Person holding Donald Trump signage

As Fascist Networks Grew, Trump Appointees Rebuffed International Cooperation Against Them

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

During the past two years, U.S. counterterrorism officials held meetings with their European counterparts to discuss an emerging threat: right-wing terror groups becoming increasingly global in their reach.

American neo-Nazis were traveling to train and fight with militias in the Ukraine. There were suspected links between U.S. extremists and the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group that was training foreigners in its St. Petersburg compounds. A gunman accused of killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 had denounced a "Hispanic invasion" and praised a white supremacist who killed 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and who had been inspired by violent American and Italian racists.

But the efforts to improve transatlantic cooperation against the threat ran into a recurring obstacle. During talks and communications, senior Trump administration officials steadfastly refused to use the term "right-wing terrorism," causing disputes and confusion with the Europeans, who routinely use the phrase, current and former European and U.S. officials told ProPublica. Instead, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security referred to "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism," while the State Department chose "racially or ethnically motivated terrorism."

"We did have problems with the Europeans," one national security official said. "They call it right-wing terrorism and they were angry that we didn't. There was a real aversion to using that term on the U.S. side. The aversion came from political appointees in the Trump administration. We very quickly realized that if people talked about right-wing terrorism, it was a nonstarter with them."

The U.S. response to the globalization of the far-right threat has been slow, scattered and politicized, U.S. and European counterterrorism veterans and experts say. Whistleblowers and other critics have accused DHS leaders of downplaying the threat of white supremacy and slashing a unit dedicated to fighting domestic extremism. DHS has denied those accusations.

In 2019, a top FBI official told Congress the agency devoted only about 20 percent of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. Nonetheless, some FBI field offices focus primarily on domestic terrorism.

Former counterterrorism officials said the president's politics made their job harder. The disagreement over what to call the extremists was part of a larger concern about whether the administration was committed to fighting the threat.

"The rhetoric at the White House, anybody watching the rhetoric of the president, this was discouraging people in government from speaking out," said Jason Blazakis, who ran a State Department counterterrorism unit from 2008 to 2018. "The president and his minions were focused on other threats."

Other former officials disagreed. Federal agencies avoided the term "right-wing terrorism" because they didn't want to give extremists legitimacy by placing them on the political spectrum, or to fuel the United States' intense polarization, said Christopher K. Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator for countering violent extremism in the State Department's counterterrorism bureau. Some causes espoused by white supremacists, such as using violence to protect the environment, are not regarded as traditionally right-wing ideology, said Harnisch, who stepped down this week.

"The most important point is that the Europeans and the U.S. were talking about the same people," he said. "It hasn't hindered our cooperation at all."

As for the wider criticism of the Trump administration, Harnisch said: "In our work at the State Department, we never faced one scintilla of opposition from the White House about taking on white supremacy. I can tell you that the White House was entirely supportive."

The State Department focused mostly on foreign extremist movements, but it examined some of their links to U.S. groups as well.

There was clearly progress on some fronts. The State Department took a historic step in April by designating the Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders as terrorists, saying that the group's trainees included Swedish extremists who carried out bombing attacks on refugees. It was the first such U.S. designation of a far-right terrorist group.

With Trump now out of office, Europeans and Americans expect improved cooperation against right-wing terrorists. Like the Islamist threat, it is becoming clear that the far-right threat is international. In December, a French computer programmer committed suicide after giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. extremist causes. The recipients included a neo-Nazi news website. Federal agencies are investigating, but it is not yet clear whether anything about the transaction was illegal, officials said.

"It's like a transatlantic thing now," said a European counterterror chief, describing American conspiracy theories that surface in the chatter he tracks. "Europe is taking ideology from U.S. groups and vice versa."

The Crackdown

International alliances make extremist groups more dangerous, but also create vulnerabilities that law enforcement could exploit.

Laws in Europe and Canada allow authorities to outlaw domestic extremist groups and conduct aggressive surveillance of suspected members. America's civil liberties laws, which trace to the Constitution's guarantee of free speech spelled out in the First Amendment, are far less expansive. The FBI and other agencies have considerably more authority to investigate U.S. individuals and groups if they develop ties with foreign terror organizations. So far, those legal tools have gone largely unused in relation to right-wing extremism, experts say.

To catch up to the fast-spreading threat at home and abroad, Blazakis said, the U.S. should designate more foreign organizations as terrorist entities, especially ones that allied nations have already outlawed.

A recent case reflects the kind of strategy Blazakis and others have in mind. During the riots in May after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the anti-government movement known as the Boogaloo Bois had armed themselves, according to court papers. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armory to steal heavy weapons, the court papers allege. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them, according to the court papers. In September, prosecutors filed charges of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which can bring a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. One of the defendants pleaded guilty last month. The other still faces charges.

If the U.S. intelligence community starts using its vast resources to gather information on right-wing movements in other countries, it will find more linkages to groups in the United States, Blazakis and other experts predicted. Rather than resorting to a sting, authorities could charge American extremists for engaging in propaganda activity, financing, training or participating in other actions with foreign counterparts.

A crackdown would bring risks, however. After the assault on the Capitol, calls for bringing tougher laws and tactics to bear against suspected domestic extremists revived fears about civil liberties similar to those raised by Muslim and human rights organizations during the Bush administration's "war on terror." An excessive response could give the impression that authorities are criminalizing political views, which could worsen radicalization among right-wing groups and individuals for whom suspicion of government is a core tenet.

"You will hit a brick wall of privacy and civil liberties concerns very quickly," said Seamus Hughes, a former counterterrorism official who is now deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He said the federal response should avoid feeding into "the already existing grievance of government overreach. The goal should be marginalization."

In recent years, civil liberties groups have warned against responding to the rise in domestic extremism with harsh new laws.

"Some lawmakers are rushing to give law enforcement agencies harmful additional powers and creating new crimes," wrote Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU's national security project, in a statement by the organization about congressional hearings on the issue in 2019. "That approach ignores the way power, racism, and national security laws work in America. It will harm the communities of color that white supremacist violence targets — and undermine the constitutional rights that protect all of us."

The Pivot Problem

There is also an understandable structural problem. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have dedicated themselves to the relentless pursuit of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Iran and other Islamist foes.

Now the counterterrorism apparatus has to shift its aim to a new menace, one that is more opaque and diffuse than Islamist networks, experts said.

It will be like turning around an aircraft carrier, said Blazakis, the former State Department counterterrorism official, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

"The U.S. government is super slow to pivot to new threats," Blazakis said. "There is a reluctance to shift resources to new targets. And there was a politicization of intelligence during the Trump administration. There was a fear to speak out."

Despite periodic resistance and generalized disorder in the Trump administration, some agencies advanced on their own, officials said. European counterterror officials say the FBI has become increasingly active in sharing and requesting intelligence about right-wing extremists overseas.

A European counterterror chief described recent conversations with U.S. agents about Americans attending neo-Nazi rallies and concerts in Europe and traveling to join the Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia fighting Russian-backed separatists. About 17,000 fighters from 50 countries, including at least 35 Americans, have traveled to the Ukrainian conflict zone, where they join units on both sides, according to one study. The fighting in the Donbass region offers them training, combat experience, international contacts, and a sense of themselves as warriors, a theater reminiscent of Syria or Afghanistan for jihadis.

"The far right was not a priority for a long time," the European counterterror chief said. "Now they are saying it's a real threat for all our societies. Now they are seeing we have to handle it like Islamic terrorism. Now that we are sharing and we have a bigger picture, we see it's really international, not domestic."


The assault on Congress signaled the start of a new era, experts said. The convergence of a mix of extremist groups and activists solidified the idea that the far-right threat has overtaken the Islamist threat in the United States, and that the government has to change policies and shift resources accordingly. Experts predict that the Biden administration will make global right-wing extremism a top counterterrorism priority.

"This is on the rise and has gotten from nowhere on the radar to very intense in a couple of years," a U.S. national security official said. "It is hard to see how it doesn't continue. It will be a lot easier for U.S. officials to get concerned where there is a strong U.S. angle."

A previous spike in domestic terrorism took place in the 1990s, an era of violent clashes between U.S. law enforcement agencies and extremists. In 1992, an FBI sniper gunned down the wife of a white supremacist during an armed standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The next year, four federal agents died in a raid on heavily armed members of a cult in Waco, Texas; the ensuing standoff at the compound ended in a fire that killed 76 people.Both sieges played a role in the radicalization of the anti-government terrorists who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, including children in a day care center for federal employees. Oklahoma City remains the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil aside from the Sept. 11 attacks.

The rise of al-Qaida in 2001 transformed the counterterrorism landscape, spawning new laws and government agencies and a worldwide campaign by intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military. Despite subsequent plots and occasionally successful attacks involving one or two militants, stronger U.S. defenses and limited radicalization among American Muslims prevented Islamist networks from hitting the United States with the kind of well-trained, remotely directed teams that carried out mass casualty strikes in London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and Paris in 2015.

During the past decade, domestic terrorism surged in the United States. Some of the activity was on the political left, such as the gunman who opened fire at a baseball field in Virginia in 2017. The attack critically wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican legislator from Louisiana who was the House Majority whip, as well as a Capitol Police officer guarding him and four others.

But many indicators show that far-right extremism is deadlier. Right-wing attacks and plots accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the country between 1994 and 2020, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Anti-Defamation League reported in 2018 that right-wing terrorists were responsible for more than three times as many deaths as Islamists during the previous decade.

"There have been more arrests and deaths in the United States caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years," said Michael McGarrity, then the counterterrorism chief of the FBI, in congressional testimony in 2019. "Individuals affiliated with racially-motivated violent extremism are responsible for the most lethal and violent activity."

During the same testimony, McGarrity said the FBI dedicated only about 20 percent of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. The imbalance, experts say, was partly a lingering result of the global offensive by the Islamic State, whose power peaked in the middle of the decade. Another reason: Laws and rules instituted in the 1970s after FBI spying scandals make it much harder to monitor, investigate and prosecute Americans suspected of domestic extremism.

The Trump Administration and the Europeans

Critics say the Trump administration was reluctant to take on right-wing extremism. The former president set the tone with his public statements about the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, they say, and with his call last year telling the far-right Proud Boys group to "stand back and stand by."

Still, various agencies increased their focus on the issue because of a drumbeat of attacks at home — notably the murders of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 — and overseas. The Christchurch massacre of worshippers at mosques in New Zealand in March 2019 caught the attention of American officials. It was a portrait of the globalization of right-wing terrorism.

Brenton Tarrant, the 29-year-old Australian who livestreamed his attack, had traveled extensively in Europe, visiting sites he saw as part of a struggle between Christianity and Islam. In his manifesto, he cited the writings of a French ideologue and of Dylann Roof, an American who killed nine people at a predominantly Black church in South Carolina in 2015. While driving to the mosques, Tarrant played an ode to Serbian nationalist fighters of the Balkan wars on his car radio. And he carried an assault rifle on which he had scrawled the name of an Italian gunman who had shot African immigrants in a rampage the year before.

Christchurch was "part of a wave of violent incidents worldwide, the perpetrators of which were part of similar transnational online communities and took inspiration from one another," said a report last year by Europol, an agency that coordinates law enforcement across Europe. The report described English as "the lingua franca of a transnational right-wing extremist community."

With its long tradition of political terrorism on both extremes, Europe has also suffered a spike in right-wing violence. Much of it is a backlash to immigration in general and Muslim communities in particular. Responding to assassinations of politicians and other attacks, Germany and the United Kingdom have outlawed several organizations.

Closer to home, Canada has banned two neo-Nazi groups, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, making it possible to charge people for even possessing their paraphernalia or attending their events. Concerts and sales of video games, T-shirts and other items have become a prime source of international financing for right-wing movements, the European counterterror chief said.

During the past two years, officials at the FBI, DHS, State Department and other agencies tried to capitalize on the deeper expertise of European governments and improve transatlantic cooperation against right-wing extremism. Legal and cultural differences complicated the process, American and European officials said. A lack of order and cohesion in the U.S. national security community was another factor, they said.

"There was so little organization to the U.S. counterterrorism community that everybody decided for themselves what they would do," a U.S. national security official said. "It was not the type of centrally controlled effort that would happen in other administrations."

As a result, the U.S. government has sometimes been slow to respond to European requests for legal assistance and information-sharing about far-right extremism, said Eric Rosand, who served as a State Department counterterrorism official during the Obama administration.

"U.S.-European cooperation on addressing white supremacist and other far-right terrorism has been ad hoc and hobbled by a disjointed and inconsistent U.S. government approach," Rosand said.

The semantic differences about what to call the threat didn't help, according to Rosand and other critics. They say the Trump administration was averse to using the phrase "right-wing terrorism" because some groups on that part of the ideological spectrum supported the president.

"It highlights the disconnect," Rosand said. "They were saying they didn't want to suggest the terrorism is linked to politics. They didn't want to politicize it. But if you don't call it what it is because of concerns of how it might play with certain political consistencies, that politicizes it."

Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator at the State Department counterterrorism bureau, rejected the criticism. He said cooperation with Europeans on the issue was "relatively nascent," but that there had been concrete achievements.

"I think we laid a strong foundation, and I think the Biden administration will build on it," Harnisch said. "From my perspective, we made significant progress on this threat within the Trump administration."

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At 7:47 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Jay Butler pounded out a grim email to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Butler, then the head of the agency's coronavirus response, and his team had been trying to craft guidance to help Americans return safely to worship amid worries that two of its greatest comforts — the chanting of prayers and singing of hymns — could launch a deadly virus into the air with each breath.

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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Russian Politician Who Reportedly Sent Millions To NRA Has Long History In Spain

Russian Politician Who Reportedly Sent Millions To NRA Has Long History In Spain

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

As the Spanish police investigated the presence of a notorious Russian organized crime group on the resort island of Mallorca in 2012, they realized that a key figure described by some of the suspects as their “godfather” was a powerful Moscow politician: Alexander Torshin.

Spanish prosecutors decided in the summer of 2013 to arrest Torshin, who was then a senator, officials say. Police set up an operation to capture him during a visit to Mallorca, but he mysteriously canceled the trip at the last minute, apparently as the result of a tip, authorities said. Torshin was never charged, while the other suspects were convicted of money laundering. Last year, he publicly denied any wrongdoing in the Spanish money-laundering case.

Now, Torshin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has reemerged as a potentially important figure in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s inquiry into suspected Russian support for the campaign of President Donald Trump.

Yesterday, McClatchy Newspapers reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, now a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, funneled money to the National Rifle Association that was subsequently spent in support of the Trump campaign. The NRA reported spending $30 million on advertisements and other aid to Trump, part of a record $55 million that the group spent during the 2016 campaign cycle, according to the McClatchy story.

It is illegal for foreign groups and individuals to contribute directly or indirectly to political campaigns in the United States. A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the report Thursday.

Documents from the Spanish investigation make clear that the FBI had been looking closely for years at the Moscow-based organized crime group that Spanish authorities say was connected to Torshin. The FBI gave the Spaniards a memo about the group in 2013, and Spanish prosecutors provided information to FBI officials about Torshin, according to interviews and documents.

The gregarious 64-year-old Torshin has been able to cut an extraordinary swath through conservative political circles in the U.S. since then. A gun enthusiast and lifetime member of the NRA, he cultivated the gun lobby and political figures including Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., according to published reports. Torshin also made contact with the Trump presidential campaign and Trump’s inner circle, according to news reports, though at least one of his overtures was apparently rebuffed.

In congressional testimony released publicly Thursday, Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, the research firm whose investigative “dossier” in the Trump-Russia affair has caused considerable controversy, told the House Intelligence Committee that the Russian connections to the NRA were suspicious.

“It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA,” Simpson said, according to a published transcript. “And there is more than one explanation for why. But I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations.”

The McClatchy report, which quoted two anonymous sources familiar with the FBI investigation, said it was unclear how much money Torshin might have donated to the NRA. The report said the NRA made most of its donations through campaign finance entities that are not required to disclose their donors. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment from ProPublica; the organization also did not comment in the McClatchy article.

ProPublica called and sent emails and text messages to the press office of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation to request comment from Torshin. A spokeswoman, Marina Ryklina, responded Friday to say that the bank had not been commenting on the matter, but would review the request.

As Torshin began building his political profile in the U.S., he also became the focus of a Spanish law enforcement crackdown on a wave of Russian mobsters who came to Spain in the 1990s and 2000s to escape violence at home, launder money in real estate and tourism enterprises, and extend their reach in international business. ProPublica reviewed case files and interviewed investigators in Spain last year for a report about Russian organized crime and power networks.

Although Spanish prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge Torshin, they considered him the top suspect in an investigation that included his intercepted calls to suspects in Mallorca, as well as information provided to Spanish authorities by the FBI, court documents and interviews indicate.

“The arrest of Torshin had been approved,” a senior Spanish prosecutor, José Grinda González, said in an interview. “The thesis in August 2013 was that he was at the top of a criminal structure dedicated to money laundering … We still consider him the investor who injected money into this structure in Spain.”

Torshin was a banker before becoming a leader of Putin’s United Russia party and being elected to the Russian Senate. In 2005, he oversaw a politically sensitive legislative probe into the Beslan massacre, a chaotic incident during which at least 330 people died after Chechen terrorists barricaded themselves in a school with more than a thousand hostages, many of them children. Despite allegations that Russian security forces botched the siege and showed little regard for the safety of the hostages, the inquiry absolved them of any responsibility. It was criticized as a result.

Spanish court documents allege that the roots of Torshin’s alleged ties to organized crime date back to the mid-1990s, when he first served at Russia’s Central Bank as a mid-level official and became friendly with one of his subordinates, Alexander Romanov. While Torshin went into politics, Romanov pursued a business career, serving as an executive at the Rosneft energy company and a distillery, according to court documents. But Romanov also ran afoul of the Russian authorities, according to Spanish court documents, which linked him to the powerful Taganskaya mob of Moscow.

Romanov and associates in the Taganskaya gang allegedly participated in criminal operations known as “raids,” in which gangsters used force to take over companies, according to court documents and interviews. In 2005, Romanov was convicted of financial crimes in Russia and served prison time, according to the Spanish documents.

Romanov remained a friend and business associate of Torshin, forging an alliance that bridged politics, business and crime in a manner typical of the Russian underworld, Spanish officials said. Another Russian lawmaker, Vladislav Reznik, faces trial in Madrid this year on charges of having a similar business and political relationship with a Russian crime boss, Gennady Petrov.

Torshin also did business and communicated with other suspected Taganskaya figures, according to the case file. On July 12, 2013, an FBI agent working on organized crime issues at the U.S. embassy in Madrid provided Spanish investigators with a memorandum on the Taganskaya gang, including figures identified by Spanish documents as associates of Torshin. The memo shows that the FBI had been tracking the Russian group since the 1990s.

The FBI described the Taganskaya mob’s involvement in illicit corporate “raids” in Russia and suspected money laundering in New Jersey, according to the memo. It also says that a Taganskaya figure described by the Spaniards as an associate of Torshin “may have been running financial operations for deceased thief-in-law Vyacheslav Ivankov” — a notorious mobster who during the 1990s spent time in New York and reportedly lived in Trump Tower for a while.

But the FBI memo does not mention Torshin. The FBI did not provide the Spanish with information about the Russian politician, Grinda said Friday. The Spanish authorities relayed their evidence and suspicions about Torshin’s role in the case to the FBI, he said.

Court documents in other cases show that, during the past 15 years, the FBI has often played a significant behind-the-scenes role supplying information to Spanish investigators about Russian gangsters and politically connected oligarchs with ties to Spain.

Spanish police zeroed in on Romanov in 2010, soon after he purchased the Hotel Mar i Pins, which stands atop a hill at the end of a beachfront promenade in the idyllic Mallorcan town of Peguera. Romanov spent at least $15 million on buying and renovating the four-star, 150-room hotel, and moved into a villa next door, according to court documents and interviews. Police quickly suspected that he was part of an influx of mob-connected Russians who came to Mallorca and other Spanish resort areas in the 1990s and 2000s, documents say.

The Spaniards’ surveillance soon detected Romanov’s relationship with Torshin, then a senator, according to documents and officials. Investigators intercepted a series of calls between the two men, some from Torshin’s Senate office in Moscow and others from cellphones belonging to Torshin and his wife, documents show. The intercepts and other evidence led investigators to believe that Romanov and other suspects helped launder Torshin’s money through the hotel and also scouted investment opportunities for him in Spain.

In some of the telephone calls, Romanov and his associates referred to Torshin as “the boss” and “the godfather,” according to an investigative summary of the intercepts. Romanov stated that “his godfather” secretly owned up to 80 percent of the shares in the hotel, according to court documents. In other calls, Romanov indicated that the politician was interested in acquiring another hotel and that “managing the hotel through third parties would be better” for Torshin.

In a conversation with Romanov in February of 2013, Torshin “clearly offers to ‘exert pressure’ to achieve what he, Romanov and Gavrilov want,” an intercept summary says. “Torshin tells him to call today or tomorrow first thing in the morning to talk about how and who to pressure because now he has new possibilities of talking [to someone] in a more ‘serious’ manner.”

By the summer of 2013, prosecutors concluded they had enough evidence to arrest Torshin, according to Grinda and other investigators. Investigators learned that the Russian senator planned to fly to Mallorca to celebrate Romanov’s birthday in August, officials said. Police planned to deploy officers at the airport and the hotel to arrest him upon arrival.

But for reasons that remain unclear, Torshin canceled his visit just two days before the flight, investigators said. Officials believe that a dispute in Spanish law enforcement about the decision to make such a diplomatically sensitive arrest may have led to a leak that reached Torshin. Torshin would have been the most powerful figure arrested in Spanish cases that have targeted Russian Cabinet ministers, elected officials, security chiefs and oligarchs.

Prosecutors decided not to charge Torshin because suspects cannot be tried in absentia in Spain and the case could have been paralyzed, Grinda said. In a plea deal in 2016, Romanov was convicted of lesser charges of money laundering and falsifying documents and was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison.

Torshin denied wrongdoing in a statement published last year by El País newspaper of Spain. He said, according to the newspaper, that Spanish authorities “have never provided either Mr. Torshin or Russian law enforcement agencies with any kind of information about the alleged ties of Mr. Torshin with organized crime. Mr. Torshin was acquainted with Alexander Romanov in the 1990s, their contacts were informal in nature and terminated seven years ago. Mr. Torshin has never intended to visit Alexander Romanov. Mr. Torshin has never had any business connections with Alexander Romanov. Mr. Torshin has never owned real estate or business in Spain.”

Sebastian Rotella is a senior reporter at ProPublica. An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, Sebastian’s coverage includes terrorism, intelligence and organized crime. Email him via 

Donald Trump attends the National Rifle Association’s Leadership Forum during their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Truck Attacks: A Sign Of ISIS Weakness, But Hard To Stop

Truck Attacks: A Sign Of ISIS Weakness, But Hard To Stop

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

People saw this coming.

In the aftermath of the attack in lower Manhattan yesterday, I was reminded of a conversation I had almost a year ago with a veteran counterterrorism chief in Madrid. He had just written a report to his superiors warning about the urgent threat that terrorists would use trucks or cars to mow people down in public places. It wasn’t a sudden flash of insight. Months earlier, a Tunisian deliveryman with a history of mental illness had driven a large cargo truck into a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants in Nice, France, killing 84 people and injuring 450 more. In its edition last November, the main online propaganda magazine used by the Islamic State, Rumiyah, had put out a call for more such attacks, offering tips on how to carry them out.

“The writer very explicitly urges a Nice-style model,” the Spanish official said. “He even gives details about the kind of truck — double axle and double wheel, to do more damage. He urges attacks on public gatherings: political rallies, pedestrian zones, celebrations of the holidays. They are really pushing the mass-casualty, lone-actor model.”

The Spaniard, a burly veteran of the fight against Basque and Islamist terrorists, would only discuss the intelligence on the condition that he not be named. But he told me that information from around Europe indicated that Germany looked especially vulnerable.

A week after we spoke, another Tunisian driving a hijacked tractor-trailer careened through a Christmas market in Berlin, leaving 12 dead and 55 injured. That assailant, who was shot dead by Italian police in Milan days afterward, had also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Colleagues praised the Spanish counterterrorism official for his foresight. But some officials in Spain didn’t heed the warnings. The national police had strongly urged Barcelona to gird itself against vehicle attacks. However, city officials resisted a recommendation to install vehicle barricades in the bustling and emblematic Ramblas promenade in the heart of the city, an obvious target. Mayor Ada Colau said such defenses clashed with Barcelona’s identity as “a city of liberty.”

On August 17, a 22-year-old Moroccan who had grown up near Barcelona drove a rented van down the Ramblas, running over pedestrians. By the time police caught or killed him and others in his terror cell, which was inspired and possibly supported by the Islamic State, the casualty count was 16 dead.

New York has arguably been at the forefront of cities in the West in protecting its freedom with heightened security. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, parts of downtown Manhattan have been extensively retrofitted. In areas around the World Trade Center site, Wall Street and the large cluster of government buildings nearby, metal barricades and police checkpoints have become part of the landscape.

But most of the city has not been armored in the same way, and parts of it have remained open. The West Side Highway bike path that was attacked on Tuesday, while no one’s idea of a symbolic or political target, is a small monument to the cyclists whose presence in the city has grown steadily in recent years. And it passes only blocks away from the World Trade Center Memorial.

The Halloween attack will renew debate about examining vulnerabilities and reinforcing defenses. But as horrifying as it was, the larger realities of the battlefield have not changed, counterterrorism experts say. The Islamic State has been substantially weakened. Like the Spanish counterterror official, many of his colleagues in Europe and the United States see the emerging trend of lone-actor vehicle attacks as a sign of weakness, not strength.

The Islamic State showed what may have been its peak capacity for mayhem in the West in November 2015. A team of well-armed gunmen and bombers, most Europeans who had been trained and directed by masterminds in Syria, struck multiple targets in Paris, killed 130 people and spread havoc in a world capital. Surviving plotters took refuge in their native Brussels, eluded capture for four months, and pulled off suicide bombings at the airport in the Belgian capital, killing another 32 people. Those frenetic five months epitomized the menace of the Islamic State, its hyper-violent culture that swept through neighborhoods of Europe like a drug, its formidable infrastructure for recruiting and deploying killers.

In the past year and a half, however, a combination of aggressive counterterror enforcement in the West and military action in the Middle East has battered the group. The Islamic State is in danger of losing its sanctuary, war chest, propaganda apparatus and operational networks. Thousands of fighters have been killed in fierce urban battles, dying in the ruins of the so-called caliphate. The threat of sophisticated, mass-casualty attacks has diminished in Europe, intelligence officials say.

“Now there’s a lot more amateurism,” another senior European security official told me several months ago. “It has to be said the attacks in Paris were the result of a perfect storm. There were well-trained returning jihadis, some of them combat veterans, local support, an enormous flow of refugees that they took advantage of [to travel from Syria]. Now there could still be a lightning bolt, but I hope the perfect storm doesn’t repeat itself.”

And the threat of a Paris-style plot was always lower in the United States, counterterror officials say, because we don’t have the same combustible mix of problems facing Europe. The United States doesn’t have to confront a blurring of criminal and extremist populations, vast Muslim communities afflicted with unprecedented levels of radicalization, or the kind of weak border enforcement that makes nations such as Greece vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists.

Before New York, however, there was a series of smaller attacks in the West by individuals or small groups, most of them using vehicles or knives. They were typically inspired by Islamic State propaganda or, in a few cases, by jihadis in Syria providing remote direction and encouragement over social media and encrypted telecommunications. The trend is hard to stop precisely because of its simplicity.

The accused New York attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, apparently followed a playbook disseminated by Rumiyah magazine in November of last year. The article singled out the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as an “excellent target.”

“Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner,” the article said.

The brutal scenario was enacted on the campus of Ohio State University soon after the magazine edition appeared. A Somali immigrant student went on a spree with a car and a knife. No one died except him. But then came the Berlin Christmas market attack; the Westminster car and knife attack in London in March (five dead); a Stockholm truck attack in April (five dead); the London Bridge van and knife attack in June (seven dead); the van and knife attacks in Barcelona and the nearby beach town of Cambrils (16 dead), and finally, yesterday’s mass murder on the bike path near New York City’s Stuyvesant High School.

Like most of the previous attackers, Saipov used a rented vehicle. Like most of the others, he wasn’t completely unknown. It’s been reported that he came up on the radar screen of the FBI in connection to a previous investigation. That isn’t necessarily a surprise or a scandal. In 2001, the longtime French counterterror judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere told me it was very rare to encounter a case of terrorism in which the suspects were not already in a case file or an intelligence report somewhere. His words have been confirmed repeatedly since then.

In the London attacks, the terrorists continued their rampages on foot with knives. Saipov, in contrast, didn’t hurt anyone else once his truck crashed because his weapons consisted only of pellet and paintball guns. Given the ready supply of firearms in the United States, his limited armament suggests a relatively primitive plot and a lack of a support network.

In Europe, the gun laws are stricter and terrorists have had a harder time obtaining firearms. A French intelligence chief told me this year about arms traffickers in the housing projects of Paris refusing to sell to extremists because of the risk of going to prison on terrorism charges.

ISIS’s change in tactics also reveals the new obstacles to training. In 2014 and 2015, thousands of aspiring Western jihadis trekked via Turkey to Syria. They trained with weapons and explosives and then returned home, often without being detected. The days of such unfettered movement back and forth appear to be over. Although you can study bomb-making techniques on the internet, the real thing isn’t that easy. The attack with the rented van in the Barcelona area was improvised by youthful plotters after their leader and other suspects died in the explosion of their bomb factory in an abandoned house.

It seems clear in the Barcelona case that the authorities could have done more in terms of prevention. Not only did the city fail to install barriers, the regional and national counterterror forces didn’t detect the terrorist cell, even though its leader was an imam with a criminal record for drug and immigrant tracking, had previous contact with terrorists in prison, and had been the subject of a query from police in Belgium to police in Barcelona.

The city of New York has developed a muscular counterterror apparatus at strategic as well as tactical levels. There’s the FBI-led counterterror task force, the NYPD’s counterterror division, and the NYPD intelligence unit whose reach extends into neighboring states and to overseas capitals, where liaison officers gather intelligence and develop alliances.

Nonetheless, yesterday’s attacker slipped through. In the aftermath, New Yorkers refused to let the violence interfere with trick or treating or the Halloween parade. That’s heartening to U.S. and European counterterror officials, who say the United States has better defenses than Europe in many ways — but also a vulnerability at the political level.

In an interview with ProPublica earlier this year, the former director of the intelligence community’s National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, warned against proposed extreme restrictions on Muslim refugees and immigrants and the tone of the political debate about terrorism. He and other experts say that one of America’s great strengths has been its ability to integrate immigrants, including Muslims, and to avoid provoking the kind of resentment and alienation that have fed radicalization in many European nations.

Header image: Investigators work around the wreckage of the Home Depot pickup truck used in the attack in lower Manhattan on Oct. 31. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)



Russia’s Shadow-War In A Wary Europe

Russia’s Shadow-War In A Wary Europe

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by Sebastian Rotella 

As the French prepare to vote Sunday in a presidential election marked by acrimonious debate about Russian influence in Europe, there’s little doubt about which candidate Moscow backs.

Last month, the combative populist Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front flew to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin. It was a display of longtime mutual admiration. The frontrunner in a field of 11 candidates, Le Pen shrugs off allegations of corruption and human rights abuses against Putin, calling him a tough and effective leader. Her hard-line views on immigration, Islam and the European Union win praise from Putin and enthusiastic coverage from Russian media outlets. Her campaign has been propelled by a loan of more than $9 million from a Russian bank in 2014, according to Western officials and media reports.

Meanwhile, aides to Emmanuel Macron, the center-left former economy minister who is Le Pen’s top rival, have accused Russia of hitting his campaign with cyberattacks and fake news reports about his personal life. Although French officials say the computer disruptions were minor and there is no conclusive proof of links to the Russian state, President François Hollande and other leaders have warned about the risk of interference comparable to hacking operations that targeted the U.S. elections. The French government, aided by briefings from U.S. agencies about their experience last year, has beefed up its cyber defenses.

American politics was jolted when 17 intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia had covertly intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign with the aim of electing Donald Trump. Such activity is nothing new in Europe, where Russia has launched a series of clandestine and open efforts to sway governments and exert influence, according to European and U.S. national security officials, diplomats, academics and other experts interviewed by ProPublica in recent weeks.

“The Russians have had an aggressive espionage presence here for a long time,” a senior French intelligence official said. “The Russians now have more spies, more clandestine operations, in France than they did in the Cold War.”

European and U.S. security officials say Russian tactics run the gamut from attempted regime change to sophisticated cyber-espionage. Russia has been linked to a coup attempt in Montenegro (the Balkan nation had dared to consider joining NATO); an old-school spy case involving purloined NATO documents and an accused Portuguese double agent; a viral fake news story about a 13-year-old girl in Germany supposedly raped by Muslims, and a caper by suspected Russian hackers who briefly seized control of an entire television network in France.

“One of the reasons Russia has been so successful has been its ability to develop tactics and techniques it selectively uses depending on the target country,” said Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Center of the Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank. “There’s a nuance to it as well. That’s something that in the West we fail to grasp.”

The French elections are the latest front in what is likely to be a conflict for years to come. Officials say France and Europe are vulnerable because of converging crises: immigration, terrorism, structural economic inequities, the Brexit vote in Britain last year, the rise of populism and extremism. The French election offers a particularly tempting target to the Kremlin, which wants to weaken and divide the West and multinational institutions such as the European Union and NATO, according to Western officials and experts.

Le Pen’s proposed policies align closely with Moscow’s geopolitical goals. She promises to reinstate national borders, abandon the euro currency and hold a referendum on whether France — which will be the EU’s remaining nuclear power after Britain’s departure — should remain in the 28-member bloc.

“For Russia, there is a desire to display power,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, a think tank in Paris. “They have openly chosen their candidate. It’s very serious. If Le Pen is elected, which is not impossible, that would be part of a chain of events including the Brexit and the election of Trump that would amount to a spectacular reconfiguration of the Western political family. The Russians want to weaken Europe, and to break NATO. The stakes are very high.”

Pre-election polling in France shows that no candidate has enough support to receive the required 50 percent, which means the likely result of Sunday’s vote will be a May 7 runoff pitting Le Pen against Macron or another strong challenger. Experts worry about a potential Russian spy operation, such as a Wikileaks-style disclosure of compromising information about a candidate, intended to tip the scales during that showdown.

No such direct intervention has been detected to date, and Russian officials reject allegations that they are trying to manipulate elections in France or elsewhere.

The Putin government has “no intention of interfering in electoral processes abroad,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, in February. He complained about “a hysterical anti-Putin campaign in certain foreign countries.”

Intelligence operations — especially in the high-tech realm — are difficult to pin conclusively on a state. Moreover, Russian spy agencies have developed sophisticated capabilities in the gray areas of information warfare and political influence.

“We don’t see cyberattacks for the moment here affecting the campaign,” the senior French intelligence official said. “There are Russian influence efforts, news coverage by Russian media, the standard activity. But most of it is not illegal.”

Even some Western intelligence officials concerned about Moscow’s aggressiveness think there is a tendency to exaggerate the problem. Although European experts generally agree with the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered with the presidential race last year, those interviewed did not think it had a decisive impact on the victory of President Trump.

“Russia’s impact has been greatly underestimated, but it shouldn’t be overestimated either,” Gomart said.

As far as European spy-catchers are concerned, the Cold War is back — if it ever ended. An early sign came in 2006 with the assassination of Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Litvinenko was an outspoken foe of Putin and a veteran of the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), which Putin once led. In 2000, Litvinenko fled to London. He spent the next few years helping British and Spanish intelligence and law enforcement investigate ties among Russian mafias, politicos and security services.

In November 2006, Litvinenko died after three weeks of agony as the result of being poisoned with polonium-210, a rare radioactive toxin, by two Russian agents at a luxury hotel in London, according to a British court inquiry. The probe that ended last year confirmed the conclusions that Western governments and Russian dissidents reached long ago. The presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, found that the FSB killed Litvinenko on orders from the highest levels of the Russian state, “probably” including Putin himself, according to Owen’s report.

The 329-page report detailed the extremes to which Russian spies were capable of going in the heart of the West. The killers used a devastatingly lethal poison of a kind that is manufactured in secret Russian government labs, according to the report. The physical effect on the victim was comparable to ingesting a tiny nuclear bomb. The symbolic effect was to send a mocking message to the world about the impunity of the masterminds, since there was a good chance that the cause of death would be discovered and connected to Moscow.

Because the brutish assassins apparently did not know they’d been given polonium, they left radioactive trails across Europe during three separate missions to London, failing in their first attempt to kill Litvinenko by slipping the poison into his drink, according to the report. Although British prosecutors charged the duo with murder and sought extradition, the suspects remain free in Russia. One of them, KGB veteran Andrei Lugovoi, was elected to the Russian parliament in 2007. (Both men, and the Kremlin, deny the charges.)

The relationship between Moscow and London has never recovered, according to officials and experts in Britain and elsewhere. The scope of Russian spying in Europe has escalated steadily and dramatically, Western security officials and diplomats say. After shifting much of their energy to fighting Islamic terrorism in the early 2000s, European counterintelligence agencies have been forced to redeploy personnel and resources to confront the Russian threat.

“The spy-versus-spy activity with the Russians is very intense,” the senior French intelligence official said. “And occasionally we expel them, or give them a tap on the shoulder and tell them to cut it out. These matters are often resolved service to service, rather than through prosecuting people. The FSB still cooperates well with us on antiterrorism, even if we know their partner agencies are trying to pick our pockets and steal secrets.”

The cloak-and-dagger duel occasionally has an old-school air. Last May, a plainclothes team of Italian police detectives arrested two men meeting in a small café in the riverfront Trastevere area of Rome. The two had been under surveillance by Portuguese counterintelligence officers and other Western spy services for some time.

One suspect was Frederico Carvalho Gil, then 57, a veteran of Portugal’s spy agency. The other was identified as Sergey Nicolaevich Pozdnyakov, 48, described by European national security officials as a senior officer in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He had once been stationed in Italy, but was allegedly operating as an “illegal” — a spy without diplomatic cover — when he was caught. He was accused of serving as a handler for Carvalho, paying him to obtain secret intelligence related to NATO, according to Italian and Portuguese authorities.

The investigation indicated the Portuguese intelligence officer had drifted into a “double life” after a difficult divorce, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Carvalho allegedly had relationships with Eastern European women and posted references on social media about his travels in Russia, according to the Corriere.

Italian police say Carvalho went to Rome to slip his handler NATO documents in exchange for 10,000 euros in cash, one of a series of such meetings in Italy and elsewhere. Still, the contents of the secret papers confiscated in Rome seemed relatively “banal” for a Russian spy to expose himself to possible capture, an Italian national security official told ProPublica.

Carvalho, who has denied the charges, awaits trial in Portugal. Italian authorities held the Russian, then sent him back to Moscow after an appeals court rejected an extradition request from Portugal.

Russian operatives take surprising risks, according to European and U.S. officials. The attempted coup in Montenegro last year is a case in point.

Montenegro, a strategically situated Balkan nation with a population of only 600,000, applied to join NATO last May. Russia lobbied strenuously against the impending membership, using diplomatic and non-governmental resources including the Orthodox Church. Russian agents stirred up protests against NATO and funded busloads of demonstrators.

Then came an uproar. Montenegro prosecutors charged that two Russian spies and two Serbian nationalists plotted last October to deploy a band of gunmen to assassinate the prime minister, storm Parliament and install an anti-NATO government. The accused spies, one of whom had previously been expelled from Poland, eluded capture. The Serbians are being prosecuted. A complex investigation continues, but Western officials say they have obtained information confirming Montenegro’s charges that Russian spies attempted the overthrow of a European government.

“The thesis is they escalated to that level because the Russian government was not happy with the way Montenegro was going,” a U.S. official said. “They were unhappy with the inability of their people operating on the ground to influence politics.”

If the Montenegro plot showed a willingness to resort to brute force, Russia-watchers say the larger strategy features more high-tech methods, such as the mix of cyberattacks and information leaks during the U.S. elections.

“Hacking is another tool in the toolbox,” the U.S. official said. “This appears to be trending toward state sponsorship and involvement. This is what worries us. The use of state power, intelligence and other methods, to affect the democratic process in European nations.”

Russia is not alone in using cyberwarfare, but it is the only nation to have combined it with conventional warfare, according to Foxall, the scholar at the London think tank. Such hybrid offensives took place during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, he said.

Nations outside Russia’s buffer zone have not been immune, according to experts and Western officials. During the past few years, experts and officials say, suspected Russian hackers have penetrated targets including the Italian foreign ministry; the Warsaw stock exchange; a German steel mill; the European Parliament; and the computer files of a Dutch air safety team investigating a missile attack by pro-Russian fighters that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people.

“If you think of all these incidents as a whole, you reach a worrisome conclusion,” Foxall said.

The crippling hack of France TV5 Monde sent a clear message. It took place in April 2015 amid tension in Europe about the intertwined threats of Islamic terrorism and an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants into Greece, many of them refugees fleeing Russian-backed military onslaughts in Syria.

On the day of the cyberattack, two French government ministers visited the headquarters of the network, which airs 11 channels and broadcasts in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and other Francophone nations, to celebrate the launch of a new channel. The hackers took over the network’s programming and social media accounts, filling screens with Islamic jihadi propaganda. It took the network hours to regain control of its broadcasts and prevent its systems from being destroyed.

The hackers had breached TV5’s defenses via its email messaging networks months earlier, according to Nicolas Arpagian, a French cybersecurity expert affiliated with government think tanks. Although the hackers claimed allegiance to a “CyberCaliphate,” the investigation points at culprits linked to the Russian state, according to Arpagian and Western officials.

“The goal seems to have been destabilization,” Arpagian said. “A demonstration of capability, of the potential to disrupt.”

Definitive proof of Russian state involvement is elusive, however. Experts say the Kremlin’s 21st century approach to what the Soviets once called “active measures,” combines cyber-operations with the overt continuum of fake news, internet “trolling,” and state-controlled media.

The strategy emerged in response to the anti-Kremlin “color revolutions” of the early 2000s, when throngs of ordinary citizens took to the streets to demand the ouster of Moscow-backed leaders in Ukraine and Georgia, experts say. Russian leaders believed the United States was using “soft power” means, such as the media and diplomacy, to cause trouble in Russia’s domain. The Russians decided to develop a comparable capacity. But the result wasn’t soft very long, especially as the Kremlin became concerned that events such as the Arab Spring could spark unrest in Russia, experts say.

“The logic of influence and projection overseas was replaced by the concept of ‘confrontation with the West’ and the image of a ‘besieged fortress,'” wrote Céline Marangé of France’s Institute for Strategic Research at the Military Academy, in a study this year. “Without completely disappearing, the notion of soft power has been eclipsed by that of “information war,” whose acceptance is literal and extensive in Russia. In Russian defense and security circles … and in numerous prime-time television debates, there is an almost unanimous thesis: a worldwide ‘information war’ at the global level pits Russia, like the Soviet Union in its day, against the West.”

The combatants range from teams of “trolls” in warehouses who bombard selected targets on social media to provincial journalists who concoct wild tales following general directives rather than explicit orders, according to experts and intelligence officials. Putin’s government is presented as the lone guardian of traditional Christian values fighting barbaric Muslim hordes and a soft, decadent West. The relentless narrative: Europe is under assault by crime, Muslims, terrorism, immigration, homosexuality, political correctness and effete bureaucrats.

Occasionally, fake news stories go viral and flood into the venues such as the Russian-backed RT television network and the Sputnik news agency, whose slick content reaches an increasing audience in Europe and the United States.

One example: the horrifying tale of “Lisa,” a Russian-German teenager who told police she was kidnapped and raped by three men resembling Muslim immigrants. The case erupted in January of last year. Europe was on edge because of the very real and ugly spate of sexual assaults on women by groups of men, many of them of Muslim descent, during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, Germany.

The German authorities insisted from the beginning that there was no proof of the girl’s allegations. But the Lisa story gained momentum, driven by heavy, sometimes inaccurate coverage on Kremlin-backed and pro-Russian outlets as well as social media. The frenzy reached the point that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said at a news conference that German authorities appeared to be hushing up the incident out of political correctness, according to news reports.

Soon, however, the teenager admitted to lying. She had stayed overnight at the home of a 19-year-old male friend without permission and invented the rape story to explain her disappearance, according to media reports.

There is no evidence Russian operatives played a role in creating the initial story. But the German government and other critics have rebuked the Kremlin and the Russian media, saying they amplified and distorted the case even after it was shown to be untrue.

“The story was totally fake,” Foxall said. “This is a well-established pattern. Other stories have travelled such a path, but without the same kind of success.”

Nonetheless, Russian influence campaigns find a more welcoming political atmosphere in Europe than in the United States. After all, leftist parties in France, Italy and other nations had strong ideological and financial ties to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There is also a pro-Russian tradition, often fomented by anti-Americanism, among some rightist and nationalist parties.

Russia spends considerable money and energy wooing sympathetic European politicians and activists. They are often, though not always, populist, nationalist, fascist, far-left, anti-system or just plain disruptive. The most powerful unabashedly pro-Moscow figure is probably Le Pen, whose presidential campaign has thrived partly because of her effort to distance herself from the angry, anti-Semitic image of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The list also includes Nigel Farage, the brash British politician who oversaw the underdog campaign for the Brexit, and admires both President Putin and President Trump; Nick Griffin of the far-right British National Party, who after observing Russian legislative elections in 2011 pronounced them “much fairer than Britain’s”; and Matteo Salvini of the rightist and separatist Lega Nord (Northern League), which along with the populist 5 Stelle party constitutes a large pro-Moscow bloc in Italy.

To be sure, more moderate leaders in Europe also favor stronger ties to Russia and have good relationships with President Putin. Among them is former French Prime Minister François Fillon, the center-right presidential candidate competing for a spot in the runoff election.

Russian officials and their European allies argue that Moscow’s legitimate diplomatic outreach is being demonized. But European government officials worry about activity that crosses the line into funding, recruitment and manipulation by spy agencies.

“I think some of our political parties are vulnerable to infiltration,” the Italian national security official said. “They don’t have the experience, the anti-bodies, to fend off such formidable intelligence services.”

And there are concerns about wider repercussions. In January, the Center for International Research at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious universities, abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance in Paris by David Satter, an American author. Satter is a well-regarded foreign correspondent who has spent four decades covering Russia. In 2013, he became the first U.S. journalist expelled from the country by the Kremlin since the Cold War. His latest book, “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep,” details allegations that Russian intelligence services were covertly involved in mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Russia.

The cancellation caused a fierce debate about censorship when a leaked email revealed that administrators made the decision because they feared reprisals against Sciences Po students and researchers in Russia, citing the “current context of tensions,” according to Le Monde newspaper.

Despite the tensions in Europe and the concerns about interference, recent elections in the Netherlands went off without problems, with the party Moscow favored running well behind. The next test will be Sunday’s vote in France, where cybersecurity agencies are on alert. The government has taken precautions such as requiring the estimated 1.8 million French voters living overseas to cast their ballots by mail or proxy, rather than online, according to French officials.

“What we have seen so far is enough to conclude that the Russians have carried out an influence campaign,” a French diplomat said. “But I don’t think it will have a significant impact on the outcome of the election. We have to stay calm.”

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Former ‘Border Czar’ Gives Real Facts About Immigration

Former ‘Border Czar’ Gives Real Facts About Immigration

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

It’s hard to find anyone in Washington who knows border issues better than Alan Bersin. His unique perspective combines years of frontline law enforcement experience with academic knowledge and intellectual interest in the historical, economic, and social forces that are at work at the borders of the United States, especially the U.S.-Mexico line.

Bersin became U.S. attorney in San Diego in 1993 and subsequently spent almost five years as President Clinton’s “border czar,” overseeing a border-wide crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

During the Obama administration, he served in several key posts in the Department of Homeland Security, including as acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the force of 58,000 employees that includes the U.S. Border Patrol as well as CBP officers guarding air, land, and sea ports of entry. He later served as assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer at DHS, a job he left last month.

ProPublica sat down to talk with him about the history, politics, rhetoric, and reality surrounding the border issues that are driving a fierce national debate during the first weeks of the Trump administration.

ProPublica: In the presidential campaign last year and in political discourse in general, the U.S.-Mexico border has consistently been depicted as out of control. How does that compare to the turf you have come to know during the past 25 years?

Bersin: When I began as U.S. attorney in San Diego during the Clinton administration in 1993, the border was in fact out of control. Illegal immigration was rampant. The federal government’s reaction, and the efforts of three administrations, gradually changed that. Over that period, the government was spending up to $18 billion a year geared to strengthening the border. We went from 3,000 Border Patrol agents to 22,000 agents today, more than 18,000 of them on the southwest border. There were massive investments in technology, air reconnaissance, sensors. This completely altered the border.

In 1993 and 1994, the Justice Department launched two operations: Hold the Line in El Paso and Gatekeeper in San Diego, the areas where almost all of the illegal crossing was concentrated because it was so easy to cross. The Border Patrol was able to get control of those flows. The strategy had two goals: putting more agents on the line to apprehend people and create a deterrent to crossing, and spreading the traffic out. A critical dimension was the construction of fences and barriers and walls along 700 miles of the 1,900 miles of the border. The type of barrier depended on the terrain. There is triple fencing in San Diego, and significant barriers in places like Nogales and Yuma, Arizona and El Paso and Brownsville, Texas. The idea was to restore the rule of law, to bring order to a chaotic situation. The results became more and more apparent. Crime rates went down in the border region. Today, the number of migrants crossing is at a 30-year low. That’s because of years of bipartisan work on this issue. Has it achieved a complete sealing of the border? No. But it has achieved equilibrium and more effective management. During the last 10 years we have also seen the beginning of joint border management with Mexico. In the course of 25 years, we have developed a constructive relationship with Mexico that was nonexistent before. During the last eight to 10 years there have been continued efforts which have resulted in a strategic alliance with the Mexicans and improved safety and security at the border.

A major contribution has come from the changing nature of migration. People should remember that Mexican migration is now at a net negative. More Mexicans are leaving through deportation, and voluntary return, than are entering the United States legally and illegally.

In part, that’s a result of our efforts on border enforcement. But it’s also because Mexico now has the 13th largest economy in the world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts it will have a larger economy than Germany by 2042.

The Mexican people are increasingly middle class, and Mexico has substantially become a middle-class society. This is true despite the significant poverty, and the class and geographic inequality that have deep historical roots. Part of this process of change, as was the case in our own country, involves a difficult battle against organized crime. Nonetheless, Mexico has become a robust democracy with a robust press and an active legislature. It has gone from being a sending country for migrants to a transit country, and increasingly a receiving country for migrants in its own right.

Not only are the numbers of migrants entering the U.S. at the lowest levels in a generation, but they are now largely Central American. Four out of five border-crossers detained in South Texas are Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran. They are driven by violence and poverty in their home countries and the desire for family reunification.

Indeed, many of the illegal crossers who have entered the country in the last two years after being detained have actually been either unaccompanied minors or families who request political asylum. The ability of the smugglers to attract large numbers of families and unaccompanied minors is a function of the inability of our immigration court system to process asylum claims in a timely fashion.

So the key to responding to the increase in Central American minors and families is less at the border than in the immigration bureaucracy?

Yes. The difficulty is twofold. First, the law change during the Bush administration gave the Department of Health and Human Services a central role in relocating Central American minors in the United States. (HHS has an Office of Refugee Resettlement that is responsible for sheltering and processing migrant children and teenagers.) HHS has implemented this law by reuniting children with their families, many of whom had entered illegally. This has unintentionally made HHS the last link in the smuggling chain from Central America and created a legal incentive for the continued illegal migration of minors.

The second issue is the longtime lack of funding and resources for the immigration court system. Migrants come up and no longer seek to evade the Border Patrol, but are actually left at the border by their smugglers. And they seek out Border Patrol agents or Customs and Border Protection officials to surrender to them and request political asylum. That’s the way in which they get entry into a system that will eventually release them into the country.

Not because the system was designed that way, but because that is the practical result of an immigration court system that was never resourced by Congress. Notwithstanding the requests of the Obama administration, it was still not funded by Congress to be able to provide timely hearings and adjudication of immigration benefits.

If there were a rapid method of adjudicating claims, we wouldn’t see what has occurred on the scale on which it has — people paroled into the country with hearings set for two, three, four years in the future. Often, they don’t show up for their hearings. And often, during the time they are in the country waiting for the immigration hearing, they are having children and developing community ties. They generate real reasons to claim a right to remain, even though they’ve never been given a legal status. The bipartisan failure to build an effective immigration court system capable continues. It’s part and parcel of the general observation that the immigration system is broken.

The opening salvo in President Trump’s campaign last year, one that came to define this presidency in many ways, was a promise to build a wall on the border and make Mexico pay for it. What do you think of that idea?

I think there’s no question that the barriers, the fences, and in certain urban areas, the walls, have had an important effect in terms of increasing the manageability and the security of the border. But in fact as [Secretary of Homeland Security] General [John] Kelly acknowledged at his confirmation hearing, walls and barriers alone are insufficient to insure security.

As [former Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano pointed out, if you build a 50-foot wall, you’ll soon be confronted with a 51-foot ladder. You need a strategy that involves layered defense: deployed patrols, sophisticated sensor equipment, and surveillance from the air. That is what has had a positive impact over the last generation.

The judgment we have to make is whether a physical wall costing billions of dollars, or a further investment in Border Patrol agents costing hundreds of millions of dollars, will achieve the result we seek. And is the objective worth the costs?

Most people who live at the border or are familiar with the border know that a Berlin-like wall stretching from San Diego to Brownsville is not necessary. And the costs would be prohibitive. And there are places on the border, such as the Arizona desert or the open terrain around the Big Bend in South Texas, where Mother Nature has created her own barrier that is not easily passable. Or if you do pass through it, you are easily detected. All of this will be debated over the next few years, since I believe DHS has acknowledged that it will take at least two years to work through the details of any wall with Congress. During that period many more facts will be brought to bear on that decision.

This is not to say that there aren’t places where you could actually strengthen the barrier dimension of the layered defense. But the image and the costs of a Berlin-like wall or a Great Wall of China is something that the American people have not accepted to date.

To the extent that President Trump means strengthened border security, I am fully in favor of the idea that the rule of the law, secure borders, and public safety should prevail. Drugs should not enter illegally. Migration should take place in accordance with lawful norms and secure and safe procedures. And in fact we should be working more with the Mexicans to prevent the flow of guns going south into Mexico that have fueled so much of the violence there, and the smuggling of cash and the money laundering that transnational criminal organizations have instituted in North America, including in the United States.

The symbolic issue of the wall cuts two ways. To the extent that it is interpreted as an insult to Mexico, especially the demand for reimbursement, it could do irrevocable harm to cooperation with Mexico that dates from the Merida accords during the Bush administration in 2006.

Over the years you’ve developed strong professional and personal relationships with Mexican security officials and diplomats. Are you concerned about the U.S.-Mexico relationship as the result of tensions with the Trump administration?

In the last generation we’ve moved past a U.S.-Mexico relationship that while friendly on the surface, and demilitarized for the most part, really was not a genuinely cooperative relationship. As a result of the U.S.-Mexico War in the 19th century, and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, half of what was Mexico was severed and became much of the western part of the United States. To add insult to injury, most Americans never knew that, and most Mexicans have never forgotten it.

The nationalism and the protectionism that was built into the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and that characterized the Mexican attitude to the United States for much of the 20th century were difficult to overcome. But that actually has occurred. And the cooperation and the trust and the confidence that have been built is not something that should be abandoned without great consideration for the potentially grave consequences to the United States.

The relationship is much stronger than people think. But it takes a great deal of care and cultivation. For example: The work the Mexicans are doing in terms of migration control on Mexico’s southern border is crucial to our own border security. Mexican enforcement efforts have become critical to moderating and mitigating the flow of Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. In the last two years, the Mexicans have detained nearly 400,000 migrants whose intent was to come to the United States. The Mexicans return the detained Central American migrants by bus or by air to the countries they come from.

A specific example: the notorious train known as La Bestia (The Beast). It was a great risk to many Central American migrants, but a primary migratory route. They rode on top of freight trains across Mexico, literally to the U.S.-Mexico border region, where they would get off and seek to be smuggled into the United States. Migration aboard those trains, which was a feature of the U.S.-Mexican smuggling landscape for many years, has been for all intents and purposes been stopped by Mexican authorities. They prevent migrants from getting on the trains and riding illegally. This kind of cooperation was unthinkable ten years ago and not even feasible five years ago.

A further example is the information sharing that takes place routinely between Mexico and the United States. Every air traveler entering Mexico is vetted against U.S. databases. The air passenger screening system Mexico has in place involves these checks against U.S. national security and criminal data bases. There are plainclothes U.S. officers stationed at airports in Mexico working with Mexican immigration officials to protect the United States. This joint security program has been in place for at least six years and is a huge asset.

As much as your focus has been border enforcement and fighting crime, you are enthusiastic about North American integration. Why?

Six million jobs in the U.S. depend on trade with Mexico. Ten border states — six in Mexico and four in the United States — combined have the third or fourth largest economy in the world. Twenty-nine U.S. states depend on Mexico as their primary export market. All of this is a function of the vibrant cross-border economic links that now exist between our two countries. We do nearly $700 billion a year in trade. Research by the University of California indicates that, absent this trading level between the two countries, the United States would have lost more jobs during the 2008 recession than it did.

We need to realize that the economic situation between Mexico and the United States is not just one in which we trade with one another. We make things together. We have shared production platforms. Cross-border trade is part of a single production process, and while apparently the Trump administration will seek to re-examine elements of that production platform, it is what it is and won’t be easily dismantled.

It’s not just a Mexican phenomenon, it’s also a Canadian phenomenon. You have auto parts being manufactured in Ottawa or in Detroit that are assembled in plants in Guanajuato or Queretaro. This is the way in which “Made in North America” operates today.

The cry of “Make America Great Again” reflects accurately that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the sole superpower status of the United States is coming to an end. For the first time since the second World War, we are not the sole dominant economy in the world. In large part this is because of the success of policies followed by the U.S. to create an environment, a peaceful period in history in which economies could grow and countries could benefit.

While some in China and Europe and in this country think this embodies the decline of America, in fact that is not the case. The potential of Mexico, Canada and the United States is enormous. We have a combined population of half a billion people; peaceful trade-friendly borders that are the envy of the world; the prospect of energy independence is within reach and will change the geopolitical situation of United States; we do a trillion dollars in trade among the three countries; more than 18,000 American companies are involved in foreign direct investment in Mexico and Canada; an increasing number of Mexican companies are creating jobs in the United States.

If we continue in this direction, we would see a North America emerge that will be highly competitive worldwide both as an economic unit, but also in terms of security. Our security in a global world must be looked at on a continental basis.

That is not to say that President Trump hasn’t identified the losers in those propositions: People in our so-called Rust Belt have lost out and politics and society have not been responsive either in providing the kind of additional support they need or to retrain them for jobs that are being created in the new economy.

But we must recognize that this massive economic bloc that’s emerging in North America cannot be accomplished unilaterally. It must be accomplished in partnership with Mexico and Canada. And we have to work together to secure the continent in order to keep dangerous people and dangerous things out and strengthen perimeter security on a continental basis.

Let’s talk about other aspects of border enforcement. The big question: What do you think of the recent presidential executive order and travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries and the impact it could have?

The stated reason for the suspension, it’s not a ban, has been to provide an opportunity to do a review of the vetting and screening procedures to be sure that the full resources — intelligence-wise and data-wise — have been employed to prevent dangerous people from coming into the country.

I think this administration will come to appreciate that there have been enormous advances since 9/11 to build a very robust set of targeting procedures and watch lists to screen travelers coming to the United States. The National Targeting Center in Virginia run by Customs and Border Protection checks the background of every traveler who seeks to enter the country.

It works with airlines and foreign governments to stop high-risk persons from traveling to the United States. It uses data that has been gathered by our intelligence services and military all over the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from foreign governments. While no one can argue with strengthening these systems, this will always be a work in progress, they are already quite effective. Presumably our colleagues in the new Trump administration will find that to be the case.

With respect to the so-called travel ban, we have an order that appears to have been drafted at the White House without the weeks of advance review that would ordinarily exist in government agencies. We can already see the checks and balances asserting themselves: The first was Secretary Kelly reversing the directive that barred green-card holders from entering the United States. That was rolled back. But the prior review by career professionals, which is a basic check against both error and malice, did not occur here.

In fact, the speed with which the order was imposed suggested there was an imminent danger and an urgent need to do something drastic. Do you see a basis in reality for that?

I think the record is to the contrary. The comparison to what’s going on in Europe is instructive in terms of the ability of the Islamic State to put organized, trained and equipped terrorists to operate within the Schengen region of Europe. That contrasts to the situation here in the United States, where ISIS has had little success in doing the same. We have seen self-radicalized individuals doing terrible things to be sure, but that’s a different phenomenon.

As for refugees, the record is also clear in terms of the 18 to 24 months that are required to qualify a refugee for entry into the United States. There are a very stringent set of protocols and procedures administered by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees as well as the U.S. government. The notion that this was a wide-open gap in our security, and this executive order was necessary to close it, is just contrary to the facts.

Are you concerned about the repercussions of the images of babies and old women and interpreters who’ve worked for the U.S. military being turned away at our borders? What is the potential impact this debate could have at home and abroad?

There’s no question that there’s a risk. The efforts that are being made to counter violent extremism in our country require intensive work with Muslim communities in order to develop trust and confidence. I’m worried about the impact on these efforts of today’s political rhetoric, whether or not it gets translated into actual policy by the administration. These relationships depend on what happens long term, over months and months and the years to come.

And there’s a larger point here. Homeland security is inherently transnational today. There’s hardly anything adverse that happens in our homeland that doesn’t have a cause or effect that’s generated abroad. Increasingly, we must rely on our allies and foreign governments to share information and data to secure our country. The extent to which we cooperate with foreign governments is essential to the vetting that we’ve talked about. One of the dimensions the executive order requires is an assessment of that information sharing, and that is a positive development. I think the administration will find a considerable amount of information is already shared, although there is room for much improvement with many countries. We have to remember that information sharing is restricted by legal barriers and cultural barriers and by the notion that information is power and therefore should be hoarded so if you share information you can extract something in exchange. In today’s digital online world, those who don’t share information will be isolated and left behind. We need the data of other countries to connect the dots.

As a result of this reality, DHS has the third largest number of people stationed abroad among U.S. civilian agencies. We can’t defend the country by looking at the borderline as the first line of defense rather than as the last line of defense. We have to secure the flow of goods and people by engaging with foreign entities. We assure our security by securing the flows as early as we can before they arrive and as far away from our borders as we can. To do that, we have officials of CBP, the Secret Service, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Homeland Security Investigations, TSA, and the U.S. Coast Guard stationed all over the world working with their foreign counterparts. These relationships are primarily matters of trust and confidence. Classically, what goes around comes around. We should be wary, particularly with our closest friends and allies, of breaking down the trust and confidence that lie at the foundation of these relationships.

IMAGE: REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Intelligence Officer: Trump’s Conflict With Spy Agencies Creates ‘Dangerous Moment’

Intelligence Officer: Trump’s Conflict With Spy Agencies Creates ‘Dangerous Moment’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The conflict between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community could have profound repercussions.

We spoke recently about the issue to Matthew Olsen, who spent two decades working in senior posts in intelligence and national security for Democrat and Republican administrations. Olsen, 54, served most recently (from 2011 to 2014) as director of the intelligence community’s National Counterterrorism Center. Before that, he was the general counsel of the National Security Agency. In 2009, he was executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force for the Justice Department.

A longtime federal prosecutor, Olsen has been an associate deputy attorney general overseeing national security and criminal cases; acting assistant attorney general for national security; chief of the national security division at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia; and a special counsel to the director of the FBI. Last year, Olsen was a part-time volunteer adviser on national security issues to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Today, he’s an executive at IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm he co-founded, and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

ProPublica: You’ve told me the worst thing someone can say about intelligence professionals is that they are partisan. So what is your impression of the mood in the intelligence community as a result of the criticism by the President-elect?

Olsen: I think it’s a dangerous moment. Because of how important it is for the political leadership of the country, up to and including the president, to have confidence in the information and analysis that we are getting from the intelligence community. And right now the intelligence community is being told that what they say doesn’t matter, or that it’s biased, or that it’s partisan, and those criticisms cut to the core of the whole reason for the existence of the intelligence community. That is, to be outside of the political process, to be expert, so your opinions do matter, and then to be able to inform political leaders in a way that gives leadership a decision advantage. That’s the mission of the intelligence community. And if the President-elect is saying that those things aren’t true, then there’s no reason for the intelligence community to exist. That’s why the most significant criticism that can be levelled at an intelligence professional is this idea that they’re biased.

In the short term, if the president just ignores the intelligence community that’s obviously extremely dangerous, because the decisions won’t be made based on the facts. But in the long run, you can actually have an impact on the intelligence community itself. So that a young person coming out of a graduate program decides instead of going to the CIA, I’m going to instead go to Goldman Sachs, and make a lot more money anyway.

For now, what I experienced at the National Counterterrorism Center, out of the thousand or so people there, across the board there were just incredibly talented, mostly young people, who could’ve gone to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, but wanted to go fight al-Qaida. And it was enormously gratifying to walk into a briefing room and have these people who were just incredibly talented and dedicated. And I’m concerned that one of the impacts of the latest controversy over the Russian hacking starts to undermine the fact that the intelligence community can continue to recruit and retain the most talented thinkers in the country.

In the past couple of weeks have you heard anything specific about the way people in the agencies are reacting?

I’ve talked to a few people who are in leadership positions in the intelligence community. And they have confirmed what seems obvious from my position on the outside: that these are difficult times. And people are wondering: What’s it going to be like in six months or a year? Is my job going to matter? Is the work I do going to matter? And I think the leadership is trying to encourage people that this is just campaign talk, and not how the government will operate in six months.

Yet in my own view, I am looking for some sign that’s true. … One could just chalk up some of these disparaging statements about the intelligence community to campaign rhetoric. But the problem is that that rhetoric and that discourse haven’t changed much since the election. And I think if you search you won’t find hard evidence on which to base a view that it’s going to change in the next six months or a year. … I think President-elect Trump had an opportunity after he received the briefing [January 6] from the leadership of the intelligence community to make an unequivocal endorsement of the views they expressed, which reflected the clear consensus of the community about Russia’s role in hacking during the election. And he did not take that opportunity. And now only belatedly has he seemed to accept this analysis. That sends a negative message to the professionals in the intelligence community.

What about the annex with unsubstantiated allegations about President-elect Trump that was given to him with that report about Russian operations? He has criticized the intelligence community, and even accused them of leaking the dossier. Is it unusual for the agencies to provide that kind of dossier along with a far more documented and measured intelligence assessment?

It would appear to me that the intelligence community leaders had little option here but to advise the President-elect about the existence of this information. It’s necessary for leaders to have an awareness of information like this, even if it’s unconfirmed.  And it is the responsibility of the IC to inform policy makers of any information that may be relevant to national security. The context is obviously important, and the reports are that the briefing for the President-elect placed this in the proper context.

What do you make of the reports that the Trump administration is considering overhauling the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)?

I think that would be a mistake. The DNI, after ten years, is serving an invaluable role overseeing the intelligence community. Particularly under Director [James] Clapper’s leadership, it has come into its own as a leader of the disparate elements of the intelligence community. That said, it’s perfectly appropriate for the administration to take a hard look at the DNI to ensure that it is fulfilling the role that Congress envisioned when the DNI was established over 10 years ago. … What happens in the context today during the Trump transition, it’s seen through the lens of: What is Trump trying to do to gut the intel community? … So I think it took on a more significant dimension because of [Trump’s] disparaging of the intel community. The fact that Trump nominated [former] Senator [Daniel] Coats is a good sign. He’s a serious guy and has been a significantly constructive voice on the Senate intelligence committee. … I don’t think you would put Coats in to carry out the dismantling of the DNI.

What’s your view of the national security team the President-elect has put together?

I think the national security team that Trump has put together has some very strong elements. Particularly General [James] Mattis, [for secretary of defense], and General [John] Kelly, [for secretary of homeland security]. And then in terms of experience, Senator Coats at DNI and Representative [Mike] Pompeo, [R-Kan., for director of the CIA] they both have strong intelligence experience and national security experience.

What’s your impression of the reaction at the CIA to the naming of Rep. Pompeo?

I think there’s optimism within the agencies both at DNI and CIA that two former members of [congressional] intelligence committees, who have an appreciation for the importance of the work they do, will have strong and deep respect for the workforce. From my perspective, having members of oversight committees is good for understanding that there are limits on intelligence agencies from a privacy and civil liberties and human-rights perspective. I would expect that given their background they would bring an important appreciation of those limits and even of the role of the rule of law in constraining those agencies when they have got enormous powers.

How do you square what seem to be reasonably well-chosen, respected, talented individuals the President-elect has nominated with his critics’ view that he has a rather cavalier, careless attitude towards the intelligence agencies and things like facts and accuracy? You have to judge him by his choices at this stage, and you and others see these nominees as good choices.

The reality is, as much as we elect new political leaders to occupy the White House, at the level of national security there is a high degree of consistency from one administration to another. I was in the Justice department in the Bush administration and then the Obama administration. And sure, there were changes that President Obama put in place in our counter-terrorism policy, but there was also a fair amount of consistency.  I think we should expect and welcome consistency now. Because so much of what we do in our security doesn’t have a partisan dimension. It’s not political … how we view our enemies. What the threats are. The tools we use to go after those threats. Those are largely non-partisan questions.

So when you look at the people that President-elect Trump has surrounded himself with, I think they reflect — in Mattis and Kelly and Coats and Pompeo — the fact these issues are not fundamentally partisan questions. I think that’s how I would explain how I see a relatively talented and experienced set of leaders in this area. There are a lot of good experienced people who are out there who are Republicans.

What are you concerned about in terms of the main challenges the intelligence agencies face, and how the tone President-elect Trump has set could affect those challenges?

The challenges for the intelligence community, at least in the terrorism context, are ensuring that the White House and policymakers have a very fine-grained, sophisticated understanding of the nature of the threat. Where does it come from? What groups are involved? How does it affect American interests overseas? What’s the nature of the threat here in the United States? Because a lot of decisions will be made about how we are going to counter that threat based on our understanding of the severity and nature of threat.  To have that appreciation requires that the intelligence community have a voice at the table, first of all …

Then it requires policymakers, including the president, to be engaged on a sustained basis. It’s not really a tenable approach for the president to fail to have consistent engagement with the intelligence analysis that’s being provided. The statements that the President-elect made about only needing to know when something important has happened reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about how to gain a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of world events. They don’t happen just out of the blue. They happen over time. You need to be getting that consistent infusion of intelligence, if not daily, multiple times a week, to understand when something has changed. Or when something important is happening.

At the end of the day, the president is accountable for protecting American security and making decisions that put American lives at risk. … And the only way to make those decisions is to truly understand at a very deep level and on a consistent basis the nature of the intelligence that is being provided. You need to have a foundation of understanding that’s based on what’s happening day-in and day-out, not when the threat has gone to the highest level. Or, worst-case scenario, the day after there’s an attack.

So that leads to my second-biggest concern, which is broader than just the intelligence community: how does the government react if there’s an attack in the United States? Particularly one on the scale of the ones we’ve seen over the last years in Paris and Brussels. And what sort of policies will flow from the Administration in the aftermath of a serious attack? So I’m concerned about the possibility, given the rhetoric from the campaign, that we will make significant mistakes in overreaching both in how we look at Muslim Americans in this country, and steps to add detainees to Guantanamo, and law enforcement action that reflects the campaign rhetoric of the idea of rounding up people or conducting unwarranted surveillance in the Muslim American community.

I was in Europe recently talking to counter-terror officials. Some of them predicted that the campaign rhetoric about Muslims could worsen radicalization in the United States. Is that something you are worried about?

Definitely. One of the things we’ve been very successful at in this country over the past 15 years, since 9/11, is making it clear that our counterterrorism efforts did not reflect a war on Islam or [the idea] that Muslims don’t belong here in this country. That’s been a fundamental tenet of our counterterrorism policy. One, because it’s just the right thing to do as Americans.  That’s who we are as Americans. But two, strategically we need the help and assistance of Muslim Americans as well as majority-Muslim nations around the world to take on this fight. And I am concerned that the rhetoric that has come out of the incoming members of the Administration, including the President-elect, feeds into a view that we are at war with Islam. And that is exactly the position that ISIS and other jihadist groups would like us to take. Because it’s consistent with their propaganda. It helps with recruiting and it alienates the people we rely on the most in some ways.

When you compare radicalization in Europe to here in this country, what do you see in the U.S. Muslim community?

We don’t have anything on the scale of radicalization in this country like what the European countries are facing. And that’s largely because Muslim-Americans are better integrated here, and it’s also because of what we stand for as a country in terms of diversity and pluralism. These are fundamental American values. And if we undercut those values by saying, for example, that “Fear of Muslims is rational” [a statement tweeted by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s appointee for national security adviser] we take a self-defeating position and one that is truly at odds with what we stand for as a country.

How does the rhetoric that our borders are weak and vulnerable to terrorists compare to your experience in government?

It’s a false impression that our borders are open to terrorists or that terrorists are using the refugee process to infiltrate the United States to carry out attacks here. It’s important that we be vigilant that people who come here do not pose a threat. And of course no system is going to be 100 percent effective, but the reality is that the vetting that takes place for people that are either visiting the United States, or certainly those seeking to come here as refugees, is extremely rigorous and careful. And it actually is in our interests to have a system where we allow those that are fleeing ISIS to come here and be welcomed by the United States because they really present the counter-argument to ISIS. They are leaving the so-called caliphate because of the violence. So there’s a message that we send not just to our allies but to our enemies that we are in fact not at war with Islam, and I think it serves our interests from a national security perspective.

This Administration has said they are going to get tougher on terrorism. What do you see them doing and what are the potential repercussions?

It remains to be seen what the new Administration does in terms of increasing the aggressiveness of our counter-terrorism policy. As the next Administration learns about the activities the government has been undertaking during the last eight years, they may decide that not much more can be done within the bounds of what’s legally appropriate, but also what’s strategically wise. Some of the areas I am concerned about include the potential to begin to add detainees at Guantanamo after all the progress that’s been made toward shutting it down. I am worried about that because it will rekindle Guantanamo as a source of propaganda by jihadists against the United States. And more importantly, perhaps, alienate our allies both in the Middle East and in Europe … and beyond Guantanamo, an area that I am concerned about is the treatment of Muslim Americans. And the rhetoric around barring Muslims from entering the country or creating some kind of registry. I think these are terrible ideas.

The idea of reopening Guantanamo to new detainees, which the President-elect has talked about, is an example of where the new administration has not seemed to learn the lessons of the past 15 years. … The fundamental lesson of detention after 9/11 has been that our American judicial system, federal courts and prosecutors are perfectly capable of bringing those individuals to justice. … To disregard that lesson is a grave mistake.

IMAGE: U.S. President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar