Facebook’s Global Data: A Parallel Intelligence Source Rivaling NSA

In April, Facebook released a laudable (if incredible) report on Russian influence operations on Facebook during the election; the report found that just .1% of what got shared in election related activity go shared by malicious state-backed actors.

Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.

[snip]

The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook.

Facebook also rather coyly confirmed they had reached the same conclusion the Intelligence Community had about Russia’s role in tampering with the election.

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.

While skeptics haven’t considered this coy passage (and Facebook certainly never called attention to it), it means a second entity with access to global data — like the NSA but private — believes Russia was behind the election tampering.

Yesterday, Facebook came out with another report, quantifying how many ads came from entities that might be Russian information operations. They searched for two different things. First, ads from obviously fake accounts. They found 470 inauthentic accounts paid for 3,000 ads costing $100,000. But most of those didn’t explicitly discuss a presidential candidate, and more of the geo-targeted ones appeared in 2015 than in 2016.

  • The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
  • Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
  • About one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016.
  • The behavior displayed by these accounts to amplify divisive messages was consistent with the techniques mentioned in the white paper we released in April about information operations.

Elsewhere Facebook has said some or all of these are associated with a troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, in Petersburg.

The Intelligence Community Report on the Russia hacks specifically mentioned the Internet Research Agency — suggesting it probably had close ties to Putin. But it also suggested there was significant advertising that was explicitly pro-Trump, which may be inconsistent with Facebook’s observation that the majority of these ads ran policy, rather than candidate ads.

Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign.

  • The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.
  • A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.

The other thing Facebook did was measure how many ads that might have originated in Russia without mobilizing an obviously fake account. That added another $50,000 in advertising to the pot of potential Russian disinformation.

In this latest review, we also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia — even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort. This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian — even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law. In this part of our review, we found approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads.

Still, that’s not all that much — it may explain why Facebook found only .1% of activity was organized disinformation.

In its report, Facebook revealed that it had shared this information with those investigating the election.

We have shared our findings with US authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary.

Subsequent reporting has made clear that includes Congressional Committees and Robert Mueller’s team. I’m curious whether Mueller made the request (whether using legal process or no), and Facebook took it upon themselves to share the topline data publicly. If so, we should be asking where the results of similar requests to Twitter and Google are.

I’m interested in this data — though I agree with both those that argue we need to make sure this advertising gets reviewed in campaign regulations, and those who hope independent scholars can review and vet Facebook’s methodology. But I’m as interested that we’re getting it.

Facebook isn’t running around bragging about this; if too many people groked it, more and more might stop using Facebook. But what these two reports from Facebook both reflect is the global collection of intelligence. The intelligence is usually used to sell highly targeted advertisements. But in the wake of Russia’s tampering with last year’s election, Facebook has had the ability to take a global view of what occurred. Arguably, it has shared more of that intelligence than the IC has, and in the specific detail regarding whether Internet Research Agency focused more on Trump or on exacerbating racial divisions in the country, it has presented somewhat different results than the IC has.

So in addition to observing (and treating just as skeptically as we would data from the NSA) the data Facebook reports, we would do well to recognize that we’re getting reports from a parallel global intelligence collector.

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 13: 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. [Update, 12/10/17: Just Security has fixed this error.] 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.

Update: In the original I got the date of the final report incorrect. That has been corrected.

Update, 12/10/17: I didn’t realize it, but Just Security updated Sipher’s post to include this language, which it explains with an editor’s note saying “Editor’s note: This article was update to provide additional analysis on Carter Page.” Compare this with this. Here’s the language.

Admittedly, Isikoff’s reporting may have relied on Steele himself for that information. Isikoff, however, also reported that U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it. There are also other indicia that are also consistent with the Orbis report but only developed or discovered later. In early December 2016, Page returned to Moscow where he said he had “the opportunity to meet with an executive from” Sechin’s state oil company. In April 2017, Page confirmed that he met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence officer in 2013. Court documents include an intercept in April 2013 of conversations between the Russians discussing their effort to recruit Page as “as an intelligence source.” A Russian intelligence officer said of Page: “He got hooked on Gazprom … I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money … For now his enthusiasm works for me. I also promised him a lot … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.” In late December 2016, Sechin’s chief of staff, Oleg Erovinkin “who may have been a source for ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s Trump dossier,” according to multiple reports, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow.

But this passage introduces new errors for Sipher’s post!

First, here’s the language (in an article Just Security never links) Sipher relies on to justify using Isikoff’s Steele-based reporting to claim Steele had been proven correct.

After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.”

A senior U.S. law enforcement official did not dispute that characterization when asked for comment by Yahoo News. “It’s on our radar screen,” said the official about Page’s contacts with Russian officials. “It’s being looked at.”

It is true that “U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it,” and that Harry Reid was leaking from the Steele dossier just like Isikoff was. But the “senior US law enforcement officer” does not back the identities of those Page met with, just that “it’s being looked at.”

That’s important for the way that Page’s meetings with people other than Igor Sechin have been used to claim the dossier has borne out. Not-A = A. Which is what Sipher does here, by pointing to Page saying he met with Rosneft but not Sechin. “Page says he was not referring to Sechin in his remarks,” the linked AP story says (as does Page’s congressional testimony).

Then Sipher points to language unsealed in a court filing in January 2015 that Page admitted — after reporting on it — was him. That Page was wrapped up in an earlier Russian spy prosecution is another of those things one might ask why Steele didn’t know, particularly given that the filing and the case was already public.

But the citation also exacerbates the problems with Sipher’s reliance on Page’s FISA wiretap as proof the Steele dossier proved out. As I noted above, later reports stated Page had been under FISA wiretap “since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.” That means it wasn’t the meetings in Russia, per se, that elicited the interest, but (at least) the earlier interactions with Russian spies.

Finally, Sipher points to the death of Oleg Erovinkin, something I’ve pointed to myself (and which would only be “Carter Page” analysis if Page actually had met with Sechin). Since Sipher updated this post, however, Luke Harding wrote (on page 101),

Steele was adamant that Erovinkin wasn’t his source and “not one of ours.”

As a person close to Steele put it to me: “Sometimes people just die.”

I’m not sure I find Harding entirely reliable elsewhere, and I can see why Steele would deny working with Erovinkin if the leak of his work had gotten the man killed. But if you buy Harding, then Erovinkin no longer proves the value of the Steele dossier either.

Update, 12/10: According to the Wayback Machine this change was made between October 25 and November 6. Ryan Goodman explained that he didn’t give me a hat-tip for this correction because he’s not sure whether he corrected because of me because a Daily Caller reporter also weighed in.

It is true that Chuck Ross (with whom I discuss the dossier regularly) tweeted that Sipher’s Isikoff reference was self-confirming on November 4, shortly before the change was made.

Ryan and I had a conversation about the errors in this piece on September 6, when the post first came out, both on Twitter then–late that evening–on DM. I included a link to my post.

I guess Ryan is now confessing he never read this post, and let notice of egregious errors sit unreviewed for two months, because he didn’t like my tone.

 

The Post-Press Michael Cohen Details in the Steele Dossier

I’m doing a long response on this unfortunately terrible John Sipher post trying to calm questions about the Steele dossier. As part of Sipher’s post, he makes these claims about Michael Cohen, the allegations against whom in the Steele dossier are actually far more inflammatory than against Carter Page and Paul Manafort.

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.

Further, the Trump Administration’s effort lift sanctions on Russia immediately following the inauguration seems to mirror Orbis reporting related to Mr. Cohen’s promises to Russia, as reported in the Orbis documents.  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.”  Their efforts were halted by State Department officials and members of Congress.  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.

He also botches the most inflammatory claims about Cohen, getting (in this reference but not another one) the date of the December 13 report wrong, that it mentioned Cohen, not Page, and that Cohen — or anyone else on the Trump team — personally paid hackers.

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]

Trump campaign operative Carter Page is also said to have played a role in shuttling information to Moscow, while Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, reportedly took over efforts after Manafort left the campaign, personally providing cash payments for Russian hackers.

I’m not so much interested in those  typos — I’m sure they’ll be fixed. But I am interested in Sipher’s apparent lack of curiosity about the Cohen reporting.

I’ve long noted that that most inflammatory report (the one Sipher claims came out in late fall but actually came out as the IC was looking for a compelling case against Russia in December) came out after David Corn had already publicly revealed the existence of the dossier (and just a few weeks before a likely source for the dossier died in suspicious circumstances). We now know that Steele claims the information in it was offered up for free.

Those details should raise real questions about that last report.

But as pseudonymous in NC has been pointing out, the other three reports invoking Cohen were produced in remarkably quick succession, based on mid-October meetings.

It’s worth clearing your mind and reading 134-135-136 in sequence to see how that strand developed.

134/Oct 18: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation with trusted compatriot emphasizes “a key role” played by Cohen. Some redaction in Buzzfeed doc, no indication of a meeting.

135/Oct 19: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation (the same one?) says Cohen met “in an EU country in August 2016”, but unsure of “the exact date/s and locations.”

136/Oct 20: “Kremlin insider” speaking on October 19 “clearly indicated” in “cryptic” terms that meeting was in Prague using plausibly deniable contacts and location.

Assuming the same or very similar provenance for all three notes — and given the compressed timeframe, I think we’re okay to do that — that’s a lot of elaboration on Cohen in three days from at least two separate conversations, where presumably the one described in 136 was guided by Steele’s feedback on the earlier one.

On top of the quick succession of these inflammatory reports just weeks before the election, there are two other reasons to take note of the timing.

First, as Steele has admitted, he started briefing reporters on the existence and contents of the dossier by late September, and briefed reporters (including Michael Isikoff, whom Sipher cites repeatedly in his post without noting he got briefed on the Steele dossier in real time) in person in mid-October.

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. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person.

As I note, the claim that these were the only reporters who got briefed (by someone) conflicts with the claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Whatever the truth of the total numbers of reporters who got briefed, they had already been briefed and were presumably actively trying to confirm details from the dossier — with unknown operational security — in advance of those three Cohen reports.

That by itself ought to raise real questions about those reports.

Then there’s the fact that Cohen traveled to London in in October. The BuzzFeed review of Cohen’s (sole, Cohen claims) passport shows three trips to Europe: once to Italy in July, once to the London in October, and another trip to London in November, after the election.

The stamps indicate he traveled abroad at least four times in 2016: twice to London, once to St. Maarten, and once to Italy in July. The Italian trip is the most intriguing, because it places Cohen in what’s known as the Schengen Area: a group of 26 European countries, including the Czech Republic, that allows visitors to travel freely among them without getting any additional passport stamps.

Upon entering the Schengen Area, visitors get a rectangular stamp with the date, a country code, their port of entry, and a symbol showing how they entered — such as an airplane or a train. In Cohen’s passport, that mark appears on page 17, with a date of July 9. The mark is too faint to be fully legible. The exit stamp, similar but with rounded edges, is also light, but the letters “cino” are legible, indicating he flew out of Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome. That stamp is dated July 17.

[snip]

Regarding the three other 2016 stamps in his passport, Cohen said he visited London twice, where his daughter is studying: once in October for a birthday party and again in November for Thanksgiving. He said he vacationed in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in January.

Cohen’s Twitter feed shows a break between October 5 and October 12, which may reflect a trip overseas. And while I don’t buy a lot of this post, it shows Cohen’s daughter’s birthday was in early October.

That could either be inculpating or exonerating with respect to Cohen’s role in meeting with Russians; it offered a time and place where Cohen might have met with Russians (though presumably under close view of Steele and his buddies).

But it should raise real questions about whether reports on Cohen have been injected with disinformation. Once reporters started reporting this out, it’s far more likely Russian sources would also learn about the dossier and feed deliberate disinformation to known Steele sources.

CNN Worries about Mueller’s Aggressive Tactics, But Real Concern May Be Senate Intelligence Committee

CNN has a cryptic story — pitched as evidence that the committees conducting the Russian investigation may be clashing with the Mueller investigation — suggesting two kinds of “aggressive tactics” on the part of Robert Mueller’s team.

The less cryptic of the two tactics is that the FBI seized attorney-client privileged documents in the morning raid of Manafort’s house.

Mueller issued subpoenas to Manafort’s former lawyer and current spokesman and authorized a pre-dawn raid of his Virginia home in late July.

During that raid, Mueller’s investigators took documents considered to be covered by attorney-client privilege, sources told CNN.

Lawyers from the WilmerHale law firm, representing Manafort at the time, warned Mueller’s office that their search warrant didn’t allow access to attorney materials. The documents in question have now been returned, the sources say.

The episode raised questions about whether investigators have seen materials they weren’t entitled to obtain.

“You can’t unsee something,” one source said.

It’s not an uncommon problem in FBI investigations. US attorneys typically have separate document-review teams to prevent investigators from handling materials they aren’t allowed to have. It’s not clear what procedures Mueller’s office uses.

We first head of this claim not from Manafort, but from Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, via an email sent to WSJ but instead reported by Fox.

Dowd also said agents seized “privileged and confidential materials prepared for Mr. Manafort by his counsel to aid him in his cooperation with the Congressional committees,”

The claim that this privileged information pertained to Manafort’s cooperation with the Congressional committees may help to elucidate the second claim: that Mueller’s lawyers made an agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about what they could obtain from the Senate Intelligence Committee, then overstepped it in trying to get an actual transcript of the interview. CNN rather unhelpfully doesn’t tell us when Mueller made the agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, before or after the interview and the raid.

After Manafort privately interviewed with Senate intelligence committee staff in late July to discuss the June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian operatives, Mueller’s lawyers have struggled to get a copy of the interview transcript.

Manafort’s attorneys, in talks with the special counsel’s office, agreed to allow Mueller’s team only to get the documents Manafort had turned over to the committee, not the interview transcript, according to the sources.

Yet an attorney with the Mueller team later told the committee that they were authorized by Manafort’s representatives to have the Manafort interview transcript, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN. Committee lawyers later learned from Manafort’s attorneys that they had not provided that consent, the sources say.

As a result of the dispute, the committee hasn’t turned over any documents and the matter is still under discussion, sources say.

That’s critically important given the concern (which is real), that Mueller’s team “can’t unsee something.” That is, they may have seen something in the privileged communications about Manafort’s interview strategy that made them interested in the transcript, and only then asked for the transcript. Alternately, Manafort (and/or Dowd!) may just be bullshitting here, in a way to get SSCI to withhold something that became far more damning after the raid on his home.

Dowd’s other complaints — that Mueller didn’t need to raid Manafort’s home because he could get everything via other means, as witnessed by Manafort’s cooperation with SSCI — suggest the latter may be the case.

Dowd, in his note, questioned the validity of the search warrant itself, calling it an “extraordinary invasion of privacy.” Dowd said Manafort already was looking to cooperate with congressional committees and said the special counsel never requested the materials from Manafort.

“These failures by Special Counsel to exhaust less intrusive methods is a fatal flaw in the warrant process and would call for a Motion to Suppress the fruits of the search,” Dowd wrote, arguing the required “necessity” of the warrant was “misrepresented to the Court which raises a host of issues involving the accuracy of the warrant application and the supporting FBI affidavit.”

But there’s something else important here. As I laid out here, the Mueller raid happened in the wake of two developments in the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Monday, July 24 (“last night” in a July 25 release), Grassley and Feinstein issued a subpoena for Manafort, in particular complaining that Manafort wanted to appear before just one committee, SSCI.

While we were willing to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request to cooperate with the committee’s investigation without appearing at Wednesday’s hearing, we were unable to reach an agreement for a voluntary transcribed interview with the Judiciary Committee.  Mr. Manafort, through his attorney, said that he would be willing to provide only a single transcribed interview to Congress, which would not be available to the Judiciary Committee members or staff.  While the Judiciary Committee was willing to cooperate on equal terms with any other committee to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request, ultimately that was not possible. Therefore, yesterday evening, a subpoena was issued to compel Mr. Manafort’s participation in Wednesday’s hearing. As with other witnesses, we may be willing to excuse him from Wednesday’s hearing if he would be willing to agree to production of documents and a transcribed interview, with the understanding that the interview would not constitute a waiver of his rights or prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

That is, Manafort was digging his heels in on a strategy that would have him cooperate exclusively with SSCI, not with SJC. And, as with Mueller, Manafort was refusing to turn over that transcript to SJC.

Faced with the threat of the subpoena, however, Manafort agreed to turn over documents and suggested he might be willing to do a separate transcribed interview.

Faced with issuance of a subpoena, we are happy that Mr. Manafort has started producing documents to the Committee and we have agreed to continue negotiating over a transcribed interview. It’s important that he and other witnesses continue to work with this committee as it fulfills its oversight responsibility. Our investigation is still in its early stages, and we will continue to seek information from witnesses as necessary. As we’ve said before, we intend to get the answers that we need, one way or the other. Cooperation from witnesses is always the preferred route, but this agreement does not prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

This is the reluctant, last minute “cooperation” that Dowd pointed to as basis for his claim that Mueller could have gotten Manafort’s cooperation via other means, and part of that cooperation had Manafort undergoing a transcribed interview solely with SSCI.

Hours after Manafort made this agreement with SJC, Mueller’s team raided Manafort.

Two more details are worth recalling. We now know that on the day the WaPo broke the story of Mueller’s raid of Manafort, Donald Trump bitched out Mitch McConnell on the phone about not protecting him in the Russia probe. NYT described Trump as being even angrier about that than McConnell’s failure to pass TrumpCare.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

That’s when Dowd started emailing reporters at Murdoch publications, complaining that the Manafort raid endangered Trump.

Now consider that the other thing CNN includes among Mueller’s aggressive tactics — his subpoena of Manafort’s former lawyer Melissa Laurenza — is effectively a subpoena of a former McConnell staffer.

The subpoenas seeking documents and testimony were sent to Melissa Laurenza, an attorney with the Akin Gump law firm who until recently represented Manafort, and to Jason Maloni, who is Manafort’s spokesman, according to people familiar with the matter.

So it may be that Trump believed Manafort had certain understandings with McConnell that the raid — executed hours after Manafort’s SSCI interview — disrupted.

All that being said, once you consider that both Mueller’s team and Grassley’s committee are facing similar difficulties with Manafort, it suggests the focus here should not be on Mueller, but instead on what kind of special deals SSCI (Chaired by former Trump advisor Richard Burr) is offering up.

Sure, we have yet to have committees granting immunity to protect the president and his lackeys — which is what thwarted the Iran-Contra investigation. But given that SSCI seems to have offered to serve as a black hole for Manafort’s sworn claims, I think it time to stop assuming, as many in DC are doing, that that’s where the grown-ups live.

Two Addendums To Ben Wittes’ “How to Read an Investigation”

It’s September 4, 2017. I’m going to say something nice about Ben Wittes.

His post, How to Read a News Story About an Investigation: Eight Tips on Who Is Saying What, is a useful primer for how to read all these stories about the investigations into the Russian hacks. As someone who covered the last major Presidential investigation (the CIA Leak Investigation) far more closely than Ben, in large point because the sourcing on those stories was so badly abused, I’ve been thinking about a similar post on how to cover such cases (which would include the advice “don’t do tick tick tick boom tweets because they turn our legal system into a game”). I’d include much of what he wrote here. I have slightly to significantly less faith in the sourcing rigor of journalists than Ben does — a skepticism that served me well even before the time we learned Pulitzer prize winner Judy Miller agreed to refer to the Vice President’s Chief of Staff as a “former Congressional staffer” to hide that leaked classified information (possibly including Plame’s identity) came from the vicinity of PapaDick. But in general this is a useful start.

I’d two more general rules, though. First, while Ben implicitly suggests you need to consider the beat of the journalists in question in this passage, I’d make it an explicit rule. Consider the beat of the journalist writing the story.

The story is attributed “to interviews with a dozen administration officials and others briefed on the matter.” This is a show of strength upfront on the part of reporters Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman (who, as an antecedent matter, both have a great deal of credibility with me). They are signaling that their sourcing is broad and that at least some of it comes from within the executive branch (“administration officials”). Applying Rule No. 5, note that this wording is consistent both with sources attached to the investigation and with sources in the White House or in the Justice Department. Note also that Haberman is a White House reporter famously well-sourced with the group of people immediately around President Trump.

The sources for the triumvirate behind a long string of big WaPo Russian stories — Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous — are going be different than the sources for the more recent triumvirate leading the pack on Russia stories — Carol Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind Helderman, and it makes a difference on the impartiality of the sources.

In addition, while Ben describes how much lawyers who aren’t prosecutors like to leak (prosecution teams do leak, but very very very carefully), he doesn’t say something else. Leaking to the press is a very good way for co-conspirators to communicate with each other, without risking obstruction charges for doing so. So when you’re trying to understand why a likely legal source is leaking something, it’s worth considering what information that passes on to co-conspirators. For example, such leaks are a good way to compare notes on a false story. Or, in the case of dumb Don Jr who released the emails behind the June 9 meeting, it’s a way to ensure that your co-conspirators know what evidence that might previously have been hidden law enforcement may be looking at. So it’s not just a good idea to remember that lawyers leak a lot (and if those lawyers’ clients just appeared before the grand jury, their information about questions raised would only be second-hand). It’s a good idea to consider what information is not actually intended for you, the dear reader, but rather is intended for co-conspirators, up to and including the pardoner-in-chief.

On the Lawfare over the Steele Dossier

October 25: For those looking for “Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier, a Long Essay,” it’s here; I screwed up the link.

Say, did you know that Christopher Steele and his company, Orbis Business Intelligence, claim that Fusion GPS, the US-based intelligence firm that hired him to collect dirt on Donald Trump, did not share that dirt with its clients?

Steele’s curious claims made from the comfort of the UK

That’s the rather improbable claim made in a May 18 filing in the British lawsuit Webzilla CEO Alexej Gubarev filed against Steele and his company in the UK. In response to questions about who was contractually prohibited from disclosing Steele’s reports, Steele claimed that while Fusion was permitted to share the information he gave them with their clients, they did not.

In relation to the pre-election memoranda the duty not to disclose intelligence to third parties without the prior agreement of [Steele and his company, Orbis] did not extend to disclosure by Fusion to its client(s), although the Defendants understand that copies of the memoranda were not disclosed by Fusion to its client(s).

In response to a follow-up question on whether Fusion’s clients were allowed to disclose any reports they got, Steele claimed that Fusion’s clients weren’t supposed to release the information.

[Steele and his company] understood that the arrangement between Fusion and its client(s) was that intelligence would not be disclosed.

Yet, in spite of the claim that Fusion never shared Steele’s intelligence reports with its clients, Steele admits that he gave off the record briefings, in one form or another, to reporters from six different American outlets.

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. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person. In addition, and again at Fusion’s instruction, in late October 2016 [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype. No copies of the pre-election memoranda were ever shown or provided to any journalists by, or with the authorization of, the Defendants. The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the US election process and the possible co-ordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.

So the folks footing the bill for all this never saw the reports they paid for, and if you believe Steele no reporters ever actually looked at the dossier. Steele makes no mention (in a lawsuit in the UK targeting just him, not Fusion GPS) of the evolving claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Steele’s claim that he wasn’t sharing the dossier itself is dubious for several reasons. For example, the defense makes no mention of Steele sharing the dossier with the FBI, in spite of multiple reports of him doing so.

More damning, one of the reporters with whom the dossier was shared before the election, BBC’s Paul Wood, has changed a published story about receiving the dossier on two occasions. The original story appeared like this.

Sometime between the original publication and 14:06 GMT, the paragraph claiming the American oppo research company, Fusion, disseminated the document was removed from the story.

Then, by 15:32 GMT — roughly 20 minutes after I did a post noting the first change — that passage was again changed, this time to suggest the pages were shown, but not given, to journalists.

I’ve been told second-hand that actual pages were given, not shown, to at least one journalist, suggesting the middle story may be the accurate one. Moreover, the actual dossier would have had to have been shared for James Clapper’s claim that the dossier “was widely circulated … among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff ” to be true.

Note, too, that in an April declaration, Steele claimed that the briefings took place in “late summer/autumn 2016;” while those briefings took place before September 23, that’s only late summer if you’re fairly strict about when the equinox falls.

Suffice it to say, I don’t find Steele’s claims that persuasive. Which may be why he tried to challenge Gubarev’s efforts — in his US lawsuit against Buzzfeed — to obtain a deposition. The judge in that suit denied Steele’s request, though Steele can still challenge the request in the UK, where he’ll likely get a far friendlier reception.

Let me interrupt and suggest the Russians — and probably the most partisan Republicans — know who’s behind Steele’s dossier. By all appearances Russian interests are fighting a multi-front legal effort to force those details out in public, on top of any damage it does to Buzzfeed.

In the suit against Steele in the UK, Steele has basically explained he disseminated the December 13 memo — which is the one that mentions Webzilla and so is the only one that matters in that suit — to just two people: a hard copy to a senior UK government official (believed to be someone at MI6), and an encrypted copy to Fusion to pass on to John McCain via a Senior Director of McCain’s Institute for International Leadership, David Kramer. Steele admits his instructions that the last report remain classified were given over a secure phone call, not in writing. Steele admits giving off-the-record briefings (though not to BuzzFeed), but not the materials themselves, on the earlier reports, but not the December 13 one. In any case, given that BuzzFeed was not one of those outlets, Steele argues he can’t be held responsible for any defamation of Webzilla in the UK. Steele also emphasizes that the December 13 memo “did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that further investigation.” And since the December 13 memo was produced for free, from intelligence “not actively sought, … merely received,” Steele doesn’t have to reveal who paid for the other reports, which don’t mention Webzilla.

Barring greymail, the Florida suit permits Webzilla to compare Steele’s answers with Fusion’s

That’s all well and good, but in its Florida suit, Webzilla is pursuing a deposition from Fusion GPS as well as Steele (curiously, the joint status report says nothing about deposing McCain or Kramer).

For its part, Buzzfeed appears to be pursuing a graymail defense. Around July 7, Buzzfeed sent subpoenas to a bunch of national security witnesses who are not going to want to testify.

Six weeks ago, Defendants  served subpoenas for depositions and the production of documents on several third party witnesses, including several government agencies and their former officials. These include the FBI, DOJ, ODNI, CIA, and James Comey, James Clapper, and John Brennan.

Particularly Comey and the FBI are likely to invoke ongoing investigations to refuse to give a deposition.

Still, comparing the stories of Steele and Fusion may produce some discomfort, all the more so if Webzilla succeeds in making Steele attest to the things he said in the UK in the US.

Fusion was far less cooperative with the Senate Judiciary Committee than made out

Which brings us to efforts in Congress. As I’ve said before, I think Chuck Grassley’s efforts to understand Fusion’s role in the dossier are good faith efforts. While a key focus of that is on Steele’s relationship with the FBI, Grassley fought for five months to get Fusion to cooperate with the Committee, which Fusion head Glenn Simspon finally did in a 10 hour August 22 interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee (See release 1, release 2, release 3, hearing statement 1, release 4, release 5, hearing statement 2, release 6 for Grassley’s efforts). Democrats — apparently led by Rachel Maddow — made much about the appearance. But the main outcome was nothing more than a carefully crafted statement for the benefit of Fusion’s clients assuring them Simpson hadn’t revealed their names.

While Simpson’s attorney said his client provided significant details about his firm’s findings, he did not reveal the identities of those who paid for his research.

Simpson “kept the identities of Fusion GPS’ clients confidential,” Levy said in his statement. “Fusion GPS represents businesses, individuals and, occasionally, political clients on both the right and the left. When those clients want Fusion GPS to keep their identities confidential, Fusion GPS honors that commitment without exception – just as law firms and businesses do all over the country.”

A Grassley staffer offered a very different take than the celebratory one Democrats claimed to Fox News’ Catherine Herridge.

“Fusion’s initial production of documents consisted of solely of headlines from publicly available news reports and more than 7,500 pages of blank paper,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said. “Fusion eventually provided a copy of the same unverified dossier that’s been publicly available since January, and a privilege log that raises more questions than it answers.”

Fox reported this week that Fusion GPS gave the committee 40,000 documents.

The records were finally provided by Simpson and his legal team after Grassley sent several letters raising questions about the dossier, moved a Judiciary Committee hearing to accommodate Simpson’s schedule, and withdrew a subpoena in return for a pledge of cooperation.

“I’d note that only after the subpoena did Simpson indicated any willingness to cooperate voluntarily, yet the documents produced by his legal team have not been responsive to the committee’s questions,” Foy said.

Effectively, Fusion is still refusing to cooperate, over five months after Grassley’s first request.

The other notable development from Congress is Devin Nunes’ efforts — even as people who haven’t recused from the Russian investigation are trying to negotiate an interview with Steele — to search out the spy directly. He sent two staffers to London to try to contact Steele, without informing the people on the House Intelligence Committee who are actually supposed to be conducting an investigation.

After getting Steele to commit to one Webzilla suit, Alfa sued

As noted, on May 18 effectively Steele made a set of claims in the UK that — while sketchy — nevertheless would bracket off questions about the circumstances of the larger dossier’s production by claiming that the last report, the one pertinent to Webzilla, basically had a virgin birth.

Which is why I find the timing of this suit — a  May 26 lawsuit by Alfa Bank against BuzzFeed — so interesting. As I noted here, the September 14 Steele dossier report on Alfa Bank isn’t all that damning. It alleges Alfa did some corrupt stuff for Putin back when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. Particularly given that report has nothing to do with Trump directly, I suspect the report appears in the dossier because of the allegations of weird communications between a Trump marketing server and the bank; the allegations had already been shared with the FBI and were beginning to be shared with journalists at about precisely that moment.

The suit nods to such a theory without mentioning it directly.

More than one defamatory meaning can be drawn from this passage. It suggests that Alfa and Messrs. Fridman and Aven use their knowledge of past bribery of President Putin as a means of criminally extorting continuing favorable treatment for their business interests from his government. Within the context ofthe entire Dossier, it also implies that Alfa and its three officials willingly maintain the close relationship with
President Putin based on the “kompromat” they hold on him by cooperating in some unspecified way in the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere in the U.S. election.

At the same time, in context, the whole of CIR 112 can also be understood to suggest that because oftheir past (and possibly current) relationship involving mutually beneficial corrupt practices, Alfa and its three officials are required to do President Putin’s bidding, which includes cooperating in the Kremlin efforts to influence the outcome of the recent U.$. election. The statements quoted from the Dossier are false

But one of the real points of the lawsuit is not just that Buzzfeed published the dossier, but called out Alfa bank, correcting its spelling, even while acknowledging that the spelling indicated an error.

The Article specifically refers to Alfa as having been named in the Dossier, while acknowledging that the Dossier “is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors. The [Dossier] misspells the name of one company, ‘Alpha Group,’ throughout. It is Alfa Group.”

The Article, by explicitly referring to Alfa, increases the likelihood that persons interested in Alfa (including but not limited to government intelligence officials, regulatory authorities, financial institutions, print and online news media and journalists) would search the Dossier to find out what it says about Alfa.

In any case, because this report was part of the dossier before it got shared with journalists, and because it was among the reports paid for by yet-unknown sources, Alfa will have cause to ask all about those details — details which Steele worked so hard to hide with the sketchy story he told in the UK. And Alfa filed the suit just a week after Steele committed to those facts in the UK.

Even aside from the timing, however, the background to the suit is worth mention.

It came out as part of the confirmation process for Trump transition official and former Jeff Sessions staffer Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Criminal Division. Days before his confirmation, he sent Chuck Grassley letters revealing that not only had his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, confidentially represented Alfa bank, but he personally had overseen one of the investigations into the weird communications data. It came out later that he also consulted on Alfa’s plan to sue Buzzfeed.

Dianne Feinstein described at length why she considered this problematic, particularly given Benczkowski’s refusal to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation and any cases involving Alfa Bank.

I very much appreciate that Mr. Benczkowski has agreed to speak publicly about his work for Alfa Bank and I think it’s an important topic to understand given the position he’s been nominated for.

As I understand it, Mr. Benczkowski participated in President Trump’s transition team from September of last year to January of this year. He led the transition team’s work at the Justice Department, which is now led by his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mr. Benczkowski told the committee that the retention of former FBI Director James Comey was discussed by those on the transition team, including himself.

In March, within two months of leaving the transition team, Mr. Benczkowski agreed to represent Alfa Bank.

Specifically, his work for Alfa Bank went to the heart of the reported investigations. He worked with a computer forensics firm to determine any ties between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, and also whether and how private server information had gotten out of the ban.

Additionally, he reviewed the “Steele dossier,” a private investigator’s file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He did this for Alfa Bank to consider suing Buzz Feed for defamation over their online publication of the dossier. Alfa Bank, in fact, did sue Buzz Feed on May 26 of this year.

In April, while Mr. Benczkowski was working for Alfa Bank, Attorney General Sessions’s chief of staff asked him about his interest in leading the Criminal Division.

Mr. Benczkowski’s law firm then notified Alfa Bank of his potential nomination for the Trump administration. But the fact that Mr. Benczkowski continued representing Alfa Bank, until the day of his nomination, which was June 6, raises questions. After he found out about his potential nomination, why did he continue his representation of Alfa Bank?

It is clear to me that Mr. Benczkowski is knowledgeable about issues related to an ongoing investigation. So I asked before this hearing if he would commit himself to recusing—not only from cases involving Alfa Bank as his former client, but also matters within Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.

He would not commit to recusing himself. I’m concerned with his refusal, especially given the position for which he has been nominated.

In other words, days before he got the offer to oversee all criminal investigations in the country, Alfa had sued Buzzfeed (though a different firm is representing Alfa in the suit. Benczkowski’s nomination hasn’t been considered in any of the confirmation votes the committee has considered since.

The lawsuit, even more than Nunes’ free-lance efforts in London, seems like an attempt to expose highly inconvenient information about the dossier.

It’s all perfectly legal. But taken altogether, it’s clear that some really well-connected businesses run by Russians are using British and US courts to try to expose information they all seem to know exists.

Remember: the Russians learned about this dossier by October 31, if not before. There are real questions about the provenance of the document as leaked to Buzzfeed. There are real questions about whether some of the material in it wasn’t offered to Steele’s sources as deliberate disinformation — something recently floated by British spy historian Ben Macintyre.

S.L.Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

B.M. I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. 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.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

Particularly given that the last report in the dossier came out after its existence became known, it would have been especially easy to include disinformation that can now be exploited for this campaign of lawfare.

And while Buzzfeed’s graymail is likely to be effective and Steele’s deposition in the US is in no way assured, thus far the lawfare has revealed a lot of data that doesn’t really make sense.

Update: WashEx reports the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed FBI and DOJ for information on the dossier and, having not gotten a response, has now also subpoeaned Christopher Wray and Jeff Sessions (who of course should be recused).

The committee issued the subpoenas — one to the FBI, an identical one to the Justice Department — on August 24, giving both until last Friday, September 1, to turn over the information.

Neither FBI nor Justice turned over the documents, and now the committee has given them an extension until September 14 to comply.

Illustrating the seriousness with which investigators view the situation, late Tuesday the committee issued two more subpoenas, specifically to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing them to appear before the committee to explain why they have not provided the subpoenaed information.

The subpoenas are the result of a months-long process of committee investigators requesting information from the FBI and Justice Department. Beginning in May, the committee sent multiple letters to the FBI and Justice requesting information concerning the Trump-Russia affair.

I actually have no problems with the questions Congress is asking about the dossier (though I do think Mueller’s investigation should be given deference, if he asks for it). What’s funny, though, is that none of the committees are asking CIA and ODNI for more information on when they learned about the dossier. As I’ve noted their answers about it have been laughable, to put it charitably. But that might risk committing oversight.

Timeline

February 3: Webzilla and Alexej Gubarev sue Buzzfeed

March 27: Grassley first submits questions to Fusion

April, unknown date: Sessions Chief of Staff inquires about Benczkowski’s interest in serving as Assistant Attorney General

April 3: Steele Defence in UK Webzilla suit

May 18: Steele’s response to claimants request for further information

May 22: Ursula Ungaro denies BuzzFeed request to move suit to NYC in US Webzilla suit

May 26: Alfa Bank sues Buzzfeed in NY

June 6: Brian Benczkowski offered Assistant Attorney General position

July 19-21: Kirkland & Ellis disclose Benczkowski’s ties to Alfa bank

July 25: Benczkowski confirmation hearing

August 10: Ungaro requests UK require Steele provide a deposition in this case

August 10: Steele fights deposition request in US Webzilla suit

August 15: Ungaro denies Steele request

August 22: Glenn Simpson submits to 10 hour transcribed interview with Senate Judiciary Committee

August 24: HPSCI subpoenas FBI and DOJ for information on dossier

September 14: Extended deadline for FBI and DOJ to comply with HPSCI subpoena

Rinat Ahkmetshin: “Nothing Is Secret.”

The Financial Times, which had the scoop that Rinat Ahkmetshin — the naturalized Russian lobbyist who attended the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower — appeared before Robert Mueller’s grand jury several weeks ago, has a long interview with him. The key, buried details are that he’s not all that interested in whether Russia tampered with the election.

I ask whether he thinks Russia intervened in the US elections. “They might have done,” he says, but doesn’t seem particularly fussed if they did. “It’s like someone steals your toothpaste from you because you couldn’t hide it well enough — I think there’s something honest about that.” He goes on to expound a curious theory of “personal responsibility” — the value he says he likes best about America.

Followed by the kicker line:

“Nothing is secret,” he had said. “If you’re not stupid, you should operate on that assumption.”

Along the way, though, the interview doesn’t answer two worthy questions. The piece reveals that Akhmetshin bumped his rates up from $450 to $600 an hour this year, but it doesn’t explain whether and if so who paid for his time at Trump Tower last year. Sure, it’s only about $450, but who paid it?

More importantly, it doesn’t address the question I asked here: given Akhmetshin’s ties and past work for Fusion GPS, why did the intelligence company ask Christopher Steele to work on an anti-Trump dossier rather than Akhmetshin himself? Given his ties, did he know about it?

The interview describes Akhmetshin’s claim that he doesn’t work for Russia, but would never do anything to hurt it.

I will never f**k with Russian state,” he says in idiosyncratic English spoken with a light Russian accent. “I will never do things against Russian government. It’s stupid,” he tells me. “Simply, the stakes are too high.”

It describes his claim to be close with people at the CIA (which is why, he explains, Russia no longer trusts him). Akhmetshin also claims to have ties to French, British, and German intelligence. But he does go out drinking with Russian spooks when he’s in Moscow.

The most remarkable passage in the interview (especially given the revelation that Paul Manafort’s notes from the meeting suggest donations to Republicans were raised as well) however, is Akhmetshin’s admission that, while he hadn’t read the English language documents Natalia Veselnitskaya brought to the Trump Tower meeting, he had read the Russian versions.

Akhmetshin said he did not read the papers about Hillary Clinton’s campaign funding that Veselnitskaya took to the meeting, but he had seen the Russian version of it before. He says the lawyer developed it with the help of private corporate intelligence and that it was about “how bad money ended up in Manhattan and that money was put into supporting political campaigns”.

I find this revealing for several reasons. Remember that the early reports in the Steele dossier discuss pre-hacked email kompromat on Hillary Clinton. But why would a private intelligence company do a report in Russian, unless it was in Russia? Moreover, again, it seems Akhmetshin was already swimming in some of this Russian-based kompromat. So why didn’t Fusion have him collect on Trump? Did he work on the earlier, pre-June research paid by a Republican?

In short, the questions for Akhmetshin should go beyond the Trump Tower meeting, because there are obvious questions about his relationship with Fusion GPS.

Trump’s Lawyer: I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Four days ago, Michael Cohen (or the Trump Organization) pre-empted revelations that would leak as soon as he turned over a third tranche of documents to the House Intelligence Committee by revealing a seemingly damning detail from it: along with Trump’s associate Felix Sater, Cohen was pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well after Trump’s campaign was in full swing. Sure enough, more damning information was still to come: Sater somehow imagined the deal — whatever it was — would get Trump elected. Then still more damning information: in January 2016, Cohen reached out to trusted Putin aide Dmitry Peskov to push for help on the deal. That’s when Cohen began to not recall precisely what happened, and also ignore questions about why he hadn’t told Trump about this call, unlike the other actions he took on this deal.

Again, these events were connected to Cohen’s delivery of a tranche of documents on August 28 to HPSCI.

Today, the letter Cohen sent to HPSCI on August 14 after reviewing and delivering two previous tranches of documents got liberated (this copy by the Daily Beast, but multiple outlets got copies). So the letter, which includes four pages plus backup rebutting the allegations made about Cohen in the Steele dossier, reflects the understanding Cohen’s lawyers had two weeks before they delivered emails showing Cohen was contacting Putin’s trusted aide in support of a deal that Sater believed would get Trump election.

Before I look at the letter, let me reiterate what I have suggested elsewhere (I plan to return to these shortly). There are real, unanswered questions about the provenance of the document as leaked by BuzzFeed. Some of the circumstances surrounding its production — most notably its funders and their claimed goals, and Steele’s production of a final report, based off voluntarily provided information, for free — raise real questions about parts of the dossier. I think it quite likely some parts of the dossier, especially the last, most inflammatory report (which accuses Cohen of attending a meeting where payments from Trump to the hackers that targeted the Democrats were discussed), were disinformation fed by the Russians. I believe the Intelligence Community is almost certainly lying about what they knew about the dossier. I believe the Russians know precisely how the dossier got constructed (remember, a suspected source for it died in mysterious circumstances in December), and they expect the exposure of those details will discredit it.

So while I think there are truths in the dossier, I do think its current form includes rumor and even affirmative disinformation meant to discredit it.

With that said — and remembering all the time that shortly after this letter got written, documents were disclosed showing Cohen was involved in brokering a deal that Sater thought might get Trump elected — here’s my analysis of the document.

The entire letter is pitched around the claim that HPSCI “included Mr. Cohen in its inquiry based solely upon certain sensational allegations contained” in the Steele dossier. “Absent those allegations,” the letter continues, “Mr. Cohen would not be involved in your investigation.” The idea — presented two weeks before disclosure of emails showing Cohen brokering a deal with Russians in early 2016 — is if Cohen can discredit the dossier, then he will have shown that there is no reason to investigate him or his role brokering deals with the Russians. Even the denial of any documents of interest is limited to the dossier: “We have not uncovered a single document that would in any way corroborate the Dossier’s allegations regarding Mr. Cohen, nor do we believe that any such document exists.”

With that, Cohen’s lawyers address the allegations in the dossier, one by one. As a result, the rebuttal reads kind of like this:

I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Cohen literally denies that he ever traveled to Prague six times, as well as denying carefully worded, often quoted, versions of meeting with Russians in a European capital in 2016. Of course that formulation — He did not participate in meetings of any kind with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016 — stops well short of other potential ties to Russians. And two of his denials look very different given the emails disclosed two weeks later showing an attempt to broker a deal that Felix Sater thought might get Trump elected, including an email from him to one of the most trusted agents of the Kremlin.

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any “secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.”

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any indirect communications between the “TRUMP team” and “trusted agents” of the Kremlin.

As I said above, I think it highly likely the dossier includes at least some disinformation seeded by the Russians. So the most charitable scenario of what went down is that the Russians, knowing Cohen had made half-hearted attempts to broker the Trump Tower deal Trump had wanted for years, planted his name hoping some kind of awkwardness like this would result.

If so, Mission accomplished!

All that said, the way in which Cohen has orchestrated this disclosure — up to and including his failures to recall and answer obvious questions — is either great lawyering and/or sign that this earlier deal making is a real problem.

It may be that HPSCI only investigated Cohen because he was badly implicated in the Steele dossier. But if so, it led to the disclosure of earlier deal-making, including an attempt to reach out to one of Putin’s most trusted associates, that will likely give HPSCI a whole new reason to investigate.

How Does Inking a Luxury Residential Real Estate Deal in Moscow Get You Elected President? In the US, I Mean?

There’s an implicit premise of my posts covering yesterday’s big scoops on the emails between Felix Sater and Michael Cohen turned over to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday:

The NYT republished fragments of two of the emails. Here’s the key one:

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

On November 3, 2015, two months before the GOP primary started in earnest and barely over a year before the presidential election, mobbed up real estate broker and sometime FBI informant Felix Sater emailed Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Trump, Michael Cohen. According to the fragment we read, Sater boasts of his access to Putin going back to 2006 (when the Ivanka incident reportedly happened), and said “we can engineer” “our boy” becoming “President of the USA.”

Before HPSCI got the emails, the Trump Organization did a preemptive leak to the WaPo, which successfully cemented the interpretation of the “news” associated with these emails as proof of another contact between Trump associates and Russians. Cohen’s statement to HPSCI, which WaPo’s later reporting quoted, reaffirmed that view, even though key details about it — why, of all the things he couldn’t recall, was whether Putin associate Dmitry Peskov responded to an email in which Cohen asked for his personal response, or why Cohen would email a press contact like Peskov, who readily gives out his personal email, to a general email line that is less likely to be bugged by western intelligence — remain unexplained.

The NYT only released one paragraph of the emails it published; it’s unclear whether that’s all they got, or whether they’ve just chosen to redact all the context.

Nevertheless, this paragraph, presented as it is, ought to have elicited very different “news” reporting: a year before the election, Sater was boasting he could get Trump elected because of his ties to Putin. In an update (the NewsDiffs on NYT’s version of this story are worth reviewing in detail, particularly for the way they shift emphasis away from Sater’s claims in the email), the NYT reprinted Sater’s lawyer’s explanation, which doesn’t address the underlying question at all, even while it replicates the spin that this would be nothing more than a “political win.”

Through his lawyer, Mr. Sater declined on Monday to address why he thought the deal would be a political win for Mr. Trump. He said he brought the project to Mr. Cohen in late 2015, but that he was not working for the Trump Organization and “would not have been compensated” by them.

“During the course of our communications over several months, I routinely expressed my enthusiasm regarding what a tremendous opportunity this was for the Trump Organization,” Mr. Sater said.

Again, perhaps the full emails justify this approach. But absent a better explanation, the question that should be answered by this scoop — well before the excitement of proof of yet one more tie between a Trump associate and increasingly senior Russians — is why Sater believed whatever he was emailing Cohen about would lead to Trump’s election?

Even assuming Cohen’s personal intervention via Peskov got Putin to rubber stamp the missing permits in early January 2016, which was the most optimistic scenario short of the personal trip to Moscow Sater was pushing Cohen to take, how would that have had any influence on the Presidential election at that point 11 months away? Obviously, the actual building, its clients, the possibility it might be used to launder money, perhaps even back into Putin’s pockets — none of that would be in place in time for the election. Yet another luxury residence in a city most American voters will never visit isn’t going to flip many votes, if any. More realistically, the deal would be regarded just as reporters are now spinning it, as an inappropriate potential conflict of interest, even ignoring the Russophobia that would ratchet up later in the year.

The second email NYT published in part might be a quasi explanation.

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it all is the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

That is, perhaps Sater believed that if Trump could negotiate with Putin successfully, voters would value his negotiating ability more highly than former Secretary of State Hillary’s. That’s probably what Trump voters actually did, but it required no fresh deals. But even here, Sater is again positioning his pitch in terms of what will impress Putin, not what will impress American voters.

Sater is a lot of things, but he’s nowhere near the dumbest Trump associate. Why is it that he sent an email to Cohen promising a deal would help Trump get elected?

One more detail. This is not the first exchange Cohen had with the committees. Congress first got interested in Cohen at the end of May; Cohen refused the first requests, declaring them overly broad. And, as the NYT notes, Cohen’s lawyer already started communicating with the committee, issuing a point-by-point refutation of the parts of the Steele dossier that pertain to Cohen.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, wrote a letter to congressional investigators that contained what he said was a point-by-point refutation of a dossier suggesting that Mr. Cohen colluded with Russian operatives. That dossier, compiled by a retired British spy and briefed to Mr. Trump during the transition, was published online early this year.

“We do not believe that the committee should give credence to or perpetuate any of the allegations relating to Mr. Cohen unless the committee can obtain independent and reliable corroboration,” Mr. Ryan wrote.

So was this found amid all his other emails, or is it something he only belatedly included?

Update: As Digby noted, there were rumors flying some weeks ago that Sater may be prepping to flip again, as he has for Robert Mueller’s investigators in the past.

And according to Wood’s sources, Sater may have already flipped and given prosecutors the evidence they need to make a case against Trump.

For several weeks there have been rumours that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. ‘He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison,’ someone talking to Mueller’s investigators informed me.

Sater hinted in an interview earlier this month that he may be cooperating with both Mueller’s investigation and congressional probes of Trump.

“In about the next 30 to 35 days, I will be the most colourful character you have ever talked about,” Sater told New York Magazine. “Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it now, before it happens. And believe me, it ain’t anything as small as whether or not they’re gonna call me to the Senate committee.”

I doubt Sater is cooperating, given the way his lawyer has adopted the spin Cohen first planted. If Sater is cooperating with some real dirt, it might explain why Cohen would roll out sharing these emails with a pre-emptive leak that succeeded, splendidly, in distracting the coverage from the more fundamental question raised here.

Ron DeSantis Attempting to Stop Criminal Investigation into Theft that Benefitted Him

Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis has presented a bill that would defund the Robert Mueller investigation six months after the bill passed.

DeSantis has put forward a provision that would halt funding for Mueller’s probe six months after the amendment’s passage. It also would prohibit Mueller from investigating matters that occurred before June 2015, when Trump launched his presidential campaign.

The amendment is one of hundreds filed to a government spending package the House is expected to consider when it returns next week from the August recess. The provision is not guaranteed a vote on the House floor; the House Rules Committee has wide leeway to discard amendments it considers out of order.

It’s interesting that DeSantis, of all people, would push this bill.

After all, he’s one of a small list of members of Congress who directly benefitted from Guccifer 2.0’s leaking. Florida political journalist Aaron Nevins obtained a huge chunk of documents from Guccifer 2.0.

Last year, a Republican political operative and part-time blogger from Florida asked for and received an extensive list of stolen data from Guccifer 2.0, the infamous hacker known for leaking documents from the DNC computer network.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Aaron Nevins, a former aide to Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, had reached out to Guccifer through Twitter, asking to “feel free to send any Florida-based information.”

About 10 days later, Nevins received about 2.5 gigabytes of polling information, election strategy and other data, which he then posted on his political gossip blog HelloFLA.com.

“I just threw an arrow in the dark,” Nevins told the Journal.

After setting up a Dropbox account for Guccifer 2.0 to share the data, Nevins was able to sift through the data as someone who “actually knows what some of these documents mean.”

Among the documents stolen from the DCCC that Nevins published are five documents on the DCCC’s recruitment of DeSantis’ opponent, George Pappas. So effectively, DeSantis is trying to cut short the investigation into a crime from which he directly benefitted.

Call me crazy, but this seems like an ethical violation, and possibly a good reason to submit a bar complaint against DeSantis. And his constituents might want to ask why he’s trying to help Russia and its domestic enablers undermine democracy.

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