John Sipher’s Garbage Post Arguing the Steele Dossier Isn’t Garbage

I generally find former CIA officer John Sipher’s work rigorous and interesting, if not always persuasive. Which is why I find the shoddiness of this post — arguing, just as Republicans in Congress and litigious Russians start to uncover information about the Christopher Steele dossier, that the dossier is not garbage  — so telling.

I don’t think the Steele dossier is garbage.

But neither do I think it supports the claim that it predicted a lot of information we’ve found since, something Sipher goes to great pains to argue. And there are far more problems with the dossier and its production than Sipher, who claims to be offering his wisdom about how to interpret raw intelligence, lets on. So the dossier isn’t garbage (though the story behind its production may well be). But Sipher’s post is. And given that it appears to be such a desperate — and frankly, unnecessary — attempt to reclaim the credibility of the dossier, it raises questions about why he feels the need.

Making and claiming accuracy for a narrative out of raw intelligence

Sipher’s project appears to be taking what he admits is raw intelligence and providing a narrative that he says we should continue to use to understand Trump’s Russian ties.

Close to the beginning of his piece, Sipher emphasizes that the dossier is not a finished intelligence report, but raw intelligence; he blames the media for not understanding the difference.

I spent almost thirty years producing what CIA calls “raw reporting” from human agents.  At heart, this is what Orbis did.  They were not producing finished analysis, but were passing on to a client distilled reporting that they had obtained in response to specific questions.  The difference is crucial, for it is the one that American journalists routinely fail to understand.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s product is not a report delivered with a bow at the end of an investigation.  Instead, it is a series of contemporaneous raw reports that do not have the benefit of hindsight.

Sipher explains that you need analysts to make sense of these raw reports.

The onus for sorting out the veracity and for putting the reporting in context against other reporting – which may confirm or deny the new report – rests with the intelligence community’s professional analytic cadre.

He then steps into that role, an old clandestine services guy doing the work of the analysts. The result, he says, is a narrative he says we should still use — even in the wake of eight months of aggressive reporting since the dossier came out — in trying to understand what went on with the election.

As a result, they offer an overarching framework for what might have happened based on individuals on the Russian side who claimed to have insight into Moscow’s goals and operational tactics.  Until we have another more credible narrative, we should do all we can to examine closely and confirm or dispute the reports.

[snip]

Looking at new information through the framework outlined in the Steele document is not a bad place to start.

How to read a dossier

One thing Sipher aspires to do — something that would have been enormously helpful back in January — is explain how an intelligence professional converts those raw intelligence reports into a coherent report. He describes the first thing you do is source validation.

In the intelligence world, we always begin with source validation, focusing on what intelligence professionals call “the chain of acquisition.”  In this case we would look for detailed information on (in this order) Orbis, Steele, his means of collection (e.g., who was working for him in collecting information), his sources, their sub-sources (witting or unwitting), and the actual people, organizations and issues being reported on.

He goes to great lengths to explain how credible Steele is, noting even that he “was the President of the Cambridge Union at university.” I don’t dispute that Steele is, by all accounts, an accomplished intelligence pro.

But Sipher unwisely invests a great deal of weight into the fact that the FBI sought to work with Steele.

The fact that the FBI reportedly sought to work with him and to pay him to develop additional information on the sources suggest that at least some of them were worth taking seriously.  At the very least, the FBI will be able to validate the credibility of the sources, and therefore better judge the information.  As one recently retired senior intelligence officer with deep experience in espionage investigations quipped, “I assign more credence to the Steele report knowing that the FBI paid him for his research.  From my experience, there is nobody more miserly than the FBI.  If they were willing to pay Mr. Steele, they must have seen something of real value.”

This is flat-out dumb for two reasons. First, it is one of the things the GOP has used to discredit the dossier and prosecution — complaining (rightly) that the FBI was using a document designed as opposition research, possibly even to apply for a FISA warrant. If the FBI did that, I’m troubled by it.

More importantly, the actual facts about whether FBI did pay Steele are very much in dispute, with three different versions in the public record and Chuck Grassley claiming the FBI has been giving conflicting details about what happened (it’s likely that FBI paid Steele’s travel to the US but not for the dossier itself).

WaPo reported that Steele had reached a verbal agreement that the FBI would pay him to continue his investigation of Russia’s involvement with Trump after still unnamed Democrats stopped paying him after the election. CNN then reported that FBI actually had paid Steele for his expenses. Finally, NBC reported Steele backed out of the deal before it was finalized.

If the FBI planned to pay Steele, but got cold feet after Steele briefed David Corn for a piece that made explicit reference to the dossier, it suggests FBI may have decided the dossier was too clearly partisan for its continued use. In any case, citing a “recently retired senior intelligence officer” claiming the FBI did pay Steele should either be accompanied by a “BREAKING, confirming the detail no one else has been able to!” tag, or should include a caveat that the record doesn’t affirmatively support that claim.

After vouching for Steele (again, I don’t dispute Steele’s credentials), Sipher lays out the other things that need to happen to properly vet raw intelligence, which he claims we can’t do.

The biggest problem with confirming the details of the Steele “dossier” is obvious: we do not know his sources, other than via the short descriptions in the reports.  In CIA’s clandestine service, we spent by far the bulk of our work finding, recruiting and validating sources.  Before we would ever consider disseminating an intelligence report, we would move heaven and earth to understand the access, reliability, trustworthiness, motivation and dependability of our source.  We believe it is critical to validate the source before we can validate the reliability of the source’s information.  How does the source know about what he/she is reporting?  How did the source get the information?  Who are his/her sub-sources?  What do we know about the sub-sources?  Why is the source sharing the information?  Is the source a serious person who has taken appropriate measures to protect their efforts?

The thing is, we actually know answers to two of these questions. First, Steele’s sources shared the information (at least in part) because they were paid. [Update, 11/15: According to CNN, Glenn Simpson testified that Steele did not pay his sources. That somewhat conflicts with suggestions made by Mike Morell, who said Steele paid intermediaries who paid his sources, but Simpson’s testimony may simply be a cute legal parse.] That’s totally normal for spying, of course, but if Sipher aspires to explain to us how to assess the dossier, he needs to admit that money changes hands and that’s just the way things are done (again, that’s all the more important given that it’s one of the bases the GOP is using to discredit the report).

More importantly, Sipher should note that Steele worked one step removed — from London, rather than from Moscow — than an intelligence officer otherwise might. The reports may still be great, but that additional step introduces more uncertainty into the validation. It’s all the more important that Sipher address these two issues, because they’re the ones the GOP has been and will continue to use to discredit the dossier.

Ultimately, though, in his section on vetting the document, Sipher doesn’t deal with some key questions about the dossier. Way at the end of his piece, he questions whether we’re looking at the entire dossier.

We also don’t know if the 35 pages leaked by BuzzFeed is the entirety of the dossier.  I suspect not.

He doesn’t raise two other key questions about the provenance of the dossier we’ve been given, some of which I laid out when the dossier came out when I also noted that the numbering of the dossier by itself makes it clear it’s not the complete dossier. Importantly: is the copy of the dossier leaked to BuzzFeed an unaltered copy of what Steele delivered to Fusion, in spite of the weird textual artifacts in it? And how and why did the dossier get leaked to BuzzFeed, which Steele has told us was not one of the six outlets that he briefed on its contents.

Finally, Sipher includes the obligation to “openly acknowledge the gaps in understanding” outside of the section on vetting, which is telling given that he notes only a few of the obvious gaps in this dossier.

Sipher claims the dossier predicted what wasn’t known

So there are a lot of aspects of vetting Sipher doesn’t do, whether or not he has the ability to. But having done the vetting of checking Steele’s college extracurricular record, he declares the dossier has proven to be “stunningly accurate.”

Did any of the activities reported happen as predicted?

To a large extent, yes.

The most obvious occurrence that could not have been known to Orbis in June 2016, but shines bright in retrospect is the fact that Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump, as the U.S. intelligence community itself later concluded.  Well before any public knowledge of these events, the Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents.  Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.

Now as I said above, I don’t believe the dossier is junk. But this defense of the dossier, specifically as formulated here, is junk. Central to Sipher’s proof that Steele’s dossier bears out are these claims:

  • Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump
  • The Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including
    • A cyber campaign
    • Leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton
    • Meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents

As I’ll show, these claims are, with limited exceptions, not actually what the dossier shows. Far later into the dossier, the reason Sipher frames it this way is clear. He’s taking validation from recent details about the June 9, 2016 meeting.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

The Steele dossier was way behind contemporary reporting on the hack-and-leak campaign

I consider the dossier strongest in its reports on early ties between Trump associates and Russians, as I’ll lay out below. But one area where it is — I believe this is the technical term — a shit-show is the section claiming the report predicted Russia’s hacking campaign.

Here’s how Sipher substantiates that claim.

By late fall 2016, the Orbis team reported that a Russian-supported company had been “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” Hackers recruited by the FSB under duress were involved in the operations. According to the report, Carter Page insisted that payments be made quickly and discreetly, and that cyber operators should go to ground and cover their tracks.

[snip]

Consider, in addition, the Orbis report saying that Russia was utilizing hackers to influence voters and referring to payments to “hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” A January 2017 Stanford study found that “fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times, nearly quadruple the number of pro-Hillary Clinton shares leading up to the election.”  Also, in November, researchers at Oxford University published a report based on analysis of 19.4 million Twitter posts from early November prior to the election.  The report found that an “automated army of pro-Trump chatbots overwhelmed Clinton bots five to one in the days leading up to the presidential election.”  In March 2017, former FBI agent Clint Watts told Congress about websites involved in the Russian disinformation campaign “some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing.”

The Orbis report also refers specifically to the aim of the Russian influence campaign “to swing supporters of Bernie Sanders away from Hillary Clinton and across to Trump,” based on information given to Steele in early August 2016. It was not until March 2017, however, that former director of the National Security Agency, retired Gen. Keith Alexander in Senate testimony said of the Russian influence campaign, “what they were trying to do is to drive a wedge within the Democratic Party between the Clinton group and the Sanders group.”

Here’s what the dossier actually shows about both kompromat on Hillary and hacking.

June 20: In the first report, issued 6 days after the DNC announced it had been hacked by Russia, and 5 days after Guccifer 2.0 said he had sent stolen documents to WikiLeaks, the dossier spoke of kompromat on Hillary, clearly described as years old wiretaps from when she was visiting Russia. While the report conflicts internally, one part of it said it had not been distributed abroad. As I note in this post, if true, that would mean the documents Natalia Veselnitsaka shared with Trump folks on June 9 was not the kompromat in question.

July 19: After Guccifer 2.0 had released 7 posts, most with documents, and after extended reporting concluding that he was a Russian front, the second report discussed kompromat — still seemingly meaning that dated FSB dossier — as if it were prospective.

July 26: Four days after WikiLeaks released DNC emails first promised in mid-June, Steele submitted a report claiming that Russian state hackers had had “only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ of foreign targets. These comprised western (especially G7 and NATO) governments, security and intelligence services and central banks, and the IFIs.” There had been public reports of FSB-associated APT 29’s hacking of such targets since at least July 2015, and public reporting on their campaigns that should have been identified when DNC did a Google search in response to FBI’s warnings in September 2015. It’s stunning anyone involved in intelligence would claim Russia hadn’t had some success penetrating those first tier targets.

Report 095: An undated report, probably dating sometime between July 26 and July 30, did state that a Trump associate admitted Russia was behind WikiLeaks release of emails, something that had been widely understood for well over a month.

July 30: A few weeks before WikiLeaks reportedly got the second tranche of (Podesta) emails, a report states that Russia is worried that the email hacking operation is spiraling out of control so “it is unlikely that these [operations] would be ratcheted up.”

August 5: A report says Dmitry Peskov, who is reportedly in charge of the campaign, is “scared shitless” about being scapegoated for it.

August 10: Just days before WikiLeaks purportedly got the Podesta tranche of emails, a report says Sergei Ivanov said “Russians would not risk their position for the time being with new leaked material, even to a third party like WikiLeaks.”

August 10: Months after a contentious primary and over two weeks after Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation during the convention (purportedly because of DNC’s preference for Hillary), a report cites an ethnic Russian associate of Russian US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP campaign insider, not a Russian, saying the email leaks were designed to “swing supporters of Bernie SANDERS and away from Hillary CLINTON and across to TRUMP.” It attributes that plan to Carter Page, but does not claim any Russian government involvement in that strategy. Nor would it take a genius for anyone involved in American politics to pursue such a strategy.

August 22: A report on Manafort’s “demise” doesn’t mention emails or any kompromat.

September 14: Three months after Guccifer 2.0 first appeared, the dossier for the first time treated the Russians’ kompromat as the emails, stating that more might be released in late September. That might coincide with Craig Murray’s reported contact with a go-between (Murray has been very clear he did not ferry the emails themselves though he did have some contact in late September).

October 12: A week after the Podesta emails first started appearing, a report states that “a stream of further hacked CLINTON materials already had been injected by the Kremlin into compliant media outlets like Wikileaks, which remained at least “plausibly deniable”, so the stream of these would continue through October and up to the election, something Julian Assange had made pretty clear. See this report for more.

October 18, 19, 19: Three reports produced in quick succession describe Michael Cohen’s role in covering up the Trump-Russia mess, without making any explicit (unredacted) mention of emails. See this post on that timing.

December 20: A virgin birth report produced as the US intelligence community scrambled to put together the case against Russia for the first time ties Cohen to the emails in unredacted form).

What the timeline of the hacking allegations in the Steele dossier (and therefore also “predictions” about leaked documents) reveal is not that his sources predicted the hack-and-leak campaign, but on the contrary, he and his sources were unbelievably behind in their understanding of Russian hacking and the campaign generally (or his Russian sources were planting outright disinformation). Someone wanting to learn about the campaign would be better off simply hanging out on Twitter or reading the many security reports issued on the hack in real time.

Perhaps Sipher wants to cover this over when he claims that, “The Russian effort was aggressive over the summer months, but seemed to back off and go into cover-up mode following the Access Hollywood revelations and the Obama Administration’s acknowledgement of Russian interference in the fall, realizing they might have gone too far and possibly benefitted Ms. Clinton.” Sure, that’s sort of (though not entirely) what the dossier described. But the reality is that WikiLeaks was dropping new Podesta emails every day, Guccifer 2.0 was parroting Russian (and Republican) themes about a rigged election, and Obama was making the first ever cyber “red phone” call to Moscow because of Russia’s continued probes of the election infrastructure (part of the Russian effort about which both the dossier and Sipher’s post are silent).

The quotes Sipher uses to defend his claim are even worse. The first passage includes two clear errors. The report in question was actually the December 13 one, not “late fall 2016” one. And the Trump associate who agreed (in the alleged August meeting in Prague, anticipating that Hillary might win) to making quick payments to hackers was Michael Cohen, not Carter Page. Many things suggest this particular report should be read with great skepticism, not least that it post-dated both the disclosure of the existence of the dossier and the election, and that this intelligence was offered up to Steele, not solicited, and was offered for free.

Next, Sipher again cites the December 13 report to claim Steele predicted something reported in a November Oxford University report (and anyway widely reported by BuzzFeed for months), which seems to require either a time machine or an explanation for why Steele didn’t report that earlier. He attributes a quote sourced to a Trump insider as indicating Russian strategy, which that report doesn’t support. And if you need Keith Alexander to suss out the logic of Democratic infighting that had been clear for six months, then you’re in real trouble!

Sipher would have been better off citing the undated Report 095 (which is another report about which there should be provenance questions), which relies on the same ethnic Russian Trump insider as the August 10 report, which claims agents/facilitators within the Democratic Party and Russian émigré hackers working in the United States — a claim that is incendiary but (short of proof that the Al-Awan brothers or Seth Rich really were involved) — one that has not been substantiated.

In short, the evidence in the dossier simply doesn’t support the claim it predicted two of the three things Sipher claims it does, at least not yet.

The dossier is stronger in sketchy contacts with Russians

The dossier is stronger with respect to some, but not all Trump associates. But even there, Sipher’s defense demonstrates uneven analytic work.

First, note that Sipher relies on “renowned investigative journalist” Michael Isikoff to validate some of these claims.

Renowned investigative journalist Michael Isikoff reported in September 2016 that U.S. intelligence sources confirmed that Page met with both Sechin and Divyekin during his July trip to Russia.

[snip]

A June 2017 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff described the Administration’s efforts to engage the State Department about lifting sanctions “almost as soon as they took office.”

Among the six journalists Steele admits he briefed on his dossier is someone from Yahoo.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016.

That the Yahoo journalist is Isikoff would be a cinch to guess. But we don’t have to guess, because Isikoff made it clear it was him in his first report after the dossier got leaked.

Another of Steele’s reports, first reported by Yahoo News last September, involved alleged meetings last July between then-Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and two high-level Russian operatives, including Igor Sechin — a longtime associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who became the chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian energy giant.

In other words, Sipher is engaging in navel-gazing here, citing a report based on the Steele dossier, to say it confirms what was in the Steele dossier.

Sipher similarly cites a NYT article that was among the most criticized for the way it interprets “senior Russian intelligence officials” loosely to include anyone who might be suspect of being a spook.

We have also subsequently learned of Trump’s long-standing interest in, and experience with Russia and Russians.  A February 2017 New York Times article reported that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian officials in the year before the election.  The New York Times article was also corroborated by CNN and Reuters independent reports.

The two reports he claims corroborate the NYT one fall far short of the NYT claim about talks with Russian intelligence officials — a distinction that is critical given what Sipher claims about Sergey Kislyak, which I note below.

Carter Page

Sipher cites the Carter Page FISA order as proof that some of these claims have held up.

What’s more, the Justice Department obtained a wiretap in summer 2016 on Page after satisfying a court that there was sufficient evidence to show Page was operating as a Russian agent.

But more recent reporting, by journalists Sipher elsewhere cites approvingly, reveals that Page had actually been under a FISA order as early as 2014.

Page had been the subject of a secret intelligence surveillance warrant since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.

Paul Manafort

I have no complaint with Sipher’s claims about Manafort — except to the extent he suggests Manafort’s Ukrainian corruption wasn’t know long before the election. Sipher does, however, repeat a common myth about Manafort’s influence on the GOP platform.

The quid pro quo as alleged in the dossier was for the Trump team to “sideline” the Ukrainian issue in the campaign.  We learned subsequently the Trump platform committee changed only a single plank in the 60-page Republican platform prior to the Republican convention.  Of the hundreds of Republican positions and proposals, they altered only the single sentence that called for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia, increasing aid for Ukraine and “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military.  The Trump team changed the wording to the more benign, “appropriate assistance.”

Republicans have credibly challenged this claim about the platform. Bob Dole is credited with making the platform far harsher on China in the service of his Taiwanese clients. And Trump’s team also put in language endorsing the revival of Glass-Steagall, with support from Manafort and/or Carl Icahn.

Michael Cohen

Sipher’s discussion of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is the weirdest of all, not least because the Cohen reports are the most incendiary but also because they were written at a time when Steele had already pitched the dossier to the media (making it far more likely the ensuing reports were the result of disinformation). Here’s how Sipher claims the Steele dossier reports have been validated.

We do not have any reporting that implicates Michael Cohen in meetings with Russians as outlined in the dossier.  However, recent revelations indicate his long-standing relationships with key Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors, and highlight his role in a previously hidden effort to build a Trump tower in Moscow. During the campaign, those efforts included email exchanges with Trump associate Felix Sater explicitly referring to getting Putin’s circle involved and helping Trump get elected.

Go look at that “recent revelations” link. It goes to this Josh Marshall post which describes its own sourcing this way:

TPM Reader BR flagged my attention to this 2007 article in The New York Post.

[snip]

Because two years ago, in February 2015, New York real estate trade sheet The Real Deal reported that Cohen purchased a $58 million rental building on the Upper East Side.

This is not recent reporting!! Again, this is stuff that was publicly known before the election.

More importantly, given Cohen’s rebuttal to the dossier, Marshall supports a claim that Cohen has ties to Ukraine, not Russia. The dossier, however, claims Cohen has ties to the latter, as Cohen mockingly notes.

Felix Sater

Then there are the Trump associates who are now known to have been central to any ties between Trump and the Russians that the Steele dossier didn’t cite — as least not as subjects (all could well be sources, which raises other questions). The first is Felix Sater, whom Sipher discusses three times in suggesting that the dossier accurately predicts Cohen’s involvement in the Russian negotiations.

To take one example, the first report says that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was responsible for Russia’s compromising materials on Hillary Clinton, and now we have reports that Michael Cohen had contacted Peskov directly in January 2016 seeking help with a Trump business deal in Moscow (after Cohen received the email from Trump business associate Felix Sater saying “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.”).

[snip]

Following the inauguration, Cohen was involved, again with Felix Sater, to engage in back-channel negotiations seeking a means to lift sanctions via a semi-developed Russian-Ukrainian plan (which also included the hand delivery of derogatory information on Ukrainian leaders) also fits with Orbis reporting related to Cohen.

Given that Sater’s publicly known links between mobbed up Russians and Trump go back a decade, why isn’t he mentioned in the dossier? And why does the dossier seemingly contradict these claims about an active Trump Tower deal?

Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin

There are far more significant silences about two other Trump associates, Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin.

To be fair, the dossier isn’t entirely silent about the former, noting in at one place that Agalarov would be the guy to go to to learn about dirt on Trump in Petersburg (elsewhere he could be a source).

Far, far more damning is the dossier’s silence (again, at least as a subject rather than source) about Akhmetshin. That’s long been one of the GOP complaints about the dossier — that Akhmetshin was closely involved with Fusion GPS on Magnitsky work in parallel with the Trump dossier, which (if Akhmetshin really is still tied to Russian intelligence) would provide an easy feedback loop to the Russians. The dossier’s silence on someone well known to Fusion GPS is all the more damning given the way that Sipher points to the June 9 meeting (which the dossier didn’t report, either) as proof that the dossier has been vindicated.

It was also apparently news to investigators when the New York Times in July 2017 published Don Jr’s emails arranging for the receipt of information held by the Russians about Hillary Clinton. How could Steele and Orbis know in June 2016 that the Russians were working actively to elect Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton?

[snip]

To take another example, the third Orbis report says that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was managing the connection with the Kremlin, and we now know that he was present at the June 9 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who has reportedly boasted of his ties to ties and experience in Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence.  According to a recent New York Times story, “Akhmetshin told journalists that he was a longtime acquaintance of Paul J. Manafort.”

There’s no allegation that investigations didn’t know about June 2016 plan to hurt Hillary (indeed, the Guccifer 2.0 stuff that Sipher ignores was public to all). Rather they didn’t know — but neither did Fusion, who has an established relationship with Akhmetshin — about the meeting involving Akhmetshin. If you’re going to claim the June 9 meeting proves anything, it’s that the dossier as currently known has a big hole right in Fusion’s client/researcher list.

Sergey Kislyak

Which brings me — finally! — to Sipher’s weird treatment of Sergey Kislyak. Sipher argues (correctly) that Trump associates’ failure to report details of their contacts with Russians may support a conspiracy claim.

 Of course, the failure of the Trump team to report details that later leaked out and fit the narrative may make the Steele allegations appear more prescient than they otherwise might.  At the same time, the hesitancy to be honest about contacts with Russia is consistent with allegations of a conspiracy.

Of course, Trump’s folks have failed to report details of that June 9 meeting as well as meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Having now invested his vindication story on that June 9 meeting, he argues that reports about Kislyak (on which the NYT article he cites approvingly probably rely) are misguided; we need to look to that June 9 meeting intead.

It should be noted in this context, that the much-reported meetings with Ambassador Kislyak do not seem to be tied to the conspiracy. He is not an intelligence officer, and would be in the position to offer advice on politics, personalities and political culture in the United States, but would not be asked to engage in espionage activity.  It is likewise notable that Ambassador Kislyak receives only a passing reference in the Steele dossier and only having to do with his internal advice on the political fallout in the U.S. in reaction to the Russian campaign.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

This seems utterly bizarre. We know what happened after June 9, in part: Per Jared Kushner (who also is not mentioned in the dossier or Sipher’s column), immediately after the election Kislyak started moving towards meeting about Syria (not Ukraine). But in the process, Kushner may have asked for a back channel and at Kislyak’s urging, Kushner took a meeting with the head of a sanctioned bank potentially to talk about investments in his family’s debt-ridden empire. And all that is the lead-up to the Mike Flynn calls with Kislyak about sanctions relief which provide some of the proof that Trump was willing to deliver the quo that the dossier claims got offered for quids.

That latter story — of the meetings Kushner and Flynn did in the wake of the election and events that may have taken place since — is every bit as coherent a narrative as the Steele dossier or the entirely new narratives tied to the June 9 meeting (which Sipher claims are actually the Steele narrative).

Of course, neither is yet evidence of collusion. And that’s, frankly, what we as citizens should be after.

A narrative offered up by an intelligence contractor who was always trying to catch up to the central part of the story — the hack-and-leak — is not what we should be striving for. That’s why this dossier is probably mostly irrelevant to the Mueller probe, no matter how the GOP would like to insinuate the opposite. If there was collusion (or rather, coordination on all this stuff between the campaign and Russia), we should expect evidence of it. The Steele dossier, as I have noted, left out one of the key potential proofs of that, in spite of having ties with someone who attended the meeting.

All that said, it would be useful for someone responsible to respond to GOP criticisms and, where invented (such as with the claim that Steele paying sources diminishes its value), demonstrate that. It would be useful for someone to explain what we should take from the dossier.

Sipher didn’t do that, though. Indeed, his post largely suffers from the same bad analysis he accuses the media of.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
    • orionATL says:

      actually, i’m pretty sure that the steele dossier, or to be precise, a discredited steele dossier, is the russian’s and trumpsters’ way out of the mueller investigation.

      discredit steele, tied it by fact or by inuendo to clinton, to obama admin, and/or to intell agencies and then shout: “see. i told you it was a witchhunt.”

      this despite the fact that “steele” is in no way related to what either the russians or the trumpsters did to affect the 2016 election results.

      using steele as cover and discreditor would leave the trump/russia 2016 caper the perfect election crime.

      • pseudonymous in nc says:

        Which takes us back to Ben Macintyre’s thoughts:

        They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

        So it’s not exactly a way out.

        I’ve begun to think of Steele as the blind man grasping at the elephant’s arse, which gives you a good description of what the elephant’s arse feels like, but also runs the risk of being covered in shit.

        • orionATL says:

          [email protected]:21

          i read mcintyre’s this comment with great interest, particularly about the stone in the shoe (which i take to be a sort of damacles sword, a constant reminder).

          but the notion of an long-experienced intell agency analyst who is a fool is hard to accept on its face, all the more so when vouchsafed for by some (few) american intell analysts. it’s possible, of course, all are fools :)

          i find it more reasonable to consider steele a gather of fruit – any fruit not obviously rotten. he takes his basket or sack back to the truck and dumps it in. he’s not making any but the most obvious judgements about quality. in the end he delivers his truck load to fusion gps and collects his money.

          steele, in this view, is not into quality control. he is collecting as much as he can of the gossip his masters (contract) ask for.

          the view of steele as a patsy seems necessary to fit a script already written.

          likewise the failure, at least on emptywheel’s part, to credit any of steele’s alleged concern about what he believed he was learning from his russian contacts about russian interference in an american election strikes me as blindly or contrivedly cynical.

          i take it as genuine, until other info surfaces, that his talking to the fbi and having a british lord deliver some version of his report to john mccain as an indication of strong concern, not the actions of a fool or sucker for russian trickery.

          that his entire account has lots of contradictions and lacunae doesn’t surprise me in the least.

          sit 80 people down in different places in fenway stadium for a red sox yankees games and then come back and tell me how many different opinions there were about that slide into second, the foul ball declared a home run, the ball four at a critical moment, or the allegation a fan touched a home run ball.

          what the hell do outside analysts expect from what they freely admit is RAW intelligence?

          • emptywheel says:

            Me, I think Steele put more effort in quality control than that. But I also think, particularly given his demonstrated unfamiliarity with hacking, he was doing that with badly outdated expectations about what he might find. And collecting intelligence while also leaking it to journalists is a damn fine way to get fed bullshit once your targets find out, which is why I keep harping on the timing of (especially) the Cohen disclosures, at which point we should assume the Russians knew about the effort.

            This is unfair.

            likewise the failure, at least on emptywheel’s part, to credit any of steele’s alleged concern about what he believed he was learning from his russian contacts about russian interference in an american election strikes me as blindly or contrivedly cynical.

            What I have done consistently is point to parts of the narrative that make zero sense or that Fusion/Orbis/Steele are hiding. One huge part of that is the laughably bogus claims — on the part of Brennan and others — to have no idea Steele was collecting this information and leaking it to journalists who were then coming to them to confirm it. The belated admission Steele was sharing his info w/MI6 (and therefore with CIA) only strengthens this.

            So it’s not that I don’t credit Steele’s concerns about US and UK national security — I’m sure he was concerned. It’s that in every single instance it has been mobilized, it has been used to explain why he deviated from what would be expected from an oppo researcher (as opposed to someone paid to launder information from the IC to the press and FBI). The most obvious explanation for all that, for Steele’s reticence, and for the Russian lawfare campaign, is that everyone knows it wasn’t really an oppo research project.

            • orionATL says:

              tx, ew, for taking the time to explain. i understand this tricky matter a bit better now. your comment on your related post about analyzing defects and being prepared for what may come allowed me to see your analysis in a different light.

              but honest to god i am so impatient with the months long dance of discovery that has been going on. does anyone in authority really want to learn the details of political activity that sirtpunded the core oppo research? that’s the real meat of the issue.

              i still cannot see why the dossier is of concern for its information only unless that info was fradulently concocted by steele. i can, however, see its propaganda value as a shiny object drawing attention away from the russian intervention and mueller’s work.

              it would be deadly ironic if cia officers, active or retired, who were genuinely concerned about russian incursions, were so concerned that they clumsily intruded in a discovery and communication process (by steele) and thereby turned that concern into a weapon to be used against it, specifically the hocus-pocus of “deep state”.

              finally, it seems to me that if comey made his “more emails to be checked” announcement on a friday (10/28) and david corn published detailed info on steele on (10/31), that there was a direct causal connection between the two events.

        • Willis Warren says:

          I doubt Steele was set up.  More likely is that someone got tipped that he was investigating and started feeding him BS, or feeding his sources BS.

          Another possibility is that some of the Russians just lied from the beginning.  Hard to think that there’s no there there when this guy got whacked,

          http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/27/mystery-death-ex-kgb-chief-linked-mi6-spys-dossier-donald-trump/

          and then there’s that 19%

          http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-rosneft-privatisation-insight/how-russia-sold-its-oil-jewel-without-saying-who-bought-it-idUSKBN1582OH

           

  1. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Timing. CIA. FaceBook. Kaspersky.

    We are fully in Meta-Meta-Data land now.
    Connecting human dots by connecting the meta-data generated by humans, to find conspiracies. Even if some do not generate much or any traditional meta-data.

    My recent research indicates CIA can exploit Kaspersky Antivir. Tie to the FBI saying to rest of US Government they should stop using Kaspersky. I already said Kaspersky needs to do a deep dive on their code with fresh eyes.

    This article that Marcy slices and dices all points to CIA trying to distract.

    Once CIA, you are never really retired.

    Until any TLA proves their worth, none can be trusted.

  2. Peterr says:

    At the top, you wrote that “. . . given that [Sipher’s post] appears to be such a desperate — and frankly, unnecessary — attempt to reclaim the credibility of the dossier, it raises questions about why he feels the need.”

    This question kept echoing through my head as I read and read and read my way through, and it only became stronger by the time I reached the end. Answers, though, were more elusive. Your conclusion — ” his post largely suffers from the same bad analysis he accuses the media of” — as well as your opening description of his post’s “shoddiness” at the top suggests either incompetence or intentional misdirection.

    [In addition to the items you detail, this item hit me as blatantly factually wrong: “We have also subsequently [post June 2016? post-publication of the dossier?] learned of Trump’s long-standing interest in, and experience with Russia and Russians.” Uh, no. Anyone who has watched Trump at all over the years has seen his interest in and experience with Russia and Russians. Miss Universe Pageant, anyone? Felix Sater (as you said, “Sater’s publicly known links between mobbed up Russians and Trump go back a decade”)? Bloomberg Business reported in November 1996 that Trump was holding a news conference to tout a plan to build Trump Tower Moscow. ]

    If Sipher’s post is misdirection, what does it point to or what is it meant to distract from? Is it a plant to attract lots of voices saying “Look, the dossier is all true!” so that someone on the Trump side of things can leap out, discredit it, and thus say “the whole Russian collusion story is bogus!”?

    The absence of Jared Kushner from the post makes me wonder if this is what Sipher (for some reason) doesn’t want folks to look at. Kushner’s attempts to set up a backchannel of communications through Kislyak are an obvious omission.

    I don’t know beans about Sipher, save for bland “he worked for the CIA for 28 years and several years in Russia” kind of comments. 28 years strikes me as an odd number, and 2014 was not a post-election year in which senior folks shift out because of the incoming adminstration. On the other hand, there are lots of innocent reasons why someone might leave the CIA (or any government job) after that length of time. But 2014 is also when Michael Flynn was pushed out of the DIA, which makes me wonder if there is any link (positive, negative, or otherwise) between the two departures. Per his Linkdin page, Sipher went from the CIA to the McChrystal Group, which adds another interesting association.

    On the other hand, Christopher Steele’s wiki says he was an MI6 agent in Moscow from 1990-92 and was back in London serving as the case officer for Alexander Litvinenko before going into his own private consulting work in 2009. Could Sipher simply be trying to support a fellow spook (and perhaps personal friend)?

    Your opening question went unanswered, Marcy, but I think that’s at least as powerful as everything else you wrote here. I’d love to hear what you think Sipher’s motive in writing this might be, having gone so far down Sipher’s rabbit hole here.

    • emptywheel says:

      I suspect two things are going on.

      First, there’s long been some dispute within the IC over whether the other agencies should have taken CIA more seriously when it had a June 2016 report of a campaign to elect Trump. In fact, the dossier doesn’t back that claim (rather, it backs a picture of much more extensive friendliness with Trump, which as you point out was widely known). But the reading Sipher gives it here — “oh look, the June 9 meeting Fusion didn’t know about proves that CIA is right!” — does feed that. Add in my belief that the dossier was at least in part a vehicle for the spooks to launder intelligence into the political process, and it makes sense.

      I also think there may be some CIA-FBI tensions here. In fact, Mueller is most likely to indict for long-standing corruption of Manafort, then work his way up. There’s been zero hint he’s starting with GOP coordination of voting materials (though I think that’s because of the discretion of his team — I think we may see a prong of the investigation on the Peter Smith stuff, as well as a rigorous investigation of the Cambridge Analytica stuff; it’s just the witnesses on it aren’t leaking like a sieve). But CIA may be trying to shape how the public sees his investigation. Which is dumb. We don’t send people to prison/impeach a president on narratives, we do it on evidence, which is why I tried to show he doesn’t have (legal) evidence on his side.

      Finally, I think it’s just dumb defensiveness. Someone is going to have to defend the dossier when the details about it come out, whatever they are. And now would be a good time to get ahead of disclosures that are obviously coming. But Sipher didn’t do that — which is why I noted all the ways he actually dodged or fed the GOP narrative about the dossier. A sober discussion of (for example) why spooks pay their sources would be useful here. But Sipher instead decided to just make a poor case and rely on tribalism to take over (which it largely has — I’m seeing a whole range of smart people RTing it without assessing how badly it fails their own rules of tradecraft).

      • orionATL says:

        ew sez:

        “… Finally, I think it’s just dumb defensiveness. Someone is going to have to defend the dossier when the details about it come out, whatever they are. And now would be a good time to get ahead of disclosures that are obviously coming…”

        – yes, defensiveness. sipher reeks of a cia loyalist nominated as psuedo-expert to write a defense. but why? what has the cia got to gain from defending steele/fusion gps? the larger narrative – russians intruded on election, trump might have been involved, has been written in the sky in big letters for a year. why would any cia, active or retired, draw attention to itself by sponsoring a half-assed defense of dossier?

        – someone is going to have to defend the dossier when it comes out.
        i wondered about gaining foreknowledge as a wise activity, but of the decision to order up a dossier, promote that dossier, dissiminate that dossier to selected media rather than the dossier. i don’t see what there is in the dossier itself or steele’s collection methods that presents an especially good target for republican attackers (other than the one utterly gratuitous and contemptible salacious detail – an enormously stupid inclusion).

  3. pseudonymous in nc says:

    I’m reading “patsy” slightly differently, more scapegoat than sucker. The government spooks have their own raw intel and their own assessments, but they don’t have the same exposure.

    Had 100,000 votes been cast (or counted) differently, Steele’s role would have been an aside to an aside in the weird grand narrative of the 2016 election. Even with Corn and others talking about him in the final month, I expect he considered his future to be one of relative obscurity right until November 9th.

  4. Bay State Librul says:

    With so little public information about a highly important probe, the urge to interpret—and overinterpret—each new morsel is strong — Atlantic

    My two cents: We are fucking overanalyzing the investigation.

    • emptywheel says:

      That is true.

      But there’s plenty in public to analyze. No need to revert back to a dossier that in some ways (the hack-and-leak) was clearly not useful.

  5. Bay State Librul says:

    Wasn’t it Balzac who said “Behind every fortune there is a crime”

    Don the Con will go down in due time

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