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

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

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

Consider the timeline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interesting exhibits are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments:

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

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

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

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

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

19 transactions pertaining to 8 law firms

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

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

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

8 transactions probably associated with Beacon

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

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

12 credits probably associated with a media outlet, possibly  Yahoo

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

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

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

Business A transactions

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

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

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

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

Business B transactions

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

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

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

Journalist (and other) transactions

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

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

Then there is this:

  • Transaction 66, a payment dated December 12

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

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

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

Senator Feinstein Confirms the Public Steele Dossier Is Not the Whole Thing

For something else, I’m rewatching the confirmation hearing for Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. (at 1:55)

Feinstein: Before you go on, do you have the whole dossier?

Benczkowski: I read the dossier online as it was published on BuzzFeed [raises two fingers]

Feinstein: The whole dossier is not online.

Benczkowski: The only thing that I have done, Senator, in that regard, was read the two pages as to Alfa Bank.

Feinstein: You have not seen the whole dossier?

Benczkowski: I have not.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had, by this point, been investigating the Steele Dossier for months (though this question preceded the Glenn Simpson testimony by a month). This is the classic Feinstein hearing disclosure, and past history suggests it would be accurate.

Which is to say what we’re seeing is just a fraction of the dossier — which is a point I’ve been making from the start (it also means the balance of the dossier may be more sensitive). It also means that someone made cherry picked the reports to first brief and then ultimately to leak to the press, which itself should be an issue for inquiry.

 

On the Lawfare over the Steele Dossier

October 25: For those looking for “Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier, a Long Essay,” it’s here; I screwed up the link.

Say, did you know that Christopher Steele and his company, Orbis Business Intelligence, claim that Fusion GPS, the US-based intelligence firm that hired him to collect dirt on Donald Trump, did not share that dirt with its clients?

Steele’s curious claims made from the comfort of the UK

That’s the rather improbable claim made in a May 18 filing in the British lawsuit Webzilla CEO Alexej Gubarev filed against Steele and his company in the UK. In response to questions about who was contractually prohibited from disclosing Steele’s reports, Steele claimed that while Fusion was permitted to share the information he gave them with their clients, they did not.

In relation to the pre-election memoranda the duty not to disclose intelligence to third parties without the prior agreement of [Steele and his company, Orbis] did not extend to disclosure by Fusion to its client(s), although the Defendants understand that copies of the memoranda were not disclosed by Fusion to its client(s).

In response to a follow-up question on whether Fusion’s clients were allowed to disclose any reports they got, Steele claimed that Fusion’s clients weren’t supposed to release the information.

[Steele and his company] understood that the arrangement between Fusion and its client(s) was that intelligence would not be disclosed.

Yet, in spite of the claim that Fusion never shared Steele’s intelligence reports with its clients, Steele admits that he gave off the record briefings, in one form or another, to reporters from six different American outlets.

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. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person. In addition, and again at Fusion’s instruction, in late October 2016 [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype. No copies of the pre-election memoranda were ever shown or provided to any journalists by, or with the authorization of, the Defendants. The briefings involved the disclosure of limited intelligence regarding indications of Russian interference in the US election process and the possible co-ordination of members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian government officials.

So the folks footing the bill for all this never saw the reports they paid for, and if you believe Steele no reporters ever actually looked at the dossier. Steele makes no mention (in a lawsuit in the UK targeting just him, not Fusion GPS) of the evolving claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Steele’s claim that he wasn’t sharing the dossier itself is dubious for several reasons. For example, the defense makes no mention of Steele sharing the dossier with the FBI, in spite of multiple reports of him doing so.

More damning, one of the reporters with whom the dossier was shared before the election, BBC’s Paul Wood, has changed a published story about receiving the dossier on two occasions. The original story appeared like this.

Sometime between the original publication and 14:06 GMT, the paragraph claiming the American oppo research company, Fusion, disseminated the document was removed from the story.

Then, by 15:32 GMT — roughly 20 minutes after I did a post noting the first change — that passage was again changed, this time to suggest the pages were shown, but not given, to journalists.

I’ve been told second-hand that actual pages were given, not shown, to at least one journalist, suggesting the middle story may be the accurate one. Moreover, the actual dossier would have had to have been shared for James Clapper’s claim that the dossier “was widely circulated … among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff ” to be true.

Note, too, that in an April declaration, Steele claimed that the briefings took place in “late summer/autumn 2016;” while those briefings took place before September 23, that’s only late summer if you’re fairly strict about when the equinox falls.

Suffice it to say, I don’t find Steele’s claims that persuasive. Which may be why he tried to challenge Gubarev’s efforts — in his US lawsuit against Buzzfeed — to obtain a deposition. The judge in that suit denied Steele’s request, though Steele can still challenge the request in the UK, where he’ll likely get a far friendlier reception.

Let me interrupt and suggest the Russians — and probably the most partisan Republicans — know who’s behind Steele’s dossier. By all appearances Russian interests are fighting a multi-front legal effort to force those details out in public, on top of any damage it does to Buzzfeed.

In the suit against Steele in the UK, Steele has basically explained he disseminated the December 13 memo — which is the one that mentions Webzilla and so is the only one that matters in that suit — to just two people: a hard copy to a senior UK government official (believed to be someone at MI6), and an encrypted copy to Fusion to pass on to John McCain via a Senior Director of McCain’s Institute for International Leadership, David Kramer. Steele admits his instructions that the last report remain classified were given over a secure phone call, not in writing. Steele admits giving off-the-record briefings (though not to BuzzFeed), but not the materials themselves, on the earlier reports, but not the December 13 one. In any case, given that BuzzFeed was not one of those outlets, Steele argues he can’t be held responsible for any defamation of Webzilla in the UK. Steele also emphasizes that the December 13 memo “did not represent (and did not purport to represent) verified facts, but were raw intelligence which had identified a range of allegations that further investigation.” And since the December 13 memo was produced for free, from intelligence “not actively sought, … merely received,” Steele doesn’t have to reveal who paid for the other reports, which don’t mention Webzilla.

Barring greymail, the Florida suit permits Webzilla to compare Steele’s answers with Fusion’s

That’s all well and good, but in its Florida suit, Webzilla is pursuing a deposition from Fusion GPS as well as Steele (curiously, the joint status report says nothing about deposing McCain or Kramer).

For its part, Buzzfeed appears to be pursuing a graymail defense. Around July 7, Buzzfeed sent subpoenas to a bunch of national security witnesses who are not going to want to testify.

Six weeks ago, Defendants  served subpoenas for depositions and the production of documents on several third party witnesses, including several government agencies and their former officials. These include the FBI, DOJ, ODNI, CIA, and James Comey, James Clapper, and John Brennan.

Particularly Comey and the FBI are likely to invoke ongoing investigations to refuse to give a deposition.

Still, comparing the stories of Steele and Fusion may produce some discomfort, all the more so if Webzilla succeeds in making Steele attest to the things he said in the UK in the US.

Fusion was far less cooperative with the Senate Judiciary Committee than made out

Which brings us to efforts in Congress. As I’ve said before, I think Chuck Grassley’s efforts to understand Fusion’s role in the dossier are good faith efforts. While a key focus of that is on Steele’s relationship with the FBI, Grassley fought for five months to get Fusion to cooperate with the Committee, which Fusion head Glenn Simspon finally did in a 10 hour August 22 interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee (See release 1, release 2, release 3, hearing statement 1, release 4, release 5, hearing statement 2, release 6 for Grassley’s efforts). Democrats — apparently led by Rachel Maddow — made much about the appearance. But the main outcome was nothing more than a carefully crafted statement for the benefit of Fusion’s clients assuring them Simpson hadn’t revealed their names.

While Simpson’s attorney said his client provided significant details about his firm’s findings, he did not reveal the identities of those who paid for his research.

Simpson “kept the identities of Fusion GPS’ clients confidential,” Levy said in his statement. “Fusion GPS represents businesses, individuals and, occasionally, political clients on both the right and the left. When those clients want Fusion GPS to keep their identities confidential, Fusion GPS honors that commitment without exception – just as law firms and businesses do all over the country.”

A Grassley staffer offered a very different take than the celebratory one Democrats claimed to Fox News’ Catherine Herridge.

“Fusion’s initial production of documents consisted of solely of headlines from publicly available news reports and more than 7,500 pages of blank paper,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said. “Fusion eventually provided a copy of the same unverified dossier that’s been publicly available since January, and a privilege log that raises more questions than it answers.”

Fox reported this week that Fusion GPS gave the committee 40,000 documents.

The records were finally provided by Simpson and his legal team after Grassley sent several letters raising questions about the dossier, moved a Judiciary Committee hearing to accommodate Simpson’s schedule, and withdrew a subpoena in return for a pledge of cooperation.

“I’d note that only after the subpoena did Simpson indicated any willingness to cooperate voluntarily, yet the documents produced by his legal team have not been responsive to the committee’s questions,” Foy said.

Effectively, Fusion is still refusing to cooperate, over five months after Grassley’s first request.

The other notable development from Congress is Devin Nunes’ efforts — even as people who haven’t recused from the Russian investigation are trying to negotiate an interview with Steele — to search out the spy directly. He sent two staffers to London to try to contact Steele, without informing the people on the House Intelligence Committee who are actually supposed to be conducting an investigation.

After getting Steele to commit to one Webzilla suit, Alfa sued

As noted, on May 18 effectively Steele made a set of claims in the UK that — while sketchy — nevertheless would bracket off questions about the circumstances of the larger dossier’s production by claiming that the last report, the one pertinent to Webzilla, basically had a virgin birth.

Which is why I find the timing of this suit — a  May 26 lawsuit by Alfa Bank against BuzzFeed — so interesting. As I noted here, the September 14 Steele dossier report on Alfa Bank isn’t all that damning. It alleges Alfa did some corrupt stuff for Putin back when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg. Particularly given that report has nothing to do with Trump directly, I suspect the report appears in the dossier because of the allegations of weird communications between a Trump marketing server and the bank; the allegations had already been shared with the FBI and were beginning to be shared with journalists at about precisely that moment.

The suit nods to such a theory without mentioning it directly.

More than one defamatory meaning can be drawn from this passage. It suggests that Alfa and Messrs. Fridman and Aven use their knowledge of past bribery of President Putin as a means of criminally extorting continuing favorable treatment for their business interests from his government. Within the context ofthe entire Dossier, it also implies that Alfa and its three officials willingly maintain the close relationship with
President Putin based on the “kompromat” they hold on him by cooperating in some unspecified way in the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere in the U.S. election.

At the same time, in context, the whole of CIR 112 can also be understood to suggest that because oftheir past (and possibly current) relationship involving mutually beneficial corrupt practices, Alfa and its three officials are required to do President Putin’s bidding, which includes cooperating in the Kremlin efforts to influence the outcome of the recent U.$. election. The statements quoted from the Dossier are false

But one of the real points of the lawsuit is not just that Buzzfeed published the dossier, but called out Alfa bank, correcting its spelling, even while acknowledging that the spelling indicated an error.

The Article specifically refers to Alfa as having been named in the Dossier, while acknowledging that the Dossier “is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors. The [Dossier] misspells the name of one company, ‘Alpha Group,’ throughout. It is Alfa Group.”

The Article, by explicitly referring to Alfa, increases the likelihood that persons interested in Alfa (including but not limited to government intelligence officials, regulatory authorities, financial institutions, print and online news media and journalists) would search the Dossier to find out what it says about Alfa.

In any case, because this report was part of the dossier before it got shared with journalists, and because it was among the reports paid for by yet-unknown sources, Alfa will have cause to ask all about those details — details which Steele worked so hard to hide with the sketchy story he told in the UK. And Alfa filed the suit just a week after Steele committed to those facts in the UK.

Even aside from the timing, however, the background to the suit is worth mention.

It came out as part of the confirmation process for Trump transition official and former Jeff Sessions staffer Brian Benczkowski to be Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Criminal Division. Days before his confirmation, he sent Chuck Grassley letters revealing that not only had his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, confidentially represented Alfa bank, but he personally had overseen one of the investigations into the weird communications data. It came out later that he also consulted on Alfa’s plan to sue Buzzfeed.

Dianne Feinstein described at length why she considered this problematic, particularly given Benczkowski’s refusal to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation and any cases involving Alfa Bank.

I very much appreciate that Mr. Benczkowski has agreed to speak publicly about his work for Alfa Bank and I think it’s an important topic to understand given the position he’s been nominated for.

As I understand it, Mr. Benczkowski participated in President Trump’s transition team from September of last year to January of this year. He led the transition team’s work at the Justice Department, which is now led by his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mr. Benczkowski told the committee that the retention of former FBI Director James Comey was discussed by those on the transition team, including himself.

In March, within two months of leaving the transition team, Mr. Benczkowski agreed to represent Alfa Bank.

Specifically, his work for Alfa Bank went to the heart of the reported investigations. He worked with a computer forensics firm to determine any ties between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, and also whether and how private server information had gotten out of the ban.

Additionally, he reviewed the “Steele dossier,” a private investigator’s file on alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He did this for Alfa Bank to consider suing Buzz Feed for defamation over their online publication of the dossier. Alfa Bank, in fact, did sue Buzz Feed on May 26 of this year.

In April, while Mr. Benczkowski was working for Alfa Bank, Attorney General Sessions’s chief of staff asked him about his interest in leading the Criminal Division.

Mr. Benczkowski’s law firm then notified Alfa Bank of his potential nomination for the Trump administration. But the fact that Mr. Benczkowski continued representing Alfa Bank, until the day of his nomination, which was June 6, raises questions. After he found out about his potential nomination, why did he continue his representation of Alfa Bank?

It is clear to me that Mr. Benczkowski is knowledgeable about issues related to an ongoing investigation. So I asked before this hearing if he would commit himself to recusing—not only from cases involving Alfa Bank as his former client, but also matters within Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.

He would not commit to recusing himself. I’m concerned with his refusal, especially given the position for which he has been nominated.

In other words, days before he got the offer to oversee all criminal investigations in the country, Alfa had sued Buzzfeed (though a different firm is representing Alfa in the suit. Benczkowski’s nomination hasn’t been considered in any of the confirmation votes the committee has considered since.

The lawsuit, even more than Nunes’ free-lance efforts in London, seems like an attempt to expose highly inconvenient information about the dossier.

It’s all perfectly legal. But taken altogether, it’s clear that some really well-connected businesses run by Russians are using British and US courts to try to expose information they all seem to know exists.

Remember: the Russians learned about this dossier by October 31, if not before. There are real questions about the provenance of the document as leaked to Buzzfeed. There are real questions about whether some of the material in it wasn’t offered to Steele’s sources as deliberate disinformation — something recently floated by British spy historian Ben Macintyre.

S.L.Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

B.M. I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

Particularly given that the last report in the dossier came out after its existence became known, it would have been especially easy to include disinformation that can now be exploited for this campaign of lawfare.

And while Buzzfeed’s graymail is likely to be effective and Steele’s deposition in the US is in no way assured, thus far the lawfare has revealed a lot of data that doesn’t really make sense.

Update: WashEx reports the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed FBI and DOJ for information on the dossier and, having not gotten a response, has now also subpoeaned Christopher Wray and Jeff Sessions (who of course should be recused).

The committee issued the subpoenas — one to the FBI, an identical one to the Justice Department — on August 24, giving both until last Friday, September 1, to turn over the information.

Neither FBI nor Justice turned over the documents, and now the committee has given them an extension until September 14 to comply.

Illustrating the seriousness with which investigators view the situation, late Tuesday the committee issued two more subpoenas, specifically to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing them to appear before the committee to explain why they have not provided the subpoenaed information.

The subpoenas are the result of a months-long process of committee investigators requesting information from the FBI and Justice Department. Beginning in May, the committee sent multiple letters to the FBI and Justice requesting information concerning the Trump-Russia affair.

I actually have no problems with the questions Congress is asking about the dossier (though I do think Mueller’s investigation should be given deference, if he asks for it). What’s funny, though, is that none of the committees are asking CIA and ODNI for more information on when they learned about the dossier. As I’ve noted their answers about it have been laughable, to put it charitably. But that might risk committing oversight.

Timeline

February 3: Webzilla and Alexej Gubarev sue Buzzfeed

March 27: Grassley first submits questions to Fusion

April, unknown date: Sessions Chief of Staff inquires about Benczkowski’s interest in serving as Assistant Attorney General

April 3: Steele Defence in UK Webzilla suit

May 18: Steele’s response to claimants request for further information

May 22: Ursula Ungaro denies BuzzFeed request to move suit to NYC in US Webzilla suit

May 26: Alfa Bank sues Buzzfeed in NY

June 6: Brian Benczkowski offered Assistant Attorney General position

July 19-21: Kirkland & Ellis disclose Benczkowski’s ties to Alfa bank

July 25: Benczkowski confirmation hearing

August 10: Ungaro requests UK require Steele provide a deposition in this case

August 10: Steele fights deposition request in US Webzilla suit

August 15: Ungaro denies Steele request

August 22: Glenn Simpson submits to 10 hour transcribed interview with Senate Judiciary Committee

August 24: HPSCI subpoenas FBI and DOJ for information on dossier

September 14: Extended deadline for FBI and DOJ to comply with HPSCI subpoena