Thursday, August 03, 2006

gotcha! (2)

'Covering tracks'

Covering tracks

Aug 3rd 2006

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, 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 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, but also and 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,, 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 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.


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!

Edward Lucas said...

Dear Zzyis

as galiu suprantit lietuviskai-koks yra tekstu linkas? E

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.

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.



mariusmioc 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 . 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 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.