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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Three *More* Things: Tarsmacked, Shuffled and Screwed?

I resent all to hell that we are forking over a metric crap ton of tax dollars every weekend for his Golden Golf Hackness to hang out at one of his courses. This weekend, though, I’d make an exception — and of course, he drags his feet getting out of town, making trouble on the way.

~ 3 ~

You’ve no doubt heard that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus resigned or quit, depending on which source you read and when. Scuttlebutt says Trump was pissed that Priebus didn’t push back at Scaramucci after the profanity-laced interview with Ryan Lizza. Other scuttlebutt says Scaramucci is actually Jared and Ivanka’s minion; he’s so vulgar and cold he fits in anywhere in Team Trump. So bloody hard to keep the players straight; where’s self-sucking Bannon in all this?

Anyhow, apparently His Imminently Golf Hackness tweeted his pink slip from the door of Air Force One.

And Priebusly-of-West-Wing was left on the tarmac without a ride.

Jesus Christ, how mother freaking cold and rude, the only guy who really kept Trump looking like a legitimate member of the GOP, tossed like an empty KFC bag.

Priebus, who is rumored to be the only staffer who didn’t sign one of Team Trump’s non-disclosure agreements, hasn’t figured out he doesn’t have to suck up any longer.

I hate that these sloppy mean girls occupying the White House make me feel sorry for that schmuck Priebus.

~ 2 ~

And His Imminently Golf Hackness nominated current DHS director John Kelly as the new White House chief of staff.

Kelly has peeved off some senators; I supposed taking on role of chief fly swatter will be nothing in comparison to his failure to disclose his relationship to military contractors.

Rumor: Kelly is being moved to CoS to make way for Sessions as DHS director, which in turn leaves the AG’s position open for a new nominee willing to fire Mueller.

Oh hell, no.

~ 1 ~

Latest buzz is that McCain’s vote YES on the Motion to Proceed earlier in week set up the actual failure of H.R. 1628 Health Care Freedom Act vote last night.

The analysis was posted at Reddit, of all places.

… The thing is, the Senate can only consider one budget reconciliation bill per topic per year. Of course, if the bill dies in committee and never comes to an official vote, it doesn’t count- which is why they’ve been able to keep hammering away at the issue.

This bill, though, was allowed to come to the Senate floor, because the Republicans thought they’d secured the votes. Collins, Murkowski and the Democrats would vote no, everyone else would vote yes, and Pence would break the tie. And then McCain completely fucked them. And it was almost certainly a calculated move; he voted to allow the bill to come to the floor. Had McCain allowed it to die in committee, McConnell could have come back with yet another repeal bill; but he let it come to a vote, and now they can’t consider another budget reconciliation bill for the rest of the fiscal year. The Senate needs 60 votes to pass any kind of healthcare reform now. …

Which opens up a whole mess of questions if this is really what happened…

Did John McCain plan to screw Trumpcare by himself, or was this staged to save the Senate GOP caucus face as I speculated earlier today?

If he had help staging this, who else was in on it? “Yertle” McConnell, who is acting pouty and butt-hurt? If McConnell was in on it, then he deserved a nomination for an acting award.

And was this a final Fuck You to Heel-Spurs-in-Chief, who disrespected McCain’s service and time as a POW?

I can’t help it; I hope it was payback. And I hope this buys more time to build real fixes for ACA until a Democratic majority can take back Congress.

UPDATE — 12:11 P.M. EDT —
Yep, too good to be true. @Celeste_P says nope. Maverick wasn’t super-maverick after all. It was fun to imagine while the illusion lasted.

~ 0 ~

It’s the weekend, finally. Hope somebody is lost longer than usual in the rough. Open bar, open thread. Behave and drive safely.

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

Three Things: In the Debris Field After Health Care ‘Freedom’ Act

I still don’t have enough caffeine in my system and it’s nearly noon here. An entire pot of java may do the trick. As I rouse and read the hot takes after the failure of H.R. 1628 last night, a few thoughts stick with me.

~ 3 ~

All the think pieces — most written by white men lauding John McCain’s maverick move by departing from the party line — are evidence ‘the show’ worked.
McCain called it that when asked before the vote last night which way he was going. “Watch the show,” he said.

Meanwhile, the two women senators who have been firm all along they couldn’t vote for a bill causing damage to their constituents receive far fewer plaudits from the same mostly-white-male pundit class. Murkowski had been threatened by the Interior Secretary at Trump’s request. I haven’t heard for certain, but I’ll bet Collins received threats as well, probably from Trump-supporting constituents.

McCain won’t get those kinds of threats. He made his point last night about the power he wields within GOP Senate caucus as the final A/B switch on legislation. But the GOP Senate already knew this.

What McCain did was give the GOP a face-saving way to vote for a piece of shit they didn’t want to pass, without the repercussions Collins and Murkowski (and at varying times, Heller and Capito) have faced for rejecting a POS bill.

This is why they waited until the last goddamned minute to draft a meager eight-pages, slapping in some egregious stuff to ensure Collins and Murkowski couldn’t vote, adding the 20% annual premium increase as a coup de grace.

Because McCain would do the maverick kabuki for them, slap on his mask and robes, make big gestures and kill the bill for them.

And it worked not only because all the white male pundit class got suckered by their usual privileged blindness, but the white male Tweeter-in-Chief bought it, hook, line, sinker. He blamed all the Democrats and three GOP senators. All the other senators are off the hook.

Bonus: McCain’s legacy is salvaged with the patriarchal punditry.

Great ‘show’, maverick.

~ 2 ~

Scaramucci is nothing more than a highly-animated automaton on a stage; nothing he says is real. Why? Because the real communications are being run out of house by Steve Bannon, and likely in violation of federal law.

What is it and to whom is Bannon really communicating for the White House?
This operation may be in violation of the Antideficiency Act, but is it also in violation of the Presidential Records Act? What about any other regulations regarding FOIA?

Don’t believe me about Scaramucci’s role? Take a look at your news feed and point to any announcement about his firing or resignation. You know damned well had a communications director acted like he has under any other previous administration he’d have been walked out the White House’s fence.

p.s. Some say Scaramucci’s lowering discourse. Come the fuck on. He talks the way all of Wall Street’s white males do. The misogynist crack about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance? Par for the course.

~ 1 ~

Recommended lunch hour read for you: a book review by Andrew Bacevich in London Review of Books on The General v. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands. Bacevich’s background here.

Putting this book on my shopping list after this review, given how much power Trump has given and is likely to give to the military, breaking with civilian control.

~ 0 ~

That’s it for now. I’m stewing on something else but it’ll be dedicated and not an open thread like this one. Hasta pasta.

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

McCain’s Brain Versus American Lives and Healthcare

There is no joy here in the Mudville that is Arizona. John McCain may have been somebody that natives like me disfavored from the start because of his hubristic usurpation of a true legend and son of Arizona, John Rhodes, but no one here wanted this.

Not now. Not ever.

So the “press” such as they may be, can run all their blathering hagiographies. Go run with that. It’s what you do, isn’t it?

But, for now, thankfully, McCain is alive and well. I am thankful for that.

And, I hope, at this critical juncture in life, John McCain finds it within himself to realize that the healthcare that has kept him alive, and diagnosed his problems, should NOT be limited to Congresspeople and those that married into money. We all deserve the benefit of what McCain has realized.

John McCain has an opportunity to stand up now for those that have none of his storied display of heroism, nor the benefit of his position. His story, because Mr. McCain was born into military care and then segued into other money and entitlement that does not transfer to most of us. For the common citizens he has always talked about, yet curiously abandoned, when it counted in close measures on the Senate floor, where has John McCain been? Absent, that is where.

The man who lived under the press moniker “Maverick” can ride into the famous sunset of his adopted state by helping real people instead of going out with the McConnell Republicans determined to screw the populous. Who will John McCain be?

Who will John McCain be? The elusive and etherial “Maverick” he has always painted himself as being? Or the reliable vote for craven Republican policies that devastate real citizens? Arizona, indeed America itself, deserves the McCain always portrayed and lionized in his numerous campaigns. Not the guy who always defaulted to the GOP sick and craven core.

Will John McCain have the guts and glory he is famous for, and go out fighting for the common American and their human rights to healthcare and financial and educational stability? The exact things McCain has fatuously blabbered about and never really supported in Congress? Or will he do better?

Who are you truly John McCain? A dying country, in the age of Trump, wants to know.

You have a chance to now be the man you always painted yourself to be. For the sake of this country, please be that man.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

The Virgin Birth of the Most Inflammatory Trump Dossier Claims

In a response to Alexsej Gubarev’s British libel lawsuit, Christopher Steele has submitted a defense making certain claims about the dossier on Trump he reportedly did for Trump’s opponents. (Washington Times published the filing along with this story.) The defense provides some limited information on the dossier, while remaining entirely silent about known details.

The defense provides further explanation of how Steele came to share the dossier with John McCain. Sir Andrew Wood is an Associate of Steele’s firm, which is how he knew about the dossier. At an undated meeting between Wood and John McCain and his associate David Kramer, Wood told the Americans about the dossier. That piqued McCain’s interest, so Kramer met with Steele in Surrey on November 28. After Kramer returned to DC, he arranged to get a hard copy of the dossier for McCain, and requested that “any further intelligence gathered by the Defendants about alleged Russian interference in the US Presidential election” be provided to him on behalf of McCain.

Steele denies he shared the dossier with journalists

Of critical importance, to substantiate a claim that he wasn’t spreading the document all over creation, Steele states,

The Defendants did not, however, provide any of the pre-election memoranda to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so. Nor did they provide the confidential December memorandum to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so.

[snip]

[Steele] gave off the record briefings to a small number of journalists about the pre-election memoranda in late summer/autumn 2016.

I find the claim rather suspicious.

The changing (BBC) story about how it got (shown) the Steele dossier

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.

Steele’s free report based off unsolicited intelligence

All that pertains to the dossier, generally, though. It’s actually irrelevant to the lawsuit, since Gubarev is suing over claims made in the last report, dated December 13 (see this post for why that date is important).

Here’s what Steele claims about that last report.

The Defendants continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election and the conclusion of the assignment for Fusion.

After receiving some such intelligence [Steele] prepared the confidential December memorandum, … on his own initiative on or around 13 December 2016.

[snip]

Accordingly, [Steele] provided a copy of the December memorandum to:

a. A senior UK government national security official acting in his official capacity, on a confidential basis in hard copy form; and

b. Fusion, by enciphered email with an instruction to Fusion to provide a hard copy to Sen. McCain via Mr Kramer.

Nowhere in this defense does Steele specify when he gave McCain the dossier, aside from sometime after November 28. Presumably it was on or before December 9, when McCain reportedly handed the dossier over to the FBI (though McCain was a bit sketchier about when he got and handed on the dossier and — very significantly — doesn’t describe doing so twice).

Steele does confirm he also shared the dossier with “a senior UK government national security official,” which is another way the US intelligence community might have gotten the dossier they shared with Trump before BuzzFeed leaked it, contrary to their utterly ridiculous claims to have been the last to know of it.

In any case, the timeline suggests that, after sources started leaking aggressively about Putin affirmatively trying to elect Trump on December 9 (even as Obama called for a review of the intelligence), Steele all of a sudden got new intelligence (or, less plausibly, decided to write down the intelligence he had before he sent McCain the dossier but hadn’t written up).

Multiple reports have said that Steele was working for free in that period. Apparently, too, the sources that Steele had been paying up to this point decided they would provide unsolicited intelligence.

Did they get paid, either?

The virgin birth of the most inflammatory claims

And this is all very interesting because — as I have noted before — this last brief includes three far more inflammatory claims than Steele had ever provided before.

First, as part of the claims Gubarev is suing over, Steele claimed he had been told that in addition to using botnets to “transmit viruses, plant bugs, and steal data,” (which sounds nothing like what allegedly actually happened in the hack), XBT also conducted “altering operations,” a suggestion that Russia was tampering with data rather than just stealing it.

Second, whereas earlier reporting on Michael Cohen’s role had been more vague, this report described him discussing “deniable cash payments to the hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign.” That is, the dossier made far stronger claims that Trump’s team had discussed the hack itself, rather than making quid pro quo deals to alter US policy.

Finally, and most importantly, Steele’s “unsolicited” intelligence claimed that Trump had paid the hackers.

On payments, IVANOV’s associate said that the operatives involved had been paid by both TRUMP’s team and the Kremlin, though their orders and ultimate loyalty lay with IVANOV.

This is the report that wraps up all the allegations in a neat little bow, setting up the impeachment of Trump, and it came unsolicited after the spooks were upping the pressure on McCain.

Right wing outlets are (rightly) making much of the fact that Steele claimed the intelligence “needed to be analysed and further investigated/verified.” But I’m just as struck by the rather neat claim that by far the most inflammatory intelligence in the dossier came in the days after Democrats and the IC started ratcheting up pressure on Trump, and that it came unsolicited.

Update: This post has been updated for clarity.

Update: David Corn’s account of interacting with Steele is inconsistent on the point of whether he got the dossier. At first he says he was able to “review” the memos.

I also was able to review the memos the former spy had written, and I quoted a few key portions in my article.

But by the end of the paragraph, he says the reason he didn’t publish the dossier is not because he didn’t have it, but because it would have revealed some of Steele’s sources (as it eventually did).

I also didn’t post the memos, as BuzzFeed did this week, because the documents contained information about the former spy’s sources that could place these people at risk.

And technically, Corn’s description of how Steele directed him to treat the information is not “off the record” (though I can still remember the moment during the Scooter Libby trial when, after one after another top journalist provided a different definition of the term on the stand, journalists in the media room — Corn was there — acknowledged that everyone has a different definition of the term). In his article, Corn says he was simply told not to ID Steele’s nationality or MI6 but suggests he was permitted to quote the dossier, which he did.

For my story in October, I spoke with the former spy who wrote these memos, under the condition that I not name him or reveal his nationality or the spy service where he had worked for nearly two decades, mostly on Russian matters.

Update: It’s worth comparing Steele’s claims with those made in this Vanity Fair feature on the dossier. Of particular note, VF makes no mention of Wood being an associate of Steele’s firm, and instead suggests he may have been sent to the conference in question to contact McCain.

It was at some point in this busy weekend that Senator John McCain and David J. Kramer, a former State Department official whose bailiwick was Russia and who now toils at Arizona State University’s Washington-based McCain Institute for International Leadership, found themselves huddling with Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia.

Sir Andrew, 77, had served in Moscow for five years starting in 1995, a no-holds-barred time when Putin was aggressively consolidating power. And in London Station, the M.I.6 puppeteer pulling all the clandestine strings was Christopher Steele. Sir Andrew knew Steele well and liked what he knew. And the former diplomat, who always had a few tough words to say about Putin, had heard the rumors about Steele’s memo.

Had Sir Andrew arrived in Halifax on his own covert mission? Was it just an accident that his conversation with Senator McCain happened to meander its way to the findings in Steele’s memos? Or are there no accidents in international intrigue? Sir Andrew offered no comment to Vanity Fair. He did, however, tell the Independent newspaper, “The issue of Donald Trump and Russia was very much in the news and it was natural to talk about it.

Note, this account would put Kramer in Surrey meeting Steele around December 5, which would mean Steele’s most inflammatory intelligence came in (“unsolicited,” he claimed) during a period of 11 days. It also says that Kramer brought the dossier back with him, undermining Steele’s claims that Fusion had been in the loop. VF also suggests there may have been more to the dossier Steele handed Kramer; Steele goes so far out of his way in his defense to claim he did no reports in November that I suspect he did report in November (perhaps directly for FBI?).

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.

Why We Should Remain Skeptical of the Five (!!) Congressional Investigations into the Russian Hack

I was interviewed (on Thursday) about the Flynn resignation and larger investigation into the Russia hack for Saturday’s On the Media. In what made the edit, I made one error (which I’ll explain later), but a key point I made holds. The leaking about Flynn and other Russian events are hypocritical and out of control. But they may create pressure to fix two problems with the current investigations into the Russian hack: the role of Jeff Sessions overseeing the DOJ-led investigations, and the role of Trump advisory officials Devin Nunes and Richard Burr overseeing the most appropriate congressional investigations.

In this post I’ll look at the latter conflicts. In a follow-up I’ll look at what the FBI seems to be doing.

As I noted in the interview, contrary to what you might think from squawking Democrats, there are five congressional investigations pertaining to Russian hacks, though some will likely end up focusing on prospective review of Russian hacking (for comparison, there were seven congressional Benghazi investigations). They are:

  • Senate Intelligence Committee: After months of Richard Burr — who served on Trump’s campaign national security advisory council — saying an inquiry was not necessary and going so far as insisting any inquiry wouldn’t review the dossier leaked on Trump, SSCI finally agreed to do an inquiry on January 13. Jim Comey briefed that inquiry last Friday, February 17.
  • House Intelligence Committee: In December, James Clapper refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee on the latest intelligence concluding Russian hacked the DNC with the goal of electing Trump, noting that HPSCI had been briefed all along (as was clear from some of the leaks, which clearly came from HPSCI insiders). In January, they started their own investigation of the hack, having already started fighting about documents by late January. While Ranking Democratic Member Adam Schiff has long been among the most vocal people complaining about the treatment of the hack, Devin Nunes was not only a Trump transition official, but made some absolutely ridiculous complaints after Mike Flynn’s side of some conversations got legally collected in a counterintelligence wiretap. Nunes has since promised to investigate the leaks that led to Flynn’s forced resignation.
  • Senate Armed Services Committee: In early January, John McCain announced he’d form a new subcommittee on cybersecurity, with the understanding it would include the Russian hack in its focus. Although he originally said Lindsey Graham would lead that committee, within weeks (and after Richard Burr finally capitulated and agreed to do a SSCI inquiry), McCain instead announced Mike Rounds would lead it.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee: In December, Bob Corker announced the SFRC would conduct an inquiry, scheduled to start in January. At a hearing in February, the topic came up multiple times, and both Corker and Ben Cardin reiterated their plans to conduct such an inquiry.
  • Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: After Graham was denied control of the SASC panel, he and Sheldon Whitehouse announced they’d conduct their own inquiry, including a prospective review of “the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections.”

All the while, some Senators — McCain, Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Jack Reed — have called for a Select Committee to conduct the investigation, though in true McCainesque fashion, the maverick has at times flip-flopped on his support of such an inquiry.

Also, while not an investigation, on February 9, Jerry Nadler issued what I consider (strictly as it relates to the Russian hack, not the other conflicts) an ill-advised resolution of inquiry calling for the Administration to release materials relating to the hack, among other materials. Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation calling for an independent commission, but have gotten no support even from the mavericky Republicans.

As you can see from these descriptions, it took pressure from other committees, especially Lindsey Graham getting control of one of the inquiries, before Richard Burr let himself be convinced by SSCI Vice Chair Mark Warner to conduct an inquiry. Thus far, Mitch McConnell has staved off any Select Committee. As soon as SSCI did claim to be launching an investigation, a bunch of Republicans tried to shut down the others, claiming it was all simply too confusing.

Let me be clear: as I noted in the OTM interview, the intelligence committees are the appropriate place to conduct this investigation, as it concerns really sensitive counterintelligence matters — people who could be witnesses to it are getting killed! — and an ongoing investigation. The only way to conduct a responsible inquiry is to do so in secret, and unless a select committee with clearance is formed, that means doing so in the dysfunctional intelligence committees.

That’s made worse by Nunes and Burr’s obvious conflicts, having served on Trump’s pre-inauguration advisory teams (at a time when Mike Flynn was chatting about ongoing sanctions with Russia), and their equally obvious disinterest in conducting the investigation. Remember that the intelligence committees successfully bolloxed up the independent investigation into Iran-Contra. While neither Nunes nor Burr is as smart as Dick Cheney, who had a key role in that intentional bolloxing, Democrats should be cognizant of the ways that such bolloxing has happened in the past.

And now that SSCI has finally started its inquiry, Ali Watkins published an uncharacteristically credulous report on Burr’s role in the investigation, slathering on the colorful vocabulary — “brutally yanked;” “underground cohort;” “dark shadow of Langley;” “Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines;” — before portraying the allegedly difficult position Burr is in:

That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.

But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.

Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.

This is just spin. There is abundant public record that Burr has thwarted oversight generally (he has said things supporting that stance throughout his history on both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, even ignoring his role in covering up torture, and Watkins’ earlier incorrect claims about Burr’s open hearings remain only partly corrected). There is no mention in this article that Burr was on Trump’s national security advisory committee. Nor that SSCI had reason to do hearings about this hack well before January 2017, back when it might have made a difference — at precisely the time when Burr apparently had time to advise Trump about national security issues as a candidate. Plus, it ignores all the things laid out here, Burr’s continued equivocation about whether there should even be a hearing.

There is no reason to believe Burr or Nunes intend to have a truly rigorous investigation (bizarrely, Warner seems to have had more success pushing the issue than Schiff — or Dianne Feinstein when she was Vice Chair — though that may be because the Ranking position is stronger in the Senate than in the House). And history tells us we should be wary that their investigations will be counterproductive.

As I noted, on Friday — the Friday before a recess — Jim Comey briefed the SSCI on the Russian hack. That briefing was unusual for the date (regular SSCI meetings happen on Tuesday and Thursday, and little business of any kinds happens right before a recess). Reporters have interpreted that, along with the presumed silence about the content of the briefing, as a sign that things are serious. That may be true — or it may be that that was the only time a 3-hour briefing could be scheduled. In the wake of the briefing, it was reported that the SSCI sent broad preservation requests tied to the inquiry (that is, they sent the request long after the inquiry was started). And while the press has assumed no one is talking, the day after the briefing, Reuters reported outlines of at least three parts of the FBI investigation into the Russian hack, attributed to former and current government officials.

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.

In His Last Words Before Senate Armed Services, Clapper Warns against Congressional “Micromanagement”

This morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing today on foreign cyberthreats, which mostly (though not entirely) focused on the Russian hack of the DNC.

At the very end of the hearing, John McCain decided to let James Clapper — who will retire in 15 days (as he reminded several times during the hearing) — offer a few reflections on his service.

In response, Clapper acknowledged the important role Congress plays in overseeing the secret activities of the intelligence community. But he ended the statement by warning of the difference between “oversight” and “micromanagement.”

I was around in the intelligence community were first established and have watched them and experienced them ever since. Congress does have, clearly, a extremely important role to play when it comes to oversight of intelligence activities and unlike many other endeavors of the government, much of what we do — virtually all of what we do — is done in secrecy. So the Congress has a very important — a crucial responsibility — on behalf of the American people for overseeing what we do particularly in terms of legality and protection of civil liberties and privacy.

At risk of delving into a sensitive area though, I do think there is a difference between oversight and micromanagement.

This may well reflect his views. But at a time when Trump is threatening to rearrange the IC to retaliate against its reporting on the Russian DNC hack (not to mention for Clapper’s own firing of Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn), Clapper might have have been well-advised to avoid suggestion that Congress should not exercise its oversight role over Congress very vigorously.

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 Not-Majority Leader Promises Bipartisan Investigations in Russian Cyberhackery

Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Jack Reed released a statement this morning, stating (in part),

While protecting classified material, we have an obligation to inform the public about the recent cyberattacks that have cut to the heart of our free society. Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of Congress, to examine these recent thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks.

If you don’t look too closely, it appears to be a mature promise that the Senate will work in nonpartisan fashion to defend the nation.

But let’s look closely, shall we?

First, note who is on the statement: the rising Minority Leader, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and … some other guy. Lindsey Graham here is just filling in for the guy who should be on the statement if this were really bipartisan, Mitch McConnell. Furthermore, while it’s great the leaders of the SASC agree on this front, they only have partial jurisdiction over NSA, and none over FBI or CIA, the agencies having a public spat over this. Richard Burr, whose committee does have jurisdiction over the CIA and over counterintelligence (and who often avoids doing any oversight by invoking classification), is also conspicuously absent.

In other words, it’s not so much a statement of bipartisanship, as an effort to pressure those who should be on the statement to join in.

It’s also not a statement with enough GOP signers — three is the new magic number, absent Trump convincing Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp to give up their seat for a cabinet post, in which case it will be four — to be able to sway votes in the Senate.

The statement suggests Congress has been working hard to protect cybersecurity. They must be doing so in secret, because the main thing they’ve done recently is pass a law immunizing corporations for sharing information.

Ah well. It’s a start. Schumer is very effective at making bold statements, and if that puts some heat on Mitch McConnell, so be 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.

Unpacking the New CIA Leak: Don’t Ignore the Aluminum Tube Footnote

This post will unpack the leak from the CIA published in the WaPo tonight.

Before I start with the substance of the story, consider this background. First, if Trump comes into office on the current trajectory, the US will let Russia help Bashar al-Assad stay in power, thwarting a 4-year effort on the part of the Saudis to remove him from power. It will also restructure the hierarchy of horrible human rights abusing allies the US has, with the Saudis losing out to other human rights abusers, potentially up to and including that other petrostate, Russia. It will also install a ton of people with ties to the US oil industry in the cabinet, meaning the US will effectively subsidize oil production in this country, which will have the perhaps inadvertent result of ensuring the US remains oil-independent even though the market can’t justify fracking right now.

The CIA is institutionally quite close with the Saudis right now, and has been in charge of their covert war against Assad.

This story came 24 days after the White House released an anonymous statement asserting, among other things, “the Federal government did not observe any increased level of malicious cyber activity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on election day,” suggesting that the Russians may have been deterred.

This story was leaked within hours of the time the White House announced it was calling for an all-intelligence community review of the Russia intelligence, offered without much detail. Indeed, this story was leaked and published as an update to that story.

Which is to say, the CIA and/or people in Congress (this story seems primarily to come from Democratic Senators) leaked this, apparently in response to President Obama’s not terribly urgent call to have all intelligence agencies weigh in on the subject of Russian influence, after weeks of Democrats pressuring him to release more information. It was designed to both make the White House-ordered review more urgent and influence the outcome.

So here’s what that story says.

In September, the spooks briefed “congressional leaders” (which for a variety of reasons I wildarseguess is either a Gang of Four briefing including Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid or a briefing to SSCI plus McConnell, Reid, Jack Reed, and John McCain). Apparently, the substance of the briefing was that Russia’s intent in hacking Democratic entities was not to increase distrust of institutions, but instead to elect Trump.

The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The difference between this story and other public assessments is that it seems to identify the people — who sound like people with ties to the Russian government but not necessarily part of it — who funneled documents from Russia’s GRU to Wikileaks.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

[snip]

[I]ntelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin “directing” the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said. Those actors, according to the official, were “one step” removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees.

This is the part that has always been missing in the past: how the documents got from GRU, which hacked the DNC and John Podesta, to Wikileaks, which released them. It appears that CIA now thinks they know the answer: some people one step removed from the Russian government, funneling the documents from GRU hackers (presumably) to Wikileaks to be leaked, with the intent of electing Trump.

Not everyone buys this story. Mitch McConnell doesn’t buy the intelligence.

In September, during a secret briefing for congressional leaders, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) voiced doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, according to officials present.

That’s one doubt raised about CIA’s claim — though like you all, I assume Mitch McConnell shouldn’t be trusted on this front.

But McConnell wasn’t the only one. One source for this story — which sounds like someone like Harry Reid or Dianne Feinstein — claimed that this CIA judgment is the “consensus” view of all the intelligence agencies, a term of art.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

Except that in a briefing this week (which may have been what impressed John McCain and Lindsey Graham to do their own investigation), that’s not what this represented.

The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered. [my emphasis]

That’s a conflict. Some senior US official (often code for senior member of Congress) says this is the consensus view. Another senior US official (or maybe the very same one) says there are “minor disagreements.”

Remember: we went to war against Iraq, which turned out to have no WMD, in part because no one read the “minor disagreements” from a few agencies about some aluminum tubes. A number of Senators who didn’t read that footnote closely (and at least one that did) are involved in this story. What we’re being told is there are some aluminum tube type disagreements.

Let’s hear about those disagreements this time, shall we?

Here’s the big takeaway. The language “a formal US assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies” is, like “a consensus view,” a term of art. It’s an opportunity for agencies which may have differing theories of what happened here to submit their footnotes.

That may be what Obama called for today: the formal assessment from all agencies (though admittedly, the White House purposely left the scope and intent of it vague).

Whatever that review is intended to be, what happened as soon as Obama announced it is that the CIA and/or Democratic Senators started leaking their conclusion. That’s what this story is.

Update: One other really critical detail. When the White House announced the Obama review today, Wikileaks made what was a bizarre statement. Linking to a CNN story on the Obama ordered review that erred on the side of blaming Russia for everything, it said, “CNN: Obama orders report into WikiLeaks timed for release just prior to Trump presidency.” Even though none of the statements on the review focused on what this story does — that is, on the way that the DNC and Podesta emails got to Wikileaks — Wikileaks nevertheless interpreted it as an inquiry targeted at it.

Update: And now David Sanger (whose story on the Obama-ordered review was particularly bad) and Scott Shane reveal the RNC also got hacked, and it is the differential leaking that leads the spooks to believe the Russians wanted Trump to win.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public.

This may be a fair assessment. But you would have to account for two things before making it. First, you’d need to know the timing and hacker behind the RNC hack. That’s because two entities are believed to have hacked the DNC: an FSB appearing hacking group, and a GRU one. The FSB is not believed to have leaked. GRU is believed to have. So if the FSB hacked the RNC but didn’t leak it, it would be completely consistent with what FSB did with DNC.

NYT now says the RNC hack was by GRU in the spring, so it is a fair question why the DNC things got leaked but RNC did not.

Also, Sanger and Shane say “largely documents” from Dems were leaked. That’s false. There were two streams of non-Wikileaks releases, Guccifer, which did leak all-Dem stuff, and DC Leaks, which leaked stuff that might be better qualified as Ukrainian related. The most publicized of documents from the latter were from Colin Powell, which didn’t help Trump at all.

Update: It’s clear that Harry Reid (who of course is retiring and so can leak speech and debate protected classified information without worrying he’ll be shut off in the future) is one key driver of this story. Last night he was saying, “”I was right. Comey was wrong. I hope he can look in the mirror and see what he did to this country.” This morning he is on the TV saying he believes Comey had information on this before the election.

Update, 12/10: This follow-up from WaPo is instructive, as it compares what CIA briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence with what FBI briefed the House Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence. While the focus is on different Republican and Democratic understandings of both, the story also makes it clear that FBI definitely doesn’t back what WaPo’s sources from yesterday said was a consensus view.

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.

McCain Has One Way to Prevent Torture under Trump — Oppose Pompeo and Sessions

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, John McCain made some strong statements about whether President Trump will be able to resume torture.

Republican Sen. John McCain issued a fiery warning to President-elect Donald Trump on the subject of torture Saturday.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard,” McCain told an audience at the annual Halifax International Security Forum. “We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

McCain’s comments have gotten quite a lot of approving press since.

But that approving press is misplaced.

After all, tough words will not prevent Trump from resuming torture — no matter what NYT’s rather bizarre story claiming there are obstacles to doing so claims. As I laid out weeks ago, the bureaucratic work-arounds are already in place.

No. The single most effective way for Senator McCain to prevent Trump from resuming torture is to ensure the people he appoints are actually opposed to it.

Already, Trump has named two pro-torture Republicans to top positions: Trump’s Attorney General pick, Jeff Sessions, voted against the anti-torture amendment McCain wrote to try to codify the law. In response to the release of the Torture Report, Trump’s CIA Director pick, Mike Pompeo, declared the torturers “are not torturers, they are patriots.”

McCain — whose comment on torture came the day after Trump named these appointees — has not committed to opposing their nomination. Instead, he just wants to make strong statements that will do little to prevent Trump from ordering Pompeo to resuming the torture.

Maybe that’s why McCain is getting so touchy about the President-elect.

Today, he told two different reporters he didn’t want to answer questions about Trump. Here’s what he said to HuffPo’s Laura Barron-Lopez:

I will not discuss President-elect Donald Trump, ok? And that is my right as a Senator. I do not have an obligation ma’am to answer any question I don’t feel like answering. I’m responsible for the people of Arizona and they just [re-elected] me overwhelmingly.

He said something similar to CNN’s Manu Raju.

Cranky-as-fuck John McCain is ratcheting it up!

But he’s going to need to crank it up even more. McCain, with just two of his colleagues, has the power and moral authority to oppose pro-torture appointees. That would require confronting the leader of his party. But it is also one of the only real ways to prevent the US from resuming torture.

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.