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Three Months After Problematic John Sipher Post, Just Security Makes Clear It Let Known Errors Sit for Two Months

This post was first published on September 6, the same day John Sipher’s post was published. Because of something that happened today, December 10, I’m reposting it in its entirety, along with the two updates that make it clear when Just Security corrected one of the egregious errors I pointed out on September 6 two months later, around November 4, they didn’t credit me. In other words, they let a significant error sit for two months (and presumably haven’t even reviewed all the other problems I point out here, in spite of an extended conversation Ryan Goodman and I had about this post on September 6). Given the lefties are still making some of the same errors (notably, when Rachel Maddow hid how badly the Steele dossier was on the hack-and-leak by not mentioning the Guccifer 2.0 publications), the continued errors are telling. 

If I were to write this post now, it’d show a bunch more problems. But I believe the analysis from September stands up.


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 and he said he was going to read it.

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.

 

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

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

Cognitive Rot and the Steele Dossier

One reason I write so much on the Steele dossier is because the cognitive rot it has fostered among Democrats is really dangerous. Often, they’ll point to a confirmed event — such as that Carter Page met Arkadiy Dvorkovich and Andrey Baranov on a Russian trip that was otherwise publicly reported contemporaneously — and claim it “proves” a dossier claim claiming something else — in this case that he met Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. Out of some need to see the larger dossier “confirmed,” its fans claim over and over again that Not-A = A. As a result, rather than asking why the dossier is so full of narrow misses and why it doesn’t report any of the big known events — starting with the Trump Tower meeting attended by Fusion GPS researcher Rinat Akhmetshin — Democrats instead keep seeing “truth” in the dossier in the tea leaves that, in actuality, are really just dregs. And, in the process, they become willing to argue that Not-A = A, arguing that claims that don’t match known reality actually are reality, just like the Trump boosters we claim to abhor.

Josh Marshall engages in a bit of the same today, then Jonathan Chait piggy backs on Marshall and (as is his wont) exacerbates the error.

Marshall starts by laying out the claim from the dossier — that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had a meeting 1) in Prague 2) in August to clean up the Manafort scandal (and the burgeoning Russia scandal generally).

I wanted to focus specifically on what the Steele Dossier alleges was a meeting with Russian intelligence agents in Prague in August 2016.

He spends the rest of the paragraph correctly noting that this is raw intelligence, so if the Cohen detail is wrong, it doesn’t mean the rest of the dossier is.

Marshall then lays out what had been known before today: that Cohen’s known travel to the EU was (like so much else in the dossier) close, but no cigar.

Cohen’s passport did show a trip to Italy in July. July isn’t August. But that’s the kind of dating issue that might get mixed up in the chain of information transition.

In any case, point being: Cohen was in the EU zone, relatively close to the Czech Republic only a couple weeks before August. So his passport by no means rules out a visit to Prague. Since most press coverage has seemed to take Cohen’s denial at face value, I had assumed or left open the possibility that he’d provided investigators with other evidence we’re not aware of.

Note, it is true that someone might mistake a July meeting for an August one. Except if you consider the actual claims about the Cohen meeting: that he was cleaning up after events that occurred in July and even (Manafort’s resignation) August.

That is, it would be darn near impossible for Cohen to clean up the scandal created by — for example — Page’s Moscow speech on July 7 and the platform change made on July 11 and 12 and first reported on July 18 on a trip to Europe from July 9 through 17. The mess hadn’t started yet! Manafort’s troubles, especially, were only just beginning to break out publicly.

Marshall then links to this story and argues that it is still an open question whether Cohen had “this meeting” described in the dossier.

Politico has this passage …

Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a visit to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his point of EU entry. A congressional official said the issue is “still active” for investigators.

Reading the article it seems clear that Cohen simply denied ever being in Prague and majority Republicans saw no basis to disbelieve him and thus would not require him to provide items like credit card records and other documents which might confirm his account.

This seems very much an open question whether Cohen did in fact have this meeting.

The article — on top of making it clear it is reporting on the dysfunctional HPSCI investigation which (among other things) has shown members not asking about discussions that might be related to the larger Middle East aspect of this operation and is clearly inadequate for other reasons — includes this language before the passage Marshall quotes.

Cohen has come under close scrutiny for several Trump-Russia controversies, including emailing Putin’s spokesman two weeks before the first GOP primary to ask for his help in advancing a proposal to build a Trump Tower development project in Moscow. He also was linked to a proposed pro-Russian peace plan for Ukraine involving Felix Sater, a former Trump business associate with Russian government connections.

Cohen has strenuously denied that a Prague meeting occurred, and he provided a copy of his passport to BuzzFeed in May. The passport was stamped for entry and exit to the United Kingdom and Italy — but not the Czech Republic, whose capital is Prague. “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews,” Cohen tweeted on Jan. 10.

His passport stamps show that he traveled twice to London in 2016 and once to Italy, from July 9 to July 17.

Yes, the article supports Marshall’s point: HPSCI (both Democrats and Republicans have shown to be ineffective, but he blames just the Republicans) did not demand more information from Cohen to disprove a meeting (though it’s not clear how they’d refute the only possibility that “this meeting” is “this meeting” — that Cohen, like Manafort and Rick Davis, has more than one passport).

But the theory posed is not that he has a second passport he might have used to travel to Prague, but that “this meeting” would instead be a July meeting, not an August one. That is, it couldn’t be “this meeting” because it couldn’t accomplish what the meeting reportedly accomplished. It might be another meeting, in which case the report of it as “this meeting” would be wrong or disinformation, not truth.

The article also notes HPSCI is investigating Cohen’s other European travel, to London (one trip in October and one at Thanksgiving), which for the reasons I note here, might be more promising. If any meetings of interest happened there, they’d be interesting. But they’d also be other meetings, occurring just before the flurry of Cohen reporting as journalists were beginning to chase down this story or after all but the last dossier report.

But there is no evidence presented in the article that supports a claim that “this meeting” took place, nothing to change the conclusion that public evidence does not support the claim that any possible meeting is “this meeting.” Not A might = A, Marshall argues.

When I tweeted to him about this, he observed that he thinks the dossier “has been borne out in a broad sense,” which is a great way to claim that Not-A = A without getting your PhD pulled.

Then, along comes Chait.

Ah, Chait.

He starts by hanging previous doubts about the dossier on the pee tape and Cohen’s strong denials.

Two details in particular made the dossier seem suspect. First, its report that Trump had paid Russian prostitutes to urinate on a bed that had been used by Barack Obama. And second, the report alleged that Michael Cohen, a Trump crony with Russian contacts, had met in Prague with Russian intelligence officials. The golden-showers detail, while unconfirmed, seemed too bizarre to be plausible. And Cohen shot down the Prague allegation forcefully. The report of his meeting was “totally fake, totally inaccurate,” Cohen said, “I’m telling you emphatically that I’ve not been to Prague, I’ve never been to Czech [Republic], I’ve not been to Russia.”

Cohen’s denials helped shape skeptical coverage of the dossier.

That is, before, because these two details were doubtful, the entire dossier might be doubtful.

He then points to the same Politico report on the dysfunctional HPSCI investigation considering the Prague question “still active” (without doing the math to figure out that a July Prague meeting could not be the meeting reported in the dossier) to argue that Cohen should not be trusted more than Steele.

[T]his hardly settles the question. A congressional investigation is digging into whether Cohen is telling the truth about the alleged visit to Prague. “Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a visit to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his point of EU entry,” reports Politico, in a passage that’s received less attention than merited. “A congressional official said the issue is ‘still active’ for investigators.”

Most reporters have treated the say-so of Cohen, a Trump hanger-on laden with extremely shady associations, as implicitly more credible than the reporting of a British intelligence agent with years of expertise. That is probably a mistake.

I’m fine with assuming Cohen is a liar, especially given how carefully he parsed his denial, not to mention the way he orchestrated turning over documents to distract attention from the previously undisclosed and far more inflammatory details of earlier negotiations with Russians tied to the getting Trump elected. But that doesn’t mean Steele is correct either. They could both be telling non-truths.

Chait then says “we don’t have any idea whether” the pee tape is real, but says that because Brian Beutler has argued Trump has a pathological jealousy of Obama, then … I’m not sure what he’s arguing here.

And what about the bit about the prostitutes? The detail has been endlessly described as “salacious,” placing it in the category of National Enquirer–type gossip of dubious veracity. We don’t have any idea whether that detail is true. However, Brian Beutler made a fairly persuasive case that Trump has displayed during his presidency the exact same kind of pathological, self-destructive jealousy of Barack Obama (who had publicly humiliatedTrump two years before the alleged incident).

I mean, sure, Trump hates that a black man was more competent as President than he has been. But does that affect the specifics of how the Russians might compromise him?

Finally, Chait points to one more article that argues Not-A = A, then links to the shitty Sipher defense of the dossier.

As time goes by, more and more of the claims first reported by Steele have been borne out. In general, there is a split between the credibility afforded the dossier by the mainstream media and by intelligence professionals. The former treat it is gossip; the latter take it seriously.

We can’t expect Chait, a paid pundit, to actually test such claims on his own because he’s not paid to be smart but instead to repeat warmed over conventional wisdom, so I guess I’ll have to forgive Chait for not noticing the glaring holes in Sipher’s piece.

Which brings us to the best example of the cognitive rot the dossier creates. In the same breath where Chait admits he should not take the dossier as gospel truth and parts of it (he’s not going to do the work, mind you, because he’s not paid for that kind of actual labor) are “no doubt” false.

Unverified private reporting should not be taken as gospel truth, and no doubt some of the tips Steele picked up are false. But we should probably be giving far more weight to the possibility that the darkest interpretation of Trump’s relations with Russia is actually true.

But from that, he assumes (wrongly, in my opinion) that the “darkest interpretation of Trump’s relations” are what the dossier reports, and that those are possibly true.

Chait has abdicated any need to verify individual claims out of which he builds his larger truths.

As I’ve said repeatedly, we don’t need the dossier to believe dark things about Trump’s relations with Russians; public reports substantiate that darkness, and darker things are to come.

The desire to find tea leaves that prove the worst about Trump — rather than to do the work to look at the actual evidence and/or wait for Robert Mueller to do his work — has led Democrats to excuse themselves of insisting on tying claims to actual reality, in varying degrees of the same kind of thing that makes Trump so dangerous. It’s okay if claims are “borne out in a general sense,” rather than being proven true piece by piece.

We used to believe that justice was not about truth being “borne out in a general sense” but about discrete evidence. Too many seem to believe we can skip that step with Trump. That’s true, even though we have facts and evidence and they’re accumulating to be even more damning than anything in the Steele dossier. Just as important, we need to retain the habit of facts and evidence.

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

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

Did the Steele Dossier Lead the Democrats To Be Complacent after They Got Hacked?

I get asked, a lot, why I obsess over the Steele dossier. A lot of people believe that even if the dossier doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t matter because Mueller’s investigation doesn’t depend on it. I’d be more sympathetic to that view if people like Adam Schiff and John Podesta didn’t keep invoking the dossier in ways that makes their legitimate concerns easy to discredit.

But I now believe the dossier may have done affirmative damage.

Consider the timeline.

Perkins Coie lawyer Marc Elias reportedly engaged Fusion for opposition research in April (their first payment was May 24).

April 26, Joseph Mifsud told George Papadopoulos that Russians said they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in the form of emails.

April 29, the DNC discovered they had been hacked. Perkins Coie partner Michael Sussman had a key role in their response.

“Not sure it is related to what the F.B.I. has been noticing,” said one internal D.N.C. email sent on April 29. “The D.N.C. may have been hacked in a serious way this week, with password theft, etc.”

No one knew just how bad the breach was — but it was clear that a lot more than a single filing cabinet worth of materials might have been taken. A secret committee was immediately created, including Ms. Dacey, Ms. Wasserman Schultz, Mr. Brown and Michael Sussmann, a former cybercrimes prosecutor at the Department of Justice who now works at Perkins Coie, the Washington law firm that handles D.N.C. political matters.

“Three most important questions,” Mr. Sussmann wrote to his clients the night the break-in was confirmed. “1) What data was accessed? 2) How was it done? 3) How do we stop it?”

Sometime in May, Robert Johnston (who then worked at Crowdstrike) briefed the DNC on the hack. He told them how much data had been stolen, but he told them intelligence hackers generally don’t do anything with the stolen data.

When he briefed the DNC in that conference room, Johnston presented a report that basically said, “They’ve balled up data and stolen it.” But the political officials were hardly experienced in the world of intelligence. They were not just horrified but puzzled. “They’re looking at me,” Johnston recalled, “and they’re asking, ‘What are they going to do with the data that was taken?’”

Back then, no one knew. In addition to APT 29, another hacking group had launched malware into the DNC’s system. Called APT 28, it’s also associated Russian intelligence. Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security expert, said it’s not crystal clear which Russian spy service is behind each hacker group, but like many other cybersecurity investigators, he agreed that Russian intelligence carried out the attack.

So, Johnston said, “I start thinking back to all of these previous hacks by Russia and other adversaries like China. I think back to the Joint Chiefs hack. What did they do with this data? Nothing. They took the information for espionage purposes. They didn’t leak it to WikiLeaks.”

So, Johnston recalled, that’s what he told the DNC in May 2016: Such thefts have become the norm, and the hackers did not plan on doing anything with what they had purloined.

May 25 was likely the date on which the last emails shared with Wikileaks got exfiltrated.

On June 9, Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Don Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort at Trump Tower. Both at a Prevezon court hearing that morning and after the Trump Tower meeting, she reportedly met with Fusion’s Glenn Simpson. Though there’s no sign of Baker Hostetler paying for any services anytime near that meeting. Sometime Fusion associate Rinat Akhmetshin accompanied Veselnitskaya to the meeting; it’s possible he was paid for work in June.

Sometime in “mid-June,” the Perkins Coie lawyer Sussman and the DNC first met with the FBI about the hack. They asked the FBI to attribute the hack to Russia.

The D.N.C. executives and their lawyer had their first formal meeting with senior F.B.I. officials in mid-June, nine months after the bureau’s first call to the tech-support contractor. Among the early requests at that meeting, according to participants: that the federal government make a quick “attribution” formally blaming actors with ties to Russian government for the attack to make clear that it was not routine hacking but foreign espionage.

“You have a presidential election underway here and you know that the Russians have hacked into the D.N.C.,” Mr. Sussmann said, recalling the message to the F.B.I. “We need to tell the American public that. And soon.”

The FBI would not attribute the hack formally until the following year.

On June 14, the DNC placed a story with the WaPo, spinning the hack to minimize the damage done.

On June 15, Guccifer 2.0 started posting. In his first post, he proved a number of the statements Crowdstrike or Democrats made to the WaPo were wrong, including that:

  • The hackers took just two documents
  • Only Trump-related documents had been stolen
  • Hillary’s campaign had not been hacked
  • The DNC had responded quickly
  • No donor information had been stolen

Now, you’d think this (plus Julian Assange’s claim to have Hillary emails) would alert the Democrats that Johnston’s advice — that the Russians probably wouldn’t do anything with the data they stole — was wrong. Except that (as far as is publicly known) none of the documents Guccifer 2.0 leaked in that first batch were from the DNC.

Around this same time, Perkins Coie lawyer Marc Elias asked Fusion to focus on Trump’s Russian ties, which led to Christopher Steele’s involvement in the already started oppo effort.

On June 20, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that the dirt Russia had on Hillary consisted of “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.” It would also have learned that “the dossier however had not yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

On July 19, Perkins Coie would have learned from a Steele report that at a meeting with a Kremlin official named Diyevkin which Carter Page insists didn’t take place, Diyevkin “rais[ed] a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on TRUMP’s Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.” At that point in time, the reference to kompromat would still be to intercepted messages, not email.

On July 22, Wikileaks released the first trove of DNC emails.

On July 26 — days after Russian-supplied emails were being released to the press — Perkins Coie would receive a Steele report (based on June reporting) that claimed FSB had the lead on hacking in Russia. And the report would claim — counter to a great deal of publicly known evidence — that “there had been only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ foreign targets.” That is, even after the Russian hacked emails got released to the public, Steele would still be providing information to the Democrats suggesting there was no risk of emails getting released because Russians just weren’t that good at hacking.

It appears likely that the Democrats asked Fusion to focus on Russia because they believed they had been badly hacked by Russia.

Everything they learned (and would have learned, if the June reporting on cybersecurity had been produced in timely fashion) between the time they were hacked and when Wikileaks would start releasing massive amounts of emails would have told the Democrats that the Russians hadn’t really succeeded with their hacking, and any kompromat they had on Hillary was not emails, but instead dated intercepts. The Steele dossier would have led them to be complacent, rather than prepping for the onslaught of the emails.

We don’t know how Steele’s intelligence was used within the party. But if they had paid attention to it, it would have done affirmative damage, because it might have led them to continue to rely on Johnston’s opinion that the stolen emails weren’t coming out.

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

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

On 702, NSA Wants to Assure You You’re Not a Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target Target

NSA just released a touchy-feely Q&A, complete with a touchy-feely image of the NSA, explaining “the Impact of Section 702 on the Typical American.”

I shall now shred it.

First note that this document deals with 702? It should be dealing with Title VII, because the entire thing gets reauthorized by 702 reauthorization. That means Sections 704 and 705(b), which are used to target Americans, will be reauthorized. And they have had egregious problems in recent years (even if the problems only affect some subset of around 300 Americans). Sure, Paul Manafort and Carter Page are not your “typical” Americans, but abuses against them would be problematic for reasons that could affect Americans (not least that they could fuck up the Mueller probe if FISA disclosure for defendants weren’t so broken).

The piece starts by talking about how the IC uses 702 to “hunt” for information on “adversaries,” which it suggests include terrorists and hackers.

The U.S. Intelligence Community relies on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the constant hunt for information about foreign adversaries determined to harm the nation or our allies. The National Security Agency (NSA), for example, uses this law to target terrorists and thwart their plans. In a time of increasing cyber threats, Section 702 also aids the Intelligence Community’s cybersecurity efforts.

Somehow, it neglects to mention the foreign government certificate — which can target people who aren’t “adversaries” at all, but instead foreign muckety mucks we want to know about — or the counterproliferation certificate — which can target businesses of all kinds that deal in dual use technologies. Not to mention the SysAdmins that it might target for all these purposes.

The piece then lays out in two paragraphs and six questions (I include just one below) the basic principles that 702 can only “target” foreigners overseas.

Under Section 702, the government cannot target a U.S. person anywhere in the world, or any person located in the United States.

Under Section 702, NSA can target foreigners reasonably believed to be located outside the United States only if it has a basis to believe it will acquire certain types of foreign intelligence information that have been authorized for collection.

[snip]

Q: Can I, as an American, be the target of Section 702 surveillance?

A: No. As an American citizen, you cannot be the target of surveillance under Section 702. Even if you were not an American, you could not be targeted under Section 702 if you were located in the United States.

Effectively, this passage might as well say, “target target target target target target target target target target
target target target target target target target target target,” which is how many times (19) the word is used in the touchy-feely piece. The word “incidental” appears just once, where it entertains what happens if one of “Mary’s” foreign relatives were in a terrorist organization.

Q: One of Mary’s foreign relatives in South America is a member of an international terrorist group. Could Mary’s conversations with that relative be collected under Section 702?

A: Yes, it’s possible, if the U.S. government is aware of the relative’s membership in a terrorist group and the relative is one of the 106,000 targets under Section 702. However, even if this scenario occurred, there would still be protections in place for Mary, a U.S. citizen, if her conversations with that target were incidentally intercepted. For example:

U.S. intelligence agencies’ court-approved minimization procedures are specifically designed to protect the privacy of U.S. persons by, among other things, limiting the circumstances in which NSA can include the identity of a U.S. person in an intelligence report. Moreover, even where those procedures allow the NSA to include the identity of a U.S. person in an intelligence report, NSA frequently substitutes the U.S. person identity with a generic phrase or term, such as “U.S. person 1” or “a named U.S. person.” NSA calls this “masking” the identity of the U.S. person.

There are also what’s known as “age-off requirements”: After a certain period of time, the IC must delete any unminimized Section 702 information, regardless of the nationality of the communicants.

I guess the NSA figured if they used “Fatima,” whose relatives were in Syria, this scenario would be too obvious?

Yet in this, the only discussion of “incidental” collection, the NSA doesn’t explain how it is used — for example to find informants (meaning Fatima might be coerced into informing on her mosque if she discussed her tax dodging with her cousin) or to find 2nd degree associates (meaning Fatima’s friend in the US, Mohammed, might get an FBI visit because Fatima’s cousin in Syria is in ISIS). It also doesn’t explain that the “age-off” is five years, if Fatima is lucky enough to avoid having the FBI deem her conversations with her cousin in Syria interesting. If not, the data will sit on an FBI server for 30 years, ready to provide an excuse to give Fatima extra attention next time some bigot gets worried because he sees her taking pictures at Disney World.

Curiously, while the NSA doesn’t address the disproportionate impact of 702 on Muslims, it does pretend to address the disproportionate impact on Asians or their family members — people like like Xiaoxiang Xi and Keith Gartenlaub.

Q: Could the government target my colleague, who is a citizen of an Asian country, as a pretext to collect my communications under Section 702?

A: No. That would be considered “reverse targeting” and is prohibited.

Thanks to Ron Wyden, we know how cynically misleading this answer is. He explained in the SSCI 702 reauthorization bill report that the government may,

conduct unlimited warrantless searches on Americans, disseminate the results of those searches, and use that information against those Americans, so long as it has any justification at all for targeting the foreigner.

Effectively, the government has morphed the “significant purpose” logic from the PATRIOT Act onto 702, meaning collecting foreign intelligence doesn’t have to be the sole purpose of targeting a foreigner; learning about what an American is doing, such as a scientist engaging in scientific discussion, can be one purpose of the targeting.

After dealing with unmasking, the NSA then performs the always cynical move of asking whether the NSA can query US person content.

Q: Can NSA use my information to query lawfully collected 702 data?

A: NSA can query already lawfully collected Section 702 information using a U.S. person’s name or identifier (such as an e-mail account or phone number) only if the query is reasonably designed to identify foreign intelligence information.

However, a U.S. person is still afforded protection. The justification for the query must be documented. The process for conducting a query is also subject to internal controls. Such queries are reviewed by the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to ensure they meet the relevant legal requirements. Additionally, if the query was subsequently identified as being improper, it would be reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and to Congress.

This passage is absolutely correct. But also absolutely beside the point, because NSA sends a significant chunk of its collection to the FBI where it can be searched to assess leads and search for evidence of crimes, and where queries get nowhere near the kind of oversight that NSA queries get.

Then the piece tries to explain the need for all the secrecy.

Q: Terrorists aim to hurt Americans and our allies, so why doesn’t the Intelligence Community share more Section 702 information about how the IC goes after them?

A: The Intelligence Community has dramatically enhanced transparency, especially regarding its implementation of Section 702. Thousands of pages of key documents have been officially released, and are available on IC on the Record. The public has more information than ever before on how the IC uses this critical foreign surveillance authority. That said, the IC must continue to protect classified information. This includes specifics on whether or not it has collected information about any particular individual.

If terrorists could find out that NSA had intercepted their communications, terrorists would likely change their communications methods to avoid further detection.

This is, partly, a straw man. People aren’t really asking to know NSA’s individual targets. They’re asking to know whether the government has back doored their iPhones via demands under FISA, or whether the NSA is collecting on the 430,000 Americans that use Tor every day, or if they’re also using this “foreign intelligence” collection program to hunt Americans buying drugs on Dark Markets or even BLM activists that our racist Attorney General has deemed a threat to national security. And in the name of keeping secrets from terrorists (who actually have the feedback mechanism of observing what gets their associates drone-killed to learn what gets collected), the government is refusing to admit that the answer to all those questions is yes: yes, the government has back doored our iPhones, yes, the government is spying on the 430,000 Americans that use Tor, and yes, for those who use Tor to buy drugs, they may even use 702 data to prosecute you.

Finally, the NSA pretends that everyone else in the world has a program just like this.

Q: Is the U.S. government the only one in the world with intercept programs like 702?

A: No. Many other countries have intelligence surveillance intercept programs, nearly all of which have far fewer privacy protections. Section 702 and its supporting policies and practices stand out in terms of strength of oversight, privacy protections, and public transparency.

It is true that other countries have “intercept programs,” but with the exception of China and Russia’s access to domestic Internet companies, no other country has a program “like 702” that, by virtue of the United States hosting the world’s most popular Internet companies, gives the US the luxury of spying on the rest of the world using a nice note to Google rather than having to hack users individually (or hack all users, as Russia did with Yahoo).

So, yes, the NSA has now offered a picture of itself, literally and metaphorically, that minimizes the scope, the thousands of spies it employs, and the reach, both domestic and global. But it’s a profoundly misleading picture.

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

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

The Cost of the Lawfare Surrounding the Steele Dossier Will Vastly Outstrip Its Original Cost

In response to Monday’s server hiccups and in anticipation that Mueller is nowhere near done, we expanded our server capacity overnight. If you think you’ll rely on emptywheel reporting on the Mueller probe, please consider a donation to support the site

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Fusion GPS has told Congress (presumably as part of the settlement on a bank subpoena reached last week) how much it got paid for the dossier on Donald Trump, and how much of that it paid Christopher Steele for his part in the dossier. Fusion got $1.02 million from Perkins Coie, of which Steele got $168K.

Fusion GPS’ statement said it had told Congress about how $168,000 was paid last year to Orbis Business Intelligence, Steele’s company.

The money paid to Orbis was taken from $1.02 million it received in fees and expenses from the Perkins Coie law firm, the statement said.

There’s some confusion about this number, however, with some claiming that Fusion had a huge markup on Steele’s labor. But that’s not right. We’ve now confirmed what we’ve seen is just part of the total dossier Fusion did on Trump. If the numbering in the dossier is any indication, there were at least 166 reports done, with 79 done between the time  started on the dossier in April and when Steele got involved in June. Of the total, we’ve seen just 17 released reports from Steele, or about 10% of the total (assuming none of his Russian-related reports were withheld). That would put his payment — over 16% of what Fusion got paid — to be a reasonable fraction (of course much of the rest of the dossier is likely domestic and less reliant on paid sources built up over decades).

In any case, as Reuters points out, it’s far less than the $12 million Trump has alleged.

But it’s also far less than what the dossier will cost in the long run. As I’ve been tracking, there are a number of strands of “lawfare” surrounding the dossier — Russian and Republican attempts to use lawsuits to make the dossier toxic. They include:

  • Alexej Gubarev’s lawsuit against Steele and his company in the UK
  • Alexej Gubarev’s lawsuit against BuzzFeed in FL (with related subpoena challenges being litigated in DC)
  • The lawsuit by Alfa Bank executives against BuzzFeed in DC (filed after consulting with top GOP lawyers Viet Dinh and Brian Benczkowski and their firm)
  • Fusion’s efforts to fight testimony and bank subpoenas in DC
  • Carter Page’s lawsuit against HuffPo and Yahoo

In addition, I would be shocked if Marc Elias doesn’t get slapped with a lawsuit or two, now that his role in funding the dossier has become known. With the exception of Page’s suit, each of those involves at least two sets of well paid lawyers to fight things out.

Which is to say that the lawfare surrounding the dossier may well end up costing $12 million, even assuming no one ever has to pay any penalties. Which seems to offer a lesson for sleazy politicos: If you’re going to pay to develop dirt on your opponent, make sure that the blowback from it doesn’t cost more in terms of dollars and damage than the actual dossier itself.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

 

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

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

Are Trump’s Associates Forgoing Lawyers because They Expect Pardons?

One of the numerous topics over which Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked non-executive executive privilege when he testified earlier this month was whether the Trump Administration has started discussing pardoning those who might be criminally exposed for their ties with Russia.

WARNER: To your knowledge, have any Department of Justice officials been involved with conversations about any possibility of presidential pardons about any of the individuals involved with the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, I’m not able to comment on conversations with high officials within the white house. That would be a violation of the communications rule that I have to —

WARNER: Just so I can understand, is the basis of that unwilling to answer based on executive privilege?

SESSIONS: It’s a long standing policy. The department of justice not to comment on conversations that the attorney general had with the president of the united States for confidential reasons that rounded in the coequal branch.

WARNER: Just so I understand, is that mean you claim executive privilege?

SESSIONS: I’m not claiming executive privilege because that’s the president’s power and I have no power there.

WARNER: What about conversations with other Department of Justice or White House officials about potential pardons? Not the president, sir.

SESSIONS: Without in any way suggesting I had any conversations concerning pardons, totally apart from that, there are privileges of communication within the department of justice that we share all of us do. We have a right to have full and robust debate within the Department of Justice and encourage people to speak up and argue cases on different sides. Those arguments are not — historically we have seen they shouldn’t be revealed.

WARNER: I hope you agree since you recused yourself that if the president or others would pardon someone during the midst of this investigation while our investigation or Mr. Mueller’s investigation, that would be problematic.

After I watched this testimony I predicted Trump would pardon someone — probably Mike Flynn — within three months of the day I made the prediction (which was roughly June 14).

I said that, in part, because of Sessions’ sheer arrogance when he was providing obviously false answers (most especially to Kamala Harris). Sessions had the giddy look of someone who knew he’d get away with whatever he was pulling, even beyond the kind of a look you’d expect from a southern white man talking to a woman of color.

But I also say that because some of the people most exposed in this affair have had at least initial conversations with the FBI without a lawyer. That’s true of Mike Flynn in his first interview with the FBI at the White House. (Flynn has since retained Robert Kelner.)

WHITEHOUSE: Do you know where that interview took place or under what circumstances?

YATES: I believe it took place at the White House.

WHITEHOUSE: The Flynn interview?

YATES: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: OK. Do you know if Flynn was represented by council at the time?

YATES: I don’t believe he was.

And — according to a new WaPo story — that’s true of the 10 hours of questioning that Carter Page underwent in March.

Over a series of five meetings in March, totaling about 10 hours of questioning, Page repeatedly denied wrongdoing when asked about allegations that he may have acted as a kind of go-between for Russia and the Trump campaign, according to a person familiar with Page’s account.

The interviews with the FBI are the most extensive known questioning of a potential suspect in the probe of possible Russian connections to associates of President Trump. The questioning of Page came more than a month before the Russian investigation was put under the direction of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Page confirmed Monday that the interviews occurred, calling them “extensive discussions.” He declined to say if he’s spoken to investigators since the March interviews.

[snip]

Because it is against the law for an individual to lie to FBI agents about a material issue under investigation, many lawyers recommend their clients not sit for interviews with the bureau without a lawyer present. Page said he spoke without a lawyer and wasn’t concerned about the risks because he told the truth.

Now, it may be that after getting these men to incriminate themselves, the FBI encouraged them to lawyer up so they could be flipped. Certainly, Sheldon Whitehouse appears to believe Flynn has done just that.

Still, the kind of arrogance that would lead men as exposed as they are to forgo a lawyer makes me wonder whether they’ve already been promised pardons?

Update: Meanwhile, the most likely Trump associate to get a pardon, father of his grandchildren Jared Kushner, just hired Abbe Lowell, while still retaining Jamie Gorelick.

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

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

The Scope of the Special Counsel Appointment Is Totally Inadequate

Rod Rosenstein just appointed former FBI Director (and, before that, US Attorney) Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to take over the investigation into Trump and his associates.

I’m agnostic about the selection of Mueller. He has the benefit of credibility among FBI Agents, so will be able to make up for some of what was lost with Jim Comey’s firing. He will be regarded by those who care about such things as non-partisan. With Jim Comey, Mueller stood up to Dick Cheney on Stellar Wind in 2004 (though I think in reality his willingness to withstand Cheney’s demands has been overstated).

But Mueller has helped cover up certain things in the past, most notably with the Amerithrax investigation.

My bigger concern is with the scope, which I believe to be totally inadequate.

Here’s how the order describes the scope:

(b) The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James 8. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including:

(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and

(iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

As I read this, it covers just the investigation into ties between the Russian government and people associated with Trump’s campaign. Presumably, that includes Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, among others.

But there are other aspects of the great swamp that is the Trump and Russia orbit that might not be included here. For example, would Manafort’s corrupt deals with Ukrainian oligarchs be included? Would Flynn’s discussions with Turkish officials, or Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to excuse Turkey’s violation of Iran sanctions? Would the garden variety money laundering on behalf of non-governmental Russian mobbed up businessmen be included, something that might affect Manafort, Jared Kushner, or Trump himself?

And remember there are at least two other aspects of the Russian hacking investigation. Back in February, Reuters reported that San Francisco’s office was investigating Guccifer 2.0 and Pittsburgh was investigating the actual hackers.  Somewhere (San Francisco would be the most logical spot), they’re presumably investigating whoever it is that has been dumping NSA’s hacking tools everywhere. I’ve learned that that geography has either changed, or there are other aspects tied to those issues in other corners of the country.

Plus, there’s the Wikileaks investigation in EDVA, the same district where the Mueller-led investigation might reside, but a distinct investigation.

Any one of those investigations might present strings that can be pulled, any one of which might lead to the unraveling of the central question: did Trump’s associates coordinate with the Russian government to become President. Unless Mueller can serve to protect those other corners of the investigation from Trump’s tampering, it would be easy to shut down any of them as they become productive.

Yet, as far as I understand the scope of this, Mueller will only oversee the central question, leaving those disparate ends susceptible to Trump’s tampering.

Update: In its statement on the appointment, ACLU raises concerns about whether this would include the investigation into Trump’s attempt to obstruct this investigation.

Update: WaPo’s Philip Rucker reminds that Mueller is law firm partners with Jamie Gorelick, who has been representing both Ivanka and Kushner in this issue.

Update: Mueller is quitting WilmberHale to take this gig. He’s also taking two WilmerHale former FBI people with him. Still, that’s a close tie to the lawyer of someone representing key subjects of this investigation.

Update: One addition to the ACLU concern about investigating the Comey firing. In the most directly relevant precedent, the Plame investigation, when Pat Fitzgerald expanded his investigation from the leak of Plame’s identity to the obstruction of the investigation, he asked for approval to do so from the Acting Attorney General overseeing the investigation — in that case, Jim Comey.

The Acting Attorney General in this case is Rod Rosenstein. So if Mueller were as diligent as Fitzgerald was, he would have to ask the guy who provided the fig leaf for Comey’s firing to approve the expansion of the investigation to cover his own fig leaf.

Update: Petey noted to me that Jeff Sessions’ narrow recusal may limit how broadly Rosenstein’s order may be drawn. It’s a really interesting observation. Here’s what I said about Sessions’ recusal (which is very similar to what I tried to address in this post).

There are two areas of concern regarding Trump’s ties that would not definitively be included in this recusal: Trump’s long-term ties to mobbed up businessmen with ties to Russia (a matter not known to be under investigation but which could raise concerns about compromise of Trump going forward), and discussions about policy that may involve quid pro quos (such as the unproven allegation, made in the Trump dossier, that Carter Page might take 19% in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions against Russia), that didn’t involve a pay-off in terms of the hacking. There are further allegations of Trump involvement in the hacking (a weak one against Paul Manafort and a much stronger one against Michael Cohen, both in the dossier), but that’s in no way the only concern raised about Trump’s ties with Russians.

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

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

CIA or NSA Warrantlessly Accessed the Content of More than 300 US Persons (Probably More than 1,300) Who Aren’t Terror Suspects

Because Circa did a really sloppy report on the I Con the Record Transparency Report and Rand Paul quoted, there is a great deal of confusion about what back door searches are.

With the help of the NSA, the FBI collects information via traditional FISA orders. They got 1,559 of them last year, of which 1,477 were targeted at someone in the United States, and of which 336 were targeted at American citizens or permanent residents. All that data goes into a cloud server at the FBI and a separate one at NSA.

In addition, NSA collects information targeted at people overseas under Section 702. FBI can also ask NSA to collect on people they’ve come across in their investigations. Altogether, NSA collected on over 106,000 individual targets last year, via both upstream collection and by asking American providers (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and the like) for any data they’ve got on those 106,000 targets. They’ll get both sides of targets’ conversations, stored documents and photos, calendar information, and other information.

After NSA gets that information, it will share the parts of that are most relevant to the CIA and the FBI’s missions with them, in raw form. At the FBI, that data is stuck on the same cloud server as the domestic-focused FISA data is in. It is understood that FBI receives any terrorism, counterproliferation, or spying data that has a domestic component (such as Russian spies or ISIS recruiters trying to recruit Americans).

All three agencies — NSA, CIA, and FBI — can then search their own collections of FISA information using the identifier of a US person (a citizen or permanent resident). At NSA and CIA, the analyst has to have a foreign intelligence purpose, such as they think Russians are trying to recruit Mike Flynn. At FBI, an agent has to be looking for criminal information, national security information, or even doing an assessment (such as to figure out whether Carter Page would make a good informant on what the Trump campaign is doing). FBI does so many of these searches they can’t count them.

If there are conversations involving these people in the relevant databases, it appears to the analyst or agent in unmasked form. Yes, if CIA and NSA want to write reports to the White House about what they found, then the name might be masked (but in the vast majority of reports based off 702 reports involving US persons — perhaps 74% — the US person identities eventually get unmasked), but the FBI may dump that data into investigative files.

To understand how and who this might impact in the United States, take this comment from Jim Comey the other day. When asked how many active terrorist investigations the FBI has, he said there were 1,000 investigations where the target was known to be talking to terrorist overseas, and 1,000 where the target embraced radicalism all by him or herself, without talking to an ISIS or any other overseas recruiter.

COMEY: Yes I do. If — we have about 1,000 home grown violent extremist investigations and we probably have another 1,000 or so that are — I should define my terms. Home grown violent extremists, we mean somebody — we have no indication that they’re in touch with any terrorists.

TILLIS: Any foreign touch. Right.

COMEY: Yes. Then we have another big group of people that we’re looking at who we see some contact with foreign terrorists. So you take that 2,000 plus cases, about 300 of them are people who came to the United States as refugees.

Let’s take the higher number, and say there are 2,000 people in the US the intelligence community thinks might be terrorists or susceptible to being convinced to become one.

Now let’s look at the back door search numbers. The NSA used the identifiers (say, their cell phone identifier or their email) of US persons and searched the metadata from their stash of 702 data 30,355 times last year. (The CIA and FBI refuse to count how many metadata searches they did.) That means that NSA tried to do a network analysis on over 28,000 Americans and permanent residents who are not the subject of investigations by the FBI for being terrorists.

Between CIA and FBI combined, they did 5,288 queries on US persons last year. Back in 2013, the CIA did far more searches than the NSA (on 1,400 selectors as compared to NSA’s 198); we don’t know how the split works now. But assume that at least one agency is doing at least 2,644 searches. At the NSA, all 336 traditional FISA targets can be (and I assume are) tasked for back door searches; presumably a chunk of the 336 people targeted under are being investigated for terrorism, though that would also include people like (allegedly) Carter Page, people the FBI has gotten the FISA court to believe are agents of foreign powers). But even if we assume none of the people targeted under FISA are terrorists and all domestic terrorists are being back door searched at NSA, that leaves over 300 people (2,644 – 1,000 – 1,000 – 336) who are having their content accessed without a warrant by the NSA (to say nothing of the FBI, which does it so often it can’t count it). The number is probably higher, though, given that 1,000 of those terrorist suspects aren’t conversing with foreigners. The NSA (or CIA) is only going to access content if they know it exists from metadata, and Comey comment suggests there’s no metadata indicating such conversations. And at least some of those 336 targeted US persons are terror suspects.

Which means one agency — NSA or CIA — is likely accessing the raw content of 1,300 people who aren’t terrorist suspects.

That’s fine. There are other things they might be: suspected weapons proliferators, suspected Russian or Chinese spies, people the government is worried are being recruited by spies, suspected hackers, suspected leakers, Americans who’ve been kidnapped.

But the numbers make clear that the presumption that all of this spying is targeted at terrorists is simply wrong. There are at least 300 people — and probably more like 1,300 people — who even the NSA is accessing the content of without a warrant who are not terrorist suspects.

And the number at FBI is so high it can’t count it.

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

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