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Asha Rangappa Demands Progressive Left Drop Bad Faith Beliefs in Op-Ed Riddled with Errors Demonstrating [FBI’s] Bad Faith

It’s my fault, apparently, that surveillance booster Devin Nunes attacked the FBI this week as part of a ploy to help Donald Trump quash the investigation into Russian involvement in his election victory. That, at least, is the claim offered by the normally rigorous Asha Rangappa in a NYT op-ed.

It’s progressive left privacy defenders like me who are to blame for Nunes’ hoax, according to Rangappa, because — she claims — “the progressive narrative” assumes the people who participate in the FISA process, people like her and her former colleagues at the FBI and the FISA judges, operate in bad faith.

But those on the left denouncing its release should realize that it was progressive and privacy advocates over the past several decades who laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo — not Republicans. That’s because the progressive narrative has focused on an assumption of bad faith on the part of the people who participate in the FISA process, not the process itself.

And then, Ragappa proceeds to roll out a bad faith “narrative” chock full of egregious errors that might lead informed readers to suspect FBI Agents operate in bad faith, drawing conclusions without doing even the most basic investigation to test her pre-conceived narrative.

Rangappa betrays from the very start that she doesn’t know the least bit about what she’s talking about. Throughout, for example, she assumes there’s a partisan split on surveillance skepticism: the progressive left fighting excessive surveillance, and a monolithic Republican party that, up until Devin Nunes’ stunt, “has never meaningfully objected” to FISA until now. As others noted to Rangappa on Twitter, the authoritarian right has objected to FISA from the start, even in the period Rangappa used what she claims was a well-ordered FISA process. That’s when Republican lawyer David Addington was boasting about using terrorist attacks as an excuse to end or bypass the regime. “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court.”

I’m more peeved, however, that Rangappa is utterly unaware that for over a decade, the libertarian right and the progressive left she demonizes have worked together to try to rein in the most dangerous kinds of surveillance. There’s even a Congressional caucus, the Fourth Amendment Caucus, where Republicans like Ted Poe, Justin Amash, and Tom Massie work with Rangappa’s loathed progressive left on reform. Amash, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, among others, even have their name on legislative attempts to reform surveillance, partnering up with progressives like Zoe Lofgren, John Conyers, Patrick Leahy, and Ron Wyden. This has become an institutionalized coalition that someone with the most basic investigative skills ought to be able to discover.

Since Rangappa has not discovered that coalition, however, it is perhaps unsurprising she has absolutely no clue what the coalition has been doing.

In criticizing the FISA process, the left has not focused so much on fixing procedural loopholes that officials in the executive branch might exploit to maximize their legal authority. Progressives are not asking courts to raise the probable cause standard, or petitioning Congress to add more reporting requirements for the F.B.I.

Again, there are easily discoverable bills and even some laws that show the fruits of progressive left and libertarian right efforts to do just these things. In 2008, the Democrats mandated a multi-agency Inspector General on Addington’s attempt to blow up FISA, the Stellar Wind program. Progressive Pat Leahy has repeatedly mandated other Inspector General reports, which forced the disclosure of FBI’s abusive exigent letter program and that FBI flouted legal mandates regarding Section 215 for seven years (among other things). In 2011, Ron Wyden started his thus far unsuccessful attempt to require the government to disclose how many Americans are affected by Section 702. In 2013, progressive left and libertarian right Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to get the Intelligence Community Inspector General to review how the multiple parts of the government’s surveillance fit together, to no avail.

Rangappa’s apparent ignorance of this legislative history is all the more remarkable regarding the last several surveillance fights in Congress, USA Freedom Act and this year’s FISA Amendments Act reauthorization (the latter of which she has written repeatedly on). In both fights, the bipartisan privacy coalition fought for — but failed — to force the FBI to comply with the same kind of reporting requirements that the bill imposed on the NSA and CIA, the kind of reporting requirements Rangappa wishes the progressive left would demand. When a left-right coalition in the House Judiciary Committee tried again this year, the FBI stopped negotiating with HJC’s staffers, and instead negotiated exclusively with Devin Nunes and staffers from HPSCI.

With USAF, however, the privacy coalition did succeed in a few reforms (including those reporting requirements for NSA and CIA). Significantly, USAF included language requiring the FISA Court to either include an amicus for issues that present “a novel or significant interpretation of the law,” or explain why it did not. That’s a provision that attempts to fix the “procedural loophole” of having no adversary in the secret court, though it’s a provision of law the current presiding FISC judge, Rosemary Collyer, blew off in last year’s 702 reauthorization. (Note, as I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t think Collyer’s scofflaw behavior is representative of what FISC judges normally do, and so would not argue her disdain for the law feeds a “progressive narrative” that all people involved in the FISA process operated in bad faith.)

Another thing the progressive left and libertarian right won in USAF is new reporting requirements on FISA-related approvals for FISC, to parallel those DOJ must provide. Which brings me to Rangappa’s most hilarious error in an error-ridden piece (it’s an error made by multiple civil libertarians earlier in the week, which I corrected on Twitter, but Rangappa appears to mute me so wouldn’t have seen it).

To defend her claim that the FISC judge who approved the surveillance of Carter Page was operating, if anything, with more rigor than in past years, Rangappa points to EPIC’s tracker of FISA approvals and declares that the 2016 court rejected the highest number of applications in history.

We don’t know whether the memo’s allegations of abuse can be verified. It’s worth noting, however, that Barack Obama’s final year in office saw the highest number of rejected and modified FISA applications in history. This suggests that FISA applications in 2016 received more scrutiny than ever before.

Here’s why this is a belly-laughing error. As noted, USAF required the FISA Court, for the first time, to release its own record of approving applications. It released a partial report (for the period following passage of USAF) covering 2015, and its first full report for 2016. The FISC uses a dramatically different (and more useful) counting method than DOJ, because it counts what happens to any application submitted in preliminary form, whereas DOJ only counts applications submitted in final form. Here’s how the numbers for 2016 compare.

Rangappa relies on EPIC’s count, which for 2016 not only includes an error in the granted number, but adopts the AOUSC counting method just for 2016, making the methodology of its report invalid (it does have a footnote that explains the new AOUSC numbers, but not why it chose to use that number rather than the DOJ one or at least show both).

Using the only valid methodology for comparison with past years, DOJ’s intentionally misleading number, FISC rejected zero applications, which is consistent or worse than other years.

It’s not the error that’s the most amusing part, though. It’s that, to make the FISC look good, she relies on data made available, in significant part, via the efforts of a bipartisan coalition that she claims consists exclusively of lefties doing nothing but demonizing the FISA process.

If anyone has permitted a pre-existing narrative to get in the way of understanding the reality of how FISA currently functions, it’s Rangappa, not her invented progressive left.

Let me be clear. In spite of Rangappa’s invocation (both in the body of her piece and in her biography) of her membership in the FBI tribe, I don’t take her adherence to her chosen narrative in defiance of facts that she made little effort to actually learn to be representative of all FBI Agents (which is why I bracketed FBI in my title). That would be unfair to a lot of really hard-working Agents. But I can think of a goodly number of cases, some quite important, where that has happened, where Agents chased a certain set of leads more vigorously because they fit their preconceptions about who might be a culprit.

That is precisely what has happened here. A culprit, Devin Nunes — the same guy who helped the FBI dodge reporting requirements Rangappa thinks the progressive left should but is not demanding — demonized the FISA process by obscuring what really happens. And rather than holding that culprit responsible, Rangappa has invented some other bad guy to blame. All while complaining that people ever criticize her FBI tribe.

The Harm Releasing the Nunes Memo Caused

I did two pieces elsewhere on the Devin Nunes memo yesterday. At Vice, I tracked all the holes in the memo; subsequent reporting showed that I hit virtually all the big ones that Adam Schiff hit in his response memo: the memo misrepresented what FBI told FISC about the political nature of Christopher Steele’s, it misrepresents Andrew McCabe’s testimony, and the memo misrepresented why George Papadopoulos was mentioned in the application. At HuffPo, I described how on the twin FISA events of the last few weeks — 702 reauthorization and the Nunes memo — both Nunes and Paul Ryan were on the wrong side of the principles of rule of law and civil liberties.

Since the memo has proven to be such a dud, a lot of people are now questioning DOJ’s and Democrats’ claims that releasing the memo would harm national security. I want to lay out three ways (DOJ surely believes) it may well do that.

Tells Carter Page and any co-conspirators precisely when FISA surveillance started

The memo tells Carter Page — and any co-conspirators both within the Trump camp and overseas — precisely when the surveillance on Page started and what it consists of.

FBI obtained an electronic surveillance warrant against Page on October 21, 2016, and obtained 3 reauthorizations (so roughly January 19, April 19, and July 18). While Page’s interlocutors overseas were likely wiretapped, if possible, associates in the Trump camp can now assume any conversations they had with him before October 21 were not recorded and remain unavailable to Robert Mueller.

Mind you, we know the memo doesn’t reveal the full extent of surveillance directed against Carter Page, because it gives no details on the 2014 FISA wiretap reportedly used against him. That leaves open the possibility that he was surveilled using other means. I think the GOP would have included had FISC approved a physical search FISA warrant against Page, because that would include the possibility of obtaining stored communications from during the campaign. But I would also bet a lot of money that whatever Attorney General was in charge during periods when Page traveled overseas approved a 705(b) order on him, permitting surveillance to continue while he was overseas. I’ll have more to say on this in upcoming days.

Note, it is also possible that the surveillance against Page continues.

Tells subjects of the investigation the status of the investigation and FBI’s ability to validate the Steele memo

The memo provides other details about the investigation, too.

On October 21, per a quotation from FBI Assistant Director Bill Priestap, the investigation into Russian ties with the Trump camp was is its “infancy.” Again, this will let Russians and Trump associates know that anything they managed to destroy before that date may well be unavailable to Mueller.

Later in October, the source report on Steele reported that the dossier had been “only minimally corroborated.” If any of the events in the dossier are real, then the Russians (especially) will have a sense of how unsuccessful the FBI had been in finding the evidence to corroborate those events. If the dossier is, as I’ve suggested, disinformation, the Russians would know that their disinformation was wasting FBI Agent time at least for months.

Tells Australians and every other foreign partner shared intelligence may be officially declassified

The memo mentions the Papadopoulos tip and confirms that’s what triggered the investigation; it also confirms that nothing shared prior to then had triggered an investigation. While the description here doesn’t attribute that intelligence to the Australians, we know that’s where it came from. Now Australia and every other country will know that intelligence they share, including intelligence that makes it look like Five Eyes officials are reporting on the citizens of other Five Eyes countries, may be released by Devin Nunes for political gain. This will add to the many reasons why our friends will hesitate before sharing intelligence with us.

Makes it more likely defendants will get FISA review

In the 40 year history of FISA, no defendant who got notice that FISA data was being used against them in prosecution has been able to review the application used against them. Because Nunes released this information so frivolously, because White House Counsel Don McGahn, in his cover memo, suggested this was a time when “public interest in disclosure of [FISA materials] outweighs any need to protect the information, the memo lowers the bar for release of FISA-related information going forward.

I assume Carter Page, if he is charged, will successfully be able to win review of his FISA application (and think that would be entirely appropriate); that may mean he doesn’t get charged or, if he does, Mueller has to bend over backwards to avoid using FISA material.

But I also assume — and hope — that this disclosure ends the 40 year drought on the release of information, which the original drafters of FISA envisioned would be appropriate in certain circumstances. I think this the one salutary benefit of this memo; it makes it more likely that FISA will work the way it is supposed to going forward.

I even think it possible that the release of this information may affect the response to Keith Gartenlaub’s pending appeal in the Ninth Circuit. His is a case that merits FISA review, and whereas the court might have hesitated to give him that in the past, it would be far easier for them to do so here.

In other words, the release of this memo likely helped those Mueller is trying to investigate, provided another reason for our foreign partners to hesitate before sharing intelligence with us, and makes it more likely some defendants will get to review their FISA application going forward. I can see how DOJ would consider all of that harmful to national security.

Update: On Twitter some folks added that this makes people distrust FBI, making it less likely they’ll share information with the Bureau. In my opinion actually sharing interview reports with HPSCI already did that (though that Chris Wray was forced to do so wouldn’t be as widely known). I also think the sheer shittiness of the dossier minimizes the impact of that somewhat. But I think it’s a fair point.

Byron York Confirms that Many Names and Sources Implicated Carter Page as an Agent of a Foreign Power

Adam Schiff’s complaints that Republicans won’t release his FISA memo in tandem with the Devin Nunes being reviewed for release at the White House must be doing damage: a bunch of Republicans, including Tom Rooney, ran to Byron York to try to spin the release process as a fair application of process.

But there was also a rare moment of bipartisanship for the bitterly divided panel. At the same meeting, Republicans and Democrats voted unanimously to make the Democratic memo — the counter-memo to the Republican document — available to all members of the House.

That is the same process Republicans, under chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., followed with their memo. First, make it available to House members. (That happened on Jan. 18.) Later, after members of both parties have had a chance to read the memo, decide whether to release it to the public.

But along the way, an anonymous source who might be Rooney had this to say:

“It was written by attorneys as a rebuttal to our memo, but it’s not going to move their argument forward,” noted one Republican member who has read the Democratic paper. “It’s too detailed, too confusing, and far more personal — they go after [Nunes] again and again.

The member noted that that Democratic memo contains far more classified information — names and sources — than the GOP paper. “It is much more revealing [of classified information],” he said. “It’s going to have to be heavily redacted before it can be released. We wrote our memo with the hope that it would be released to the American people. Their memo will have to be heavily redacted.”

The anonymous source who might be Rooney admits that the Schiff memo contains far more references to names and sources than the Nunes memo.

What the anonymous source who might be Rooney admits is that there are far more names and sources that implicated Carter Page as an agent of a foreign power than what Nunes’ memo — which reportedly focuses primarily on how the Steele dossier served as one source for at least three FISA applications against Carter Page — admits.

Thanks for clearing that up, Congressman Rooney.

Carter Page Did Not Need to be a Spy to be Targeted Under FISA

The NYT has a story that explains something I was wondering about over the weekend: how the Nunes memo could be used — as it reportedly is being used — to justify a Trump bid to fire Rod Rosenstein. Shortly after he was confirmed, NYT reveals, Rosenstein approved the renewal application for the FISA order targeting Carter Page.

A secret, highly contentious Republican memo reveals that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein approved an application to extend surveillance of a former Trump campaign associate shortly after taking office last spring, according to three people familiar with it.

[snip]

[I]n their efforts to discredit the inquiry, Republicans could potentially use Mr. Rosenstein’s decision to approve the renewal to suggest that he failed to properly vet a highly sensitive application for a warrant to spy on Mr. Page, who served as a Trump foreign policy adviser until September 2016.

The news is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides more granularity for the timing of the surveillance targeted at Page.

American law enforcement officials began conducting surveillance on him in the fall of 2016, shortly after he left the campaign. It is unclear what they learned about Mr. Page between then and when they sought the order’s renewal roughly six months later. It is also unknown whether the surveillance court granted the extension.

The renewal effort came in the late spring, sometime after the Senate confirmed Mr. Rosenstein as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official in late April. Around that time, following Mr. Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director in May, Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller, a former head of the bureau, to take over the department’s Russia investigation.

Rosenstein was sworn in on April 26. He appointed Mueller on May 17. If we take that window as the timeframe for the reapplication date, it would date the prior authorization (orders targeting US persons last 90 days) to roughly January 26 through February 17, and the fall one to October 26 to November 17 time frame. The later you get in that initial time period, the closer you get to the time when Page would have been planning a follow-up visit to Russia in December.

Glenn Simpson describes Christopher Steele’s second meeting with the FBI, in Rome, about his dossier as occurring sometime in September. So there was perhaps a month between the time Steele provided information on Page and the time the FBI obtained the new order targeting Page.

On top of what the NYT says about Democratic complaints about this memo, there are other reasons to believe this is bogus. Even on 702 — but especially on FISA — the retasking process requires the government to show it obtained new information during the prior surveillance period, meaning the application Rosenstein signed would have been the second to do so.

Plus, there’s one more point.

To be targeted FBI had to provide proof that Page was an agent of a foreign power.

The renewal shows that the Justice Department under President Trump saw reason to believe that the associate, Carter Page, was acting as a Russian agent.

[snip]

To obtain the warrant involving Mr. Page, the government needed to show probable cause that he was acting as an agent of Russia.

But that does not actually entail proving that he, himself, is spying on the US. An American may be targeted as an agent of a foreign power if he knowingly aids or abets someone involved in clandestine intelligence gathering that may involve a violation of criminal statutes.

(A) knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of a foreign power, which activities involve or may involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

(B) pursuant to the direction of an intelligence service or network of a foreign power, knowingly engages in any other clandestine intelligence activities for or on behalf of such foreign power, which activities involve or are about to involve a violation of the criminal statutes of the United States;

[snip]

(E) knowingly aids or abets any person in the conduct of activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) or knowingly conspires with any person to engage in activities described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C).

That’s the standard that — given that Page had been warned by FBI in 2013 that he was being recruited — might be fairly easily within reach for Page. I suspect we’ll eventually learn (after whatever brouhaha ensues) that FBI claimed Page was either aiding or abetting Russian spies, or conspiring with them, not that he was a spy himself. But that’s a distinction that may be lost on Republicans trying to politicize this.

There’s one more thing (one I don’t expect applies here but is worth pointing out in any case). The government can target any facility an agent of a foreign power uses, whether or not the agent owns it.

(B) each of the facilities or places at which the electronic surveillance is directed is being used, or is about to be used, by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power

This is how the government got to do a scan of all Yahoo’s users, because the targeted foreign power was using Yahoo mail, generally, and the specific signature searched on identified the people as targets.

Two more points. Trey Gowdy reviewed the underlying intelligence to the memo  that is now being used to target Rosenstein, he’s telling colleagues to stop pressuring Mueller in part because Mueller is pursuing a counterintelligence component (precisely the kind of thing targeted with FISA!) that will explain what really happened in 2016.

Gowdy said there are “two components” to the purview of Mueller’s investigation.

“There is a criminal component. But there’s also a counterintelligence component that no one ever talks about because it’s not sexy and interesting. But he’s also going to tell us definitively what Russia tried to do in 2016,” Gowdy said. “So the last time you and I were together, I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that’s still my advice.”

Gowdy is one of about six members of Congress who has seen the most sensitive materials in Mueller’s case. It’s really bizarre that he’s saying the GOP needs to back off Mueller because of his CI focus when they’re likely misunderstanding how FISA is used in CI.

Finally, remember that nothing that Mueller is known to have done is identifiably fruit from this Carter Page order. Even with Manafort — who was also reportedly targeted in a FISA order — Mueller has not given FISA notice to suggest he’s relying on anything derived from FISA (though such notice is always suspect).

So even if he dossier is dodgy, it may be that Mueller is pursuing his case such that he avoids any taint from it.

Update: I keep forgetting, but something that happened with Carter Page may well have been abusive, but it’s not what the Republicans are (as far as the public reporting goes) focusing on. It’s a sign that they’re dummies who don’t understand what they purportedly oversee that they haven’t figured this out. I’m not going to lay it out here — because those leading this hoax just reauthorized the practice in any case — but I have written it up elsewhere.

The Simpson Transcript: The Dossier as Predicate

I’m working towards a big post (or a series of small ones) on the Glenn Simpson transcript. I address some of my impressions in this Real News Network video with Aaron Maté from the other day.

Before I do that larger post, however, I want to address something Maté asked me about: whether the Simpson transcript — in which he says that Christopher Steele learned from the FBI about (what independent reporting confirms) the Papadopoulos tip from the Australians — supports or refutes the sharply contested arguments about whether the Steele dossier started the counterintelligence investigation or served as a key source for a FISA warrant against either Carter Page or Paul Manafort. Skeptics of the report that the investigation actually arose from the George Papadopoulos tip have argued that the latest PR effort around the dossier is an attempt to paper over the dossier as the true source of either the investigation or the FISA orders.

As I noted on RNN, the dossier doesn’t actually help the anti-Trump narrative as much as people have made out. Simpson testified that Steele decided to reach out to the FBI towards the end of June or beginning of July (after only the first dossier report had been done), and the conversation actually happened the first week of July (a questioner later refers to it as occurring July 5).

Q. And do you recall when you — when you and Mr. Steele decided kind of that he could or should take this to the FBI, approximately the time frame of that?

A. I believe it was sometime around the turn of the month. It would have been in late June or at latest early July. That’s my recollection.

[snip]

Q. Do you have any knowledge of when that first conversation actually then took place?

A. Over the last several months that this has become a public controversy I’ve learned the general date and I believe it was if first week of July, but I don’t believe he told me — if he told me the time, I don’t remember when he told me.

Simpson later admits his certainty about these dates comes from Fusion’s response to speculation and other reporting.

Q. And that information about that time, that first week of July, where does that come from?

A. It comes from news accounts of these events and conversations between Chris and I and some of my — presumably my business partners too. Generally speaking, we have, as you know, not been eager to discuss any of this in public and there’s been a lot of speculation and guessing and stories, many of which are wrong. So when an incorrect story comes out we would, you know, talk about it. So, you know, in the course of those kinds of things I generally obtained a sense of when things occurred that I might otherwise not be able to provide you.

Regardless of how accurate or not this report, it means that Steele spoke with the FBI weeks before the Australian tip is supposed to have come in, which was after Wikileaks started dumping the emails on July 22 (though as I noted with Maté, there are aspects of that story that are sketchy as well). The reference to Steele learning about what he now believes was the Papadopoulos tip reflects feedback from mid to late September, when the FBI told him his story had been corroborated by a human source, not from that first FBI meeting.

Essentially what he told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.

Later in the transcript Simpson responds in a way that suggests Steele was reading the FBI response rather than learning actual details of the tip; certainly he might have been able to corroborate it back in London.

Q. And did Mr. Steele tell you that the FBI had relayed this information to him?

A. He didn’t specifically say that.

Q. I’m going to have you take a look at one of the filings —

MR. FOSTER: I thought you said earlier that he did say the FBI told him.

MR. SIMPSON: I think I was saying we did not have the detailed conversations where he would debrief me on his discussions with the FBI. He would say very generic things like I saw them, they asked me a lot of questions, sounds like they have another source or they have another source. He wouldn’t put words in their mouth.

In other words, the record shows that (unless the public story about the Australian tip is really inaccurate) the pee tape report came in first, and then the Oz tip did.

That said, both of these tips came in before late July, which is when Jim Comey testified the CI investigation started.

Which is where this predicate debate has always gone wrong. It imagines that the FBI opened an investigation into one and only one thing. In addition to those two things, there were the actual hack and the Guccifer 2.0 persona — already perceived to be a Russian operation before the first Steele report came in — along with clear indications Wikileaks was involved with it. There was Carter Page’s publicly reported trip and speech in Russia, and the beginnings of the reawakening Paul Manafort scandal. And there were the concerns raised about the change in the GOP platform (though I think that got more press than the evidence justified).

So there were a whole bunch of things leading up to the opening of the investigation. And there’s no reason to believe just one predicated the investigation.

Similarly, the case on the FISA orders is mixed (though this is an area, in particular, where the FBI would have an incentive to release partial stories). One of the first reports on Carter Page’s FISA order dates it to late summer, when the Trump campaign was distancing itself from him. But later reporting said he had been tapped even before he joined the campaign, in conjunction with his earlier recruitment by Russian spies.

Manafort, too, was reportedly targeted under FISA because of his earlier dalliances with Russia. In his case, the wiretap had lapsed, but was restarted after new details of his corruption forced him off the campaign in August.

As I’ll write in my larger post on the Simpson transcript, I don’t think all this means the tie between the dossier and the FBI investigation is above reproach. But it does seem clear that, even if the dossier is one thing that justified the investigation, it was neither the earliest thing nor the only thing.

Incidental Collection Under Section 702 Has Probably Contributed to Trump’s Downfall, Too

As you’ve no doubt heard, the House passed the bad reauthorization to Section 702 yesterday. The Senate will vote on cloture on Tuesday — though both Rand Paul and Ron Wyden have threatened to filibuster it — and will almost certainly be voted into law after that.

I’ll have comment later on the rising costs, for politicians, for mindlessly reauthorizing these bills in a follow-up post.

Paul Ryan told President Trump Section 702 hasn’t affected his people

But for the moment, I want to comment on the debate that took place in response to Trump’s two tweets. The first tweet, which was clearly a response to a Judge Napolitano piece on Fox News yesterday morning, complaining about FISA.

Then, after a half hour lesson from Paul Ryan on the different FISA regimes (note, for some reason Devin Nunes was conspicuously absent from much of this process yesterday, both the coddling of the President and managing debate on the bill), a follow-up tweet hailing Section 702’s utility for “foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land.”

In response to those tweets, many commenters stated, as a matter of fact, that Trump hasn’t been impacted by Section 702, that only traditional FISA intercepts drove key developments in the Russian investigation.

That’s unlikely to be true, and I suspect we already have evidence that that’s not the case.

It is true that incidental collection on a Title I got Mike Flynn in trouble

To defend the case that incidental collection off a traditional FISA order has impacted Trump’s administration, people point to the December 29, 2016 intercepts of communications between Sergey Kislyak and Mike Flynn which were cited in Flynn’s guilty plea. It is true that those intercepts were done under a traditional FISA order. Admiral Mike Rogers as much as confirmed that last March in his efforts to explain basic FISA law to the House Intelligence Committee Republicans who are supposed to oversee it.

Rogers: FISA collection on targets in the United States has nothing to do with 702, I just want to make sure we’re not confusing the two things here. 702 is collection overseas against non US persons.

And Speaker Ryan, fresh off his efforts to teach the President basic surveillance law, yesterday clarified — inaccurately — that,

Title 1 of the FISA law is what you see in the news that applies to U.S. citizens. That’s not what we’re talking about here. This is Title 7, Section 702. This is about foreign terrorists on foreign soil.

Whatever the facts about FISA orders targeting Carter Page and Paul Manafort, the intercepts that have done the most known damage to the Trump Administration so far targeted a foreigner on US soil, Sergey Kislyak, and Flynn just got picked up incidentally.

Papadopoulos’ affidavit and statement of offense make different claims about his false claims and obstruction

But as I said, I suspect it is highly likely the Trump Administration has also been brought down by an American being caught up incidentally in a Section 702 tasking. That’s because of several details pertaining to the George Papadopoulos plea which I nodded to here; they strongly suggest that Papadopoulos’ Facebook communications with Joseph Mifsud were first obtained by the FBI via Section 702, and only subsequently parallel constructed using a warrant. It’s further likely that the FBI obtained a preservation order on Papadopoulos’ Facebook account before he deleted it because of what they saw via Section 702. [Update: KC has alerted me that they may not have gotten a preservation order, but instead were able to access the Facebook account because that content doesn’t all go away when you deactivate an account, which is what the October 5 document describes as happening.]

Compare the two descriptions of how Papadopoulos obstructed justice. The July 28, 2017 affidavit supporting Papadopoulos’ arrest describes Papadopoulos destroying his Facebook account to hide conversations he had with Timofeev.

The next day, on or about February 17, 2017, however, GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS, the defendant, shut down his Facebook account, which he had maintained since approximately August 2005. Shortly after he shut down his account, PAPADOPOULOS created a new Facebook account.

The Facebook account that PAPADOPOULOS shut down the day after his interview with the FBI contained information about communications he had with Russian nationals and other foreign contacts during the Campaign, including communications that contradicted his statements to the FBI. More specifically, the following communications, among others, were contained in that Facebook account, which the FBI obtained through a judicially authorized search warrant.

The affidavit makes it clear that Papadopoulos attempted to hide “his interactions during the Campaign with foreign contacts, including Russian nationals.” The descriptions of the communications that Papadopoulos attempted to hide are described as “a Facebook account identified with Foreign Contact 2,” Timofeev.

The FBI recorded both interviews, suggesting they already by January 27 they had reason to worry that Papadopoulos might not tell the truth.

The October 5 statement of the offense describes one of Papadopoulos’ false statements this way:

PAPADOPOULOS failed to inform investigators that the Professor had introduced him to the Russian MFA Connection [Timofeev], despite being asked if he had met with Russian nationals or “[a]nyone with a Russian accent” during the Campaign. Indeed, while defendant PAPADOPOULOS told the FBI that he was involved in meetings and did “shuttle diplomacy” with officials from several other countries during the Campaign, he omitted the entire course of conduct with the Professor and the Russian MFA Connection regarding his efforts to establish meetings between the Campaign and Russian government officials.

And it describes his obstruction this way:

The next day, on or about February 17, 2017, defendant PAPADOPOULOS deactivated his Facebook account, which he had maintained since approximately August 2005 and which contained information about communications he had with the Professor and the Russian MFA Connection. Shortly after he deactivated his account, PAPADOPOULOS created a new Facebook account that did not contain the communications with the Professor and the Russian MFA Connection.

On or about February 23, 2017, defendant PAPADOPOULOS ceased using his cell phone number and began using a new number.

In neither document does FBI mention having the content of Papadopoulos’ April 2016 Skype calls with Timofeev and neither one cites data — such as texts — that might have been on his cell phone.

What FBI (probably) learned when

While we can’t be sure — after all, the government may simply be withholding more information from other suspects — the differences between the two legal filings and other public information suggest the following evolution in what the government knew of Papadopoulous’ communications with his interlocutors when. Most importantly, the FBI had learned of Papadopoulos’ communications with Joseph Mifsud and Olga Vinogradova before his two interviews, but they had not learned of his communications with Ivan Timofeev.

Late July 2016

In a drunken conversation in May 2016, Papadopoulos told the Australian Ambassador Alexander Downer that he had been told (by Joseph Mifsud, but it’s not clear Papadopoulos would have revealed that) the Russians had dirt on Hillary in the form of emails.

Before January 27, 2017

  • Papadopoulos might lie and so should be recorded
  • Papadopoulos had interesting communications with Joseph Mifsud and Olga Vinogradova
  • Since Timofeev did not come up in the interview, FBI appears not to have learned of those conversations yet

Before February 16, 2017

  • Papadopoulos’ Facebook was interesting enough to sustain a preservation request but (because FBI still didn’t know about Timofeev) FBI had not yet accessed its content via Papadopoulos [Though see update above]
  • FBI had not yet accessed Skype, which would have shown call records between Timofeev and Papadopoulos
  • FBI did not have a warrant on Papadopoulos’ phone and never obtained one before February 23

By July 28, 2017

  • FBI had obtained a warrant for Papadopoulos’ email
  • FBI had read the Facebook content Papadopoulos tried to delete, discovering the communications (and the relationship) with Timofeev
  • FBI had identified the Skype conversations that had taken place, but not in time to collect them using 702

By October 5, 2017

  • FBI had obtained far more email from the campaign side
  • FBI had discovered that, in addition to destroying his Facebook account, Papadopoulos had also gotten a new phone number (and, I suspect, a new phone), thereby destroying any stored texts on the phone

FBI probably tracked Papadopoulos’ Facebook communications with Mifsud before February 16

Again, this is just a guess, but given the evolution of FBI’s understanding about Papadopoulos laid out above, it seems highly likely that FBI had obtained some (but not all) of Mifsud’s communications before February 16, had submitted preservation requests to Papadopoulos’ providers, but had not yet obtained any legal process for content via Papadopoulos. Given that Papadopoulos’ Facebook content was preserved even in spite of his effort to destroy it, it seems clear the government had reason to know its content was of interest, but it did not yet know about his Facebook communications with Timofeev. This is how FBI routinely launders Section 702 information through criminal process, by getting a warrant for the very same content available at PRISM providers that they already obtained via PRISM. They key detail is that they appear to have known about the content of some but not all of Papadopoulos’ Facebook messages in time to preserve the account before February 16.

This strongly suggests the FBI had obtained Mifsud’s Facebook content, but not Papadopoulos’.

Once FBI opened a full investigation into the Russian ties — which we know they did in late July, in part because of that Papadopoulos conversation about the Mifsud comments — it could task and obtain a raw feed of any known PRISM account for any foreigner overseas associated with that investigation. Once it identified Mifsud as Papadopoulos’ interlocutor — and they would have been able to identify their common relationship from their common front organization, the London Centre of International Law Practice — they would have tasked Mifsud on any identifier they could collect.

And collecting on Facebook would be child’s play — just ask nicely. So it would be shocking if they hadn’t done it as soon as they identified that Mifsud was Papadopoulos’ interlocutor and that he had a Facebook account.

Incidental collection under 702 may have led to the preservation of evidence about the Timofeev relationship Papadopoulos tried to destroy

If all this is right — and it is admittedly just a string of well-educated guesses — then it means FBI’s ability to incidentally collect on Papapdopoulos by targeting Mifsud may have been what led them to take action to preserve Papadopoulos’ Facebook content, and with it evidence of ongoing communications with Timofeev that he had tried to hide.

And the fact that he did try to hide it is what led to Mueller flipping his first cooperating witness.

So if all this is right, then incidental collection on Papadopoulos under Section 702 may be every bit as central to Trump’s legal jeopardy right now as the incidental collection on Flynn under Title I. They’re both critical pieces in proving any hypothetical case that Trump traded policy considerations for the release of Hillary emails.

This is how Section 702 is supposed to work, and could be done under USA Rights

Let me be clear: I’m not saying the discovery of Papadopoulos’ Facebook communications with Mifsud and through them his Facebook communications with Timofeev is an abuse. On the contrary, this is how 702 is supposed to work.

If we’re going to have this program, it should be used to target suspect agents of a foreign power located overseas, as Mifsud clearly was. If he was targeted under 702, he was targeted appropriately.

But there is no reason to believe doing so required any of the more abusive uses of 702 that USA Rights would limit. Unless Mifsud was already tasked at FBI when they opened the investigation in July 2016, there’s no reason to believe this account could have been found off of a back door search at FBI. Mifsud may have been tasked at NSA or even CIA, but if he was, searching on Papadopoulos because the government suspected he was being recruited by a foreign power would fall under known justifications for back door searches at those foreign intelligence agencies (especially at CIA).

USA Rights would permit the use of this 702 information to support the criminal case against Papadopoulos, because it’s clearly a case of foreign government spying.

And no use of the Tor exception would be implicated with this search.

In other words, Section 702 as Ron Wyden and Rand Paul and Justin Amash and Zoe Lofgren would have it would still permit the use of Section 702 as a tool to — ultimately — lead FBI to figure out that Papadopoulos was hiding his contacts with Ivan Timofeev.

As it turns out, the kinds of people Trump’s foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos was chatting up on Facebook — Joseph Mifsud and Ivan Timofeev — are precisely the kind of people the FBI considers “foreign bad guys on foreign land” for the purposes of Section 702, meaning the Bureau could get their Facebook account quite easily.

And the incidental collection of Americans of such conversations can be — may well have been — as dangerous to Donald Trump as the incidental collection of Americans under Title I.

In Which Former NatSec Prosecutor Andrew McCarthy Embraces Russian Disinformation

Andrew McCarthy is one of the few right wingers I think all Trump opponents need to read. That’s true, partly, because his experience as a top NatSec prosecutor grants him an important perspective from which to assess the Trump investigation. And also, he engages in his own assessment of the evidence, as he has received it, even if he brings a far right bias to it.

McCarthy decides the dossier was key in the Page FISA order

Which is why defenders of the Christopher Steele dossier should read — and prepare to respond to — this column concluding (after some prior good faith consideration) that Democrats do have a problem with the way the dossier was used to justify an investigation against Trump. In it, McCarthy divorces his discussion from the known timeline and concludes that dossier is the true referent to Peter Strzok’s “insurance policy” text.

Was it the Steele dossier that so frightened the FBI? I think so.

[snip]

In sum, the FBI and DOJ were predisposed to believe the allegations in Steele’s dossier. Because of their confidence in Steele, because they were predisposed to believe his scandalous claims about Donald Trump, they made grossly inadequate efforts to verify his claims. Contrary to what I hoped would be the case, I’ve come to believe Steele’s claims were used to obtain FISA surveillance authority for an investigation of Trump.

McCarthy then points to this report (as I have) of Andrew McCabe pointing only to Carter Page’s trip to Moscow as validation of the dossier.

But when pressed to identify what in the salacious document the bureau had actually corroborated, the sources said, McCabe cited only the fact that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had traveled to Moscow. Beyond that, investigators said, McCabe could not even say that the bureau had verified the dossier’s allegations about the specific meetings Page supposedly held in Moscow.

From that, McCarthy departs from prior points he has made about FBI’s corroboration of intelligence on FISA applications and ignores reports that FBI had a FISA order on Carter Page before the campaign (those reports admittedly might be disinformation, but then so might every single report pertaining to FISA orders) to suggest that the Steele dossier was the primary thing FBI used to get a FISA order on him (and, even more inaccurately, to justify the entire investigation). Here’s where McCarthy ends his piece.

The FBI always has information we do not know about. But given that Page has not been accused of a crime, and that the DOJ and FBI would have to have alleged some potential criminal activity to justify a FISA warrant targeting the former U.S. naval intelligence officer, it certainly seems likely that the Steele dossier was the source of this allegation. In conclusion, while there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack on the 2016 election, there is abundant evidence that the Obama administration colluded with the Clinton campaign to use the Steele dossier as a vehicle for court-authorized monitoring of the Trump campaign — and to fuel a pre-election media narrative that U.S. intelligence agencies believed Trump was scheming with Russia to lift sanctions if he were elected president.

McCarthy may well have a point. That is, I think his argument that DOJ’s predisposition to believe Steele may have led them to treat the dossier more credibly than it warranted. But as I said, to conclude the dossier is the main thing, he has to ignore reporting that Page had already had a FISA order (meaning FBI had already established, to the standard that FISC measures it, that Page might be involved in clandestine activity). He also doesn’t mention Chuck Grassley’s concerns about parallel construction, which he’d only have if he knew that FBI had corroborated the dossier intelligence (as McCarthy had been confident would have happened before this column). Nor does he mention that Page’s visit to Moscow was reported contemporaneously, in both Russian and DC. Further, as I lay out in this post, treating the dossier as definitive on August 15 doesn’t get you very far. Nor does McCarthy acknowledge that the public record makes clear that other pieces of intelligence also established a basis to open an investigation, regardless of what role the dossier contributed.

Still, as far as it goes, McCarthy’s argument thus far should at least be engaged by Trump opponents, because as far as it goes, it is a legitimate complaint.

FBI in no way let the dossier affect its election tampering, which ultimately worked to hurt Hillary

The first area where McCarthy goes off the rails, however, is in his suggestion that DOJ’s credulity about the dossier led the FBI to oppose Trump’s election, rather than fast-track an investigation into his ties with Russia.

He does this, first of all, by speculating — based on zero evidence — that FBI found out early on that the dossier was oppo research.

At some point, though, perhaps early on, the FBI and DOJ learned that the dossier was actually a partisan opposition-research product. By then, they were dug in. No one, after all, would be any the wiser: Hillary would coast to victory, so Democrats would continue running the government; FISA materials are highly classified, so they’d be kept under wraps.

I believe Steele’s public statements (which I admit are suspect) suggest the opposite. That is, I believe he was sufficiently compartmented from whoever was paying for the dossier such that he might not know about it (though that admittedly raises the stakes of what Bruce Ohr knew from his wife Nelly, and to what degree she was upholding client confidentiality).

McCarthy then suggests that FBI’s goal and actions reflect efforts to ensure Trump would not be elected.

[T]he suspicion is that, motivated by partisanship and spurred by shoddy information that it failed to verify, the FBI exploited its counterintelligence powers in hopes of derailing Trump’s presidential run.

[snip]

DOJ and FBI, having dropped a criminal investigation that undeniably established Hillary Clinton’s national-security recklessness, managed simultaneously to convince themselves that Donald Trump was too much of a national-security risk to be president.

Having laid out his argument that FBI gave Hillary a pass on her email investigation (yes, that part of this is laughable), McCarthy completely ignores the events of late October to make this claim.

First, he ignores that Jim Comey publicly reopened the investigation into Hillary less than two weeks before the election in large part because significant swaths of the FBI didn’t want her to win and Comey worried it would otherwise leak. You simply cannot say an FBI that did so was actively working to ensure a Hillary win.

Just as importantly, it appears that after it became publicly clear, with David Corn’s Steele story, that the dossier was oppo research, the FBI not only backed out of a plan to pay for its continuation, but leaked to the NYT that FBI had found nothing to substantiate any ties with Russia.

Note, this detail also provides a much better explanation for why the FBI backed out of its planned relationship with Steele in October, one that matches my supposition. As soon as it became clear Elias was leaking the dossier all over as oppo research, the FBI realized how inappropriate it was to use the information themselves, no matter how credible Steele is. This also likely explains why FBI seeded a story with NYT, one Democrats have complained about incessantly since, reporting “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” Ham-handed? Sure. But in the wake of Harry Reid and David Corn’s attempts to force FBI to reveal what Democratic oppo research had handed to FBI, the FBI needed to distance themselves from the oppo research, and make sure they didn’t become part of it. Particularly if Steele was not fully forthcoming about who was paying him, the FBI was fucked.

Whatever the facts about when it discovered the Democrats were funding the dossier, ultimately FBI went way out of its way to ensure the allegations in the dossier didn’t influence the election.

Wherein a former NatSec prosecutor yawns about Russian disinformation

At this point, I’m somewhat agnostic about the best explanation for all the shortcomings of the Steele dossier. It’s possible that, being offered money to support a conclusion, Steele just told his client what they wanted to hear, regardless of the actual reality (though that doesn’t accord with the public record on Steele’s credibility, at all). But it’s also possible that Russia learned about the dossier early on (possibly from Fusion researcher Rinat Akhmetshin), and spent a lot of time feeding Steele’s known sources disinformation. I’m increasingly leaning to the latter explanation, but I still remain agnostic.

Not McCarthy. He comes down squarely on the side of disinformation.

The dossier appears to contain misinformation. Knowing he was a spy-for-hire trusted by Americans, Steele’s Russian-regime sources had reason to believe that misinformation could be passed into the stream of U.S. intelligence and that it would be acted on — and leaked — as if it were true, to America’s detriment. This would sow discord in our political system. If the FBI and DOJ relied on the dossier, it likely means they were played by the Putin regime.

But McCarthy doesn’t think this through. And he doesn’t think it through even while proclaiming, abundant evidence to the the contrary, “there is a dearth of evidence to date that the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s cyberespionage attack.”

There’s not a dearth of evidence!

To claim that there is, McCarthy ignores that longtime Trump associate Felix Sater was brokering deals with Russian oligarchs that he believed would get Trump elected in 2015. McCarthy ignores the likelihood George Papadopoulos warned the campaign of stolen emails, referred to as “dirt on Hillary,” even before the Democrats knew about any stolen emails. He ignores that Don Jr took a meeting (with Fusion associate Rinat Akhmetshin) based on a promise of dirt. He ignores that the broker behind the meeting, Rob Goldstone, found it eerie that stolen emails were released right after the meeting. McCarthy ignores that the substance of the meeting — sanctions relief — is precisely what Flynn was ordered to broker even before Trump was inaugurated, which Flynn is now explaining in depth in part because Jared Kushner withheld information that might have exonerated Flynn’s actions.

That is, McCarthy ignores that there’s a great deal of evidence, even in the public record, that Trump welcomed the release of stolen Hillary emails in a meeting at which sanctions were discussed, and that Trump promised to give Russia sanctions relief even before he was inaugurated.

Had he considered all this evidence, though, he might have had to think about why none of this shows up in the dossier, not even — especially not — the meeting which a Fusion research associate attended. Had he considered all this evidence, he would have had to think about how much the dossier looks like a distraction from all the evidence of collusion that was literally lying right before Fusion’s face. He also might have to consider how the dossier, paid for in response to the DNC hack, was worse than the public record precisely as it pertained to Russian hack and leaks.

Sure, it’s possible the Russians decided to plant a story of Trump collusion where no evidence existed, and did so well before Hillary’s investment in such a narrative was public (it would be interesting to know whether emails Russia stole in April would support such a narrative). It’s possible that’s what the disinformation of the dossier accomplishes. All that would be inconsistent with what everyone believed at the time, which is that Hillary would win.

That’s possible, sure.

But that’s not what the existing evidence supports. That is, if the dossier is disinformation, then it appears most likely to be disinformation that served as a distraction from the real collusion happening in easily researchable form. That’d be especially likely given that Manafort seems to have encouraged Trump to carry out precisely the counter propaganda that, with this column, McCarthy has now joined.

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

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

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


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

I don’t think the Steele dossier is garbage.

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

Making and claiming accuracy for a narrative out of raw intelligence

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

How to read a dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sipher claims the dossier predicted what wasn’t known

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

Did any of the activities reported happen as predicted?

To a large extent, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Sipher substantiates that claim.

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 13: A virgin birth report produced as the US intelligence community scrambled to put together the case against Russia for the first time ties Cohen to the emails in unredacted form).

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

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

The quotes Sipher uses to defend his claim are even worse. The first passage includes two clear errors. The report in question was actually the December 13 one, not “late fall 2016” one. And the Trump associate who agreed (in the alleged August meeting in Prague, anticipating that Hillary might win) to making quick payments to hackers was Michael Cohen, not Carter Page. [Update, 12/10/17: Just Security has fixed this error.] Many things suggest this particular report should be read with great skepticism, not least that it post-dated both the disclosure of the existence of the dossier and the election, and that this intelligence was offered up to Steele, not solicited, and was offered for free.

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

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

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

The dossier is stronger in sketchy contacts with Russians

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter Page

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

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

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

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

Paul Manafort

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

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

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

Michael Cohen

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

Felix Sater

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

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

[snip]

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

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

Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

Sergey Kislyak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cognitive Rot and the Steele Dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politico has this passage …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, along comes Chait.

Ah, Chait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the timeline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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