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John Sipher’s Garbage Post Arguing the Steele Dossier Isn’t Garbage

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

I don’t think the Steele dossier is garbage.

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

Making and claiming accuracy for a narrative out of raw intelligence

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

How to read a dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing is, we actually know answers to two of these questions. First, Steele’s sources shared the information (at least in part) because they were paid. 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 20: 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. 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.

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

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

CNN Worries about Mueller’s Aggressive Tactics, But Real Concern May Be Senate Intelligence Committee

CNN has a cryptic story — pitched as evidence that the committees conducting the Russian investigation may be clashing with the Mueller investigation — suggesting two kinds of “aggressive tactics” on the part of Robert Mueller’s team.

The less cryptic of the two tactics is that the FBI seized attorney-client privileged documents in the morning raid of Manafort’s house.

Mueller issued subpoenas to Manafort’s former lawyer and current spokesman and authorized a pre-dawn raid of his Virginia home in late July.

During that raid, Mueller’s investigators took documents considered to be covered by attorney-client privilege, sources told CNN.

Lawyers from the WilmerHale law firm, representing Manafort at the time, warned Mueller’s office that their search warrant didn’t allow access to attorney materials. The documents in question have now been returned, the sources say.

The episode raised questions about whether investigators have seen materials they weren’t entitled to obtain.

“You can’t unsee something,” one source said.

It’s not an uncommon problem in FBI investigations. US attorneys typically have separate document-review teams to prevent investigators from handling materials they aren’t allowed to have. It’s not clear what procedures Mueller’s office uses.

We first head of this claim not from Manafort, but from Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, via an email sent to WSJ but instead reported by Fox.

Dowd also said agents seized “privileged and confidential materials prepared for Mr. Manafort by his counsel to aid him in his cooperation with the Congressional committees,”

The claim that this privileged information pertained to Manafort’s cooperation with the Congressional committees may help to elucidate the second claim: that Mueller’s lawyers made an agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about what they could obtain from the Senate Intelligence Committee, then overstepped it in trying to get an actual transcript of the interview. CNN rather unhelpfully doesn’t tell us when Mueller made the agreement with Manafort’s lawyers about his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, before or after the interview and the raid.

After Manafort privately interviewed with Senate intelligence committee staff in late July to discuss the June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian operatives, Mueller’s lawyers have struggled to get a copy of the interview transcript.

Manafort’s attorneys, in talks with the special counsel’s office, agreed to allow Mueller’s team only to get the documents Manafort had turned over to the committee, not the interview transcript, according to the sources.

Yet an attorney with the Mueller team later told the committee that they were authorized by Manafort’s representatives to have the Manafort interview transcript, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN. Committee lawyers later learned from Manafort’s attorneys that they had not provided that consent, the sources say.

As a result of the dispute, the committee hasn’t turned over any documents and the matter is still under discussion, sources say.

That’s critically important given the concern (which is real), that Mueller’s team “can’t unsee something.” That is, they may have seen something in the privileged communications about Manafort’s interview strategy that made them interested in the transcript, and only then asked for the transcript. Alternately, Manafort (and/or Dowd!) may just be bullshitting here, in a way to get SSCI to withhold something that became far more damning after the raid on his home.

Dowd’s other complaints — that Mueller didn’t need to raid Manafort’s home because he could get everything via other means, as witnessed by Manafort’s cooperation with SSCI — suggest the latter may be the case.

Dowd, in his note, questioned the validity of the search warrant itself, calling it an “extraordinary invasion of privacy.” Dowd said Manafort already was looking to cooperate with congressional committees and said the special counsel never requested the materials from Manafort.

“These failures by Special Counsel to exhaust less intrusive methods is a fatal flaw in the warrant process and would call for a Motion to Suppress the fruits of the search,” Dowd wrote, arguing the required “necessity” of the warrant was “misrepresented to the Court which raises a host of issues involving the accuracy of the warrant application and the supporting FBI affidavit.”

But there’s something else important here. As I laid out here, the Mueller raid happened in the wake of two developments in the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Monday, July 24 (“last night” in a July 25 release), Grassley and Feinstein issued a subpoena for Manafort, in particular complaining that Manafort wanted to appear before just one committee, SSCI.

While we were willing to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request to cooperate with the committee’s investigation without appearing at Wednesday’s hearing, we were unable to reach an agreement for a voluntary transcribed interview with the Judiciary Committee.  Mr. Manafort, through his attorney, said that he would be willing to provide only a single transcribed interview to Congress, which would not be available to the Judiciary Committee members or staff.  While the Judiciary Committee was willing to cooperate on equal terms with any other committee to accommodate Mr. Manafort’s request, ultimately that was not possible. Therefore, yesterday evening, a subpoena was issued to compel Mr. Manafort’s participation in Wednesday’s hearing. As with other witnesses, we may be willing to excuse him from Wednesday’s hearing if he would be willing to agree to production of documents and a transcribed interview, with the understanding that the interview would not constitute a waiver of his rights or prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

That is, Manafort was digging his heels in on a strategy that would have him cooperate exclusively with SSCI, not with SJC. And, as with Mueller, Manafort was refusing to turn over that transcript to SJC.

Faced with the threat of the subpoena, however, Manafort agreed to turn over documents and suggested he might be willing to do a separate transcribed interview.

Faced with issuance of a subpoena, we are happy that Mr. Manafort has started producing documents to the Committee and we have agreed to continue negotiating over a transcribed interview. It’s important that he and other witnesses continue to work with this committee as it fulfills its oversight responsibility. Our investigation is still in its early stages, and we will continue to seek information from witnesses as necessary. As we’ve said before, we intend to get the answers that we need, one way or the other. Cooperation from witnesses is always the preferred route, but this agreement does not prejudice the committee’s right to compel his testimony in the future.

This is the reluctant, last minute “cooperation” that Dowd pointed to as basis for his claim that Mueller could have gotten Manafort’s cooperation via other means, and part of that cooperation had Manafort undergoing a transcribed interview solely with SSCI.

Hours after Manafort made this agreement with SJC, Mueller’s team raided Manafort.

Two more details are worth recalling. We now know that on the day the WaPo broke the story of Mueller’s raid of Manafort, Donald Trump bitched out Mitch McConnell on the phone about not protecting him in the Russia probe. NYT described Trump as being even angrier about that than McConnell’s failure to pass TrumpCare.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

That’s when Dowd started emailing reporters at Murdoch publications, complaining that the Manafort raid endangered Trump.

Now consider that the other thing CNN includes among Mueller’s aggressive tactics — his subpoena of Manafort’s former lawyer Melissa Laurenza — is effectively a subpoena of a former McConnell staffer.

The subpoenas seeking documents and testimony were sent to Melissa Laurenza, an attorney with the Akin Gump law firm who until recently represented Manafort, and to Jason Maloni, who is Manafort’s spokesman, according to people familiar with the matter.

So it may be that Trump believed Manafort had certain understandings with McConnell that the raid — executed hours after Manafort’s SSCI interview — disrupted.

All that being said, once you consider that both Mueller’s team and Grassley’s committee are facing similar difficulties with Manafort, it suggests the focus here should not be on Mueller, but instead on what kind of special deals SSCI (Chaired by former Trump advisor Richard Burr) is offering up.

Sure, we have yet to have committees granting immunity to protect the president and his lackeys — which is what thwarted the Iran-Contra investigation. But given that SSCI seems to have offered to serve as a black hole for Manafort’s sworn claims, I think it time to stop assuming, as many in DC are doing, that that’s where the grown-ups live.

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

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

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans Have No Excuse for Not Doing Something about White Supremacist Violence

Last I checked, the following Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have criticized white supremacists, violence, and/or Trump’s appeasement of the former in Charlotteville.

Chuck Grassley, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair:

What ” WhiteNatjonalist” are doing in Charlottesville is homegrown terrorism that can’t be tolerated anymore that what Any extremist does

Orrin Hatch, President pro tempore:

We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home

Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society.

Lindsey Graham, Chair of Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism:

The South Carolina Republican called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to go to Virginia and “personally handle domestic terrorism investigations” and alleged civil rights abuses by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis “who took this young woman’s life.”

Graham was referring to Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a car ran into a group of counter-protesters Saturday in Charlottesville where white supremacists and neo-Nazis were holding a “Unite the Right” rally. Many more were injured.

Graham additionally proposed the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security form a task force on the threat of white supremacist groups and report back to Congress with potential solutions for cracking down on them.

“This is an opportunity for the Trump administration to come down like a hammer on white supremacists,” Graham said during a news conference in his Columbia office. “And I hope they do.”

John Cornyn, Chair of Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration and Senate Majority Whip:

No place for the bigotry & hate-filled violence in . These actions should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

And (update, from August 17):

We’ve all been shocked that the unhealed wounds of the nation’s racial divide flared up in such a surprising and disturbing way,” Cornyn said in a Chronicle interview. “I think the president had an opportunity to send a message that would unite America behind our common resolve to heal those wounds and unite our country, and unfortunately I don’t think he did that.”

Ted Cruz, Chair of Subcommittee on the Constitution, who while Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts, had a hearing on the importance of naming Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism:

It’s tragic and heartbreaking to see hatred and racism once again mar our great Nation with bloodshed. Heidi’s and my prayers are with the loved ones of those killed and injured in the ongoing violence in Charlottesville. The First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to speak their minds peaceably, but violence, brutality, and murder have no place in a civilized society.

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.

These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this. Our Nation was built on fundamental truths, none more central than the proposition ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’

But,

“One of the things we’re seeing going on is the media and the Democrats are, to the surprise of no one, demagoguing this issue and using it for political advantage,” Cruz said. “So, in the media’s telling, they want to tar and feather any Republican, any conservative, and paint us all as these crazy racist nutbags.”

Jeff Flake, Chair of Subcommittee Privacy, Technology, and the Law):

We can’t accept excuses for white supremacy & acts of domestic terrorism. We must condemn. Period.

Flake, more generally:

Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos. As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about “checks and balances.” Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, “Someone should do something!” without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.

Ben Sasse, Chair of Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts:

“I refuse to accept that mankind is tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism… Unconditional love will have the final word” -MLK

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” -Abraham Lincoln

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator with…unalienable Rights”

These people are utterly revolting–and have no understanding of America. This creedal nation explicitly rejects “blood & soil” nationalism.

John Kennedy:

Violence and hatred are never the answer.

There are 20 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Of the Republicans, eight have made statements at least condemning the violence in Charlottesville, even if Cornyn and Kennedy, among others, are obviously issuing empty condemnations.

If even two of the Republicans who’ve made statements condemning the right wing violence in Charlottesville are serious — or more specifically serious about actions that DOJ must take, as in comments that both Lindsey and Cruz made — then they’ve got the numbers to make it happen.

They’ve got the numbers to force DOJ to refund the Life After Hate program, which white supremacist Seb Gorka’s wife Katherine defunded. They’ve got the numbers to ask Jefferson Beauregard Sessions whether his DOJ will treat this act of terrorism as terrorism. They’ve got the numbers to ask whether FBI ignored warnings of surging white supremacism.

Republicans often complain that there’s nothing they can do about their unmanageable President. This is one case where that’s patently false.

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

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

Akhmetshin’s Involvement and the Trump Dossier

Over the course of the slow reveal of details about the meeting Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had on June 9, 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the focus has rightly been on the changing stories of the initially identified players.

It was about adoption, maybe she made some vague statements, oh yeah, those vague statements were oppo research, yes, yes, here are the emails showing that oppo research came from an affirmative effort in Russia to elect Dad, how can a ‘good boy‘ be expected to remember all the Russians involved in a meeting? Don Jr. blathered until, perhaps, his newly-hired lawyer shut him up.

I have no ties to the Russian government, I had no damaging information and if I did I had no intention of leaving it, well, maybe I did get information directly from a top Russian prosecutor, explained Veselnitskaya over the course of the week.

I accidentally hit send, I met with no foreigners, maybe there were Russians, but not Veselnitskaya, oh yeah, maybe her too, my lawyers told Pop’s lawyers, well maybe I never got around to mentioning it to him personally, the tale of Kushner’s difficulties identifying all the Russians he met with evolved over the week, at which point Jamie Gorelick removed herself from any responsibility criminally defending the guy.

All of which climaxed in the news that former Russian intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin and accused (before the accusation was withdrawn) hacker also attended the meeting.

Akhmetshin has boasted to associates that he had served in the military with a group known as the Osoby Otdel, or Special Section, which in the Soviet period was a division of the K.G.B. The group was distinct from the G.R.U., or Main Intelligence Directorate of the defense ministry, an organization with which he has denied any affiliation.

[snip]

The Justice Department contacted Mr. Akhmetshin in March and asked him why he did not register his work for the nonprofit group under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires anyone who lobbies in the United States on behalf of foreign interests to disclose their work to the Justice Department. Mr. Akhmetshin responded to the Justice Department in April, saying he had properly registered under congressional lobbying rules.

In 2015, International Mineral Resources, a mining company based in the Netherlands, accused Mr. Akhmetshin of hacking into its computer systems, stealing confidential information and unlawfully disseminating it as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by a rival Russian mining firm.

All of which, given that the meeting took place a week before hacked emails started coming out, sure makes it look like the principals were deliberately hiding Akhmetshin’s participation in the meeting, though Akhmetshin claims he got pulled into the meeting that day, still wearing his jeans and t-shirt.

He said he had learned about the meeting only that day when Veselnitskaya asked him to attend. He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Given all these changing stories and what they might hide I’d like to return to Don Sr.’s initial response. Way back on Sunday, the spox for Trump’s lawyers (who reportedly had known of these emails for three weeks) claimed the meeting had been a set-up by the same intelligence firm, Fusion GPS, that put together the Trump dossier.

“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Mark Corallo, spokesperson for Trump’s outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.

“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo continued, referring to the strategic intelligence firm hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to do opposition research on the candidate.

(Fusion GPS eventually retained former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele to research potential connections between Trump and Russia, an investigation that resulted in a dossier that alleged financial, political, and personal connections between the then-president-elect and the Kremlin—a dossier that Trump’s communications team might have preferred to go unmentioned.)

“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo concluded.

Even as all this was happening, Chuck Grassley released a testimony list suggesting the head of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, would testify aside the key player accusing Akhmetshin of unlawfully lobbying for Russia, William Browder. But Simpson continues, as he started in June, to refuse to testify willingly.

The insinuation this meeting was all a set-up by a Clinton-surrogate was absolutely a cheap attempt, worthy of Corallo, to flip this story. But as I said earlier in this week, it’s more clever than first assumed. As I noted, a full eleven days after the meeting (and five days after the first stolen documents appeared), Fusion was still presenting conflicting details about whether Russian-derived Clinton dirt had been shared with Trump’s campaign, ultimately claiming, however, that it hadn’t.

The report, dated 11 days after the Veselnitskaya meeting, states that the Kremlin has a dossier on Clinton, but that it has not as yet been distributed abroad.

That claim is seemingly contradicted by the claims of Source A (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure) and Source D. Indeed, Source D appears to have claimed, in June, that dirt from Russia was helpful.

Ultimately, though, the memo seems to credit Source B, “a former top level Russian intelligence officer” and Source G, a senior Kremlin official, who said the dossier, attributed here to the FSB, had not yet been shared with Trump or anyone else in America.

Consider: First, Akhmetshin himself qualifies as a former intelligence officer (though it’s not clear how senior he was). He might have reason to deny that intelligence he tried to pass was the intelligence in question. And he’d likely be right, given that the Clinton dossier was purportedly a FSB, not a GRU, product. But it’s even possible that he didn’t want Hillary to know that he or a colleague was dealing dirt, however bad.

Nevertheless, the senior-most Russian quoted in the dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton claimed — and Steele appears to have believed — that Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton had not yet been released.

As I noted (and others have expanded elsewhere) some of these sources could be people who attended the meeting, particularly once we learn which Agalarov was involved and how closely.

It is definitely cheap to suggest that having three principals from Trump’s campaign meet with Russians claiming to represent the wishes of the Russian government is just an opposition plot invented by a Hillary surrogate. But the feedback loop within Fusion and the narrow circle of key Russian sources on Trump’s campaign is definitely worth considering.

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

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

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

NSA’s Unsatisfying Response to Rosemary Collyer’s “Lack of Candor” Accusations

In yesterday’s 702 hearing, Chuck Grassley asked NSA and FBI to explain why Rosemary Collyer (who I believe is the worst presiding FISA judge of the modern tennis era) accused them of a lack of candor.

FBI’s Carl Ghattas dodged one such accusation, but basically admitted what I laid out here with regards to the other — that FBI really wasn’t set up to fulfill Thomas Hogans 2015 order to report on any queries that return criminal information. Ghattas promised FBI would fix that; I’m skeptical the current structure of FBI audits will facilitate that happening but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

I want to look more closely at how Paul Morris, NSA’s Deputy General Counsel for Operations, explained the 10-month delay in informing the FISC about the NSA’s prohibited searches of upstream content.

We had initially identified that we had made some errors of US person queries against our upstream collection. So since 2011, our minimization procedures had prohibited outright any US person queries running against upstream 702 collection, largely because of abouts communications. We had reported the initial query errors — I believe it was in 2015 when we made the initial report, but our Office of Inspector General as well as our compliance group had separate reviews ongoing to try to determine the scope and scale of the problem. So during the course of filing the renewal for the 702 certifications that were pending, the court held a hearing in early October 2016 when it asked about various compliance matters to include the improper queries and we reported on the status of those investigations as we knew them to be at that time. On about two, I think, two or three weeks later, the Office of Inspector General completed its follow-up review of the US person query and discovered that the scope of the problem was larger than we’d originally reported. Soon as we identified that the problem was larger than we thought it was, we notified the Justice Department and the ODNI, in turn the court was notified and the court held a hearing on October 26 to go into further detail about the problem and it ultimately led to a couple of extensions of the certifications and ultimately our decision to terminate abouts collection in order to remedy the compliance problem. So my sense is that the institutional lack of candor that the court was referring to was really frustration that when we had the hearing on October 6 [sic] we did not know the full scope and scale of the problem until later which was reported roughly, again, October 24, which led to a hearing on October 26, which was the day before the court was supposed to rule on extending the certification.

As a reminder, this problem actually extends back to at least 2013. As I’ll eventually show, NSA obtained back door search authority in 2011 after a series of unauthorized back door searches, meaning they were just approving something that was already being done, just as this year’s opinion just approved searches that were going on in uncontrolled fashion.

Furthermore, while NSA surely informed the FISC of some of these problems along the way (otherwise I wouldn’t have known about them when I called them out last August), it did not deal with the ongoing problems in its application, which would have flagged an ongoing compliance problem of the magnitude shown even by the 2016 IG Report.

Morris’ claim that NSA’s IG reached some kind of conclusory decision between the first hearing on October 4 and the notice of the further problems on October 24 is dubious, given that the NSA said that follow-up study was still ongoing in a January 3 filing.

In anticipation of the January 31 deadline, the government updated the Court on these querying issues in the January 3, 2017 Notice. That Notice indicated that the IG’s follow-on study (covering the first quarter of 2016) was still ongoing.

As Collyer noted, at that point the NSA was still identifying all the systems implicated, notably finding queries that elude NSA’s query audit system.

It also appeared that NSA had not yet fully assessed the scope of the problem: the IG and OCO reviews “did not include systems through which queries are conducted of upstream data but that do not interface with NSA’s query audit system.” Id. at 3 n.6. Although NSD and ODNI undertook to work with NSA to identify other tools and systems in which NSA analysts were able to query upstream data, id., and the government proposed training and technical measures, it was clear to the Court that the issue was not yet fully scoped out.

Also at this point, NSA was “disclosing” the root cause of the problem as the same one identified back in 2013 and 2014, when NSA dismissed the possibility of a technical fix to the opt-out problem.

The January 3, 2017 Notice stated that “human error was the primary factor” in these incidents, but also suggested that system design issues contributed. For example, some systems that are used to query multiple datasets simultaneously required analysts to “opt-out” of querying Section 702 upstream Internet data rather than requiring an affirmative “opt-in,” which, in the Court’s view, would have been more conducive to compliance. See January 3, 2017 Notice at 5-6.

Ultimately, this chronology — and Morris’ unsatisfactory explanation for it — ought to raise real questions about what the bar is for the NSA declaring systems to be totally out of control, requiring immediate corrective action. I believe the NSA had reached that point on upstream searches at least by 2015. But it kept doing prohibited back door searches (which Collyer, because she’s the worst presiding FISC judge in recent memory, retroactively blessed) on abouts collection for another two years before the front end of about collection was shut down.

So perhaps the problem isn’t a lack of candor? Perhaps the problem is NSA can continue spying on entirely domestic communications for two years after identifying the problem before any fix is put in place?

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

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

James Clapper: Unmasking And/Or Jeff Sessions?

I’m traveling so I’ll have to lay out my thoughts about the Comey firing later.

But for the moment I want to point to a detail in Monday’s hearing that deserves more attention now.

Early in the hearing, Chuck Grassley asked both Sally Yates and James Clapper if they have ever unmasked a Trump associate or member of Congress. Yates said no, but Clapper revealed he had unmasked someone, but couldn’t say more.

GRASSLEY: OK. I want to discuss unmasking.

Mr. Clapper and Ms. Yates, did either of you ever request the unmasking of Mr. Trump, his associates or any member of Congress?

CLAPPER: Yes, in one case I did that I can specifically recall, but I can’t discuss it any further than that.

GRASSLEY: You can’t, so if I ask you for details, you said you can’t discuss that, is that what you said?

CLAPPER: Not — not here.

Grassley returned to the issue for clarification later on. Clapper said he had asked to have the identity of both a member of Congress and a Trump associate unmasked. But then he said he had only asked on one occasion.

GRASSLEY: Mr. Clapper, you said yes when I asked you if you ever unmasked a Trump associate or a member of Congress. But I forgot to ask, which was it? Was it a Trump associate, a member of Congress, or both?

CLAPPER: Over my time as DNI, I think the answer was on rare occasion, both. And, again, Senator, just to make the point here, my focus was on the foreign target and at the foreign target’s behavior in relation to the U.S. person.

GRASSLEY: OK. How many instances were there, or was there just one?

CLAPPER: I can only recall one.

Finally, Lindsey Graham returned to the issue at the close of the hearing. Clapper confirmed he had made a request to unmask a Trump associate and a member of Congress.

You made a request for unmasking on a Trump associate and maybe a member of Congress? Is that right, Mr. Clapper?

CLAPPER: Yes.

Obviously, there’s plenty of room for confusion in these exchanges, and Clapper has a history of sowing confusion in Congressional testimony.

But if it is true that he has only unmasked one person but that he has unmasked both a Trump associate and a member of Congress, it would suggest he unmasked the identity of a member of Congress who is a Trump associate.

If that’s right, there are several possibilities for who it could be: transition official Devin Nunes, national security advisor Richard Burr, and national security official Jeff Sessions.

But the most likely is Sessions, because we know he was talking to Sergey Kislyak and the intelligence community has pulled their collection on Kislyak.

Even if that’s the case, it’s unsurprising Sessions’ communications with Kislyak have been reviewed and unmasked.

Still, it is a data point from Monday’s hearing that makes Sessions’ role in the firing of Jim Comey worth noting.

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

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

One Takeaway from the Five Takeaways from the Comey Hearing: Election 2016 Continues to Suffocate Oversight

The Senate Judiciary Committee had an oversight hearing with Jim Comey yesterday, which I live-tweeted in great depth. As you can imagine, most of the questions pertained either to Comey’s handing of the Hillary investigation and/or to the investigation into Russian interference in the election. So much so that The Hill, in its “Five Takeaways from Comey’s testimony,” described only things that had to do with the election:

  • Comey isn’t sorry (but he was “mildly nauseous” that his conduct may have affected the outcome)
  • Emotions over the election are still raw
  • Comey explains DOJ dynamic: “I hope someday you’ll understand”
  • The FBI may be investigating internal leaks
  • Trump, Clinton investigations are dominating FBI oversight

The Hill’s description of that third bullet doesn’t even include the “news” from Comey’s statement: that there is some still-classified detail, in addition to Loretta Lynch’s tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton and the intercepted Hillary aide email saying Lynch would make sure nothing happened with the investigation, that led Comey to believe he had to take the lead on the non-indictment in July.

I struggled as we got closer to the end of it with the — a number things had gone on, some of which I can’t talk about yet, that made me worry that the department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation and declined prosecution without grievous damage to the American people’s confidence in the — in the justice system.

As I said, it is true that most questions pertained to Hillary’s emails or Russia. Still, reports like this, read primarily by people on the Hill, has the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy by obscuring what little real oversight happened. So here’s my list of five pieces of actual oversight that happened.

Neither Grassley nor Feinstein understand how FISA back door searches work

While they primarily focused on the import of reauthorizing Section 702 (and pretended that there were no interim options between clean reauthorization and a lapse), SJC Chair Chuck Grassley and SJC Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein both said things that made it clear they didn’t understand how FISA back door searches work.

At one point, in a discussion of the leaks about Mike Flynn’s conversation with Sergey Kislyak, Grassley tried to suggest that only a few people at FBI would have access to the unmasked identity in those intercepts.

There are several senior FBI officials who would’ve had access to the classified information that was leaked, including yourself and the deputy director.

He appeared unaware that as soon as the FBI started focusing on either Kislyak or Flynn, a back door search on the FISA content would return those conversations in unmasked form, which would mean a significant number of FBI Agents (and anyone else on that task force) would have access to the information that was leaked.

Likewise, at one point Feinstein was leading Comey through a discussion of why they needed to have easy back door access to communication content collected without a warrant (so we don’t stovepipe anything, Comey said), she said, “so you are not unmasking the data,” as if data obtained through a back door search would be masked, which genuinely (and rightly) confused Comey.

FEINSTEIN: So you are not masking the data — unmasking the data?

COMEY: I’m not sure what that means in this context.

It’s raw data. It would not be masked. That Feinstein, who has been a chief overseer of this program for the entire time back door searches were permitted doesn’t know this, that she repeatedly led the effort to defeat efforts to close the back door loophole, and that she doesn’t know what it means that this is raw data is unbelievably damning.

Incidentally, as part of the exchange wit Feinstein, Comey said the FISA data sits in a cloud type environment.

Comey claims the government doesn’t need the foreign government certificate except to target spies

Several hours into the hearing, Mike Lee asked some questions about surveillance. In particular, he asked if the targeting certificates for 702 ever targeted someone abroad for purposes unrelated to national security. Comey seemingly listed off the certificates we do have — foreign government, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation, noting that cyber gets worked into other ones.

LEE: Yes. Let’s talk about Section 702, for a minute. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act authorizes the surveillance, the use of U.S. signals surveillance equipment to obtain foreign intelligence information.

The definition includes information that is directly related to national security, but it also includes quote, “information that is relevant to the foreign affairs of the United States,” close quote, regardless of whether that foreign affairs related information is relevant to a national security threat. To your knowledge, has the attorney general or has the DNI ever used Section 702 to target individuals abroad in a situation unrelated to a national security threat?

COMEY: Not that I’m aware of. I think — I could be wrong, but I don’t think so, I think it’s confined to counterterrorism to espionage, to counter proliferation. And — those — those are the buckets. I was going to say cyber but cyber is fits within…

He said they don’t need any FG information except that which targets diplomats and spies.

LEE: Right. So if Section 702 were narrowed to exclude such information, to exclude information that is relevant to foreign affairs, but not relevant to a national security threat, would that mean that the government would be able to obtain the information it needs in order to protect national security?

COMEY: Would seem so logically. I mean to me, the value of 702 is — is exactly that, where the rubber hits the road in the national security context, especially counterterrorism, counter proliferation.

I assume that Comey said this because the FBI doesn’t get all the other FG-collected stuff in raw form and so isn’t as aware that it exists. I assume that CIA and NSA, which presumably use this raw data far more than FBI, will find a way to push back on this claim.

But for now, we have the FBI Director stating that we could limit 702 collection to national security functions, a limitation that was defeated in 2008.

Comey says FBI only needs top level URLs for ECTR searches

In another exchange, Lee asked Comey about the FBI’s continued push to be able to get Electronic Communication Transaction Records. Specifically, he noted that being able to get URLs means being able to find out what someone was reading.

In response, Comey said he thought they could only get the top-level URL.

After some confusion that revealed Comey’s lie about the exclusion of ECTRs from NSLs being just a typo, Comey said FBI did not need any more than the top domain, and Lee answered that the current bill would permit more than that.

LEE: Yes. Based on the legislation that I’ve reviewed, it’s not my recollection that that is the case. Now, what — what I’ve been told is that — it would not necessarily be the policy of the government to use it, to go to that level of granularity. But that the language itself would allow it, is that inconsistent with your understanding?

COMEY: It is and my understanding is we — we’re not looking for that authority.

LEE: You don’t want that authority…

(CROSSTALK)

COMEY: That’s my understanding. What — what we’d like is, the functional equivalent of the dialing information, where you — the address you e-mailed to or the — or the webpage you went to, not where you went within it.

This exchange should be useful for limiting any ECTR provision gets rushed through to what FBI claims it needs.

The publication of (US) intelligence information counts as intelligence porn and therefore not journalism

Ben Sasse asked Comey about the discussion of indicting Wikileaks. Comey’s first refusal to answer whether DOJ would indict Wikileaks led me to believe they already had.

I don’t want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending. He hasn’t been apprehended because he’s inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

But as part of that discussion, Comey explained that Wikileaks’ publication of loads of classified materials amounted to intelligence porn, which therefore (particularly since Wikileaks didn’t call the IC for comment first, even though they have in the past) meant they weren’t journalism.

COMEY: Yes and again, I want to be careful that I don’t prejudice any future proceeding. It’s an important question, because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press, to get information about our work and — and publish it.

To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly. Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting.

[snip]

[I]n my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’s activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. And — and — and people sometimes get cynical about journalists.

American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or — or innocent civilians anywhere in the world.

I’ll write about this more at length.

Relatedly (though technically a Russian investigation detail), Comey revealed that the investigation into Trump ties to Russia is being done at Main Justice and EDVA.

COMEY: Yes, well — two sets of prosecutors, the Main Justice the National Security Division and the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office.

That makes Dana Boente’s role, first as Acting Attorney General for the Russian investigation and now the Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security, all the more interesting, as it means he is the person who can make key approvals related to the investigation.

I don’t have any problem with him being chosen for these acting roles. But I think it supremely unwise to effectively eliminate levels of oversight on these sensitive cases (Russia and Wikileaks) by making the US Attorney already overseeing them also the guys who oversees his own oversight of them.

The US is on its way to becoming the last haven of shell corporations

Okay, technically these were Sheldon Whitehouse and Amy Klobuchar comments about Russia. But as part of a (typically prosecutorial) line of questioning about things related to the Russian investigation, Whitehouse got Comey to acknowledge that as the EU tries to crack down on shell companies, that increasingly leaves the US as the remaining haven for shell companies that can hide who is paying for things like election hacks.

WHITEHOUSE: And lastly, the European Union is moving towards requiring transparency of incorporations so that shell corporations are harder to create. That risks leaving the United States as the last big haven for shell corporations. Is it true that shell corporations are often used as a device for criminal money laundering?

COMEY: Yes.

[snip]

WHITEHOUSE: What do you think the hazards are for the United States with respect to election interference of continuing to maintain a system in which shell corporations — that you never know who’s really behind them are common place?

COMEY: I suppose one risk is it makes it easier for illicit money to make its way into a political environment.

WHITEHOUSE: And that’s not a good thing.

COMEY: I don’t think it is.

And Klobuchar addressed the point specifically as it relates to high end real estate (not mentioning that both Trump and Paul Manafort have been alleged to be involved in such transactions).

There have been recent concerns that organized criminals, including Russians, are using the luxury real estate market to launder money. The Treasury Department has noted a significant rise in the use of shell companies in real estate transactions, because foreign buyers use them as a way to hide their identity and find a safe haven for their money in the U.S. In fact, nearly half of all homes in the U.S. worth at least $5 million are purchased using shell companies.

Does the anonymity associated with the use of shell companies to buy real estate hurt the FBI’s ability to trace the flow of illicit money and fight organized crime? And do you support efforts by the Treasury Department to use its existing authority to require more transparency in these transactions?

COMEY: Yes and yes.

It’s a real problem, and not just because of the way it facilitates election hacks, and it’d be nice if Congress would fix it.

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

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

Grassley Continues to Ask Worthwhile Questions about the Steele Dossier

In this post, I noted several details made clear by Christopher Steele’s defense in a lawsuit pertaining to the dossier he did for opponents to Donald Trump:

  • Steele also shared his dossier with an active British intelligence official, which is a second channel via which the US intelligence community may have obtained the dossier in spite of their hilariously unconvincing denials
  • Steele’s claims he wasn’t sharing actual copies of the dossier with the press, at least, don’t accord with other public claims
  • Steele said absolutely nothing about how he shared the dossier with the FBI (which may have been an alternative channel via which it leaked)
  • Steele obtained the most inflammatory claims in the dossier at a time when he claims neither to have been paid nor to have been actively collecting intelligence (and paying sources)

Taken together, these inconsistencies suggest certain alternative stories about the dossier. For example, it’s possible the dossier was used as a way to launder intelligence gathered via other means, as a way to protect sources and methods. It’s likely the US IC had more awareness and involvement in the dossier than they’ve publicly claimed.

With that in mind, I find it very interesting that Chuck Grassley claims to have found inconsistencies in the story FBI and DOJ are giving him about the dossier.

As I noted at the time, Grassley raised some really good questions in a letter to FBI back on March 6, questions made all the more salient given three somewhat conflicting reports about whether the FBI ever paid Steele.

Yesterday, he held a presser to release another letter to FBI, which he sent last Friday. He explained that nine days after he sent his letter, Comey briefed him and Dianne Feinstein on the circumstances surrounding Mike Flynn’s ouster, and answered a few of the questions Grassley had asked in his March 6 letter. But FBI never did respond to the letter itself, beyond sending a four sentence boilerplate letter on April 19, claiming the questions had been answered in the briefing.

In the letter, Grassley makes clear that documents the committee received from DOJ since (are these not FBI? If so are they NSD?) conflict with what Comey relayed in the briefing in that FBI actually had a more substantive relationship than Comey let on.

There appear to be material inconsistencies between the description of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele that you did provide in your briefing and information contained in Justice Department documents made available to the Committee only after the briefing.  Whether those inconsistencies were honest mistakes or an attempt to downplay the actual extent of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele, it is essential that the FBI fully answer all of the questions from the March 6 letter and provide all the requested documents in order to resolve these and related issues.

Significantly, after having asked these questions about public reports that FBI had discussed paying Steele,

All FBI records relating to the agreement with Mr. Steele regarding his investigation of President Trump and his associates, including the agreement itself, all drafts, all internal FBI communications about the agreement, all FBI communications with Mr. Steele about the agreement, all FBI requests for authorization for the agreement, and all records documenting the approval of the agreement.

[snip]

Did the agreement with Mr. Steele ever enter into force?  If so, for how long?  If it did not, why not?

Grassley is restating that question, asking for documentation of all payments to Steele.

Documentation of all payments made to Mr. Steele, including for travel expenses, if any; the date of any such payments; the amount of such payments; the authorization for such payments.

He asked about it in today’s oversight hearing with Comey, and Comey insisted the appearance of conflict was easy to explain (and promised to explain it). I suspect DOJ may have paid for Steele’s travel to the US in October 2016, which might be fine, but that was also when Steele shared his dossier with David Corn. Otherwise, Comey refused to answer in a public forum questions about whether FBI made any representations to a judge relying on the dossier (for example for the FISA order), whether the FBI was aware that Steele paid sources who paid subsources, and whether Comey or the FBI knew that Fusion employed a former Russian intelligence officer who was (like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort) were serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, in this case to help Russia fight Magnitsky sanctions.

The last question pertains to Fusion employee, Rinat Akhmetshin. In July 2016, Hermitage Capital Management filed a FARA complaint against him and number of other people alleging they were unregistered lobbyists for Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus based firm that was seeking to push back against sanctions. The complaint alleges, among other things, that Akhmetshin is a former GRU officer, hired to generate negative publicity, and has been ” accused of organizing, on behalf of Russian oligarch Andrey Melnichenko, for the computers of International Mineral Resources to be hacked to steal “confidential, personal and otherwise sensitive information” so that it could be disseminated.”

Grassley surely raised the issue (as he also did in a March letter to Dana Boente in the latter’s role as Acting Attorney General) to accuse Steele’s associates of the same things Steele and others have accused Paul Manafort of (and Mike Flynn has admitted). But it seems an utterly valid issue in any case, not least because it raises questions of why Fusion brought in Steele when Akhmetshin could have collected Russian intelligence on Trump himself. Did he? If so, was that included in the parts of the dossier we haven’t seen. More importantly, was Akhmetshin still around when the dossier got leaked? Does he have any ongoing ties with Russia that might lead to the murder of sourced named in the dossier?

In today’s hearing, Grassley said that Fusion refused to cooperate with the questions he posed to them about the dossier. It seems the firms paid to compile that dossier are obfuscating on both sides of the Atlantic.

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

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

BBC’s FISA Reporter Argues CIA Should Lead Trump Investigation

Paul Wood is the BBC reporter who, in a January story focusing largely on MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s dossier, repeated the Louise Mensch report that the government had obtained a FISA order targeting two Russian banks.

On 15 October, the US secret intelligence court issued a warrant to investigate two Russian banks. This news was given to me by several sources and corroborated by someone I will identify only as a senior member of the US intelligence community. He would never volunteer anything – giving up classified information would be illegal – but he would confirm or deny what I had heard from other sources.

Last night he posted another story, confirming that one of the figures described in Steele’s dossier as having been withdrawn from DC because of his close ties to the election operation, Mikhail Kalugin, was indeed a Russian spy operating under diplomatic cover.

[S]ources I know and trust have told me the US government identified Kalugin as a spy while he was still at the embassy.

[snip]

A retired member of a US intelligence agency told me that Kalugin was being kept under surveillance before he left the US.

But I’m more interested in the vague details Wood offers about Steele’s past cooperation — and how he pitches a claim that the FBI is screwing up the investigation.

Remember: the public story is that only the FBI had any contact with Steele. But the first time this article describes him sharing information he collected for other sources with US intelligence agencies, it doesn’t specify that.

I understand – from former officials – that from 2013-16, Steele gave the US government extensive information on Russia and Ukraine.

This was work done for private clients, but which Steele wanted the US authorities to see.

One former senior official who saw these reports told me: “It was found to be of value by the people whose job it was to look at Russia every day.

Indeed, the article distinguishes between what those agencies believed about Steele from what the FBI did.

In light of his earlier work, the US intelligence community saw him as “credible” (their highest praise).

The FBI thought the same; they had worked with Steele going back to his days in MI6.

The article goes on to complain that Steele never briefed the CIA on the dossier, which it explains by saying his Russian related contacts had moved on.

But the CIA never interviewed him, and never sought to.

This comes from several people who are in a position to know.

[snip]

I understand that Steele himself did not ask to brief the CIA because he had a long-standing relationship with the FBI.

The Russia people at the CIA had moved on and he felt he did not have the personal contacts he would need.

As a reminder, the Intelligence Community offered completely ridiculous explanations for when it first obtained the dossier, which were implausible, even ignoring the way they pretended FBI wasn’t part of the IC.

In any case, having laid out these distinctions, the article then voices the complaints of those who believe the FBI is screwing the investigation up, and that only CIA has the contacts to conduct it.

This comes from several people who are in a position to know.

They are alarmed at how the investigation is going, and worry it is being fumbled.

One said: “The FBI doesn’t know about Russia, the CIA knows about Russia.

“Any sources Steele has in Russia, the FBI doesn’t know how to evaluate.

“The Agency does… Who’s running this thing from Moscow? The FBI just aren’t capable on that side, of even understanding what Chris has.”

The article cites one reason this complaint is bogus — the CIA, along with other agencies, are part of the task force investigating this case. It doesn’t explain why the theory voiced by its sources — that the Russians would need to steal voter roll data from states (or even cooperate with Trump) to micro-target messages. Voter rolls are readily available. And while cooperating with Trump’s campaign would make micro-targeting more effective, it would not be necessary for a knowledgable person.

In any case, these complaints sound like the excuses given for why Steele did not, ultimately, take payment from FBI (which I discussed here), with one difference. It wasn’t just that Steele thought the FBI was paying too much attention on Hillary’s email campaign, but he thought publicizing his dossier would make the difference in the election.

“He really thought that what he had would sway the election,” said one.

That claim, with questions introduced by this article about which agencies he has worked with, is rather interesting.

One final point. After the article got posted, the Beeb took out a critical line (highlighted below) claiming that Steele didn’t share his dossier with reporters himself, but instead did so through his employer.

That doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons — and is belied by David Corn’s account of what happened. But I find it particularly interesting given the fact that — after Chuck Grassley first asked the FBI to provide information on the dossier — Grassley has since asked the consulting firm questions that would provide a way to double check the FBI’s claims. Fusion’s answers, which are due by April 7, might present problems for this claim, which has since disappeared. Poof!

Among the things Richard Burr suggested yesterday is that the committee may not succeed in getting Steele to testify (suggesting that being outside the country put him beyond subpoena). Given the airing of complaints from Steele and his friends here, I really look forward to seeing whether he cooperates with SSCI.

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

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

The Feedback Loop in Christopher Steele’s Dossier

Last week, at least three media outlets have provided new details about the relationship between former MI6 officer Christopher Steele — the author of the Trump dossier — and the FBI. First WaPo reported that Steele had reached a verbal agreement that the FBI would pay him to continue his investigation of Russia’s involvement with Trump after still unnamed Democrats stopped paying him after the election. CNN then reported that FBI actually had paid Steele for his expenses. Finally, NBC reported Steele backed out of the deal before it was finalized. Chuck Grassley just sent a letter to Jim Comey asking for more information about the proposed arrangement with Steele.

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Grassley’s questions

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

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

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

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

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