Monday, January 20, 2020

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How Saudi Arabia infiltrated Twitter with bribes and bling

A 26-page complaint filed in a California court details how two employees exchanged user data for money and influence.
Late last October, FBI Agent Letitia Wu stood inside the newly built Seattle home of Ahmad Abouammo.
Three years earlier, according to a complaint filed in a US District Court in California this week, US citizen Abouammo had used his position at Twitter to spy on Saudi dissidents on behalf of a Saudi royal court official.
For his efforts, he had received a $20,000 gold watch and at least $300,000 from the official, sometimes channelled through a relative’s Lebanese bank account, parsed out in transferred dribbles and used as a down payment on this new home.
Now Abouammo was telling Agent Wu that, well yes, he had looked up the details of a Saudi Twitter user - named in the complaint as ‘User I’ and identified by the Washington Post as Mujtahidd, an anonymous Twitter user known for posting Saudi scoops. But he had only received $100,000 for his consultations, and the watch? It was “plasticky”, “junky” and worth $500, he told her.
Agent Wu wasn’t buying it. Abouammo showed her a photo of a $100,000 wire transfer receipt, sent from the official, to prove what he was saying, but then, she testifies in the complaint, deleted it immediately from his phone - while she watched.
The watch story was also a fraud. It wasn’t a “Halo”, as Abouammo claimed, but a Hublot Unico Big Bang King that records obtained by the FBI showed he had tried to hawk on Craigslist for $35,000.
But perhaps the killer moment was when Abouammo offered to get Agent Wu invoices showing another $100,000 he had been paid once he left Twitter to help the same official. He went to his bedroom, telling her not to follow him and, Wu believes, created the invoice and emailed it there and then to the FBI, who could see, from its metadata, it had been made that very day.
This is just one episode laid out in the 26-page complaint filed against Abouammo and two Saudi citizens, Ahmed al-Mutairi and Ali Alzabarah, that has raised concerns over the degree to which Twitter protects user data and has also shed light on the early days of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power.

'Deleting evil'

The details paint a picture of Abouammo, who worked as a media partnerships manager at Twitter, and Alzabarah, one of the company's site engineers, as a pliant duo, willing to share potentially devastating information about dissidents and others with the Saudi government in exchange for money, favours and influence, managed by royal insiders equally as obsequious.
Abouammo told the Saudi official through a Twitter direct message that "proactively and reactively we will delete evil my brother".
While Abouammo appears to have been largely directed by the foreign official, Alzabarah's spying venture was mostly managed by Mutairi, who described himself, according to the complaint, as an advisor for a "VVIP 1st Degree Member of the Saudi Royal Family".
In May 2015, Alzabarah wrote to his wife saying that Mutairi had called him and told him that a royal court official wanted to meet him "where he is right now". And so Alzabarah, he explained to his wife, was off to Washington, DC.
There, according to the complaint, he spent around seven hours at a home in Fairfax, Virginia, leased by Saudi officials. A week later, he set off on a seven-month binge during which he would access the data of more than 6,000 Twitter users, regularly sharing information with Mutairi.
'I was expecting help at least for what we did for them'
- Ali Alzabarah, former Twitter employee
One of those months was spent on leave from Twitter, in Saudi Arabia, yet he continued to access private user data 8,000 miles away, and, at times, was connected to Mutairi's company's networks.
But the complaint suggests that Alzabarah grew increasingly restless for just compensation.
A month into his spree, he asked the foreign official whether he could receive reward money for the information he had been sharing. The complaint notes that right around that time Saudi Arabia had offered $1.9m for "information that would avert terrorist attacks".
And back in the kingdom that July, he wrote out a point-by-point memo demanding greater compensation for his efforts, including becoming a member of the foreign official's charity and help with an undisclosed issue involving his father.
"Father's matter is trivial, and I was expecting help at least for what we did for them," he wrote in an Apple Note later found by the FBI. "Now they know the issue, a phone call to the man in charge and the problem is solved."
Eventually, Alzabarah seems to get at least some of what he wants. According to the complaint, he quits his job at Twitter, sending his resignation email while flying to Saudi Arabia where he started to work for the foreign official's charity and also on a team with Mutairi, monitoring and manipulating social media "for the benefit of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia". 
He does not, however, appear to have been given a gold watch.

'Blanket secrecy' surrounds Australian weapons sales to countries accused of war crimes

Ben Doherty and Christopher Knaus
Exclusive: Defence department refuses to reveal the extent of exports as arms sold to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Australian companies are selling weapons and military technology to countries around the world accused of war crimes, but the Australian government has refused to say what weapons are being sent overseas and to whom.
Nearly 100 permits were issued to export weapons and military technology to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo over the 2018-2019 financial year. But the Australian defence department has refused to reveal how many weapons have been sold, for how much, or for what purpose.
The extent of and extreme secrecy surrounding Australia’s foreign weapons sales are revealed by documents obtained by the Guardian under freedom of information laws.
Save for their existence and confirmation of country of destination, the documents are almost entirely redacted by the government, which has argued the information is commercial-in-confidence. That decision is being challenged by the Guardian.Between June of 2018 and July 2019, Australia issued 45 weapons export permits to the United Arab Emirates, 23 to Saudi Arabia, 14 to Sri Lanka and four to the Democratic Republic of Congo.Some of the weapons permits are extraordinarily detailed. One single permit, for a weapons technology export, runs to 403 pages, and contains hundreds of items. All of these details are redacted by the defence department.

Nearly $5bn worth of declared value defence permits were issued by Australia in 2018-19, a dramatic increase on the $1.6bn approved the previous year.

The UAE’s military, whose Presidential Guard is commanded by retired Australian army major general Mike Hindmarsh, has been accused of war crimes in the brutal conflict in Yemen, where a coalition of UAE, Saudi and Yemeni government military forces are engaged in a bitter battle with Houthi rebels believed to be backed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s military has led the coalition fighting in the five-year conflict, which has been plagued by human rights abuses including hospitals being bombed, civilians being targeted by shelling and sniper fire, civilian populations being deliberately starved, medical supplies being blocked, rape, murder, enforced disappearances, torture, and forcing children to fight.
Australian weapons systems manufacturer Electro Optics Systems (EOS) – which supplies the Saudi military with remote weapon stations – has told the Guardian their equipment does not cross the border into Yemen.
But a report by a United Nations panel of experts, including former Australian MP and international lawyer Melissa Parke, said countries who supplied weapons to the militaries of the UAE or Saudi Arabia could be complicit in war crimes being committed in the Yemen conflict.
The Sri Lankan military has been accused of war crimes over several years and complicity in the continued disappearance, abuse and torture of Tamil citizens, democracy activists, journalists and opponents of the government.
Recently re-elected prime minister, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, led the military at the conclusion of the country’s civil war: the 2009 operation to end the war left up to 40,000 civilians dead, according to a UN experts’ report.
The current head of the military, Shavendra Silva, led the Sri Lankan army’s 58 Division unit in 2009, which was accused of intentional and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, no-fire zones and hospitals.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has had a number of arms embargoes imposed upon it since 2003 because of a supply of weapons fuelling mass killings, human rights abuses and torture. The government’s military was previously included in sanctions banning the supply of all arms and related material, but was removed from the sanctions list in 2008. Arms embargoes still apply to non-government forces.
All exports of arms require licences from the defence department’s export controls branch. The department has previously told Senate estimates that export licences are not issued if the weapons are likely to be used in human rights abuses.
“If we assess that they would be used [to commit human rights abuses], we would not approve the permit,” Tom Hamilton, then acting deputy secretary of the defence department’s strategic policy and intelligence group, said in February.
Defence says it runs rigorous risk assessments on weapons prior to export. That process involves examining human rights, Australia’s international obligations, foreign policy, national security and regional security.
“This assessment includes consideration of whether there is an overriding risk that the exported items could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” a spokeswoman said last year.
Dr Margaret Beavis, vice president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, said it was well past time for the defence department’s “notorious secrecy” around Australian arms sales to end.
“If Australia is complying with all its legal obligations, as defence claims, what have they got to hide? This claim that they are protecting the commercial interests of weapons sellers is woefully insufficient justification for the blanket secrecy surrounding Australian weapons sales to nations accused of war crimes.”
Freedom of information expert Peter Timmins said failing to tell the Australian public which countries the government was exporting arms to was “quite remarkable”, given former defence minister Christopher Pyne was open about his intention to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
“Having put on the public record that we intend to increase our arms sales to a country like Saudi Arabia, to then not disclose that we might have issued an export permit to enable the export of arms to Saudi Arabia seems quite remarkable,” he told the Guardian.
Timmins is concerned the spirit and intent of the FoI Act are increasingly being disregarded in favour of secrecy.
“The proper test of the act is to make information available promptly that goes to accountability, transparency, good government, or poor government as the case may be,” he said.

Wyden and Merkley Denounce Saudi Meddling

On Friday, Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley called on the Trump administration to take immediate action after the FBI revealed in a newly declassified document that the government of Saudi Arabia is assisting its citizens accused of serious crimes in fleeing the United States.  

The document was declassified thanks to the Wyden-authored Saudi Fugitives Declassification Act, which became law in December. Wyden and Merkley have pressed the Trump administration for more than a year to reveal what it knows about Saudi government assistance to fugitives who have escaped the U.S., following reporting by The Oregonian showing that nearly two dozen Saudi citizens fled the country after being accused of manslaughter, assault, rape and other serious crimes.  

According to the heavily redacted FBI document, “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) officials almost certainly assist US-based Saudi citizens in fleeing the United States to avoid legal issues, undermining the US judicial process.”  The report said that the FBI’s assessment was made with high confidence.  
“After more than a year of stonewalling, the Trump administration is out of excuses – the FBI has made it crystal clear that the outrageous pattern of Saudi citizens fleeing the U.S. after being accused of heinous crimes is no accident. The Saudi Government is almost certainly helping its citizens escape American justice, while the Trump administration sits on its hands,” Wyden said. “The Trump administration needs to tell the Saudis that there will be consequences if it happens again. Fallon Smart and the other victims of these crimes deserve nothing less than the full support of every agency with the tools to respond to this monstrous behavior.”  

“When someone commits a serious crime on our soil, they must be held responsible in our courts,” said Merkley. “It’s completely unacceptable that the Saudi government has orchestrated secret missions to help its citizens with legal issues avoid justice by removing them from the United States. This FBI report provides further evidence that these escapes are almost certainly being orchestrated by the Saudi government. The FBI also made clear that the Saudis won’t change their behavior without direct engagement from the U.S. government—engagement that needs to happen at senior levels until justice is served. We’re going to keep pushing for answers and accountability, and to make it clear to the Saudi government that we will not allow Saudis to bypass our laws.”  

In January 2019, Merkley and Wyden introduced two bills – the ESCAPE Act and the Preserving American Justice Act. Together the bills would impose significant consequences on foreign consulates that help their citizens escape legal accountability. 

FBI: Saudi Arabia Helps Criminals Flee American Justice

If you’re a Saudi Arabian citizen and you kill someone, no worries! The Kingdom will ferret you away from the clutches of the American judicial system:
 If you’re a Saudi Arabian citizen and you kill someone, no worries! The Kingdom will ferret you away from the clutches of the American judicial system:
In a document declassified and released on Friday, the FBI said that officials of the Persian Gulf nation “almost certainly” help their citizens accused of committing crimes, including manslaughter, rape and possession of child pornography, to flee the United States.
“The FBI based this assessment on the key assumption [that] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officials perceive the embarrassment of Saudi citizens enduring the U.S. judicial process is greater than the embarrassment of the United States learning the KSA surreptitiously removes citizens with legal problems from the United States,” the FBI intelligence bulletin said.
The FBI heavily redacted the seven-page document, which the agency was made to declassify under a requirement that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) inserted in an appropriations bill signed by President Trump Dec. 20. Wyden said in an interview that the findings “make it clear that the Saudis have been lying,” adding that, “if these are our friends, who needs enemies?”
Apparently this was so heavily classified that it took an explicit order from Congress to make it public. And even at that, it was massively redacted:
It’s great that our friends treat us with such high regard now that Donald Trump has made us respected in the world again.

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Video - #MLKDay #MLK2020 Martin Luther King Jr. - "Man In The Mirror" [MLK Day Tribute]

Music - Martin Luther King Jr. For Kids

Thousands take to the streets of Sacramento for annual MLK Day March for the Dream

The legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive in the streets of Sacramento on Monday morning, with thousands of marchers enduring the brisk weather to commemorate the life and work of the civil rights icon.
Festooned with bundles of vibrant orange balloons and flanked by marching bands in formal attire, marchers in this year’s annual MLK Day March for the Dream looped around Sacramento City College, up Land Park Drive, across Broadway and back down on Freeport Boulevard to honor the Atlanta pastor who was cut down in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
For many, that means celebrating a shared sense of African American culture and community.

“I think the most important thing is making sure that his legacy lives on through supporting black groups — events like this,” Branch said.
Black youth, Branch said, are disproportionately affected by gun violence, so the message of peace Martin Luther King Jr. embodied needs to be upheld and spread in the community.
“It’s just a tragedy what happens to them every day,” Branch said.
Diane Falls, who said she has been out to the march many times over the years, agreed that young people should be actively engaged with the history of civil rights, as they are still vulnerable racism and discrimination.
“Things have changed but our work isn’t done,” Falls said. “I have two African American sons and every day I have to worry about them being treated unequitably just because they’re black.”
Michael Dominguez said the need to uphold and share the message of Dr. King is more important now than ever — the noxious rhetoric of President Donald Trump has taken the country in a direction that he sees as antithetical to the spirit of MLK Day.
“I’m not really a supporter of Mr. Trump — I’m sure he’s not out here,” Dominguez said. “This is the greatest country on earth and I just think we’ve kind of veered off in the wrong direction.”
Instead, Dominguez said, the unity that Martin Luther King stands for is the balm the country needs.

#MLKDay - The Agitated M.L.K. I Came to Love

 By Charles M. Blow

When I was young I idolized the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the way most boys look up to athletes or pop stars.

I had a poster of him. I had a T-shirt with his face on it. I recited his “I Have a Dream” speech. It seemed to me that he was a role model, an example of a life for a Southern boy who loved books and learning, leadership and public speaking.
There was a dignity about King to which I aspired, a politics of character, a Southern erudition that was rooted in religion, but encompassed an exquisite learnedness.
He was a black man who most people had come to venerate, one existing, it seemed, above the trivialities of tense day-to-day racial exchanges, one existing on a higher moral plane.
But, as I grew older and learned and read more about King, it became ever more clear to me that the King I had been fed was a caricature of the man he was. I had been taught a reduced King, smooth and polished, a one-dimensional impersonation of a person.I had been taught only the “Dream” King. That is what America wants King to remain: Frozen in perpetual optimism, urging more than demanding, appealing to America’s better angels rather than ruthlessly calling out its persistent demons.
But, that must not be done. That must not be done.
As King said in a 1967 interview when asked about the “Dream” speech, after much soul-searching he had come to see that “some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism.”
That evolution, toward a more “solid realism,” toward the more rational King, toward the more radical King, is why I happen to believe that one of King’s most consequential speeches is a little-discussed address he gave in 1967 at Stanford University. It was called “The Other America.”
In it, King blasted “large segments of white society” for being “more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”
He slammed what he called the “white backlash” for being the cause of black discontent and demands for black power, rather than the result of it, calling it “merely a new name for an old phenomenon.”
And he declared that true integration “is not merely a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure.”
This speech was delivered after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As King put it in the 1967 interview, passage of those acts came at “bargained rates.”
He explained: “It didn’t cost the nation anything. In fact, it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established. And, now we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation.”
It seems that King was even open to the idea of reparations, if not explicitly by name, at least in spirit.
King said in his Stanford speech:
“In 1863 the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. And at that same period America was giving millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor that would make it possible to grow and develop, and refused to give that economic floor to its black peasants.”
He extended this thought in other speeches, pointing out that not only did the government give the land to these white people, it also used government money to start land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm, sent out county agents to further their expertise, offered low-interest loans so that they could mechanize and instituted a system of subsidies for them, and these became “the very people telling the black man he ought to lift himself by his own boot straps.”
As King put it about his Poor People’s Campaign, “Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign we’re coming to get our check.” King was assassinated a month before the campaign was supposed to head to Washington.
And King was not afraid to point out white people’s hypocrisy, particularly that of the white moderates, those who were opposed to anti-black cruelty but did not genuinely endorse black equality, fully and unequivocally.
King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
As a child, I idolized the narrowed King. As an adult I love the more complicated King: agitated, exhausted and even angry.

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