Showing posts with label Vladimir Putin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vladimir Putin. Show all posts

04 April 2024

Warnings Don't Always Work – But Sometimes They Do


There's been a run of very important warnings given and unheeded this year, haven't there?

TERRORIST ATTACKS

Bibi Netanyahu was warned about the Hamas attacks, and apparently blew it off. Much conjecture about why, but I personally start with the premise that Netanyahu was in deep trouble both criminally and politically, and there's nothing like a bloody hard war to keep someone in power. If they're ruthless enough.

Recently, the US embassy warned Putin about upcoming attacks on a large public gathering by ISIS. Apparently, he ignored it. But after the attack on the Crocus City Hall concert, Putin blasted the American warnings as “provocative,” saying “these actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.” (CNN) And then went on to accuse Ukraine of ordering it. (Reuters) Nonsense.

NOTE: My personal theory is that the ISIS-K group or whatever that did it was based on Chechnya, based on the remarkably similar Moscow Theater attack of 2010. Afterwards, many of the Chechen rebels went off to help Isis in Syria, and then came back to Chechnya in 2018, which would give them plenty of time to plan a larger attack against Moscow. (LINK)

UPDATE! Four of the suspected gunmen are Tajik citizens and were arrested along with seven other suspects, some of whom also come from the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation [of Tajikistan]. "There are estimated to be well over three million Tajiks living in Russia, about one-third of the total Tajik population. Most of them hold the precarious status of "guest workers", holding low-paying jobs in construction, produce markets or even cleaning public toilets... Non-Slavs are systematically discriminated against in Russia, and since 2022 they have been disproportionately conscripted and sent to Ukraine to serve as cannon fodder at the front." (LINK) And now they're scrambling to get out of Russia... preferably alive...

map

My SECOND NOTE: Interestingly, Tajikistan, along with its neighbor Kyrgistan, are completely omitted on the Chinese made Map of the World shower curtain I own. (See HERE)

But warnings being given yet not heeded, not acted upon isn't exactly new. Sometimes there's so much chatter, or so many assumptions of threats, that of COURSE there are too many to worry about. It can't happen here. After all, Warnings abounded before 9/11 actually happened. ("Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US").

ASSASSINATIONS

And when it comes to assassinations, well... the most famous assassination victim (perhaps) of all time, Julius Caesar, was warned repeatedly and still went to his fatal meeting with the Senate.

For the matter, Abraham Lincoln: Ward Hill Lamon said that three days before his death, Lincoln related a dream in which he wandered the White House searching for the source of mournful sounds:

"I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. "Who is dead in the White House?" I demanded of one of the soldiers, "The President," was his answer; "he was killed by an assassin."

But the day of his death, Lincoln happily told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a "singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore", and that he had had the same dream before "nearly every great and important event of the War." (Wikipedia) And the rest is history...

But there are also successful warnings, and one of the most unknown came up in my Reuters' feed the other day:

The Al Qaeda plot to kill President Bill Clinton in Manila.

Back on November 23, 1996, just as Air Force One with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton on board, was approaching Manila, when their U.S. Secret Service detail received the alarming intelligence that an explosive device had been planted on the motorcade route into the Philippines capital. Being Secret Service, they got on it, and set up a back-up route to the hotel, getting the Clintons there safely. But, according to retired agents, Filipino security officers found a powerful bomb on a bridge the convoy would have taken and an SUV abandoned nearby containing AK-47 assault rifles.

This assassination attempt was mentioned briefly in books published in 2010 and 2019, but I certainly don't remember any mention of it in the news.

Now, eight retired secret service agents – seven of whom were in Manila – have given Reuters the most detailed account to date of the failed plot. And no one stuck around to conduct a thorough investigation:

"I always wondered why I wasn't kept back to stay in Manila to monitor any investigation," said Gregory Glod, the lead Secret Service intelligence agent in Manila and one of seven agents who spoke out for the first time. "Instead, they flew me out the day after Clinton left."

"There was an incident," said Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "It remains classified." He declined to say what, if any, actions the United States took in response.

Clinton did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him through his spokesperson and the Clinton Foundation. And the FBI declined to comment on the Manila assassination attempt.

Former CIA director Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's chief of staff at the time, said he was unaware of the incident but that an attempt to kill a president should be investigated. "As a former chief of staff, I'd be very interested in trying to find out whether somebody put this information to the side and didn't bring it to the attention of people who should have been aware that something like that happened."

Glod said a U.S. intelligence agency later assessed that the plot was set up at bin Laden's behest by al Qaeda operatives and the Abu Sayyaf Group, Filipino Islamists widely considered an arm of al Qaeda. According to a 2022 International Crisis Group report, the group is in disarray, with only a handful of its leaders still alive.

Four of the Secret Service agents who spoke to Reuters noted that Ramzi Yousef - the al Qaeda-linked mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and a nephew of September 11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had trained Abu Sayyaf militants - was in Manila days before a 1994 visit by Clinton. Yousef is currently serving a life sentence plus 240 years in a federal "supermax" prison in Colorado.

Why / how did it get as far as it did? Chatter. Multiple problems roiling under the surface: "The Philippines was battling communist and Islamist insurgencies. Police discovered a bomb at Manila airport and another at the summit conference center in Subic Bay several days before the Clintons' arrival. The U.S. State Department warned of threats against American diplomats in Manila the day before the First Couple flew in." (Reuters)

Chatter is always a problem: how much of what is heard in rumor, innuendo, and warnings is true? How much matters? And these days, what with social media, conspiracy theories from here to Saturn, and general threats from everyone who wants attention... how do you find the one almond in the peanut butter? And how do you get the people who can do something about it (like Netanyahu or Putin) to listen?

But at least there was one time when people did listen, and a disaster was averted.




MEANWHILE, DON'T MISS IT!

Murder, Neat—our first SleuthSayers anthology—is available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon and your favorite bookstores.

13 September 2023

The Prigozhin Effect


 

Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t fall out of a window; he fell out of the sky.  In a terrifying nosedive, from 28,000 feet.  I hope he had just enough time left to know who ordered it.  And just for shuffles and grins, they took out Dmitri Utkin too, the guy who gave Wagner its name, after his callsign.  Few people, inside Russia or out, are in any doubt that Putin pulled the trigger.  The Kremlin issued a denial, but that’s what plausible deniability is all about, a smooth lie and a sly wink.  The point of the exercise is its utter shamelessness. 

Putin eulogized his onetime best bud as “a man of difficult fate,” which is an interesting locution.  If a literal translation, we might put a different construction on it, someone who sailed under a troubled star.  They went back a ways together, to Leningrad in the late 1990’s, the Boris Yeltsin years, when the oligarchs were raking in cash, over and under the table, and the siloviki – current and former members of the defense and security apparat – had both feet in the trough along with them.  This is what’s come to be known as gangster capitalism, and Vladimir Putin is now the capo di tutti capi.

Wagner Group certainly had its uses.  Murder for hire in Syria and central Africa, leveraging gold, oil, and diamond concessions.  It generated high yield at low risk, even as they normalized war crimes, terror a common instrument, but Wagner wasn’t a state actor, at least on paper.

What seems to be happening now is that they’re being brought under discipline, specifically the central military intelligence chain of command.  There’s of course a lot of intentional confusion about Progizhin’s death and who authorized it, but reliable indicators suggest the job was assigned to Gen. Andrei Averyanov’s special purpose unit inside GRU.  This is the crew that went after defector Sergei Skripal in the UK, with a nerve agent, five years ago.  They’ve never been known for subtlety.  And as luck would have it, Gen. Averyanov has reportedly now been given command of Wagner’s Africa mission.

On a different front, in what we can consider the Russian asymmetrical war effort, Prigozhin was also the founding partner of the Internet Research Agency, the Leningrad troll farm best known in the U.S. for social media influence operations to promote Trump for president.  IRA is supposedly being dismantled in the wake of the Prigozhin mutiny, but we can be sure its assets will be repurposed. 

In other words, although the Wagner coup attempt was widely heralded by Kremlin-watchers as seismic, an exposure of Putin’s fatal weaknesses, it seems more like a fart in the bathtub.  Nothing much has really changed.  “Death is our business,” Wagner’s recruiting pitch went, “and business is good.”  Is it ever. 

Putin’s murderous war in Ukraine grinds on, and Russia’s weakness makes it even more dangerous, like a wounded animal in a trap.  The disinformation campaigns are being redoubled (with China slipstreaming alongside), and God help us, we’ve got Trump taking up all the air in the room, again.  If anything, Putin is stronger than he was before Prigozhin’s mutiny.  No amount of wishful thinking can make this go away. 



28 June 2023

Dead Man Walking: Prigozhin's Mutiny


For those of you wondering what the hell is going on, trust me, nobody else knows much more than you do. 

A cheat sheet. 

Wagner Group was founded by a Slavic fundamentalist  and neo-Nazi knuckle-dragger named Dmitri Utkin, a former GRU spec ops tactical who later contracted out in Syria as private security.  Back-door finance courtesy of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who maintained deniability while Wagner recruited from Spetsnaz, airborne, and OMON militia assault teams, along with other dedicated special warfare units.  Using regular army logistics and support, Wagner deployed into Crimea and the Donbas, and then to South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.  Often suspected of war crimes, their general M.O. in Africa was to corner the export market in a given natural resource.  Uranium and gold, for example, in Darfur.  Profit aside, this allowed Wagner to maintain the fiction of a private contractor and independent business entity, although it’s common knowledge they operated out of Putin’s hip pocket. 

Prigozhin maintained his distance from Wagner until the war in Ukraine, when it began to suit his purpose to take credit for successes the mainstream Russian military couldn’t claim.  The problem, obviously, is that Prigozhin began to believe his own press – or his own podcasts.  When his enemies in the defense establishment, Shoigu and Gerasimov, effectively engineered a coup against Wagner, by requiring private contractors be subordinated to the Army chain of command (and Prigozhin’s supposed patron Putin signed off on it), the handwriting was on the wall.  Prigozhin moved against the garrison in Rostov-on-Don, and redeployed mobile units toward Voronezh – and Moscow.  It looked like a show of strength, but it mostly served to show Prigozhin had lost touch with reality.  It’s like the guy who climbs out onto the ledge of a tall building and threatens suicide.  If they call your bluff, the only thing left to do is jump. 

I doubt if Prigozhin is dumb enough to take refuge in Minsk.  Lukashenko would happily send his ears to Putin on a string, brokering the truce be damned.  His other options are limited.  He can’t go to any Western capital; it would only be a matter of time before the Hague asked for his extradition.  The former Soviet republics are out, or anywhere that has diplomatic relations with Russia.  And the Kremlin has a long reach, look at Trotsky, or Alexander Litvinenko.  Maybe the Saudis, or the Emirates. 

That’s the trouble with being an apex predator who loses his nerve, or thinks himself safe.  There’s always somebody lurking, in the deep water. 

28 September 2022

A Dagger of the Mind


  

Things in Russia are going from bad to worse these days, and don’t look likely to get better anytime soon, but I’ll go out on a limb.  I think Vladimir Putin is circling the drain.  This is more of gut feeling than a considered analysis; still, there are indications he could be forcibly retired, or assassinated, or simply disappear. 

As you might have noticed, an awful lot of people have been falling out of windows, lately.  Former director of the Moscow aviation institute went head over heels down a few flights of stairs.  Another aviation guy, Far East and Arctic development, washed up off of Vladivostok – shortly after their CEO died of a stroke, aged 43.  Chief executive of Lukoil fell out a hospital window.  Another exec with the same company died while consulting a shaman, in a room supposedly used for “Jamaican voodoo” rituals.  The story goes he was looking to buy a toad venom hangover cure.  An oligarch hanged himself in Spain; one of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both of them associated with natural gas production.  A stabbing death.  A suicide by hanging in the UK.  A second one at a cottage outside of St. Petersburg (he’d reportedly been badly beaten, the day before).  The  previous month, another suspicious death, the same village, different dacha.  Kind of a mortality spike.

These events have been this year, and most of them since the invasion of Ukraine.  Also, mostly in the energy or defense sector, which are related.  Were they depressed, or under a cloud, out of favor with the Kremlin?  No way of knowing.  Russians tend to look for conspiracies and plots, when a simpler explanation might suffice.  But if this sequence of accidents and despair turns out to be Expedient Demise, or circling the wagons, who benefits? 

Putin has always understood the efficacies of terror.  The clear historical precedent is Stalin.  When you go after enemies real or perceived with poisoned umbrellas or polonium cocktails, it echoes the murder of Trotsky.  And it gets easier; after throwing a reporter down an elevator shaft, it’s not that hard to flatten Grozny, or sacrifice schoolchidren.  Putin enjoys plausible deniability - not taking credit, but winking at it.  We know he’s got blood on his hands, and in point of fact, he wants us to know it.  His missing signature is more conspicuous by its absence. 

Now, in this context, consider the Ukraine war. 

What, exactly, was the object here?  A quick and brutal decapitation of the Zelensky government and the total annexation of Ukraine, an Anschluss, to demonstrate Russian resolve and its inevitable historic destiny, and to prove once and for all the debility and fundamental lack of purpose in the American and European alliance.  None of which worked out, and what we might call a fundamental lack of purpose in the Russian military and political establishment has been fatally exposed.  Interestingly, while we can applaud the courage of Russians who’ve protested the war on humanitarian grounds, the more serious threat to Putin himself is coming from the Right, who are taking him to task for not prosecuting the war more vigorously – i.e., scorched earth.  We might take note that this group hasn’t been arrested or harassed, and perhaps they’ve found sympathetic ears in the military and security apparat. 

Some years back, there was a political movement in Russia called Pamyat’, which means Memory, and also called the National Patriotic Front.  It was ultranationalist, and to nobody’s surprise, virulently anti-Semitic.  The movement has withered, but the sentiment lingers, not entirely on the fringe, either.  A few contemporary Kremlinologists have pointed out that in the past, coups in Russia (or the USSR) haven’t hinged on policy differences.  Whoever’s going to push Putin down the stairs won’t make major institutional changes; they’re simply elbowing each other out of the way for more space at the trough.  They might find it convenient, though, to play on the revanchist grievances of the Right, and then discard them afterwards, but a bargain with the Devil always ends badly.  In any event, I don’t think it’s a matter of if, but when.  The toadies and bottom-feeders around Putin are going to stick the knife in him.  It could result in a net benefit, but the worrisome thing is that they dig themselves a hole, and pull it in after them. 

03 January 2019

The Spy Who Loved Me


Dusty Johnson's July 15, 2015 tweet praising Maria Butina.
https://kelo.com/news/articles/2018/jul/18/
congressional-candidate-dusty-johnson-
praised-maria-butina-in-2015/
Some of you might remember - not that long ago! - when I did a couple of blog posts  (Mata Hari in South Dakota) about Russian spy Maria Butina and her paramour, South Dakota's own GOP operative, Paul Erickson.  They lived here in Sioux Falls and Ms. Butina did the South Dakota speaking tour, representing her own [Russian] Right to Bear Arms organization.  The tour - all about God, Guns and Let's Be Friends With Russia! - included SDSU, USD, and the Teenage Republicans Camp in the Black Hills.  The last was an interesting example of how you should be careful who you bring in as a guest speaker, considering the number of past and current South Dakota legislators (including recently elected US Representative Dusty Johnson!) were counselors, attendees, or just there for the party.  Bet Dusty's banging his head every day over this little tweet:

Well, now Maria's pled guilty to conspiring to be a foreign agent in the U.S., and is cooperating with authorities.

Her partner, in more ways than one, was Paul Erickson - whose resume includes:
  • National political director / campaign manager for the 1992 Pat Buchanan presidential campaign, 
  • Advisor to both of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. 
  • Former board member of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).[5] 
  • South Dakota Trump campaign, claimed he was on the Trump presidential transition team. and during the 2016 NRA convention sent an e-mail to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (via Trump's campaign advisor Rick Dearborn and then-Senator Jeff Sessions) with the subtle subject line: "Kremlin Connection."  
Mr. Erickson has been hiding in Virginia, and has recently "lawyered up", which is the best idea he's had in years. For one thing, he's "Person 1" who, according to the Statement of Offence, "agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official [that’s Alexander Torshin, Russian billionaire and close personal friend of Vladimir Putin] and at least one other person [ooo! a new mystery player!] for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of [Torshin] without prior notification to the Attorney General.” The purpose of this conspiracy was for Butina to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. policies… for the benefit of the Russian Federation.” Butina acknowledges that she used the National Rifle Association to forward the Russian Plan, because she believed the NRA "had influence over" the Republican Party.  (Thanks, Cory Heidelberger, for the summation)

NOTE:  The NRA is STILL staying silent as a tomb about Ms. Butina, despite the fact that there are pictures out the wazoo of her at various NRA functions (see below),
even though both Ms. Butina and the missing Mr. Torshin were made lifetime members of the NRA.
AND former NRA president David Keene visited Moscow at Mr. Torshin's behest.
AND the NRA spent a lot of money on Donald Trump's campaign.  $30 million, to be specific.  All of this is currently being investigated.  

Ms. Butina in 2014 with James W. Porter II, then president of the N.R.A.; Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president; and Rick Santorum, the former senator.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/04/us/politics/maria-butina-nra-russia-influence.html
NOTE: Russian President Vladimir Putin - who was eager for her release while she was first arrested - currently says he never heard of her.  Considering that Alexander Torshin has gone missing and is rumored murdered, Ms. Butina may want to try to stay in the US after trial, rather than be deported back home.

Image result for paul erickson south dakota
Meanwhile, though, a lot of people have asked me the simple question:  why South Dakota?  Why did she come here, other than for Paul Erickson's rugged good looks?  

Well, South Dakota is a large rural state with a very small population (under 900,000).  Our politicians are extremely, notoriously frugal - i.e., cheap.  Our current assets are $3.13 trillion (yes, you read that right) in commercial and savings bank assets.  We have the weakest reporting regulations you can imagine.  The FBI recently busted a major New York auto theft ring using South Dakota because, "South Dakota, a state that lets people register out-of-state vehicles by mail and wasn’t thoroughly checking to see if they were stolen, the FBI said." (Citation)  We also have (among?) the most pro-business laws regarding credit cards, payday loans, and setting up LLCs and their like in the country.  In my last blog I mentioned that Butina and Erickson formed a couple of LLCs here in Sioux Falls - which, it turns out, may have been laundering money from Torshin and from an as-yet unidentified Russian oligarch (perhaps the anonymous person cited above?) who has a net worth Forbes estimates to be about $1.2 billion.  (This Vox article is still pretty darned good on the ins and outs of the whole thing.)

Anybody can form a shell corporation in South Dakota for $50 per year, without requiring a physical presence and a minimum of personal information.  We have had at least two major scandals - EB-5 and Gear Up! - in which suicide (?) and/or murder-suicide and/or plain old murder followed on millions of federal dollars going missing (and still unfound).  (For that matter, we haven't yet found the Westerhuis safe.)  We are ranked 3rd in the country for corruption, because of single-party government, lack of transparency, backdoor decisions, and we got an "F" in executive and legislative accountability, as well as next to last in lobbying disclosure.  

In other words, you can could get away with a lot in South Dakota, and nobody would notice.  It was the perfect place for a red-haired, gun-toting, freedom-loving, handy Russian to be.

Which leads me to the second obvious question:  why did everyone fall so hard for, and buy so completely into, Maria Butina, and her story about her pro-gun rights Russian organization, Right To Bear Arms?  In Vladimir Putin's Russia?  HAH!  But buy it they did.

The quick answer:  look at the photos:

Maria Butina, Washington Post




  Image result for maria butina instagram  Image result for Maria Butina sexy photo with gun

I wrote back in April of 2015 that "As societies show greater respect for "the interests and values of women" things get better, more peaceful, more prosperous, as a whole.  Ironically, we're currently trying to masculinize women both in business and entertainment, where the ideal woman is now presented as a slim, beautiful, brilliant, athletic ninja warrior."  (The Better Angels...)  Meet Maria Butina.  Or at least her photographs.

"Maria Butina was the ultimate NRA Cool Girl" says a Washington Post article, and goes on to add, "But is there a surfeit of highly intelligent, hot, bilingual Eastern European graduate students who love Jesus, cooking, guns, big-game hunting, bourbon, lipstick, cowboys and tenderly repairing the hearts of damaged men?"

Maybe.  At least, that appears to have been the general conservative male hope.  And, according to Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, THE male hope.  Read all about the Cool Girl HERE.

Back to WaPo:  "The fact that Butina became so popular in conservative circles so quickly seems to point in the other direction: There aren’t a lot of (real) women like her. “She was like a novelty,” a former Michigan GOP chair told The Washington Post last week. “Friendly, curious and flirtatious,” described another anonymous source, who met her through the Conservative Political Action Conference.  The men who championed her were so pleased to meet a woman who fit an ideal mold, they never stopped to think that maybe she was an ideal mole."  Washington Post

Red Sparrow came to South Dakota, [Grateful] Deadheaded the NRA, was invited to and attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, CPAC, and everything else she could find.  Even John Bolton made a video for her in 2103. (YouTube.)   Hell, she even interviewed Candidate Trump, who was happy to take her question and answer freely (and exceptionally eloquently):  You Tube Video.

Everyone loved her.  No one could get enough of her.  But they're being awfully quiet about it now.




"What is the right to life, ingrained in our constitution, if you donĂ¢€™t have the right to bear arms?" says group founder Maria Butina.
Maria in Moscow,
2012
PS:  A lot of Russians also bought Maria's story and her organization.  The Right to Bear Arms united almost all the gun rights' organizations in Russia, largely thanks to her personality. Butina was the "battery that ignited everyone" and "things started to decline" after she left, said the improbably named co-founder Muslim Sheikhov.

But Vladimir Milov, a veteran Russian opposition politician, said he noticed at the time how "well technically equipped" Butina's group appeared to be and the quality of the merchandise at their rallies. "There was a clear idea from the beginning that somebody is behind them." But, at the time, "Butina's associates... believed that Right To Bear Arms was being funded mainly thanks largely to member fees and the sale of several furniture stores she owned in her Siberian hometown of Barnaul." Radio Free Europe

Instead, it was Russian billionaires Alexander Torshin and Konstantin Nikolayev, both friends of Putin.  And with that knowledge comes the fear that the charismatic Butina had "founded" an organization whose chief purpose was to infiltrate Russian opposition groups and, later, the NRA.  And which succeeded in doing both.

In other words, Putin managed to find a way to kill two birds - in two countries - with one stone.  

24 October 2018

Wet Work Redux (the Saudi Sanction)


Russian military intelligence, the GRU, has always had an adversary relationship with KGB, state security, and in particular with KGB's foreign directorates. (Now known as SVR; the domestic side of the shop is the FSB.) GRU has an unhappy reputation for being ham-handed, and some of their more recent adventures seem to bear that reputation out. The poison attack on Sergei Skripal, in the UK, was reportedly a GRU operation, and certainly there have been others. But this quite possibly misses the point. Far from hiding their light under a bushel, GRU is going out of their way to sign their name.

(In my Cold War spy thriller Black Traffic, KGB general Rzhevsky uses GRU as a patsy in a deception operation, and refers to them as the 'Boots.' I didn't make this up. KGB has always thought these guys were knuckle-draggers.)

For all that Vladimir Putin himself is former KGB, he doesn't have a soft spot for his old crew. GRU and Spetsnaz units were deployed in Donbass and the Crimea, both as irregulars and in uniform, and got results. GRU's higher visibility and preference for muscle over mind looks like a sales strategy. It's no secret Putin favors the blunt instrument, but the new wrinkle here is the lack of plausible deniability. In the past, there was at least the pretense of maintaining a cover story. These days, nobody even makes the effort. The reasoning is brutally simple. Terror tactics don't work unless you show your handwriting. Give fear your own face.

Assassination as a covert means has a long history, but let's confine ourselves to living memory. Everybody's practiced it. CIA probably had a hand in Patrice Lumumba's death, and famously tried more than once for Castro. Mossad went after Black September, and decapitated the PFLP. It depends, to some degree, on whose ox is being gored. And you can argue that Israel, for example, is addressing a direct threat to its existence. But that's a kind of moral relativism. All the same, making it policy to murder reporters - instead of some guy who can design a gas centrifuge - is kicking it up a notch. Which brings us to Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi royal family.

Again, we have the Russian model to follow. Putin has supposedly sanctioned dozens of killings, aside from defectors, the Skripals and Litvinenkos of this world, but people like Anna Politkovskaya, who was targeted because of her writings about the Chechen wars, and her opposition to Putin's rebranded Stalinism. She's just one example, of course, and her death only painted on the radar because she was so visible, and her killing so obviously retaliation.

What makes the Khashoggi murder different, and why it's getting so much press, is that the Saudis set a trap for him, at an embassy in another country, killed him, and lied about it without the slightest embarrassment - clearly not expecting anybody to ask questions, because the lies were so obvious. They not only don't give a rat's ass about the consequences, they don't in fact understand what all the fuss is about. Khashoggi was a fly buzzing around the room. We smacked him. What do you care? In this sense, it's not even the murder itself that's startling, it's the Saudis acting aggrieved, as if they're the ones who've been done the injury. Sorry to say, this is genius.

Further reading, Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast:
https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-real-reasons-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-wanted-khashoggi-dead?ref=home




10 October 2018

XPD


David Edgerley Gates


XPD is a usage coined by Len Deighton, in his terrific 1981 thriller of that title, an acronym for Expedient Demise.



A week ago Wednesday, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office confirmed that senior deputy prosecutor Saak Karapetyan had been killed in a helicopter crash outside of Kostroma. A town on the Volga, dating back to the 12th century, if not earlier, Kostroma is one of the so-called Golden Ring cities, a favored retreat of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, the Romanovs, and Soviet nomenklatura. There are conflicting reports. Local officials said at first it was an unauthorized flight, this was contradicted by Moscow. Stanislav Mikhnov, an "experienced" pilot, apparently took off under "adverse" conditions. The third man aboard was also killed. Aviation emergency services are investigating the incident.

Russians are of course total gluttons for conspiracy theories, hidden protocols, and labyrinthine paranoia, so they're all over this one, faster than you can say Vince Foster, but maybe they know something we don't. This guy's handwriting covers a good many pages.

Saak Albertovich Karapetyan was a member of the security apparat. He made his bones in Rostov, as a state prosecutor, and after serving in parliament, he was appointed to the office of Prosecutor General. He headed the Main Directorate for International Legal Cooperation for ten years, and it was in this capacity that he ran interference on at least two major criminal investigations, the Magnitsky case and the Litvinenko poisoning.

The which? you ask. As well you might.

Sergei Magnitsky was a tax auditor, representing an investment firm, Hermitage Capital. Investigating financial irregularities, Magnitsky exposed a widespread fraud, involving the police, the courts, tax agents, bankers, and the Russian mob. Although his accusations later proved out, the immediate result of his going public was his own arrest. He was held for eleven months, and died in custody, under what might be called clouded circumstances. It's a complicated story, and not least because the official Russian version is completely contrary to the known facts.

In the U.S., the eponymous Magnitsky Act was passed to allow for sanctioning individuals responsible for human rights violations. Putin has been working to overturn the Act for the past six years, and it was apparently part of the conversation with Michael Flynn and at the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Veselnitskaya - wait for it - wrote the supporting brief for her then-boss, senior prosecutor Saak Karapetyan, when he stonewalled U.S. inquiries into the money-laundering case against the Russian real estate company Prevezon. Another complex financial tangle, but it leads back to the tax fraud Magnitsky blew open, and the dirty money that was never recovered.

A footnote, here. Magnitsky's boss at Hermitage, the American entrepreneur Bill Browder, has been continually targeted by the Prosecutor General's Office, through Interpol arrest warrants. Most jurisdictions seem to hold the warrants without merit. Browder was instrumental in getting the Magnitsky Act onto the books. A second footnote. Nikolai Gorokhov, a Magnitsky family lawyer who was scheduled as a witness in the Prevezon case, fell out a Moscow window before he could testify.

Alexander Litvinenko. If you're reading this, you probably know who he was. The polonium poisoning? London. 2006. Scotland Yard sent a team to Moscow, the Russians welcoming transparency and all that, but the British cops got sick - they thought somebody slipped them a Mickey - and guess who was in the room? Our senior prosecutor, Saak Karapetyan.

He more recently went out of his way to accuse the Brits of yet more Russia-bashing, in reference to the Novichok attack. Karapetyan put Sergei Skripal, Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovksy (another latterly dead Putin critic) in the same sentence, calling them provocations, which in this context means a false allegation for political gain.

The connection between Karapetyan and Veselnitskaya came out of the closet because of a blown recruitment, this past year. They've been close for a long time, Karapetyan her mentor - The Daily Beast, for one, has been using the more suggestive term handler. Anyway, the two of them had actively compromised a senior Swiss official, whose day job was monitoring the Swiss accounts of Russian oligarchs and mob guys. You notice how, more often than not, it seems to be about the money?

All of this is no more than a chain of circumstance. There's nothing to indicate Karapetyan was less than a loyal soldier, no reason to think he'd be better off dead. There is, however, a later and uncorroborated story that the helicopter pilot, Mikhnov, had two bullet holes in him. The question you have to ask is, Cui Bono - Who Benefits? I don't have a ready answer. It could simply be one of those weird juxtapositions, where the sinister meets the convenient. It could be an untidy intrigue, something domestic, a private grudge. But maybe the guy had sold his soul to the Devil, and it came time to collect. 

*

Best American Mystery Stories 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, is out from Houghton, Mifflin.  Included are SleuthSayer authors Michael Bracken, John Floyd, David Edgerley Gates, and Paul D. Marks. 


02 August 2018

Mata Hari in South Dakota


For those of you who follow my tales of South Dakota politics, I talked about Mariia Butina in my blog post Just Another January in South Dakota. She and Paul Erickson, local South Dakotan, formed a couple of LLCs here in Sioux Falls, and Ms. Butina did the South Dakota speaking tour, all about God, Guns and Let's Be Friends With Russia!, including SDSU, USD, and the Teenage Republicans Camp in the Black Hills, where a number of past and current South Dakota legislatures were counselors, attendees, or just there for the party.

Back in February, almost no one had heard of Mariia Butina, or certainly weren't admitting that they did. But then a couple of weeks ago, she was indicted and arrested for being a Russian agent, and ever since we are in the fire hose of information about her.  Here's a beginning cast list:

(1) Mariia Butina, who introduced herself to America as a pro-Russian Christian gun-rights activist, and managed to get into every NRA convention in her years among us (2012-2017), as well as the National Prayer Breakfast (a private, closed event in case you didn't know) in Washington D.C. in 2017.  Apparently she had a very compelling story... and offered sex for political access and "in exchange for a job at an unidentified “special interest organization.” New York

(2) US Person Number 1 (from the original indictment), a/k/a Paul Erickson - more about him in a minute, but here they are strategizing away:
Maria Butina and Paul Erickson, posted to FB 2013.11.01
(3) US Person Number 2 (from the original indictment) - still unnamed, but described in the court documents as the target of Butina’s efforts to establish a backchannel between U.S. policymakers and representatives of the Russian government...

(4) Butina's handler, Alexander Torshin, Russian politician and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia. He's also been identified by U.S. intelligence sources as having "established ties" to Russian security forces and a fierce Putin supporter, and by Spanish intelligence (they want to arrest him) as the money launderer for the Russian criminal Tambovskaya Gang. He and Butina founded the Russian-based Right to Bear Arms, and there was a regular correspondence between them that has to be read to be believed. Social media never had it so good.

(5) Her funder, Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian oligarch worth $1.5 billion by Forbes’s latest estimate. Read USA Today on that: Russian Billionaire Paid Mariia Butina. There's a South Dakota connection to Nikolaev, which I'll get to in a minute.

(6) Her NRA friends: All photos courtesy of Cory Heidelberger at his blog post: (HERE)

Former NRA president David Keene introduces Maria Butina and Alexsandr Torshin to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, April 2015.
Former NRA president David Keene introduces Maria Butina and Alexsandr Torshin to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, April 2015. [Source: Walker’s “Our American Revival” PAC photo album]

David Keene, former NRA President, and Maria Butina [source: Maria Butina, Facebook, 2013.11.03]
Right before or during Mr. Keene's visit to Moscow at her and Torshin's invitation.
(7) Her South Dakota friends. She spoke at South Dakota State University and at University of South Dakota in Vermillion, offering her compelling story, and, as you can see, was front and center at the South Dakota Teenage Republican Camp:
Butina at SD TARS camp, 2015.07.22.
Butina at Rapid City, SD TAR camp, 2015.07.22
The current candidate for South Dakota's lone US Representative seat, Dusty Johnson, ran that TAR Camp, on her visit, and afterwards tweeted:

Dusty Johnson thought Maria Butina was "incredible" at TARS Camp in 2015. Incredible, indeed.


To be fair, Mr. Johnson's current statement is that he was duped. This is also the current statement from USD, SDSU, and innumerable others...  Crickets from the NRA, despite the fact that she was part of their "million dollar donors" group, and was photographed with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, NRA Presidents Sandy Froman, Jim Porter, and Wayne LaPierre.  (See Alleged Spy Mariia Butina/NRA Photographic History)

And, as the cherry on the top, here's Butina asking then-candidate Trump questions at FreedomFest, July 11, 2015, Las Vegas:





She also attended one of the inaugural balls in 2017.

But for a complete timeline, you can't do much better than Mother Jones. Read that article, and then we'll continue with South Dakota's Season of Spies.

First of all, Paul Erickson. I was talking to a friend about him the other day, and she said she kind of felt sorry for him because he was the butt of so many jokes this day. My response:  "Look, if you can't make fun of the man who masterminded the John Wayne Bobbitt "Love Hurts" tour, who can you make fun of?"

Image result for paul erickson south dakota

Paul Erickson, of Vermillion, SD, is a long time Republican and Republican campaign operative. In the 1980s, he served as the national treasurer for the College Republicans in Washington, D.C., where he met Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff.  (If you don't know who these guys are, well, look them up. 

Erickson also served as the national political director / campaign manager for the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, and later as an advisor to both of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. He is a former board member of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).[5] He worked in SD for the Trump campaign, and in 2016 Erickson claimed he was on the Trump presidential transition team. During the 2016 NRA convention he sent an e-mail to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump via Trump's campaign advisor Rick Dearborn and (for some reason) then-Senator Jeff Sessions with the subtle subject line: "Kremlin Connection":
"Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let's talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions' advice on how to proceed."
No one knows if that meeting took place: Sessions told the House Intelligence Committee he didn't remember the request (even though the e-mail plainly says "Senator Sessions' advice on how to proceed"). I don't know if anyone asked Rick Dearborn.  

Anyway, back in 2013 (or earlier?), Erickson met Mariia Butina, and she recruited him hugely. While a lot of people didn't like Erickson (and even more detest him right about now - you'd be amazed how quickly the SD Republican Party has repudiated him), he was a man with connections. Apparently he knew everybody, and he literally made Butina a list and told her, these are the people you need to contact.  And she did.

She also did what any good Russian agent in a spy novel would do: She befriended him, had sex with him, called him her boyfriend, and shared a Sioux Falls address with him, but...  [sob]
"But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1."   Dakota Free Press
"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you..."  would appear to be Mariia's theme song...  (Stealers Wheel)


Erickson and Butina also, as I said, founded two LLCs. The LLCs - "Bridges" in South Dakota in 2016, and another one - Medora Consulting LLC - in 2018 - are both "located" in an apartment complex in Sioux Falls, and neither have any stated purpose or partners. (Argus Leader)  Personally, I think they're shell companies for, perhaps, a connection to Cyprus...

Why Cyprus?  Well, let's go back to Maria's financier, Konstantin Nikolaev, who has been known to enjoy a seat at Putin’s annual oligarch’s dinner in 2014. Nikolaev owns, among other things, a 34% stake in Globaltrans, “Russia’s Leading Freight Rail Group.” Globaltrans had a subsidiary based in Cyprus called Ultracare Holdings. Between December 2007 and April 2008, Ultracare Holdings received three payments totaling $1.5 million from Northern Beef Packers, based in Aberdeen, South Dakota. At that time, Northern Beef Packers was four years and two more rounds of EB-5 visa investment dollars away from slaughtering any cattle. NBP was five years away from its bankruptcy, the suicide of Richard Benda, and the eruption of South Dakota’s EB-5 scandal. (Thanks Cory Heidelberger!)  Granted, to Globaltrans, or Ultracare Holdings, $1.5 million is not a lot of of jack...  But no one outside of NBP and he EB-5 scandal knows what that cash was for.  (Rail cars? the nearest track is a third of a mile away from the plant).  And the plain truth is that the EB-5 scandal was and is huge, and there are still millions of dollars missing, and no one believes it was suicide, and I have written somewhat often about it:

October 2015 - A Little Light Corruption
January 14, 2016 - The Chinese are Coming
April, 2016 - If Only We Had Laws Against This Stuff

But now we have a Russian connection - so I ask, what in God's sweet green earth was NBP doing sending $1.5 million dollars to Ultracare Holdings in Cyprus? Still waiting for answers, Joop Bollen, Senator Mike Rounds, and soon to be ex-Attorney General Marty Jackley!

But wait, there's more!

Because running one scandal at a time is NEVER enough, while Erickson was playing "find the marks" with Butina, he was also passing bogus checks and running a couple of phony investment schemes:
(1) a company called Compass Care he founded in 1997, which he sold to investors as a Christian-based nursing home company that would eventually build 24 facilities, but never built any. Instead, it just lined up investors and never paid anything out.
(2) A 2009 company called Dignity Medical Inc., which he promised would give a rate of return of between 25 and 75 percent. (Argus Leader - this article also has a really great time line about Mr. Erickson's career)
NOTE TO FUTURE INVESTORS:  Any time any one promises you 25%-75% return on your investment, THEY ARE LYING.  
Meanwhile, in case you're wondering, no one knows where Paul Erickson is. Casey Phillips, a political consultant who once worked with Erickson, said the last time he saw Erickson was on a flight from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. in June. (Argus Leader) Nobody's seen him since. But I'll bet the feds are looking for him...

Meanwhile, Mariia Butina is "cooperating" with authorities.
Meanwhile, the NRA is being as silent as an isolation tank about Mariia Butina.
Meanwhile, the GOP is copy-catting the NRA.
Meanwhile, did I mention that Mariia also was a grad student at American University (on Russian money, of course) in Washington, D.C.?  There she was "in-your-face" with her pro-Russia and pro-Putin views.  "Those who came across Butina said the back of her cellphone prominently displayed a picture of Putin. And while on campus, Butina freely alluded to her activity on behalf of the Russian government, but she made it seem like she was a secretary or held some "low-level" position with a department in the Russian government."  (ABC News)

Hiding in plain sight.  With lots of friends around her...

Anyway, that's the latest from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 
   
Meanwhile, some Blatant Self-Promotion:

  Image may contain: text

Yep, that's me, along with John Floyd and Michael Bracken of SleuthSayers in the 3rd issue of Black Cat Magazine!  Huzzah!


28 June 2017

Wet Work


All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings?