phone) again? That's because your browser requested the full download of an image file the bank's server believed should still be in your cache. During an earlier transaction, it had been sent to you, referred from a page where it was most likely defined as a 1x1 pixel image with a position and Z level that placed it beneath another element. IIRC, one banking app on which I worked would choose from a half-dozen or so random stock images -- roaring lion, traffic light, iris. I've seen others that simply used a text-to-image GIF rendering of the date and time of your access; still others combine the two, embedding a timestamp in the face of a random image.

True, an off-the-shelf browser should only be able to drop such potential bombshells as child porn into your image cache, where regular cache emptying should help to protect you. Still, the incriminating bytes remain until the disk space is needed, and most child porn statutes explicitly state that such imagery detected within a drive's "unallocated space" counts.

I've long wondered what would happen if, the next time black hats crack an ESPN-class website, instead of obviously scrawling some bit of adolescent braggery across the home page they instead tweak the code to drop a handful of illegal photos onto every visiting PC. (It should be at least four, since in the U.S. one is legally permitted to delete up to three[1] inadvertently or unknowingly obtained depictions of child porn without having to notify authorities.) Let it simmer for a month, pop out a few anonymized emails to Gizmodo and Wired, and let the fun begin....

A couple of years ago, the FBI dropped by to pick up a [female] housemate with lousy taste in men, one or two of whom evidently having shared images of their collections with her. Arriving to arrest this 40-something cocktail waitress with more officers than were used in John Gotti's 1990 arrest (for which they were ridiculed by the NY Times), when they left several hours later, I was short one computer and several hard drives. (Along with 20+ years of email and pretty much everything I had written, photographed, edited, programmed, or designed in a quarter-century.) When I finally reached the agent in charge and asked why it had been taken, I was told, "there was so much [video] on that PC, we just assumed some of it had to be offending." (I used to VJ at a number of local goth/fetish events, until a couple ill-timed disk failures wiped out hours of content, including much taken from old stag films and loops. I was in the process of rebuilding my clip library at the time of the raid.)

Frankly, I was a little skeptical even that much thought had gone into it. Judging from the logs on the PC they *didn't* take, their forensics tech couldn't get their analysis tools to run. I suspect when they gave up there and turned to the other machine, someone said, "Three terabytes? Fuck it -- we'll look at it in the lab" and started yanking cables.

By the time I met with the agent, it wasn't clear if the system was still in custody or had already been shredded. (After several months of leaving messages on what I later learned was a generally ignored voicemail account on the opposite coast, I finally managed to get the agent's name from my now-former housemate. I eventually received a callback from her -- which was when I finally found out everything that had been taken. Thanks to a carbon paper error -- J. Edgar's old department still isn't hip to carbonless forms -- I wasn't left an inventory or contact info at the time of the raid.) Even though there was a chance it still existed, I decided not to push my luck. Apart from suspecting there very well may have been some less-than-legal footage present (for instance, it's virtually impossible to find a collection of or documentary on stag films without finding clips from the "iconographic" Candy Barr smoker Smart Alec), I had a larger concern: The PC in question had been a ground score, and one of the external drives was a hand-me-down from the son of a friend of a friend. I had -- and have -- absolutely no idea what may have once been stored on them, and even less interest in finding out....
wow, had to suck to lose so much. Back in the days of floppy disks (and before) I lost stuff and just gave up the idea of documenting, let alone archiving...if I do get to organizing my paper stuff, I have the metal cabinets, all empty and ready! That's a riot about the carbon copies, though.

This paranoia is catching. That NRA ad about "fisking" the NYT was a set-up. Note the hashtag for the video was "clenchedFIST of truth." Now the entire left has browser histories of googling "fisting." I could not find any thought pieces parsing the "deep rich" part of the ad, tho. I'm sure if those two words have significance to the NYT someone here will know. I listened to the ad and she did say "fisking" but I was trying to hear whether "deep rich" sounded like "deep reach." It did not. My google history will now show my attempt to see if either of those is slang for fisting. My attempt was feeble and brief, tho: did not want to ...delve.
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