The definition and danger of “‘Kompromat’

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Although the manufacturing of public cynicism tends to be associated with Russia, it is a common feature and tool of authoritarian nations.

Source: ‘Kompromat’ and the Danger of Doubt and Confusion in a Democracy – The New York Times

Did you read this fascinating article by Amanda Taub in the January 15 New York Times? In the valuable column called The Intepreter, Taub describes and particularizes the use of “Kompromat”–described by Serge Schmemann, who covered the Soviet Union for years, in a personal, often dryly amusing (at least to me: I didn’t have to live through it) piece called “That Time the K.G.B. Slipped Me Vodka”:

For those of us who worked in the old Soviet Union as reporters or diplomats, all the talk of “kompromat” and “dezinformatsiya” that has emerged with the Trump dossier — unverified — has been a blast from what we thought was a distant past.

In the Soviet mind-set, foreigners were a permanent but inescapable danger to be isolated in guarded compounds, monitored with ubiquitous bugs, followed in the streets, restricted in their travels and manipulated through propaganda. To be on the safe side, the K.G.B. presumably compiled compromising materials (kompro-mat) on foreigners so they could be blackmailed or thrown out if necessary.

Like many another foreign correspondent, I was the target of a few such attempts — or at least there were a few I became aware of. One time at the bar of the hotel in Odessa run by Intourist, the agency that handled foreigners’ travels, a young woman jumped suddenly on my neck as flashbulbs went off. In Samarkand a colleague and I were surreptitiously given vodka at an outdoor teahouse and then arrested for drinking it. Another colleague, a strict teetotaler, was slipped a Mickey Finn meant to make him look totally drunk. In each such case, we promptly filed a formal protest and thought little more of it, accepting it as the price of being Western reporters in a paranoid police state.

Taub brings Schmemann’s descriptions of how Kompromat works into our immediate present in the United States and continues to lay out why and how it is dangerous. She begins:

WASHINGTON — Since the emergence of an unverified dossier with salacious claims about President-elect Donald J. Trump, Americans have debated the ramifications of the arrival of “kompromat” as a feature of American politics.

But those debates — for example, over the ethics of publishing the dossier — have often framed this practice as little more than a political form of blackmail, and one particular to Russia.

In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.

And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia — the word kompromat is a portmanteau of the Russian words for “compromising” and “information” — it is a common feature of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian nations around the world.

Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.

Taub gives specifics, citing work done by an American professor of communications in Azerbaijan, and Taub’s own specific experiences in Guatemala:

There, spreading lies and salacious gossip to discredit one’s enemies is referred to as a “campaña negra,” or a black campaign, rather than kompromat. But the result was the same: Public trust had been so eroded that lies were equally capable of destroying the honest and rehabilitating the criminal.

There’s a lot more referring to leaks, public trust and Trump. It’s terrific, if creepy.

And it’s given me an idea. Since I discovered that the NYT links readers’ comments to a number of articles, I’ve become a lay quasi-expert in picking through these comments. Translation: I waste too much time nodding and/or yelling at readers’ comments.

Since the Times allows commenters to identify themselves by pseudonyms and locations such as “planet earth,” I can’t be sure that the pseuds writing are trolls paid to cover major news publications by the Russians–or, indeed, troll wanna-be’s who are, in effect, pitching their wares to the Kremlin (“Hey this is what I can do. Get I get on the payroll? I will accept payment in rubles, for sure.”).

Over the past year, I’ve detected certain suspicious patterns in such comments, patterns that strongly suggest the “comment” is Kremlin (or other autocratic power bases) boilerplate. For one thing, there are phrases and attitudes that are repeated almost word for word, from one comment to another, and not always relevant to the article upon which they purport to comment.

I’ll show you what I mean when I next pull one of ’em out of the NYT comment slush pile.

It’ll be fun for me. I mean “fun,” in the sense of: I’m going crazy spending so much time reading fact-free distortions emerging out of “planet earth” or elsewhere in the solar system. I want to transform this otherwise random activity, this, um, waste of time into purpose.

New category: Komprosplat.

Not at all by the way: despite the flagrantly displayed ignorance and idiocy and bigotry that brought about this election, my fellow countryfolk are so varied, so naturally progressive and so argumentative, I don’t believe most of us (our genuine voting majority) will allow our trust in the major news media as fact-deliverers to be muddied.

That can only happen in another kind of country–one used to autocracy, state-owned media and without a First Amendment.

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The Facts of Life: #TheyAreAllLiars. The Twittler and his people

Got this last week from Publisher’s Marketplace. It’s fun. Especially the Twittler Team’s response–last sentence. And here I am thinking lying and plagiarism and insanity and a few other things are “the real issues facing this country.”

So, hey, I know what hashtags are but don’t know how to start one off on its merry rounds.

Don’t you think #TheyAreAllLiars should be a hashtag?

Or #TheyAreAllSerialLiars.

Harper Withdraws Crowley’s Book Following Plagiarism Revelations

In the wake of CNN’s article showing that Monica Crowley’s 2012 book What the (Bleep) Just Happened copied material from numerous sources, HarperCollins was “looking into the matter” and announced on Tuesday to the NYT. “The book, which has reached the end of its natural sales cycle, will no longer be offered for purchase until such time as the author has the opportunity to source and revise the material,” Harper said in a statement. (Published by their Broadside Books imprint, the print version has sold only a handful of copies over the last three years at outlets tracked by Nielsen Bookscan.)

Crowley was nominated to serve as senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council. Initially, a Trump team statement had asserted that “any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.”

P.S. We all remember that HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch who, post Bannon and Breitbart, actually almost seems like an actual media mogul these days. Almost.

P.P.S. I’m thinking, you know, it may not be such a bad thing that The Twittler is appointing and nominating people with a history of serial lying to important positions–especially, as with Crowley, in communications. From now on we can just hear or read what they say without needing to analyze or fact-check it. We’ll know it’s a lie as soon as they open their mouths. As David Remnick wrote of Trump during the campaign, “The mouth moves and the lies pour forth.”

Posted in The Twittler, What do we do now? | Tagged | Leave a comment

A real lawyer analyzes Trump’s “pile of file folders” at the sort-of press conference

Kevin Underhill is a lawyer. He is also a satirist, picking up on the absurdities of life. Legal life, in his case.

So I stand at attention when Kevin Underhill, at his LoweringTheBar site, takes the time to analyze that stack of file folders The Twittler presented at his press conference–saying, i.e., probably lying, that what they contained was all the documents we would need to trust how he was passing on his business to his sons, to avoid a massive pile of…conflicts of interest. Which his arrangement wouldn’t do anyway, according to the real professional ethics person.

Who is now threatened by the GOP with an investigation into why he’s so damn ethical when the times have changed and everyone voted for the swamp people anyway.

I’ve written previously, with deep knowledge, about legal filing systems. Kevin (may I call you that, Kevin? because I love you madly and you make me laugh a couple of times a week?), unlike most lawyers I’ve known, seems actually to have an efficient legal filing system. Rah, Kevin!

So he has put his penetrating vision upon that stack of file folders and tells us what he has learned. It’s terrific reading:

Lowering the Bar

Contents:

About Those Folders

Jan 13, 2017 03:57 pm | Kevin

As you surely know, the stars of Donald Trump’s recent press conference were what looked like hundreds of file folders full of papers, which both Trump and his lawyer, Sherri Dillon of Morgan Lewis, said were “just some” of the paperwork involved in turning over Trump’s stuff to his sons to solve conflict-of-interest problems.

I don’t want to address here whether the legal plan they have described actually would solve conflict-of-interest problems, except that to the extent I understand what that plan is, I find the claim that it might solve those problems hilarious. But what I want to address is the equally burning question, to me, of whether there was actually anything in those folders other than blank paper.

There was not.

Again, both Trump and Dillon said there was. According to the transcript:

  • Trump: “these papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons” (that’s the hilarious part).
  • Dillon: “Here is just some of the paperwork that’s taking care of those actions.”
  • Trump again, at the end: “So this is all—just so you understand, these papers—because I’m not sure that was explained properly. But these papers are all just a piece of the many, many companies that are being put into trust to be run by my two sons….”

Again, hilarious! But on to the mysterious papers.

Other than the statements above, to my knowledge there is no direct evidence as to what those folders contained. That is, we can see they contained sheets of paper, but the question is whether anything was printed on the paper. That we do not know, because despite the folders having center stage at the press conference—literally; the podium was off to the side a bit—no one outside the Trump team was allowed even a glance inside them. In the absence of direct evidence, or an admission, the claim that the papers were blank remains “unproven,” as Snopes.com says in its report on this. So there’s that.

But while “circumstantial” is sometimes used as a synonym for “weak,” the fact is that people are convicted all the time based on circumstantial evidence. Sometimes those people are even guilty. And here, as far as I’m concerned the circumstantial evidence only allows one conclusion.

First: they didn’t let anybody see inside the folders. You would not expect them to display anything privileged, of course, but the implication was that these were documents Trump signed for business purposes, and presumably at least some would be for public filing and so not privileged. Even if every document were privileged, it wouldn’t breach the privilege to hold up a document and riffle through it just to show skeptical reporters it had some writing on it. (You couldn’t hold it still or some jackass like me would take a screenshot.) The complete refusal to allow even a glance at any document is therefore very suspicious.

Second, as many have pointed out, none of the visible folders have a label or any sort of mark on them, not even a Post-It or other sticky note, and in fact they look quite pristine. As a practicing lawyer, I can tell you that we do not keep documents in unmarked manila folders, at least if dealing with more than a few. It seems highly unlikely that Morgan Lewis has large stacks of manila folders sitting around in its offices, and if somebody needs a particular document the only way to find it is for somebody to go through the whole stack until they get lucky.

Third, no writing or any other sort of mark can be seen on any of the papers themselves. I did not think this was conclusive, though, because as far as I know no more than a fraction of any page was visible. Maybe they just use really big margins. Also, one report speculated that these were unlikely to be legal documents because they clearly aren’t on legal-sized paper. But there’s no rule saying you have to use legal-sized paper for anything. I haven’t used it willingly ever, and I hate it, because it’s stupid. Why is it longer? If long paper is somehow better, why aren’t we still using scrolls? But anyway, this is not conclusive either.

Fourth, here’s what is conclusive, to me: none of the pages, so far as I can tell, have been stapled together. Many individual pages are individually aligned. This makes it impossible that a lawyer or anyone else at a law firm has been using these documents. They are unstapled.

Even if you did use the stacks-of-unlabeled-file-folders system of organization, and you don’t, there is no way in hell any lawyer would fail to bind together the pages of even a written draft, let alone a final document your client is supposedly going to sign in order to make major business changes. You don’t just print out all the pages of multiple documents and stick them in a binder, or leave them in a stack. Nor would you use a mere binder clip (a few of those are visible) for final documents. Never. These things are not done.

[Update: someone has just reminded me that a stack of any significant number of legal documents will virtually always exhibit “stack tilt” because of the cumulative effect of page fasteners. That is, the upper-left corner of such a stack is always higher. This is further evidence that Trump’s “legal documents” were unstapled, which, again, is compelling evidence they were all blank. I should also say that Sherri Dillon so far has not responded to my email asking for comment on the alleged blankness of the pages, although that is not at all surprising.]

In short, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that somebody on the Trump team created fake stacks of documents to which the president-elect could point when talking about his conflict-of-interest plan. (And it was an amateur—an expert would do a much, much better job.) This doesn’t mean there are no such documents, of course. Probably are, somewhere. But they weren’t in those folders.

So now you know.

Posted in D. Making and keeping a record, F. The lawyer, H. Legal documents, Strictly for bitter laughter, The Twittler | Tagged | Leave a comment