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One tiny corner of the U.S. government pushes back against Russian disinformation

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Not the White House, the State Department or the CIA. The recordings were published by a U.S.-government-funded website called Polygraph.info, whose reporter says she got them from a source close to the Kremlin.

Polygraph is a relatively new fact-checking arm of an obscure, diminutive media effort by the U.S. to highlight Russian misdeeds and counter Russian propaganda.

It’s an anomaly in the Trump administration — perhaps the only part of the U.S. government whose job is to regularly punch back against what experts say is a stream of Russian disinformation aimed at America and the West.

“At the end of the day, the Russians are engaging in information warfare — they’re telling lies,” said John Lansing, a former television executive who oversees the effort. “And we’re confronting them toe-to-toe with fact-based, truthful, professional journalism.”

 Outside the headquarters of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington and its five broadcasting services, including the Voice of America. NBC News

Russia’s proficiency at information war has been on display in the wake of the U.S.-led military strike Friday night in Syria. Russia called the strikes illegal and said the chemical weapons attacks that prompted them were staged. To get that message out, there was a 2000 percent spike in activity in the hours since the strike by fake Russian propaganda accounts on social media, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Saturday. A website that tracks a slice of those accounts, Hamilton 68, found that they were pumping out the Russian government narrative in English.

They’re “eating our lunch”

The U.S. is ill-equipped to respond. Polygraph, part of the tiny corner of the government that’s trying, has a staff of five that doesn’t usually work on the weekends.

“We focus mostly on Russia right now because there is a large flow of disinformation that’s coming from Russia,” said Jim Fry, a former Dallas television reporter who runs Polygraph from Washington.

 Irina Van Dusen is chief of the Russian Service of the Voice of America, which runs the Russian-language television news program “Current Time America.” NBC News

Polygraph is a joint venture of the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which are funded by — but independent of — the U.S. government. They fall under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose mission is to promote freedom and democracy and “tell America’s story” around the world. But they are walled off, editorially, from the administration in power.

“The law protects us from interference by U.S. government officials,” said Tom Kent, who spent 44 years at The Associated Press before becoming president of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. “They can’t tell us what to broadcast.”

During the Cold War, the VOA and Radio Liberty sought to counter communist propaganda and funnel information to the news-starved citizenry behind the Iron Curtain.

Those muscles — and budgets — have long since atrophied. But in recent years, there have been growing calls for a new twist on that old mission.

When Lansing became CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2015, he said he was confronted on Capitol Hill and throughout the government with a single question:

“Why are the Russians eating our lunch in terms of information warfare?”

People were talking mainly about RT, the former Russia Today, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on an English language broadcast and web platform that regularly skewers American and the West. The U.S. government has labeled RT a propaganda operation.

The State Department came under criticism earlier this year when news reports highlighted its failure to spend $120 million that had been allocated to push back on Russian propaganda abroad.

Lost in that conversation was the fact that one month into the Trump Administration, Lansing and his team launched Current Time America, a 24-hour Russian-language broadcasting and web platform. The budget was $20 million — around one-tenth the size of RT’s budget, Lansing says. But one year later, Current Time America is available on TV screens in 30 countries, and officials counted 400 million view views on social media last year.

Still, U.S. information efforts are minuscule compared to the Russian campaign. While Current Time America is available in Russia, the Russian government makes it difficult to find — keeping it off cable systems and requiring special tuning for satellite reception.

The broadcasting board’s total budget this year is about $660 million dollars, about a third of what was spent in 1991, adjusted for inflation.

“I think we should be investing more,” Lansing said.

“There are facts”

The Russian government labels the entire U.S.-funded journalism operation “propaganda” that is “part of a broader, wide-reaching American system of pressure on our country.”

Irina van Dusen, who heads the effort as chief of Voice of America’s Russian-language programming, knows what propaganda looks like. She grew up in the Soviet Union, listening to the VOA on an illegal short wave radio for scraps of accurate reporting.

She got her journalism degree in Moscow, but decided that if she wanted to practice real journalism, she would have to move to the West.

During the Cold War, she says, the VOA was trying to break through jamming and censorship. Now there has been a proliferation of Russian TV and web channels that put out a cacophony of news, nearly all of it favorable to Vladimir Putin. The task in 2018 is trying to break through a fog of disinformation.

The prevailing view in Russia, she said, is that “There is no truth. There is only different versions, different narratives. … We stand by the fact that there is truth. And there are facts.”

 Jim Fry, managing editor of the fact-checking website Polygraph.info, says its target audience is English-speaking audiences in all of the countries bordering Russia. NBC News

From a TV studio near not far from where special counsel Robert Mueller comes to work each day, Current Time America covers Washington, offering live broadcasts of Congressional hearings with simultaneous translations.

“People can listen, see how it’s done, how policies are made, what questions asked, what facts are being brought up,” she said.

The channel also covers Russia, to “provide Russian speaking audiences with a true portrait of the society, you know? As opposed to state-run Russian television that — interprets everything that is done in the world … as some kind of a United States manipulation and United States meddling in world affairs.”

Polygraph.info, and its Russian-language counterpart, Factograph, try to be slightly edgier than a traditional news operation.

“What our reporters do every day is they begin the day looking at Russian media,” said Fry. “Looking at what’s coming out of Russia. And then we decide whether there’s something to fact check. Usually, almost every day, there’s more to fact check than we could possibly do with our staff.”

The site is modeled after other media fact check efforts, including Politifact and factcheck.org. It highlights a claim, say, by Putin or another Russian official, and brands it for veracity, with labels like “Partially True, “False” or “Misleading.”

In March, the site fact-checked a Putin documentary that alleged the Russian leader had always believed that the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was part of Russia. It highlighted remarks by Putin in 2008 in which he said something very different: “Crimea is absolutely not a disputed territory.” Six years later, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, to international condemnation.

Polygraph also challenged Russia’s denial that the nerve agent used to poison a former spy in the U.K. was made only in Russia, and its assertion that no chemical attack took place in Syria.

Polygraph reporters are not afraid to endorse criticism of the U.S. when it’s accurate. When Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized a list of Russian oligarchs that the Treasury Department admitted it cribbed from Forbes magazine, Polygraph labeled his comments, “Partially True.”

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Boris under attack: Scotland and Wales join forces to launch full scale assault on PM

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The FIRST Minister of Wales has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer “proper engagement with the devolved governments of the United Kingdom”.

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Breaking down the Trump-brokered deals between Israel, Arab states

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As dignitaries gathered on the White House South Lawn on Tuesday to witness the singing of U.S.-brokered deals between Israel and two Gulf Arab states, the situation thousands of miles away on Israel’s doorstep was less serene.

Some 15 rockets were launched from Gaza into southern Israel, the Israel Defense Force said, prompting the country’s air force to retaliate with a strike on targets in the Palestinian enclave.

The signing of the accords was greeted by angry protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Pictures of President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were trampled and flags set on fire. More protests were underway on Friday.

Speaking from a White House balcony, Trump declared the deals “the dawn of a new Middle East” and said at least five or six other Arab states were set to join the “Abraham Accords.”

But though Trump described the agreements as peace deals, the reaction from Palestinians was a stark reminder that the agreements are not seen as such by many in the region.

The pacts have been criticized by Iran, Turkey and Qatar. The biggest Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, has remained silent, leading to speculation that the kingdom quietly approves of the agreements but is reluctant to openly support them.

The bilateral agreements themselves are full of pledges to advance diplomacy, mutual cooperation and work toward regional peace. Israel’s deal with the UAE is more comprehensive, outlining 15 areas of mutual interest, including finance, trade, aviation, energy, health, agriculture and water.

But critics argue they do not fully address one of the Middle East’s central fault lines: the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who view the pacts as a betrayal of their cause for a Palestinian state.

“The Palestinians have been completely thrown under the bus here,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.

“The real peace that is needed, the one that is actually worth celebrating, is if there’s something that can be achieved between the Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

Parsi added that far from establishing peace, the accords merely brought existing “clandestine relationships” between the countries out in the open.

The bilateral agreements formalize the normalization of Israel’s already thawing relations with the UAE and Bahrain, in line with their common enemy, Iran.

“I’m not surprised that the Palestinian terrorists fired at Israel precisely during this historic ceremony,” Netanyahu said after the ceremony. “They want to turn back the peace. In that, they will not succeed.”

Speaking to Fox News hours before the signing ceremony, Trump predicted the Palestinians would eventually forge peace with Israel or else be “left out in the cold.”

Palestinians protesting against Jewish settlements and the normalisation of ties with two Arab states, scuffle with Israeli settlers in Asira al-Qibliya in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Friday.Jaafar Ashityeh / AFP – Getty Images

But Palestinians say there can be no resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless they are involved.

“The core of the conflict is the Palestinian cause. These agreements will never achieve security or stability or peace,” Ahmad Majdalani, executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told reporters on Thursday.

“This illusion that Netanyahu has about making peace with the Arabs without making peace with the Palestinians or withdrawing from the occupied territories is just that — an illusion.”

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Representatives of both the UAE and Bahrain, who sent their foreign ministers rather than heads of state, spoke of the importance of creating a Palestinian state. But neither Netanyahu nor Trump mentioned the Palestinians in their remarks.

Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan thanked Netanyahu for “halting the annexation” of West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians, in exchange for Emirati recognition.

Netanyahu, however, has insisted that Israel has only “suspended” its plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

In January,the U.S. abandoned a position it had held for four decades, that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were inconsistent with international law.

National flags of Bahrain, UAE, Israel and the U.S. are projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on Tuesday.Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

“This is the first warm peace the Israelis have had,” Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told NBC News. “In Israel almost everyone is happy with the deal.”

He said the deals Israel already had with Jordan and Egypt hadn’t led to tangible exchanges, tourism or meaningful free movement of people or businesses. He said he hopes this will be possible with the UAE and Bahrain.

He said the deals showed that Palestinians had been “obviously sidelined” by Arab states and warned that their ambitions may be unrealistic.

“In my opinion, they have to calibrate their expectations of what can be achieved,” Inbar said. “That’s part of maturity. Unfortunately, the Palestinian liberation national movement still has dreams that are unlikely to be achieved.”

In August, the first direct commercial flight between Israel and the UAE took place with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, on board. Since Tuesday’s ceremony, deals have already been struck between the two nations’ diamond exchanges, port operators and investment offices, although some friction remains around the U.S. sale of stealth F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

“The deal is more symbolic than reflective of a substantive shift. It is the latest indicator of a shift in Arab politics from being defined against Israel to being defined against Iran,” said Simon Mabon, a professor at Lancaster University in England.

Inbar agreed that to call the accords a groundbreaking peace deal would be “exaggerated.”

“Some Arab countries came out of the closet,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the messiah has come to the Middle East, not yet.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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Brexiteer hails Boris for standing up to Brussels 'bullies' as he warns of mass EU exodus

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A LEADING BREXITEER businessman has warned that the EU faces a “mass exodus and total collapse” as he praised Boris Johnson for standing up to Brussels’ “appalling and abhorrent” negotiation tactics during last night’s BBC Question Time.

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