Europe/Americas update, August 28 2017



Two Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who (literally) wrote the book on Russia’s offensive cyber capabilities,have written an update to that book that covers Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and the relationship between the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. One thing I find interesting, if unpersuasive on its own, is their theory that Vladimir Putin decided to interfere in the election in response to the Panama Papers leak:

Q: Your book suggests that Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. might be a response to the Panama Papers, the enormous 2016 leak of documents from an offshore banking network. Why do you think that leak of financial data angered the Kremlin so much?

A: It was seen as an attack on personal friends of Putin, his immediate circle. It’s a line you cannot cross with Putin, and the Russian media learned that in a hard way. When a small Moscow publication reported in 2008 that Putin divorced and was going to marry a famous gymnast, the publication was immediately shut. When the RBC media holding published stories about Putin’s daughter in 2015, the media holding’s owner corporation was raided by police, and the media holding soon changed hands.

Worse, Putin believed the Panama Papers attack was sponsored by Hillary Clinton’s people — this, in a way, provided him with a “justification” for a retaliatory operation.

Most evidence seems to my reading to point to Putin deciding to back Donald Trump earlier than the Panama Papers leak, but it’s still an interesting possible motivation.


There were a couple of attempted European terror attacks while I was away. On Saturday, a man of Somali origins wielding a knife attacked soldiers in central Brussels before they shot and killed him. The man isn’t known to have any links to extremist groups but his attack does seem to fit the pattern of low-tech, lone wolf-style incidents.


French President Ahura Mazda Emmanuel Macron may have a tough Man Handshake just like Donald Trump, but he and Trump share at least one other thing in common: both of them really just started their presidencies and already most people hate them. A new poll released Sunday show’s Macron sporting a mighty -17 net approval rating, down substantially from his +11 rating in the same poll in July. Some of that might be noise, but some might also be due to Macron’s irritating personal foibles, like, say, the fact that he’s reportedly spent $31,000 on makeup for himself since taking office. Now, French presidents spending lavishly on trying to look good is not a new thing.

french presidents
Hey, I said they spent lavishly on looking good–I didn’t say it worked

But Macron was supposed to be the technocratic reformer, and instead he looks like a narcissist intent on using every tool his new office permits to aggrandize himself at taxpayer expense, whether it’s thousands of dollars worth of makeup or ridiculous G.I. Joe fantasy visits to nuclear submarines or his frequent high-profile foreign excursions. It’s fun to joke at Macron’s expense because he’s so goddamn full of himself, but this is going to be a serious problem in 2022, when Jacques-Louis de Goebbels or whatever monstrosity the National Front vomits up gets real political traction because the centrist who knocked off Marine Le Pen turned out to be such a magnificent fucking flop. Ah, look on the bright side–maybe white people will stop being racist by 2022.


Enough time has passed since the Barcelona terror attack that Catalonian officials have resumed their preparations for October’s independence referendum and its aftermath. They face a seriously uphill fight in the Spanish court system to even hold the referendum, let alone to actually act on a pro-independence vote and attempt to secede from Spain. Polls show less than half of Catalan voters backing secession, but as we’ve seen over the past year or so, polling in these major European referendums can be a bit wonky to say the least.


Another attempted terror attack happened on Friday morning, when a man reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” attacked police outside Buckingham Palace while wielding a four foot-long sword (!). The cops suffered minor injuries and the man was taken into custody. The man is believed to be acting alone, but they’re not ruling out the possibility that he could have a squire or be traveling with a wizard or something.

Brexit just keeps getting better and better for Theresa May and the rest of Britain. Despite having made getting free from the European Court of Justice one of their rhetorical red lines in Brexit talks with the European Union, the Tories’ latest Brexit position paper suggests that the government could keep Britain at least partially under the ECJ’s jurisdiction for years following Brexit. The ECJ could continue to play some role in the British judicial system during whatever transition period London and Brussels negotiate, at least in cases involving EU nationals living in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has decided to officially come out in favor of an extended transition out of the EU that could take years and would essentially leave the UK-EU relationship unchanged during much of that period. It’s the first time Labour has really staked out a specific position on Brexit–they’ve been happy to let the Tories flail about, while the Liberal Democrats and their supporters, all 12 or so, have forcefully come out in favor of trashing the whole thing and just remaining in the EU.



The Colombian government is protesting what it says was an incursion by Venezuelan forces into Colombian territory this weekend. Officials in La Guajira province say that Venezuelan security forces crossed the border on Saturday night and looted money and cellphones from Colombian civilians.


Vox’s Alex Ward has a decent summary of the bizarre “sonic weapon” story involving American (and one Canadian) diplomats in Cuba. It sounds like just a strange curiosity but in fact the people who were affected by whatever happened to them are facing some serious long-term/permanent health impacts:

Starting in mid-November 2016, at least 16 American diplomats in Cuba started to feel ill. They complained of hearing loss, nausea, loss of balance, and headaches. An American doctor traveled to Havana in the spring to evaluate them, and other doctors have since reviewed their cases.

After months of investigation, US officials have a theory for what happened: The diplomats were attacked with some sort of secret Cuban sonic weapon. Making a strange and scary story even stranger and scarier, the Americans, along with one Canadian diplomat, were hit while inside the homes where they lived with their spouses and children — homes that had been provided by the Cuban government itself.

Today, some of the diplomats suffer from mild brain damage and blood disorders, and two may have completely and permanently lost their hearing. A few of them had to return to the US because of their injuries. And while the attacks appear to have stopped last spring, questions remain about why they occurred in the first place. Experts — including current and former officials who are intimately familiar with US-Cuba relations — are shocked and confused by the events.


Designated White House TV personality Sebastian Gorka is out. He was either fired or resigned after being told he couldn’t have a security clearance, but frankly who cares. Good riddance. The only real loss here is the loss of James Adomian’s Gorka impression:

On a considerably more substantive note, two senior State Department officials announced their resignations on Friday:

Tracey Ann Jacobson, 52, a career foreign service officer who served as acting director of the Bureau for International Organization Affairs, announced her plans to take early retirement to her staff on Friday, just three weeks before President Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver his maiden address before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual debate. Jacobson — the recipient of several diplomatic honors, including the Presidential Meritorious Service Award — is expected to continue in her post until early October.

Jacobson’s announcement came on the same day that William Rivington Brownfield, who has been serving as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs since January 10, 2011, told his department that he would also step down by the end of September. It comes about four months after his wife, Kristie Kenney, on of the most senior foreign service officers in the State Department, announced her resignation.

These departures would probably be chalked up to early administration churn if they didn’t fit so well with an emerging narrative about the sidelining and minimization of the State Department, the part of the government that’s supposed to keep America out of war–a job that, I grant you, it hasn’t been doing so well at in recent years. That chatter is only going to get louder now that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decided to publicly distance himself from Donald Trump and his post-Charlottesville comments:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that President Donald Trump “speaks for himself” when asked whether the President’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, raised questions about Trump’s values.

The brief remark from the top Cabinet official appeared to be the latest subtle sign of a gap between Tillerson, a former globe-trotting oil executive, and the freewheeling President, who ran a campaign in large part against how the US interacts with pillars of the international community.

It also points to a distance between Trump and some of his team on Charlottesville.

Tillerson said on “Fox News Sunday” that the United States was committed to freedom and “equal treatment of people the world over” when posed the question by anchor Chris Wallace.

“I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values,” Tillerson said.

“And the President’s values?” Wallace asked.

“The President speaks for himself,” Tillerson said.

Needless to say it’s almost unheard of for the president’s top diplomat to a) refuse to stick up for his boss and b) suggest that his boss doesn’t speak for either America or American values, such as they are. This is one case where Tillerson’s CEO-level personal ego and lack of experience as a diplomat is probably commendable, because a seasoned diplomat who understood his role wouldn’t have responded so straightforwardly to a question like that. It also may be one of the last things Tillerson–who rumor has it was already on thinning ice anyway–gets to say as Secretary of State, but we’ll see.

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