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— Michael Novakhov (@mikenov) March 4, 2024

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States can’t kick Trump off ballot, Supreme Court says

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The result — which came one day before the Super Tuesday primaries — was expected. During oral arguments on Feb. 8, justices across the ideological spectrum
signaled that they were uncomfortable
with allowing individual states to assess the eligibility of presidential candidates accused of insurrection.

Monday’s 13-page opinion echoed that concern. Allowing states to make that judgment could result in an inconsistent and dangerous patchwork of conflicting rulings, with a candidate appearing on some states’ ballots but not on others, the court wrote.

“An evolving electoral map could dramatically change the behavior of voters, parties, and States across the country, in different ways and at different times,” the court’s principal opinion said. No individual justice was listed as the author of that opinion; instead, the opinion was labeled as “per curiam,” a legal phrase meaning on behalf of the court.

“Nothing in the Constitution,” the opinion continued, “requires that we endure such chaos — arriving at any time or different times, up to and perhaps beyond the Inauguration.”

The three liberal justices wrote a
separate opinion
, saying that they agreed with the result but that they would have issued a narrower ruling that left open the possibility of federal courts disqualifying Trump or another candidate alleged to have engaged in insurrection.

“Although federal enforcement of Section 3 is in no way at issue, the majority announced novel rules for how that enforcement must operate,” Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in their joint concurrence, referring to the section of the 14th Amendment that contains the insurrection clause. The court’s main opinion, those three justices wrote, “reaches out to decide Section 3 questions not before us, and to foreclose future efforts to disqualify a Presidential candidate under that provision. In a sensitive case crying out for judicial restraint, it abandons that course.”

The court’s main opinion referenced the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol only in a recitation of the chronology of the case in the lower courts, but otherwise did not discuss it in any of its analysis. Nor did the court assess Trump’s role in the attack, a central aspect of the case in Colorado.

In December, Colorado’s Supreme Court became
the first court in the nation
to find Trump ineligible to run for the presidency, with a split, 4-3 ruling finding that the former president should be kept off the ballot there. Trump “did not merely incite the insurrection,” the Colorado court wrote; he “continued to support it” while rioters attacked the Capitol.

Shortly after the Colorado decision, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat,
made the same determination
on similar grounds. And last week,
a state judge in Illinois ordered him removed
from the GOP primary ballot there for the same reasons.

All three state-level decisions have been on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the issue on an expedited timeline.

And Monday’s decision from the high court effectively nullifies each of them, as well as dozens of other similar challenges in other states.

“State-by-state resolution of the question whether Section 3 bars a particular candidate for President from serving would be quite unlikely to yield a uniform answer consistent with the basic principle that ‘the President … represent[s] all the voters in the Nation,’” the high court’s main opinion said.

In addition to the separate opinion from the three liberal justices, Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who was appointed by Trump in the waning days of his presidency — also wrote a
separate one-page opinion
of her own.

“The Court has settled a politically charged issue in the volatile season of a Presidential election. Particularly in this circumstance, writings on the Court should turn the national temperature down, not up,” Barrett wrote.

“For present purposes, our differences are far less important than our unanimity: All nine Justices agree on the outcome of this case. That is the message Americans should take home,” she continued.

The case dragged the Supreme Court into the upcoming presidential election in a near-unprecedented way, asking the court to rule on the political future of the likely Republican presidential nominee.

Trump reacted quickly, posting “big win for America!!!” in all caps on his social media website. A spokesperson for the White House said it did not have a comment on the decision.

But it is also far from the last time the high court will deliver a decision with the potential to have a sweeping impact on Trump’s prospects for reelection.

Last week,
the justices agreed to hear Trump’s challenge
to a federal appeals court ruling that rejected his claims of presidential immunity from criminal charges related to his bid to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Their ruling on that question could dictate whether Trump faces a federal trial in Washington on those charges beginning in late summer or fall, at the height of the presidential campaign.

The case decided Monday originated in Colorado, where the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington organized challengers — including
a 91-year-old GOP former legislative leader
— who argued Trump was not eligible to run because of Jan. 6. Another organization, Free Speech for People, has backed similar challenges in states across the country, and the theory had a
strange coalition of supporters
that included prominent liberal and conservative legal academics as well as a
conservative former federal judge
who advised then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject the so-called “fake electors” three years ago.

While Colorado’s high court officially ordered Trump removed from the Republican primary ballot, the state court also put its own decision on hold to allow Trump to seek review from the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, ballots were printed ahead of the state’s primary Tuesday and mail-in voting has proceeded with Trump’s name on the official list of candidates.

The justices did not observe their usual custom of taking the bench as they delivered the politically pivotal ruling Monday morning. Instead, the opinion was released online and to the press and public on paper at the court.

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House Republicans demand info from FBI about Alexander Smirnov, informant charged with lying about Bidens

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By Ellis Kim, Stefan Becket

Updated on: March 1, 2024 / 2:02 PM EST / CBS News

Washington — House Republicans on Friday demanded information from the FBI about a confidential source now charged with lying about purported bribes paid to President Biden and his son, an allegation that GOP lawmakers used as one justification for opening an impeachment inquiry into the president.

Alexander Smirnov, 43, served as a confidential FBI source for 14 years before he was charged and arrested last month for allegedly lying to federal investigators in 2020. Prosecutors said he fabricated a claim that an executive at a Ukrainian energy company told him in 2015 or 2016 that the firm paid the Bidens bribes of $5 million each.

An FBI document memorializing his claims became the subject of a bitter back-and-forth between congressional Republicans and the FBI last summer. The bureau resisted GOP lawmakers’ calls to hand over the document, known as an FD-1023, saying that doing so could compromise a valuable source. The FBI eventually allowed some lawmakers to review the record, and Republicans trumpeted the bribery allegations as evidence of wrongdoing by the president. The GOP-led House voted to formalize an impeachment inquiry against Mr. Biden in December.

In February, a federal grand jury in California indicted Smirnov on two counts of making a false statement and creating a fictitious record, referring to the FD-1023. Prosecutors said Smirnov did not meet the Ukrainian energy executive until 2017, the year after he said the executive told him about the supposed bribes. The federal charges stemmed from the investigation into Hunter Biden led by special counsel David Weiss. Smirnov is being held behind bars pending trial and has pleaded not guilty to both charges.

In a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray on Friday, Republicans Reps. Jim Jordan and James Comer, the respective chairs of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, said the charges against Smirnov raise “even greater concerns about abuse and mismanagement in the FBI’s [confidential human source] program.” Jordan and Comer’s committees are leading House Republicans’ impeachment probe.

“Although the FBI and Justice Department received Mr. Smirnov’s information in 2020, it was only after the FD-1023 was publicly released nearly three years later — implicating President Biden and his family — that the FBI apparently decided to conduct any review of Mr. Smirnov’s credibility as a CHS,” the lawmakers wrote. “During the intervening period, the FBI represented to Congress that the CHS was ‘highly credible’ and that the release of his information would endanger Americans.”

Comer and Jordan said the reversal “is just another example of how the FBI is motivated by politics.” 

The GOP chairmen demanded that Wray hand over documents about any criminal cases that relied upon information Smirnov provided his handlers, details about how much he was paid over 14 years of being an FBI informant and several other categories of information. They gave Wray a deadline of March 15 to produce the documents.

The FBI confirmed it received the letter but declined to comment further.

The White House has repeatedly denied wrongdoing by the president, saying he was not involved in his son Hunter’s business dealings. House Democrats have said the charges against Smirnov severely undermine Republicans’ impeachment push.

“I think the Smirnov revelations destroy the entire case,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said on Feb. 21. “Smirnov was the foundation of the whole thing. He was the one who came forward to say that Burisma had given Joe Biden $5 million, and that was just concocted in thin air.”

Hunter Biden testified before lawmakers behind closed doors earlier this week, telling them that he “did not involve my father in my business.” 

“You have trafficked in innuendo, distortion, and sensationalism — all the while ignoring the clear and convincing evidence staring you in the face,” he said in his opening statement. “You do not have evidence to support the baseless and MAGA-motivated conspiracies about my father because there isn’t any.” 

Andres Triay contributed reporting.

First published on March 1, 2024 / 12:33 PM EST

© 2024 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Alexander Smirnov is linked to intel connecting Trump to Russia

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Published: 13:55 GMT, 1 March 2024 | Updated: 18:52 GMT, 1 March 2024

A federal informant charged with lying to the FBI may have contributed to the controversial Crossfire Hurricane probe of Donald Trump‘s links with Russia.

Alexander Smirnov, 43, is accused of fabricating a story he told the FBI about a $10 million bribe paid to Joe Biden and his son Hunter by a Ukrainian oligarch. He has pleaded not guilty.

As details emerge about the 10-year FBI informant, keen-eyed intelligence analysts have noted an intriguing similarity between Smirnov and an unnamed FBI source cited in a government report on Crossfire Hurricane, the Bureau’s past probe into the Trump 2016 presidential campaign’s links with Russian intelligence operatives.

The similarities raise the prospect that Smirnov may have been a source for both the investigation of potential corruption by the Biden family, and also a counterintelligence probe linked to Trump – making it all the more embarrassing for the FBI if he turns out to have been a fantasist, or worse, a Russian double agent, as is suggested by prosecutors.

Alexander Smirnoff has never been publicly photographed without his face covered. A court artist’s sketch shows his close-cut salt and pepper hair, thick beard and glasses

A report on a counterintelligence probe linked to Donald Trump suggests that Smirnov may also have been a source for the investigation

Smirnov pleaded not guilty to fabricating a $10M bribery scheme involving Joe and Hunter Biden in a LA federal court Monday

Former Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz told that Congress and the Justice Department Inspector General should probe Smirnov’s potential links to Crossfire Hurricane – and find out why his bribery claims were left uninvestigated for three years.

‘The timing of all this is highly suspicious. For years the Department of Justice doesn’t do anything, then all of a sudden they arrest him. It begs the question, what other cases did he weigh in on?’ said the ex-GOP House member, now a fellow at transparency think tank the Government Accountability Institute.

Smirnov made his claims about meeting Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevsky in 2016

‘I think Congress should be diving into it, as well as the Inspector General.’

Smirnov, a longtime, paid informant, passed on intelligence to his handler in March 2017 about allegedly corrupt Ukraine gas company Burisma, and mentioned Hunter Biden’s job on the firm’s board.

In 2020, then-Pennsylvania US Attorney Scott Brady was investigating claims of a foreign influence scheme involving the Bidens. He spotted the handler’s 2017 report mentioning Hunter, and asked for Smirnov to be re-interviewed.

It was then that Smirnov made his claims about meeting Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevsky in 2016, saying that Zlochevsky bragged about bribing the Bidens to shut down a criminal probe into his company.

A report by the Department of Justice Inspector General about Crossfire Hurricane also describes a March 2017 interview with a longtime FBI informant, discussing issues related to Ukraine and foreign influence campaigns.

The informant is unnamed in the report, and has been unable to confirm whether it is Smirnov.

But the report, published in December 2019, said that the anonymous informant ‘regularly provides ‘a ton of information on all sorts of things’ to the FBI’ – as did Smirnov.

This included information given in March 2017, the same month as Smirnov’s meeting with his Seattle-based FBI handler, according to Bureau documents released by Congress.

That informant’s information was ‘provided to the Crossfire Hurricane team for review’, the DoJ IG report said.

Smirnov left a as Vegas courtroom last week flanked by his cousin Linor Shefer, 38, and his girlfriend’s son Nikolay Lavrenyuk, 39. All three tried to hide their faces from cameras

Crossfire Hurricane investigators had been monitoring Trump campaign officials’ alleged links with Russian intelligence operatives and corrupt dealings in Ukraine, a topic on which Smirnov is likely to have been able to provide intelligence.

Prosecutors say Smirnov had ‘high-level contacts with Russian intelligence operatives’ – including the chief of a Kremlin assassination squad. His attorneys say these contacts had all been cultivated at the US government’s request.

Seamus Bruner, vice president of research at the Government Accountability Institute, told ‘The Smirnov fiasco adds to mounting proof that the FBI has been played by Moscow-linked individuals multiple times in recent years.

‘The FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation tried and failed to prove Trump colluded with Russia. Instead it proved that the FBI was easily duped by Moscow-linked operatives, apparently on multiple occasions.’

The Inspector General’s 2019 report was reviewing whether Crossfire Hurricane agents’ warrants to wiretap political staffers such as Carter Page were improperly obtained.

Though heavily redacted, the report appears to say the FBI handler got documents from the unnamed informant and passed them to a ‘Crossfire Hurricane Intelligence Analyst’.

However, the analyst told their team that there was not ‘anything significant’ in the information provided.

This unnamed informant was described as ‘a Trump supporter’ with ‘some political meanderings’.

Smirnov has also been accused by prosecutors of having a bias against Biden and towards Trump, which they claim skewed his reports.

The IG’s report added that FBI top brass were unaware of the informant before the 2016 presidential election.

The IG’s report said that FBI top brass were unaware of the informant before the 2016 presidential election, including then-senior FBI agent Peter Strzok, then-FBI Counterintelligence Division assistant director Edward Priestap and then-FBI director James Comey

Smirnov is facing up to 25 years behind bars for posing as an informant and feeding officials an allegedly false story about the president and his son in 2020 

‘No one involved with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, including [then-senior FBI agent Peter] Strzok, [then-FBI Counterintelligence Division assistant director Edward] Priestap and [then-FBI director James] Comey, knew about this CHS [confidential human source] during the campaign,’ the DoJ IG wrote.

‘Priestap told the OIG he ‘did not know it was happening,’ and that, as the AD of the Counterintelligence Division, he ‘absolutely’ should have been told that there was an active FBI CHS with access to [redacted].’

Former top prosecutor Brady told Congress in October that Smirnov – whose identity was still secret back then – had been ‘used in multiple investigative matters, including during the Obama administration’, a timeline that would overlap with the Crossfire probe.

‘The FBI has said that they had a pre-existing relationship with this source, as well as they had been used in multiple investigative matters, including during the Obama administration. Are you aware of those public statements from the FBI?’ congressional investigators asked Brady in his October 23 interview with the House Judiciary Committee.

‘I’m not aware of those, but that’s consistent with my understanding,’ he replied.

‘The FBI has also said that they’ve reviewed information that [Smirnov] has provided and found them to be, quote, highly credible. Have you seen those public statements?’ the investigator asked.

‘I have not, but that’s consistent with my understanding,’ Brady replied.

Former top prosecutor Scott Brady told Congress in October that Smirnov – whose identity was still secret back then – had been ‘used in multiple investigative matters, including during the Obama administration’, a timeline that would overlap with the Crossfire probe

Kashyap Patel, a former National Security Council official and top aide to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and 2018, told that it would not surprise him if taxpayer money had been wasted on an untruthful informant – citing Christopher Steele, a key informant for Crossfire whose information was later debunked.

‘The FBI has been using its source network for corruption cover-up for years, using taxpayer dollars,’ he said.

‘Christopher Steel and Smirnov were both called the best-trusted assets in FBI history by [Bureau directors] Comey and Wray, respectively. And now they both appear to be criminals.

‘I think there needs to be an entire overhaul of how they use sources, and these are just more examples of it.’

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Ukrainian Intelligence Hacks Russian Defense Ministry

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Cyber specialists from Ukraine’s Military Intelligence (HUR) reported that they’d hacked Russian servers and can now establish the “complete structure” of Russia’s defense ministry.

“The analysis of the obtained data also helped to identify the generals, other high-ranking managers of the structural units of the Ministry of Defense, as well as deputies, assistants, specialists – all those who used software for electronic document management called ‘bureaucrats,’” the HUR wrote in a Telegram post on Monday (Feb. 4).

The hack has given Kyiv access to various secret documents, including those of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, the HUR says.

Without disclosing further details and using a handshake emoji, the HUR, thanked Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu: “ This deputy shoigu played an important role in the success of the cyber attack.”

Ukrainian intelligence reported that it gained access to various orders, reports, instructions, and other documents that circulated among more than 2,000 structural units in Russia’s defense ministry.

“The work in Russian cyberspace aimed at obstructing and paralyzing the activities of law enforcement agencies and officials of the aggressor state responsible for the war against the Ukrainian people continues. To be continued!” the HUR added.

On Feb. 8, Ukraine’s cyber specialists said they’d conducted a special operation that caused massive failures in Russia’s drone control program.

Budanov Says Kyiv ‘Taking Action’ After Ukraine’s Secret Counteroffensive Plans Leaked to Kremlin

Russia knew about the Ukrainian army’s plans for a counteroffensive last fall before the offensive began. Budanov, the head of military intelligence, called the leak a “serious problem.”

And on Jan. 30, the НUR said it attacked the Russian Ministry of Defense’s communications server.

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Prigozhin’s Mutiny Shatters Illusion of Powerful Media Empire

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Prigozhin’s media empire was conceived as a contractor that would perform functions for the state while remaining under external management. But it turns out that receiving billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money is no guarantee of either effectiveness or loyalty.

One of the consequences of businessman and mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny earlier this year has been the unraveling of myths associated with his media empire. The main asset of that empire—the Patriot media company—announced its closure after the armed uprising. While it’s possible it will be reborn, this seems unlikely. Everything linked to Prigozhin is now toxic.

Patriot’s media outlets failed to rise to the challenge during the Wagner mercenary army’s standoff with the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin did his own PR and, during the uprising in June, turned his personal Telegram channel into the key source of news about what was unfolding.

The silence of Prigozhin’s media empire was surprising given its supposedly huge size. Patriot included national online publications like RIA FAN, Politika Segodnya (Politics Today), Ekonomika Segodnya (Economics Today), and Narodnye Novosti  (People’s News), as well as hundreds of regional websites and a network of channels on the Telegram messaging app.

According to RIA FAN head Yevgeny Zubaryov, about 300 million people per day were consuming content provided by Patriot at the beginning of this year. If that were true, which is highly unlikely, it would mean Prigozhin’s media assets had a bigger audience than Russia’s state-owned media outlets.

Prigozhin could also, at least in theory, have deployed his famous “troll factory,” which was set up in St. Petersburg in 2009 and has since grown to include hundreds of employees writing tens of thousands of online comments every day. The troll factory achieved worldwide fame in 2016, when the U.S. authorities accused it of meddling in the country’s presidential election (as part of that campaign, the troll factory reportedly reached up to 70 million people in the United States every week). That propelled Prigozhin’s name into the headlines, and he was sanctioned by Washington in 2018.

Prigozhin’s trolls did not stop work after the U.S. election, going on to support European politicians loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, exert influence in African countries, and discredit Russian opposition politicians. Yet they didn’t come to Prigozhin’s aid during his insurrection.

It has been clear for some time that Prigozhin’s media empire was not as powerful as it claimed. Its limits were illustrated most clearly in Wagner’s years-long campaign to discredit and oust St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. While Prigozhin’s media outlets backed Beglov in his 2019 election campaign, they soon parted ways (Prigozhin claimed Beglov had interfered in his business ventures). Russian media outlet Dossier reported that Prigozhin was using a network of Telegram channels to criticize Beglov. Things reached a head when those channels alleged Beglov had created a “criminal gang” to steal taxpayers’ money.

The Kremlin observed all of this from the sidelines, and, as expected, Beglov survived. Compromising information and media assassinations may have worked in the 1990s, but this is the 2020s. Beglov is personally loyal to Putin, and none of the mud slung at him proved capable of unseating him.

Another example of Prigozhin’s unsuccessful high-drama tactics was the social network YaRus, which was shut down in June. Created in 2020, YaRus was supposed to be a Russian substitute for Western social media sites, many of which have been blocked in recent years. But Russians weren’t interested. YaRus claimed earlier this year it had 11 million users, but there is no way it would have been closed if that was true. As with Patriot, reality likely lagged far behind the company’s claims.

Previous investigations showed that Patriot worked extensively with traffic exchange networks and spent about 900,000 rubles a month (about $9,000 at current exchange rates) buying traffic and social media likes. In all likelihood, judging by the activity of Prigozhin’s channels on Telegram, where it’s much harder to manipulate traffic, Patriot’s real audience was no more than a few thousand.

Staff at Patriot have admitted they worked for one reader alone: Prigozhin. Creating a personal media empire like this was something straight out of the 1990s, when Russian oligarchs bought newspapers and TV stations to further their political and business interests.

In addition, however, it appears that Patriot and the troll factory received state money. As long as the Kremlin needed Prigozhin, no one paid much attention to whether his businesses were losing money. Immediately after Prigozhin’s treachery, however, officials started looking at the accounts. Putin said that, in one year, the state had 276 billion rubles’ worth of contracts with Wagner and other Prigozhin outfits. Propagandist TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov reckoned the state spent more than 1.7 trillion rubles of budget funds on Prigozhin projects.

The Wagner uprising showed that Patriot was never integrated into Russia’s propaganda system. That independence made it vulnerable—something that was clear for all to see as soon as Prigozhin’s star began to wane.

Prigozhin apparently decided to dissolve Patriot’s media outlets in the wake of the uprising so that they couldn’t be passed on to new owners, though the Financial Times quoted the head of one Patriot media outlet as saying that the announcement of closures was done just to “keep the intrigue going.”

At one point, the most likely buyer for Patriot was thought to be National Media Group, which is owned by Putin ally and billionaire Yury Kovalchuk. But Prigozhin’s current toxicity is clearly a problem, and it’s unclear what exactly can be done with Patriot: it’s a loss-making asset and wouldn’t add much value to the existing Kremlin propaganda machine.

Both Prigozhin’s media empire and Wagner were conceived as contractor agencies that would perform functions for the state while remaining under external management. That idea didn’t work. It turns out that receiving billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money is no guarantee of either effectiveness or loyalty.

What will happen to Patriot now? It can’t be relocated to neighboring Belarus, like Wagner. And it’s not really needed by Russia’s major propaganda networks, which would find it far easier to hire staff made redundant by Patriot than to take over the company itself. Prigozhin’s downfall means Patriot has been deprived of its most important reader.

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AI will allow more foreign influence operations in 2024 election, FBI director says

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The 2024 US election will feature more foreign adversaries that are trying to meddle in the election than previous voting cycles thanks to artificial intelligence and other technological advances, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday.

Advances in AI-generated photos and videos “are lowering the barrier to entry” for malign foreign influence in US elections, allowing foreign operatives to move “at a faster pace” targeting US voters, Wray told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an intelligence industry group.

AI makes “foreign influence efforts by players both old and new more realistic and more difficult to detect,” Wray added.

Wray’s speech is one of the more direct public warnings from a senior US official about the potential for such AI-made fake content, known as deepfakes, to accelerate propaganda and misinformation aimed at US voters.

The role of deepfakes in election security has become all the more critical for US officials in light of the recent AI-made robocall ahead of the New Hampshire primary that mimicked President Joe Biden’s voice.  A New Orleans magician made the robocall at the behest of a political consultant working for Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, a long-shot Democratic challenger to Biden, the magician has told CNN.

US officials have been trying to grapple with the uncertainty that AI can inject into the information environment during elections. At a White House exercise in December, senior officials from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies had to respond to a simulation in which Chinese operatives created a fake AI-generated video of a Senate candidate destroying ballots, CNN has reported.

In his speech Thursday, Wray said the FBI, working with other US intelligence and security agencies, has a “combat-tempo response” to foreign election threats because of years of working together on the issue.

Wray also spoke about non-election-related threats, saying that the FBI was “intensely focused” on a range of cyber and national security threats from the Chinese government. As for Iran, the FBI director said that Tehran “has been more brazen over the last few years than I’ve seen in my career.”

Wray cited a 2021 cyberattack on Boston Children’s Hospital and an assassination plot against former US national security adviser John Bolton, both of which the FBI blamed on Iran. The Iranian government denied both allegations.

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Russian propagandists targeted African Americans to influence 2016 US election

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Russian online propagandists aggressively targeted African Americans during the 2016 US election campaign to suppress votes for Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, according to new research.

Analysts found that Russian operatives used social media to “confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage” black people and other pro-Clinton blocs from voting, using bogus claims such as Clinton receiving money from the Ku Klux Klan.

Black turnout declined in 2016 for the first presidential election in 20 years, according to the US census bureau, falling to less than 60% from a record high of 66.6% in 2012. Exit polls indicated that black voters strongly favoured Clinton over Trump.

The new findings on the secret activities of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), known as the Russian government’s “troll factory”, were revealed on Monday in a pair of reports to the US Senate’s intelligence committee. One was led by experts from Oxford University and the other by New Knowledge, an American cybersecurity firm.

New Knowledge said Russia had waged a five-year “propaganda war” against the US public. The Oxford researchers said that while the propaganda was meant to “push and pull” Americans in different directions, “what is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican party – and specifically, Donald Trump”.

Both reports faulted the major social media companies – Facebook, Twitter and Google – for what they said were ongoing failures to turn over exhaustive data to US authorities investigating the Russian campaign. They said some executives had “misrepresented or evaded” and “dissembled” in statements to Congress.

Mark Warner, the committee’s senior Democrat, said new laws were needed to tackle a crisis around social media. “These attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed,” said Warner.

More than a dozen Russians have been criminally charged with hacking and other online activity by special counsel Robert Mueller and other US prosecutors investigating Moscow’s interference in the 2016 campaign.

The new reports said that while it was well known that Russian trolls flooded social media with rightwing pro-Trump material, their subtler efforts to drive black voters to boycott the election or vote for a third-party candidate were underappreciated.

One popular bogus Facebook account created by the Russians, Blacktivist, attracted 4.6 million “likes”. It told followers in the final weeks of the campaign that “no lives matter to Hillary Clinton”, that black people should vote for the Green party candidate, Jill Stein, and that “not voting is a way to exercise our rights”.

Some black Americans were even weaponised as unwitting “human assets” for the Russian campaign, according to the researchers, who said operatives in St Petersburg worked to recruit people in the US to attend rallies and hand out literature.

The Oxford researchers found black Americans were also targeted with more advertisements on Facebook and Instagram than any other group. More than 1,000 different advertisements were directed at Facebook users interested in African American issues, and reached almost 16 million people.

The material was intended to inflame anger about the skewed rates of poverty, incarceration and the use of force by police among black Americans to “divert their political energy away from established political institutions”, the report said, adding that similar content was pushed by the Russians on Twitter and YouTube.

The New Knowledge researchers agreed that the “most prolific IRA efforts” on Facebook and Instagram were aimed at black Americans in what they called an “immersive influence ecosystem” connecting many different pages posting information and reinforcing one another.

In addition to the online posts telling black people their votes would not matter or urging them to vote third-party, Russian operatives tricked people with “vote by text message” scams and tweets designed to create confusion about voting rules, according to New Knowledge.

New Knowledge said the social media propaganda campaign should be seen as the third front in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, together with the hack and theft of Democratic party emails that were passed to WikiLeaks, and the attempt to hack online voting systems across the US.

The Oxford researchers said the lack of human editors on platforms such as Facebook was enabling propagandists. “Obviously, democracies need to take computational propaganda seriously as a threat to their public life,” they said.

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Foreign interference in U.S. elections isn’t old news

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Domestic turmoil may be dominating headlines about the 2024 elections, but threats from abroad have not dissipated. 

During the 2022 midterms, state actors from China, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere increased their attempts to influence the outcomes of midterm races and amplify divisions in American society, according to dual reports released last month by the U.S. national security apparatus. And hostile governments scanned state election websites and copied voter data, although they did not compromise the vote itself.

Americans should understand why foreign actors want to interfere in U.S. elections, how they do it, and what we can do to protect the integrity of our electoral process as we barrel into the 2024 primary season.

Authoritarian governments such as China, Russia, and Iran have three key motivations to interfere in the 2024 election: to diminish the credibility of our democracy, distract our country with internal issues to erode U.S. leadership overseas, and shift our policy to favor their interests. If Americans lack confidence in the integrity of a democratic election or if the country plunges into a political crisis, autocrats abroad can point a finger at us to distract their own citizens from the many shortcomings of their own authoritarian political systems. And American preoccupation with internal election turmoil could weaken our foreign commitments in places like Taiwan, Ukraine, and Israel, regions where these authoritarians have deep and abiding interests counter to our own.

These regimes favor certain political candidates, and in the midterms China (and even Cuba) sought to sway elections toward candidates who aligned with their agendas. A U.S. president less interested in maintaining strong American leadership overseas or supporting our allies would be a strategic win for these countries.

Nation-state actors use a variety of tools and tactics to influence our elections. They wage information-manipulation and online-influence campaigns; conduct cyber intrusions and attacks; put dirty money in our system; and contact candidates, campaigns, and diaspora communities either directly or through cutouts. The advent of generative artificial intelligence enables bad actors to conduct information campaigns and cyberattacks at unprecedented scale and volume.

AI-generated content has played a role in other democratic elections this year, including Slovakia and Argentina, where it was used to malign candidates and spread misleading information, like one viral (but fake) recording of a candidate promising to raise the price of beer. 

Campaigns and political parties are experimenting and grappling with AI in the U.S. elections. Over the past week, a robocall featuring a faked voice of President Biden urged New Hampshire voters to skip Tuesday’s primary. State and local election officials are preparing for increased cyberattacks and more realistic false images, audio, and video that could stoke false claims about election rigging as the Federal Election Commission tries to regulate such misinformation. 

To be clear, these challenges to election integrity are not posed exclusively by foreign actors. Whether in service of money, power, or chaos, anyone can use many of the tools and tactics nation-state actors have at their disposal to undermine the integrity of the election too, especially with AI at everyone’s fingertips. However, in many respects, the United States is a soft target for our foreign adversaries.

The United States is highly polarized. Tens of millions of Americans believe the lies that the election system is rigged already. Our free and open information environment leaves us susceptible to all sorts of campaigns that try to denigrate how the electoral process works. Furthermore, there are over 10,000 election jurisdictions in the country, and although elections are more secure than ever across the board, some jurisdictions still lack the resources to combat a viral image or video created in a basement, to say nothing of deterring a hostile intelligence service.

These vulnerabilities are serious but not insurmountable. Election officials and federal and state officials are working tirelessly to defend against interference in our elections. There are promising technologies that can help officials, media, and the public alike better differentiate between authentic and manipulated content. When appropriate, trusted military and defense leaders can communicate foreign adversaries’ intentions to undermine U.S. military readiness and national security, which is a key reason these adversaries are trying to destabilize democracy in the United States. Finally, if Americans are turned off by the political discourse, now more than ever is the time to participate in democracy directly. Volunteering as an election worker, for example, is an important way to see firsthand all the processes and procedures in place that safeguard the sanctity of the vote from all sorts of threats. By reinforcing our participatory democracy, we provide the best defense against authoritarians who have every interest in destabilizing the United States in 2024 and beyond. 

David Salvo and Rachael Dean Wilson are co-Managing Directors of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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Artificial Intelligence Is Game Changer for Election Interference, FBI Warns

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U.S. security officials are bracing for an onslaught of fast-paced influence operations, from a wide range of adversaries, aimed at impacting the country’s coming presidential election.

FBI Director Christopher Wray issued the latest warning about attempts to meddle with American voters as they decide whom to support when they go to the polls come November, telling a meeting of security professional Thursday that technologies such as artificial intelligence are already altering the threat landscape.

“This election cycle, the U.S. will face more adversaries moving at a faster pace and enabled by new technology,” Wray said.

“Advances in generative AI [artificial intelligence], for instance, are lowering the barrier to entry, making it easier for both more and less sophisticated foreign adversaries to engage in malign influence while making foreign influence efforts by players both old and new, more realistic and more difficult to detect,” he said.

The warning echoes concerns raised earlier in the week by a top lawmaker and by the White House, both singling out Russia.

“I worry that we are less prepared for foreign intervention in our elections in 2024 than we were in 2020,” said Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a cybersecurity conference on Tuesday.

On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” there is “plenty of reason to be concerned.”

“There is a history here in presidential elections by the Russian Federation, by its intelligence services,” Sullivan said.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia sought to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

But Russia has not been alone.

A declassified intelligence assessment looking at the 2022 midterm elections concluded with high to moderate confidence that Russia was joined by China and Iran in seeking to sway the outcome.

“China tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both U.S. political parties,” the report said.

“Tehran relied primarily on its intelligence services and Iran-based online influencers to conduct its covert operations,” it said. “Iran’s influence activities reflected its intent to exploit perceived social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions during this election cycle.”

The United States has also alleged other adversaries, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Lebanese Hezbollah, have sought to influence elections, as have allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The warnings from Wray and others are encountering pushback from some lawmakers and conservative commentators who view such statements as an attempt to resurrect what they call the “Russia hoax” — saying the narrative that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help former President Donald Trump win is without merit.

Warner, however, dismissed that view in response to a question from VOA on the sidelines of Tuesday’s security conference. “Anyone who doesn’t think the Russian intel services have and will continue to interfere in our elections … I wonder where they’re getting their information to start with,” he said.

Wray on Thursday suggested the list of countries and other foreign groups seeking to influence U.S. voters is set to expand. “AI is most useful for what I would call kind of mediocre bad guys and making them kind of like intermediate,” he said.

“The really sophisticated adversaries are using AI more just to increase the speed and scale of their efforts,” he said. “But we are coming towards a day very soon where what I would call the experts, the most sophisticated adversaries, are going to find ways to use AI to be even more elite.”

Some private cybersecurity firms also see the danger growing.

This past September, Microsoft warned that Beijing has developed a new artificial intelligence capability that can produce “eye-catching content” more likely to go viral compared to previous Chinese influence operations.

Others agree.

“Whether it’s robocalls, whether it’s fake videos — all those things really even back to 2022, weren’t as prevalent,” Trellix CEO Bryan Palma told VOA. “You weren’t going to get any high-quality type of deepfake video.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of that as we get closer to the election,” he said.

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