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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.

 

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.

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.

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.

How to Spy on Carter Page

I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the alleged wiretapping of Carter Page, aside from what WaPo and NYT have reported. But, in part because the release of the new, annual FISC report has created a lot of confusion, I wanted to talk about the legal authorities that might have been involved, as a way of demonstrating (my understanding, anyway, of) how FISA works.

FISC did not (necessarily) reject more individual orders last year

First, let’s talk about what the FISC report is. It is a new report, mandated by the USA Freedom Act. As the report itself notes, because it is new (a report covering the period after passage of USAF), it can’t be compared with past years. More importantly, because the FISA Court uses a different (and generally more informative) reporting approach, you cannot — as both privacy groups and journalists erroneously have — compare these numbers with the DOJ report that has been submitted for years (or even the I Con the Record report that ODNI has released since the Snowden leaks); that’s effectively an apples to grapefruit comparison. Those reports should be out this week, which (unless the executive changes its reporting method) will tell us how last year compared with previous years.

But comparing last year’s report to the report from the post-USAF part of 2015 doesn’t sustain a claim that last year had record rejections. If we were to annualize last year’s report (covering June to December 2015) showing 5 rejected 1805/1824 orders (those are the individual orders often called “traditional FISA”) across roughly 7 months, it is actually more (.71 rejected orders a month or .58% of all individual content applications) than the 8 rejected 1805/1824 orders last year (.67 rejected orders a month or .53% of all individual content applications). In 2016, the FISC also rejected an 1861 order (better known as Section 215), but we shouldn’t make too much of that either given that that authority changed significantly near the end of 2015, plus we don’t have this counting methodology for previous years (as an example, 2009 almost surely would have at least one partial rejection of an entire bulk order, when Reggie Walton refused production of Sprint records in the summertime).

Which is a long-winded way of saying we should not assume that the number of traditional content order rejections reflects the reports that FBI applied for orders on four Trump associates but got rejected (or maybe only got one approved for Page). As far as we can tell from this report, 2016 had a similar number of what FISC qualifies as rejections as 2015.

The non-approval of Section 702 certificates has no bearing on any Russian-related spying, which means Page would be subject to back door searches

Nor should my observation — that the FISC did not approve any certifications for 1881a (better known as Section 702, which covers both upstream and PRISM) reflect on any Carter Page surveillance. Given past practice when issues delayed approvals of certifications, it is all but certain FISC just extended the existing certifications approved in 2015 until the matters that resulted in an at least 2 month delay were resolved.

Moreover, the fact that the number of certificates (which is probably four) is redacted doesn’t mean anything either: it was redacted last year as well. That number would be interesting because it would permit us to track any expansions in the application of FISA 702 to new uses (perhaps to cover cybersecurity, or transnational crime, for example). But the number of certificates pertains to the number of people targeted only insofar as any additional certificates represent one more purpose to use Section 702 on.

In any case, Snowden documents, among other things, show that a “foreign government” certificate has long been among the existing certificates. So we should assume that the NSA has collected the conversations of known or suspected Russian spies located overseas conducted on PRISM providers; we should also assume that as a counterintelligence issue implicating domestic issues, these intercepts are routinely shared in raw form with FBI. Therefore, unless last year’s delay involved FBI’s back door searches, we should assume that when the FBI started focusing on Carter Page again last spring or summer, they would have routinely searched on his known email addresses and phone numbers in a federated search and found any PRISM communications collected. In the same back door search, they would have also found any conversations Page had with Russians targeted domestically, such as Sergey Kislyak.

The import of the breakdown between 1805 and 1824

Perhaps the most important granular detail in this report — one that has significant import for Carter Page — is the way the report breaks down authorizations for 1805 and 1824.

1805 covers electronic surveillance — so the intercept of data in motion. It might be used to collect phone calls and other telephony communication, as well as (perhaps?) email communication collected via upstream collection (that is, non-PRISM Internet communication that is not encrypted); it may well also cover prospective PRISM and other stored communication collection. 1824 covers “physical search,” which when it was instituted probably covered primarily the search of physical premises, like a house or storage unit. But it now also covers the search of stored communication, such as someone’s Gmail or Dropbox accounts. In addition, a physical search FISA order covers the search of hard drives on electronic devices.

As we can see for the first time with these reports, most individual orders cover both 1805 and 1824 (92% last year, 88% in 2015), but some will do just one or another. (I wonder if FBI sometimes gets one kind of order to acquire evidence to get the other kind?)

As filings in the Keith Gartenlaub case make clear, “physical search” conducted under a FISA order can be far more expansive than the already overly expansive searches of devices under a Article III warrant. Using a FISA 1824 order, FBI Agents snuck into Gartenlaub’s house and imaged the hard drives from a number of his devices, ostensibly looking for proof he was spying on Boeing for China. They found no evidence to support that. They did, however, find some 9-year old child pornography files, which the government then “refound” under a criminal search warrant and used to prosecute him. Among the things Gartenlaub is challenging on appeal is the breadth of that original FISA search.

Consider how this would work with Carter Page. The NYT story on the Page order makes it clear that FBI waited until Page had left the Trump campaign before it requested an order covering him.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the warrant, the official said, after investigators determined that Mr. Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign, which began distancing itself from him in early August.

I suspect this is a very self-serving description on the part of FBI sources, particularly given reports that FISC refused orders on others. But regardless of whether FISC or the FBI was the entity showing discretion, let’s just assume that someone was distinguishing any communications Page may have had while he was formally tied to the campaign from those he had after — or before.

This is a critical distinction for stored communications because (as the Gartenlaub case makes clear) a search of a hard drive can provide evidence of completely unrelated crime that occurred nine years in the past; in Gartenlaub’s case, they reportedly used it to try to get him to spy on China and they likely would do the equivalent for Page if they found anything. For Page, a search of his devices or stored emails in September 2016 would include emails from during his service on Trump’s campaign, as well as emails between the time Page was interviewed by FBI on suspicion of being recruited by Victor Podobnyy and the time he started on the campaign, as well as communications going back well before that. So if FISC (or, more generously, the FBI) were trying to exclude materials from during the campaign, that might involve restrictions built into the request or the final order

The report covering 2016 for the first time distinguishes between orders FISC modifies (FISC interprets this term more broadly than DOJ has in its reports) and orders FISC partly denies. FISC will modify an order to, among other things,

(1) impos[e] a new reporting requirement or modifying one proposed by the government;

(2)  chang[e] the description or specification of a targeted person, of a facility to be subjected to electronic surveillance or of property to be searched;

(3)  modify[] the minimization procedures proposed by the government; or

(4)  shorten[] the duration of some or all of the authorities requested

Using Page as an example, if the FISC were permitting FBI to obtain communications from before the time Page joined the campaign but not during it, it might modify an order to require additional minimization procedures to ensure that none of those campaign communications were viewed by the FBI.

The FISC report explains that the court will partly deny orders and “by approving some targets, some facilities, places, premises, property or specific selection terms, and/or some forms of collection, but not others.” Again, using Page as an example, if the court wanted to really protect the election related communications, it might permit a search of Page’s homes and offices under 1824, but not his hard drives, making any historic searches impossible.

There’s still no public explanation of how Section 704/Section 705b work, which would impact Page

Finally, the surveillance of Carter Page implicates an issue that has been widely discussed during and since passage of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, but not in a way that fully supports a democratic debate: how NSA spies on Americans overseas.

Obviously, the FBI would want to spy on Page both while he was in the US, but especially when he was traveling abroad, most notably on his frequent trips to Russia.

The FISA Amendments Act for the first time required the NSA to obtain FISC approval before doing that. As I explain in this post, for years, public debate has claimed that was done under Section 703 (1881b in this report). But abundant evidence shows it is all done under 704 (1881c in this report). The biggest difference between the two, according to an internal NSA document, is the government doesn’t explain its methods in the latter case. With someone who would be spied on both in the US and overseas, that spying would be done under 705b (conducted under 1881d section b), which permits the AG to approve of spying overseas (effectively, 704 authority) for those already approved under a traditional order.

This matters in the context of spying on Carter Page for two reasons. First, as noted government doesn’t share details about how it spies overseas with the court. And some of the techniques we know NSA to use — such as XKeyscore searches drawing on bulk overseas collection — would seem to present additional privacy concerns on top of the domestic authorities. If the FBI (or more likely, the FISC) is going to try to bracket off any communications that occur during the period Page was associated with the campaign, that would have to be done for overseas surveillance as well, most critically, for Page’s July trip to Russia.

This report shows that 704, like the domestic authorities, also gets modified sometimes, so it may be that FISC did just that — permitted NSA to collect information covering that July meeting, but imposed some minimization procedures to protect the campaign.

But it’s unclear whether the court would have an opportunity to do so for 705b, which derives from Attorney General authorization, not court authorization. I assume that’s why 1881d was not included in this reporting requirement, but it seems adding 705b reporting to Title VII reauthorization this year would be a fairly minor change, but one that might reveal how often the government uses more powerful overseas spying techniques on Americans. It’s unclear to me, for example, whether any modifications or partial approvals the FISC made on a joint 1805/1824 order covering Page would translate into a 705b order, particularly if the modifications in question included additional reporting to the FISC.

Carter Page might one day be the first American to get review of his FISA dossier

All of which is why, no matter what you think of Carter Page’s alleged role in influencing the Trump campaign to favor Russia, I hope he one day gets to review his FISA dossier.

No criminal defendant has ever gotten a review of the FISA materials behind the spying, in spite of clear Congressional intent, when the law was passed in 1978, to allow that in certain cases. Because of the publicity surrounding this case, and the almost unprecedented leaking about FISA orders, Page stands a better chance than anyone else of getting such review (particularly if, as competing stories from CNN and Business Insider claim, the dossier formed a key, potentially uncorroborated part of the case against him). Whatever else happens with this case, I think Page should get that review.

Three Things: Day 6, Bombs Away, Get Carter 2

As long as my schedule permits I’ll continue to post Three Things each day at least through next Tuesday. Here we go…

Day 6: Countdown to Tax Day deadline continues
There’s a clear trend in interest about Trump’s tax returns since the election with a spike reflecting two pages leaked from Trump’s 2005 return on Rachel Maddow’s show last month. Stretching out the Google Trends period to five years and a seasonal bump can be seen each year. This year’s seasonal bump is completely distorted by discussion of Trump’s returns.

59 Tomahawk missiles launched at Syria and a GBU-43/B MOAB dropped on Afghanistan aren’t going to change this picture. Where are your tax returns, Trump?

Bombs away
Speaking of missiles and bombs, I sure hope somebody is watching transactions related to military industrial complex stocks. The image here includes just three companies, one of which is Raytheon, the maker of Tomahawk missiles in which  Trump may or may not own shares. How convenient for shareholders of record last Friday the stock went ex dividend this Monday after a spike in price late last week when 59 missiles were aimed just off a Syrian runway.

Considering both Russia and Syria knew in advance the US was deploying missiles, one would be foolish not to wonder if any one with vested interest in NYSE:RTN or competitors might also have known in advance to buy before the 01:40 UTC launch with a sell order for Monday’s open. For those of you mentally checking off time zones of key cities and major stock markets:

Damascus Fri 07-APR-2017 4:40:00 am EEST UTC+3 hours
Washington DC Thu 06-APR-2017 9:40:00 pm EDT UTC-4 hours
Moscow Fri 07-APR-2017 4:40:00 am MSK UTC+3 hours
Tokyo Fri 07-APR-2017 10:40:00 am JST UTC+9 hours
Shanghai Fri 07-APR-2017 9:40:00 am CST UTC+8 hours
Corresponding UTC(GMT) Fri 07-APR-2017 01:40:00

Get Carter 2
I’d much rather talk about a second installment of the 1971 movie featuring Michael Caine but no, it’s all about Carter Page and his less-than-stellar ability to prevaricate about his dealings with Russians. While quizzed by ABC’s George Stephanopolous about the chances sanctions were discussed by Page and Russians during the 2016 campaign season, Carter replied, “Something may have come up in a conversation…”

Uh-huh. Imagine somebody at the FBI cutting to a taped conversation or two at that point. Page insists he didn’t ask or offer about the sanctions, but he’s wholly unconvincing. It’s no wonder at all known Russian spies in the Buryakov case were skeptical about Page, a.k.a. ‘Male-1’. Whatever Page claims there was enough there to pass the threshold requirements for a FISA warrant.

Why is Page talking to media now anyhow? Is he somebody’s canary-in-the-coal-mine? Definitely not a FISA warrant canary.

That’s Three Things. By the way: about 22 percent of taxpayers wait until the last two weeks before the deadline to file. Tick-tock — only a handful of hours until Day 5 before deadline.

(p.s. treat this like an open thread)

Three Things: Day 7, Get Carter, SLAPP-ish Defense

Busy, busy, busy here, now running very late. Only have time for three quick things.

DAY 7 and counting
U.S. income tax filings are due by midnight local time next Tuesday, April 18, the day before we ask where Trump’s 2016 tax returns are in addition to previous years’ returns.

Coincidentally, scientists may have gotten a snapshot of a black hole for the first time, though we won’t know for a few months. We may have better luck looking to that void for Trump’s tax returns.

Get Carter
Carter Page, that is, not to be confused with the 1971 film character Jack Carter. You’ve surely heard since Tuesday night’s reports that a FISA warrant was issued mid-2016 to allow the FBI to monitor Page’s communications. You’ll recall that Page was identified as U.S. contact “Male-1” in the 2015 Buryakov complaint. Russian spy Victor Podobnyy tried to recruit Page, who was intent on doing business with state-controlled energy company Gazprom. It was Page’s relationship with both Gazprom and Russia which were touted as strengths when he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 as an adviser. Page had been both an investor and an adviser to Gazprom; with Gazprom being majority owned by the Russian government since 2005, Page’s status under the Foreign Agents Registration Act has been fuzzy, though not as clear as Evgeny Buryakov or Victor Podobnyy. As of mid-2015, things did not look good for Gazprom — rough because of U.S. sanctions from 2014, and worse because of cannibalization of the domestic energy business by Rosneft. If Page was still invested in or committed to Gazprom, it’s hard to see how he would not have been influenced by this Russian state-controlled business. He has said he sold his Gazprom stock, but details about timing aren’t readily available.

And now, Get Paul — sorry, no movie of that name, but things are definitely heating up about the former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. He’s registering as a foreign agent — a wee bit after the fact — conveniently after AP reported money received by his business linked with a black ledger produced last year. Do watch sourcing; not many names attached to the content. Are they leaked materials or are the sources unwilling to go public given how many Russians have suddenly taken to keeping on their backs, pining for the fjords?

Anthem SLAPPs breach victims
I’m not a lawyer, but looks to me like Anthem is using strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) against customers who whose private health care data was exposed by a breach of Anthem’s security. The health care insurer won court orders demanding examination of customers’ computers to determine if any exposure was due not to Anthem’s breach but to the customers’ information security prior to the breach. Customers withdrew their suits against Anthem rather than subject their machines to examination. This sets a hideous precedent allowing greater sloppiness with information security which may only be reined in by shareholder suits and government intervention if HIPAA regulations were violated.

Nearly Day 6 o’clock. Do you know where your deductions are?

Latest Carter Page Scoop May Not Be That Incriminating

Several months before Ali Watkins (followed by ABC, though that didn’t stop ABC from claiming credit) confirmed that a person named in the complaint against Evgeny Buryakov is Carter Page, Rayne was examining potential connections between that case — in which Buryakov eventually plead guilty to being a Russian spy (after his two colleagues, working under official cover, had returned to Russia) and allegations of Russian influence on Donald Trump.

While many people are insinuating that this confirmation damns Page, that’s not at all clear.

As the complaint — which was unsealed on January 26, 2015 — describes, Victor Podobnyy tried to recruit Page in the period leading up to April 2013. Podobnyy complained that Page left on a trip to Moscow without returning his call. In that complaint, Podobnyy emphasized Page’s interest in getting Gazprom business.

[Page] wrote that he is sorry, he went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox, but he wants to meet when he gets back. I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am. Plus he writes to be in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money.

Podobnyy then jokes with fellow spy Igor Sporyshev about (presumably) Russia blowing “a couple of borrowed million” before screwing Page over.

Podobnyy: I also promised him a lot; that I have connections in the Trade Representation, meaning you[,] that you can push contracts [laughs]. I will feed him empty promises.

Sporyshev: Shit, then he will write me. Not even me, to our clean one.

Podobnyy: I didn’t say the Trade Representation… I didn’t even indicate that this is connected to a government agency. This is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.

The complaint then describes a June 13, 2013 FBI interview with Page in which Page describes meeting Podobnyy at an energy symposium. Page told the FBI agents he shared his outlook on the current and future of the energy industry and provided documents to him about the energy business. That is consistent with Podobnyy’s mocking description of their relationship.

Again, all of that occurred in 2013, and it was made public in early 2015. Page even complained to BuzzFeed that the complaint had made it obvious (back in 2015) that he was the one the Russian spies were recruiting and mocking.

Page suggested that the complaint was written so that it was obvious he was the Gazprom-connected man Podobnyy talked about recruiting.

“In this city? Give me a break,” he said. “It is so obvious.”

Which is all a way of saying that Page knew that he had been recruited by Russian spies in 2013 and knew how they were trying to recruit him before he went to Russia and allegedly met with Rosneft President Igor Sechin. Here’s how Christopher Steele’s dossier described the July 7 or 8, 2016 meeting between Page and Sechin:

[T]he Rosneft President (CEO) had raised with PAGE the issues of future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for an associated move to lift Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia. PAGE had reacted positively to this demarche by SECHIN but had been generally not-committal in response. [Report dated July 19, 2016, sourced to a Russian source close to Sechin]

[snip]

[T]he Roseneft President was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered PAGE/TRUMP’s associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatised) stake in Rosneft in return. PAGE had expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted. [Report dated October 18, 2016, sourced to a close associate of Sechin ]

Importantly, Steele’s sources reported that Russia was dangling the same thing that showed up in Page’s 2013 conversations with Podobnyy: business with Rosneft. That could either be taken as a sign the Russian integrated information they learned in 2013 — that Page wanted to get rich working with Rosneft (which would have been obvious anyway). Or it could be taken as a sign that they dangled something that Page would have known the Russians were already talking to him about.

Note that the two reports on his meeting with Sechin conflict on one key detail: whether Page took the bait. The first report (at a time when Steele was not as urgently trying to ensure Trump would lose the election) stated that Page was non-committal. Having a huge deal of the sort he had been pursuing for three years dangled before him, Page did not immediately jump. The later report, however, did seem to promise a quid pro quo dealing precisely the same thing he had got caught talking to Russians about three years earlier.

Now consider the other allegation about Page from the dossier. It claims that a senior colleague in the Presidential Administration Head, Divyekin, dangled something else: kompromat on Hillary (as I explained here, in context this is just about intelligence gathered while she was First Lady and Secretary of State, even though this report was written a year after FSB started hacking the DNC, four months after GRU allegedly started hacking the DNC and John Podesta, and more than a month after the former two things were public). But even here, this is a dangle.

Their agenda had included DIVEYKIN raising 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.

However, the Kremlin official close to S. IVANOV added that s/he believed DIVEYKIN also had hinted (or indicated more strongly) that the Russian leadership also had ‘kompromat’ on TRUMP which the latter should bear in mind in his dealings with them.

In the context of having had another Russian spy explicitly state he would dangle promises but not deliver, it’s unclear how Page would take this information. But he would presumably at least consider what he had learned in 2013 about dealing with Russian spies, which is that they might not deliver on their promises.

Page strikes me as a dummy. So maybe he didn’t learn anything from being targeted in 2013. Or maybe the inconclusive language relayed here, even if true (Page still denies the Sechin meeting) can be explained by the fact that Page had already been recruited at least once by a Russian spy, with the embarrassing result that (he believed) everyone in NY knew he had been taken for a chump in 2013.

But there are two other parts of the complaint that — given what we’ve learned since Rayne wrote about this — deserve new scrutiny.

First, in a discussion on April 10, 2013, Podobnyy had a discussion with his boss at SVR. The boss asked Podobyy what Sporyshev’s cover was. “What is his cover? The Chamber of Commerce?” Podobnyy corrected him, explaining that Sporyshev worked as a Trade Representative.

The exchange is interesting because one of the people believed to be a key figure in the Steele dossier, described as Source D in parts of the dossier, founded a Russian American Chamber of Commerce in 2006. The figure, Sergei Millian, has insinuated himself into Trump’s circle since that time, including posting pictures of himself on inauguration day. It seems as if Podobnyy’s boss knew of someone who was working under the cover of some kind of Chamber of Commerce. There are two other “Chambers” he might have been thinking of — the US-Russian Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation. But Millian’s organization certainly looks like a cover, and the reference of a an SVR manager to a Chamber used as cover could back that claim.

Finally, there’s the point Rayne raised in her post. Buryakov’s cover was working at Vnesheconombank, the same bank whose FSB-tied head Jared Kushner met with in December. The key to busting Buryakov was an undercover FBI employee pretending to represent the interests of a “wealthy investor looking to work with [Vnesheconombank] to develop casinos in Russia.” As Rayne noted, Buryakov and the UCE toured some Atlantic City casinos at a time when Trump still had some there. And while Trump may not be the only wealthy casino owner considering business opportunities in Russia in 2013, he definitely was doing so (recall that the Golden Shower incident allegedly happened in 2013, so before the casino meetings).

The reason all that is interesting is because of the claimed ties between Trump associates like Felix Sater and the FBI. While Sater has served as an informant, not an FBI employee (and Sater’s informant role was already public by 2013, meaning the Russians would be unlikely to treat him as a real entrée to reach Trump), there’s still other reasons to think Trump might have been the purported investor used to set up Buryakov (which, again, was Rayne’s point).

In any case, we know that a figure that ended up in Trump’s inner circle was recruited as early as 2013 for information. That doesn’t necessarily mean subsequent attempts, such as they occurred, would be more or less successful (indeed, if Page weren’t such a dummy you’d figure they’d be less successful, if only because Page had already had to deal with the FBI over his Russian ties). But it does raise interesting questions about that network of spies and any subsequent efforts to reach out to Trump’s associates.

The Temporal Feint in Adam Schiff’s Neat Narrative

I did four — count them! four! — interviews on the Russian hearing yesterday. And one thing I realized over the course of the interviews is that people were far more impressed with Adam Schiff’s opening speech than they should have been.

I want to look closely at this passage which — if it were accurate — would be a tight little presentation of quid pro quo tied to the change of platform at the July 18-21, 2016 RNC. But it’s not. I’ve bolded the two claims that are most problematic, though the presentation as a whole is misleading.

In early July, Carter Page, someone candidate Trump identified as one of his national security advisors, travels to Moscow on a trip approved by the Trump campaign. While in Moscow, he gives a speech critical of the United States and other western countries for what he believes is a hypocritical focus on democratization and efforts to fight corruption.

According to Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. Intelligence, Russian sources tell him that Page has also had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin (SEH-CHIN), CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putin’s. According to Steele’s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.

Also, according to Steele’s Russian sources, the Trump campaign is offered documents damaging to Hillary Clinton, which the Russians would publish through an outlet that gives them deniability, like Wikileaks. The hacked documents would be in exchange for a Trump Administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fare share – policies which, even as recently as the President’s meeting last week with Angela Merkel, have now presciently come to pass.

In the middle of July, Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of Pro-Russian Ukrainian interests, attends the Republican Party convention. Carter Page, back from Moscow, also attends the convention. According to Steele, it was Manafort who chose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests. Ambassador Kislyak, who presides over a Russian embassy in which diplomatic personnel would later be expelled as likely spies, also attends the Republican Party convention and meets with Carter Page and additional Trump Advisors JD Gordon and Walid Phares. It was JD Gordon who approved Page’s trip to Moscow. Ambassador Kislyak also meets with Trump campaign national security chair and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions would later deny meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Just prior to the convention, the Republican Party platform is changed, removing a section that supports the provision of “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine, an action that would be contrary to Russian interests. Manafort categorically denies involvement by the Trump campaign in altering the platform. But the Republican Party delegate who offered the language in support of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine states that it was removed at the insistence of the Trump campaign. Later, JD Gordon admits opposing the inclusion of the provision at the time it was being debated and prior to its being removed.

Later in July, and after the convention, the first stolen emails detrimental to Hillary Clinton appear on Wikileaks. A hacker who goes by the moniker Guccifer 2.0 claims responsibility for hacking the DNC and giving the documents to Wikileaks. But leading private cyber security firms including CrowdStrike, Mandiant, and ThreatConnect review the evidence of the hack and conclude with high certainty that it was the work of APT28 and APT29, who were known to be Russian intelligence services. The U.S. Intelligence community also later confirms that the documents were in fact stolen by Russian intelligence and Guccifer 2.0 acted as a front. [emphasis on most problematic claims mine]

What Schiff tries to do here is suggest that the Russians offered Trump kompromat on Hillary, Trump’s team changed the GOP platform, and then in response the Russians started releasing the DNC emails through Wikileaks.

Later in the hearing, several Republicans disputed the nature of the change in the platform. Both in and outside of the hearing, Republicans have noted that the changed platform matched the policy in place by the Obama Administration at the time: to help Ukraine, but stop short of arming them. All that said, the story on this has clearly changed. The change in the platform clearly shows the influence of Russophiles moving the party away from its hawkish stance, but it’s not enough, in my opinion, to sustain the claims of quid pro quo. [Update: One of the outside the hearing arguments that the platform was not weakened is this Byron York piece b linked, which argues the platform actually got more anti-Russian.]

The bigger problem with Schiff’s neat narrative is the way it obscures the timeline of events, putting the release of DNC emails after the change in platform. That is true with regards to the Wikileaks release, but not the Guccifer 2 release, which preceded the platform change.  Moreover, the references in Steele’s dossier Schiff invokes are not so clear cut — the dossier alleges Russia offered kompromat on Hillary unrelated to the stolen emails before any discussion of the Wikileaks emails. I’ve put what Schiff’s timeline would look like if it were not aiming to play up the quid pro quo of the RNC below (note this timeline doesn’t include all Steele reports, just those specifically on point; see also this site for a comprehensive Guccifer related timeline). It shows several things:

  • The changes to the platform preceded the meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Indeed, the first public report on the change in platform even preceded the Kislyak meetings by a day.
  • The stolen documents began to be released well before the platform got changed.
  • The early Steele report on discussions of sharing a dossier of kompromat on Hillary pertains to a dossier dating back decades (even though these reports all post-date the first Guccifer releases, so could have included a discussion of hacked materials). The first explicit reference to the DNC hack comes after Wikileaks started releasing documents (and earlier reports which ought to include such references don’t).
  • The later Steele report tying the Wikileaks release to a change in policy came after the policy had already changed and documents had already been released.
  • The alleged quid pro quo tied to the early July Carter Page meeting was for the lifting of sanctions, not the shift on NATO and Ukraine; the Steele dossier describes the latter as the quid pro quo in exchange for the Wikileaks release only after the emails start coming out from Wikileaks.

Also note: the report that first ties Wikileaks (but not Guccifer) to a quid pro quo is one of the reports that made me raise questions about the provenance of the report as we received it.

This is not lethal for the argument that the Trump campaign delivered on a quid pro quo. For example, if there was extensive coordination, Trump could have changed his policy in March after learning that the Russian military intelligence hack — the one allegedly designed to collect documents to leak — had started. Or perhaps the Guccifer leaks were a down-payment on the full batch. But there’s no evidence of either.

In any case, the narrative, as laid out by Adam Schiff, doesn’t hold together on several points. Trump’s team has not yet delivered on the quid pro quo allegedly tied to the Rosneft brokerage fees that were paid to someone (it’s not public whom) in December — that is, the lifting of sanctions. As laid out here, the descriptions of an offer of a dossier of information on Hillary prior to the Republican platform pertained to stuff going back decades, not explicitly to Wikileaks; the shift of discussion to Wikileaks only came after the emails had already appeared and any Ukraine related policy changes had already been made.

There’s plenty of smoke surrounding Trump and his associates. It doesn’t require fudging the timeline in order to make it appear like a full quid pro quo (and given Jim Comey’s reliance on “coordination” rather than “collusion” in Monday’s discussion, it’s not even clear such quid pro quo would be necessary for a conspiracy charge). Adam Schiff can and should be more careful about this evidence in future public hearings.

Update: Given how remarkably late the references to the stolen emails are in the dossier, I’m linking this post showing how later entries included a feedback loop.


March 19: John Podesta phished (DNC compromise generally understood to date to same time period).

March 31: Trump reportedly embraces pro-Russian stance in foreign policy meeting with advisors.

April 19th: DCLeaks.com registered.

June 8th: DCLeaks.com posts leaks (from post dates).

June 13th: First archived record of DCLeaks posts.

June 15: Crowdstrike report names Russia in DNC hack, first Guccifer 2.0 releases via TSG and Gawker.

June 18: Guccifer releases at WordPress site.

June 20: Steele report presents obviously conflicting information on exchanging intelligence with Trump. A senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure said “the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including … Hillary CLINTON, for several years.” A former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin stated that the Kremlin had been collating a dossier on Hillary, “for many years, dating back to her husband Bill’s presidency, and comprised mainly eavesdropped conversations of various sorts. … Some of the conversations were from bugged comments CLINTON had made on her various trips to Russia and focused on things she had said which contradicted her current position on various issues.” A senior Kremlin official, however, said that the dossier “had not as yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team.”

July 7-8: Carter Page in Moscow. Allegedly (per later Steele dossier reports) he is offered brokerage fees for the sale of a stake in Rosneft in exchange for ending sanctions on Russia.

July 11-12: Platform drafted.

July 18-21: RNC.

July 18: First report of changes to platform.

July 19: Sergey Kislyak meets numerous Trump associates after a Heritage sponsored Jeff Sessions talk.

July 19: Steele report provides first details of Carter Page meeting in Russia during which Divyekin raises “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.” In context (especially because the same report also warns Trump of kompromat Russia holds on him), this seems to be the dossier going back years also mentioned in the June 20 report, not Wikileaks emails. Certainly no explicit mention of Wikileaks or the hack appears in the report, even though the report is based off July reporting that post-date the first Guccifer 2.0 leaks.

July 22: Wikileaks starts releasing DNC emails.

July 26: Steele report describing conversations from June describes Russian hacking efforts in terms already publicly known to be false. For example, the report claims FSB had not yet had success penetrating American or other “first tier” targets. FSB had success hacking American targets the previous year, including the DNC. This report includes no discussion of the DNC hack or Wikileaks.

Undated July, probably because of report number between July 26 and 30: An “ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP” includes the first reference to the DNC hack and WikiLeaks:

[T]he Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to the Wikileaks platform. The reason for using WikiLeaks was “plausible deniability” and the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team. In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.

July 30: A Russian emigre close to Trump describes concern in the campaign about the DNC email fallout. This report mentions that the Kremlin “had more intelligence on CLINTON and her campaign but he did not know the details or when or if it would be released.” In context, it is unclear whether this refers to stolen documents, though the reference to the campaign suggests that is likely.

August 5: Steele report describes Russian interference as a botched operation, discusses wishful thinking of Trump withdrawing.

August 10: Steele report discusses the “impact and results of Kremlin intervention in the US presidential election to date” claiming Russia’s role in the DNC hack was “technically deniable.” This report conflicts in some ways with the August 5 report, specifically with regards to the perceived success of the operation.

September 14: Steele report referencing kompromat on Hillary clearly in context of further emails.

October 18: More detailed Steele report account of Carter Page meeting, including date. It asserts that “although PAGE had not stated it explicitly to SECHIN, he had clearly implied that in terms of his comment on TRUMP’s intention to lift Russian sanctions if elected president, he was speaking with the Republican candidate’s authority.”

October 19: More Steele report accounting of Michael Cohen’s August attempts to clean up after Manafort and Page.

The Feedback Loop in Christopher Steele’s Dossier

Last week, at least three media outlets have provided new details about the relationship between former MI6 officer Christopher Steele — the author of the Trump dossier — and the FBI. First 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. Chuck Grassley just sent a letter to Jim Comey asking for more information about the proposed arrangement with Steele.

I’m with Grassley on this. According to WaPo and NBC, FBI would only have paid Steele after the election, presumably regardless of the outcome; by that point Steele’s research couldn’t affect the outcome of the investigation. Nevertheless, the possibility that FBI may have used information from a Democratically paid oppo researcher does raise questions of propriety. Add in the discrepancies in these three reports about whether FBI did pay for Steele’s work, and Grassley is right to raise questions.

I’m also interested in what the relationship says about the way in which political necessities may have impacted the content of Steele’s dossier. All three reports attribute the termination of any FBI-Steele relationship, at least in part, to Steele’s frustration with the FBI. WaPo goes on at some length, explaining that Steele got pissed when Jim Comey reopened the Hillary investigation on October 28, and then grew angrier after the NYT reported the FBI had not confirmed any link to Russia.

Ultimately, the FBI did not pay Steele. Communications between the bureau and the former spy were interrupted as Steele’s now-famous dossier became the subject of news stories, congressional inquiries and presidential denials, according to the people familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

[snip]

In October, anticipating that funding supplied through the original client would dry up, Steele and the FBI reached a spoken understanding: He would continue his work looking at the Kremlin’s ties to Trump and receive compensation for his efforts.

But Steele’s frustration deepened when FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been silent on the Russia inquiry, announced publicly 11 days before the election that the bureau was investigating a newly discovered cache of emails Clinton had exchanged using her private server, according to people familiar with Steele’s thinking.

Those people say Steele’s frustration with the FBI peaked after an Oct. 31 New York Times story that cited law enforcement sources drawing conclusions that he considered premature. The article said that the FBI had not yet found any “conclusive or direct link” between Trump and the Russian government and that the Russian hacking was not intended to help Trump.

WaPo doesn’t lay this out in detail, however. Here’s what happened on those days in October:

October 28: Comey informs eight committee chairs he will reopen the investigation, which promptly (and predictably) leaks.

October 30: Having been officially briefed on the dossier, Harry Reid writes Comey accusing him of a Hatch Act violation for releasing the information on Clinton while withholding what we know to be information in the dossier.

October 31, 6:52PM: David Corn publishes story based on dossier.

October 31, 9:27PM: NYT publishes article describing multiple investigations into Russian interference, stating “no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.”

October 31, 10:52PM: NYT edits article, adding “conclusive or direct” as a caveat in the sentence “Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”

Notably, assuming the times in Newsdiffs (from which I got the NYT timing) are correct, Steele had already gone public before the NYT published its article. That suggests he (like Harry Reid) believed his research should be part of a competing public story. And by going public in what was obviously a Democratically-seeded article, Steele likely made it far more difficult for FBI to continue the relationship.

Already, these new timeline details raise questions about the degree to which Steele’s concerns that the Trump Russian investigation should have more prominence than the email investigation may have influenced his work. Even if Jim Comey did do something colossally stupid by announcing the reopening of the investigation, that shouldn’t affect Steele’s interest in providing the best intelligence to the US, regardless of the public impact, unless he was always motivated primarily by his role as campaign oppo researcher.

The pointless Alfa Bank report that nevertheless seems to reinforce the dodgy Alfa server story

But I also wonder whether it relates to the content. Consider report 112, dated September 14. It pertains to “Kremlin-Alpha Group Cooperation.” It doesn’t have much point in a dossier aiming to hurt Trump. None of his associates nor the Russian DNC hack are mentioned. It does suggest that that Alfa Group had a “bag carrier … to deliver large amounts of illicit cash to” Putin when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, though describes the current relationship as “both carrot and stick,” relying in part on kompromat pertaining to Putin’s activities while Deputy Mayor. It makes no allegations of current bribery, though says mutual leverage helps Putin “do his political bidding.”

As I said, there’s no point to have that Alfa Bank passage in a dossier on Trump. But it does serve, in its disclosure, to add a data point (albeit not a very interesting one) to the Alfa Server story that (we now know) FBI was already reviewing but which hadn’t been pitched to the press yet. In Corn’s piece, he mentions the Alfa Bank story but not the report on Putin’s ties to it. It may be in there because someone — perhaps already in possession of the Alfa Bank allegations — asked Steele to lay out more about Alfa’s ties with Putin.

Here’s one reason that’s interesting, though. Even aside from all the other reasons the Alfa story is dodgy, it was deliberately packaged for press consumption. Rather than the at least 19 servers that Trump’s spam email was pinging, it revealed just two: Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health (the latter of which got spun, anachronistically, as a DeVos organization that thus had to be tight with Trump). Which is to say, the Alfa story was dodgy and packaged by yet unknown people.

The discovery of direct collusion during the intelligence review of the Russian hack

More interesting still is what happens in the period that — according to public reporting, anyway — Steele was working for free.

Contrary to what Steele’s anger suggests, there was no real evidence of direct Russian ties to Trump outside of the famous PeeGate incident (and even if that happened, he was not a knowing participant). In the first report, there’s a claim that “the Kremlin has been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence … including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” but the part of the report that purportedly describes that sharing states that the Kremlin file on Hillary “had not yet been made available abroad, including to TRUMP or his campaign team,” seemingly contradicting the claim. A subsequent report describes a Presidential Administration official discussed the “possible release [of the dossier] to the Republican’s campaign team,” but without any confirmation that occurred (or even that Trump knew about it).

A subsequent report includes a claim of a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [Trump’s team] and the Russian leadership managed through Paul Manafort and Carter Page. It continued to suggest a quid pro quo between the Russian hack and a shift on Ukraine and NATO policies. But in subsequent discussions of Manafort and Page’s corruption, it drops this claim entirely. Even when Michael Cohen enters the narrative, its about managing fallout over Manafort’s Ukrainian corruption.

There are claims that Trump was trying to set up business in Russia, followed by repeated descriptions of Russians not succeeding in getting him to do so.

In other words, in spite of the fact that there were some really damning allegations in the reports, the subsequent reporting didn’t necessarily back the most inflammatory aspects of them.

After the election, there’s just one report, dated December 13. That dates it to after the CIA’s leak fest reporting that Putin hacked the DNC not just to hurt Hillary and the US, but also to elect Trump. It dates to after Obama ordered an IC report on the hack. It dates to after John McCain delivered yet another copy of the dossier to FBI. It slightly precedes a Crowdstrike report (also done for free) bumping its formerly non-public “medium” confidence Russia’s GRU hacked the DNC to “high.”

And after previous reports describing Michael Cohen’s meetings as serving to cover up Manafort’s corruption and Page’s non-consummated Rosneft deal, this one alleges “the operatives involved [in the DNC hack] had been paid by both TRUMP’s team and the Kremlin,” the first such allegation. That is, over a month after the election but less than a month before its leak, the kind of detail backing direct collusion reappeared in this report.

Chuck Grassley’s questions

Which brings me back to Grassley’s letter. In addition to asking about payments, whether the agreement ever went into force, and whether and how Steele’s material served as a basis for FBI reports or even warrants, Grassley asks a question I’ve long wanted to know: Why we got this version of the memo, which is obviously just a partial selection of the complete dossier (rather like the Alfa story).

  1. How did the FBI first obtain Mr. Steele’s Trump investigation memos?  Has the FBI obtained additional memos from this same source that were not published by Buzzfeed?  If so, please provide copies.

We will actually learn a lot about the validity of the dossier if we see what other parts got dealt to the FBI, and if so whether the copy released to the public was cherry picked for the most damning information.