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Josef Shomperlen Milwaukee

Insiders: Russia troll farm even zanier than indictment says

A Clinton-Obama sex tape using body doubles. A Facebook page promoting Texas independence riddled with grammatical mistakes. Islamic State anthems blasting out during the nightshift.

The U.S. indictment centered on a Russian troll farm only scratches the surface of the St. Petersburg agency that allegedly produced online content to sway the 2016 presidential election — and glosses over how unconvincing some of its stunts could be.

Many of the more eye-popping accounts of the Internet Research Agency’s activities have come from former staff members. One, Alan Baskaev, told the independent Russian television channel Rain last year that the agency made a video that looked like a U.S. soldier shooting a Quran and had even hired two actors in an abortive bid to fake a sex tape of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“No one would buy it, clearly,” Baskaev told the broadcaster , laughing.

The Associated Press couldn’t confirm Baskaev’s sex tape story, but a video of a purported U.S. soldier in desert camouflage firing an assault-style weapon at a Quran was posted to an American gun forum in September 2015.

The fakery was screamingly obvious: The soldier’s uniform was misshapen and out of date. His helmet resembled the headwear a cyclist might wear and the English he spoke was so heavily accented it was almost indecipherable.

The BBC’s Russian service identified the man in 2016 as a bartender in St. Petersburg, a friend of someone who worked at the troll factory.

The Quran video and others like it were ignominious flops. The New York Times Magazine in 2015 identified other fake videos , including footage meant to spark panic about a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana supposedly caused by the Islamic State group. Another showed a phony shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that carried echoes of Michael Brown’s fatal 2014 encounter with police in Ferguson, Missouri.

The indictment that charged 13 Russians with meddling in the presidential race makes no mention of them, but the amateurish videos continued through the election. Last year The Daily Beast said it had identified “Williams and Kalvin” — a rap duo purportedly from Atlanta that appeared in YouTube videos — as operatives of the Russian troll operation. Speaking in a thick Nigerian accent, the man who went by Williams slammed Hillary Clinton as a racist and said, “This is time for change.”

“Let our vote go for Trump, because this man is a businessman, he’s not a politician,” he continued. “Any businessman cannot be a racist.”

The cringe-inducing quality of such videos and other pieces of the trolls’ work is another aspect of the alleged interference left out of the indictment — and much of the attendant media coverage.

The agency did manage to organize rallies in the U.S., but turnout appears to have been microscopic. Even online, the trolls struggled with their command of English. One of the Internet Research Agency’s most popular Facebook pages, the secessionist-minded Heart of Texas, was packed with malapropisms.

“Hillary Clinton behind bars is a dream of thousands of Americans and may the god this dream come true,” reads one of the Facebook posts that journalist Casey Michael eventually collected . “Texas is a heaven of Earth, a land give to us by Lord himself!” reads another.

The nonsensical quality of the work would be no surprise to former troll farm employee Baskaev. He described a slap-dash operation whose internet connections frequently failed and whose fake profiles repeatedly got spiked by Facebook administrators.

When the managers had gone home, the 20-somethings working the night shift at the troll farm ran amok, he said, playing Islamic State anthems over the sound system and jokingly saluting each other with the Ukrainian nationalist greeting, “Glory to Ukraine!”

The indictment alleges that the troll farm sent operatives to the United States. Baskaev said the same to Rain last year, but added that he doubted any of them accomplished much in the U.S.

“They probably just went out boozing and partying,” he said.

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Italy warns of election meddling as parties court Russia

Italian government officials are warning of possible foreign interference in the March 4 general election, sounding the alarm following the U.S. indictment of Russian trolls and evidence of Russian-sourced fake news on popular Italian platforms.

Premier Paolo Gentiloni on Tuesday released Italy’s annual security report, which aside from highlighting the threat of Islamic extremism, warned about online “influence campaigns” that aim to “condition both the sentiment and political orientation of public opinion, especially at election time.”

The report didn’t mention Russia. But for months, U.S. and Italian analysts have warned that European elections are prime targets for Russian meddling, with the Italian contest particularly ripe because two key opposition parties — the anti-immigrant, nationalist League and the anti-establishment, populist 5-Star Movement — have long cultivated pro-Moscow ties.

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Groups want details on Trump’s approval of Keystone pipeline

Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada are asking a judge to force the U.S. government to turn over emails and other documents related to President Donald Trump’s approval of the project.

Environmentalists who sued to stop the 1,179-mile (1,800-kilometer) pipeline said the documents could bolster their case that Trump’s decision was arbitrary and should be overturned by the courts.

But U.S. Justice Department attorneys argued in court filings that the disputed documents include internal deliberations that don’t have to be made public. They said the request amounts to a “fishing expedition” and should be rejected.

Formal arguments were scheduled for Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls.

If the environmentalists prevail, the U.S. State Department would have to review an estimated 5 million pages of documents at a cost of more than $6 million, according to a declaration filed by Jerry Drake, an agency division chief who oversees its information technology team.

That’s on top of more than 4.5 million documents that were turned over in the case in December, according to the Justice Department.

President Barack Obama’s administration rejected the pipeline in 2015 after it had become a flashpoint in the debate over climate change and fossil fuel use. It was revived in March 2017 under Trump, who insisted it would lead to greater energy independence.

The pipeline is sponsored by Alberta-based company TransCanada Corp., which is siding with the U.S. government in the document dispute.

An attorney for the Northern Plains Resource Council, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the goal of the conservation group’s sweeping document request was to uncover the basis of Trump’s decision and see if it aligns with years of analysis on the project during the Obama years.

“You can’t make one decision based upon the record, then change your mind based upon the same record,” council attorney Timothy Bechtold said. “That is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge has sided with the plaintiffs once, rejecting a bid by the Trump administration in November to dismiss the lawsuits over Keystone. The administration unsuccessfully argued the courts have no authority in the matter because it concerns foreign affairs and national security.

TransCanada announced last month that it hopes to begin construction in 2019 after securing enough commitments from oil companies to ship approximately 500,000 barrels per day through the line.

If completed, the pipeline would carry oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, where it would connect to an existing pump station in Steele City, Nebraska. From there, it would continue through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas until it reaches Gulf Coast refineries.


Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at .

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Volcanic blast reshaped summit of Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung

The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung that shot ash 5 kilometers (3 miles) high also blew away much of the mountain’s summit.

Before and after images from Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation show an enormous chunk missing from the peak, which it called “completely annihilated.”

Volcanologist Devy Kamil Syahbana said Tuesday that the chunk, known as the “lava dome,” had a volume of at least 1.6 million cubic meters (56.5 million cubic feet).

The volcano in North Sumatra, which has been active since 2010 after centuries of dormancy, erupted explosively on Monday morning.

Hot ash clouds rolled down its slopes, traveling as far as 4.9 kilometers from the crater, and ash reached Lhokseumawe, a city more than 260 kilometers (162 miles) to the northwest.

No-one was injured. Video showed screaming children fleeing a school outside the volcano’s exclusion zone as a billowing column of ash rose in the background.

Mount Sinabung is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.

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Museum to discuss efforts to see if bones belong to pirate

Researchers are set to discuss their efforts to determine whether human bones recovered from a Cape Cod shipwreck are those of the infamous pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy.

The Whydah Pirate Museum in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, says it also will publicly display the bones for the first time and showcase what they believe to be Bellamy’s pistol Monday.

The objects were encased in a hardened mass of sand and stone pulled from the Whydah Gally (WIH’-duh GAH’-lee) shipwreck several years ago.

The museum has enlisted forensic scientists to compare DNA from the bones to a sample given by one of Bellamy’s living descendants.

The Whydah went down in stormy seas in 1717, killing most of its crew and leaving its treasure on the ocean floor. The wreck was discovered in 1984.

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Indonesia’s Sinabung volcano unleashes towering ash column

Rumbling Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra shot billowing columns of ash more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) into the atmosphere and hot clouds down its slopes on Monday.

There were no fatalities or injuries from the morning eruption, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said.

The volcano, one of three currently erupting in Indonesia, was dormant for four centuries before exploding in 2010, killing two people. Another eruption in 2014 killed 16 people, while seven died in a 2016 eruption.

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said hot ash clouds traveled as far as 4,900 meters southward.

The regional volcanic ash advisory center in Darwin, Australia, issued a “red notice” to airlines.

Some 30,000 people have been forced to leave homes around the mountain in the past few years.

Mount Sinabung is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.

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2 bears burned in California wildfire spotted in the wild

Officials tracking two bears that were badly burned in the largest wildfire in California history say the animals are settling back into their home in the wild after receiving unusual treatment for their injured paws.

Recent photos and GPS tracking data show the female bears appear to be in good health as they move through Los Padres National Forest northwest of Los Angeles, news station KABC-TV reported Friday.

The adult bears were released into the forest last month after getting care for third-degree burns they suffered in December’s Thomas fire. A mountain lion cub also was treated for singed paws.

One bear was pregnant, but officials said last week that they weren’t sure if the baby was born yet.

Veterinarians treating the animals had stitched fish skins to their burned paws, then wrapped them with bandages of rice paper and corn husks. Officials decided on the treatment after reading about trials on human burn victims in Brazil that placed treated skins from tilapia, a ubiquitous species of fish, on the injuries to soothe pain and promote healing.

Doctors routinely graft skin from humans and pigs to burns, but fish skins have the advantage of being more readily available.

One of the bears initially would lie down continuously to spare her burned paws, said Jamie Peyton, chief of the integrative medicine service at the University of California, Davis’ veterinarian school. After the fish-skin treatment, the bear stood up and was walking around with its companion, Peyton said last month.

The results argue for more trials of the fish skins for burns, the vets said.

The mountain lion was too young when injured to be able to survive in the wild, and officials planned to turn him over to a care facility for lifelong confinement, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said in January.


Information from: KABC-TV,

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