A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True.

Viral rumors that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine in 2016, which spread last week from the pro-Trump media ecosystem to The New York Times, are “absolute nonsense,” according to Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption activist. That evaluation is backed by foreign correspondents in Kiev and a former official with knowledge of Biden’s outreach to Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in a popular uprising in 2014.

In an interview with The Intercept, Daria Kaleniuk, an American-educated lawyer who founded Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, expressed frustration that two recent front page stories in The New York Times, on how the conspiracy theory is being used to attack Biden, failed to properly debunk the false accusation. According to Kaleniuk, and a former anti-corruption prosecutor, there is simply no truth to the rumor now spreading like wildfire across the internet.

The accusation is that Biden blackmailed Ukraine’s new leaders into firing the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to derail an investigation he was leading into a Ukrainian gas company that the vice president’s son, Hunter, was paid to advise.

The truth, Kaleniuk said, is that Shokin was forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to conduct thorough investigations of corruption, and had stifled efforts to investigate embezzlement and misconduct by public officials following the 2014 uprising.

Properly debunking this particular conspiracy theory is easier said than done, though, since it is set in Ukraine, a country with byzantine political intrigue at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. The rivalries between political factions in Kiev are so intense that even the country’s new anti-corruption agencies are at each other’s throats.

There is no question that Biden did, during a visit to Kiev in late 2015, threaten to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin was dismissed. But the vice president, who was leading the Obama administration’s effort to fight corruption in Ukraine, did the country a favor by hastening Shokin’s departure, Kaleniuk said, since he had failed to properly investigate corrupt officials.

“Shokin was fired because he attacked the reformers within the prosecutor general’s office,” Kaleniuk said, “reformers who tried to investigate corrupt prosecutors.”

One of the most prominent cases Shokin had failed to pursue was against Yanukovych’s environment and natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had oversight of all Ukrainian energy firms, including the largest independent gas company, Burisma, which he secretly controlled through shell companies in Cyprus. After Zlochevsky was forced from office along with Yanukovych in 2014, his gas company appointed Hunter Biden to its board.

“Shokin was fired,” Kaleniuk added, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”

By getting Shokin removed, Biden in fact made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who employed his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.

As the former Reuters correspondent Oliver Bullough explains in his book “Moneyland,” just weeks before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board in May 2014, ostensibly “to strengthen corporate governance,” Britain’s Serious Fraud Office had frozen $23 million of Zlochevsky’s assets in a money laundering investigation. (Zlochevsky and Burisma have denied all allegations of corruption.) At the time, Bullough writes, “The White House insisted that the position was private matter for Hunter Biden unrelated to his father’s job, but that is not how anyone I spoke to in Ukraine interpreted it. Hunter Biden is an undistinguished corporate lawyer with no previous Ukraine experience. Why then would a Ukrainian tycoon hire him?”

Indeed, hiring the vice president’s son might have seemed to Zlochevsky like a way to protect his business from scrutiny by international investigators. But the facts show that the Obama-Biden administration strenuously opposed the decision by Ukrainian prosecutors to let Zlochevsky off the hook.

Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who resigned in 2016 and accused Shokin’s office of being a “hotbed of corruption,” told Bullough that he had tried and failed to get his colleagues in the prosecutor general’s office to offer proper assistance to the British inquiry in 2014. But the British investigation was eventually stymied because Ukrainian prosecutors failed to provide a court with evidence that the $23 million — the proceeds from the sale of an oil storage facility Zlochevsky owned via a shell company in the British Virgin islands — were related to criminal abuse of office by the former natural resources minister.

New reporting from Bloomberg News this week revealed that the 2014 case against Zlochevsky “was assigned to Shokin, then a deputy prosecutor. But Shokin and others weren’t pursuing it, according to the internal reports from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reviewed by Bloomberg.”

In December of 2014, U.S. officials threatened Ukrainian prosecutors that there would be consequences if they failed to assist the British investigation, according to the documents obtained by Bloomberg. Instead, the Ukrainian prosecutors provided a letter to Zlochevsky’s lawyer stating that they knew of no evidence that the former minister had been involved in embezzlement.

The British investigation collapsed soon after that and the funds were unfrozen and quickly moved to Cyprus.

Kasko, the former deputy prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no truth to the accusation that Biden or anyone in the Obama administration had tried to block the investigation of Zlochevsky. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” Kasko said. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”

On her center’s website, Kaleniuk has been working to debunk a series of conspiratorial stories about supposed “Ukrainian collusion” in the 2016 election which have recently been embraced and promoted by President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his son, Don Jr. But Kaleniuk was stunned and annoyed by a New York Times report published last week which focused on how the politics of the accusation against Biden might play. The report failed, in her view, to make it clear that the innuendo was false.

“What I’m pissed off about,” Kaleniuk said, “is that Shokin, who was totally corrupt, who undermined the reform of prosecution, and reformers, and who didn’t want to investigate Zlochevsky, now appears in The New York Times as the hero who wanted to investigate Zlochevsky and Burisma and who suffered because Joe Biden demanded to dismiss him because of his willingness to investigate Burisma — which is absolute nonsense.”

Compounding her frustration, Kaleniuk said, is that she was interviewed for the Times story but it focused more on the potential harm the anti-Biden conspiracy theory could inflict on his presidential candidacy than on making clear that Shokin was fired because of his failure to properly investigate suspected corruption, including by Zlochevsky. Kaleniuk’s fear — that the Times report would be taken as confirmation that Biden had acted improperly — seemed to be realized by a viral tweet promoting the story from Ken Vogel, the Washington correspondent who wrote it, which claimed that, “The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal.”

Kaleniuk was also distressed that the Times report, and Vogel’s tweet promoting it, failed to clearly debunk the false claim that the prosecutor Joe Biden got fired “had opened a case into a company that was paying HUNTER BIDEN.” In fact, Kasko and Kaleniuk noted, Shokin had undermined efforts to investigate the company and its owner.

After he was appointed prosecutor general in 2015, Kaleniuk said, Shokin’s office did formally open another investigation into Zlochevsky, but that was done at the request of the country’s parliament, not the chief prosecutor. A review of court documents by Kaleniuk suggested that the only investigative step taken by Shokin’s office in that case was to transfer the files to another agency.

During Shokin’s tenure, American diplomats in Kiev publicly complained about the prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hunter Biden’s employer, Zlochevsky, calling in evidence that the Prosecutor General’s Office (known as the PGO) was in dire need of reform.

“We have learned that there have been times that the PGO not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a speech to the Odesa Financial Forum on September 24, 2015. “For example, in the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, the U.K. authorities had seized 23 million dollars in illicit assets that belonged to the Ukrainian people. Officials at the PGO’s office were asked by the U.K to send documents supporting the seizure. Instead they sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him. As a result the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus.”

Pyatt added that the prosecutors “responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should – at a minimum – be summarily terminated.”

Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of a Ukrainian company suspected of corruption first became a political issue three months later, in December 2015, when his father visited Kiev and threatened to withhold financial aid unless the prosecutor general was fired for blocking corruption investigations. As James Risen reported in The Times that month, the vice president’s spokesperson insisted that the younger Biden’s business in Ukraine would have no influence over his father’s determination to push for more vigorous enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Although there is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything to shield Burisma from scrutiny, the fact that he failed to dissuade his son from helping to launder the reputation of a Ukrainian company widely suspected of corruption is hardly praiseworthy. The former vice president says that he simply never discussed his son’s business interests in Ukraine, but maybe he should have.

The bad news, for Biden, is that the false nature of the allegation about his role in Ukraine won’t stop Donald Trump and his supporters from treating it like a major scandal, hoping to tarnish the Democrat currently leading the race to face him in the 2020 election. And since the setting for the supposed scandal is a part of the world few Americans have much knowledge of, it could be as hard to refute in the minds of voters as the attack on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record launched by the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, or the weapons-grade innuendo about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi generated by House Republicans.

As Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, explained on a recent episode of Pod Save America flooding the internet with baseless conspiracy theories can, unfortunately, be good politics. “This is how Trump won,” Pfeiffer said. “Which is: feed conspiracy theories to the base and just throw so much shit around that the folks in the middle say, ‘Well, it’s all confusing, I don’t know who’s right, I don’t have really any way of finding out — certainly the media isn’t capable of telling me — so I’m going to default to my natural expectations which is, both sides are corrupt liars.’

“And when the public thinks that both sides are corrupt liars,” Pfeiffer added, “that inures to the advantage of the corrupt liar in the race.”

Pfeiffer also criticized Ken Vogel for laying out the conspiracy theory at length before noting that there was no evidence to support it.

A New York Times spokesperson, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, defended Vogel’s focus on how the conspiracy theory, and a new investigation in Ukraine, could impact the 2020 election. “Our reporting on the current story began last fall, well before the issue surfaced again elsewhere, and became timely now for two reasons: the recent reopening of an investigation in Ukraine touching on Hunter Biden and the owner of Burisma, and the start of former Vice President Biden’s presidential campaign,” Bevacqua said in a statement. “The role of Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House in drawing attention to the intersection of the Bidens and the situation in Ukraine was clear to us in the latter stages of reporting, and we highlighted that fact for readers in the story (and the headline). Our reporting unearthed new facts about Mr. Giuliani’s contacts with the Ukrainian prosecutors and the steps he took to keep President Trump apprised — developments that the story explicitly noted raised questions “about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.”

In an interview with The Times last week, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, boasted about pressing Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to open a new investigation into Burisma, the firm that Hunter Biden was a board member of from May 2014 until last month. Lutsenko had previously closed the probe of Burisma after getting the company to admit to a relatively minor underpayment of taxes. But in late March, his office filed a new notice of suspicion related to the firm, according to The Times.

On Friday, The Times published a second front-page story on the anti-Biden conspiracy theory, reporting that Rudy Giuliani “plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries” into the gas company that employed Hunter Biden and allegations that an independent anti-corruption bureau there “meddled” in the U.S. election in the summer of 2016 by releasing evidence of secret payments to Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort.

Giuliani shrugged off the suggestion that there might be something wrong with encouraging a foreign government to investigate the American president’s political rivals. “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told The Times. “And this isn’t foreign policy,” he added, “I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

The fact that a Times reporter described Biden as “entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal” has been treated as confirmation that the allegation is true by Trump’s supporters and the far-right media outlets that work to boost him.

Before it reached the Times, the frenzied speculation about Biden, and the supposed meddling in the 2016 election by anti-corruption prosecutors in Ukraine, was regularly featured on a network of far-right websites that work to boost Trump and undermine Democrats. Among the first outlets to promote the idea of the Ukrainians as the real meddlers was Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency. That theme, and related conspiracy theories about Ukraine and Democrats, were then featured in a series of opinion columns by John Solomon, a columnist for The Hill in Washington. Solomon’s stories, based on interviews with disgruntled, far-right Ukrainian officials who had previously been featured in Sputnik, have been enthusiastically embraced by conspiracy theorist in chief.

The Biden conspiracy theory has also been heavily promoted by The Epoch Times — which is owned by members of the Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement and is virulently pro-Trump. As Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff in the White House, noted, records of political spending online show that The Epoch Times has even paid to spread the conspiracy theory more widely on Facebook.

Meanwhile in Kiev, something of a feedback loop has developed in which Ukrainian officials who have been criticized by Obama-era diplomats are now supported by Trump loyalists.

Take the case of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who has served administrations of both parties, but was appointed to this post by former President Barack Obama.

Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, complained in an interview with The Hill that Yovanovitch had improperly handed him a list of people he should not prosecute for corruption. The allegation sounds scandalous, until you discover that the Ukrainians the U.S. ambassador was trying to protect were anti-corruption activists who received grants for their non-profit work from the American government and were then baselessly accused of corruption for accepting the money.

Ambassador Yovanovitch recently demanded the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was wire-tapped by a rival anti-corruption agency and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” Yovanovitch said in March. “Those responsible for corruption should be investigated, prosecuted, and if guilty, go to jail. And in order for that to happen, all of the elements of the anti-corruption architecture must be in place and must be working effectively.”

The disgraced prosecutor Yovanovitch criticized, Nazar Kholodnytsky, was then cited as a source in articles attacking her as a deep-state plotter on far-right American websites, leading Donald Trump Jr. to call for her ouster.

This month, the Trump administration decided to suddenly recall Yovanovitch from her post.

The post A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True. appeared first on The Intercept.

A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True.

Viral rumors that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine in 2016, which spread last week from the pro-Trump media ecosystem to The New York Times, are “absolute nonsense,” according to Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption activist. That evaluation is backed by foreign correspondents in Kiev and a former official with knowledge of Biden’s outreach to Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in a popular uprising in 2014.

In an interview with The Intercept, Daria Kaleniuk, an American-educated lawyer who founded Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, expressed frustration that two recent front page stories in The New York Times, on how the conspiracy theory is being used to attack Biden, failed to properly debunk the false accusation. According to Kaleniuk, and a former anti-corruption prosecutor, there is simply no truth to the rumor now spreading like wildfire across the internet.

The accusation is that Biden blackmailed Ukraine’s new leaders into firing the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to derail an investigation he was leading into a Ukrainian gas company that the vice president’s son, Hunter, was paid to advise.

The truth, Kaleniuk said, is that Shokin was forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to conduct thorough investigations of corruption, and had stifled efforts to investigate embezzlement and misconduct by public officials following the 2014 uprising.

Properly debunking this particular conspiracy theory is easier said than done, though, since it is set in Ukraine, a country with byzantine political intrigue at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. The rivalries between political factions in Kiev are so intense that even the country’s new anti-corruption agencies are at each other’s throats.

There is no question that Biden did, during a visit to Kiev in late 2015, threaten to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin was dismissed. But the vice president, who was leading the Obama administration’s effort to fight corruption in Ukraine, did the country a favor by hastening Shokin’s departure, Kaleniuk said, since he had failed to properly investigate corrupt officials.

“Shokin was fired because he attacked the reformers within the prosecutor general’s office,” Kaleniuk said, “reformers who tried to investigate corrupt prosecutors.”

One of the most prominent cases Shokin had failed to pursue was against Yanukovych’s environment and natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had oversight of all Ukrainian energy firms, including the largest independent gas company, Burisma, which he secretly controlled through shell companies in Cyprus. After Zlochevsky was forced from office along with Yanukovych in 2014, his gas company appointed Hunter Biden to its board.

“Shokin was fired,” Kaleniuk added, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”

By getting Shokin removed, Biden in fact made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who employed his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.

As the former Reuters correspondent Oliver Bullough explains in his book “Moneyland,” just weeks before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board in May 2014, ostensibly “to strengthen corporate governance,” Britain’s Serious Fraud Office had frozen $23 million of Zlochevsky’s assets in a money laundering investigation. (Zlochevsky and Burisma have denied all allegations of corruption.) At the time, Bullough writes, “The White House insisted that the position was private matter for Hunter Biden unrelated to his father’s job, but that is not how anyone I spoke to in Ukraine interpreted it. Hunter Biden is an undistinguished corporate lawyer with no previous Ukraine experience. Why then would a Ukrainian tycoon hire him?”

Indeed, hiring the vice president’s son might have seemed to Zlochevsky like a way to protect his business from scrutiny by international investigators. But the facts show that the Obama-Biden administration strenuously opposed the decision by Ukrainian prosecutors to let Zlochevsky off the hook.

Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who resigned in 2016 and accused Shokin’s office of being a “hotbed of corruption,” told Bullough that he had tried and failed to get his colleagues in the prosecutor general’s office to offer proper assistance to the British inquiry in 2014. But the British investigation was eventually stymied because Ukrainian prosecutors failed to provide a court with evidence that the $23 million — the proceeds from the sale of an oil storage facility Zlochevsky owned via a shell company in the British Virgin islands — were related to criminal abuse of office by the former natural resources minister.

New reporting from Bloomberg News this week revealed that the 2014 case against Zlochevsky “was assigned to Shokin, then a deputy prosecutor. But Shokin and others weren’t pursuing it, according to the internal reports from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reviewed by Bloomberg.”

In December of 2014, U.S. officials threatened Ukrainian prosecutors that there would be consequences if they failed to assist the British investigation, according to the documents obtained by Bloomberg. Instead, the Ukrainian prosecutors provided a letter to Zlochevsky’s lawyer stating that they knew of no evidence that the former minister had been involved in embezzlement.

The British investigation collapsed soon after that and the funds were unfrozen and quickly moved to Cyprus.

Kasko, the former deputy prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no truth to the accusation that Biden or anyone in the Obama administration had tried to block the investigation of Zlochevsky. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” Kasko said. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”

On her center’s website, Kaleniuk has been working to debunk a series of conspiratorial stories about supposed “Ukrainian collusion” in the 2016 election which have recently been embraced and promoted by President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his son, Don Jr. But Kaleniuk was stunned and annoyed by a New York Times report published last week which focused on how the politics of the accusation against Biden might play. The report failed, in her view, to make it clear that the innuendo was false.

“What I’m pissed off about,” Kaleniuk said, “is that Shokin, who was totally corrupt, who undermined the reform of prosecution, and reformers, and who didn’t want to investigate Zlochevsky, now appears in The New York Times as the hero who wanted to investigate Zlochevsky and Burisma and who suffered because Joe Biden demanded to dismiss him because of his willingness to investigate Burisma — which is absolute nonsense.”

Compounding her frustration, Kaleniuk said, is that she was interviewed for the Times story but it focused more on the potential harm the anti-Biden conspiracy theory could inflict on his presidential candidacy than on making clear that Shokin was fired because of his failure to properly investigate suspected corruption, including by Zlochevsky. Kaleniuk’s fear — that the Times report would be taken as confirmation that Biden had acted improperly — seemed to be realized by a viral tweet promoting the story from Ken Vogel, the Washington correspondent who wrote it, which claimed that, “The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal.”

Kaleniuk was also distressed that the Times report, and Vogel’s tweet promoting it, failed to clearly debunk the false claim that the prosecutor Joe Biden got fired “had opened a case into a company that was paying HUNTER BIDEN.” In fact, Kasko and Kaleniuk noted, Shokin had undermined efforts to investigate the company and its owner.

After he was appointed prosecutor general in 2015, Kaleniuk said, Shokin’s office did formally open another investigation into Zlochevsky, but that was done at the request of the country’s parliament, not the chief prosecutor. A review of court documents by Kaleniuk suggested that the only investigative step taken by Shokin’s office in that case was to transfer the files to another agency.

During Shokin’s tenure, American diplomats in Kiev publicly complained about the prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hunter Biden’s employer, Zlochevsky, calling in evidence that the Prosecutor General’s Office (known as the PGO) was in dire need of reform.

“We have learned that there have been times that the PGO not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a speech to the Odesa Financial Forum on September 24, 2015. “For example, in the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, the U.K. authorities had seized 23 million dollars in illicit assets that belonged to the Ukrainian people. Officials at the PGO’s office were asked by the U.K to send documents supporting the seizure. Instead they sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him. As a result the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus.”

Pyatt added that the prosecutors “responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should – at a minimum – be summarily terminated.”

Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of a Ukrainian company suspected of corruption first became a political issue three months later, in December 2015, when his father visited Kiev and threatened to withhold financial aid unless the prosecutor general was fired for blocking corruption investigations. As James Risen reported in The Times that month, the vice president’s spokesperson insisted that the younger Biden’s business in Ukraine would have no influence over his father’s determination to push for more vigorous enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Although there is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything to shield Burisma from scrutiny, the fact that he failed to dissuade his son from helping to launder the reputation of a Ukrainian company widely suspected of corruption is hardly praiseworthy. The former vice president says that he simply never discussed his son’s business interests in Ukraine, but maybe he should have.

The bad news, for Biden, is that the false nature of the allegation about his role in Ukraine won’t stop Donald Trump and his supporters from treating it like a major scandal, hoping to tarnish the Democrat currently leading the race to face him in the 2020 election. And since the setting for the supposed scandal is a part of the world few Americans have much knowledge of, it could be as hard to refute in the minds of voters as the attack on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record launched by the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, or the weapons-grade innuendo about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi generated by House Republicans.

As Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, explained on a recent episode of Pod Save America flooding the internet with baseless conspiracy theories can, unfortunately, be good politics. “This is how Trump won,” Pfeiffer said. “Which is: feed conspiracy theories to the base and just throw so much shit around that the folks in the middle say, ‘Well, it’s all confusing, I don’t know who’s right, I don’t have really any way of finding out — certainly the media isn’t capable of telling me — so I’m going to default to my natural expectations which is, both sides are corrupt liars.’

“And when the public thinks that both sides are corrupt liars,” Pfeiffer added, “that inures to the advantage of the corrupt liar in the race.”

Pfeiffer also criticized Ken Vogel for laying out the conspiracy theory at length before noting that there was no evidence to support it.

A New York Times spokesperson, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, defended Vogel’s focus on how the conspiracy theory, and a new investigation in Ukraine, could impact the 2020 election. “Our reporting on the current story began last fall, well before the issue surfaced again elsewhere, and became timely now for two reasons: the recent reopening of an investigation in Ukraine touching on Hunter Biden and the owner of Burisma, and the start of former Vice President Biden’s presidential campaign,” Bevacqua said in a statement. “The role of Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House in drawing attention to the intersection of the Bidens and the situation in Ukraine was clear to us in the latter stages of reporting, and we highlighted that fact for readers in the story (and the headline). Our reporting unearthed new facts about Mr. Giuliani’s contacts with the Ukrainian prosecutors and the steps he took to keep President Trump apprised — developments that the story explicitly noted raised questions “about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.”

In an interview with The Times last week, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, boasted about pressing Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to open a new investigation into Burisma, the firm that Hunter Biden was a board member of from May 2014 until last month. Lutsenko had previously closed the probe of Burisma after getting the company to admit to a relatively minor underpayment of taxes. But in late March, his office filed a new notice of suspicion related to the firm, according to The Times.

On Friday, The Times published a second front-page story on the anti-Biden conspiracy theory, reporting that Rudy Giuliani “plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries” into the gas company that employed Hunter Biden and allegations that an independent anti-corruption bureau there “meddled” in the U.S. election in the summer of 2016 by releasing evidence of secret payments to Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort.

Giuliani shrugged off the suggestion that there might be something wrong with encouraging a foreign government to investigate the American president’s political rivals. “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told The Times. “And this isn’t foreign policy,” he added, “I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

The fact that a Times reporter described Biden as “entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal” has been treated as confirmation that the allegation is true by Trump’s supporters and the far-right media outlets that work to boost him.

Before it reached the Times, the frenzied speculation about Biden, and the supposed meddling in the 2016 election by anti-corruption prosecutors in Ukraine, was regularly featured on a network of far-right websites that work to boost Trump and undermine Democrats. Among the first outlets to promote the idea of the Ukrainians as the real meddlers was Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency. That theme, and related conspiracy theories about Ukraine and Democrats, were then featured in a series of opinion columns by John Solomon, a columnist for The Hill in Washington. Solomon’s stories, based on interviews with disgruntled, far-right Ukrainian officials who had previously been featured in Sputnik, have been enthusiastically embraced by conspiracy theorist in chief.

The Biden conspiracy theory has also been heavily promoted by The Epoch Times — which is owned by members of the Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement and is virulently pro-Trump. As Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff in the White House, noted, records of political spending online show that The Epoch Times has even paid to spread the conspiracy theory more widely on Facebook.

Meanwhile in Kiev, something of a feedback loop has developed in which Ukrainian officials who have been criticized by Obama-era diplomats are now supported by Trump loyalists.

Take the case of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who has served administrations of both parties, but was appointed to this post by former President Barack Obama.

Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, complained in an interview with The Hill that Yovanovitch had improperly handed him a list of people he should not prosecute for corruption. The allegation sounds scandalous, until you discover that the Ukrainians the U.S. ambassador was trying to protect were anti-corruption activists who received grants for their non-profit work from the American government and were then baselessly accused of corruption for accepting the money.

Ambassador Yovanovitch recently demanded the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was wire-tapped by a rival anti-corruption agency and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” Yovanovitch said in March. “Those responsible for corruption should be investigated, prosecuted, and if guilty, go to jail. And in order for that to happen, all of the elements of the anti-corruption architecture must be in place and must be working effectively.”

The disgraced prosecutor Yovanovitch criticized, Nazar Kholodnytsky, was then cited as a source in articles attacking her as a deep-state plotter on far-right American websites, leading Donald Trump Jr. to call for her ouster.

This month, the Trump administration decided to suddenly recall Yovanovitch from her post.

The post A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True. appeared first on The Intercept.

A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True.

Viral rumors that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine in 2016, which spread last week from the pro-Trump media ecosystem to The New York Times, are “absolute nonsense,” according to Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption activist. That evaluation is backed by foreign correspondents in Kiev and a former official with knowledge of Biden’s outreach to Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in a popular uprising in 2014.

In an interview with The Intercept, Daria Kaleniuk, an American-educated lawyer who founded Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, expressed frustration that two recent front page stories in The New York Times, on how the conspiracy theory is being used to attack Biden, failed to properly debunk the false accusation. According to Kaleniuk, and a former anti-corruption prosecutor, there is simply no truth to the rumor now spreading like wildfire across the internet.

The accusation is that Biden blackmailed Ukraine’s new leaders into firing the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to derail an investigation he was leading into a Ukrainian gas company that the vice president’s son, Hunter, was paid to advise.

The truth, Kaleniuk said, is that Shokin was forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to conduct thorough investigations of corruption, and had stifled efforts to investigate embezzlement and misconduct by public officials following the 2014 uprising.

Properly debunking this particular conspiracy theory is easier said than done, though, since it is set in Ukraine, a country with byzantine political intrigue at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. The rivalries between political factions in Kiev are so intense that even the country’s new anti-corruption agencies are at each other’s throats.

There is no question that Biden did, during a visit to Kiev in late 2015, threaten to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin was dismissed. But the vice president, who was leading the Obama administration’s effort to fight corruption in Ukraine, did the country a favor by hastening Shokin’s departure, Kaleniuk said, since he had failed to properly investigate corrupt officials.

“Shokin was fired because he attacked the reformers within the prosecutor general’s office,” Kaleniuk said, “reformers who tried to investigate corrupt prosecutors.”

One of the most prominent cases Shokin had failed to pursue was against Yanukovych’s environment and natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had oversight of all Ukrainian energy firms, including the largest independent gas company, Burisma, which he secretly controlled through shell companies in Cyprus. After Zlochevsky was forced from office along with Yanukovych in 2014, his gas company appointed Hunter Biden to its board.

“Shokin was fired,” Kaleniuk added, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”

By getting Shokin removed, Biden in fact made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who employed his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.

As the former Reuters correspondent Oliver Bullough explains in his book “Moneyland,” just weeks before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board in May 2014, ostensibly “to strengthen corporate governance,” Britain’s Serious Fraud Office had frozen $23 million of Zlochevsky’s assets in a money laundering investigation. (Zlochevsky and Burisma have denied all allegations of corruption.) At the time, Bullough writes, “The White House insisted that the position was private matter for Hunter Biden unrelated to his father’s job, but that is not how anyone I spoke to in Ukraine interpreted it. Hunter Biden is an undistinguished corporate lawyer with no previous Ukraine experience. Why then would a Ukrainian tycoon hire him?”

Indeed, hiring the vice president’s son might have seemed to Zlochevsky like a way to protect his business from scrutiny by international investigators. But the facts show that the Obama-Biden administration strenuously opposed the decision by Ukrainian prosecutors to let Zlochevsky off the hook.

Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who resigned in 2016 and accused Shokin’s office of being a “hotbed of corruption,” told Bullough that he had tried and failed to get his colleagues in the prosecutor general’s office to offer proper assistance to the British inquiry in 2014. But the British investigation was eventually stymied because Ukrainian prosecutors failed to provide a court with evidence that the $23 million — the proceeds from the sale of an oil storage facility Zlochevsky owned via a shell company in the British Virgin islands — were related to criminal abuse of office by the former natural resources minister.

New reporting from Bloomberg News this week revealed that the 2014 case against Zlochevsky “was assigned to Shokin, then a deputy prosecutor. But Shokin and others weren’t pursuing it, according to the internal reports from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reviewed by Bloomberg.”

In December of 2014, U.S. officials threatened Ukrainian prosecutors that there would be consequences if they failed to assist the British investigation, according to the documents obtained by Bloomberg. Instead, the Ukrainian prosecutors provided a letter to Zlochevsky’s lawyer stating that they knew of no evidence that the former minister had been involved in embezzlement.

The British investigation collapsed soon after that and the funds were unfrozen and quickly moved to Cyprus.

Kasko, the former deputy prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no truth to the accusation that Biden or anyone in the Obama administration had tried to block the investigation of Zlochevsky. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” Kasko said. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”

On her center’s website, Kaleniuk has been working to debunk a series of conspiratorial stories about supposed “Ukrainian collusion” in the 2016 election which have recently been embraced and promoted by President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his son, Don Jr. But Kaleniuk was stunned and annoyed by a New York Times report published last week which focused on how the politics of the accusation against Biden might play. The report failed, in her view, to make it clear that the innuendo was false.

“What I’m pissed off about,” Kaleniuk said, “is that Shokin, who was totally corrupt, who undermined the reform of prosecution, and reformers, and who didn’t want to investigate Zlochevsky, now appears in The New York Times as the hero who wanted to investigate Zlochevsky and Burisma and who suffered because Joe Biden demanded to dismiss him because of his willingness to investigate Burisma — which is absolute nonsense.”

Compounding her frustration, Kaleniuk said, is that she was interviewed for the Times story but it focused more on the potential harm the anti-Biden conspiracy theory could inflict on his presidential candidacy than on making clear that Shokin was fired because of his failure to properly investigate suspected corruption, including by Zlochevsky. Kaleniuk’s fear — that the Times report would be taken as confirmation that Biden had acted improperly — seemed to be realized by a viral tweet promoting the story from Ken Vogel, the Washington correspondent who wrote it, which claimed that, “The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal.”

Kaleniuk was also distressed that the Times report, and Vogel’s tweet promoting it, failed to clearly debunk the false claim that the prosecutor Joe Biden got fired “had opened a case into a company that was paying HUNTER BIDEN.” In fact, Kasko and Kaleniuk noted, Shokin had undermined efforts to investigate the company and its owner.

After he was appointed prosecutor general in 2015, Kaleniuk said, Shokin’s office did formally open another investigation into Zlochevsky, but that was done at the request of the country’s parliament, not the chief prosecutor. A review of court documents by Kaleniuk suggested that the only investigative step taken by Shokin’s office in that case was to transfer the files to another agency.

During Shokin’s tenure, American diplomats in Kiev publicly complained about the prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hunter Biden’s employer, Zlochevsky, calling in evidence that the Prosecutor General’s Office (known as the PGO) was in dire need of reform.

“We have learned that there have been times that the PGO not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a speech to the Odesa Financial Forum on September 24, 2015. “For example, in the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, the U.K. authorities had seized 23 million dollars in illicit assets that belonged to the Ukrainian people. Officials at the PGO’s office were asked by the U.K to send documents supporting the seizure. Instead they sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him. As a result the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus.”

Pyatt added that the prosecutors “responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should – at a minimum – be summarily terminated.”

Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of a Ukrainian company suspected of corruption first became a political issue three months later, in December 2015, when his father visited Kiev and threatened to withhold financial aid unless the prosecutor general was fired for blocking corruption investigations. As James Risen reported in The Times that month, the vice president’s spokesperson insisted that the younger Biden’s business in Ukraine would have no influence over his father’s determination to push for more vigorous enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Although there is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything to shield Burisma from scrutiny, the fact that he failed to dissuade his son from helping to launder the reputation of a Ukrainian company widely suspected of corruption is hardly praiseworthy. The former vice president says that he simply never discussed his son’s business interests in Ukraine, but maybe he should have.

The bad news, for Biden, is that the false nature of the allegation about his role in Ukraine won’t stop Donald Trump and his supporters from treating it like a major scandal, hoping to tarnish the Democrat currently leading the race to face him in the 2020 election. And since the setting for the supposed scandal is a part of the world few Americans have much knowledge of, it could be as hard to refute in the minds of voters as the attack on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record launched by the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, or the weapons-grade innuendo about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi generated by House Republicans.

As Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, explained on a recent episode of Pod Save America flooding the internet with baseless conspiracy theories can, unfortunately, be good politics. “This is how Trump won,” Pfeiffer said. “Which is: feed conspiracy theories to the base and just throw so much shit around that the folks in the middle say, ‘Well, it’s all confusing, I don’t know who’s right, I don’t have really any way of finding out — certainly the media isn’t capable of telling me — so I’m going to default to my natural expectations which is, both sides are corrupt liars.’

“And when the public thinks that both sides are corrupt liars,” Pfeiffer added, “that inures to the advantage of the corrupt liar in the race.”

Pfeiffer also criticized Ken Vogel for laying out the conspiracy theory at length before noting that there was no evidence to support it.

A New York Times spokesperson, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, defended Vogel’s focus on how the conspiracy theory, and a new investigation in Ukraine, could impact the 2020 election. “Our reporting on the current story began last fall, well before the issue surfaced again elsewhere, and became timely now for two reasons: the recent reopening of an investigation in Ukraine touching on Hunter Biden and the owner of Burisma, and the start of former Vice President Biden’s presidential campaign,” Bevacqua said in a statement. “The role of Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House in drawing attention to the intersection of the Bidens and the situation in Ukraine was clear to us in the latter stages of reporting, and we highlighted that fact for readers in the story (and the headline). Our reporting unearthed new facts about Mr. Giuliani’s contacts with the Ukrainian prosecutors and the steps he took to keep President Trump apprised — developments that the story explicitly noted raised questions “about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.”

In an interview with The Times last week, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, boasted about pressing Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to open a new investigation into Burisma, the firm that Hunter Biden was a board member of from May 2014 until last month. Lutsenko had previously closed the probe of Burisma after getting the company to admit to a relatively minor underpayment of taxes. But in late March, his office filed a new notice of suspicion related to the firm, according to The Times.

On Friday, The Times published a second front-page story on the anti-Biden conspiracy theory, reporting that Rudy Giuliani “plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries” into the gas company that employed Hunter Biden and allegations that an independent anti-corruption bureau there “meddled” in the U.S. election in the summer of 2016 by releasing evidence of secret payments to Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort.

Giuliani shrugged off the suggestion that there might be something wrong with encouraging a foreign government to investigate the American president’s political rivals. “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told The Times. “And this isn’t foreign policy,” he added, “I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

The fact that a Times reporter described Biden as “entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal” has been treated as confirmation that the allegation is true by Trump’s supporters and the far-right media outlets that work to boost him.

Before it reached the Times, the frenzied speculation about Biden, and the supposed meddling in the 2016 election by anti-corruption prosecutors in Ukraine, was regularly featured on a network of far-right websites that work to boost Trump and undermine Democrats. Among the first outlets to promote the idea of the Ukrainians as the real meddlers was Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency. That theme, and related conspiracy theories about Ukraine and Democrats, were then featured in a series of opinion columns by John Solomon, a columnist for The Hill in Washington. Solomon’s stories, based on interviews with disgruntled, far-right Ukrainian officials who had previously been featured in Sputnik, have been enthusiastically embraced by conspiracy theorist in chief.

The Biden conspiracy theory has also been heavily promoted by The Epoch Times — which is owned by members of the Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement and is virulently pro-Trump. As Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff in the White House, noted, records of political spending online show that The Epoch Times has even paid to spread the conspiracy theory more widely on Facebook.

Meanwhile in Kiev, something of a feedback loop has developed in which Ukrainian officials who have been criticized by Obama-era diplomats are now supported by Trump loyalists.

Take the case of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who has served administrations of both parties, but was appointed to this post by former President Barack Obama.

Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, complained in an interview with The Hill that Yovanovitch had improperly handed him a list of people he should not prosecute for corruption. The allegation sounds scandalous, until you discover that the Ukrainians the U.S. ambassador was trying to protect were anti-corruption activists who received grants for their non-profit work from the American government and were then baselessly accused of corruption for accepting the money.

Ambassador Yovanovitch recently demanded the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was wire-tapped by a rival anti-corruption agency and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” Yovanovitch said in March. “Those responsible for corruption should be investigated, prosecuted, and if guilty, go to jail. And in order for that to happen, all of the elements of the anti-corruption architecture must be in place and must be working effectively.”

The disgraced prosecutor Yovanovitch criticized, Nazar Kholodnytsky, was then cited as a source in articles attacking her as a deep-state plotter on far-right American websites, leading Donald Trump Jr. to call for her ouster.

This month, the Trump administration decided to suddenly recall Yovanovitch from her post.

The post A Republican Conspiracy Theory About a Biden-in-Ukraine Scandal Has Gone Mainstream. But It Is Not True. appeared first on The Intercept.

The Pentagon Is Reporting Low Civilian Death Tolls in Syria and Iraq. Without Accountability, People Will Keep Dying.

f-GettyImages-1137182919-1557246660

A market street in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) group, on April 14, 2019.

Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Last Thursday, the Department of Defense released a report to Congress laying out its latest data for civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations. For a Syrian American like me, this is not a mere list of faceless statistics but an opportunity for the U.S. to finally reckon with reality and accept long overdue responsibility for U.S.-led coalition actions in Raqqa, Syria. Not surprisingly, the Defense Department’s report fails to do so.

By continuing to significantly underreport civilian casualties, the Trump administration abdicates responsibility for human rights violations and potential war crimes in Raqqa and other theaters.

The Defense Department reported that approximately 793 civilians were killed by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria during its fight to uproot the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, in 2017. While the report lists a higher number of civilian casualties in 2017 than had been previously unreported, the figures pale in comparison to findings from an unprecedented joint investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars, which concluded the U.S.-led coalition killed at least 1,600 civilians in Raqqa during just four months in 2017. The 2018 figures are similarly asymmetrical. The Pentagon’s assessment reports 120 total civilian deaths as a result of U.S. military operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, while Airwars found the U.S.-led coalition killed between 821 and 1,712 civilians in Iraq and Syria alone.

By continuing to significantly underreport civilian casualties, the Trump administration abdicates responsibility for human rights violations and potential war crimes in Raqqa and other theaters. And by failing to reckon with its inability to protect civilians, the United States cannot use these mistakes to reorient wider U.S. policies towards safeguarding the well-being of people. Instead, the U.S. is poised to continue relying on the disproportional use of military force — and so the civilian death toll will continue to rise.

For those, like my family, who remember Raqqa as it was before ISIS’s occupation and the city’s “liberation” by the U.S.-led coalition, the Pentagon’s fiction is immediately transparent. When my father recalls the Raqqa of his youth, he describes the large pots of coffee brewed in every house and the plastic chairs set out on the street after dawn prayers for visitors. Like most people in the neighborhood, his own father used to stop at several houses on the way to his medical clinic, topping up his mug and chatting with friends before continuing on his way.

Today, thousands of those homes are destroyed and the streets are piled with rubble. Entire neighborhoods are abandoned and whole families decimated. The United States, in partnership with French and British forces, is partly responsible for this destruction. According to Amnesty International and Airwars, airstrikes caused buildings to collapse on top of families huddled in basements seeking shelter. Boats loaded with refugees seeking to escape were targeted as they attempted to cross the Euphrates River to safety. Amnesty found that “civilians were caught in the crossfire in a city that had become a death trap. IS snipers and landmines prevented them from fleeing, while the Coalition’s air bombardments and reckless artillery strikes killed them in their homes.”

The death toll in Raqqa is staggering. If you recited one victim’s name a minute, it would take you almost 27 hours.

The death toll in Raqqa is staggering. If you recited one victim’s name a minute, it would take you almost 27 hours.

ISIS’s brutality does not justify nor forgive the crimes the U.S.-led coalition committed in waging its “war of annihilation” against the group. According to Amnesty International and Airwars, the U.S.-led coalition violated the fundamental principle of proportionality and international humanitarian law’s requirement that armed forces distinguish between military targets and civilians.

For survivors in Raqqa, like my family members and friends, the United States will never be able to reunite loved ones, restore homes, nor heal the trauma of the bombardment. The very least the U.S. can do is accept reality, offer victims deserved justice, and begin taking the necessary steps to help survivors painfully rebuild what they can of their lives.

Instead, the U.S.-led coalition continues to deny responsibility for this failure to protect civilians from harm by failing to report the true scope of casualties. Images of the destruction in Raqqa — where the U.S. fired more rounds in five months than “any other Marine artillery battalion since the Vietnam War” — reveal the absurdity of the Defense Department’s claim to relatively limited civilian deaths. It also exposes the folly of one senior U.S. military official’s assertion that the bombardment of an urban center like Raqqa constituted one of the most “precise” air campaigns in the “history of warfare.”

If the U.S. refuses to admit its mistakes, it cannot hope to learn from them. U.S. actions in Raqqa are not an anomaly – rather, they are part of a systematic failure to protect civilians in multiple theaters. For example, in Afghanistan, the government and its American allies killed more civilians than the Taliban during the first quarter of this year. The United States military and other international actors continue to back the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen despite the similarly ruinous results of that air campaign.

The devastation of our military-first approach to eradicate ISIS in Raqqa should serve as a shock to U.S. policy as it sleepwalks into another year of endless war.

Yet that transformation seems unlikely. The Trump administration has demonstrated little concern for the aftermath of its actions in Raqqa. The United States could renew the $230 million of promised stabilization aid to Syria for the cost of just 17 of the more than 1,000 days of military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That vital aid could clear rubble, fix water systems, disarm unexploded mines, and facilitate reconstruction. Instead of taking responsibility, Trump froze these funds last year and proposes zeroing out all new U.S. funding for Syria’s stabilization in his 2020 budget request.

For all its claims of liberation and saving civilians, the evidence makes clear the U.S.-led coalition failed in spectacular fashion. Rather than continue to deny the obvious to avoid accountability, those in charge of those operations must stand before the American people and explain why. While the Defense Department’s annual report to Congress is a welcome step towards transparency, there are still important gaps that must be addressed. Members of Congress should not just take the Defense Department at its word. They must instead conduct rigorous oversight to reckon with our role in places like Raqqa and hold those responsible for U.S. human rights violations to account.

From the trauma of ISIS occupation to the U.S.-led coalition bombardment, the Raqqa of my father’s youth may never be restored. But the U.S. must do all in its power to undo the harm it itself inflicted. That begins by finally offering victims justice, such as reparations, in Raqqa and all other places. Unless the U.S. finally takes responsibility for the civilian costs of its military-first foreign policy, it will be doomed to repeat the very same mistakes over and over again.

The post The Pentagon Is Reporting Low Civilian Death Tolls in Syria and Iraq. Without Accountability, People Will Keep Dying. appeared first on The Intercept.

Right-Wing Israeli Author Writes “The Virtue of Nationalism” — and Accidentally Exposes Its Pitfalls

Over the past decade, far-right nationalist movements have swept into power across the world, from the United States to India, from Brazil to Europe. Every movement needs its texts. Today, the nationalists seem to have found one: “The Virtue of Nationalism,” by the conservative Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony. Among other plaudits, the book was recently awarded “Conservative Book of the Year” by an influential conservative campus organization. If nothing else, the award is an indicator of where conservative thought is headed.

Hazony has a gift for unpacking complex ideas in an accessible way. The problem is that his ideas are not very consistent. They are also potentially dangerous, especially for people living in small, isolated countries like his own.

Nationalism has a reputation for starting wars, a painful historical legacy that caused the idea to fall out of favor. But “The Virtue of Nationalism” makes the case for embracing it again as a positive force. Hazony argues that nationalism is the only defense against “imperialism” — defined today, by Hazony and some other nationalists, as the tyranny of universal values and liberal international organizations like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the International Criminal Court. The book is a rallying cry against a world of universal rights and laws. It calls instead for each individual nation to govern itself as it sees fit. Such an arrangement will bring greater peace to the world, Hazony suggests, as each country focuses on tending its own garden instead of going on ideological adventures abroad.

Hazony-The-Virtue-1556745615

Photo: Courtesy of Basic Books

There’s an important subtext running through the book: Hazony’s anger over international criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. Despite the incredible international support extended to Israel over the years, Hazony feels that recent criticisms of its abuses amount to “a shaming campaign of a kind that few nations have historically experienced.” For this insult, he’s ready to cast all the liberal institutions of the world — the ones that have been sustaining and defending Israel for decades — as its mortal enemies. He appears positively gleeful about the potential destruction of liberal internationalism at the hands of the new nationalist vanguard.

Hazony’s disdain for international norms and the organizations that promote them might already be winning out. President Donald Trump is in the White House; Brexit is casting a pall over the European Union; China is focused on its own development with little else in mind; and authoritarian leaders are taking power in northern Europe, South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

When I noticed high-profile conservatives in the United States praising “The Virtue of Nationalism,” I picked up a copy, expecting to be grudgingly impressed by an argument that I disagreed with. It failed to deliver on even that modest goal. The whole argument instead felt like an extended tantrum. In that sense, at least, it partly reflects the mood of the historically untutored nationalist movements that are upending politics all over the world.

The case for the new nationalism is justified by an old ideology: the anti-imperialism of the right. This version of anti-imperialism is distinct from its left-wing variant. Right-wing anti-imperialism holds that outsiders have no legitimate interest in what countries do within their own borders. Unlike liberals and leftists, they recoil from the idea of global standards for human rights and governance. In their worldview, the major imperialists of today are the international institutions that seek to impose such standards — notably the EU and the U.N.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” is in large part a work of nostalgia — calling back to and justifying historic notions of nationalism.

These institutions, Hazony argues, are “a version of the old imperialism” which bludgeons the sovereignty of nations. Their tools are global governance and the ideology they seek to impose is liberalism. In the words of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, they are the “globalists,” a term that Hazony also uses. The heroes fighting this global empire, meanwhile, are anti-EU political movements, Trump supporters, and illiberal governments like Brazil and Hungary.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” is in large part a work of nostalgia — calling back to and justifying historic notions of nationalism. As for the baggage that entails, Hazony gets around it by claiming that the two world wars it helped foment happened because the countries involved weren’t really nations. Germany under the Nazis was actually an “empire” because it sought to interfere in the affairs of others, as the EU does. Even World War I happened not because of a scramble to steal the wealth of overseas colonies, the traditional historical explanation, but because Europeans had been seduced by the idea of making their way of life universal.

A press room is seen through an EU flag during a European Summit at the headquarters of the European Council on March 14, 2008 in Brussels. EU leaders backed ambitious targets to cut energy use and fight climate change but stressed that the package must not involve "excessive costs" amid an economic downturn. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

A press room is seen through an EU flag at the headquarters of the European Council in Brussels on March 14, 2008.

Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons to criticize institutions like the EU and NATO. These international bodies are often justly accused of entrenching inequality or privileging the interests of their most powerful members. Still, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that being a member of the EU is anything like being subjugated by Genghis Khan.

Unlike medieval villagers conquered by the Mongols, countries today fiercely compete to become members of the EU and NATO. They seek membership for the considerable economic and political benefits it brings. But they also do it because they’re afraid of traditional nations like Russia, which is not as peacefully inward-looking as Hazony’s book might suggest, despite having shed any pretense of wanting to spread a universal ideology. Seeing nationalism as a force for peace requires looking at both the past and present with some heavy blinkers.

As any good nationalist would be, Hazony is extremely defensive of his own country: Israel. Here’s how he portrays the Jewish state’s predicament: In a world overrun by liberal globalists, Israel stands out as a place that jealously defends its own sovereignty. For asserting the right to act as it sees fit, it has been shamed by the international community and its tyrannical human rights rhetoric.

Remarkably, for a book that talks about Israeli nationalism so much, the word “Palestinian” appears a grand total of once in its text: when the author asks in frustration why the world keeps haranguing Israelis about Palestinian statehood.

Alongside Israel, there are two other countries Hazony claims have been similarly victimized by the shaming campaigns of liberals and globalists: apartheid South Africa and Serbia under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic.

Alongside Israel, there are two other countries Hazony claims that have been similarly victimized by the shaming campaigns of liberals and globalists: apartheid South Africa and Serbia under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. The reason for this is liberal racism. “The reason these people were singled out for special hatred and disgust, and for special punishment, is that white South Africans and Serbs are seen as Europeans, and are held to a moral standard that is without any relation to what is expected of their African or Muslim neighbors,” Hazony writes. It is axiomatic to him that whatever crimes white Afrikaners or Serbs commit must obviously pale in comparison to the barbarism of black Africans and Muslims.

For all his righteous defense of nationalism, Hazony’s argument against liberal imperialism is not even consistent. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified in no small part on the grounds of spreading democratic values, even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis. Incredibly, Hazony doesn’t seem to consider that imperialism. In the book, he suggests that the real imperialists during the war were the U.N. and EU officials complaining about American unilateralism. “Their problem,” Hazony writes, “is that the United States acts as an independent nation.”

It’s worth noting that Hazony’s hostility towards liberal internationalism is consistent with the calculus of Israel’s current leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his enthusiasm for nationalist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. These strongmen are apparently a refreshing change from the liberals who — having created, sustained, and defended Israel for decades — continue to make annoying inquiries about Palestinian statehood and human rights.

Hazony-Yoram-Daniel-Hazony-1556746747

Author Yoram Hazony.

Photo: Daniel Hazony/Courtesy of Basic Books

Israelis pining for the return of right-wing nationalism should think twice. It’s not clear that their country would do so well in such a world. The U.S.’s crucial support for Israel is frequently justified not on pure grounds of American national interests, but because of the two countries’ supposed “shared values,” their democratic characters — however specious, in Israel’s case — chief among these. As the world’s lone superpower, the United States has been waging wars in the Middle East for decades in the name of promoting liberalism and democracy. These wars have sometimes been justified as defenses of Israel, or have at the very least converged with Israel’s proclaimed security interests. If the U.S. shifts to a purely nationalist footing, this shared ideological interest disappears.

What might the foreign policy of a nationalist U.S. look like? A country focused more strictly on its own self-interest may find it more profitable to make peace with the populous, oil-rich nations of Iran and the Arab world rather than fighting endless wars against them over ideological differences. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump gave hints of these kinds of sentiments and the response to his candidacy suggests that a desire for this approach also lurks among significant segments of the American public. If the U.S. ever truly turns nationalist and abandons the liberal universalism that Hazony finds so oppressive, it would have less impetus to maintain its current approach towards the Middle East. A country with few friends like Israel would then have much more serious problems on its hands than it does today.

In Israel and beyond, the nationalist movements that we see across the world today are united by a sense of grievance. Spoiled by years of relative security and prosperity, even those who owe their very existence to liberal indulgence now consider the slightest demand asked in return to be a form of tyranny. If nothing else, Hazony’s book does a great job of encapsulating the psychology of the new nationalists.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” isn’t all bad, then. The book also restates some familiar criticisms of life in liberal societies, which stand accused of failing to provide a sense of meaning and shared purpose. Such critiques will always be poignant on some level. It’s a monumental irony, however, to see people in small, isolated countries like Israel now openly express nostalgia for the old world of nationalism. If history is any guide, they should be careful what they wish for.

The post Right-Wing Israeli Author Writes “The Virtue of Nationalism” — and Accidentally Exposes Its Pitfalls appeared first on The Intercept.

Right-Wing Israeli Author Writes “The Virtue of Nationalism” — and Accidentally Exposes Its Pitfalls

Over the past decade, far-right nationalist movements have swept into power across the world, from the United States to India, from Brazil to Europe. Every movement needs its texts. Today, the nationalists seem to have found one: “The Virtue of Nationalism,” by the conservative Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony. Among other plaudits, the book was recently awarded “Conservative Book of the Year” by an influential conservative campus organization. If nothing else, the award is an indicator of where conservative thought is headed.

Hazony has a gift for unpacking complex ideas in an accessible way. The problem is that his ideas are not very consistent. They are also potentially dangerous, especially for people living in small, isolated countries like his own.

Nationalism has a reputation for starting wars, a painful historical legacy that caused the idea to fall out of favor. But “The Virtue of Nationalism” makes the case for embracing it again as a positive force. Hazony argues that nationalism is the only defense against “imperialism” — defined today, by Hazony and some other nationalists, as the tyranny of universal values and liberal international organizations like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the International Criminal Court. The book is a rallying cry against a world of universal rights and laws. It calls instead for each individual nation to govern itself as it sees fit. Such an arrangement will bring greater peace to the world, Hazony suggests, as each country focuses on tending its own garden instead of going on ideological adventures abroad.

Hazony-The-Virtue-1556745615

Photo: Courtesy of Basic Books

There’s an important subtext running through the book: Hazony’s anger over international criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. Despite the incredible international support extended to Israel over the years, Hazony feels that recent criticisms of its abuses amount to “a shaming campaign of a kind that few nations have historically experienced.” For this insult, he’s ready to cast all the liberal institutions of the world — the ones that have been sustaining and defending Israel for decades — as its mortal enemies. He appears positively gleeful about the potential destruction of liberal internationalism at the hands of the new nationalist vanguard.

Hazony’s disdain for international norms and the organizations that promote them might already be winning out. President Donald Trump is in the White House; Brexit is casting a pall over the European Union; China is focused on its own development with little else in mind; and authoritarian leaders are taking power in northern Europe, South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

When I noticed high-profile conservatives in the United States praising “The Virtue of Nationalism,” I picked up a copy, expecting to be grudgingly impressed by an argument that I disagreed with. It failed to deliver on even that modest goal. The whole argument instead felt like an extended tantrum. In that sense, at least, it partly reflects the mood of the historically untutored nationalist movements that are upending politics all over the world.

The case for the new nationalism is justified by an old ideology: the anti-imperialism of the right. This version of anti-imperialism is distinct from its left-wing variant. Right-wing anti-imperialism holds that outsiders have no legitimate interest in what countries do within their own borders. Unlike liberals and leftists, they recoil from the idea of global standards for human rights and governance. In their worldview, the major imperialists of today are the international institutions that seek to impose such standards — notably the EU and the U.N.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” is in large part a work of nostalgia — calling back to and justifying historic notions of nationalism.

These institutions, Hazony argues, are “a version of the old imperialism” which bludgeons the sovereignty of nations. Their tools are global governance and the ideology they seek to impose is liberalism. In the words of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, they are the “globalists,” a term that Hazony also uses. The heroes fighting this global empire, meanwhile, are anti-EU political movements, Trump supporters, and illiberal governments like Brazil and Hungary.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” is in large part a work of nostalgia — calling back to and justifying historic notions of nationalism. As for the baggage that entails, Hazony gets around it by claiming that the two world wars it helped foment happened because the countries involved weren’t really nations. Germany under the Nazis was actually an “empire” because it sought to interfere in the affairs of others, as the EU does. Even World War I happened not because of a scramble to steal the wealth of overseas colonies, the traditional historical explanation, but because Europeans had been seduced by the idea of making their way of life universal.

A press room is seen through an EU flag during a European Summit at the headquarters of the European Council on March 14, 2008 in Brussels. EU leaders backed ambitious targets to cut energy use and fight climate change but stressed that the package must not involve "excessive costs" amid an economic downturn. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

A press room is seen through an EU flag at the headquarters of the European Council in Brussels on March 14, 2008.

Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons to criticize institutions like the EU and NATO. These international bodies are often justly accused of entrenching inequality or privileging the interests of their most powerful members. Still, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that being a member of the EU is anything like being subjugated by Genghis Khan.

Unlike medieval villagers conquered by the Mongols, countries today fiercely compete to become members of the EU and NATO. They seek membership for the considerable economic and political benefits it brings. But they also do it because they’re afraid of traditional nations like Russia, which is not as peacefully inward-looking as Hazony’s book might suggest, despite having shed any pretense of wanting to spread a universal ideology. Seeing nationalism as a force for peace requires looking at both the past and present with some heavy blinkers.

As any good nationalist would be, Hazony is extremely defensive of his own country: Israel. Here’s how he portrays the Jewish state’s predicament: In a world overrun by liberal globalists, Israel stands out as a place that jealously defends its own sovereignty. For asserting the right to act as it sees fit, it has been shamed by the international community and its tyrannical human rights rhetoric.

Remarkably, for a book that talks about Israeli nationalism so much, the word “Palestinian” appears a grand total of once in its text: when the author asks in frustration why the world keeps haranguing Israelis about Palestinian statehood.

Alongside Israel, there are two other countries Hazony claims have been similarly victimized by the shaming campaigns of liberals and globalists: apartheid South Africa and Serbia under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic.

Alongside Israel, there are two other countries Hazony claims that have been similarly victimized by the shaming campaigns of liberals and globalists: apartheid South Africa and Serbia under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. The reason for this is liberal racism. “The reason these people were singled out for special hatred and disgust, and for special punishment, is that white South Africans and Serbs are seen as Europeans, and are held to a moral standard that is without any relation to what is expected of their African or Muslim neighbors,” Hazony writes. It is axiomatic to him that whatever crimes white Afrikaners or Serbs commit must obviously pale in comparison to the barbarism of black Africans and Muslims.

For all his righteous defense of nationalism, Hazony’s argument against liberal imperialism is not even consistent. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified in no small part on the grounds of spreading democratic values, even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis. Incredibly, Hazony doesn’t seem to consider that imperialism. In the book, he suggests that the real imperialists during the war were the U.N. and EU officials complaining about American unilateralism. “Their problem,” Hazony writes, “is that the United States acts as an independent nation.”

It’s worth noting that Hazony’s hostility towards liberal internationalism is consistent with the calculus of Israel’s current leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his enthusiasm for nationalist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. These strongmen are apparently a refreshing change from the liberals who — having created, sustained, and defended Israel for decades — continue to make annoying inquiries about Palestinian statehood and human rights.

Hazony-Yoram-Daniel-Hazony-1556746747

Author Yoram Hazony.

Photo: Daniel Hazony/Courtesy of Basic Books

Israelis pining for the return of right-wing nationalism should think twice. It’s not clear that their country would do so well in such a world. The U.S.’s crucial support for Israel is frequently justified not on pure grounds of American national interests, but because of the two countries’ supposed “shared values,” their democratic characters — however specious, in Israel’s case — chief among these. As the world’s lone superpower, the United States has been waging wars in the Middle East for decades in the name of promoting liberalism and democracy. These wars have sometimes been justified as defenses of Israel, or have at the very least converged with Israel’s proclaimed security interests. If the U.S. shifts to a purely nationalist footing, this shared ideological interest disappears.

What might the foreign policy of a nationalist U.S. look like? A country focused more strictly on its own self-interest may find it more profitable to make peace with the populous, oil-rich nations of Iran and the Arab world rather than fighting endless wars against them over ideological differences. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump gave hints of these kinds of sentiments and the response to his candidacy suggests that a desire for this approach also lurks among significant segments of the American public. If the U.S. ever truly turns nationalist and abandons the liberal universalism that Hazony finds so oppressive, it would have less impetus to maintain its current approach towards the Middle East. A country with few friends like Israel would then have much more serious problems on its hands than it does today.

In Israel and beyond, the nationalist movements that we see across the world today are united by a sense of grievance. Spoiled by years of relative security and prosperity, even those who owe their very existence to liberal indulgence now consider the slightest demand asked in return to be a form of tyranny. If nothing else, Hazony’s book does a great job of encapsulating the psychology of the new nationalists.

“The Virtue of Nationalism” isn’t all bad, then. The book also restates some familiar criticisms of life in liberal societies, which stand accused of failing to provide a sense of meaning and shared purpose. Such critiques will always be poignant on some level. It’s a monumental irony, however, to see people in small, isolated countries like Israel now openly express nostalgia for the old world of nationalism. If history is any guide, they should be careful what they wish for.

The post Right-Wing Israeli Author Writes “The Virtue of Nationalism” — and Accidentally Exposes Its Pitfalls appeared first on The Intercept.

Chinese Fund Backed by Hunter Biden Invested in Technology Used to Surveil Muslims

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a troubling report about a phone application made by the Chinese government. The app provides law enforcement with easy, daily access to data detailing the religious activity, blood type, and even the amount of electricity used by ethnic minority Muslims living in the western province of Xinjiang.

The app relies heavily on facial recognition software supplied by Face++, a division of the Chinese startup Megvii, a relationship that sparked questions in the press for Megvii investors. One of the most prominent of these investors is Alibaba Group Holding, which was co-founded by Jack Ma, the wealthiest Chinese billionaire and an icon for the country’s image of entrepreneurship.

The flurry of media reports about private investment in China’s increasingly sprawling surveillance state left out a prominent investor: Hunter Biden.

The flurry of media reports this week about Face++, Ma, and the role of the private sector in building China’s increasingly sprawling surveillance state, however, left out another prominent investor in the company: Hunter Biden.

The son of the former Vice President Joe Biden has spent much of the last decade building overseas investments and business deals, arrangements that could complicate his father’s bid for the presidency by posing an array of potential conflicts of interest.

Hunter Biden’s investment company in China, known as Bohai Harvest RST, has pooled money, largely from state-owned venture capital, to buy or invest in a range of industries in the U.S. and China. Bohai Harvest has put money into an automotive firm, mining companies, and technology ventures, such as Didi Chuxing Technology, one of the largest ride-hailing companies in the world after Uber. (Hunter Biden, Bohai Harvest, and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

In 2017, Bohai Harvest bought into Face++, part of a $460 million haul in the company’s Series C investment round. Bohai Harvest’s website features Face++ in its portfolio of investments.

Bohai Harvest operates and works with a number of funds to make its various investments, a tangled business structure that has brought Hunter Biden into close proximity to influential Chinese government and business figures, according to a review of Chinese business filings by The Intercept.

Bohai Harvest relies heavily on an international subsidiary of the state-owned Bank of China to finance its investments.

Bohai Harvest relies heavily on an international subsidiary of the state-owned Bank of China to finance its investments, referring to itself as an “investment platform under BOC” on its website. The investment fund has also partnered with a subsidiary of HNA Group, a controversial conglomerate that has snapped up investments in a wide range of businesses across the world.

As The Intercept has previously reported, the HNA Group has made unusually extensive efforts to cultivate U.S. officials. The company floated an offer to buy out the hedge fund owned by former White House official Anthony Scaramucci; retained the legal services of Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China, shortly before his confirmation; and provided financing to a private-equity firm backed by Jeb Bush. HNA Group, notably, also courted Bill Clinton, touting meetings with the former president at philanthropy events hosted by the company.

The Bank of China, one of the largest banks in the country, has also made overtures to U.S. political elites. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, the company added Angela Chao, the sister of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and sister-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to its board of directors.

Along with a number of politically connected Americans, Hunter Biden’s investment vehicle in China came as a result of a series of deals struck over the last 10 years. In 2008, in the closing days of that year’s presidential campaign, Hunter Biden deregistered as a lobbyist from Oldaker, Biden and Belair, a Washington, D.C., firm he co-founded alongside William Oldaker, a longtime fundraiser and legal adviser to Joe Biden.

The following year, Hunter Biden — along with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson Christopher Heinz; Kerry-Heinz family friend Devon Archer; and former Oldaker partner Eric Schwerin — founded several companies using the name Rosemont Seneca.

In 2014, the partners began setting up operations in China. The “RS” in Bohai Harvest RST stands for Rosemont Seneca, and the “T” stands for Thornton Group. The latter group is an international consulting firm based in Massachusetts that was founded by James Bulger, the son of the longtime Kerry ally and former Massachusetts state Senate President William Bulger.

The company, according to the Wall Street Journal, planned to raise $1.5 billion, taking advantage of Shanghai’s free enterprise zone to convert yuan to dollars to be invested in foreign companies. Business registration filings in China list Hunter Biden, Schwerin, and James Bulger as key officials at Bohai Harvest.

Last year, author Peter Schweizer criticized the timing of Bohai Harvest’s launch, claiming that the exclusive deal coincided with negotiations between then-Vice President Joe Biden and the Chinese government.

Joe Biden has long served as friendly voice for U.S.-China relations, even before his son’s investment ventures.

On Wednesday, the New York Times raised similar concerns with the involvement of Hunter Biden in Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings, which added the vice president’s son to the company board in 2014. Rosemont Seneca financial filings, made public through a separate fraud investigation into Archer, revealed that the energy company paid Hunter Biden as much as $50,000 per month at a time when the U.S. was closely involved in Ukraine’s response to Russian aggression in the region.

For his part, Joe Biden has long served as friendly voice for U.S.-China relations, even before his son’s investment ventures. The elder Biden helped lead Democratic support to passing permanent national trade relations with China.

In 2000 remarks in support of the vote, Biden argued that he did not “see the collapse of the American manufacturing economy” as a danger from opening up further trade with China, claiming that an economy “about the size of the Netherlands” could not become “our major economic competitor.” Opening China to further trade, Biden predicted, would create “a path toward ever greater political and economic freedom” for the country’s citizens.

The post Chinese Fund Backed by Hunter Biden Invested in Technology Used to Surveil Muslims appeared first on The Intercept.

How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback

When Erik Prince arrived at the Four Seasons resort in the Seychelles in January 2017 for his now-famous meetings with a Russian banker and UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, he was in the middle of an unexpected comeback. The election of Donald Trump had given the disgraced Blackwater founder a new opportunity to prove himself. After years of trying and failing to peddle a sweeping vision of mercenary warfare around the world, Erik Prince was back in the game.

Zayed had convened a group of close family members and advisers at the luxurious Indian Ocean resort for a grand strategy session in anticipation of the new American administration. On the agenda were discussions of new approaches for dealing with the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the threat of the Islamic State, and the United Arab Emirates’ longstanding rivalry with Iran. Under Zayed’s leadership, the UAE had used its oil wealth to become one of the world’s largest arms purchasers and the third largest importer of U.S. weapons. A new American president meant new opportunities for the tiny Gulf nation to exert its outsized military and economic influence in the Gulf region and beyond.

Prince was no stranger to the Emiratis. He had known Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE, since 2009, when he sold the sheikh on creating an elite counterterrorism unit. That deal ended badly for Prince, but Trump’s election had recalibrated his usefulness. As a prominent Trump supporter and close associate of Steve Bannon, not to mention the brother of incoming cabinet member Betsy DeVos, Prince was invited to the meeting as an unofficial adviser to the incoming administration.

Prince’s meeting with a Putin intimate shortly before Trump’s inauguration has drawn intense interest from Congress, the Mueller investigation, and the press.

When Prince joined the Emirati royals and other government officials on a deck overlooking the Indian Ocean, Zayed made it clear to everyone there that “Erik was his guy,” said a source close to the Emirati rulers, who was briefed by some of those in attendance. Prince, in Zayed’s view, had built and established an elite ground force that Zayed had deployed to wars in Syria and Yemen, the first foreign conflicts in his young country’s history. It was because of Prince, Zayed said, that the Emiratis had no terrorists in their country. Prince had solved their problem with Somali pirates. “He let his court know that they owed Erik a favor,” the source said.

Part of that favor apparently involved facilitating an introduction to Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of an $8 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Prince repeatedly and under oath in testimony to Congress denied that his meeting with Dmitriev had anything to do with the Trump administration, describing it as no more than a chance encounter over a beer.

“We were talking about the endless war and carnage in Iraq and Syria,” Prince told the House Intelligence Committee. “If Franklin Roosevelt can work with Joseph Stalin after the Ukraine terror famine, after killing tens of millions of his own citizens, we can certainly at least cooperate with the Russians in a productive way to defeat the Islamic State.”

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 5, 2017: Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev (C) attends the Russian-Saudi Investment Forum at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow Hotel. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images)

Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev, center, attends the Russian-Saudi Investment Forum at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow Hotel on Oct. 5, 2017.

Photo: Sergei Bobylev/TASS via Getty Images

Although the UAE has been a very good customer of U.S. arms dealers, Zayed had grown frustrated with the Obama administration’s refusal to work with Russia to end the war in Syria. Russia was actively courting the UAE, and from Zayed’s perspective Russia was a key player that couldn’t be ignored, according to a current and a former U.S. intelligence official. Trump’s public infatuation with Putin and his apparent eagerness to improve relations with Russia gave the UAE a chance to play dealmaker and diminish Iran’s position in the Middle East, starting with the war in Syria.

Prince’s 30-minute meeting with a Putin intimate shortly before Trump’s inauguration has drawn intense interest from Congress, the Mueller investigation, and the press. The Mueller report established that the meeting was a pre-arranged attempt to establish a backchannel between Russia and the incoming Trump administration and has led House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department for perjury. Yet the focus on Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has deflected scrutiny from what the meeting reveals about Prince’s unique role in the world of covert services.

Blackwater made Prince an infamous symbol of U.S. foreign policy hubris, but America’s most famous mercenary has moved on. Although he continues to dream of deploying his military services in the world’s failed states, and persists in hawking a crackpot scheme of privatizing the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Prince has diversified his portfolio. No longer satisfied with contracting out former special forces operators to the State Department and Pentagon, Prince is now attempting to offer an entire supply chain of warfare and conflict. He wants to be able to skim a profitable cut from each stage of a hostile operation, whether it be overt or covert, foreign or domestic. His offerings range from the traditional mercenary toolkit, military hardware and manpower, to cellphone surveillance technology and malware, to psychological operations and social media manipulation in partnership with shadowy operations like James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.

This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen of Prince’s former colleagues and peers, as well as court records, emails, and internal documents provided to The Intercept. An examination of Prince’s time working with the UAE in particular reveals suspicious financial transactions at a moment when his personal finances were under stress and his mercenary ventures were failing. The picture that emerges is one of a man desperately trying to avoid U.S. tax and weapons trafficking laws even as he offers military services, without a license, in no fewer than 15 countries around the world.

Prince’s former and current associates describe him as a visionary, a brilliant salesman with remarkable insight into the future of warfare, who is nonetheless so shady and incompetent that he fails at almost every enterprise he attempts. And yet he endures. Prince is thus, in many ways, an emblematic figure for the Trump era.

Suitcases Full of Cash

Prince’s partnership with Zayed got underway, fittingly, with a slapstick moment in early 2010, when two of Prince’s men, a veteran of the Canadian special forces and a Lebanese fixer, were ordered by Emirati security officials to meet at an Abu Dhabi intersection. There, a few government employees helped Prince’s men load the trunk of a Chevy Impala with more than half a dozen carry-on suitcases, most worn and with busted wheels. The two drove back to their hotel, Le Méridian, where they unloaded the bags, returned to their room, and summoned their immediate supervisor, a former Navy SEAL who had known Prince in the military, telling the American that they had a problem. Their new company, Reflex Responses, often called R2 for short, was so new it didn’t yet have a bank account or even an office with a safe.

When the former SEAL entered their hotel room, the contents of the suitcases had been largely removed, much of it dumped onto a bed: bricks of new, sequential $100 bills, in $10,000 stacks, each bound by a green and white band. The three men counted each stack, measuring the height to be sure that they all had 100 $100 bills, until they tallied it all: roughly $13 million. For the first two weeks of the program, the hotel room, always occupied by a security guard or a company employee, served as the Reflex Responses vault. Hotel staff were not allowed to clean the room, and by the time R2 opened a bank account and deposited the money, the room was covered in empty whiskey bottles and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.

Prince had arrived in the UAE at a low moment. The Obama administration had made clear in its first months that it would not welcome new Blackwater contracts. The company had become infamous after Blackwater security contractors shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded dozens more in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. By 2010, Prince had changed Blackwater’s name and sold the company, ceasing to work on any U.S. government contracts. As Prince negotiated a settlement with the Justice Department for a series of Blackwater arms trafficking violations,  then-CIA Director Leon Panetta discovered a secret assassination program involving Blackwater operatives that former Vice President Dick Cheney had hidden from Congress. Prince was bitter, blaming the Obama administration for leaking his CIA role and comparing himself to exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame. Prince couldn’t understand why the American public viewed him as a villain. “He was genuinely upset,” said a former colleague who discussed the public scrutiny of Blackwater. “He kept asking, ‘Why do they hate me?’”

A converted Catholic raised by Christian fundamentalists and the scion of a Midwestern auto-parts fortune would seem to be an unlikely ally to the Muslim crown prince of a tiny, oil-rich Arab kingdom, but from their first meeting in 2009, Prince and Zayed hit it off. Almost immediately it was clear they shared common enemies: Islamic militants and, especially, Iran. Prince was introduced to Zayed after pitching a two-page schematic of a light attack airplane — an agricultural crop duster modified with surveillance and laser-guided munitions — to the Emirati government as the Blackwater sale to a private equity group was being negotiated. When the Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, learned that Prince’s legal problems with the Justice Department would mean that he wouldn’t be able to be involved in building, selling, or brokering armed aircraft, the Emirati government approached another aviation manufacturer to help establish an entire air wing of armored and weaponized crop dusters. In exchange for Prince bowing out of the deal quietly, Otaiba introduced him to Zayed explicitly in order to find another role in which he could assist the UAE government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (known as MBS, not pictured in this photo) receives Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as MBZ) in Jeddah on June 6, 2018. Photo by Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Jeddah on June 6, 2018.

Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa via AP

Zayed was determined to bolster the UAE’s sphere of influence and project power in the Middle East. Despite Prince’s tarnished reputation, Zayed saw in him a glimpse of the future. It didn’t hurt that “Erik could sell you your own hat,” according to one former associate. The former SEAL and self-described CIA “asset” saw in Zayed a willing buyer who shared his desire to play soldier. Prince sold Zayed on the idea of creating a half-billion-dollar program in which he would train, equip, and lead an elite cadre of foreign soldiers called the Security Support Group that would serve as a presidential guard for the Emirati monarchies and help quell any internal unrest. Zayed insisted that Prince use non-Muslim ex-soldiers, according to two senior advisers who helped build the unit, telling him that he did not believe Muslim soldiers could be trusted to kill other Muslims. Eventually, Prince also sold Zayed on the creation of an armed aviation wing, a team to protect the Emirates from a weapons of mass destruction attack, and a separate force to combat Somali piracy.

One indication of both Prince and R2’s growing value to Zayed was that Prince became a favored foreign policy and military adviser, joining Zayed’s inner sanctum. Prince told his colleagues at R2 that Zayed, whom Prince often referred to as “the boss,” gave him ownership of two side-by-side villas in Abu Dhabi, which were originally worth $10 million each. The wealthy enclave was built as a luxury community, each villa with a private beach, and quickly housed several foreign embassies. Prince’s neighboring houses sat at the end of a residential peninsula and had expansive views of central Abu Dhabi across a sea channel, a pool, and beachfront in the Persian Gulf. Prince built a dock for his sailboat, which has a Blackwater logo across the port side.

Despite Prince’s tarnished reputation, Zayed saw in him a glimpse of the future. The former SEAL and self-described CIA “asset” saw in Zayed a willing buyer who shared his desire to play soldier.

The $13 million in the suitcases was an advance on $110 million the UAE gave Prince to get Reflex Responses off the ground. The deal gave Prince and his team a guaranteed 15 percent profit margin on whatever the company spent in addition to salaries. Prince had long tried to own a piece of each part of the foreign conflict supply chain: planes, ships, vehicles, weapons, intelligence, men, and logistics. Reflex Responses gave him a blank check to do just that.

Structurally, Reflex Responses became a model for how Prince masks his involvement in selling or providing military services, which was a necessity given that he’s unlikely to obtain an arms trafficking license under the U.S. State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Officially, Prince was never an R2 employee. He officially worked for a company called Assurance Management Consultants, which shared a floor in an Abu Dhabi office tower with Reflex, where he oversaw the entire military program. It was Prince who hired and installed Reflex’s senior management, according to people directly involved in the effort. And it was Prince who recruited and hired the subcontractors who fulfilled Reflex’s contractual requirements. Prince flew to South America, where he helped oversee the recruitment of former Colombian soldiers who served as both hired guns and a training cadre for the fledgling Emirati security force.

prince-permit-1556169193

Erik Prince’s residency visa for the UAE, showing that he was, at the time, employed by Assurance Management Consultancy. Some personal information has been redacted for privacy.

Photo: Provided to The Intercept

Prince’s approach to management created problems almost immediately, issues that would arise again and again in his various projects. In what would become a pattern, Prince’s American colleagues at Reflex were troubled by his directives about ITAR regulations. Prince argued to his lawyers that because Reflex was an Emirati company, working on an Emirati government contract, he was not required to have an ITAR license from the State Department to sell military services. “We’d tell him, ‘No, that’s not how it works. You’re an American,’” said one of Prince’s former colleagues involved in Reflex Responses. “It was stupid, honestly. There was a way to do it legally and make lots of money, but Erik didn’t care. When Erik wakes up in the morning, Erik does whatever he feels like doing. I always assumed that’s how it is when your father is a billionaire.”

In response to a request for comment, a Prince spokesperson stated: Mr. Prince at all times relied upon the advice of counsel, including both in-house compliance counsel and outside experts, to ensure compliance with ITAR and other laws.”

Prince also hid his financial interest in subcontractors working with R2. Six months into the project, senior executives discovered that Prince had an arrangement with Thor Global, the company that he’d insisted Reflex use to hire the Colombian soldiers. On paper, Thor Global was wholly owned by Robert Owens, a former aide to Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair, but Prince received a substantial amount of the money R2 paid Thor Global, according to court documents and two former Prince colleagues familiar with the arrangement. “I asked Erik if the crown prince knew he was self-dealing,” said one of the former colleagues. “Erik wouldn’t answer.”

Prince had long tried to own a piece of each part of the foreign conflict supply chain: planes, ships, vehicles, weapons, intelligence, men, and logistics. Reflex Responses gave him a blank check to do just that.

Owens’s involvement and connection to North is not incidental. Prince and North are friends, and Prince has told others over the years that he greatly admires the former Marine officer and Reagan National Security Council staffer, who was convicted on three felony counts during the Iran-Contra scandal. (The convictions were reversed in 1991.)

A former colleague said it took him some time to recognize that Prince generally works to control the entire supply chain of any mercenary or security contract. “Everything he does, he skims,” said the former colleague, who has known Prince for two decades and described how Prince generally operates as a military services provider. “He will run a contract through two companies and then dictate that those two companies have to subcontract out to another eight companies. What he doesn’t disclose is that he owns all or part of those eight companies and will take 25 percent from each company. Then, he can use those same eight entities to make the money disappear.”

After Prince’s first team of U.S. executives quit, he brought in another former SEAL and a former CIA officer. That team conducted audits and quickly discovered financial problems. “There was massive embezzlement going on inside R2,” said a third former employee with direct knowledge of the company’s finances. “Overbilling, false billing, missing cash — millions were gone.”

According to four former Reflex employees and consultants, the alleged graft and embezzlement ran through two of Prince’s lieutenants, who handled logistics and administration for R2. The first was a former Blackwater employee who told colleagues at Reflex that he’d done intelligence work in the Middle East for the Pentagon’s intelligence agency. Internal R2 documents list him as the first employee of the company. Several of Prince’s colleagues confronted him about the missing money and his lieutenants’ conduct, but Prince rebuffed any effort to remove them. Contacted by The Intercept for comment, Prince’s lieutenant denied that he had ever embezzled or stolen money and denied ever working for R2. He said that he had worked for Assurance Management and occasionally “consulted” for R2.

Prince did not respond on the record to questions about the financial improprieties.

While money was disappearing from Reflex Responses’s accounts as a result of these financial shenanigans, Somali pirates were engaging in a more traditional form of robbery off the Horn of Africa, harming UAE shipping interests. Prince had a solution: a sea, air, and land battalion to eradicate the pirates. He established a group for this purpose within Reflex Responses known as Special Projects and hired a former South African special forces officer named Lafras Luitingh, who also worked for Executive Outcomes, a private military company comprised mainly of apartheid-era South African soldiers.

Members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force on patrol for pirates near the village of Elayo, Somalia. The Puntland Maritime Police Force is a locally recruited, professional maritime security force. It is primarily aimed at preventing, detecting and eradicating piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activity off of the coast of Somalia, in addition to generally safeguarding the nation's marine resources.In addition, the Force provides logistics support to humanitarian efforts. (Photo by jason florio/Corbis via Getty Images)

Members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force on patrol for pirates near the village of Elayo, Somalia, on Sept. 18, 2011.

Photo: Jason Florio/Corbis via Getty Images

Together, Prince and Luitingh created the Puntland Maritime Police Force in northeastern Somalia, in a semiautonomous region home to the most active Somali pirates. A United Nations monitoring team subsequently documented extensive violations of the U.N. arms embargo of Somalia, including falsifying export paperwork for small arms and attacks that left civilian casualties by Luitingh’s company, Saracen, a subcontractor on the project. The two-year program resulted in “an elite force outside any legal framework … answerable only to the Puntland presidency,” according to a U.N. investigation into the PMPF. Both Prince and the UAE denied involvement, but one source with knowledge of the operation witnessed Emirati intelligence officers providing a suitcase with millions of dollars in $100 bills to Luitingh for his payroll. Citing Prince’s involvement in the police force, the U.N. report said, “This externally financed assistance programme has remained the most brazen violation of the arms embargo by a private security company.”

Although Prince and the UAE’s involvement was meant to be largely clandestine, Prince sought publicity for the program, according to a person with direct knowledge. Prince arranged for a February 2012 Fox News segment from North, then a military analyst for Fox News, who embedded with the PMPF in Puntland and explicitly reported that the UAE was behind the fledgling military unit. The media attention enraged the Emirati government, according to one of Prince’s former colleagues who worked with him at the time, and blamed him for the unwanted publicity.

The program’s lack of legal legitimacy was perhaps the least troubling legacy of Prince’s vision, however. The program shut down shortly after a South African mercenary was murdered by one of the local soldiers hired to fight the pirates during one of the first operations the Puntland force conducted. According to a contemporaneously filmed documentary of the anti-piracy effort, the killer was a relative of a pirate targeted by the unit. The unit had been infiltrated from the beginning, a failure of basic counterintelligence, which a former CIA officer, who was also involved, readily admitted in on-camera interviews. The U.N. would later report “credible” allegations of human rights violations stemming from corporal punishment, which led to severe injuries and a death at the South African-run PMPF camp.

Robert Young Pelton, an author who worked for Prince on the Somalia project and helped write Prince’s autobiography (and recently lost a civil suit against Prince over a contract dispute), said Prince’s efforts were “delusional. He operates with a 12-year-old’s mindset of war. He’s romanticized the South African mercenaries who fought those ugly wars.” Pelton said when Prince first showed him a map with plans for the security force, he realized that Prince had never been to Somalia. Pelton said Prince told him that the idea for an anti-piracy force came from reading “The Pirate Coast,” a book detailing a secret American operation in 1805 to end piracy off the coast of Libya.

As with the Security Support Group, the anti-piracy force suffered from mismanagement. According to two individuals who worked on the program, at least $50 million meant for the anti-piracy force had gone missing by the time the Emirates decided to stop funding the effort. Among the items that were never returned or accounted for were several aircraft, including at least one cargo plane and two helicopters, as well as several ships. Before he was asked by the Emirates to end his involvement in the program, Prince brought in a former intelligence operative to conduct an audit of the PMPF program. The American identified $38 million in cash that the UAE had delivered to Luitingh, for which the former South African mercenaries refused to provide accounting or receipts. “I told Erik, ‘[Luitingh] and the South Africans couldn’t account for $38 million,’” said a former Prince employee. “Erik wasn’t upset at all. He just said, ‘I’m sure they are just saving it for a rainy day.’” Luitingh did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“When Erik wakes up in the morning, Erik does whatever he feels like doing. I always assumed that’s how it is when your father is a billionaire.”

Over a six month period beginning in late 2011, after the New York Times exposed Prince’s involvement with the UAE’s Security Support Group and the deployment of the anti-piracy force, Zayed gradually removed Prince from his multiple projects for the government. The parting of ways came as a result of the unwanted media exposure, U.N. pressure, and ongoing financial audits. The UAE shut down Reflex Responses and rolled what they wanted to keep into new companies with new management.

As his private military ventures with the UAE stumbled, Prince shifted to private equity, establishing an investment fund focused on African natural resources called Frontier Resource Group. But Prince’s income dried up after the UAE stopped funding him and he began having cash-flow problems. One of his personal bankers grew alarmed as Prince cashed out Treasury bonds to fund Frontier Resource. According to tax, banking, and internal business documents obtained by The Intercept, Prince at the time was worth less than $100 million, and much of his wealth was tied up in real estate and fixed-income investments. One of Prince’s creditors, Michigan’s Huntington Bank, refused a request for a $6 million increase on a $17.5 million line of credit, according to emails and other documents obtained by The Intercept. In turning Prince down, the bank reduced his line of credit by $2.5 million.

In late 2011, the Emirati government asked one of Prince’s former colleagues, Reno Alberto, if he would take over Prince’s aviation contract. Alberto was a former Navy SEAL who Prince originally hired to help save the Reflex Responses project. An Emirati general offered Alberto the job on two conditions: Reflex Responses needed to be shuttered so that a new corporate entity could take its place, and Prince could not be involved. Alberto agreed and created a new, temporary holding company called Vulcan Management. Vulcan would take the roughly $100 million resulting from the liquidation of R2 and hold it until a new entity could be established to create a wing of armed helicopters for the UAE air force.

Prince soon came calling on Alberto, however, claiming that a portion of the roughly $100 million left over from Reflex Responses was his and that any future contract for Alberto was a consequence of Prince’s efforts and therefore should result in him receiving a percentage. Prince claimed repeatedly to Alberto that Zayed had directed that some of the leftover R2 funding be paid to him. Prince and his business adviser Dorian Barak arranged to structure the payout as a loan from Alberto’s Vulcan Management to one of Prince’s holding companies in Bermuda. Barak, on behalf of Prince, requested that the loan be divided into 10 transactions, which Prince could then call on Vulcan to pay out as needed. Prince told several other colleagues that he felt he was owed upwards of $40 million for his effort in getting Zayed to create the SSG and establish R2. Alberto, who stood to make millions in his new venture, reluctantly agreed to pay his former boss through a loan.

On July 26, 2012, Barak emailed Prince, informing him that a wire transfer of approximately $5.9 million was sent by Vulcan, according to an email obtained by The Intercept. The money was wired to Prince’s Frontier Resource bank account in Abu Dhabi.

“That was fast. Well done,” Prince responded.

email-redact-1556654073

An email exchange between Dorian Barak and Erik Prince in July 2012. Some personal information has been redacted for privacy.

Screenshot: The Intercept

Prince pitched Frontier Resource to potential investors as a $500 million private equity fund. Fund documents state that Prince would provide 10 percent of the funding. In late 2011 and early 2012, as FRG tried to get off the ground, Prince had soft commitments from investors in the UAE, including Zayed’s brother Tahnoon bin Zayed, the Emirati national security adviser. But by the time he’d taken his first draw of the Vulcan loan, Prince was toxic, and the outside financial commitments had withered and disappeared. Sheikh Tahnoon, however, appears to have invested at least $5 million, according to internal Frontier Resource documents provided to The Intercept.

Then, in October 2012, Prince directed Alberto and Vulcan to make a second wire transfer. This one, however, was not sent to Prince or his companies. According to documents reviewed by The Intercept, and confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of the transaction, more than $9 million was wired to Zafra Group, the company Sheikh Tahnoon had originally created to invest in Prince’s Frontier Resource. It is unclear why Prince wanted the Vulcan money routed to Zafra Group, but he told Vulcan that the payment had been ordered by “the boss,” according to the person with direct knowledge of the transaction. In effect, Prince had steered UAE government money meant for an armed helicopter wing to one his fund’s investors, a senior member of the Emirati royal family.

When Prince asked for $10 million in the third installment, Alberto refused and subsequently told Prince that no more installments would be paid. According to a person with knowledge of the dispute, Alberto learned that no one in the Emirati royal family had ordered the payments to Prince.

The loan to Prince, which has not been previously reported, was not repaid to Vulcan, and the entire $15 million was written off as a loss by the company in subsequent years, according to a person with direct knowledge of the transaction. Prince did report the $5.9 million payment as a loan on his personal tax returns that year.

The Intercept sent Prince a detailed list of questions for this article. In response, a Prince spokesperson stated that “Vulcan Management’s loan, which was made in connection with FRG’s investment activity, was at all times fully disclosed to both FRG’s auditors and the IRS.” Prince would not comment for the record about the circumstances of the loan, or why he directed the $9 million payment to Zafra.

prince-china-meeting-1556168475

Erik Prince, center, in one of his first meetings in China with Chinese investors for Frontier Services Group in 2013. At the far right is Johnson Ko, a Hong Kong tycoon.

Photo: Obtained by The Intercept

A New Frontier

Over the next several years, as his speculations in African natural resources turned into losers time and again, Prince looked to China for new funds, creating Frontier Services Group with an investment banker and former Marine named Gregg Smith. For Smith, the business model seemed simple enough: Frontier Resource would find undervalued, distressed assets, and Frontier Services would transport the materials out of Africa. Smith says he saw the potential of a logistics company to move freight and natural resources across Africa, where the Chinese were increasingly active. “We wanted to start a straightforward logistics company,” Smith said recently. “Trucks and planes and that’s it.”

Prince had other ideas, as did some Chinese investors, who made it clear that they wanted a “Blackwater China.” Although Frontier Services attracted a $110 million investment from a Hong Kong tycoon named Johnson Ko and the China International Trust Investment Corporation, a state-owned investment company, Prince’s investment fund lost money, and several projects ended in a total loss, according to three people with knowledge of Prince’s investment portfolio. Instead, Prince would end up directing FSG to purchase companies that Prince had a financial interest in — as well as services from such companies — in an effort to salvage his private-equity fund’s investment. In total, according to documents, FSG spent $8.5 million on Prince-connected businesses. And as he had with Thor Global and Reflex Responses, Prince failed to disclose his financial interest to the FSG board prior to most of the transactions. The board eventually passed a resolution prohibiting undisclosed self-dealing.

For two years, beginning in 2013, while Frontier Services executives ran a legitimate logistics and aviation company, Prince was traveling around Africa pitching paramilitary services under the Frontier Services banner. As reported by The Intercept, Prince proposed creating counterterrorism forces, a private air force, and a “black ops” program for Nigeria to defeat Boko Haram. He made a similar pitch to President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan to help him defeat rebels there. There were meetings and proposals for Libya, Cameroon, and Kurdish Iraq, none of which found a buyer. Although Prince failed to sell an entire paramilitary force, he did make money across the continent and the Middle East “advising” countries on how to fight wars. According to one of his closest colleagues, over a roughly five-year period, including his time as chair of the board of FSG, Prince earned as much as $10 million from his meetings. Prince’s efforts were nothing if not ambitious. “Erik was trying to create a private JSOC,” said a former senior military officer who discussed many of Prince’s ideas with him. Since he left Blackwater, Prince has sold or pitched his war supply chain in no fewer than 15 countries, nearly all of them with majority Muslim populations.

Since he left Blackwater, Prince has sold or pitched his war supply chain in no fewer than 15 countries, nearly all of them in countries with majority Muslim populations.

Prince tried to hawk surveillance products and services as well. In 2014, he demonstrated for some of his Frontier Services colleagues cellphone geolocation software that he said he had licensed from an Israeli company. At a strip mall diner in Washington, D.C., Prince pulled out a laptop and punched in a cellphone number. The program identified the most recent cell tower the phone had connected with, allowing the user to locate the target within 300 meters and revealing the last 10 calls the targeted user made. Prince, according to one person who discussed the software with him, believed his time at Frontier Services had “cleaned” his image up with the U.S. government enough that he approached both the CIA and the Pentagon, offering to run the software in counterterrorism operations. He was rebuffed. Later, he and one of his deputies claimed that they sold the program to the Saudi and Emirati air forces to locate bombing targets in Yemen.

In 2015, Prince became involved in the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan spent hundreds of millions of dollars equipping and training their small military. Prince was brought in by a former Russian weapons supplier to help create a training force. Prince would ultimately be kicked off the contract after his business partners accused him of wildly padding the proposed contract by adding a series of unnecessary expenditures that would have been provided by companies to which Prince had financial ties. In an effort to smooth over Prince’s anger at being fired, the Russian weapons supplier offered him $5 million, according to three people with direct knowledge of the offer. Prince agreed to take the money but insisted the payment be made through a complex series of loans between companies that Barak would set up. When his Russian colleague refused the terms and offered a simple check made out to Prince for the total amount, Prince walked away from the deal, according to a person with direct knowledge of the incident.

In response to questions from The Intercept, a Prince spokesperson stated: “FSG contemplated a logistics, construction, and aviation support project in Azerbaijan, but neither FSG nor Erik Prince ever moved forward with it, and neither FSG nor Mr. Prince was ever offered money to abandon the project.”

As The Intercept has reported previously, when Frontier Services Group discovered that Prince had secretly modified two crop dusters to be used as light attack aircraft, and had used an Austrian company he’d secretly purchased a stake in, FSG hired the law firm King & Spalding to conduct an investigation to determine whether Prince had violated arms trafficking laws. (Prince attempted to sell the two weaponized aircraft to Azerbaijan as part of their buildup — another potential violation of ITAR). The attorneys, supervised by current FBI Director Christopher Wray, concluded that Prince had likely violated U.S. law in his effort to sell the crop dusters. In 2016, FSG disclosed the ITAR violations to the Justice Department, which opened an investigation.

Then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cybersecurity at the White House on Jan. 31, 2017.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

The Rise of Trump

Although Prince’s turn in Africa as a mercenary was a bust, he was somewhat successful at recasting himself as a globetrotting businessman through Frontier Services Group. The 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump now promised a full-scale rehabilitation. The potential for a Republican administration would be an opportunity for new U.S. government contracts and, possibly, something even more lucrative. After Trump had clinched the Republican nomination, Prince told his Chinese business and government contacts that if Trump won, he would be the next secretary of defense.

Prince’s family has a history of supporting right-wing and conservative causes. Edgar Prince, Erik’s father, was a major financial contributor to former President Gerald Ford, and in recent years, the family has supported Mike Pence, first as a member of Congress and later as Indiana governor. While in Congress, Pence helped Prince navigate Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the killing of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in 2004. Prince became an enthusiastic Trump supporter. By Election Day, Prince had donated $250,000 to Trump’s 2016 election effort.

During the campaign, Prince solidified his relationship with Steve Bannon, appearing on his Breitbart radio show on SiriusXM less than a month before Bannon formally joined the Trump campaign. Four days before the 2016 election, Prince went on Bannon’s show and smeared Hillary Clinton, claiming without evidence that a New York City police investigation into former Rep. Anthony Weiner had uncovered extensive criminal activity by the Democratic presidential candidate. Prince claimed that the Obama administration had suppressed the investigation implicating Clinton using “Stalinist tactics.”

In apparent coordination with Trump’s advisers, Prince had also begun exploring the world of domestic information warfare. In August 2016, according to the New York Times, Prince brokered a meeting at Trump Tower between George Nader, an aide to Zayed, Donald Trump Jr., and Joel Zamel, the owner of Psy-Group, an Israeli private intelligence company that specialized in manipulating elections using social media accounts and untraceable websites. The Trump campaign apparently passed on the offer. Prince already had familiarity with private Israeli intelligence companies through Dorian Barak. Several years earlier, Prince had been offered a financial stake in what was then a fledgling company called Black Cube, run by former Mossad officers. The company gained notoriety during the #MeToo movement when a firm representing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein hired Black Cube to help stop publication of an account of his abuses. Black Cube hired an operative who used false identities to approach actress Rose McGowan, as well as a reporter looking into the multitude of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Weinstein.

Prince declined to invest in Black Cube, but appears to have liked the idea of selling a service that provided undercover operatives. During the 2016 election, he became involved with James O’Keefe and Project Veritas, a group of conservative provocateurs who specialize is using hidden-camera footage and secret recordings. O’Keefe, a protégé of the conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, describes himself as a “guerrilla journalist” and has used undercover cameras in an effort to expose purported liberal bias in political groups and the media. Trump often promoted O’Keefe’s videos and met with O’Keefe just days after he declared his candidacy. (A few weeks before that, Trump had donated $10,000 to Project Veritas through his foundation.) It is unclear if Trump’s support of Project Veritas spurred Prince’s interest in the group, but in late 2015 or early 2016, Prince arranged for O’Keefe and Project Veritas to receive training in intelligence and elicitation techniques from a retired military intelligence operative named Euripides Rubio Jr. According to a former Trump White House official who discussed the Veritas training with Rubio, the former special operative quit after several weeks of training, complaining that the Veritas group wasn’t capable of learning. Rubio did not respond to requests for comment.

“Erik was weaponizing a group that had close ties to the Trump White House.”

In the winter of 2017, Prince arranged for a former British MI6 officer to provide more surveillance and elicitation training for Veritas at his family’s Wyoming ranch, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort. Prince was trying to turn O’Keefe and his group into domestic spies. For his part, O’Keefe posted photos on Instagram and Twitter from the Prince family ranch of himself holding a handgun with a silencer attached and wearing pseudo-military clothing. He described the ranch as a “classified location” where he was learning “spying and self-defense,” in an effort to make Project Veritas “the next great intelligence agency.”

“Erik was weaponizing a group that had close ties to the Trump White House,” said the former White House official familiar with Prince’s relationship with O’Keefe and Project Veritas.

It is unclear how much involvement Prince has with the selection of targets for O’Keefe’s stings and undercover operations, but several months after the organization received training in Wyoming, a Project Veritas operative was exposed by the Washington Post after she posed as a sexual assault victim of Roy Moore, who was then a Senate candidate in Alabama.

After Trump won the election, Prince began sending defense and intelligence policy proposals to the Trump team via Bannon, including his plan for privatizing the war in Afghanistan. The plan called for removing all U.S. troops and replacing them with a small cadre of security trainers, a small fleet of light attack aircraft, and a surge of covert CIA operations. In an attempt to appeal to Trump, Prince tweaked his proposal with a plan to secure mining concessions for Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources, an idea with obvious parallels to his failed efforts in Africa. But the national security establishment was uniformly opposed and it failed to gain traction.

Armed with his beliefs about reshaping the Middle East and Afghanistan, and enjoying his new status as an unofficial adviser to the next U.S. president, Prince was invited back to Mohammed bin Zayed’s royal court.

Prince later testified before the House Intelligence Committee that his invitation was linked directly to Trump’s victory. “I think the Obama administration went out of their way to tarnish my ability to do business in the Middle East, and, with a different administration in town, [the Emiratis] probably figured that that downdraft wasn’t present anymore … so it was not a surprise that the meeting happened. And those are the kind of things we talked about, whether it’s Somalia and terrorism there or Libya, Nigeria, and of course all the places that are even closer to the UAE.”

Meanwhile, Prince’s relationship with Bannon has gone from fellow ideological traveler to business partner. According to a former Trump White House official and the former U.S. official close to the UAE royal family, Prince has teamed up with Bannon to offer a newer version of the armed crop duster to the Emirati air force. The pitch includes Israeli-made avionics and surveillance software for geolocating targets on the ground. Prince and Bannon are also offering a different package to the Emirate’s despised rival, Qatar. According to a former senior U.S. official who reviewed the proposal, Prince is currently hawking proposals for preventing social and political unrest from Qatar’s foreign laborers before and during the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The proposal specifically names Project Veritas as a partner and offers the Qatari government an ability to infiltrate the community of foreign laborers, who make up almost 90 percent of the country’s population of roughly 2.3 million. The pitch is designed to appeal to Qatari fears of a popular uprising and to fend off and neuter political dissent leading up to the soccer tournament. The proposal also offers social media monitoring and messaging — something Bannon would be familiar with from his past work for Cambridge Analytica.

In response to questions from The Intercept, Prince’s spokesperson said, “Mr. Prince supports Project Veritas’s mission of uncovering government largesse and corruption, and has allowed Project Veritas to use his family’s ranch in Wyoming. Mr. Prince has no business relationship with Steve Bannon, James O’Keefe, or Project Veritas, and has never pitched a project with Mr. Bannon to the Qatari or any other government.” Bannon would not comment.

To those who know him best, Prince’s latest proposals suggest that he sees business opportunities in services that are closer to political skullduggery than outright conflict. By marrying the two capabilities — social media manipulation and undercover surveillance by trained operatives — Prince has moved further along the spectrum of contemporary warfare. If a government won’t pay him for a heavily armed paramilitary force in a hot conflict, he appears prepared to offer services that utilize a less obvious, but perhaps more insidious, kind of weaponry.

Given his wealth and political ties, it may be that the Department of Justice will never have the political fortitude to thoroughly investigate Prince for defense brokering and trafficking violations, or to challenge his questionable ties to China’s intelligence service. But he does face legal scrutiny. The FBI is currently probing Prince’s work at Frontier Services Group, with a team assigned from the Washington field office. It is unclear whether the investigation is a continuation of the 2016 probe or stems from the Mueller investigation. Three different congressional committees are also investigating Prince, including his relationship with the Chinese government. The FBI declined to comment and would not confirm the existence of an investigation. Prince’s spokesperson stated that “other than his well-documented cooperation with the Special Counsel’s Office, Mr. Prince has had no interaction, directly or through counsel, with the FBI in years.”

Erik Prince, chairman and executive director of Frontier Services Group Ltd., walks to a closed-door House Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. Prince, best known for running the Blackwater private security firm whose employees were convicted of killing Iraqi citizens, was a presence during Donald Trump's presidential transition and worked in part with Michael Flynn. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Erik Prince walks to a closed-door House Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 2017.

Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Prince’s role in the Trump-Russia affair perfectly encapsulates his latest effort to refashion himself, this time as a self-appointed warrior diplomat. According to the Mueller report, Prince flew to the Seychelles a week before the inauguration, at least in part to meet with Kirill Dmitriev, who was acting as Putin’s emissary and sought a backchannel to the incoming Trump administration. But Prince repeatedly denied in his testimony that he flew to the Seychelles to meet Dmitriev. Prince also failed to disclose that he met with Dmitriev twice during his stay at the Four Seasons.

The Mueller investigation relied on the cooperation and testimony of George Nader, who arranged the meeting at Zayed’s behest. Nader testified that Dmitriev was “not enthusiastic” about meeting Prince. To help sell the meeting, Nader described Prince to Dmitriev as Bannon’s chosen representative for the Kremlin-directed meeting: “this guy [Prince] is designated by Steve [Bannon] to meet you!” Which suggests that Prince presented himself to Nader as an influential member of Trump’s circle. Testimony from both Bannon and Prince cast doubt on whether Prince flew to the Seychelles with Bannon’s knowledge or approval. If Bannon’s testimony is accurate, it’s quite possible that Prince oversold his influence with Trump and Trump’s inner circle to get the meeting with Dmitriev.

Although in his congressional testimony Prince described only a single interaction with Dmitriev at the resort bar, there was an earlier, longer private meeting in Nader’s villa. After the first meeting, Prince learned that an Russian aircraft carrier was moving off the coast of Libya, according to the Mueller report. Prince, who has spent years offering his paramilitary services in Libya, was incensed at the news, calling Nader to demand a second meeting with Dmitriev. Prince told Nader that he’d just checked with his “associates” and needed to convey an important message to Putin’s emissary. Prince told Mueller that he was speaking only for himself, based on his three years as a Navy SEAL. In the second meeting, Prince went off-script and warned Dmitriev that the U.S. could not accept Russian involvement in Libya.

As the report describes Dmitriev’s complaints to Nader after meeting Prince, he expected to meet a member of the Trump team who had more authority and substance: “Dmitriev told Nader that [redacted] Prince’s comments [redacted] were insulting [redacted].” As in so many other episodes involving Prince over the last decade, his involvement in the Trump-Russia political scandal is a result of his relentless ambition, combined with his snake-oil salesmanship and his ability to gain entry to rooms with genuine power, even if it quickly becomes apparent that he doesn’t belong there.

The post How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback appeared first on The Intercept.

How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback

When Erik Prince arrived at the Four Seasons resort in the Seychelles in January 2017 for his now-famous meetings with a Russian banker and UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, he was in the middle of an unexpected comeback. The election of Donald Trump had given the disgraced Blackwater founder a new opportunity to prove himself. After years of trying and failing to peddle a sweeping vision of mercenary warfare around the world, Erik Prince was back in the game.

Zayed had convened a group of close family members and advisers at the luxurious Indian Ocean resort for a grand strategy session in anticipation of the new American administration. On the agenda were discussions of new approaches for dealing with the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the threat of the Islamic State, and the United Arab Emirates’ longstanding rivalry with Iran. Under Zayed’s leadership, the UAE had used its oil wealth to become one of the world’s largest arms purchasers and the third largest importer of U.S. weapons. A new American president meant new opportunities for the tiny Gulf nation to exert its outsized military and economic influence in the Gulf region and beyond.

Prince was no stranger to the Emiratis. He had known Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE, since 2009, when he sold the sheikh on creating an elite counterterrorism unit. That deal ended badly for Prince, but Trump’s election had recalibrated his usefulness. As a prominent Trump supporter and close associate of Steve Bannon, not to mention the brother of incoming cabinet member Betsy DeVos, Prince was invited to the meeting as an unofficial adviser to the incoming administration.

Prince’s meeting with a Putin intimate shortly before Trump’s inauguration has drawn intense interest from Congress, the Mueller investigation, and the press.

When Prince joined the Emirati royals and other government officials on a deck overlooking the Indian Ocean, Zayed made it clear to everyone there that “Erik was his guy,” said a source close to the Emirati rulers, who was briefed by some of those in attendance. Prince, in Zayed’s view, had built and established an elite ground force that Zayed had deployed to wars in Syria and Yemen, the first foreign conflicts in his young country’s history. It was because of Prince, Zayed said, that the Emiratis had no terrorists in their country. Prince had solved their problem with Somali pirates. “He let his court know that they owed Erik a favor,” the source said.

Part of that favor apparently involved facilitating an introduction to Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of an $8 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Prince repeatedly and under oath in testimony to Congress denied that his meeting with Dmitriev had anything to do with the Trump administration, describing it as no more than a chance encounter over a beer.

“We were talking about the endless war and carnage in Iraq and Syria,” Prince told the House Intelligence Committee. “If Franklin Roosevelt can work with Joseph Stalin after the Ukraine terror famine, after killing tens of millions of his own citizens, we can certainly at least cooperate with the Russians in a productive way to defeat the Islamic State.”

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 5, 2017: Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev (C) attends the Russian-Saudi Investment Forum at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow Hotel. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images)

Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev, center, attends the Russian-Saudi Investment Forum at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow Hotel on Oct. 5, 2017.

Photo: Sergei Bobylev/TASS via Getty Images

Although the UAE has been a very good customer of U.S. arms dealers, Zayed had grown frustrated with the Obama administration’s refusal to work with Russia to end the war in Syria. Russia was actively courting the UAE, and from Zayed’s perspective Russia was a key player that couldn’t be ignored, according to a current and a former U.S. intelligence official. Trump’s public infatuation with Putin and his apparent eagerness to improve relations with Russia gave the UAE a chance to play dealmaker and diminish Iran’s position in the Middle East, starting with the war in Syria.

Prince’s 30-minute meeting with a Putin intimate shortly before Trump’s inauguration has drawn intense interest from Congress, the Mueller investigation, and the press. The Mueller report established that the meeting was a pre-arranged attempt to establish a backchannel between Russia and the incoming Trump administration and has led House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department for perjury. Yet the focus on Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has deflected scrutiny from what the meeting reveals about Prince’s unique role in the world of covert services.

Blackwater made Prince an infamous symbol of U.S. foreign policy hubris, but America’s most famous mercenary has moved on. Although he continues to dream of deploying his military services in the world’s failed states, and persists in hawking a crackpot scheme of privatizing the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Prince has diversified his portfolio. No longer satisfied with contracting out former special forces operators to the State Department and Pentagon, Prince is now attempting to offer an entire supply chain of warfare and conflict. He wants to be able to skim a profitable cut from each stage of a hostile operation, whether it be overt or covert, foreign or domestic. His offerings range from the traditional mercenary toolkit, military hardware and manpower, to cellphone surveillance technology and malware, to psychological operations and social media manipulation in partnership with shadowy operations like James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.

This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen of Prince’s former colleagues and peers, as well as court records, emails, and internal documents provided to The Intercept. An examination of Prince’s time working with the UAE in particular reveals suspicious financial transactions at a moment when his personal finances were under stress and his mercenary ventures were failing. The picture that emerges is one of a man desperately trying to avoid U.S. tax and weapons trafficking laws even as he offers military services, without a license, in no fewer than 15 countries around the world.

Prince’s former and current associates describe him as a visionary, a brilliant salesman with remarkable insight into the future of warfare, who is nonetheless so shady and incompetent that he fails at almost every enterprise he attempts. And yet he endures. Prince is thus, in many ways, an emblematic figure for the Trump era.

Suitcases Full of Cash

Prince’s partnership with Zayed got underway, fittingly, with a slapstick moment in early 2010, when two of Prince’s men, a veteran of the Canadian special forces and a Lebanese fixer, were ordered by Emirati security officials to meet at an Abu Dhabi intersection. There, a few government employees helped Prince’s men load the trunk of a Chevy Impala with more than half a dozen carry-on suitcases, most worn and with busted wheels. The two drove back to their hotel, Le Méridian, where they unloaded the bags, returned to their room, and summoned their immediate supervisor, a former Navy SEAL who had known Prince in the military, telling the American that they had a problem. Their new company, Reflex Responses, often called R2 for short, was so new it didn’t yet have a bank account or even an office with a safe.

When the former SEAL entered their hotel room, the contents of the suitcases had been largely removed, much of it dumped onto a bed: bricks of new, sequential $100 bills, in $10,000 stacks, each bound by a green and white band. The three men counted each stack, measuring the height to be sure that they all had 100 $100 bills, until they tallied it all: roughly $13 million. For the first two weeks of the program, the hotel room, always occupied by a security guard or a company employee, served as the Reflex Responses vault. Hotel staff were not allowed to clean the room, and by the time R2 opened a bank account and deposited the money, the room was covered in empty whiskey bottles and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.

Prince had arrived in the UAE at a low moment. The Obama administration had made clear in its first months that it would not welcome new Blackwater contracts. The company had become infamous after Blackwater security contractors shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded dozens more in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. By 2010, Prince had changed Blackwater’s name and sold the company, ceasing to work on any U.S. government contracts. As Prince negotiated a settlement with the Justice Department for a series of Blackwater arms trafficking violations,  then-CIA Director Leon Panetta discovered a secret assassination program involving Blackwater operatives that former Vice President Dick Cheney had hidden from Congress. Prince was bitter, blaming the Obama administration for leaking his CIA role and comparing himself to exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame. Prince couldn’t understand why the American public viewed him as a villain. “He was genuinely upset,” said a former colleague who discussed the public scrutiny of Blackwater. “He kept asking, ‘Why do they hate me?’”

A converted Catholic raised by Christian fundamentalists and the scion of a Midwestern auto-parts fortune would seem to be an unlikely ally to the Muslim crown prince of a tiny, oil-rich Arab kingdom, but from their first meeting in 2009, Prince and Zayed hit it off. Almost immediately it was clear they shared common enemies: Islamic militants and, especially, Iran. Prince was introduced to Zayed after pitching a two-page schematic of a light attack airplane — an agricultural crop duster modified with surveillance and laser-guided munitions — to the Emirati government as the Blackwater sale to a private equity group was being negotiated. When the Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, learned that Prince’s legal problems with the Justice Department would mean that he wouldn’t be able to be involved in building, selling, or brokering armed aircraft, the Emirati government approached another aviation manufacturer to help establish an entire air wing of armored and weaponized crop dusters. In exchange for Prince bowing out of the deal quietly, Otaiba introduced him to Zayed explicitly in order to find another role in which he could assist the UAE government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (known as MBS, not pictured in this photo) receives Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as MBZ) in Jeddah on June 6, 2018. Photo by Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Jeddah on June 6, 2018.

Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa via AP

Zayed was determined to bolster the UAE’s sphere of influence and project power in the Middle East. Despite Prince’s tarnished reputation, Zayed saw in him a glimpse of the future. It didn’t hurt that “Erik could sell you your own hat,” according to one former associate. The former SEAL and self-described CIA “asset” saw in Zayed a willing buyer who shared his desire to play soldier. Prince sold Zayed on the idea of creating a half-billion-dollar program in which he would train, equip, and lead an elite cadre of foreign soldiers called the Security Support Group that would serve as a presidential guard for the Emirati monarchies and help quell any internal unrest. Zayed insisted that Prince use non-Muslim ex-soldiers, according to two senior advisers who helped build the unit, telling him that he did not believe Muslim soldiers could be trusted to kill other Muslims. Eventually, Prince also sold Zayed on the creation of an armed aviation wing, a team to protect the Emirates from a weapons of mass destruction attack, and a separate force to combat Somali piracy.

One indication of both Prince and R2’s growing value to Zayed was that Prince became a favored foreign policy and military adviser, joining Zayed’s inner sanctum. Prince told his colleagues at R2 that Zayed, whom Prince often referred to as “the boss,” gave him ownership of two side-by-side villas in Abu Dhabi, which were originally worth $10 million each. The wealthy enclave was built as a luxury community, each villa with a private beach, and quickly housed several foreign embassies. Prince’s neighboring houses sat at the end of a residential peninsula and had expansive views of central Abu Dhabi across a sea channel, a pool, and beachfront in the Persian Gulf. Prince built a dock for his sailboat, which has a Blackwater logo across the port side.

Despite Prince’s tarnished reputation, Zayed saw in him a glimpse of the future. The former SEAL and self-described CIA “asset” saw in Zayed a willing buyer who shared his desire to play soldier.

The $13 million in the suitcases was an advance on $110 million the UAE gave Prince to get Reflex Responses off the ground. The deal gave Prince and his team a guaranteed 15 percent profit margin on whatever the company spent in addition to salaries. Prince had long tried to own a piece of each part of the foreign conflict supply chain: planes, ships, vehicles, weapons, intelligence, men, and logistics. Reflex Responses gave him a blank check to do just that.

Structurally, Reflex Responses became a model for how Prince masks his involvement in selling or providing military services, which was a necessity given that he’s unlikely to obtain an arms trafficking license under the U.S. State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Officially, Prince was never an R2 employee. He officially worked for a company called Assurance Management Consultants, which shared a floor in an Abu Dhabi office tower with Reflex, where he oversaw the entire military program. It was Prince who hired and installed Reflex’s senior management, according to people directly involved in the effort. And it was Prince who recruited and hired the subcontractors who fulfilled Reflex’s contractual requirements. Prince flew to South America, where he helped oversee the recruitment of former Colombian soldiers who served as both hired guns and a training cadre for the fledgling Emirati security force.

prince-permit-1556169193

Erik Prince’s residency visa for the UAE, showing that he was, at the time, employed by Assurance Management Consultancy. Some personal information has been redacted for privacy.

Photo: Provided to The Intercept

Prince’s approach to management created problems almost immediately, issues that would arise again and again in his various projects. In what would become a pattern, Prince’s American colleagues at Reflex were troubled by his directives about ITAR regulations. Prince argued to his lawyers that because Reflex was an Emirati company, working on an Emirati government contract, he was not required to have an ITAR license from the State Department to sell military services. “We’d tell him, ‘No, that’s not how it works. You’re an American,’” said one of Prince’s former colleagues involved in Reflex Responses. “It was stupid, honestly. There was a way to do it legally and make lots of money, but Erik didn’t care. When Erik wakes up in the morning, Erik does whatever he feels like doing. I always assumed that’s how it is when your father is a billionaire.”

In response to a request for comment, a Prince spokesperson stated: Mr. Prince at all times relied upon the advice of counsel, including both in-house compliance counsel and outside experts, to ensure compliance with ITAR and other laws.”

Prince also hid his financial interest in subcontractors working with R2. Six months into the project, senior executives discovered that Prince had an arrangement with Thor Global, the company that he’d insisted Reflex use to hire the Colombian soldiers. On paper, Thor Global was wholly owned by Robert Owens, a former aide to Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair, but Prince received a substantial amount of the money R2 paid Thor Global, according to court documents and two former Prince colleagues familiar with the arrangement. “I asked Erik if the crown prince knew he was self-dealing,” said one of the former colleagues. “Erik wouldn’t answer.”

Prince had long tried to own a piece of each part of the foreign conflict supply chain: planes, ships, vehicles, weapons, intelligence, men, and logistics. Reflex Responses gave him a blank check to do just that.

Owens’s involvement and connection to North is not incidental. Prince and North are friends, and Prince has told others over the years that he greatly admires the former Marine officer and Reagan National Security Council staffer, who was convicted on three felony counts during the Iran-Contra scandal. (The convictions were reversed in 1991.)

A former colleague said it took him some time to recognize that Prince generally works to control the entire supply chain of any mercenary or security contract. “Everything he does, he skims,” said the former colleague, who has known Prince for two decades and described how Prince generally operates as a military services provider. “He will run a contract through two companies and then dictate that those two companies have to subcontract out to another eight companies. What he doesn’t disclose is that he owns all or part of those eight companies and will take 25 percent from each company. Then, he can use those same eight entities to make the money disappear.”

After Prince’s first team of U.S. executives quit, he brought in another former SEAL and a former CIA officer. That team conducted audits and quickly discovered financial problems. “There was massive embezzlement going on inside R2,” said a third former employee with direct knowledge of the company’s finances. “Overbilling, false billing, missing cash — millions were gone.”

According to four former Reflex employees and consultants, the alleged graft and embezzlement ran through two of Prince’s lieutenants, who handled logistics and administration for R2. The first was a former Blackwater employee who told colleagues at Reflex that he’d done intelligence work in the Middle East for the Pentagon’s intelligence agency. Internal R2 documents list him as the first employee of the company. Several of Prince’s colleagues confronted him about the missing money and his lieutenants’ conduct, but Prince rebuffed any effort to remove them. Contacted by The Intercept for comment, Prince’s lieutenant denied that he had ever embezzled or stolen money and denied ever working for R2. He said that he had worked for Assurance Management and occasionally “consulted” for R2.

Prince did not respond on the record to questions about the financial improprieties.

While money was disappearing from Reflex Responses’s accounts as a result of these financial shenanigans, Somali pirates were engaging in a more traditional form of robbery off the Horn of Africa, harming UAE shipping interests. Prince had a solution: a sea, air, and land battalion to eradicate the pirates. He established a group for this purpose within Reflex Responses known as Special Projects and hired a former South African special forces officer named Lafras Luitingh, who also worked for Executive Outcomes, a private military company comprised mainly of apartheid-era South African soldiers.

Members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force on patrol for pirates near the village of Elayo, Somalia. The Puntland Maritime Police Force is a locally recruited, professional maritime security force. It is primarily aimed at preventing, detecting and eradicating piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activity off of the coast of Somalia, in addition to generally safeguarding the nation's marine resources.In addition, the Force provides logistics support to humanitarian efforts. (Photo by jason florio/Corbis via Getty Images)

Members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force on patrol for pirates near the village of Elayo, Somalia, on Sept. 18, 2011.

Photo: Jason Florio/Corbis via Getty Images

Together, Prince and Luitingh created the Puntland Maritime Police Force in northeastern Somalia, in a semiautonomous region home to the most active Somali pirates. A United Nations monitoring team subsequently documented extensive violations of the U.N. arms embargo of Somalia, including falsifying export paperwork for small arms and attacks that left civilian casualties by Luitingh’s company, Saracen, a subcontractor on the project. The two-year program resulted in “an elite force outside any legal framework … answerable only to the Puntland presidency,” according to a U.N. investigation into the PMPF. Both Prince and the UAE denied involvement, but one source with knowledge of the operation witnessed Emirati intelligence officers providing a suitcase with millions of dollars in $100 bills to Luitingh for his payroll. Citing Prince’s involvement in the police force, the U.N. report said, “This externally financed assistance programme has remained the most brazen violation of the arms embargo by a private security company.”

Although Prince and the UAE’s involvement was meant to be largely clandestine, Prince sought publicity for the program, according to a person with direct knowledge. Prince arranged for a February 2012 Fox News segment from North, then a military analyst for Fox News, who embedded with the PMPF in Puntland and explicitly reported that the UAE was behind the fledgling military unit. The media attention enraged the Emirati government, according to one of Prince’s former colleagues who worked with him at the time, and blamed him for the unwanted publicity.

The program’s lack of legal legitimacy was perhaps the least troubling legacy of Prince’s vision, however. The program shut down shortly after a South African mercenary was murdered by one of the local soldiers hired to fight the pirates during one of the first operations the Puntland force conducted. According to a contemporaneously filmed documentary of the anti-piracy effort, the killer was a relative of a pirate targeted by the unit. The unit had been infiltrated from the beginning, a failure of basic counterintelligence, which a former CIA officer, who was also involved, readily admitted in on-camera interviews. The U.N. would later report “credible” allegations of human rights violations stemming from corporal punishment, which led to severe injuries and a death at the South African-run PMPF camp.

Robert Young Pelton, an author who worked for Prince on the Somalia project and helped write Prince’s autobiography (and recently lost a civil suit against Prince over a contract dispute), said Prince’s efforts were “delusional. He operates with a 12-year-old’s mindset of war. He’s romanticized the South African mercenaries who fought those ugly wars.” Pelton said when Prince first showed him a map with plans for the security force, he realized that Prince had never been to Somalia. Pelton said Prince told him that the idea for an anti-piracy force came from reading “The Pirate Coast,” a book detailing a secret American operation in 1805 to end piracy off the coast of Libya.

As with the Security Support Group, the anti-piracy force suffered from mismanagement. According to two individuals who worked on the program, at least $50 million meant for the anti-piracy force had gone missing by the time the Emirates decided to stop funding the effort. Among the items that were never returned or accounted for were several aircraft, including at least one cargo plane and two helicopters, as well as several ships. Before he was asked by the Emirates to end his involvement in the program, Prince brought in a former intelligence operative to conduct an audit of the PMPF program. The American identified $38 million in cash that the UAE had delivered to Luitingh, for which the former South African mercenaries refused to provide accounting or receipts. “I told Erik, ‘[Luitingh] and the South Africans couldn’t account for $38 million,’” said a former Prince employee. “Erik wasn’t upset at all. He just said, ‘I’m sure they are just saving it for a rainy day.’” Luitingh did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“When Erik wakes up in the morning, Erik does whatever he feels like doing. I always assumed that’s how it is when your father is a billionaire.”

Over a six month period beginning in late 2011, after the New York Times exposed Prince’s involvement with the UAE’s Security Support Group and the deployment of the anti-piracy force, Zayed gradually removed Prince from his multiple projects for the government. The parting of ways came as a result of the unwanted media exposure, U.N. pressure, and ongoing financial audits. The UAE shut down Reflex Responses and rolled what they wanted to keep into new companies with new management.

As his private military ventures with the UAE stumbled, Prince shifted to private equity, establishing an investment fund focused on African natural resources called Frontier Resource Group. But Prince’s income dried up after the UAE stopped funding him and he began having cash-flow problems. One of his personal bankers grew alarmed as Prince cashed out Treasury bonds to fund Frontier Resource. According to tax, banking, and internal business documents obtained by The Intercept, Prince at the time was worth less than $100 million, and much of his wealth was tied up in real estate and fixed-income investments. One of Prince’s creditors, Michigan’s Huntington Bank, refused a request for a $6 million increase on a $17.5 million line of credit, according to emails and other documents obtained by The Intercept. In turning Prince down, the bank reduced his line of credit by $2.5 million.

In late 2011, the Emirati government asked one of Prince’s former colleagues, Reno Alberto, if he would take over Prince’s aviation contract. Alberto was a former Navy SEAL who Prince originally hired to help save the Reflex Responses project. An Emirati general offered Alberto the job on two conditions: Reflex Responses needed to be shuttered so that a new corporate entity could take its place, and Prince could not be involved. Alberto agreed and created a new, temporary holding company called Vulcan Management. Vulcan would take the roughly $100 million resulting from the liquidation of R2 and hold it until a new entity could be established to create a wing of armed helicopters for the UAE air force.

Prince soon came calling on Alberto, however, claiming that a portion of the roughly $100 million left over from Reflex Responses was his and that any future contract for Alberto was a consequence of Prince’s efforts and therefore should result in him receiving a percentage. Prince claimed repeatedly to Alberto that Zayed had directed that some of the leftover R2 funding be paid to him. Prince and his business adviser Dorian Barak arranged to structure the payout as a loan from Alberto’s Vulcan Management to one of Prince’s holding companies in Bermuda. Barak, on behalf of Prince, requested that the loan be divided into 10 transactions, which Prince could then call on Vulcan to pay out as needed. Prince told several other colleagues that he felt he was owed upwards of $40 million for his effort in getting Zayed to create the SSG and establish R2. Alberto, who stood to make millions in his new venture, reluctantly agreed to pay his former boss through a loan.

On July 26, 2012, Barak emailed Prince, informing him that a wire transfer of approximately $5.9 million was sent by Vulcan, according to an email obtained by The Intercept. The money was wired to Prince’s Frontier Resource bank account in Abu Dhabi.

“That was fast. Well done,” Prince responded.

email-redact-1556654073

An email exchange between Dorian Barak and Erik Prince in July 2012. Some personal information has been redacted for privacy.

Screenshot: The Intercept

Prince pitched Frontier Resource to potential investors as a $500 million private equity fund. Fund documents state that Prince would provide 10 percent of the funding. In late 2011 and early 2012, as FRG tried to get off the ground, Prince had soft commitments from investors in the UAE, including Zayed’s brother Tahnoon bin Zayed, the Emirati national security adviser. But by the time he’d taken his first draw of the Vulcan loan, Prince was toxic, and the outside financial commitments had withered and disappeared. Sheikh Tahnoon, however, appears to have invested at least $5 million, according to internal Frontier Resource documents provided to The Intercept.

Then, in October 2012, Prince directed Alberto and Vulcan to make a second wire transfer. This one, however, was not sent to Prince or his companies. According to documents reviewed by The Intercept, and confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of the transaction, more than $9 million was wired to Zafra Group, the company Sheikh Tahnoon had originally created to invest in Prince’s Frontier Resource. It is unclear why Prince wanted the Vulcan money routed to Zafra Group, but he told Vulcan that the payment had been ordered by “the boss,” according to the person with direct knowledge of the transaction. In effect, Prince had steered UAE government money meant for an armed helicopter wing to one his fund’s investors, a senior member of the Emirati royal family.

When Prince asked for $10 million in the third installment, Alberto refused and subsequently told Prince that no more installments would be paid. According to a person with knowledge of the dispute, Alberto learned that no one in the Emirati royal family had ordered the payments to Prince.

The loan to Prince, which has not been previously reported, was not repaid to Vulcan, and the entire $15 million was written off as a loss by the company in subsequent years, according to a person with direct knowledge of the transaction. Prince did report the $5.9 million payment as a loan on his personal tax returns that year.

The Intercept sent Prince a detailed list of questions for this article. In response, a Prince spokesperson stated that “Vulcan Management’s loan, which was made in connection with FRG’s investment activity, was at all times fully disclosed to both FRG’s auditors and the IRS.” Prince would not comment for the record about the circumstances of the loan, or why he directed the $9 million payment to Zafra.

prince-china-meeting-1556168475

Erik Prince, center, in one of his first meetings in China with Chinese investors for Frontier Services Group in 2013. At the far right is Johnson Ko, a Hong Kong tycoon.

Photo: Obtained by The Intercept

A New Frontier

Over the next several years, as his speculations in African natural resources turned into losers time and again, Prince looked to China for new funds, creating Frontier Services Group with an investment banker and former Marine named Gregg Smith. For Smith, the business model seemed simple enough: Frontier Resource would find undervalued, distressed assets, and Frontier Services would transport the materials out of Africa. Smith says he saw the potential of a logistics company to move freight and natural resources across Africa, where the Chinese were increasingly active. “We wanted to start a straightforward logistics company,” Smith said recently. “Trucks and planes and that’s it.”

Prince had other ideas, as did some Chinese investors, who made it clear that they wanted a “Blackwater China.” Although Frontier Services attracted a $110 million investment from a Hong Kong tycoon named Johnson Ko and the China International Trust Investment Corporation, a state-owned investment company, Prince’s investment fund lost money, and several projects ended in a total loss, according to three people with knowledge of Prince’s investment portfolio. Instead, Prince would end up directing FSG to purchase companies that Prince had a financial interest in — as well as services from such companies — in an effort to salvage his private-equity fund’s investment. In total, according to documents, FSG spent $8.5 million on Prince-connected businesses. And as he had with Thor Global and Reflex Responses, Prince failed to disclose his financial interest to the FSG board prior to most of the transactions. The board eventually passed a resolution prohibiting undisclosed self-dealing.

For two years, beginning in 2013, while Frontier Services executives ran a legitimate logistics and aviation company, Prince was traveling around Africa pitching paramilitary services under the Frontier Services banner. As reported by The Intercept, Prince proposed creating counterterrorism forces, a private air force, and a “black ops” program for Nigeria to defeat Boko Haram. He made a similar pitch to President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan to help him defeat rebels there. There were meetings and proposals for Libya, Cameroon, and Kurdish Iraq, none of which found a buyer. Although Prince failed to sell an entire paramilitary force, he did make money across the continent and the Middle East “advising” countries on how to fight wars. According to one of his closest colleagues, over a roughly five-year period, including his time as chair of the board of FSG, Prince earned as much as $10 million from his meetings. Prince’s efforts were nothing if not ambitious. “Erik was trying to create a private JSOC,” said a former senior military officer who discussed many of Prince’s ideas with him. Since he left Blackwater, Prince has sold or pitched his war supply chain in no fewer than 15 countries, nearly all of them with majority Muslim populations.

Since he left Blackwater, Prince has sold or pitched his war supply chain in no fewer than 15 countries, nearly all of them in countries with majority Muslim populations.

Prince tried to hawk surveillance products and services as well. In 2014, he demonstrated for some of his Frontier Services colleagues cellphone geolocation software that he said he had licensed from an Israeli company. At a strip mall diner in Washington, D.C., Prince pulled out a laptop and punched in a cellphone number. The program identified the most recent cell tower the phone had connected with, allowing the user to locate the target within 300 meters and revealing the last 10 calls the targeted user made. Prince, according to one person who discussed the software with him, believed his time at Frontier Services had “cleaned” his image up with the U.S. government enough that he approached both the CIA and the Pentagon, offering to run the software in counterterrorism operations. He was rebuffed. Later, he and one of his deputies claimed that they sold the program to the Saudi and Emirati air forces to locate bombing targets in Yemen.

In 2015, Prince became involved in the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan spent hundreds of millions of dollars equipping and training their small military. Prince was brought in by a former Russian weapons supplier to help create a training force. Prince would ultimately be kicked off the contract after his business partners accused him of wildly padding the proposed contract by adding a series of unnecessary expenditures that would have been provided by companies to which Prince had financial ties. In an effort to smooth over Prince’s anger at being fired, the Russian weapons supplier offered him $5 million, according to three people with direct knowledge of the offer. Prince agreed to take the money but insisted the payment be made through a complex series of loans between companies that Barak would set up. When his Russian colleague refused the terms and offered a simple check made out to Prince for the total amount, Prince walked away from the deal, according to a person with direct knowledge of the incident.

In response to questions from The Intercept, a Prince spokesperson stated: “FSG contemplated a logistics, construction, and aviation support project in Azerbaijan, but neither FSG nor Erik Prince ever moved forward with it, and neither FSG nor Mr. Prince was ever offered money to abandon the project.”

As The Intercept has reported previously, when Frontier Services Group discovered that Prince had secretly modified two crop dusters to be used as light attack aircraft, and had used an Austrian company he’d secretly purchased a stake in, FSG hired the law firm King & Spalding to conduct an investigation to determine whether Prince had violated arms trafficking laws. (Prince attempted to sell the two weaponized aircraft to Azerbaijan as part of their buildup — another potential violation of ITAR). The attorneys, supervised by current FBI Director Christopher Wray, concluded that Prince had likely violated U.S. law in his effort to sell the crop dusters. In 2016, FSG disclosed the ITAR violations to the Justice Department, which opened an investigation.

Then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cybersecurity at the White House on Jan. 31, 2017.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

The Rise of Trump

Although Prince’s turn in Africa as a mercenary was a bust, he was somewhat successful at recasting himself as a globetrotting businessman through Frontier Services Group. The 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump now promised a full-scale rehabilitation. The potential for a Republican administration would be an opportunity for new U.S. government contracts and, possibly, something even more lucrative. After Trump had clinched the Republican nomination, Prince told his Chinese business and government contacts that if Trump won, he would be the next secretary of defense.

Prince’s family has a history of supporting right-wing and conservative causes. Edgar Prince, Erik’s father, was a major financial contributor to former President Gerald Ford, and in recent years, the family has supported Mike Pence, first as a member of Congress and later as Indiana governor. While in Congress, Pence helped Prince navigate Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the killing of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah in 2004. Prince became an enthusiastic Trump supporter. By Election Day, Prince had donated $250,000 to Trump’s 2016 election effort.

During the campaign, Prince solidified his relationship with Steve Bannon, appearing on his Breitbart radio show on SiriusXM less than a month before Bannon formally joined the Trump campaign. Four days before the 2016 election, Prince went on Bannon’s show and smeared Hillary Clinton, claiming without evidence that a New York City police investigation into former Rep. Anthony Weiner had uncovered extensive criminal activity by the Democratic presidential candidate. Prince claimed that the Obama administration had suppressed the investigation implicating Clinton using “Stalinist tactics.”

In apparent coordination with Trump’s advisers, Prince had also begun exploring the world of domestic information warfare. In August 2016, according to the New York Times, Prince brokered a meeting at Trump Tower between George Nader, an aide to Zayed, Donald Trump Jr., and Joel Zamel, the owner of Psy-Group, an Israeli private intelligence company that specialized in manipulating elections using social media accounts and untraceable websites. The Trump campaign apparently passed on the offer. Prince already had familiarity with private Israeli intelligence companies through Dorian Barak. Several years earlier, Prince had been offered a financial stake in what was then a fledgling company called Black Cube, run by former Mossad officers. The company gained notoriety during the #MeToo movement when a firm representing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein hired Black Cube to help stop publication of an account of his abuses. Black Cube hired an operative who used false identities to approach actress Rose McGowan, as well as a reporter looking into the multitude of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Weinstein.

Prince declined to invest in Black Cube, but appears to have liked the idea of selling a service that provided undercover operatives. During the 2016 election, he became involved with James O’Keefe and Project Veritas, a group of conservative provocateurs who specialize is using hidden-camera footage and secret recordings. O’Keefe, a protégé of the conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, describes himself as a “guerrilla journalist” and has used undercover cameras in an effort to expose purported liberal bias in political groups and the media. Trump often promoted O’Keefe’s videos and met with O’Keefe just days after he declared his candidacy. (A few weeks before that, Trump had donated $10,000 to Project Veritas through his foundation.) It is unclear if Trump’s support of Project Veritas spurred Prince’s interest in the group, but in late 2015 or early 2016, Prince arranged for O’Keefe and Project Veritas to receive training in intelligence and elicitation techniques from a retired military intelligence operative named Euripides Rubio Jr. According to a former Trump White House official who discussed the Veritas training with Rubio, the former special operative quit after several weeks of training, complaining that the Veritas group wasn’t capable of learning. Rubio did not respond to requests for comment.

“Erik was weaponizing a group that had close ties to the Trump White House.”

In the winter of 2017, Prince arranged for a former British MI6 officer to provide more surveillance and elicitation training for Veritas at his family’s Wyoming ranch, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort. Prince was trying to turn O’Keefe and his group into domestic spies. For his part, O’Keefe posted photos on Instagram and Twitter from the Prince family ranch of himself holding a handgun with a silencer attached and wearing pseudo-military clothing. He described the ranch as a “classified location” where he was learning “spying and self-defense,” in an effort to make Project Veritas “the next great intelligence agency.”

“Erik was weaponizing a group that had close ties to the Trump White House,” said the former White House official familiar with Prince’s relationship with O’Keefe and Project Veritas.

It is unclear how much involvement Prince has with the selection of targets for O’Keefe’s stings and undercover operations, but several months after the organization received training in Wyoming, a Project Veritas operative was exposed by the Washington Post after she posed as a sexual assault victim of Roy Moore, who was then a Senate candidate in Alabama.

After Trump won the election, Prince began sending defense and intelligence policy proposals to the Trump team via Bannon, including his plan for privatizing the war in Afghanistan. The plan called for removing all U.S. troops and replacing them with a small cadre of security trainers, a small fleet of light attack aircraft, and a surge of covert CIA operations. In an attempt to appeal to Trump, Prince tweaked his proposal with a plan to secure mining concessions for Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources, an idea with obvious parallels to his failed efforts in Africa. But the national security establishment was uniformly opposed and it failed to gain traction.

Armed with his beliefs about reshaping the Middle East and Afghanistan, and enjoying his new status as an unofficial adviser to the next U.S. president, Prince was invited back to Mohammed bin Zayed’s royal court.

Prince later testified before the House Intelligence Committee that his invitation was linked directly to Trump’s victory. “I think the Obama administration went out of their way to tarnish my ability to do business in the Middle East, and, with a different administration in town, [the Emiratis] probably figured that that downdraft wasn’t present anymore … so it was not a surprise that the meeting happened. And those are the kind of things we talked about, whether it’s Somalia and terrorism there or Libya, Nigeria, and of course all the places that are even closer to the UAE.”

Meanwhile, Prince’s relationship with Bannon has gone from fellow ideological traveler to business partner. According to a former Trump White House official and the former U.S. official close to the UAE royal family, Prince has teamed up with Bannon to offer a newer version of the armed crop duster to the Emirati air force. The pitch includes Israeli-made avionics and surveillance software for geolocating targets on the ground. Prince and Bannon are also offering a different package to the Emirate’s despised rival, Qatar. According to a former senior U.S. official who reviewed the proposal, Prince is currently hawking proposals for preventing social and political unrest from Qatar’s foreign laborers before and during the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The proposal specifically names Project Veritas as a partner and offers the Qatari government an ability to infiltrate the community of foreign laborers, who make up almost 90 percent of the country’s population of roughly 2.3 million. The pitch is designed to appeal to Qatari fears of a popular uprising and to fend off and neuter political dissent leading up to the soccer tournament. The proposal also offers social media monitoring and messaging — something Bannon would be familiar with from his past work for Cambridge Analytica.

In response to questions from The Intercept, Prince’s spokesperson said, “Mr. Prince supports Project Veritas’s mission of uncovering government largesse and corruption, and has allowed Project Veritas to use his family’s ranch in Wyoming. Mr. Prince has no business relationship with Steve Bannon, James O’Keefe, or Project Veritas, and has never pitched a project with Mr. Bannon to the Qatari or any other government.” Bannon would not comment.

To those who know him best, Prince’s latest proposals suggest that he sees business opportunities in services that are closer to political skullduggery than outright conflict. By marrying the two capabilities — social media manipulation and undercover surveillance by trained operatives — Prince has moved further along the spectrum of contemporary warfare. If a government won’t pay him for a heavily armed paramilitary force in a hot conflict, he appears prepared to offer services that utilize a less obvious, but perhaps more insidious, kind of weaponry.

Given his wealth and political ties, it may be that the Department of Justice will never have the political fortitude to thoroughly investigate Prince for defense brokering and trafficking violations, or to challenge his questionable ties to China’s intelligence service. But he does face legal scrutiny. The FBI is currently probing Prince’s work at Frontier Services Group, with a team assigned from the Washington field office. It is unclear whether the investigation is a continuation of the 2016 probe or stems from the Mueller investigation. Three different congressional committees are also investigating Prince, including his relationship with the Chinese government. The FBI declined to comment and would not confirm the existence of an investigation. Prince’s spokesperson stated that “other than his well-documented cooperation with the Special Counsel’s Office, Mr. Prince has had no interaction, directly or through counsel, with the FBI in years.”

Erik Prince, chairman and executive director of Frontier Services Group Ltd., walks to a closed-door House Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. Prince, best known for running the Blackwater private security firm whose employees were convicted of killing Iraqi citizens, was a presence during Donald Trump's presidential transition and worked in part with Michael Flynn. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Erik Prince walks to a closed-door House Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 2017.

Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Prince’s role in the Trump-Russia affair perfectly encapsulates his latest effort to refashion himself, this time as a self-appointed warrior diplomat. According to the Mueller report, Prince flew to the Seychelles a week before the inauguration, at least in part to meet with Kirill Dmitriev, who was acting as Putin’s emissary and sought a backchannel to the incoming Trump administration. But Prince repeatedly denied in his testimony that he flew to the Seychelles to meet Dmitriev. Prince also failed to disclose that he met with Dmitriev twice during his stay at the Four Seasons.

The Mueller investigation relied on the cooperation and testimony of George Nader, who arranged the meeting at Zayed’s behest. Nader testified that Dmitriev was “not enthusiastic” about meeting Prince. To help sell the meeting, Nader described Prince to Dmitriev as Bannon’s chosen representative for the Kremlin-directed meeting: “this guy [Prince] is designated by Steve [Bannon] to meet you!” Which suggests that Prince presented himself to Nader as an influential member of Trump’s circle. Testimony from both Bannon and Prince cast doubt on whether Prince flew to the Seychelles with Bannon’s knowledge or approval. If Bannon’s testimony is accurate, it’s quite possible that Prince oversold his influence with Trump and Trump’s inner circle to get the meeting with Dmitriev.

Although in his congressional testimony Prince described only a single interaction with Dmitriev at the resort bar, there was an earlier, longer private meeting in Nader’s villa. After the first meeting, Prince learned that an Russian aircraft carrier was moving off the coast of Libya, according to the Mueller report. Prince, who has spent years offering his paramilitary services in Libya, was incensed at the news, calling Nader to demand a second meeting with Dmitriev. Prince told Nader that he’d just checked with his “associates” and needed to convey an important message to Putin’s emissary. Prince told Mueller that he was speaking only for himself, based on his three years as a Navy SEAL. In the second meeting, Prince went off-script and warned Dmitriev that the U.S. could not accept Russian involvement in Libya.

As the report describes Dmitriev’s complaints to Nader after meeting Prince, he expected to meet a member of the Trump team who had more authority and substance: “Dmitriev told Nader that [redacted] Prince’s comments [redacted] were insulting [redacted].” As in so many other episodes involving Prince over the last decade, his involvement in the Trump-Russia political scandal is a result of his relentless ambition, combined with his snake-oil salesmanship and his ability to gain entry to rooms with genuine power, even if it quickly becomes apparent that he doesn’t belong there.

The post How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback appeared first on The Intercept.

GOP Lawmaker Gave Pro-War Speech on Yemen — by Reading Saudi Lobbyist’s Talking Points Verbatim

Rep. Ed Royce, a senior Republican who, at the time, chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a speech on the House floor in November 2017 imploring his fellow lawmakers to maintain support for the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen. Royce warned that foreign adversaries — namely, Iran — could gain a foothold in Yemen through the Houthi rebels.

“Part of the problem here is the leaders of the Houthi militia were indoctrinated in Qom, in Iran, as part of an Iranian attempt to construct a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen,” warned Royce, suggesting that the rebels in Yemen were merely Iranian cutouts, something experts dispute.

The inflammatory line had been scripted by a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia — like much of Royce’s impassioned speech.

The inflammatory line had been scripted by a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia — like much of Royce’s impassioned speech. “During the 1990s, the leaders of the Houthi militia were indoctrinated in the Iranian city of Qom as part of an Iranian attempt to construct a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen,” says a set of lobbyist talking points obtained by The Intercept.

Royce had received talking points earlier that day from a lobbyist retained by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, according to federal disclosure forms obtained by The Intercept, in order to undermine congressional opposition to the Yemen war.

Now, that congressional opposition is coming to a head. On Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to attempt to override President Donald Trump’s veto of the War Powers Act resolution calling for an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its chief ally in the war, the United Arab Emirates, have spent tens of millions of dollars to maintain continued military support from policymakers in Washington, D.C. The lobby money is spent on an array of influence-peddling tactics — some of which have been disclosed, but many of which are carried out behind closed doors.

The talking points provided to Royce are among the many hidden ways in which Saudi money has quietly influenced the debate.

“The fact that Rep. Royce is repeating word for word talking points from wealthy law firm Hogan Lovells, not his own unique thought and hearing what his constituents have to say, speaks to the very stifling our democracy suffers from,” said Heather Purcell, a spokesperson for Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who introduced the bill Royce was speaking against.

On November 13, 2017, Khanna and a bipartisan group of lawmakers began the debate to invoke the War Powers Act to bring an end to U.S. military support for the war. Disclosures show that Saudi’s lobbying apparatus moved swiftly into action.

Elizabeth Gore, a Democratic lobbyist retained by the Saudi government, contacted the offices of House Foreign Affairs ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second most powerful Democrat in the House, to discuss the resolution.

That same day, on the Republican side, Ari Fridman, a lobbyist with the law firm Hogan Lovells, which has long represented the Saudi government, emailed Republican staffers with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Gore and Fridman did not respond to requests for comment.)

“On behalf of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, please see the attached fact sheet in advance of today’s floor debate on H.Res. 599, Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives with respect to United State’s policy towards Yemen, and for other purposes,” wrote Fridman.

The attached set of talking points suggested lines of attack to defeat the Khanna resolution. “The Gentleman from California (Rep. Ro Khanna) has stated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are de facto allies of AQAP,” reads one of the bulleted statements on the document, referring to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. “This is absolutely false.” But independent reports closely back up Khanna’s argument. The Associated Press, in a major investigation last year, found that Saudi Arabia’s military had negotiated secret payouts to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and had even gone as far to recruit Al Qaeda fighters into its coalition against the Houthis.

An excerpt of talking points, sent from a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia to then-Rep. Ed Royce, which the California Republican read nearly word for word on the House floor.

The lobbyist document lists ways in which to portray the rebel Houthi movement as puppets of Iran, with warnings that any military drawback would facilitate the expansion of dangerous extremist groups.

Later that afternoon, Khanna took the floor to defend his legislation. Royce, then chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, presided over the podium across the aisle to oppose him.

The video from the debate shows Royce recycling many of the lobbyist-provided talking points verbatim during his remarks. (Royce did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.)

“Mr. Speaker, part of the complexity here in this tragedy is that Iran does want to turn the Houthis into a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, thereby turning Yemen into a second Lebanon, where a militia is constantly holding the government hostage,” intoned Royce.

The talking points declare: “Iran wants to turn the Houthis into a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, thereby turning Yemen into a second Lebanon, where a militia is constantly holding the government hostage.”

The Houthis, Royce continued, “are a minority in Yemen, but Iran uses them to exploit divisions between Yemeni society,” a nearly word-for-word repetition of the talking points that read, “The Houthis are a minority in Yemen, and Iran uses them to exploit divisions within Yemen’s society.”

At another point, Royce said that “the Houthis’ slogan is derived from Iran’s own anti-U.S. slogans,” perfectly repeating the very same phrase from the Saudi lobbyist talking points.

The verbatim repetition goes on for several minutes.

The talking points from the Saudi lobbyist were disclosed to the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Foreign lobbyists are required to disclose their communications to Congress, though few have followed the letter of the law until a recent crackdown on FARA enforcement.

While slick talking points about Iranian influence may serve as an effective way for the lobbyists to mobilize political support for a war that has killed tens of thousands and placed over 230,000 at risk of famine, they hardly paint an accurate picture of the conflict.

Saudi Arabia has carefully exploited U.S. and Israeli fears of Iranian power in conflicts around the region. Experts, however, have questioned the degree to which Tehran has shaped the war in Yemen and its ties to Houthi militants.

While political and military leaders in Iran have vocally supported the Houthi rebellion against Yemen’s government, critics challenge the extent to which the rebels rely on financial or military support from Iranian operatives as alleged by Saudi Arabia.

The Atlantic Council, which typically takes a relatively hawkish line on foreign policy, noted in a 2017 report that more “recent evidence from interviews with Houthis suggests that Iran does not enjoy command and control over them,” citing several instances in which Houthi leaders ignored demands from Iran. The think tank added that while Houthis “generally admitted to some limited Iranian backing,” alleged flights connecting the two countries to bring weapons and advisers to the region “never materialized as the war broke out in earnest, putting the airport out of action.”

The Houthi rebellion, however, displaced the previous Saudi-backed government, a turn of events that provoked Saudi Arabia and the UAE to lead a brutal aerial bombardment of the country and a naval blockade of the country’s ports since 2015. For much of the conflict, the U.S. government has provided logistical support, training, and mid-air refueling for coalition warplanes.

Recently leaked documents show that the war has continued in large part through the ongoing weapons transfers from Western military powers, which provide vital munitions and parts needed to maintain the conflict. The vast Saudi spending on military arms comes as the nation has continued to pour money into its lobbying apparatus. As The Intercept previously reported, Saudi Arabia embraced a new surge of lobbying efforts to shape the Trump administration over the last two and a half years, employing as many as 145 registered lobbyists.

Royce, for his part, retired from the House in January. Just weeks after leaving Congress, he joined the lobbying division of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law firm currently on a $125,000 per month retainer with Saudi Arabia. The law firm lobbies on a range of issues, but recent disclosures show that Brownstein does work to maintain congressional support for the war in Yemen.

The post GOP Lawmaker Gave Pro-War Speech on Yemen — by Reading Saudi Lobbyist’s Talking Points Verbatim appeared first on The Intercept.