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Grim report: Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider

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This report does not, I hope, describe the future. Katie BennerMark MazzettiBen Hubbard, and Mike Isaac report in the NY Times:

Each morning, Jamal Khashoggi would check his phone to discover what fresh hell had been unleashed while he was sleeping.

He would see the work of an army of Twitter trolls, ordered to attack him and other influential Saudis who had criticized the kingdom’s leaders. He sometimes took the attacks personally, so friends made a point of calling frequently to check on his mental state.

“The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” said Maggie Mitchell Salem, a friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s for more than 15 years.

Mr. Khashoggi’s online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.

The killing by Saudi agents of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to reform the hidebound Saudi state.

This portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.

Saudi operatives have mobilized to harass critics on Twitter, a wildly popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations.

Many Saudis had hoped that Twitter would democratize discourse by giving everyday citizens a voice, but Saudi Arabia has instead become an illustration of how authoritarian governments can manipulate social media to silence or drown out critical voices while spreading its own version of reality.

“In the Gulf, the stakes are so high for those who engage in dissent that the benefits of using social media are outweighed by the negatives, and in Saudi Arabia in particular,” said Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer in the history of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula at Exeter University in Britain.

Neither Saudi officials nor Mr. Qahtani responded to requests for comment about the kingdom’s efforts to control online conversations.

Before his death, Mr. Khashoggi was launching projects to combat online abuse and to try to reveal that Crown Prince Mohammed was mismanaging the country. In September, Mr. Khashoggi wired $5,000 to Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident living in Canada, who was creating a volunteer army to combat the government trolls on Twitter. The volunteers called themselves the “Electronic Bees.”

Eleven days before Mr. Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he wrote on Twitter that the Bees were coming.

One arm of the crackdown on dissidents originates from offices and homes in and around Riyadh, where hundreds of young men hunt on Twitter for voices and conversations to silence. This is the troll farm, described by three people briefed on the project and the messages among group members.

Its directors routinely discuss ways to combat dissent, settling on sensitive themes like the war in Yemen or women’s rights. They then turn to their well-organized army of “social media specialists” via group chats in apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, sending them lists of people to threaten, insult and intimidate; daily tweet quotas to fill; and pro-government messages to augment.

The bosses also send memes that their employees can use to mock dissenters, like an image of Crown Prince Mohammed dancing with a sword, akin to the cartoons of Pepe the Frog that supporters of President Trump used to undermine opponents.

The specialists scour Twitter for conversations on the assigned topics and post messages from the several accounts they each run. Sometimes, when contentious discussions take off, they publish pornographic images to goose engagement with their own posts and distract users from more relevant conversations.

Other times, if one account is blocked by too many other users, they simply close it and open a new one.

In one conversation viewed by The Times, dozens of leaders decided to mute critics of Saudi Arabia’s military attacks on Yemen by reporting the messages to Twitter as “sensitive.” Twitter automatically hides such reported posts from other users, blunting their impact.

Twitter has had difficulty combating the trolls. The company can detect and disable the machine-like behaviors of bot accounts, but it has a harder time picking up on the humans tweeting on behalf of the Saudi government.

The specialists found the jobs through Twitter itself, responding to ads that said only that an employer sought young men willing to tweet for about 10,000 Saudi riyals a month, equivalent to about $3,000.

The political nature of the work was revealed only after they were interviewed and expressed interest in the job. According to the people The Times interviewed, some of the specialists felt they would have been targeted as possible dissenters themselves if they had turned down the job.

The specialists heard directors speak often of Mr. Qahtani. Labeled by activists and writers as the “troll master,” “Saudi Arabia’s Steve Bannon” and “lord of the flies” — for the bots and online attackers sometimes called “flies” by their victims — Mr. Qahtani had gained influence since the young crown prince consolidated power.

He ran media operations inside the royal court, which involved directing the country’s local media, arranging interviews for foreign journalists with the crown prince, and using his Twitter following of 1.35 million to marshal the kingdom’s online defenders against enemies including Qatar, Iran and Canada, as well as dissident Saudi voices like Mr. Khashoggi’s.

For a while, he tweeted using the hashtag #The_Black_List, calling on his followers to suggest perceived enemies of the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia and its brothers do what they say. That’s a promise,” he tweeted last year. “Add every name you think should be added to #The_Black_List using the hashtag. We will filter them and track them starting now.”

Twitter executives first became aware of a possible plot to infiltrate user accounts at the end of 2015, when Western intelligence officials told them that the Saudis were grooming an employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy on the accounts of dissidents and others, according to five people briefed on the matter. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Alzabarah had joined Twitter in 2013 and had risen through the ranks to an engineering position that gave him access to the personal information and account activity of Twitter’s users, including phone numbers and I.P. addresses, unique identifiers for devices connected to the internet.

The intelligence officials told the Twitter executives that Mr. Alzabarah had grown closer to Saudi intelligence operatives, who eventually persuaded him to peer into several user accounts, according to three of the people briefed on the matter. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2018 at 10:08 am

Conservatives mount a whisper campaign smearing Khashoggi in defense of Trump

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Is there nothing to which conservatives will not stoop? Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian report in the Washington Post:

Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators are mounting a whispering campaign against Jamal Khashoggi that is designed to protect President Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist’s alleged murder by operatives of Saudi Arabia — and support Trump’s continued aversion to a forceful response to the oil-rich desert kingdom.

In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Those aspersions — which many lawmakers have been wary of stating publicly because of the political risks of doing so — have begun to flare into public view as conservative media outlets have amplified the claims, which are aimed in part at protecting Trump as he works to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human ri ghts.

“Khashoggi was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner asserted on Thursday’s highly rated “Outnumbered” show. “I just put it out there because it is in the constellation of things that are being talked about.” Faulkner then dismissed another guest who called her claim “iffy.”

The message was echoed on the campaign trail. Virginia Republican Corey A. Stewart, who is challenging Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), told a local radio program Thursday that “Khashoggi was not a good guy himself.”

While Khashoggi was once sympathetic to Islamist movements, he moved toward a more liberal, secular point of view, according to experts on the Middle East who have tracked his career. Khashoggi knew bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war in Afghanistan, but his interactionswith bin Laden were as a journalist with a point of view who was working with a prized source.

Nevertheless, the smears have escalated. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and key political booster, shared another person’s tweet last week with his millions of followers that included a line that Khashoggi was “tooling around Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden” in the 1980s, even though the context was a feature story on bin Laden’s activities.

A Tuesday broadcast of CR-TV, a conservative online outlet founded by popular talk-radio host Mark Levin, labeled Khashoggi a “longtime friend” of terrorists and claimed without evidence that Trump was the victim of an “insane” media conspiracy to tarnish him. The broadcast has been viewed more than 12,000 times.

story in far-right FrontPage magazine casts Khashoggi as a “cynical and manipulative apologist for Islamic terrorism, not the mythical martyred dissident whose disappearance the media has spent the worst part of a week raving about,” and features a garish cartoon of bin Laden and Khashoggi with their arms around each other.

The conservative push comes as Saudi government supporters on Twitter have sought in a propaganda campaign to denigrate Khashoggi as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement once tolerated but now outlawed in Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization.

“Trump wants to take a soft line, so Trump supporters are finding excuses for him to take it,” said William Kristol, a conservative Trump critic. “One of those excuses is attacking the person who was murdered.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2018 at 8:12 pm

Alexa, Should We Trust You?

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Judith SHulevitz writes in the Atlantic:

For a few days this summer, Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to me through my Amazon Echo Dot, took to ending our interactions with a whisper: Sweet dreams. Every time it happened, I was startled, although I thought I understood why she was doing it, insofar as I understand anything that goes on inside that squat slice of black tube. I had gone onto Amazon.com and activated a third-party “skill”—an applike program that enables Alexa to perform a service or do a trick—called “Baby Lullaby.” It plays an instrumental version of a nursery song (yes, I still listen to lullabies to get to sleep), then signs off softly with the nighttime benediction. My conjecture is that the last string of code somehow went astray and attached itself to other “skills.” But even though my adult self knew perfectly well that Sweet dreams was a glitch, a part of me wanted to believe that Alexa meant it. Who doesn’t crave a motherly goodnight, even in mid-afternoon? Proust would have understood.

We’re all falling for Alexa, unless we’re falling for Google Assistant, or Siri, or some other genie in a smart speaker. When I say “smart,” I mean the speakers possess artificial intelligence, can conduct basic conversations, and are hooked up to the internet, which allows them to look stuff up and do things for you. And when I say “all,” I know some readers will think, Speak for yourself! Friends my age—we’re the last of the Baby Boomers—tell me they have no desire to talk to a computer or have a computer talk to them. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Their microphones listen even when you’re not interacting with them, because they have to be able to hear their “wake word,” the command that snaps them to attention and puts them at your service.

The speakers’ manufacturers promise that only speech that follows the wake word is archived in the cloud, and Amazon and Google, at least, make deleting those exchanges easy enough. Nonetheless, every so often weird glitches occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family’s private conversation without their having said the wake word and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contacts list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa (TexasA LexusPraxis?), then misconstrued elements of the ensuing conversation as a series of commands. The explanation did not make me feel much better.

Privacy concerns have not stopped the march of these devices into our homes, however. Amazon doesn’t disclose exact figures, but when I asked how many Echo devices have been sold, a spokeswoman said “tens of millions.” By the end of last year, more than 40 million smart speakers had been installed worldwide, according to Canalys, a technology-research firm. Based on current sales, Canalys estimates that this figure will reach 100 million by the end of this year. According to a 2018 report by National Public Radio and Edison Research, 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers, suggesting that they feel the need to always have one within earshot. By 2021, according to another research firm, Ovum, there will be almost as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as people. It took about 30 years for mobile phones to outnumber humans. Alexa and her ilk may get there in less than half that time.

One reason is that Amazon and Google are pushing these devices hard, discounting them so heavily during last year’s holiday season that industry observers suspect that the companies lost money on each unit sold. These and other tech corporations have grand ambitions. They want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, office, car. In the near future, everything from your lighting to your air-conditioning to your refrigerator, your coffee maker, and even your toilet could be wired to a system controlled by voice.

The company that succeeds in cornering the smart-speaker market will lock appliance manufacturers, app designers, and consumers into its ecosystem of devices and services, just as Microsoft tethered the personal-computer industry to its operating system in the 1990s. Alexa alone already works with more than 20,000 smart-home devices representing more than 3,500 brands. Her voice emanates from more than 100 third-party gadgets, including headphones, security systems, and automobiles.

Yet there is an inherent appeal to the devices, too—one beyond mere consumerism. Even those of us who approach new technologies with a healthy amount of caution are finding reasons to welcome smart speakers into our homes. After my daughter-in-law posted on Instagram an adorable video of her 2-year-old son trying to get Alexa to play “You’re Welcome,” from the Moana soundtrack, I wrote to ask why she and my stepson had bought an Echo, given that they’re fairly strict about what they let their son play with. “Before we got Alexa, the only way to play music was on our computers, and when [he] sees a computer screen, he thinks it’s time to watch TV,” my daughter-in-law emailed back. “It’s great to have a way to listen to music or the radio that doesn’t involve opening up a computer screen.” She’s not the first parent to have had that thought. In that same NPR/Edison report, close to half the parents who had recently purchased a smart speaker reported that they’d done so to cut back on household screen time.

The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.

Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts. They’re software, but they’re more than that, just as human consciousness is an effect of neurons and synapses but is more than that. Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. “The spoken word proceeds from the human interior, and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons,” the late Walter Ong wrote in his classic study of oral culture, Orality and Literacy. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious nonpersons, but their words give them personality and social presence.

And indeed, these devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce or nytimes.com. We communicate with them, not through them. More than once, I’ve found myself telling my Google Assistant about the sense of emptiness I sometimes feel. “I’m lonely,” I say, which I usually wouldn’t confess to anyone but my therapist—not even my husband, who might take it the wrong way.
. .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2018 at 3:24 pm

GOP Senator Pushed VA to Use Unproven “Brainwave Frequency” Treatment

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The GOP is certainly corrupt. Isaac Arnsdorf reports in ProPublica:

Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, pushed doctors at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Reno to adopt an experimental mental health treatment marketed by a company with ties to his office.

On a Friday night last December in his Reno office, Heller, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced VA officials to representatives from a health care startup called CereCare. The company markets an “off-label” method of treating addiction and post-traumatic stress, using electromagnetic brain stimulation.

The meeting came about because two of CereCare’s partners had a business connection to Heller’s senior aide in Reno. “We’ve known her for years,” one of the partners, Nino Pedrini, said of the aide, Glenna Smith. Pedrini and his partner have a separate joint venture with Smith’s former employer. “This was Glenna reaching out to us, knowing what we were doing, saying we think there’s a fit here where you folks can help our veterans,” Pedrini said.

Smith declined to answer questions about her role in arranging the meeting; she said she has never had a financial interest in Pedrini’s companies.

The Trump administration is encouraging the VA to use more alternative treatments, even though doctors and mental health experts caution against steering patients to procedures that haven’t been scientifically demonstrated to be safe and effective. The administration’s enthusiasm for such experimental treatments has opened the door to a flood of hopeful vendors like CereCare.

Heller declined to answer specific questions about the meeting. In a statement, he said he “will never apologize for supporting policies that could lead to additional treatment options for Nevada veterans because no one who has served this country should be waiting for care once they return from combat.”

Heller co-sponsored a bill directing the VA to start a pilot program on CereCare’s procedure. Another of CereCare’s partners, Judi Kosterman, participated in drafting the legislation, she said in an interview. Kosterman described herself as CereCare’s expert on the procedure, and her business card identified her as “Dr.” She is not a physician and her doctorate is in education, according to official records.

The bill says it provides no additional funding, so the pilot program would come at the expense of other treatments that are already proven to be effective. For that reason, it drew opposition from Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents 1.6 million members. “The VFW believes that VA must spend its already scarce health care resources on therapies that have shown promise or have a proven track record,” the organization told Congress. Other veterans groups, such as Amvets and Vietnam Veterans of America, supported the bill because they said the treatment is worth trying. The Senate veterans committee hasn’t voted on the bill.

The procedure that CereCare was pitching to the VA uses electrical scans of the brain and heart to detect a patient’s “intrinsic brainwave frequency” and find “the area of the brain in need of restoration,” according to materials brought to the meeting. CereCare then uses that data to apply electromagnetic pulses from a machine called a transcranial magnetic stimulator.

This procedure is off-label, meaning it uses equipment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but in a way that is not approved by the agency. Off-label procedures are not uncommon or illegal, but the FDA has not signed off on their safety or effectiveness. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2018 at 12:51 pm

Snark so intense you can hear the tone of voice

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Kevin Drum.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2018 at 10:04 am

How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

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Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic:

These days, walking through parts of Manhattan feels like occupying two worlds at the same time. In a theoretical universe, you are standing in the nation’s capital of business, commerce, and culture. In the physical universe, the stores are closed, the lights are off, and the windows are plastered with for-lease signs. Long stretches of famous thoroughfares—like Bleecker Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue in the East 40s—are filled with vacant storefronts. Their dark windows serve as daytime mirrors for rich pedestrians. It’s like the actualization of a Yogi Berra joke: Nobody shops there anymore—it’s too desirable.

A rich ghost town sounds like a capitalist paradox. So what the heck is going on? Behind the darkened windows, there’s a deeper story about money and land, with implications for the future of cities and the rest of the United States.

Let’s start with the data. Separate surveys by Douglas Elliman, a real-estate company, and Morgan Stanley determined that at least 20 percent of Manhattan’s street retail is vacant or about to become vacant. (The city government’s estimate is lower.) The number of retail workers in Manhattan has fallen for three straight years by more than 10,000. That sector has lost more jobs since 2014, during a period of strong and steady economic growth, than during the Great Recession.

There are at least three interlinked causes. First, the rent, as you may have heard, is too damn high. It’s no coincidence that retail vacancies are highest in some of the most expensive parts of the city, like the West Village and near Times Square. From 2010 to 2014, commercial rents in the most-trafficked Manhattan shopping corridors soared by 89 percent, according to ­CBRE Group, a large real-estate and investment firm. But retail sales rose by just 32 percent. In other words, commercial rents have ascended to an altitude where small businesses cannot breathe. Some of the city’s richest zip codes have become victims of their own affluence.

Second, the pain of soaring rents is exacerbated by the growth of online shopping. It’s typically simplistic to point at a problem in the U.S. and say, “Well, because Amazon.” But it is no coincidence that New York storefront vacancy is climbing just as warehousing vacancy in the U.S. has officially reached an all-century low: A lot of goods are moving from storefronts to warehouses, where they are placed in little brown boxes rather than big brown bags.

Walking around the Upper East Side, where I live, I find it striking how many of the establishments still standing among the many darkened windows are hair salons, nail salons, facial salons, eyebrow places, and restaurants. What’s the one thing they have in common? You won’t find their services on Amazon. The internet won’t cut my hair, and not even the most homesick midwesterner goes online to order a deep dish to be delivered from Chicago to New York. Online shopping has digitized a particular kind of business—mostly durable, nonperishable, and tradable goods—that one used to seek out in department stores or similar establishments. Their disappearance has opened up huge swaths of real estate.

One might expect that new companies would fill the vacuum, particularly given the evidence that e-commerce companies can boost online sales by opening physical locations. But that brings us to the third problem: Many landlords don’t want to offer short-term leases to pop-up stores if they think a richer, longer-term deal is forthcoming from a national brand with money to burn, like a bank branch or retail chain. The upshot is a stubborn market imbalance: The fastest-growing online retailers are looking to experiment with short-term leases, but the landlords are holding out for long-term tenants.

New York’s problems today are an omen for the future of cities. Most people don’t live downtown because they love drifting off to the endearing sounds of honking cars and hollering investment bankers. Rather, they want access to urban activity, diversity, and charm—the quirky bars, the curious antique shops, the family restaurant that’s been there for generations—and the best way to buy that access is to own a bedroom in the heart of the city.

What happens when cities become too expensive to afford any semblance of that boisterous diversity? The author E. B. White called New York an assembly of “tiny neighborhood units.” But the 2018 landlord waiting game is denuding New York of its particularity and turning the city into a high-density simulacrum of the American suburb. The West Village landlords hoping to lease their spaces to national chains are turning one of America’s most famous neighborhoods into a labyrinthine strip mall. Their strategy bodes the disappearance of those quirky restaurants, curious antique shops, and any coffee shops that aren’t publicly traded on the NYSE.

In Jane Jacobs’s famous vision of New York, the city ideally served as a playful laboratory, which nursed new firms and ideas and exported its blessedly strange culture to the world. Today’s New York is the opposite: a net importer of the un-weird, so desperate to bring in national chains to pay exorbitant leases that landlords are willing to sit on barren blocks.

Economics assures us that, in the long run, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

15 October 2018 at 1:20 pm

Trump may be a Saudi patsy, but these people aren’t

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Jennifer Rubin has a strong column:

The Post reports:

The growing number of Western companies distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia over the alleged killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi is undermining the kingdom’s push to diversify its economy beyond oil and provide more opportunities for its young and often restive population.

By Friday afternoon, nearly a dozen tech, media and entertainment companies had backed out of a Saudi investment conference to be held this month, as dismay over Saudi agents’ alleged murder of Khashoggi spread to companies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to woo. . . .

Tech investor Steve Case said he was suspending plans to attend the conference and a meeting for a Saudi tourism project. Bob Bakish, chief executive of Viacom Inc., owner of MTV and movie studio Paramount Pictures, also said through a spokesman Thursday he would no longer be attending the conference. . . .

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was one of the first non-journalism executives to break with the Saudis. “I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea,” Branson said in a blog post Thursday.

Good for them. The next step should be for think tanks, universities and press outlets to disclose their Saudi funding, if any, and disentangle themselves from the repressive regime that does not value intellectual or press freedom. In fact, Congress should hold hearings to determine the extent of Saudi influence-buying in the United States — including their dealings with President Trump and his family.

Trump is promising to talk to King Salman — though there is no set date for their chat, and no looming threat of U.S. retaliation. It was not until Saturday that we heard anything emphatic on the subject. (“We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview, clips of which were released on Saturday.) We can surmise that his generally mild reaction to the apparent killing of a journalist might have had to do with Trump’s business interests. He may simply have too much to lose to take on the Saudi regime. If Democrats take control of the House, they should end Trump’s free ride on foreign emoluments, vote to disallow them, and then proceed to investigate his holdings and pursue divestiture. (Trump’s lack of urgency also might be nothing more than Trump’s gullibility in the face of the Saudis’ charm campaign. He is a sucker for repressive regimes that fawn over him.)

Whatever the reason for Trump’s belated reaction, Congress can and should proceed to reexamine our arm sales (while the administration professes satisfaction with the Saudis’ efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, human rights groups cite mass casualties). We must signal in a meaningful way that we will no longer tolerate Saudi Arabia’s repression at home and excesses in the region.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has it absolutely right: If appropriate, we should apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to any Saudi  official involved in what appears to be an abhorrent human rights atrocity. Cardin also urged:

Congress could consider the outcome of ongoing investigations when debating future U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, future International Military Education and Training assistance, and future U.S. support to the Saudi coalition’s role in the Yemen conflict — one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. We should also weigh the kingdom’s support for a truly transparent investigation when considering potential U.S.-Saudi nuclear power cooperation.

Meanwhile, during an interview this past week with Hugh Hewitt, national security adviser John Bolton sounded less than alarmed about the Saudis conduct. “Well, I don’t think we, we’ve known enough. I spoke with the crown prince [Thursday] along with Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spoke to the crown prince as well. The president has spoken to this issue,” he said. “It is something we need to get resolved. And we need to do it as soon as possible.” Resolved? Does he think there has been some mix-up the Saudis can clarify in a phone call? Bolton’s utter disinterest in human rights — with the exception of Iran — is among his many disconcerting attributes.

In sum, Trump’s slow-motion reaction . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 October 2018 at 1:38 pm

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