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Why the Justice Department Dropped Charges Over “Russian Interference”

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When Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel dropped indictments against 13 Russian individuals and three companies for using social media “to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election,” the American mainstream media class treated this as groundbreaking, indisputable evidence that Russia had indeed meaningfully interfered in the 2016 election. Headline after headline from then on accused Russian trolls of everything from suppressing the African American vote, to promoting Green Party Candidate Jill Stein, to recruiting “assets,” and ultimately “sowing discord” in the heart of American democracy.

Now that the smoke has cleared after two-plus years of unrestrained sensationalism, it seems that the evidence was never really groundbreaking nor indisputable. This is evidenced by the fact that last week, a federal judge allowed the Department of Justice to drop charges on Concord Catering and Concord Management & Consulting, two Russian companies previously accused of being the well-oiled machines that funded, in the words of Jonathan Alter, an attack “as bad as Pearl Harbor.”

Prosecutors described the rationale for this move to drop charges as being motivated by an interest to protect national security, but given the circumstances surrounding this case — it seems there are more than a few reasons to doubt this explanation. The fact is prosecutors had more than two years to come to this ad-hoc realization that this court case might threaten national security, that it would likely require them to provide evidence that would reveal their sources and methods. Why then did prosecutors spend two years of time and resources in pre-trial court proceedings just to abandon the litigation two weeks before the trial was set to start?

The more plausible answer is that the prosecution knew it was on route to losing at trial and that loss would come as a major embarrassment. Robert Mueller’s team never envisioned that this case would go to trial. It was obvious that the defendants would never step foot in the United States, and so the original indictments were never intended to deliver any striking form of justice. Instead, those indictments were meant to do two things: (1) justify the Special Counsel’s existence and (2) perpetuate the narrative of Russian interference by giving the media formal allegations that it could grab onto and treat as incontrovertible proof.

To this extent, the media played its role obediently. Personalities like Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, and hundreds of other gatekeepers abandoned the American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and automatically accepted the allegations as a verdict.

Unfortunately for the prosecution, not all the defendants played the assigned roles given to them in the original indictment. Shortly after the charges were announced, Concord Management & Consulting flipped the script. The company hired Reed Smith LLP, a high-powered American law firm that would go on to challenge the prosecution tooth and nail over what it argued was a “make-believe crime” that had no basis in existing law. Prosecutors from that point on did everything they could to avoid the inevitable fate of forfeiting.

First, the prosecution team attempted to postpone the case and the pretrial discovery by claiming Concord had not been properly served with the indictment. This precarious strategy didn’t work. There was no need for the company to be properly served the indictment because serving an indictment is a procedure meant to draw a defendant into court. In this case, Concord was already in court and ready to call the government’s bluff.

Then after that, when it finally came time for discovery, Mueller’s team moved to block the defense from accessing the relevant evidence that the law requires prosecutors to disclose, citing that it would be harmful to national security. This move predictably failed because that’s not how justice works in the United States. The government cannot simply allege a crime and then bar defendants from accessing the evidence needed to mount a credible defense. The United States, to its credit, has a well-functioning court system that largely respects the rule of law and places a high burden of proof on prosecutors, which is why the prosecution repeatedly failed to stymie the slow march to an eventual trial date.

Ultimately, the prosecution’s case was dead on arrival because of their own dereliction of duty. The original indictment wasn’t really an indictment at all. It was a press release dressed like an indictment intended to manufacture consent surrounding Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The crime it alleged was based on a warped theory that the defendants had “defrauded the United States” by failing to disclose their Russian identities and affiliations to government agencies in charge of enforcing a registry of foreign agents and campaign-finance laws. The problem with that theory is that there are no federal election laws or statutes that would possibly apply to Concord. They did not operate in the United States and they did not directly purchase any advertisements, which means they weren’t legally obligated to report that information.

The prosecution knew they had a weak case — that they were grasping at straws by applying this fragile legal theory that was really just a fill-in for the fact that nothing the troll farm did was inherently illegal. There is no federal election law or regulation prohibiting any person or group of persons, whether American or foreign, from conveying political speech on social media. There is likewise no law requiring a person online to be truthful or accurate about their identity. Prosecutors were well aware of this. Had they expected a fight in court, they wouldn’t have pursued charges on these grounds. But given that they were challenged in court, they knew that if they litigated this case to its conclusion, they weren’t just poised to lose — they were on a highway to humiliation.

As the pre-trial saga unfolded, it became clear that the Justice Department had wildly overstated its case. For example, there was no underlying evidence that Concord or the Internet Research Agency (IRA) were ever directed by the Russian government. And although the Mueller Report described the IRA campaign as “sweeping and systematic,” it turns out the troll farm’s social media activity was “small, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election.” The IRA spent $46,000 on Facebook ads before the election, or to put it another way, five-1,000ths-of 1 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. Of that $46,000, only $3,102 was spent across the three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) that swung Donald Trump the election. All the while, only 11% of that IRA content was related to the election.

Had a trial taken place, these facts about the alleged “Russian interference” would’ve come to light and the narrative that Russia meaningfully “sowed discord” or molded the outcome in the 2016 election would have fallen apart like a house of cards, shambolically and without a kernel of grace.

The most egregious aspect of this chapter in American history is the extent to which so much of the self-incurred pandemonium was nothing more than selective outrage that placed a singular focus on Russia, while willfully ignoring other, arguably more effectual examples of foreign interference and election meddling. If one is outraged over Russian interference, then logically, one should be outraged over Ukrainian interference or the influx of Israeli money into the American political system. The problem is the average American is either not outraged or not informed that these other examples exist, which speaks to a broader failure within the American media class to approach new stories with objectivity and journalistic integrity. That selective outrage is what led to this selective prosecution. New stories are no longer meant to inform. They’re meant to be weaponized unscrupulously against political rivals. The borderline neurosis that obsessed over Russian interference was never really driven by substance. It was always driven by a desire to tear down domestic opponents in the name of party politics.

This episode was no different.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

The hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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