Posts

With the Corey Lewandowski Interview, Devin Nunes Confirms He’s No More Than Trump’s Mole

In the wake of Michael Wolff’s publication of Steve Bannon’s insistence that Donald Trump met with the attendees at the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting, we got word that Bannon — who claims never to have interviewed with Robert Mueller’s team — has hired the same lawyer representing Reince Priebus and Don McGahn for an interview this week with the House Intelligence Committee.

Two sources tell us Burck is helping Bannon prepare for an interview with the House intelligence committee, which is currently scheduled for next week. Sources also said Bannon plans to “fully cooperate” with investigators.

Burck also represents White House Counsel Don McGahn and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus for the purposes of the Russia probe, as Law360 reported last September.

It is not unheard of for one attorney to represent more than one client on the same matter. But the fact that several key players with Trump administration ties have the same lawyer could irk investigators.

Then, yesterday, news broke that Corey Lewandowski will interview with HPSCI this week. He, too, claims he has never interviewed with Mueller’s team.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski says that he has yet to be contacted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of the ongoing Russia investigation.

Lewandowski, who was interviewed by WABC’s Rita Cosby on Sunday, also confirmed reports that he will be interviewed on either Wednesday or Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee as part of its Russia probe.

“I have nothing to hide. I didn’t collude or cooperate or coordinate with any Russian, Russian agency, Russian government or anybody else, to try and impact this election,” Lewandowski says he plans to tell the House panel.

Daily Caller is right — it’s odd that Mueller hasn’t interviewed Lewandowski, given that he had these critically timed interactions with George Papadopoulos.

April 27: Papadopoulos to Corey Lewandowski

“to discuss Russia’s interest in hosting Mr. Trump. Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him and the team when the time is right.”

April 27: Papadopoulos authored speech that he tells Timofeev is “the signal to meet”

[snip]

May 4, Papadopoulos to Lewandowski (forwarding Timofeev email):

“What do you think? Is this something we want to move forward with?”

May 14, Papadopoulos to Lewandowski:

“Russian govemment[] ha[s] also relayed to me that they are interested in hostingMr. Trump.”

[snip]

June 19: Papadopoulos to Lewandowski

“New message from Russia”: “The Russian ministry of foreign affairs messaged and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, if campaign rep (me or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.”

The decision to call two key Trump people whom Mueller hasn’t met happens in the wake of events that haven’t gotten sufficient attention. On January 3, Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray met with Paul Ryan to request that he limit the documents Nunes had requested from FBI. Ryan backed Nunes, which led Rosenstein and Wray to agree to show a bunch of highly sensitive documents to HPSCI investigators, as well as agree to interviews with the FBI and DOJ people who had either touched the Steele dossier or been witnesses to Jim Comey’s claims that Trump demanded loyalty from him.

At Wednesday’s meeting — initiated at Rosenstein’s request — Rosenstein and Wray tried to gauge where they stood with the House speaker in light of the looming potential contempt of Congress showdown and Nunes’ outstanding subpoena demands, sources said. CNN is told the discussion did not involve details of the separate Russia investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

While Ryan had already been in contact with Rosenstein for months about the dispute over documents, Rosenstein and Wray wanted to make one last effort to persuade him to support their position. The documents in dispute were mostly FBI investigative documents that are considered law enforcement sensitive and are rarely released or shared outside the bureau.

During the meeting, however, it became clear that Ryan wasn’t moved and the officials wouldn’t have his support if they proceeded to resist Nunes’ remaining highly classified requests, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Sources also told CNN that the Justice Department and the FBI also had learned recently that the White House wasn’t going to assert executive privilege or otherwise intervene to try to stop Nunes.

The focus on all the reporting has been on the dossier; indeed, one of CNN’s sources says Mueller’s investigation didn’t come up. It’s not clear that makes sense, given the implication that Trump might claim executive privilege over something being discussed, unless the privilege claim pertained to the two-page summary of the dossier given to him and Obama.

Moreover, the letter memorializing what Nunes forced Rosenstein and Wray to give up suggests the discussion involved all “investigative documents that relate to the Committee’s investigations into (a) Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election,” as well as its efforts to find evidence of politicization at DOJ.

As agreed, designated Committee investigators and staff will be provided access to all remaining investigative documents, in unredacted form, for review at DOJ on Friday, January 5, 2018. The documents to be reviewed will include all FBI Form-1023s and all remaining FBI Form FD-302s responsive to the Committee’s August 24, 2017 subpoenas. The only agreed-upon exception pertains to a single FD-302, which, due to national security interests, will be shown separately by Director Wray to myself and my senior investigators during the week of January 8, 2018.

You further confirmed that there are no other extant investigative documents that relate to the Committee’s investigations into (a) Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election or (b) other investigatory documents germane to the Committee’s investigations regardless of form and/or title. If, somehow, “new” or “other” responsive documents are discovered, as discussed, you will notify me immediately and allow my senior investigators to review them shortly thereafter.

[snip]

It was further agreed that all documents made available to the Committee will also be available for review by the minority Ranking Member and designated staff.

If that’s right — if the document requests pertain to both the Steele dossier and the Mueller investigation, then on January 5, HPSCI would have been able to determine everyone who had been interviewed and what they had said (which is a good way to ensure that witnesses not cooperate with Mueller). And last week, Nunes, would have been able to review a 302 (the forms FBI uses to report their interviews with witnesses) that, for some reason, was even more sensitive than the FISA orders and confidential human source reports they had reviewed the previous Friday. From his language, it’s not clear whether Adam Schiff would have been included in that review.

Last Wednesday, Wray and Rosenstein gave briefings to Adam Schiff, reportedly by himself, and Richard Burr and Mark Warner together. If Schiff wasn’t included in the review of that 302, then that may explain what the briefing pertained to.

Just last month, Nunes was digging in and refusing to let Democrats call obvious witnesses. So the news that HPSCI will interview two key Trump people with whom Mueller has not yet met makes it clear — if it wasn’t already — that Nunes is trying to identify everything that Mueller might learn, so that he can then give Trump a clean bill of health and insist the entire investigation was just a political stunt drummed up from the Steele dossier (which is what Paul Manafort seems to have recommended last year).

And as all these machinations have gone on, Trump has vacillated about whether or not he’ll submit to an interview with Mueller. Perhaps Nunes has told him that the one thing that might make Mueller’s case is either a confirmation or denial from the President whether he knew or attended that June 9 meeting?

What Glenn Simpson Said about the Relationship with the FBI

I keep promising a big post or series of posts on the Glenn Simpson transcript. And I keep doing quick posts to summarize what the transcript says about controversial topics. In this one, I’ll look at what it says about whether FBI paid Christopher Steele and how the relationship went south. All told, these passages support some points I made in this post and this one — that because of the way Fusion pushed to publicize an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, the FBI got as pissed with Steele and Fusion as vice versa.

First, as I suggested, Simpson suggests (though does not confirm) FBI did reimburse Steele for his September 2016 trip to Rome to report on his findings thus far.

Q. Do you know who paid for Mr. Steele’s trip to Rome to meet with the FBI?

A. I have read recently that — I think in a letter from Senator Grassley that the FBI reimbursed the expense, but to be clear, I mean, that’s it. He was, to my knowledge, not been compensated for that work or any other work during this time.

MR. FOSTER: I’m sorry. You’re saying that Fusion did not pay for the trip?

MR. LEVY: Go ahead and answer the question.

MR. SIMPSON: I don’t think we did.

But later, when asked specifically if Steele obtained payment for the work he did, rather than the travel to share his work, Simpson emphasizes that he only knows what Steele has claimed, which is that FBI didn’t pay for the work.

Q. And I think you’ve already answered this question, but to the best of your knowledge, did Mr. Steele ever obtain payment from the FBI for actual research that he was doing on Russian interference or on possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia?

A. He told me he did not, and I have no independent information other than what he told me. I don’t believe he ever received compensation for working on anything related to Trump and Russia.

Simpson is unable to say whether Steele was providing the FBI rolling production of his memos.

Q. Do you know if he provided any other memoranda to the FBI on a rolling basis at all at any point?

MR. LEVY: He’s answered that question too.

BY THE WITNESS:

A. I don’t know.

In spite of Simpson saying, elsewhere, that Fusion clients get to decide what happens with their end product, Simpson claims that just he and Steele decided to go to the FBI. But his memory on this point is less than perfect.

Q. So after Mr. Steele had found out the information that he put in the very first of these memos, the one dated June 20, 2016, he approached you about taking this information to specifically the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

A. That’s my recollection.

Q. So to the best of your recollection, that request or idea came directly from Mr. Steele, not anyone else?

A. That’s right.

Q. And who was involved in discussions about whether it was appropriate to take either the memo or the information in the memo to the FBI?

A. It was Chris and me. I mean, that’s the only ones I remember, the two of us. The only ones I know of.

Later, Simpson’s lawyer claims privilege over the question of whether Perkins Coie played a part in this decision.

Once the decision was made, did you share that decision with anyone, that he was going to go to the FBI with this information?

A. I think we’re not able to answer that.

MR. LEVY: He’s going to decline to answer that question.

Simpson twice describes how Steele “broke off” his relationship with the FBI (which sure makes it sound like an ongoing relationship) in terms of the frustration with the reopening of the Hillary email investigation and the NYT report that the FBI had not confirmed any ties with Russia.

A. There was some sort of interaction, I think it was probably telephonic that occurred after Director Comey sent his letter to Congress reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. That episode, you know, obviously created some concern that the FBI was intervening in a political campaign in contravention of long-standing Justice Department regulation. So it made a lot of people, including us, concerned about what the heck was going on at the FBI. So, you know, we began getting questions from the press about, you know, whether they were also investigating Trump and, you know, we encouraged them to ask the FBI that question. You know, I think — I’m not sure we’ve covered this fully, but, you know, we just encouraged them to ask the FBI that question. On October 31st the New York Times posed a story saying that the FBI is investigating Trump and found no connections to Russia and, you know, it was a real Halloween special.

Sometime thereafter the FBI — I understand Chris severed his relationship with the FBI out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI and there was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on. So he stopped dealing with them.

[snip]

A. I think I was just recounting that he vaguely said that he had broken off with them over this concern that we didn’t really know what was going on. I’m sorry to be vague, but we just didn’t understand what was going on and he said he had broken off with them.

Q. When you say “we” did not understand what 3 was going on, who are you referring to as the “we”?

A. Chris and I, mostly just the two of us. There was a lot of public controversy over the conduct of the FBI. I remember discussing it with many people, but this conversation was between the two of us.

Q. And what was the time frame of when Steele said he had broken off with the FBI?

A. I can — I don’t know exactly, but it would have been between October 31st and election day.

MS. QUINT: October 31st was when you said there was an article —

MR. SIMPSON: In the New York Times. There was an article in the New York Times on October 31st that created concern about what was going on at the FBI.

MS. QUINT: Because it wasn’t consistent with your understanding of the investigation?

MR. SIMPSON: Exactly.

BY MS. SAWYER:

Q. And I think, just to be clear, this was an article you had talked about that both revealed that Director Comey had alerted Congress to something about the Clinton e-mail investigation?

A. No. That happened a few days previous. I don’t know the exact date that he sent the letter to Congress, but this was an article specifically about — it was disclosing the existence of an FBI investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia, which, to my recollection, was the first time that anyone reported that the FBI was looking at whether the Trump campaign had ties to the Kremlin but at the same time saying that they had investigated this and not found anything, which threw cold water on the whole question through the election.

But Simpson also admits that the FBI was pissed about seeing Steele’s public reporting in the press, something I had surmised but none of Fusion’s media outlets had reported.

A. I remember Chris saying at some point that they were upset with media coverage of some of the 6 issues that he had discussed with him.

Which is interesting because Simpson gets forgetful about whether the September briefings with the press — it’s not clear whether they happened before or after Simpson met for the second time with the FBI — mentioned that Simpson had gone to the FBI.

MR. DAVIS: So in your meetings with journalists in September you didn’t reference Mr. Steele’s interactions with the FBI or passing on of information to them?

BY THE WITNESS:

A. I don’t recall.

But as the citations above show, Simpson makes it clear the discussions with the press after Jim Comey’s email letter did raise the investigation.

A. I’m not going to get into specific news organizations or reporters or stories, but I would restate that this was during the period when we were encouraging the media to ask questions about whether the FBI was, in fact, investigating these 24 matters.

Finally, Simpson readily admits they reshared the dossier with John McCain’s associate David Kramer to make sure Jim Comey himself would get it (this would have happened at the moment President Obama asked for the intelligence report on the Russian tampering).

That was essentially — all we sort of wanted was for the government to do its job and we were concerned about whether the information that we provided previously had ever, you know, risen to the leadership level of the FBI. We simply just didn’t know. It was our belief that Director Comey if he was aware — if he was made aware of this information would treat it seriously.

 

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.

The Ohrs’ Activities Raise New Questions about the December 13 Dossier Report

In recent days, Republicans have leaked details about the actions of Bruce and Nellie Ohr with respect to the Fusion GPS dossier on Trump. Yesterday, Glenn Simpson confirmed those details in a filing in Fusion’s efforts to prevent the House Intelligence Committee from obtaining more details about Fusion’s finances.

The bank records reflect that Fusion contracted with Nellie Ohr, a former government official expert in Russian matters, to help our company with its research and analysis of Mr. Trump[.]

[snip]

I disclosed that I met with Bruce Ohr, at his request, after the November 2016 election to discuss our findings regarding Russia and the election[.]

In short, this revelation means that Fusion employed the wife of then Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr to conduct research on Trump’s Russian ties. Ohr met with Christopher Steele before the election, and met with Simpson after the election.

This probably means that this reference, in HPSCI’s request for documents, is to Nellie Ohr.

Which in turn would man that Fusion paid Ohr on March 22, April 6, May 25, July 13, August 2, September 1, October 5, November 1.

That would mean the payments to Steele are either item 2 or 4 in this analysis. That’s significant because both of those entities received payments in January.

I’m interested in all that for two reasons. First, the record conflicts on whether DOJ ever paid Steele.

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 Ohr met with Steele after the election (and after Perkins Coie reportedly stopped paying for Steele’s work), it means it’s possible DOJ paid him, contrary to some reports. Steele has claimed (in otherwise dubious court filings) that he was neither pair nor affirmatively solicited information for the last report, dated December 13.

The December 13 report was by far the most inflammatory one, alleging that Trump’s campaign paid for the hack of the DNC. It’s also at the center of some of the lawfare surrounding the dossier, Webzilla’s multiple lawsuits.

This is by no means definitive. But the circumstances of the December 13 report will come out one way or another. Thus far, the story about it is bad. And it could get far worse.

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.

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2016-2017

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2016

Why Doesn’t Dianne Feinstein Want to Prevent Murders Like those Robert Dear Committed?

I’ve written a lot about how the focus on Islamic terrorism, based on a claim it’s foreign, creates gross inequalities for Muslims in this country, and does nothing to address some of our most dangerous mass killers (as the Stephen Paddock massacre in Las Vegas makes all too clear). This post is one of that series. It focuses on how the ill-advised efforts to use the No Fly List to create a list of those who couldn’t own guns would be discriminatory and wouldn’t add much to safety.

“Only Facts Matter:” Jim Comey Is Not the Master Bureaucrat of Integrity His PR Sells Him As

From the periods when Jim Comey was universally revered as a boy scout through those when Democrats blamed him for giving us Trump (through the time Democrats predictably flip flopped on that point), I have consistently pointed to a more complicated story, particularly with regards to surveillance and torture. I think the lesson of Comey isn’t so much he’s a bad person — it’s that he’s human, and no human fits into the Manichean world of good guys and bad guys that he viewed justice through.

NSA and CIA Hacked Enrique Peña Nieto before the 2012 Election

As Americans came to grips with the fact that Russia had hacked Democrats to influence last year’s election, many people forgot that the US does the same. And it’s not even just in the bad old days of Allen Dulles. The Snowden documents revealed that NSA and CIA hacked Enrique Peña Nieto in the weeks before he was elected in 2012. The big difference is we don’t know what our spooks did with that information.

Why Is HPSCI’s Snowden Report So Inexcusably Shitty?

In 2016, HPSCI released its Devin Nunes-led investigation into Edward Snowden’s leaks. It was shitty. Really shitty.

Now that the HPSCI investigation into the Russian hack (which has not been subjected to the same limitations as the Snowden investigation was) has proven to be such a shit show, people should go back and review how shitty this review was (including its reliance on Mike Flynn’s inflammatory claims). There absolutely should have been a review of Snowden’s leaks. But this was worse than useless.

Look Closer to Home: Russian Propaganda Depends on the American Structure of Social Media

As people began to look at the role of fake news in the election, I noted that we can’t separate the propaganda that supported Trump from the concentrated platforms that that propaganda exploited. A year later, that’s a big part of what the Intelligence Committees have concluded.

The Evidence to Prove the Russian Hack

In this post I did a comprehensive review of what we knew last December about the proof Russia was behind the tampering in last year’s election.

Obama’s Response to Russia’s Hack: An Emphasis on America’s More Generalized Vulnerability

Last year, in a speech on the hack, Obama focused more on America’s vulnerability that made it possible for Russia to do so much damage than he did on attacking Putin. I think it’s a really important point, one I’ve returned to a lot in the last year.

The Shadow Brokers: “A Nice Little NSA You’ve Got Here; It’d Be a Shame If…”

In December, I did a review of all the posts Shadow Brokers had done and suggested he was engaged in a kind of hostage taking, threatening to dump more NSA tools unless the government met his demands. I was particularly interested in whether such threats were meant to prevent the US from taking more aggressive measures to retaliate against Russia for the hack.

2017

On “Fake News”

After getting into a bunch of Twitter wars over whether we’re at a unique moment with Fake News, I did this post, which I’ve often returned to.

How Hal Martin Stole 75% of NSA’s Hacking Tools: NSA Failed to Implement Required Security Fixes for Three Years after Snowden

The government apparently is still struggling to figure out how its hacking tools (both NSA and CIA) got stolen. I noted back in January that an IG report from 2016 showed that in the three years after Snowden, the IC hadn’t completed really basic things to make itself more safe from such theft.

The Doxing of Equation Group Hackers Raises Questions about the Legal Role of Nation-State Hackers

One thing Shadow Brokers did that Snowden and WikiLeaks, with its Vault 7 releases, have not is to reveal the identities of NSA’s own hackers. Like DOJ’s prosecution of nation-state hackers, I think this may pose problems for the US’ own hackers.

Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier: a Long Essay

I believe Democrats have been ill-advised to focus their Russia energy on the Steele dossier, not least because there has been so much more useful reporting on the Russia hack that the Steele dossier only makes their case more vulnerable to attack. In any case, I continue to post this link, because I continue to have to explain the dossier’s problems.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

How Did Christopher Steele Collect Information after Sources (Allegedly) Dried Up?

Sorry to those who think I’m overly focused on the Christopher Steele dossier, but I’m reading Luke Harding’s book on the Russian investigation, which uses the dossier as a centerpiece. I may do a longer post about what his overall narrative does, but for now there’s a weird paragraph that conveniently is in this long excerpt I want to focus on.

After introducing the first report of the dossier (the one that features the pee tape and dated, non-email kompromat), Harding writes,

The memo was sensational. There would be others, 16 in all, sent to Fusion between June and early November 2016. At first, obtaining intelligence from Moscow went well. For around six months – during the first half of the year – Steele was able to make inquiries in Russia with relative ease. It got harder from late July, as Trump’s ties to Russia came under scrutiny. Finally, the lights went out. Amid a Kremlin cover-up, the sources went silent and information channels shut down.

There are several details that conflict with known facts and/or claimed (in some cases, sworn) ones.

First, Harding suggests there were 16 reports in all. I’m not sure whether he’s suggesting the final total of reports written between June and early November was 16 or whether he’s suggesting there were 16 additional reports in all, for a total of 17. Either way the number works out (there were 17 total reports, one of which was written after November). But that makes the November reference weird. There was no report written in early November. The last known report before the election was dated October 20, and then there wasn’t another one until that December 13 one.

  • 080: June 20, 2016
  • 086: July 26, 2015 (citing events in 2016)
  • 095: not dated
  • 94: July 19, 2016
  • 097: July 30, 2016
  • 100: August 5, 2016
  • 101: August 10, 2016
  • 102: August 10, 2016
  • 136: October 20, 2016
  • 105: August 22, 2016
  • 111: September 14, 2016
  • 112: September 14, 2016
  • 113: September 14, 2016
  • 130: October 12, 2016
  • 134: October 18, 2016
  • 135: October 19, 2016
  • 166: December 13, 2016

In any case, Harding gets the December date sort of correct later in the passage. Except he describes Glenn Simpson giving John McCain the report, dated December 13, before McCain called Jim Comey about it on December 8.

Less than 24 hours later, Kramer returned to Washington. Glenn Simpson then shared a copy of the dossier confidentially with McCain, along with a final Steele memo on the Russian hacking operation, written in December.

McCain believed it was impossible to verify Steele’s claims without a proper investigation. He made a call and arranged a meeting with Comey. Their encounter on 8 December 2016 lasted five minutes. Not much was said. McCain gave Comey the dossier.

I explain the significance of these December dates in this post.

Things are even weirder with the third sentence in this passage.

For around six months – during the first half of the year – Steele was able to make inquiries in Russia with relative ease.

According to the public narrative, Steele wasn’t working for Fusion until the Democrats asked for a Russian focus in June. And the first of his released reports relies on reporting from June. But Harding here suggests Steele was working on it for the six months before that! I pointed to circumstantial evidence that Fusion paid Steele on March 22, April 6, and May 25, in payments they don’t associate with Perkins Coie, in addition to the payments that were probably to him on July 13, August 2, September 1, October 5, and November 1.

Now check out the following sentences. Starting in “late July … the lights went out and … the sources went silent and information channels shut down.”

As the timeline above makes clear, the numbering in the dossier gets funky almost immediately, but the most likely reading suggests after that first, June 20 report, there are 4 reports from late July, and the remaining 12 reports all postdate late July. Report 100, the first post-July one, is sourced to “early August 2016” (and dated August 5).

Now, maybe the paragraph is just totally screwy. But if there’s any basis in fact to it, it suggests the public timeline is wrong (something which may be backed by the payments). More importantly, it suggests Steele’s extensive (albeit very indirect) network of sources stopped providing intelligence not long after he allegedly started his inquiry.

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.

Does the Fusion Ledger Explain Why They’ve Pled the Fifth?

When the first two Fusion employees, Peter Fritsch and Thomas Catán, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on October 18, they pled the Fifth. I’ve been wondering since then what basis they had to do so — as have the House Intelligence Committee lawyers fighting with them to obtain bank records related to their Russian related activities last year and this. Indeed, HPSCI suggests the invocation of the Fifth suggests there may be relevant and important materials still to hand over.

It logically follows either that Plaintiff’s principals may have been perjuring themselves when they testified to a purportedly good-faith belief that their answers would tend to incriminate them, and/or that they are in possession of incriminating information of relevance to the Committee’s investigation that they have not yet disclosed.

In my last post, I noted that the House Intelligence Committee believes Fusion GPS, the intelligence firm behind the dossier, paid three or four journalists (actually, two or three journalists, plus someone who has served as a source for such information), and is trying to get records pertaining to other law firms and two businesses as well.

Looking at the exhibits Fusion submitted, however, at least suggests what they might be trying to hide.

The interesting exhibits are:

Here’s what, taken together, we learn about the 112 transactions HPSCI is trying to access but Fusion is trying to hide. The HPSCI filing describes them this way:

30 + 12 transactions associated with those who worked on the Steele or Prevezon projects

The filings make clear Fusion originally turned over 30 transactions. They are bolded in the ledger, which include:

  1. Transactions 5-11 (7 total) totaling $523,650.62 dated March 7, March 18, August 18, September 6, October 27, October 31, and October 31 (again) 2016 which are Baker Hostetler payments associated with Prevezon
  2. Transactions 46 (dated June 28), 48 (dated September 8), and 51 (dated November 2) paid to someone whose redacted name is of a length that it might be Rinat Ahkmetshin (3 total transactions)
  3. Transactions 77-81 (5 total) dated July 13, August 2, September 1, October 5, November 1 paid to a Russian expert with a short name [see the HPSCI justification page 5]; this may be Steele
  4. Transactions 83-88 (5 total) which are payments to someone else dated August 16, October 5, November 1, November 2, January 5, 2017
  5. Transactions 89-95 (7 total) which are payments from Perkins Coie dated May 24, July 15, July 29, August 31, September 30, October 28, and December 28
  6. Transactions 96-98 (3 total) which are payments to someone with a relatively short name dated August 11, September 2, and October 5

There are also 12 other transactions associated with people involved in those original transactions. They include:

  • A credit (Transaction 40) totaling $20,000 paid to Baker Hostetler on December 13, 2016
  • 7 payments associated with the redacted name person in 2, above, dated March 11, March 22, August 23, October 4, November 1 (which is listed as the same Bates stamp as one disclosed already), December 27, 2016 and January 5, 2017
  • 3 payments paid to the Russian researcher with the short name in 3, above, dated March 22, April 6, and May 25
  • A credit dated May 11, 2016 from the redacted name in 4, above

Comments:

There are four items of particular interest, here (before you get into coincidental dates).

First, the Russian expert with the short name is probably Steele (unless bullet 4 is him). If so, Fusion turned over payment information tied to the DNC work, but not payment information for something else (three payments in March through May) before the DNC came in. That may be stuff associated with Beacon’s funding of the earlier Trump dossier. Or it may be something else.

Second, Perkins Coie’s payments seem to track when the Trump reports come out. Except there is one payment for $58,669.00 (a curiously even number) in late December, after the last and most inflammatory Russian related report comes out on December 13. Admittedly, by report number, there are 31 reports between the October 19 and December 13 report publicly released, but the October 28 Perkins Coie payment of $365,275.33, by far the largest, would seem to pay for that. This suggests it is likely that Perkins Coie continued to pay for the dossier even after Trump won, contrary to what these entities have said in sworn declarations elsewhere. Given reports of John Podesta meeting with Christopher Steele after the election, I think that quite possible that Democrats paid for that last report.

Third, there is no payment even remotely associated with Baker Hostetler around the time of the Trump Tower meeting. There’s a March 18 payment and an August 18 one. This, in spite of the fact that Fox reported that Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Fusion both before and after the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

But there is a payment — which Fusion says is not related to Prevezon or DNC — to the person with the name of the length of Rinat Akmetshin, on June 28. I asked in September who paid Akhmetshin to be at that Trump Tower meeting. Is that the June 28 payment? If so, who paid for him to be at that meeting?

19 transactions pertaining to 8 law firms

Then there are the payments pertaining to 8 law firms. The HPSCI justification says those are:

  1. Transactions 1-3 (3 total), dated March 11, March 23, and August 17
  2. Transaction 17, dated February 12
  3. Transaction 65, dated June 6
  4. Transaction 67, dated March 30
  5. Transaction 70-73 (4 total), dated June 10, July 6, September 28, 2016, and February 17, 2017
  6. Transaction 88, dated May 10
  7. Transactions 99-105 (7 total), dated June 10, July 29, August 31, October 13, November 29, December 15, January 11
  8. Transaction 106, dated September 13

We have no idea what these are, and Fusion may well be correct saying this is just investigative work for real cases. Mind you, HPSCI has said it has classified information to justify some of these requests (not necessarily limited to the law firms). So I think it is worth noting.

8 transactions probably associated with Beacon

The HPSCI filing (paragraph 26) makes it clear they’re trying to get the payment information associated with Beacon, which reportedly paid for the Republican side of the dossier. The only otherwise unaccounted for 8 Transactions are 54-61, which suggest those are the Beacon transactions. The HPSCI justification backs this, as it says the committee seeks to investigate a public claim (as they note, Beacon has confirmed its role in paying for the dossier). Except that produces some really weird dates: March 31, June 7, July 12, September 30, October 17, November 30, 2016, and January 4, February 15, 2017.

Those dates don’t make sense at all (because we were led to believe the Republican sponsored research started earlier than February), and they go well beyond the time the Republicans were said to have stopped paying.

12 credits probably associated with a media outlet, possibly  Yahoo

As noted, the HPSCI filing suggests there are payments from (not to) a media company, which might be Yahoo.

As Mr. Steele has acknowledged in other dossier-related litigation, in addition to sharing memos comprising the dossier with Mother Jones, in fall 2016 he met with at least five major media outlets at Fusion GPS’ direction. Those outlets included Yahoo News, which on September 23, 2016, reported purported meetings between Trump campaign advisor Carter Page and specified high-ranking Russian officials, attributed to a single “well-placed Western intelligence service.” Substantively similar allegations were contained in the dossier. Given Fusion GPS’ demonstrated patter of dossier-related engagement with media outlets, the Requested Records include records from [line and a half redacted].

Those appear to be transactions 32-43, dated pretty much monthly: February 17, March 21, April 19, May 18, June 15, July 20, August 17, September 19, October 19, November 16, December 14, 2016 and January 8, 2017, though they clearly track the election and transition time frame.

Business A transactions

Then there are two businesses. Those appear to be Transactions 12-16, which are payments on June 9, June 23, October 16, November 14, 2016 and January 26, 2017, and Transactions 18-31, which are mostly monthly payments from February 2016 to February 2017, though with some odd bunching during summer 2016. Both Business A and B are likely lobbying firms — see the redaction in the filing:

Business A appears to work on Ukrainian issues, as a footnote justifying its inclusion describes Trump’s shift on Ukranian policy.

The hacked documents would be in exchange for a Trump Administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fare share – policies which, even as recently as the President’s meeting last week with Angela Merkel, have now presciently come to pass.”).

But that’s recent representation — “since January 2017.”

Business B transactions

Business B represents a variety of interests, but one of them is the kind of business that got mentioned in the Steele dossier as potentially colluding with Trump.

The “Steele Dossier” directly implicates [redacted] in potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia;

Both these businesses appear to have names that can be referred to as a short acronym.

Journalist (and other) transactions

There are three journalist transactions (besides those tied to Yahoo and Beacon):

  • Transactions 62-64, payments dated May 16, June 9, and September 6
  • Transactions 68-69, payments dated June 15 and August 26
  • Transactions 107-112, payments dated September 1, October 25, November 14, December 2, January 9, February 2

Then there is this:

  • Transaction 66, a payment dated December 12

This is not a payment to a journalist, per se, but to “individuals on [sic] have contributed to press stories on Russian issues relevant to its investigation.” This last payment, generally treated in the “journalist” category, appears to be tied to someone being quoted in the press, not writing their own work.

It’s interesting because this payment happens in the time period when the last, allegedly free report was being prepared.

Update, 12/12/17: The researcher with the short name may be Nellie Ohr, the wife of a DOJ official who was in the loop on the dossier.