Russian paper: Villagers ID Russian suspect in UK poisoning
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Thursday, September 27
MOSCOW (AP) — Residents in a small Russian village have identified one of the two suspects in the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain as a senior intelligence agent, Russia’s respected Kommersant daily said Thursday in a report that backed up findings by an investigative group.
British-based investigative group Bellingcat on Wednesday named one of the men suspected to have carried out the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter as Col. Anatoly Chepiga, an agent with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU who was awarded Russia’s highest medal, Hero of Russia, in 2014.
The suspect had been named by British authorities as Ruslan Boshirov, and he had also appeared on Russian television channel RT under that name denying any involvement in the poison attack. The Bellingcat report published a photo from Chepiga’s 2003 passport that resembled Boshirov, but didn’t contain further proof that they are the same person.
Kommersant on Thursday interviewed several residents of Beryozovka, the small village where Chepiga’s family used to live, and quoted them confirming that Chepiga is one of the suspects identified by British authorities.
The villagers said they have not seen Chepiga for about ten years, but could recognize him in the photos released by British police and in the interview on RT. One resident described him as a “very good, clever boy.” Another said people in the village knew that Chepiga was “in the secret service” and that his mother was worried about his assignments.
Britain has charged Boshirov and another suspect, Alexander Petrov, with trying to kill Skripal and his daughter on March 4 with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury. Britain has said the attack received approval “at a senior level of the Russian state,” an accusation Moscow has fiercely denied.
Both men appeared in an exclusive interview with the Kremlin-funded RT television station earlier this month, when they denied any role in the poisoning or links to the intelligence services. They said they were in the sports nutrition business and that they were in Salisbury on vacation.
Putin earlier this month said the two suspects are civilians who did nothing criminal.
Asked about Bellingcat’s report, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that the president stands by his statement. He added that the Kremlin doesn’t know who Chepiga was, but promised to check whether he received Russia’s highest award.
A search in the Spark-Interfax corporate database shows that Vladimir Chepiga, whose first and family names indicate that he could be Anatoly Vladimirovich Chepiga’s father, has a 6 percent holding in a small construction company based in the village of Beryozovka.
A local patriotic society briefly wrote about Anatoly Chepiga in a December article, saying he graduated in 2001 from the Far Eastern Military Command College. The article said he had been on assignment in Chechnya three times and has been awarded “Hero of Russia”.
Some Russian media on Thursday tried to debunk Bellingcat’s findings.
Russia’s best-selling newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on Thursday quoted a Defense Ministry employee who pointed to what he described as several discrepancies in the investigation.
The defense ministry source, who was unnamed because he is still an active serviceman, reportedly said that it was unlikely that a graduate of the Far Eastern Military Command College could be a spy because the school doesn’t train intelligence officers.
Chepiga, however, went on to study at another military academy after that, according to Bellingcat.
The official also cast doubt on reports that Chepiga worked in Ukraine, for which he reportedly was awarded Hero of Russia.
Many other commentators, including Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, focused on Belligcat’s sources rather than on the content of the revelations.
Maj. Gen. Alexander Mikhailov told the National News Service radio station that the data released by Bellingcat is so highly confidential that they couldn’t have been leaked. He called the report “nonsense.”
Russian commentators posted numerous memes online on Thursday, making fun of Chepiga’s allegedly blown cover identity.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded RT channel that scored the exclusive interview with the two suspects, posted one of them on Thursday. In the meme, Simonyan asks one of the suspects in a speech bubble: “Are you Chepiga?” and the man who called himself Boshirov replies: “Are you?”
How Australia can help the US make democracy harder to hack
September 27, 2018
Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics; Director, Ostrom Workshop Program on Cybersecurity and Internet Governance; Cybersecurity Program Chair, IU-Bloomington, Indiana University
Academic Director, National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Indiana University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
In the drumbeat of reports about Russian attempts to undermine U.S. democratic institutions with trolls, Twitter bots and cyberattacks on congressional candidates, it is easy to forget that the problem of election security is not isolated to the United States, and extends far beyond safeguarding insecure voting machines.
Consider Australia, which has been grappling with repeated Chinese attempts to interfere with its political system. One 2018 report, for example, found that the Chinese have infiltrated “every layer of Australian Government, right down to local councils.” That’s why a group of academics and policymakers from Indiana University and the Australian National University recently met to discuss how we might make democracy harder to hack. We found that we had far more to work on together than we had anticipated.
Protecting a diverse, widespread system
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. elections, scholars, government officials and concerned citizens are debating how to mitigate the risk of foreign groups targeting the election machinery upon which democratic societies are built.
Vulnerabilities are widespread across the thousands of largely locally managed systems that together comprise U.S. election infrastructure. These vulnerabilities include voting machines that in some cases still have no paper trails and are often running “severely outdated operating systems like Windows XP,” which has not been patched since 2014.
But that is just a taste of the parade of horribles against which people must inoculate the election system. Other risks include hacked tabulation systems, which was a major concern in the 2017 Dutch elections, as well as compromised media outlets, as in Ukraine.
What’s been done so far?
Since 2016, the U.S. government has made progress in protecting democratic institutions. In January 2017, for example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reclassified elections as critical infrastructure, which has helped to focus attention on the issue. Congress has also appropriated US$380 million to help speed the purchase of new, more secure voting machines.
In addition, local and state election officials have a new way to get up-to-date cyber threat information from the federal government. But further progress has stalled, including the Secure Elections Act, which would, among other things, ensure that every vote cast in the U.S. is on a verifiable paper ballot.
What more should Americans be doing, and what can Australia teach us?
Protecting democracy down under
Threats to Australia’s democracy differ in several key respects from those facing the U.S. To begin with, voting is mandatory in Australia, so there aren’t thorny political battles over who is allowed to vote. The major parties also agree on electoral boundaries so as to prevent gerrymandering.
Voting itself is different, too. When Australian voters enter a booth, they use paper forms, which are tallied by hand. And the election process is overseen by a central federally mandated body, the Australian Electoral Commission. This contrasts significantly to the U.S., where voting processes and infrastructure are heavily privatized, using antiquated technologies, though various constituencies have experimented with different forms of electronic voting.
With centralized operations, the Australian government has more control over the voting process and less need to worry about local variations that might threaten its integrity. At the same, such centralization makes for a tempting target.
Lessons from afar
Both countries do have reasons to worry, though. Their shared concerns include manipulation of public opinion via social media; alleged foreign influence over politicians; diminished public confidence around trust, privacy and data; and overseas ownership of news outlets. Fixing these depends much more on addressing human shortcomings than vulnerabilities in digital systems or formal institutions.
Australia also recognizes that political parties are potential targets – as the U.S. found out when the Democratic National Committee’s emails were hacked in 2016 – as well as the lesser-known hack of Republican National Committee emails.
Australia is also working to reduce foreign influence in other aspects of its political and business activities. Like the U.S., Australia has passed tough new foreign agent registration laws with bipartisan support. It has also blocked attempts by Chinese firms to buy controlling stakes in resource companies or large amounts of agricultural and urban land. And it recently excluded the Chinese tech giant Huawei from bidding to provide an Australian 5G mobile data network, citing a potential threat to national security.
And Australia has decided to invest early to guard against future information warfare, such as micro-targeting audiences with tailor-made messaging and machine learning-enhanced deepfake videos. The country has assigned top government officials to focus on cyber threats and begun an effort to ask all citizens to improve their cybersecurity.
Protecting political parties and citizens?
The U.S. has not yet followed Australia’s lead in providing government cyberdefense for political parties. Other aspects of civil society are also left undefended. Hackers have stolen public servants’ data, making them vulnerable to blackmail or fraud. Think tanks and research centers, as well as businesses, have data and other documents that are tempting targets.
The U.S. could do more, perhaps even designating citizens themselves as critical to society and in need of government support and protection against hacking and other online threats. That would acknowledge the many efforts underway to influence voters with false and misleading information.
By taking a lead from Australia – and by learning from successes and failures there, and in other countries – the U.S. could find ways to protect democracy at home and abroad.
Pope defrocks Chilean priest at center of abuse scandal
By NICOLE WINFIELD
Friday, September 28
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis has defrocked the Chilean priest at the center of the global sex abuse scandal rocking his papacy, invoking his “supreme” authority to stiffen a sentence originally handed down by a Vatican court in 2011.
In a statement Friday, the Vatican said Francis had laicized the 88-year-old Rev. Fernando Karadima, who was originally sanctioned to live a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for having sexually abused minors in the upscale Santiago parish he ran.
The “penance and prayer” sanction has been the Vatican’s punishment of choice for elderly priests convicted of raping and molesting children. It has long been criticized by victims as too soft and essentially an all-expenses-paid retirement.
The Vatican didn’t say what new evidence, if any, prompted Francis to re-evaluate Karadima’s sanction and impose what clergy consider to be the equivalent of a death sentence. It said Francis made the “exceptional decision” for the good of the church, and cited the church canon that lays out the pope’s “supreme, full, immediate and universal power” to serve the church.
The statement said the decree, signed Thursday, takes effect immediately and that Karadima was informed of it Friday.
The decision appeared aimed at showing a get-tough approach to sex abuse after a series of missteps by Francis and accusations by a former Vatican ambassador that Francis had rehabilitated a now-disgraced former American cardinal early on in his papacy.
While the move will be welcomed by Chilean victims as overdue, the decision could spark a religious debate for those who see it as a second punishment for the same crime. Francis’ conservative critics might also bristle at another display of raw papal power from the Argentine Jesuit.
Francis sparked a crisis in his papacy earlier this year when he strongly defended one of Karadima’s proteges, Bishop Juan Barros, against accusations that he had witnessed Karadima’s abuse and ignored it.
Francis had claimed that the accusations against Barros were “calumny” and politically motivated, and he defended his 2015 decision to appoint Barros bishop of a small Chilean diocese over the objections of the faithful and many in the Chilean hierarchy.
After realizing that something was amiss, Francis ordered a Vatican investigation that uncovered decades of abuse and cover-ups by the Chilean church leadership. Francis apologized to the victims and set about making amends, including getting every active bishop in Chile to offer to resign.
To date, he has accepted seven of the more than 30 resignations offered, including that of Barros.
It was the second time in a month that Francis has laicized a Chilean priest, after five years in which the Vatican appeared to favor less drastic sentences.
On Sept. 15, the archdiocese of Santiago announced that Francis had defrocked the Rev. Christian Precht, citing the Latin terminology — “ex officio et pro bono Ecclesiae” — on his own authority and for the good of the church.
The decision by Francis to revisit Karadima’s sentence and impose the stiffest penalty available to him, with the exception of excommunication, is significant as he battles to gain credibility on the abuse issue.
Francis has said he has “zero tolerance” for abuse, but his record has been shoddy and the Barros fiasco made clear that, at least until he changed course this spring, he was more willing to believe his clerical friends and advisers than victims.
Pollsters have cited the Karadima scandal, which first erupted in 2009, as the tipping point in the Chilean church’s progressive loss of credibility among ordinary Chileans.
Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of Karadima’s abuse who has been a key driver in pushing for justice for victims and an overhaul of the Chilean hierarchy, thanked Francis for taking action against Karadima.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” Cruz tweeted. “I hope many survivors feel a bit of relief today.”
Opinion: The Tweet That May End a Cleric’s Life
By Brandon Beardsley
“May God harmonize between their hearts for the good of their people.”
Saudi state prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case of prominent cleric and religious scholar Salman al-Audah. His supposed crime: tweeting the above quote to his more than 14 million followers on Twitter during the continuing dispute with Qatar in September 2017. Al-Audah faces 37 counts, including “incitement against the ruler” and “spreading discord.”
Salman al-Audah achieved prominence in Saudi Arabia when he, along with Safar al-Hawali, lead the “Sahwa” Islamic opposition movement that challenged the authority of the Saudi government in the early 1990s. Even though the movement ultimately failed and resulted in the imprisonment of al-Audah and al-Hawali from 1994 to 1999, it remains the most expansive challenge to the rule of the Saudi monarchy since 1979. The arrest and imprisonment of Salman point to the realization that the greatest threat to the continued rule of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — apart from perhaps the royal family itself — comes from a re-emergence of the Sahwa movement.
Recently the new, young Saudi crown prince was enjoying a honeymoon. American journalists including Thomas Friedman, tech company executives such as Mark Zuckerburg, and American celebrities including the Rock are lauding him. Some call him a reformer and even a visionary for lifting the ban on women driving, criticizing religious extremism in Saudi Arabia, and announcing ambitious plans for economic development.
Salman’s “Vision 2030” aims to use the United Arab Emirates as a model for economic development and greater social freedom, to be accompanied with zero political reform or freedom. Socially, Mohammad bin Salman wants to reduce Saudi Arabia’s orientation around a conservative interpretation of Islam, and replace it with a sense of Saudi national identity. In pursuing this goal, the Saudi leader claims he is returning Saudi Arabia to the nation’s “true” character and the “moderate” Islam that characterized the country before the Iranian revolution.
Not unlike Donald Trump, Mohammad bin Salman is an ambitious risk-taker. However, the risks that Salman has taken so far have yet to bear much fruit. The war in Yemen seems to have no end in sight. Qatar has survived the Saudi-led embargo without making concessions. Only time will tell how effective the economic reforms have been. However, none of these challenges represents the threat to the rule of Salman and perhaps the al-Saud family as abandoning Islam as the guiding force of Saudi government and society.
There are three points to keep in mind when assessing the risk of abandoning Islam as the axis of the state: Oil states are not invincible, Saudi Arabia is not an old country, and every Saudi state has based its legitimacy on a connection to Islam.
There are many important differences between Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Counci states. Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and even Oman have small populations of only a few million people or fewer and should be classified more as wealthy city-states than “real” nations. It is much easier for them to care for their small populations through their immense wealth of natural resources.
Among the other large states of the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Iran have already removed their kings. Saudi Arabia is the final kingdom. That would seem to disprove the notion that it is hard to overthrow governments in oil-states.
It should not be forgotten that only “true” revolution that occurred in the Middle East was in Iran, where there was a monarch, an economy based heavily on oil and natural gas, and strong foreign support for the regime. In spite of all these factors, the House of Pahlavi was brought down and replaced with a religiously oriented government that was diametrically opposed to the gulf monarchies.
The current Saudi state was founded in 1932, a few years before oil was discovered. However, this is actually the third Saudi state. The relationship between the al-Saud and the Wahhabi religious doctrine has persisted through each of these states, even in times of crisis. This is because the rulers have understood the effectiveness of using religion as a form of political legitimization. Unlike the monarchies in Iran and Iraq, every Saudi state claimed its legitimacy on the basis of the connection to Islam.
Mohammad bin Salman understands that his transformative vision for the country is questioning the very “raison d’etre” of the nation itself; both its founding myth and what it means to be Saudi. He claims to be returning Saudi Arabia to a purer and more authentic version of itself as he saves the country from the legacy and remnants of the Sahwa.
In 1990, Salman al-Audah gave a speech implying that the Saudi nation was founded on the basis of religion and the principle of “promoting truth and preventing vice” and that if they abandoned those principles the nation would fall. Audah’s contradictory narrative of the guiding purpose and uniting principles of the country remain a major threat to the authority of the state — especially as the state tries to ease away from religion leaving space for the re-emergence of an Islamic-oriented opposition group like the Sahwa.
If Salman al-Audah is ultimately sentenced to death, it will be the greatest gamble the incoming ruler has taken. How will the cleric’s 14 million followers on Twitter react to his death?
The stakes are high and it will be either the end of the Sahwa or the end of Mohammad bin Salman.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Brandon Beardsley is a graduate student at George Washington University, specializing in contemporary Islamic political movements. He has interned with the political section of the U.S. State Department. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
OPINION: Abolish Immigration Detention
by Andrew Moss
If you visit a detainee at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center northeast of Los Angeles, you’ll turn off Highway 395 onto Rancho Road, travel a short distance, and pull into a parking lot squeezed between the detention facility on your left and a privately run state prison on your right. If you’re at the east facility, you’ll walk into a small lobby, give the receptionist your ID and the detainee’s “A” number, and wait in a space decorated like a health clinic waiting room. There you’ll find cheerful nature posters, a TV set playing “Good Day LA,” a child’s play set in a corner, and Good Housekeeping magazines and a Spanish-language bible hanging on a wall.
When you’re notified that your detainee is ready to see you, you leave everything in a locker: pens, paper, keys, cellphone. You are buzzed through heavy metal doors into a visiting area, where you sit across from your detainee under the watchful eye of a guard and a TV surveillance camera. There, three or four other detainees sit as well with their family members, attorneys, or volunteer visitors. You have an hour to be with your detainee, to hear her stories, to offer whatever moral support you can, and to share a hug. Then, time is up, and your detainee, along with the three or four other women in their blue, orange, or red jumpsuits, is ushered out one door, and you through another. You look back at one another one last time.
Something seems very solid about all of this: the barbed wire outside, the heavy metal doors, the waiting room, the jumpsuits. But incongruities force their way into consciousness: the government describes this place as providing “civil, administrative confinement.” But you know it’s prison. And you wonder why your detainee, an Eritrean who simply asked for asylum when she came across the border six months ago, is imprisoned here. Or why another detainee you’ve visited, a father and hard worker who had a DUI years ago, was swept up by ICE to languish here for months. Some facts begin to float before the mind’s eye:
· This place, the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, is a for-profit facility, run by a publicly traded corporation called the GEO Group, Inc., which made $2.26 billion in revenues from all its enterprises last year.
· Of the roughly 200 detention facilities in the U.S., almost three-fourths are run by for-profit enterprises, generating revenue from the confinement of 34,000 to 40,000 detainees per day, 400,000 per year.
· Detention facilities across the country have been cited by both governmental agencies and advocacy groups for a wide range of human rights abuses, including physical and sexual assault, medical neglect, and poor food and unsanitary conditions. Last year, the organization Human Rights Watch released a report with findings by independent medical experts that more than half the 15 deaths occurring in detention over a sixteen- month period (December 2015 through April 2017) were linked to inadequate medical care.
· The Adelanto ICE Processing Center didn’t even exist as an immigration detention facility until 2011, when GEO entered into an agreement with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the city of Adelanto to take over an existing prison. In fact, no detention facilities at all existed in the U.S. between 1954, when Ellis Island closed, and 1981, when President Ronald Reagan opened the first one in Puerto Rico to detain Haitian refugees fleeing political chaos and repression in their country.
· The 1980’s and 1990’s were boom years for the growth of detention facilities, their expansion intertwined with a growth of mass incarceration that scholar Michelle Alexander identified as the “New Jim Crow.” Systems of racial oppression and immigration detention have developed hand in hand; Donald Trump’s racial discourse (Mexicans as “rapists,” immigrants as “animals”) is the most recent soundtrack for these developments.
· There are proven, cost-effective alternatives to detention. These are community accompaniment programs, pioneered by organizations like Freedom for Immigrants, that respect people’s dignity and rights when they enter this country.
One day, the contractors will come back to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center. Perhaps, as they cut down the barbed wire, they will remodel the place and turn it into a school, or a museum like Ellis Island. Or, perhaps, they’ll raze the whole edifice and put up new housing units instead. Whatever the case, you’ll know as you drive away that a whole lot of work will have to be done in the meantime. This is the work of changing a mindset. This is the work of moving from opportunistic distortions (immigrants as threats and criminals) to genuine questions: how do we help others become productive, contributing members of our communities? How do we expand our understandings of our own citizenship in the process?
How do we transition from being a republic of fear to being an exemplar for other nations wrestling with issues of migration? And how, in redefining our identities as individuals and as a nation, do we come to see the border not as a site of separation and of threats, but as a place of coming together, as a site of possibility and creativity?
Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught in Nonviolence Studies for 10 years.