One Thing Not Mentioned in Mueller Requests from the White House: The Putin Phone Call

Yesterday, three different outlets published versions of the list of stuff Robert Mueller has requested of the White House. The NYT describes Mueller asking for details of the in-person meeting with Russians after Comey’s firing, as well as details of Comey and Flynn’s firing,

Mueller’s office sent a document to the White House that detailed 13 different areas that investigators want more information about. Since then, administration lawyers have been scouring White House emails and asking officials whether they have other documents or notes that may pertain to Mr. Mueller’s requests.

One of the requests is about a meeting Mr. Trump had in May with Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after James B. Comey, the F.B. I director, was fired. That day, Mr. Trump met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, along with other Russian officials. The New York Times reported that in the meeting Mr. Trump said that firing Mr. Comey relieved “great pressure” on him.

Mr. Mueller has also requested documents about the circumstances of the firing of Michael T. Flynn, who was Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. Additionally, the special counsel has asked for documents about how the White House responded to questions from The Times about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. That meeting was set up by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to get derogatory information from Russians about Hillary Clinton.

WaPo adds communications with Paul Manafort to the list and fleshes out the nature of the requests on Flynn and Comey.

Mueller has requested that the White House turn over all internal communications and documents related to the FBI interview of Flynn in January, days after he took office, as well as any document that discusses Flynn’s conversations with then­-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December. Mueller has also asked for records about meetings then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates held with White House counsel Don McGahn in late January to alert him to Justice Department concerns about Flynn, as well as all documents related to Flynn’s subsequent ouster by the White House.

Regarding Comey, Mueller has asked for all documents related to meetings between Trump and Comey while Comey served at the FBI, records of any discussions regarding Comey’s firing and any documents related to a statement by then-press secretary Sean Spicer made on the night Comey was fired.

Here’s CNN’s mostly derivative version.

There’s one thing that’s not explicitly on this list (though it might be included in the larger request for details on Flynn’s firing): details surrounding the January 28th phone conversation between Trump and Putin, which included a bunch of people who happen to no longer be at the White House.

As a number of Democrats noted in the Sally Yates hearing before Senate Judiciary Committee, the call took place in the immediate wake of Yates’ two conversations with Don McGahn about Flynn’s potential for compromise by the Russians because of his lies about his conversation with Sergey Kislyak.

HIRONO: Others of my colleagues have mentioned, and you yourself, Mr. Clapper, said that RT is a Russian mouthpiece to spread propaganda. And, of course, we know that General Flynn attended a gala hosted by — or a 10th anniversary gala for RT in December, 2015, where he sat next President Putin and got paid over $33,000 for that.

Mr. Clapper, given the conversation that Ms. Yates provided to the White House regarding — and this is during the January 26th and 27th timeframe — regarding General Flynn, should he have sat in on the following discussions?

On January 28th, he participated in an hour-long call, along with President Trump, to President Putin. And on February 11th, he participated in a discussion with Prime Minister Abe and the president at Mar-a-Lago to discuss North Korea’s missile tests.

Should he — given the — the information that had already been provided by Ms. Yates, should he have participated in these two very specific instances?

In comments on Yates’ testimony when it got canceled on March 28, Adam Schiff focused on the possible explanation for why Flynn was kept on, through that meeting and for 18 days total after Yates’ warning to the White House.

In other words, the big question surrounding Flynn’s firing seems to have as much to do with why he wasn’t fired as why he was, eventually, 18 days after getting notice he was in trouble with DOJ. And the import of including him in that phone call with Putin seems to be a part of that.

Again, that may well be included in the universe of documents on Flynn’s firing (I’d love to see Yates’ firing in there as well, as the Muslim ban was used as an excuse to fire her just as she was raising concerns about Flynn). But it seems important to learn why Trump felt the need to keep Flynn on even after his communications with the Russians had gotten him in legal trouble.

Why Was Manafort FISA Tapped Rather than Criminal Tapped?

Congratulations to Donald Trump, who may have finally figured out how to prove his March 4 claim that there was a “tapp” on Trump Tower — by continuing to speak to Paul Manafort after FBI got a second FISA wiretap on him, at least according to the CNN’s report on the tap.

US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official now at the center of the Russia meddling probe.

The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.

[snip]

The conversations between Manafort and Trump continued after the President took office, long after the FBI investigation into Manafort was publicly known, the sources told CNN. They went on until lawyers for the President and Manafort insisted that they stop, according to the sources.

It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance.

I mean, if you’re dumb enough to talk to a guy under active investigation, you should expect to be tapped. Trump should know this from his NY mobster buddies.

The CNN report — by the same team that last month revealed Carter Page had actually been wiretapped going back to 2014, too — is maddeningly vague about the dates of all this. Manafort was first targeted under FISA for his (and associated consulting companies, probably including Tony Podesta) Ukrainian influence peddling in 2014. Then the order lapsed, only to have a new one, possibly last fall, approved in association with the Trump investigation.

A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014. It centered on work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine’s former ruling party, the sources told CNN.

The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources.

The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year.

[snip]

The FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, that reignited their interest in Manafort, the sources told CNN. As part of the FISA warrant, CNN has learned that earlier this year, the FBI conducted a search of a storage facility belonging to Manafort. It’s not known what they found.

The gap would presumably have excluded June, given that Mueller reportedly didn’t learn about the June 9 meeting until the usual suspects started turning over records on it (though I may come back to that).

The report of a fall wiretap, based in part on intercepts of Russians, would put it well beyond the time Manafort got booted from the campaign (and might be consistent with the reporting of an earlier application followed by ultimate approval in the fall). The mention of a search of a storage facility suggests that Manafort would have been targeted under both 1805 (data in motion) and 1824 (data at rest, plus physical search like that used with the storage facility).

Here’s some relevant information from last year’s FISC and I Con the Record transparency numbers.

For the same authorities (1805, 1824, 1805/1824, and 1881c), the FISA Court, which uses different and in most cases more informative counting metrics, reports 1,220 orders granted, 313 orders modified, and 26 orders denied in part (which add up to I Con the Record’s 1,559), plus 8 orders denied, which I Con the Record doesn’t mention.

As an improvement this year, I Con the Record has broken down how many of these targets are US persons or not, showing it to be 19.9%. That means the vast majority of targeted FISA orders are targeted at people like Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador all of Trump’s people talked to.

This is the target number for the original report, not the order number, and it is an estimate (which is curious). This means at least 28 orders target multiple people. Neither ICTR nor FISC reveals how many US persons were approved for 705b, meaning they were spied on when they went overseas.

I include this, especially the FISC numbers (the top ones), to show that for the category that Manafort would have been targeted under, the court outright rejected 8 applications, denied in part — perhaps by approving only some of the facilities in the application — 18, and modified — which can often be minimization procedures — 260. Note, too, that among all the individual orders approved last year, roughly 336 were targeted at Americans like Manafort and Page. I assume there would be more minimization procedures on those targeting Americans, especially those who hang out with political candidates or the President.

All of which is my way of saying that for Manafort, in particular, the FBI may have had to use some kind of clean team to separate the political items from the foreign intelligence ones. The members of Congress that are the most likely sources for this story probably would have known that too, but it wouldn’t serve the point of the leak as well if that detail were included.

One more point.

The CNN piece is clear: FBI had a FISA order targeting Manafort (and probably others, probably the same ones who’ve been asked to testify, including Tony Podesta’s group), then let it lapse. They then got an order focused on election-related issues.

By the point they got the election-related FISA, the FBI was very deep into their investigation of Manafort for money laundering (and in NY, where FBI agents are notoriously gabby).

But at least given all the public reporting thus far, there have been no reported criminal warrants against Manafort, at least not before the no-knock search in VA this summer.

Which is odd, because they sure seem to have probable cause against him for crimes, as well. If Manafort were targeted by a criminal warrant, it’s nowhere near as clear that any minimization would be overseen by a court. That is, it might be more likely that Trump would get picked up in his rash conversations with someone known to be under investigation if that person were targeted with a criminal warrant than if he were targeted under FISA.

One, final, point. Craig Murray, who ferried something (though not emails) to Julian Assange in September 2016 claimed the emails had been picked obtained by American National Security types wiretapping [John] Podesta because of the Podesta Group’s lobbying for Saudi Arabia. As I noted at the time, that didn’t make any sense, partly because Tony would have been the target, not John, but also the FBI wouldn’t be all that interested in lobbying for Saudi Arabia.

Murray claimed the documents came from someone in the national security establishment, and implied they had come from legal monitoring of John Podesta because he (meaning John) is a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.

Again, the key point to remember, in answering that question, is that the DNC leak and the Podesta leak are two different things and the answer is very probably not going to be the same in both cases. I also want you to consider that John Podesta was a paid lobbyist for the Saudi government — that’s open and declared, it’s not secret or a leak in a sense. John Podesta was paid a very substantial sum every month by the Saudi government to lobby for their interests in Washington. And if the American security services were not watching the communications of the Saudi government paid lobbyist then the American intelligence services would not be doing their job. Of course it’s also true that the Saudis’ man, the Saudis’ lobbyist in Washington, his communications are going to be of interest to a great many other intelligence services as well.

As a threshold matter, no national security agency is going to monitor an American registered to work as an agent for the Saudis. That’s all the more true if the agent has the last name Podesta.

But that brings us to another problem. John Podesta isn’t the lobbyist here. His brother Tony is. So even assuming the FBI was collecting all the emails of registered agent for the Saudis, Tony Podesta, even assuming someone in national security wanted to blow that collection by revealing it via Wikileaks, they would pick up just a tiny fraction of John Podesta’s emails. So this doesn’t explain the source of the emails at all.

They would — and apparently were — interested in tapping all the corrupt people working with corrupt Ukrainians, including Manafort and, maybe, Tony (but not John).

This in no way confirms Murray’s explanation — his story still makes no sense for the reasons I laid out when I first wrote the post. But I find it particularly interesting that Tony Podesta may well have been wiretapped along with Manafort, for his Ukrainian influence peddling, not his Saudi influence peddling, earlier in the year last year.

SSCI Plays Hardball with Michael Cohen’s Attempt to Distract from Trump Tower Deal

Just before it was supposed to start, SSCI canceled Michael Cohen’s private interview with the committee. They did so, per a statement from Richard Burr and Mark Warner, because Cohen broke an agreement not to talk to the press by releasing what has generally been described as “his statement” to the press beforehand.

We were disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to pre-empt today’s interview by releasing a public statement prior to his engagement with Committee staff, in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment. As a result, we declined to move forward with today’s interview and will reschedule Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the Committee in open session at a date in the near future. The Committee expects witnesses in this investigation to work in good faith with the Senate.

But in point of fact, what got published as his “statement” was not the entirety of it. Close to the end of the “statement” is this paragraph, alluding to a further two page statement on the Trump Tower deal that somehow didn’t get leaked.

I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary. This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job. I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript.

Other than that paragraph, mind you, Cohen’s statement closely parallels the letter to HPSCI Cohen released last month after spending a week distracting from and pre-empting the Trump Tower story. Both deny the allegations in the Christopher Steele dossier, and try to suggest that if he is found innocent of those allegations, then HPSCI and/or SSCI must issue a statement exonerating him.

In other words, with both committees, Cohen has manipulated the press so as to set a narrative about his testimony, a narrative that treats the Steele dossier as the entirety of his expose, rather than the now far more interesting (and interestingly time) real estate deal.

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.

[snip]

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.

Of course, Burr and Warner were having none of this narrative scene setting and so now will force Cohen to testify publicly.

Cohen is sure spending a lot of time orchestrating distractions from this property deal. A pity for him his second attempt didn’t work as well as the first one.

Can Congress — or Robert Mueller — Order Facebook to Direct Its Machine Learning?

The other day I pointed out that two articles (WSJ, CNN) — both of which infer that Robert Mueller obtained a probable cause search warrant on Facebook based off an interpretation that under Facebook’s privacy policy a warrant would be required — actually ignored two other possibilities. Without something stronger than inference, then, these articles do not prove Mueller got a search warrant (particularly given that both miss the logical step of proving that the things Facebook shared with Mueller count as content and not business records).

In response to that and to this column arguing that Facebook should provide more information, some of the smartest surveillance lawyers in the country discussed what kind of legal process would be required, but were unable to come to any conclusions.

Last night, WaPo published a story that made it clear Congress wanted far more than WSJ and CNN had suggested (which largely fell under the category of business records and the ads posted to targets, the latter of which Congress had been able to see but not keep). What Congress is really after is details about the machine learning Facebook used to identify the malicious activity identified in April and the ads described in its most recent report, to test whether Facebook’s study was thorough enough.

A 13-page “white paper” that Facebook published in April drew from this fuller internal report but left out critical details about how the Russian operation worked and how Facebook discovered it, according to people briefed on its contents.

Investigators believe the company has not fully examined all potential ways that Russians could have manipulated Facebook’s sprawling social media platform.

[snip]

Congressional investigators are questioning whether the Facebook review that yielded those findings was sufficiently thorough.

They said some of the ad purchases that Facebook has unearthed so far had obvious Russian fingerprints, including Russian addresses and payments made in rubles, the Russian currency.

Investigators are pushing Facebook to use its powerful data-crunching ability to track relationships among accounts and ad purchases that may not be as obvious, with the goal of potentially detecting subtle patterns of behavior and content shared by several Facebook users or advertisers.

Such connections — if they exist and can be discovered — might make clear the nature and reach of the Russian propaganda campaign and whether there was collusion between foreign and domestic political actors. Investigators also are pushing for fuller answers from Google and Twitter, both of which may have been targets of Russian propaganda efforts during the 2016 campaign, according to several independent researchers and Hill investigators.

“The internal analysis Facebook has done [on Russian ads] has been very helpful, but we need to know if it’s complete,” Schiff said. “I don’t think Facebook fully knows the answer yet.”

[snip]

In the white paper, Facebook noted new techniques the company had adopted to trace propaganda and disinformation.

Facebook said it was using a data-mining technique known as machine learning to detect patterns of suspicious behavior. The company said its systems could detect “repeated posting of the same content” or huge spikes in the volume of content created as signals of attempts to manipulate the platform.

The push to do more — led largely by Adam Schiff and Mark Warner (both of whom have gotten ahead of the evidence at times in their respective studies) — is totally understandable. We need to know how malicious foreign actors manipulate the social media headquartered in Schiff’s home state to sway elections. That’s presumably why Facebook voluntarily conducted the study of ads in response to cajoling from Warner.

But the demands they’re making are also fairly breathtaking. They’re demanding that Facebook use its own intelligence resources to respond to the questions posed by Congress. They’re also demanding that Facebook reveal those resources to the public.

Now, I’d be surprised (pleasantly) if either Schiff or Warner made such detailed demands of the NSA. Hell, Congress can’t even get NSA to count how many Americans are swept up under Section 702, and that takes far less bulk analysis than Facebook appears to have conducted. And Schiff and Warner surely would never demand that NSA reveal the extent of machine learning techniques that it uses on bulk data, even though that, too, has implications for privacy and democracy (America’s and other countries’). And yet they’re asking Facebook to do just that.

And consider how two laws might offer guidelines, but (in my opinion) fall far short of authorizing such a request.

There’s Section 702, which permits the government to oblige providers to provide certain data on foreign intelligence targets. Section 702’s minimization procedures even permit Congress to obtain data collected by the NSA for their oversight purposes.

Certainly, the Russian (and now Macedonian and Belarus) troll farms Congress wants investigated fall squarely under the definition of permissible targets under the Foreign Government certificate. But there’s no public record of NSA making a request as breathtaking as this one, that Facebook (or any other provider) use its own intelligence resources to answer questions the government wants answered. While the NSA does draw from far more data than most people understand (including, probably, providers’ own algorithms about individually targeted accounts), the most sweeping request we know of involves Yahoo scanning all its email servers for a signature.

Then there’s CISA, which permits providers to voluntarily share cyber threat indicators with the federal government, using these definitions:

(A) IN GENERAL.—Except as provided in subparagraph (B), the term “cybersecurity threat” means an action, not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, on or through an information system that may result in an unauthorized effort to adversely impact the security, availability, confidentiality, or integrity of an information system or information that is stored on, processed by, or transiting an information system.

(B) EXCLUSION.—The term “cybersecurity threat” does not include any action that solely involves a violation of a consumer term of service or a consumer licensing agreement.

(6) CYBER THREAT INDICATOR.—The term “cyber threat indicator” means information that is necessary to describe or identify—

(A) malicious reconnaissance, including anomalous patterns of communications that appear to be transmitted for the purpose of gathering technical information related to a cybersecurity threat or security vulnerability;

(B) a method of defeating a security control or exploitation of a security vulnerability;

(C) a security vulnerability, including anomalous activity that appears to indicate the existence of a security vulnerability;

(D) a method of causing a user with legitimate access to an information system or information that is stored on, processed by, or transiting an information system to unwittingly enable the defeat of a security control or exploitation of a security vulnerability;

(E) malicious cyber command and control;

(F) the actual or potential harm caused by an incident, including a description of the information exfiltrated as a result of a particular cybersecurity threat;

(G) any other attribute of a cybersecurity threat, if disclosure of such attribute is not otherwise prohibited by law; or

(H) any combination thereof.

Since January, discussions of Russian tampering have certainly collapsed Russia’s efforts on social media with their various hacks. Certainly, Russian abuse of social media has been treated as exploiting a vulnerability. But none of this language defining a cyber threat indicator envisions the malicious use of legitimate ad systems.

Plus, CISA is entirely voluntary. While Facebook thus far has seemed willing to be cajoled into doing these studies, that willingness might change quickly if they had to expose their sources and methods, just as NSA clams up every time you ask about their sources and methods.

Moreover, unlike the sharing provisions in 702 minimization procedures, I’m aware of no language in CISA that permits sharing of this information with Congress.

Mind you, part of the problem may be that we’ve got global companies that have sources and methods that are as sophisticated as those of most nation-states. And, inadequate as they are, Facebook is hypothetically subject to more controls than nation-state intelligence agencies because of Europe’s data privacy laws.

All that said, let’s be aware of what Schiff and Warner are asking for, however justified it may be from a investigative standpoint. They’re asking for things from Facebook that they, NSA’s overseers, have been unable to ask from NSA.

If we’re going to demand transparency on sources and methods, perhaps we should demand it all around?

The (Thus Far) Flimsy Case for Republican Cooperation on Russian Targeting

A number of credulous people are reading this article this morning and sharing it, claiming it is a smoking gun supporting the case that Republicans helped the Russians target their social media, in spite of this line, six paragraphs in.

No evidence has emerged to link Kushner, Cambridge Analytica, or Manafort to the Russian election-meddling enterprise;

Not only is there not yet evidence supporting the claim that Republican party apparatchiks helped Russians target their social media activity, not only does the evidence thus far raise real questions about the efficacy of what Russia did (though that will likely change, especially once we learn more about other platforms), but folks arguing for assistance are ignoring already-public evidence and far more obvious means by which assistance might be obtained.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m acutely interested in the role of Cambridge Analytica, the micro-targeting company that melds Robert Mercer’s money with Facebook’s privatized spying (and was before it was fashionable). I first focused on Jared Kushner’s role in that process, which people are gleefully discovering now, back in May. I have repeatedly said that Facebook — which has been forthcoming about analyzing and sharing (small parts) of its data — and Twitter — which has been less forthcoming — and Google — which is still channeling Sargent Schultz — should be more transparent and have independent experts review their methodology. I’ve also been pointing out, longer than most, of the import of concentration among social media giants as a key vulnerability Russia exploited. I’m particularly interested in whether Russian operatives manipulated influencers — on Twitter, but especially in 4Chan — to magnify anti-Hillary hostility. We may find a lot of evidence that Russia had a big impact on the US election via social media.

But we don’t have that yet and people shooting off their baby cannons over the evidence before us and over mistaken interpretations about how Robert Mueller might get Facebook data are simply degrading the entire concept of evidence.

The first problem with these arguments is an issue of scale. I know a slew of articles have been written about how far $100K spent on Facebook ads go. Only one I saw dealt with scale, and even that didn’t do so by examining the full scale of what got spent in the election.

Hillary Clinton spent a billion dollars on losing last year. Of that billion, she spent tens of millions paying a 100-person digital media team and another $1 million to pay David Brock to harass people attacking Hillary on social media (see this and this for more on her digital team). And while you can — and I do, vociferously — argue she spent that money very poorly, paying pricey ineffective consultants and spending on ads in CA instead of MI, even the money she spent wisely drowns out the (thus far identified) Russian investment in fake Facebook ads. Sure, it’s possible we’ll learn Russians exploited the void in advertising left in WI and MI to sow Hillary loathing (though this is something Trump’s people have explicitly taken credit for), but we don’t have that yet.

The same is true on the other side, even accounting for all the free advertising the sensationalist press gave Trump. Sheldon Adelson spent $82 million last year, and it’s not like that money came free of demands about policy outcomes involving a foreign country. The Mercers spent millions too (and $25 million total for the election, though a lot of that got spent on Ted Cruz), even before you consider their long-term investments in Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, the former of which is probably the most important media story from last year. Could $100K have an effect among all this money sloshing about? Sure. But by comparison it’d be tiny, particularly given the efficacy of the already established right wing noise machine backed by funding orders of magnitude larger than Russia’s spending.

Then there’s what we know thus far about how Russia spent that money. Facebook tells us (having done the kind of analysis that even the intelligence community can’t do) that these obviously fake ads weren’t actually focused primarily on the Presidential election.

  • 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.

That’s not to say sowing discord in the US has no effect, or even no effect on the election. But thus far, we don’t have evidence showing that Russia’s Facebook trolls were (primarily) affirmatively pushing for Trump (though their Twitter trolls assuredly were) or that the discord they fostered happened in states that decided the election.

Now consider what a lot of breathless reporting on actual Facebook ads have shown. There was the article showing Russia bought ads supporting an anti-immigrant rally in Twin Falls, ID. The ad in question showed that just four people claimed to attend this rally in the third most Republican state. Another article focused on ads touting events in Texas. While the numbers of attendees are larger, and Texas will go Democratic long before Idaho does, we’re still talking relatively modest events in a state that was not going to decide the election.

To show Russia’s Facebook spending had a measurable impact on last year’s election, you’d want to focus on MI, WI, PA, and other close states. There were surely closely targeted ads that, particularly in rural areas where the local press is defunct and in MI where there was little advertising (WI had little presidential advertising, but tons tied to the Senate race) where such social media had an important impact; thus far it’s not clear who paid for them, though (again, Trump’s campaign has boasted about doing just that).

Additionally, empiricalerror showed that a number of the identifiably Russian ads simply repurposed existing, American ads.

That’s not surprising, as the ads appear to follow (not lead) activities that happened on far right outlets, including both Breitbart and Infowars. As with the Gizmo that tracks what it claims are Russian linked accounts and thereby gets credulous journalists to claim campaigns obviously pushed by Americans are actually Russian plots, it seems Russian propaganda is following, not leading, the right wing noise machine.

So thus far what we’re seeing is the equivalent of throwing a few matches on top of the raging bonfire that is the well established, vicious, American-funded inferno of far right media. That’s likely to change, but that’s what we have thus far.

But as I said, all this ignores one other key point: We already have evidence of assistance on the election.

Except, it went the opposite direction from where everyone is looking, hunting for instances where Republicans helped Russians decide to buy ads in Idaho that riled up 4 people.

As I reminded a few weeks back, at a time when Roger Stone and (we now know) a whole bunch of other long-standing GOP rat-fuckers were reaching out to presumed Russian hackers in hopes of finding Hillary’s long lost hacked Clinton Foundation emails, Guccifer 2.0 was reaching out to journalists and others with close ties to Republicans to push the circulation of stolen DCCC documents.

That is, the persona believed to be a front for Russia was distributing documents on House races in swing states such that they might be used by Republican opponents. Some of that data could be used for targeting.

Now, I have no idea whether Russia would risk doing more without some figure like Guccifer 2.0 to provide deniability. That is, I have no idea whether Russia would go so far as take more timely and granular data about Democrats’ targeting decisions and share that with Republicans covertly (in any case, we are led to believe that data would be old, no fresher than mid-June). But we do know they were living in the Democrats’ respective underwear drawers for almost a year.

And Russia surely wouldn’t need a persona like Guccifer 2.0 if they were sharing stolen data within Russia. If the FSB stole targeting data during the 11 months they were in the DNC servers, they could easily share that data with the Internet Research Association (the troll farm the IC believes has ties to Russian intelligence) so IRA can target more effectively than supporting immigration rallies in Idaho Falls.

Which is a mistake made by many of the sources in the Vanity Fair article everyone keeps sharing, the assumption that the only possible source of targeting help had to be Republicans.

We already know the Russians had help: they got it by helping themselves to campaign data in Democratic servers. It’s not clear they would need any more. Nor, absent proof of more effective targeting, is there any reason to believe that the dated information they stole from the Democrats wouldn’t suffice to what we’ve seen them do. Plus, we’ve never had clear answers whether or not Russians weren’t burrowed into far more useful data in Democratic servers. (Again, I think Russia’s actions with influencers on social media, particularly via 4Chan, was far more extensive, but that has more to do with HUMINT than with targeting.)

So, again, I certainly think it’s possible we’ll learn, down the road, that Republicans helped Russians figure out where to place their ads. But we’re well short of having proof of that right now, and we do have proof that some targeting data was flowing in the opposite direction.

Update: This post deals with DB’s exposure of a FB campaign organizing events in FL, which gets us far closer to something of interest. Those events came in the wake of Guccifer 2.0 releasing FL-based campaign information.

Facebook Doesn’t Need a Probable Cause Search Warrant to Turn Over Ad Data to Robert Mueller

People are shooting off their baby cannons in excitement with the news that Facebook turned over information to Robert Mueller that they didn’t turn over to Congress. The excitement comes, apparently, from the perception that if Mueller got more stuff than Congress, he must have gotten a probable cause search warrant, something implied — but not at all stated affirmatively — in this WSJ article.

Facebook Inc.  has handed over to special counsel Robert Mueller detailed records about the Russian ad purchases on its platform that go beyond what it shared with Congress last week, according to people familiar with the matter.

The information Facebook shared with Mr. Mueller included copies of the ads and details about the accounts that bought them and the targeting criteria they used, the people familiar with the matter said. Facebook policy dictates that it would only turn over “the stored contents of any account,” including messages and location information, in response to a search warrant, some of them said.

A search warrant from Mr. Mueller would mean the special counsel now has a powerful tool in his arsenal to probe the details of how social media was used as part of a campaign of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Facebook hasn’t shared the same information with Congress in part because of concerns about disrupting the Mueller probe, and possibly running afoul of U.S. privacy laws, people familiar with the matter said.

CNN similarly asserts that Mueller would need a warrant, without actually reporting any confirmation from Facebook that that’s what has happened.

Facebook gave Mueller and his team copies of ads and related information it discovered on its site linked to a Russian troll farm, as well as detailed information about the accounts that bought the ads and the way the ads were targeted at American Facebook users, a source with knowledge of the matter told CNN.

The disclosure, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, may give Mueller’s office a fuller picture of who was behind the ad buys and how the ads may have influenced voter sentiment during the 2016 election.

Facebook did not give copies of the ads to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees when it met with them last week on the grounds that doing so would violate their privacy policy, sources with knowledge of the briefings said. Facebook’s policy states that, in accordance with the federal Stored Communications Act, it can only turn over the stored contents of an account in response to a search warrant.

“We continue to work with the appropriate investigative authorities,” Facebook said in a statement to CNN.

Even in the criminal context, it’s not at all clear Mueller would need a probable cause search warrant. Here’s what WSJ and CNN said Facebook gave Mueller:

  • Copies of ads (which according to some reports, Facebook showed, but did not leave, with Congress)
  • Details about the accounts that bought them
  • Targeting criteria used to buy them

Both WSJ and CNN take from these details that Facebook treats these things — which are what the Internet Research Association and other fake subscribers included in their communications conducting an advertising transaction with Facebook — as “stored contents of an account” or “messages and location information.”

Given that these are communications with Facebook, not with the fake subscribers’ fake friends, it’s not at all clear that’s this would count as content. Here’s what Facebook gets asked for (and presumably delivers) in response to a 2703(d) order on an average real American, like Reality Winner.

A. The following information about the customers or subscribers of the Account:
1. Names (including subscriber names, user names, and screen names);
2. Addresses (including mailing addresses, residential addresses, business addresses, and e-mail addresses);
3. Local and long distance telephone connection records;
4. Records of session times and durations, and the temporarily assigned network addresses (such as Intemet Protocol (“IP”) addresses) associated with those sessions;
5. Length of service (including start date) and types of service utilized;
6. Telephone or instrument numbers (including MAC addresses);
7. Other subscriber numbers or identities (including temporarily assigned network addresses and registration Intemet Protocol (“IP”) addresses (including carrier grade natting addresses or ports)); and
8. Means and source of payment for such service (including any credit card or bank account number) and billing records.

B. All records and other information (not including the contents of communications) relating to the Account, including:
1. Records of user activity for each connection made to or from the Account, including log files; messaging logs; the date, time, length, and method of connections; data transfer volume; user names; and source and destination Intemet Protocol addresses;
2. Information about each communication sent or received by tbe Account, including tbe date and time of the communication, the method of communication, and the source and destination of the communication (such as source and destination email addresses, IP addresses, and telephone numbers). Records of any accounts registered with the same email address, phone number(s), method(s) of payment, or IP address as either of the accounts listed in Part I; and
3. Records of any accounts that are linked to either of the accounts listed in Part I by machine cookies (meaning all Facebook/Instagram user IDs that logged into any Facebook/Instagram account by the same machine as either of the accounts in Part I).

What would “all records and other information” relating to the account entail for an ad purchaser? After all, the fake account is not posting the ad, Facebook is. The fake account is using Facebook targeting criteria — again, communicating with Facebook, not its fake friends.

And if this is how Mueller got the Facebook data, it would be available with approval from a grand jury (and we know he’s got several grand juries lying around), with a relevance — not a probable cause — standard.

And that’s only if you’re talking criminal context. WSJ and CNN refer to Facebook’s privacy policy, which for legal reasons doesn’t cite all the ways they turn over data. In assuming that Mueller had to use a search warrant, both outlets are ignoring another obvious authority: Section 702.

We’re talking accounts believed (by both Facebook and the government) to be run by the Internet Research Association. The Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian tampering states, even in the unclassified version, that they believe IRA has ties to Russian intelligence.

  • 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.

But even without that, we’re talking a foreign corporation engaging in activity that everyone involved agrees has foreign intelligence value, with most people claiming that they knowingly took part in an intelligence influence operation run by Russian spooks.

That’s solidly in the realm of what gets tasked, all the time, under Section 702’s Foreign Government certificate. Hell, using 702, Mueller could get the contents of the messages sent by the fake accounts to their fake friends, as well as anything else private in their accounts (and a whole lot more).

And the standard for 702 is not probable cause, it is foreigner (including foreign corporation) located overseas of foreign intelligence purpose.

I know everyone badly wants to assume Mueller has indictments in his back pocket, and so therefore are seeing criminal probable cause where there may be none (and where none is required). But both of these articles make certain assumptions about how Facebook treats ad transactions and, making those assumptions, rule out the 2703(d) order. And both of these articles are ignoring the availability of everything in IRA’s accounts — content or no — under Section 702.

Update: I believe these misleading leaks are coming from Congress, rather than from Facebook or Mueller. Note, for example, this WSJ explanation for why Facebook gave Mueller more than they gave Congress:

Facebook hasn’t shared the same information with Congress in part because of concerns about disrupting the Mueller probe, and possibly running afoul of U.S. privacy laws, people familiar with the matter said.

The concern about disrupting the Mueller probe would not be Facebook’s. It’d be Mueller and Congress’.

With that in mind, consider this article, from Bloomberg, which I also found sketchy. It claims that Mueller’s investigation has a “red-hot” focus on social media.

Russia’s effort to influence U.S. voters through Facebook and other social media is a “red-hot” focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election and possible links to President Donald Trump’s associates, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Mueller’s team of prosecutors and FBI agents is zeroing in on how Russia spread fake and damaging information through social media and are seeking additional evidence from companies like Facebook and Twitter about what happened on their networks, said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing the ongoing investigation.

It relies on two US officials, a common moniker for members of Congress or their staffers. And the article goes on to quote both Richard Burr and Mark Warner.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said Tuesday that it’s “probably more a question of when” than if there will be a hearing with Facebook officials as part of his panel’s probe. Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat and a former telecommunications company founder, said Facebook’s revelation appears to be “the tip of the iceberg. I think there’s going to be much more.”

“This is the Wild, Wild West,” Warner said.

Warner has made no secret, for weeks, he wants more focus on the social media side of this. But Burr, here, seems to be reflecting the same considerations he does elsewhere: timing, which for him has been driven by ensuring the committee collects enough evidence to prepare before speaking to witnesses, and deference to Mueller’s investigation.

But consider the rest of the article, which suggests that Mueller’s investigation is going full steam after social media.

That’s pretty hard to square with the fact that Twitter hadn’t even considered doing a report until Facebook delivered theirs, which was provided voluntarily. And Google has done nothing yet, in spite of concerns about Russians exploiting YouTube.

Twitter Inc. is also expected to speak to congressional investigators in the coming weeks about Russian activity on its platform, said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. A spokeswoman for Twitter declined to comment on whether the company had received any warrants or handed anything over related to possible Russian ad buys.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit said in a statement, “We’re always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms.” A person familiar with the matter said the company hasn’t been called to testify on the topic.

In other words, if Mueller is interested in social media, that interest is no longer than 10 days old, and did not drive Facebook’s reporting (though Mueller would have intelligence from the intelligence community, on top of whatever Facebook provided).

I think Warner wants Burr’s agreement to subpoena these providers now, which would permit SSCI to obtain the same stuff Mueller did. And if, in an effort to apply that pressure, Warner or his minions are telling journalists that Mueller got more because he used legal process, it would leave it to journalists to interpret what kind of (legally gagged, probably) process Mueller used. Which might result in precisely the kind of story we got: journalists reporting it involved a warrant based on their interpretation of how Facebook treats ad purchases.

The Jared Firing Line

After long-standing reports that Steven Bannon will go to war against the “globalists” who remain in the White House, the WSJ has a report sourced to “people familiar with the matter” that there was a plan to oust Jared Kusher in June.

Some of President Donald Trump’s lawyers earlier this summer concluded that Jared Kushner should step down as senior White House adviser because of possible legal complications related to a probe of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election

[snip]

After some members of the legal team aired their concerns to Mr. Trump in June, including in at least one meeting in the White House, press aides to the legal team began to prepare for the possibility that Mr. Kushner would step down, drafting a statement explaining his departure, said people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Trump wasn’t persuaded that Mr. Kushner needed to leave. One person said Mr. Trump’s view was that Mr. Kushner hadn’t done anything wrong and that there was no need for him to step down.

The story includes a non-denial denial from Marc Kasowitz, who left with legal spox, Mark Corallo in July.

Mr. Kasowitz in a statement said: “I never discussed with other lawyers for the President that Jared Kushner should step down from his position at the White House, I never recommended to the President that Mr. Kushner should step down from that position and I am not aware that any other lawyers for the President made any such recommendation either.”

Kasowitz’ formulation “lawyers for the President” does not exclude “White House lawyers” at all.

Plus, if White House counsel who are not Trump’s personal lawyers recommended the President oust Kushner, it might explain one of the (many) reasons Robert Mueller might want to talk with Don McGahn and his deputy James Burnham.

Mueller has notified the White House he will probably seek to question White House counsel Don McGahn and one of his deputies, James Burnham. Mueller’s office has also told the White House that investigators may want to interview Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

And if, as WSJ reported, a statement explaining Kushner’s departure got drafted, then Raffel would be part of that.

But if I’m right, then I suspect the reasons for ousting Kushner go further than the ones described by the WSJ (which include his failure to identify the Russians he spoke with, his meetings with Russians (including the June 9 meeting at Trump Tower), and the possibility his continued presence in the White House would expose others employees and Trump to risk.

After all, just yesterday, in an interview where he was grilled about a divide between him and other Administration officials — including Ivanka and Jared — Steve Bannon went on 60 Minutes, coyly confirming that he’s furious about the Jim Comey firing, while pretending he hasn’t been leaking just that for weeks.

Jared was a key advisor in the decision to fire Comey.

At the Oval Office meeting on Monday, May 8, Trump described his draft termination letter to top aides who wandered in and out of the room, including then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Donald McGahn and senior adviser Hope Hicks. Pence arrived late, after the meeting had begun. They were also joined by Miller and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom had been with Trump over the weekend in Bedminster. Kushner supported the president’s decision.

Had he been ousted in July, the White House could have blamed it all on him, and let him take the fall (and Trump could even have pardoned him for his other Russian sins). But Trump decided his son-in-law had done nothing wrong, with the firing advice, or with all the meetings that Trump also didn’t fault Mike Flynn for, so Trump ignored the advice of a number of his lawyers.

Update: Ty Cobb all but names Bannon to the WaPo.

In a statement Monday night, White House lawyer Ty Cobb blamed the disclosure of the internal debate on former White House staffers seeking to tarnish Kushner, who Cobb described as “among the President’s most trusted, competent, selfless and intelligent advisers.”

“Those whose agendas were and remain focused on sabotaging him and his family for misguided personal reasons are no longer around,” said Cobb, who was brought aboard in July to specialize in the Russia inquiry. “All clandestine efforts to undermine him never gained traction.”

Don Jr Does Not Recall Not Recalling Rinat Akhmetshin at the June 9 Meeting

Don Jr had himself a “Half Hillary” today, upwards of five hours of testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, after which the low-stamina 39 year old called it quits.

Already, Senators Blumenthal and Coons suggest there were gaps or clear lies in his testimony. And apparently after the testimony, Robert Mueller alerted the White House he’ll seek testimony from the people who helped Pops Trump write a misleading statement about the meeting.

The reason for that is obvious: in his statement, Jr changed his story from what the original White House statement was, to offer an explanation for how the Pop-crafted statement makes sense. He knew the meeting pertained to dirt on Hillary, but ultimately it was just about adoption.

In his email to me Rob suggested that someone had “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia” and that the information would be “very useful” to the campaign. I was somewhat skeptical of his outreach, as I had only known Rob as Emin’s somewhat colorful music promoter who had worked with famous pop singers such as Michael Jackson. Since I had no additional information to validate what Rob was saying, I did not quite know what to make of his email. I had no way to gauge the reliability, credibility or accuracy of any of the things he was saying. As it later turned out, my skepticism was justified. The meeting provided no meaningful information and turned out not to be about what had been represented. The meeting was instead primarily focused on Russian adoptions, which is exactly what I said over a year later in my statement of July 8, 2017.

Of course, by crafting that nonsensical statement, Don Jr is making it clear a quid pro quo was discussed: Dirt, in exchange for movement on the Magnitsky sanctions.

I’m more interesting in the things the forgetful 39 year old could not recall. While his phone records show he spoke to Emin Agalarov, the rock star son of Aras Agalarov, who has been dangling real estate deals in Russia for the Trumps for some time, for example, he doesn’t recall what was discussed.

Three days later, on June 6th, Rob contacted me again about scheduling a time for a call with Emin. My phone records show three very short phone calls between Emin and me between June 6th and 7th. I do not recall speaking to Emin. It is possible that we left each other voice mail messages. I simply do not remember.

This is important, because those conversations probably explained precisely what was going to happen at that meeting (and how it might benefit real estate developer Aras Agalarov), but Jr simply can’t recall even having a conversation (or how long those conversations were).

He also doesn’t recall whether he discussed the meeting, after the fact, with Jared, Manafort, or (the unspoken “anyone else” here is pregnant) Pops.

The meeting lasted 20-30 minutes and Rob, Emin and I never discussed the meeting again. I do not recall ever discussing it with Jared, Paul or anyone else. In short, I gave it no further thought

Once we find out he did discuss it with Pops and others, he can say he’s stupid and we’ll all believe him.

Most interesting, to me, is his claim to only recall seven participants in the meeting.

As I recall, at or around 4 pm, Rob Goldstone came up to our offices and entered our conference room with a lawyer who I now know to be Natalia Veselnitskaya. Joining them was a translator and a man who was introduced to me as Irakli Kaveladze. After a few minutes, Jared and Paul joined. While numerous press outlets have reported that there were a total of eight people present at the meeting, I only recall seven. Because Rob was able to bring the entire group up by only giving his name to the security guard in the lobby, I had no advance warning regarding who or how many people would be attending. There is no attendance log to refer back to and I did not take notes.

The unstated subtext here is even more pregnant. Don Jr accounts for seven of the participants in this meeting:

(3) Himself, Paul Manafort, Jared Kusher

(4) Natalia Veselnitskaya, her translator, the Agalarov’s real estate invstment executive Irakli Kaveladze, and Rob Goldstone

So what he really means to say is he doesn’t recall the presence of Rinat Akhmetshin, who has ties to Russian intelligence and a history of fending off accusations of hacking.

I’d say those three gaps — what Agalarov told him to expect from the meeting in calls arranged beforehand, what he told Pop about the meeting, and that a suspected spook was there — are pretty interesting things for a young guy like Jr to forget.

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.

 

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