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Vox Sentences: The first Qatar is the deepest

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Russian hackers cause issues at home and abroad.


What CAN’T Russian hackers do?

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
  • So you know how there's currently a big, growing crisis in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and its allies (including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others) pitted against Qatar? It appears the crisis was started (in part) by the Greek gods who seem to control all aspects of our lives today. I speak, of course, of Russian hackers.
  • In a bombshell scoop, CNN is reporting that US investigators think Russian hackers planted a fake news story in Qatar's government news agency, which helped provoke the crisis. The FBI has sent a team of investigators to Doha, Qatar's capital, to investigate. The goal was to cause rifts among the US and its allies — like Qatar, where the US has 11,000 troops. [CNN / Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz]
  • The fake news story quoted Qatar’s leader, emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as praising Israel and Iran and criticizing President Trump for his tough policy on the latter. That enraged Saudi Arabia, Iran’s leading rival in the region, and Saudi and its allies (UAE, Egypt, Bahrain) quickly blocked Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari government but has wide readership and viewership throughout the Arab world. [CNN / Zahraa Alkhalisi]
  • Then a few days later, Tamim made matters worse by calling Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on winning the country’s presidential election. [Reuters]
  • That phone call underlines why the fake news was so devastating: It played into a very real sense that Qatar’s critics have, that it’s way too close to Iran and not committed to supporting other Gulf states. [Vox / Zeeshan Aleem]
  • In recent days, the tensions have totally boiled over. Saudi, Yemen, Bahrain, and the UAE have ordered their citizens to leave Qatar, and all of them (plus Egypt) have cut off land, air, and sea travel, putting the country (which imports 40 percent of its food from Saudi Arabia) in a very precarious position. [NYT / Anne Barnard and David Kirkpatrick]
  • Witnessing perhaps the worst regional diplomatic crisis since Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, President Trump quickly took action to try to calm things down. LOL, just kidding. Instead, he issued a series of tweets praising Saudi Arabia's actions and, indeed, claiming credit for them: "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!" [NYT / Mark Landler]
  • (For the record, Qatar for sure funds some terror groups, notably Hamas — but so does Saudi Arabia, which makes its concern about Qatar appear somewhat less than sincere). [Brookings / Daniel Byman]
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, by contrast, has positioned his country as a neutral arbiter, calling for the situation to be resolved through diplomacy. [Reuters / Vladimir Soldatkin​]
  • If the Russian government actually planned the hack and planted the fake news story that started all this, then it’s very interesting that they’re now trying to play peacemaker. It’s like a company that sells both cigarettes and smoking cessation tools: You create the crisis, and then take credit for resolving it (or at least looking like you’re trying to resolve it — maybe you just want it to boil over).

Reality Bytes

Commander Of The U.S. Cyber Command Adm. Michael Rogers Testifies To House Armed Services Committee Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • In a blockbuster scoop, the Intercept reported on Monday that Russian military intelligence attempted cyberattacks on at least one US voting software company, and more than 100 local election officials, in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. [The Intercept / Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle, Ryan Grim]
  • After the Intercept scoop, reporters for CNN suggested that the NSA document might refer to an instance of hacking that CNN reported back in October, in which personal data of Florida voters was exposed following an attack on a Florida election software vendor. [CNN / Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, and Wesley Bruer]
  • The Intercept article relied on a leaked top-secret NSA report put together just last month. And sure enough, mere hours after the article went live, the Justice Department announced the charging of Reality Winner (that's really her name), a 25-year-old working in Georgia for the NSA contractor Pluribus International Corporation, for "removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet." Winner had been arrested this past Saturday, before the Intercept article’s release. [Justice Department]
  • In its complaint, the Justice Department states that it caught Winner because the "News Outlet" (believed to be the Intercept) had contacted an intelligence community agency (presumably the NSA) seeking to confirm the leaked document's authenticity. The agency then "examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space." [Justice Department]
  • They then looked at who had physically printed out the document, which narrowed the suspect list to only six people. Of those, only Winner had emailed the Intercept (my apologies, the “News Outlet”). If the government is telling the truth, then the Intercept inadvertently blew its own source.
  • Of course, it’s very possible the government is not telling the truth. The government lies about classified stuff all the time! In a statement, the Intercept noted, “It is important to keep in mind that these documents contain unproven assertions and speculation designed to serve the government’s agenda and as such warrant skepticism. Winner faces allegations that have not been proven. The same is true of the FBI’s claims about how it came to arrest Winner.” [The Intercept]
  • Then again, it’s possible that even if the government didn’t crack the case the way it says it did, the Intercept still screwed up. Most printers now include "tracking dots" — nearly invisible yellow dots that specify exactly when and where documents were printed — in all printouts, and if you look closely, you can see those dots on the document the Intercept posted online. They give the exact time the document was printed, which would've enabled the NSA to track down the person who printed it out at that time. [The Atlantic / Alexis Madrigal]
  • In a Twitter thread, Barton Gellman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who broke the Edward Snowden leak story for the Washington Post, strongly condemned the outlet’s handling of the story, saying it was a “catastrophic failure of source protection. … Everyone makes mistakes, but this was a bad one.” [Barton Gellman]
  • So what do we know about the leaker? She served as a linguist in the Air Force for six years, and speaks Pashto, Farsi, and Dari. And her social media presence suggests she's a strong opponent of President Trump, marking election night by tweeting, "Well. People suck," and commenting on Trump's travel ban that "the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the white house." [CNN / Madison Park]
  • The charges Winner faces could lead to up to 10 years in prison, but typically leak prosecutions result in sentences more like one to three years. Notably, this is the first criminal leak case under Trump, who's been extremely vocal in his displeasure at how his administration leaks like a sieve. [NYT / Charlie Savage]
  • As for the actual substance of the leak, the reporters were clear to state that there's no evidence Russia hacked actual voting machines or altered tallies in any way whatsoever. But it's a reminder that our voting systems are vulnerable, and that election integrity would be improved if 100 percent of votes resulted in a paper ballot, whether it's printed from a touchscreen machine or filled out with a pencil or what have you. [Vox / Timothy B. Lee​]

Hard? Raqqa? Feh.

Members of Syrian Democratic Forces Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
  • On Tuesday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (a coalition of militias) started what they expect will be the final phase of the battle to take back Raqqa, in northern Syria, from ISIS. [CNN / Angela Dewan, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Ghazi Balkiz]
  • Raqqa probably won’t be the last battle in the war against ISIS; experts believe the group has pulled many of its fighters into a nearby province. But there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in the city, and furthermore, it’s symbolically important: It was one of the first cities ISIS invaded in 2014, and the last one it still controls after a year of major setbacks. [Washington Post / Louisa Loveluck]
  • The fight for Raqqa has been ongoing for several weeks, with US airstrikes providing cover for attacks by SDF forces led by the Kurdish militia known as the YPG. [AP]
  • But the SDF’s progress sped up in May, when the US agreed to start arming the Kurds directly. [AP]
  • This would not have happened had Trump’s first pick for national security adviser, Mike Flynn, managed to keep his job. Flynn attempted to veto the plan to arm the Kurds before being fired in February. [McClatchy / Vera Bergengruen]
  • Of course, the reason Flynn was fired in February was because he was under FBI investigation for his ties to, among other foreign governments, Turkey. And the Turkish government really does not like the Kurds (who live in Turkey as well as Syria) — to the point where it’s been known to attack Syrian Kurds in the name of fighting terrorism.
  • Even without Flynn, navigating the US-Turkish relationship while trying to use Kurdish forces to disrupt ISIS has been a delicate balance, to say the least. [The American Interest / Aaron Stein]
  • In theory, the US has promised Turkey that it will carefully mete out its weapons to make sure nothing it gives the Kurds ends up getting taken over the Syrian-Turkish border to fight Turkey. [AP / Lolita C. Baldor]
  • But in practice, that’s going to be very tricky indeed. The urban wing of the Kurdish separatist group the PKK declared war on the Turkish government this week; the PKK, in turn, has ties to the YPG, the Kurdish militia the US is currently arming. [Al-Monitor / Amberin Zaman​]

Miscellaneous

  • Psychedelics are having a comeback as a serious mental health treatment. But before they can go mainstream, scientists have to solve a huge riddle: How do you prevent bad trips? [Vice / Daniel Oberhaus]
  • Everyone knows that British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is ultra left-wing. But what if I told you he’s actually a Conservative-lite sellout who is an enemy of the poor? [The Independent / John Rentoul]
  • If you're going to cover a white supremacist rally on your news website, maybe don't hire a white supremacist who's speaking at the rally to write the article. [ProPublica / AC Thompson]
  • The billionaires behind Netflix, Facebook, and Salesforce are starting to invest heavily in public schools — in large part by pushing software that looks an awful lot like, well, Netflix, Facebook, and Salesforce. [NYT / Natasha Singer]
  • In Swaziland, the country with the highest HIV incidence, 28.8 percent of residents are positive. By contrast, the CDC projects that one-half of gay and bi black men in the US will be infected in their lifetimes. [NYT / Linda Villarosa]

Verbatim

  • “He has mostly shunned the Beltway social circuit favored by his peers, splitting his leisure hours between the Senate gym’s elliptical machine and an apartment stash of Sam’s Club hamburgers, imported from his Louisiana home in a Walmart freezer pack.” [NYT / Matt Flegenheimer]
  • “In Why Not Me, a narcissistic and profoundly unqualified entertainment personality ends up in the White House due to a confluence of luck, violent intimidation, the endorsement of C-list celebrities, and a shady campaign focused on drumming up populist fury. … A headline reporting the descent of the GOP convention into chaos includes the line ‘Franken Describes Situation as “Sad.”’ ‘Al Franken’ is elected, but negative reactions to his inauguration plunge him into such a funk that he refuses to leave the bedroom where he broods, poring over his bad press.” [Slate / Laura Miller]
  • “The realization that Trump would pose a problem for Japanese interpreters came last year after a leaked 2005 recording in which he made lewd remarks about women, describing how he grabs women ‘by the pussy.’ ‘We all had a huge problem with that,’ said Tsuruta, who is also a professor of interpreting and translation studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. ‘If we had used [the Japanese loan word] pushii then a lot of people would not have understood what we were talking about.’ In the end, she played safe with the regular Japanese words for female genitalia. ‘It still made us all feel very uncomfortable.’” [The Guardian / Vidhi Doshi and Justin McCurry]
  • “When I was a computer science undergraduate I was working on social robotics — the robots use computer vision to detect the humans they socialise with. I discovered I had a hard time being detected by the robot compared to lighter-skinned people. … I was very surprised to come to the Media Lab about half a decade later as a graduate student, and run into the same problem. I found wearing a white mask worked better than using my actual face.” [Joy Buolamwini to The Guardian / Ian Tucker]
  • “Vanessa meets her friend Elaine’s ex, Jerry, who’s apparently a professional comedian, even though Vanessa is exactly as funny as he is and also has a law degree and passed the bar. While she kind of likes him, Vanessa doesn’t make a move because she doesn’t want to set off down a path where, in a year, every party that she and Elaine attend ends with Elaine screaming, ‘I GUESS FEMALE FRIENDSHIP IS A MYTH!’” [New Yorker / Blythe Roberson]

Watch this: How the LGBT community created voguing

Vogue the dance, not the magazine. [Vox / Gina Barton]


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