Thursday, August 03, 2006

gotcha! (2)

'Covering tracks'
Disinformation

Covering tracks

Aug 3rd 2006
From Economist.com


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.

14 comments:

ChrisO said...

Just read your Economist article, Ed - interesting stuff! You might want to check the Wikipedia edit history of Liliana Dioguardi. Note in particular this article which LD created - it would be interesting to know if this 2001 commission was an "astroturf" event as well...

Anders36 said...

Cool! Astroturf. Wag The Dog. Love it! Theres just one thing that doesnt jibe, you write that "there is no other trace of ICDISS involvement in Venezuela on the internet, barring a single line" and well, frankly, if i was involved in trying to topple Hugo Chavez, in that case i would not advertise it either, it is amazing that they would even put their name on a site like that, so no wonder they have to keep their heads down. Apart from that, great article. Just wanted to point out this minor, minor flaw...

Lucia said...

Edward, great article and investigation! Your (=Economist) article has been the topic of a Moldova TV show "Resonans" where the TV host conveyed the details in Russian.

Also, it's been widely circulated among educated Moldovans ... I received links to this article from 5 different people.

Edward Lucas said...

Edward Lucas said...
Thanks very much for the contributions. I think there's a very interesting point here about the internet, incidentally, which is that although at first sight it enables disinformation, in reality it makes it hard because everything is so traceable.
I am fascinated by Liliana D as her activities on Wikipedia seem to have got the whole thing going, and include the curiously elaborate pattern of providing "related" entries which Chriso quite rightly highlights.
I have left numerous messages for her in Wikipedia and elsewhere. One she deleted, the others she hasn't answered. Of course that's her privilege. But it does raise some questions.
I have been told firmly by Megan Stephenson that LD will not be answering my messages, and that by mentioning her in my article I may have endangered her family in Venezuela.
There clearly is someone called Liliana Dioguardia from Venezuela who pops up on a Yahoogroups site, writing in Spanish, based in Italy as an emigre. Did ICDISS just "borrow" her identity (risky). Or did she get hired by them for this new project? I hope to find out...
I am asking all my Latin American contacts for information but nobody has ever heard of ICDISS or any of the names associated with it.
Anders36 makes a reasonable point, but I think there is a strong counter-argument. If they really were involved in clandestine anti-Chavez efforts then why would they in 2006 suddenly stick a tiny mention of their existence on a near-dormant website. And not on every page, either.
I think the most likely explanation is that some people (or one of those) involved in ICDISS have some background in rather junior-level political dirty tricks from the anti-Chavez days, and are using this as cover for the new project.
The other lead is William Mauco. He has an extensive record of posting intelligent and fairly neutral entries on Wikipedia, not only about TD but about other unrecognised statelets. Crucially, these predate ICDISS's birthday of January 2006. And he also claims to have been at their conference in Mexico City in April of this year.
I have written to him asking to get in touch, and had a friendly email in reply.

I am planning to follow up this research in an article in European Voice at the end of August, so watch this space!
bestEdward

zzygis said...

Apparently organizations like ICDISS are quite common feature in the countries where Russia struggles to keep its influence.
Recently in Lithuania there was a legal action against Russia sponsored university - International Baltic Academy (www.tba.lt). Permits for educational activities were obtained illegally, allegedly involving some high ranking persons in LT education system. Its curriculum was heavily biased towards Russian interpretation of historical and political facts.
Currently ongoing new scandal is connected with yet another similar organization - Euroregion Livonia - Baltic. Its interests are connected with energy sector. After journalistic investigation (LT national TV) into its activities, connections with Russian interests were discovered. A person who is both a chair in that organization and member of LT parliament is given an ultimatum either to quit that organization or to stop membership of his party.

Unfortunately links to texts regarding those matters are in Lithuanian.

Edward Lucas said...

Dear Zzyis

as galiu suprantit lietuviskai-koks yra tekstu linkas? E

zzygis said...

Edward, pleasant surprise you understand Lithuanian :) So the links and some more info:

Russian university.

The organization (pro-west, pro-democracy, or what is the label for them, anyway in this context - the good guys) who found out what’s going on - "Kitas pasirinkimas” (The Other Choice). Their discussion forum covering, among other things, those events – http://pilieciai.lt

Final note about positive decision from the courts – to cancel government issued permit for university, to cancel slander accusations on KP and unlock KP newspaper bank accounts: http://pilieciai.lt/minerva/viewtopic.php?t=1007&highlight=baltijos+akademija

Article analysing how education and in particularly “Intentional Baltic Academy”, is/was used to project influence:
http://pilieciai.lt/minerva/viewtopic.php?p=847

Seccod issue I was mentioning. The resent still on going scandal regarding “Euro region Livonia” (extremely interesting choice of name).

Personally I see a lot of bias on both sides of the argument. For instance when Latvian Greens are protesting against LT oil terminal in Baltic sea, then its ok it’s a matter of ecology. But when Russian funded NGO is protesting against LT atomic power plant then it’s a Russia meddling with LT energy policies. But as far as I understud there were more activities that just protesting. Any way something is going on, MP who runs that NGO has chosen to close it and keep his party membership (this party in itself is very interesting entity):

http://www.delfi.lt/archive/article.php?id=10321624&categoryID=7&ndate=1154984400

Can’t find video of original program (LRT - National TV, weekly analysis program “Savaite”) that started everything, but there is a short clip (Click inside the box “Priedai”): http://www.lrt.lt//old_2006/news.php?strid=39424&id=2308151#

Currently VSD (Department of State Security) is running investigation into this, so waiting for results, but quite often things like that are ending in silence.

Patti McCracken said...

Hmmm. Interesting stuff. I'm a journalist who spent five months in Moldova as a Knight International Press Fellow. I wrote a commentary on Trans. for the SF Chronicle earlier this year, and was getting ready to write a piece on Trans. for a website, based on the bombings and grenade--ran across a ludicrous Q&A on Megan Stephenson, which led me to your site when I googled her and ICDISS. Thanks for the background on this mystery NGO.

Adi67 said...

I'm curious if it is possible to search for other references on the internet based on an available image (such as the image of Megan Stephenson posted on the website of Tiraspol Times in the interview). It does look like a poorly scanned or a downsized image.

Neoconomist said...

Sigh. Why dont you go and attack the Kaczynskis instead? That sinister - though alas for your theology, non Communist - regime is much more important to write about.

1) Is all this incessant theorising about "murky conspiracies" about communism and Russian influence not itself a kind of product of the communist mindset? Discuss

2) Isn't the point about propaganda that it should spread itself? How many people knew of this website before you pointed this out in an international magazine?

3) are you not just perpetuating myths and natles that don't themselves lead to any kind of further success for the Moldovans. Isn't a bit like talking about the wicked British to unemployed catholics in Belfast. (Since your article circulated in Moldova.)


4) Just curious. Do you see yourself as the Simon Bolivar of eastern Europe?

Move on

Edward Lucas said...

thanks for all the feedback. I am still hoping that Liliana D will get in touch. Total silence from ICDISS although they were promising to produce conclusive proof.

I have checked out their Venezuelan involvement and cannot find anyone who has heard of them...

I have come across one source (whom I can't quote or identify) who says he has met Megan Stephenson and that she does look like her picture in the Tiraspol Times

Finally, in response to "Neoconomist":

1) We are pretty critical of the Kaczynskis as a cursory look at the Economist website would show. I don't demonise them as much as their opponents do, but that's because I try to be fair. It's usually a bad idea to attack news coverage you don't like by saying "why not write about X" instead.

2) I think that my articles and other coverage have pretty much destroyed the ICDISS's credibility (especially given their lack of response). So no, I don' tthink I have been the unwitting tool of their propaganda. Anyone who googles them now comes easily to the critical coverage.

3) I wish Moldova well, but I don't see how my articles hurt its chances.

4) I do not see myself as Simon Bolivar in any way shape or form. My journalistic idols, such as they are, are Bruce Lockhart and Robert (Oxiana) Byron.

Regards
Edward

2)

Marius said...

Correction about William Mauco from Wikipedia: He didn't start his contributions at Wikipedia before ICDISS birthday in January 2006, but AFTER, in 9 March 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions&offset=20060311170111&limit=50&target=William+Mauco . He contribute almost only about Transnistria, even if in his presentation page he is claiming interest also about other unrecognized states.

World News said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
World News said...

Reply to....The website’s registration can be found at srsplus.com...... I have found many web sites uses that kind of techniques to hide their real information. But i don't think it is good to do such stuffs, it may creat bad mpressions about the Registrar or Domain Reseller or the concerned parties.

On last sunday i was searching the web for
>Domain Reseller
stuffs and i found the Resellerclub which is Domain Reseller and Webhosting Company.....and the same hack is they also provides reverse IP functionality to their Resellers and you can hide your real identity through privacy protect.