Donald Trump’s “Russian Thing”, Syria’s “de-escalation zones”, China’s One Belt One Road initiative, North Korea and the WannaCry ransomware attack By Hamish McDonald.

Widespread dismay at Trump intelligence

An image of Donald Trump on a television inside the White House, shortly after reports the president divulged classified information to Russian dignitaries.
An image of Donald Trump on a television inside the White House, shortly after reports the president divulged classified information to Russian dignitaries.
Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Where to begin with Donald Trump? To every scandal he comes back with two scoops more. The latest is that in talks with the Russians, he’s potentially blown the cover of an Israeli agent somewhere in Daesh territory in Syria, and been exposed asking the FBI to call off its investigation into links between a former staffer and Russia.

When we left off last week, Trump had just sacked the FBI director James Comey. The first story was that it was over Comey’s handling of inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server when secretary of state. That was implausible enough, given Comey’s actions helped the election of Trump, who praised his “guts” at the time.

That story didn’t last. Trump was soon tweeting that it was over the “Russian thing”, which was all fake news. We learnt Trump had asked Comey for his “loyalty”, which the FBI director properly didn’t pledge. This week it’s come out Trump asked Comey to call off the dogs from Mike Flynn, his disgraced first national security adviser at severe risk of criminal charges for undisclosed links with Russia and Turkey. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s reported record of a meeting in February. To some legal experts, such as Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, this is grounds for impeachment. “To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of ‘obstruction of justice’ is to empty that concept of all meaning,” Tribe wrote.

The intelligence leak came at Trump’s May 10 meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the day after he fired Comey. He told them about intelligence from Israel, derived from a town under Daesh control, about the terrorist movement’s efforts to conceal bombs in laptop computers – a warning that has led the US and Britain, and possibly soon Australia, to ban laptops from flights originating in several Middle Eastern countries.

Trump’s new national security adviser, General H. R. McMaster, was brought out to state the president hadn’t disclosed “sources and methods”, but the US intelligence community is hopping mad, as presumably is Mossad in Israel, where Trump will visit in coming days.

The POTUS shrugged it off. He had an “absolute right” to reveal what he liked. But the stink got so bad his deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, announced the appointment of Robert Mueller, the FBI director for 12 years under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as a special counsel to investigate the Trump circle’s Russian ties. If not impeachment, unlikely from a Republican-held congress, a 25th amendment dismissal on grounds of mental incapacity is the other path to a Trump exit – if he doesn’t tell Washington “You’re fired!” and take himself off.

Kurds under fire

Syria is messy enough without Trump blowing intelligence assets, and it may be getting messier as Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad regime work on “de-escalation zones” in Syria’s north for which Bashar al-Assad himself wants to supervise arrangements, even though the zones are supposed to protect civilians from his barrel bombs and sarin gas attacks.

Russia is reported to have sent 1000 of its brutal Chechen militias into Syria to join the fight against Assad’s opposition. Turkey’s air force attacked the Syrian Kurds known as the YPG, which the US regards as the most effective force in prising Daesh out of its proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqa. American special forces helping the YPG were potentially victims. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Trump this week, and warned him against the US plan to supply the YPG with heavy weapons, on the grounds they could later get into the hands of the Turkish Kurds, the PKK, who are at war with Ankara.

According to the US State Department, satellite pictures showed a high-capacity crematorium has been built by the Assad government at Sednaya military prison near Damascus to dispose of the bodies of prisoners being executed there at a fast rate.

China loosens belt

Xi Jinping hosted a forum in Beijing on Monday about his One Belt One Road initiative, on which he plans to splash more than a trillion US dollars building railways and ports between China and Europe.

There were 28 heads of government and many other representatives including Australian trade minister Steve Ciobo there, and why not? If the Chinese are prepared to spend about $150 billion a year on projects with the 68 countries that have signed up to OBOR, there’s money for the taking, and Beijing is not known for strict cost–benefit analysis or efforts to get its loans repaid.

The “one belt” side of the scheme, which envisages thousands of trains trundling across the Eurasian landmass, has the downside of transiting the Central Asian “stans” that are already sending recruits to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Xi is not winning hearts and minds in his own Xinjiang region, the former East Turkestan, where authorities have recently barred the local Uygurs from growing long beards and naming their kids after Muhammad.

Hack and Kim

Kim Jong-un’s status as all-time evil genius was climbing up the charts this week as suspicion grew that his regime’s hackers were behind the WannaCry ransomware, which locked up computers across the globe unless their owners transferred $US300 in the untraceable Bitcoin currency to have their files unlocked.

The cybersecurity companies Symantec and Kaspersky Lab identified that some codes in an earlier version of WannaCry were used in software from hackers called the Lazarus Group, run by North Korea. This group had earlier got into South Korean media and banking websites, stolen $US81 million from the Bangladesh foreign reserves, and hacked open the Sony Pictures archive in retaliation for spoof movie The Interview, about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

However, the basic tool for the WannaCry computer worm was written by the US National Security Agency to exploit weaknesses it had found in Windows software. A group of hackers called the Shadow Brokers leaked this NSA program, called EternalBlue, in April. It was then turned into the WannaCry attack, which gets into one computer via a phishing email attachment, then spreads as a worm through networks into many others. Once it knew of the leak, the NSA notified Microsoft, which put out a patch to protect its older software such as Windows XP. But this protection was not taken up in time, and many large systems, such as Britain’s National Health Service, were immobilised.

The attack has raised tensions between the IT industry, which wants to be notified promptly of any vulnerability, and intelligence agencies, who want to keep open “back doors” into target systems. “This attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith. “The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call.”

Kim meanwhile looks to have assumed that Trump is all talk about pre-emptive strikes on his missile and nuclear programs, and that China is playing Trump along with hints of punitive sanctions against the North Koreans. He fired off a new type of medium-range missile on Monday in what US experts think was a test of a warhead’s ability to withstand re-entry to the atmosphere. His government said it was “capable of carrying a large, heavy nuclear warhead”. It was a strange way to greet the election six days earlier of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s new president. Moon wants to open talks with Kim.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Widespread dismay at Trump intelligence".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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