How to disguise, inflate and disappear on the internet
TRACKING down the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS) which seems to be a front organisation for a Kremlin-backed rogue statelet called Transdniestria (see article), is easy at first, then very difficult.
The first port of call is, of course, icdiss.org. This is nicely designed and eloquently written. At first sight, it looks like just what it claims to be—the product of some seasoned foreign-policy wonks who want to get their hands dirty in helping new countries to get on their feet. But all the details are strikingly vague.
The website’s registration can be found at srsplus.com. Googling those details shows no trace on the internet for the “Robinson Corbett-Smith” who registered the site on January 14th this year. The address given is a hotel. The phone number is incomplete. A reverse IP search reveals that the site is hosted in Riga, Latvia, along with 850-odd others, mostly relatively innocent such as rapegod.com, but also pridnestrovie.net and visitpmr.com which are propaganda sites for Transdniestria. These sites acknowledge help from the ICDISS.
A Lexis-Nexis search for the ICDISS, in all languages and media going back 20 years, produces not a single entry. None of the people supposedly working for it—Joseph Connolly, Megan Stephenson or William Wood—appear in any plausible foreign-policy context in internet searches. A Wikipedia entry is authoritative but vague. It refers to a foreign-policy blog, diplomadic.blogspot.com, which it implies has connections to the ICDISS. But this has been largely defunct, and contains no mention of the organisation.
The Wikipedia entry’s history shows that some unkind person has tried to change it, to say that the ICDISS is based not in Washington, DC but in the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, and is made up not of 60 diplomats and specialists, but four officers of the ministry of state security there.
The original author of the entry, who works under the name of Liliana Dioguardi, has changed it back to the more flattering version. So who’s she? Someone of that name, apparently an Italian-based Venezuelan émigré, has contributed in Spanish to an internet discussion in 2004. But her mobile is disconnected and her landline doesn’t answer. An e-mail brings no response.
Further investigation of the ICDISS website reveals several different versions of a controversial document on Transdniestrian independence, which has been published in the Russian media, supposedly authored by eminent Western jurists. The Russian version is subtly different in its attribution, saying that the report is “based on” their work. The English version says it “draws from research by a number of noted attorneys, in particular the following:” Later versions drop all the attributions—presumably after complaints from the individuals concerned (which have been seen by The Economist).
The report is supposedly based on a conference held at the Beacon Hotel in Washington in April. The hotel says it has no trace of such a booking.
Meanwhile, an e-mail to the ICDISS has produced a response, apparently from Ms Stephenson. She has been interviewed in the Tiraspol Times, an online magazine produced (again, expertly but mysteriously) in support of the authorities there.
But whereas that interview is forceful and forthcoming, Ms Stephenson is polite but elusive when dealing with The Economist. A list of questions includes:
1) Who funds you?
2) Where are you based?
3) Who are your trustees?
4) What is your tax status?
5) What are your publications?
6) Was your April 2006 conference on PMR (the Russian acronym for Transdniestria) public? If so, who attended it?
7) Who are your staff?
8) Why does your website not give a physical address or phone number?
9) Why is your website registered in Mexico?
In response, she says merely: “We tend to shy away from publicity, in part because it may hurt our access and work but—more importantly—because it is potentially damaging to our collaborators in the countries where we work to affect [sic] changes.” Repeated requests bring a few more details. The ICDISS was active in trying to topple Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, she says. Some of their people are still in jail there.
That chimes, faintly, with Ms Dioguardi’s involvement on their Wikipedia entry. But there is no other trace of ICDISS involvement in Venezuela on the internet, barring a single line, in faint, tiny type, at the bottom of the home pages in English and Spanish on militaresdemocraticos.com. The report’s author, Mr Wood, supposedly a Mexico-based lawyer and former United Nations bureaucrat, is on holiday in Guatemala and uncontactable. The hotel bill for the mysterious Beacon hotel conference is in the New York office of Mr Connolly, supposedly the director of the ICDISS steering committee. He declines to fax a copy, instead making veiled threats of legal action.
It is possible that ICDISS is a genuine but publicity-shy outfit that was involved, quixotically or self-interestedly, in trying to topple Mr Chávez, and now, for whatever reason, is promoting Transdniestria. If so, it would be very easy for Ms Stephenson to prove her bona fides, for example by giving a phone number for some reputable person or organisation that could vouch for her organisation. Despite repeated requests over several days, this doesn’t happen.