Friday, May 29, 2015
May 29, 7:34 AM (ET)
By IULIIA SUBBOTOVSKA
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as "Kremlin trolls," the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin's world vision on Russia, and the world.
The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia's disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.
Lyuda Savchuk, a single mother with two children, worked in the St. Petersburg "troll factory" until mid-March. The 34-year-old journalist said she had some idea of the Orwellian universe she was entering when she took the job, but underestimated its intensity and scope.
"I knew it was something bad, but of course I never suspected that it was this horrible and this large-scale," she said in an interview in her apartment, which has colorful drawings on the walls for her two preschool-age children.
She described how the trolls manage several social media accounts under different nicknames, such as koka-kola23, green_margo and Funornotfun. Those in her department had to bash out 160 blog posts during a 12-hour shift. Trolls in other departments flooded the Internet with doctored images and pro-Putin commentary on news stories that crop up on Russian and Western news portals.
In some departments, she said, the trolls receive daily talking points on what to write and what emotions to evoke. "It seems to me that they don't know what they are doing," Savchuk said. "They simply repeat what they are told."
She said most of the trolls are young and are attracted by relatively high monthly salaries of 40,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800 to $1,000).
Her descriptions of the work coincide with those of other former trolls who have spoken publicly, although Savchuk is one of the few willing to have her full name published. She quit after a little more than two months, after finding she couldn't stand being part of a propaganda machine.
The trolls are employed by Internet Research, which Russian news reports say is financed by a holding company headed by Putin's friend and personal chef. Those who have worked there say they have little doubt that the operation is run from the Kremlin.
St. Petersburg journalist Andrei Soshnikov, who was one of the first to report on the "troll factory," said about 400 people work in the building. A video he posted on YouTube this spring gave a rare glimpse inside the building; in one room trolls were shown sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at their computers. The operation moved into the building when it expanded in March 2014, the month Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and provoked the first round of Western economic sanctions.
Soshnikov, a reporter at the weekly Moi Rayon, or My Region, said there has been a new push in recent months to hire more English-speaking trolls as part of an effort to sway public opinion in the United States.
"All of a sudden, (they) switch on Russia Today and realize that this is a holy land, Obama is a bloody dictator and true freedom of speech exists only in Russia."
In Serbia, trolls are recruited through several small right-wing parties that are both financially and politically supported by Russia, media analysts say.
When Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed in Moscow in late February, the Serbian trolls were quick to react. "Who is to gain from this assassination but America? It must have been CIA," was the dominant mantra that took hold in discussions on Serbian news sites. "Likes" went into the hundreds, while comments such as "Putin is responsible" received widespread ridicule.
Serbs receive most of their information about Russia from Moscow-backed media, and the trolls reinforce the Kremlin line. The result is a widespread view in Serbia that the Kiev regime is neo-Nazi and that Putin was right to annex Crimea.
"One of the consequences is the fact that popular support for the EU integration has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since democratic change in Serbia in 2000," said Jelena Milic, a political analyst at the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, in Belgrade. "It is going to be very hard to recover this public support."
In Germany, the foreign ministry has tried to counter the propaganda by issuing a memo to its diplomats on how to debunk some of the standard Russian arguments about the Ukraine conflict.
For instance, the memo answers the statement that "fascists are in power in Kiev" by noting that radical and far-right groups made up only a small proportion of the demonstrators who ousted the Russia-friendly president, and that far-right parties did very poorly in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections.
Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
MAY 28, 2015
Former New York governor George E. Pataki — a moderate Republican who led the state through the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — launched a long-shot bid for the presidency Thursday and became the eighth declared candidate in the boisterous race for the GOP nomination.
Pataki, who has not held elected office since 2007, hopes to position himself as a relative centrist in a Republican field that is rapidly tacking to the right on issues such as immigration and national security. But his chances are slim at best against more than a dozen other likely candidates, many of whom are better-known and better-funded.
In a speech in a stifling-hot town hall in Exeter, N.H., Pataki emphasized a message of fiscal conservatism and smaller government, steering clear of divisive social issues championed by many of the party’s most conservative voters. He emphasized his parents’ immigrant past and the life they were able to build in the United States.
“Too many Americans feel the path of opportunity is closed to them,” Pataki said, with sweat pouring from his forehead in the hot room. “The problems we face are real. But I’ve never been one to dwell on problems. I’m a solutions guy.”
Pataki, 69, announced his White House run in a campaign video released Thursday morning before the speech.
“America has a big decision to make about who we’re going to be and what we’re going to stand for. The system is broken,” Pataki said in the video, which emphasized his three terms as governor and his leadership following the 9/11 attacks. “The question is no longer about what our government should do but what we should do about our government, about our divided union, about our uncertain future.”
Pataki had flirted with a presidential candidacy three times before this year, raising money and meeting voters in early-voting states such as New Hampshire. But each time — in 2000, in 2008 and in 2012 — Pataki decided the moment wasn’t right and never launched a campaign.
“I make a joke that every four years, there’s the Olympics, there’s the World Cup, and I come to New Hampshire thinking about running for president,” Pataki told a crowd of 15 people in Laconia, N.H., last month.
Now that he has actually entered the race, Pataki must face the harsh reality that flirting had allowed him to avoid: He has very little chance of winning the GOP nomination.
For one thing, he will enter a crowded GOP field without the benefit of wide name recognition. This January on “Jeopardy!” three contestants were shown a photo of Pataki’s face — but none could remember his name.
And Pataki’s moderate record in New York — strong gun-control laws, an expansion of the state budget — does not seem well suited to today’s GOP primary voters.
In a Quinnipiac University poll of GOP voters released Thursday, five potential candidates were tied for first with 10 percent support each — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, retired surgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Pataki’s support was so low among the 16-person potential field that it didn’t register in the poll — putting him in a tie for last place with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
If Pataki were to win the 2016 Republican nomination, Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson said a few weeks ago, “basically, it would be like a monkey flying out of a unicorn’s [posterior].”
A Bad Deal Plays Out
Daniel John Sobieski
Just as President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew the night of the Benghazi terrorist attack on September 11, 2012, that the attack on our diplomatic mission there was a preplanned terrorist attack, it has now become known that President Obamaknew in real time that Bowe Bergdahl in fact was a deserter who abandoned his post in the Afghanistan war zone.
Bergdahl walked away from his comrades and his military responsibilities in June 2009 after he finished his guard shift at an outpost in Southeastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province. And his fellow soldiers knew at the time Bowe Bergdahl was a deserter
"I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on," said former Sergeant Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl's platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009. "Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him."
In a recent interview with Fox News' Martha Macallum, retired Army general and former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal said he knew almost immediately that Bergdahl had "intentionally" deserted his post about a month after McChrystal's appointment as Afghan commander was announced in in May 2009:
"And my initial understanding, based upon the reportings I got, that he had walked off intentionally," McChrystal said, adding that he was not sure whether Bergdahl left with the intent of being picked up by the Taliban or simply "walked off."
That was indeed the impression of all of Bowe Begdahl's squad mates, three of whom say they relayed their opinion that Bergdahl had deserted them and his post in time of war to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen when he visited Afghanistan in December 2009, just six months after Bergdehal abandoned his post.
Vierkant and two other colleagues, Evan Buetow and Cody Full, were part of Mulen's security detail during his visit when Mullen, in a question and answer session with soldiers, said they could ask him anything they wanted:
'So Matt asked him, you know Bergdahl deserted, what's going on with that? And Admiral Mullen said, 'Yes, we know all the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl walking away from the OP (outpost,)and we're still working on getting him back, figuring out where he is and kind of figuring out that whole situation.'
Mullen, Vierkant says, was not taken aback and did not object to the characterization by Bergdahl's colleagues that he was a deserter:
"I don't remember him being taken aback by it at all, you know, he knew what was going on, he answered not confidently but he didn't have to think about it, he didn't want to give us some political answer," Buetow explained. "He just gave us an answer."
Asked if there was any ambiguity based on the conversation, Vierkant said no. "Without a doubt, he (Mullen) knew he (Bergdahl) deserted or, you know, was suspected of desertion. There was no doubt in my mind that he fully understood what Bergdahl did."
So you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our commander in Afghanistan knowing that Bergdahl was a deserter long before former U.N. Ambassador and current National Security adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bowe Bergdahl had "served with distinction."
They knew long before President Obama welcomed and commiserated with Bowe Bergdahl's parents in the Rose Garden on May 31, 2014. It would be stretching credulity to beyond the breaking point to believe President Obama did not know when it was announced we were trading five top Taliban commanders, soon to be free to return to the terrorist battlefield, for Bergdahl.
Even if Bergdahl was not a deserter, the trade would have been a bad deal. As Investor's Business Daily noted in an editorial charging "Obama Gave Material Assistance To OurTaliban Enemy":
The Taliban is considered a non-state terrorist group to which Obama has returned five of the worst terrorists held at Guantanamo. They are not foot soldiers and this exchange was not at the end of a war, when prisoner swaps often happen. They are four-star general equivalents who will return to the battlefield to target and kill Americans again. If that's not material assistance, what is?
That Obama would endanger American security for a dubious photo-op and help empty a Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility he had pledged to close is beyond the pale. Now the Taliban "dream team" currently biding their time in Qatar under the deal for Bergdahl will soon to be free to return to the terrorist battlefield under the terms of the terrorist exchange for Bergdahl. While in Qatar, reports indicate they have been in contact with their terrorist brethren.
So in the end, we got nothing of value in a bad deal that has put us all in jeopardy: That they will return to the battlefield to kill again, as other former Gitmo detainees have, is a given. But when you're committed to leaving Afghanistan and closing Gitmo, this is a twofer.
One question we have is: How many Americans lost their lives in the pursuit and capture of these jihadists? How many Afghan and American deaths were they responsible for? How many more will die as the result of their release and their likely return to the battlefield?
Mission accomplished, Mr. President?
Daniel John Sobieski is a freelance writer whose pieces have appeared inInvestor's Business Daily, Human Events, Reason Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times among other publications.