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The Odd Projection by the Steele Dosser’s Claimed Alfa Bank Source

Way back in March 2017, I noted that there was a clear feedback loop behind the Steele dossier. As part of that post, I noted how weird the single report on Alfa Bank in the dossier was. Rather than writing damning information about Trump — which was the entire point of the dossier — it instead described the relationship between Putin and a guy named Oleg Govorun, who the dossier claimed worked for Alfa in the 1990s (that date was wrong but not the affiliation).

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

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

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

Even though the report didn’t say anything really damning about current Alfa bank personnel, the oligarchs who own the bank have nevertheless engaged in protracted lawfare that seems set on ruining those behind the dossier. As part of the lawsuit against Fusion GPS, the Alfa oligarchs recently submitted declarations from the presumed sources of Igor Danchenko, Steele’s primary subsource. (And yes, two of these declarations claim to be Subsource 4, in both English and Russian.)

Subsource 1: Sergey Vladimirovich Abyshev

Subsource 2: Ivan Mikhailovich Vorontsov

Subsource 3: Olga Aleksandrovna Galkina

Subsource 4: Alexey Sergeyevich Dundich

Subsource 4: Ivan Ivanovich Kurilla

Subsource 5: Lyudmila Nikolayevna Podobedova

With the exception of Galkina, all of these purported subsources state that they have not read the dossier except for the Alfa Bank report, and then assert that they were not a source for the dossier. For example, this is how Dundich disclaimed being a source for the dossier as a whole, which he is sure is low-quality, while admitting he only read one report from it.

I am aware of the Steele Dossier (“Dossier”), but I have never read it save for Company Intelligence Report 112 (“CIR 112”).

[snip]

In contrast to what Mr. Danchenko told U.S. authorities, I was not a “source” of information for the Dossier. I never gave Mr. Danchenko (or anyone else) any information associated with the contents of the Dossier, including CIR 112, Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, Mr. Khan, or Alfa. I believe that Mr. Danchenko framed me as Sub-Source 4 to add credibility to his low-quality work, which is not based on real information or in-depth analysis.

Even Galkina, who stated that she had read the dossier when it was published by BuzzFeed, issues a non-denial denial, stating only that when she traveled to the US in 2016 she and Danchenko did not discuss anything about the dossier (the FBI interviewed her in August 2017, which she doesn’t mention here, and she does travel to the States, so she’d be at risk of prosecution if she said anything conflicting with her prior statements or material known to have been obtained from her via FISA 702).

Mr. Danchenko and I met once in 2016. In connection with my job at Servers.com, I traveled to the United States in the spring of 2016 to participate in the Game Developers Conference event and investigate the prospects of running a public relations campaign for the company in the United States. I asked Mr. Danchenko to assist those efforts, and he introduced me to a third party, Charles Dolan, whom he thought could help. Mr. Danchenko and I did not discuss anything related to the Dossier or its contents during this meeting.

But she doesn’t describe her communications with Danchenko via phone and text, which is how Danchenko said he got some of the most important stories sourced to her. And a later denial in her declaration seems to be a (poorly translated) denial limited to providing information specific to the Alfa Bank materials, not a denial of providing other information in it.

I did not provide Mr. Danchenko (or anyone else) with any information mentioned in the Dossier and that was connected to Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, Mr. Khan, or Alfa. I believe that Mr. Danchenko identified me as Sub-Source 3 to create more authoritativeness for his work.

In short, none of these declarations could be denials they provided Danchenko information in the dossier, because the one person who has actually read it doesn’t deny she did provide information (that said, her information was some of the most likely to be deliberate disinformation).

These declarations, then, don’t do what a filing attempting to use them to force Danchenko to set for a deposition claims they do, making general denials of being a source for the dossier.

Even more importantly, Mr. Danchenko’s claimed sub-sources have now denied, under penalty of perjury, providing Mr. Danchenko with information related to the contents of the dossier generally or with respect to CIR 112 and Plaintiffs specifically.7

Galkina’s the only one who’d be able to make such a denial, and she doesn’t do so in her declaration.

But I find Abyshev’s denials of interest for other reasons. He admits that he and Vorontsov met with Danchenko on June 15, 2016 and claims that Danchenko got very drunk (earlier he claimed that Danchenko had a drinking problem for a year or two after the compilation of the dossier).

I met with Mr. Danchenko once in 2016, the year that, as I understand, the Dossier was prepared. On June 15, 2016, Mr. Danchenko, Ivan Vorontsov, and I met in Moscow. I recall that Mr. Danchenko appeared very intoxicated and was not able to maintain a conversation. During the meeting, I spoke with Mr. Vorontsov about investments and finance. I do not recall any conversation related to the contents of the Dossier, including allegations related to CIR 112, Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, Mr. Khan, or Alfa. This was my last meeting with Mr. Danchenko.

He further admits that Danchenko raised Alfa on a phone call with him at some time that year, but claims he told Danchenko the subject was inappropriate and he should go find out the answers to the question himself.

On one occasion, during a phone call in 2016, Mr. Danchenko asked me how close Mr. Fridman is to President Putin and whether Mr. Fridman had met with President Putin in 2016. I did not respond to Mr. Danchenko’s questions. Instead, I made it clear that the questions were inappropriate and that Mr. Danchenko should seek out answers to them himself.

This denial comes on top of Abyshev’s more general denial about being a source for the report in question.

Contrary to what Mr. Danchenko told U.S. authorities, I was not a “source” of the Dossier. I never provided Mr. Danchenko (or anyone else) with any information related to the contents of the Dossier, including CIR 112, Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, Mr. Khan, or Alfa.

On this point, Abyshev’s denial is the only one that is really pertinent, because he’s the only one that Danchenko mentioned in his FBI interview in conjunction with this report (the FBI interviewed Danchenko two more times after this, but those interviews must not be helpful for Trump, because Republicans have never demanded those reports be declassified).

While Danchenko seems to suggest that Source 1, Abyshev, was involved in this story, he doesn’t actually say that. Instead, he explained that he had been working on this story for ten years and that Source 1 had provided him other information on corruption unrelated to Alfa.

That’s interesting, not least because Vorontsov actually said that if you wanted information about the oligarchs running Alfa, you’d look outside of Russia (probably London).

I do not believe that Mr. Danchenko asked anyone inside Russia about Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, or Mr. Khan. If Mr. Danchenko were interested in those individuals, he would have sought information from people living outside Russia who would have greater knowledge of Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, and Mr. Khan.

In Vorontsov’s opinion, this is the part of the dossier for which Danchenko wouldn’t need a source in Russia.

Here’s where things get interesting. Like everyone save Galkina, Abyshev says the only part of the dossier he read was the Alfa Bank report.

I am aware of the so-called Steele Dossier (“Dossier”), but I have never read it save for the Russian translation of Company Intelligence Report 112 (“CIR 112”), which raises various allegations about Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, German Khan, and Alfa.

Having not read the dossier, however, Abyshev claims that Danchenko’s job was to substantiate stories his clients want him to tell.

My understanding of Mr. Danchenko’s information-gathering process is that he first receives a story from his clients that he then must substantiate in any manner possible

This actually conflicts with Danchenko’s FBI interview, at least part of which Abyshev claims to have read, in which he says he tried to find information on Paul Manafort but failed to find much.

More interesting still, Abyshev offers up this explanation for what Danchenko was doing.

I infer from my interactions with Mr. Danchenko, from that 2016 telephone conversation, and from the content of what was ultimately published in CIR 112, that Mr. Danchenko had a working theory regarding the relationship between Alfa and its shareholders on the one hand, and President Putin on the other, and that Mr. Danchenko was fishing for information that would fit that preconceived narrative.

I believe it is likely that someone ensured that CIR 112 was included in the Dossier in an effort to persuade U.S. authorities to sanction Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven, Mr. Khan, and Alfa.

I find that interesting — first, because decades old allegations of corruption would not substantiate a sanctions designation. Abyshev’s claims make no sense given the content that ended up in the report.

More interesting still is how closely Abyshev’s claims match Petr Aven’s testimony to Mueller’s team about how Putin pressured him to try to set up a back channel with Trump’s team during the transition by warning that Alfa would be sanctioned in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

Aven told the Office that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin; these 50 men are often referred to as “oligarchs.”977 Aven told the Office that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election.978 Aven said that he took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for A ven if he did not follow through.979 As was typical, the 2016 Q4 meeting with Putin was preceded by a preparatory meeting with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.980

According to Aven, at his Q4 2016 one-on-one meeting with Putin,981 Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank.982 Putin suggested that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.983 Aven also testified that Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.984 According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.985

Aven [grand jury redaction] told Putin he would take steps to protect himself and the Alfa-Bank shareholders from potential sanctions, and one of those steps would be to try to reach out to the incoming Administration to establish a line of communication.986

[snip]

In December 2016, weeks after the one-on-one meeting with Putin described in Volume I, Section IV.B.1.b, supra, Petr Aven attended what he described as a separate “all-hands” oligarch meeting between Putin and Russia’s most prominent businessmen. 1167 As in Aven’s one-on-one meeting, a main topic of discussion at the oligarch meeting in December 2016 was the prospect of forthcoming U.S. economic sanctions. 1168

After the December 2016 all-hands meeting, Aven tried to establish a connection to the Trump team. Aven instructed Richard Burt to make contact with the incoming Trump Administration. Burt was on the board of directors for LetterOne (L 1 ), another company headed by Aven, and had done work for Alfa-Bank. 1169 Burt had previously served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, and one of his primary roles with Alfa-Bank and Ll was to facilitate introductions to business contacts in the United States and other Western countries. 1170

I’ve always believed the Trump Tower server story to be an elaborate disinformation effort, which had the added benefit of drawing attention to Erik Prince but not the things that Prince was doing that were key to the Russian operation (his communications about which were done via garden variety encrypted apps). I likewise always believed that Aven’s testimony might explain why Russia would craft such disinformation: not only to distract from the things that Prince and others really were doing, but to present a way to recruit Alfa’s oligarchs more centrally into Russia’s efforts to push back on sanctions, as oligarchs who weren’t as western-focused had long been.

Here, a filing in a lawsuit attempting to make maximal advantage of whatever success Russia had feeding an old nemesis of theirs disinformation as part of the larger 2016 operation makes the same argument that (according to Aven’s own testimony) Putin made to Aven, only insinuating that the argument would have come from Danchenko, not a Russian disinformation source.

Abyshev is, in addition to Danchenko’s source on the pee tape (at that meeting where Abyshev says Danchenko was badly drunk), also someone Danchenko understood to have close ties to Russian intelligence who appears to have known of Danchenko’s tie to Steele.

The Ohr 302 Exemptions

As I noted yesterday, the FD-302s of FBI’s conversations with Bruce Ohr released to Judicial Watch the other day are unremarkable. The scope of Judicial Watch’s request left out the time periods — before Ohr was handed off to another FBI Agent after the election, and after Mueller was hired — that would be the most interesting. But what we do see shows that FBI first reached out to Ohr in an effort to assess the Steele dossier production, and Ohr was able and willing to chase down answers for the FBI that go to issues of credibility. Later, Steele reached out to Ohr in a panic about what would happen as Congress scrutinized his work more closely; in what we see, those conversations were not inappropriate (which is not to say I’m sympathetic to Steele’s concerns, given how he publicized his work). Though given Ohr’s notes, they may have been later in the year; at a minimum, they show how aggressively Steele was trying to prepare a public story that ended up being quite partial.

In my opinion, the FOIA exemptions are the most interesting aspect to the 302s. We can learn a bit from the things DOJ chose (or felt obligated) to protect. Here’s a short guide to FOIA exemptions and here’s DOJ’s more thorough one.

The less interesting redactions are for the following purposes:

  • b7C/b6: Protects privacy, used here to protect everything from Steele’s name to other sources
  • b7D: Protects confidential sources (both Steele and his sub-sources would get some protection)
  • b7E: Protects law enforcement techniques, including the bureaucracy of writing up 302s

The exemption, b3, protects information protected by statute, often the National Security Act. For example, that’s one of the exemptions (along with privacy and law enforcement technique exemptions) used to protect boring bureaucratic details about the case file. But it’s interesting in one instance.

The discussions, starting on PDF 14, of how Steele was panicking about one of his sources are protected for privacy, source, and b3, statute (as well as, sometimes, law enforcement technique).

That’s interesting, because FBI is not saying this person’s identity is classified. Nor is it saying that this person is credibly at risk of being killed, which would be a b7F (which is what they’d use to protect our own recruited agents). But they are according Steele’s source some kind of statutory protection.

The exemption, b1, protects classified information. It’s a measure, in these discussions about someone who used to work as an intelligence officer for an ally and who continues to collect HUMINT, of what the DOJ or other agencies considers genuinely classified (and doesn’t always line up with the initial or FOIA review classification marks on the paragraphs). For example, a paragraph describing how Ohr first met Steele — which appears in unredacted form in Ohr’s congressional testimony as follows — is protected by both a b3 and b1 exemption, presumably to protect references to MI6.

I believe I met Chris Steele for the first time around 2007. That was an official meeting. At that time, he was still employed by the British Government. I went to London to talk with British Government officials about Russian organized crime and what they were doing to look at the threat, and the FBI office at the U.S. Embassy in London set up a meeting. That was with Chris Steele. And there were other members of different British Government agencies there. And we met and had a discussion. And afterwards, I believe the agent and I spoke with Chris Steele further over lunch.

A more interesting redaction appears on PDF 8, in a series of paragraphs where the Agent was asking Ohr whether about his personal knowledge of certain aspects of Steele’s work, such as whether he had witnessed Steele’s meetings with Jon Winer. One of those paragraphs is redacted, in part for b3 and b1 reasons, and classified Secret. Whatever that protects, it’s a reminder that Ohr and Steele had real discussions about organized crime in the past.

By far the most interesting exemptions, however, are what FBI has chosen to protect because of ongoing investigations, exemption b7A, starting with what they have not protected: these conversations, generally.

The frothy right believes that Bruce Ohr should go to prison because he shared information about suspected Russian crimes with other experts in the subject. Ohr’s role in the dossier has presumably been under scrutiny for some time as part of DOJ IG’s investigation into the basis for Carter Page’s FISA application. In addition, Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson have both been referred to DOJ for suspected lies to Congress, the latter more credibly than the former. With one significant possible exception, there’s nothing in these 302s that has been protected for either of those reasons. Ohr’s earlier and later conversations with Steele would be more pertinent to those inquiries (and there’s reason to believe the later ones are being treated as such), but some of these 302s would clearly be too. But FBI has determined they can release these files. That’s interesting, especially, because of the history of this FOIA:

  • August 6, 2018: Initial Judicial Watch FOIA
  • September 10, 2018: JW sues
  • March 15, 2019: DOJ tells JW the files are being withheld in full
  • March 22, 2019: Conclusion of Mueller investigation
  • April 1, 2019: Status report states that FBI is evaluating impact of conclusion of that investigation on FOIA
  • May 8, 2019: DOJ still considering whether FBI can release the files
  • July 25, 2019: DOJ decides it can release the files in part

As recently as August 5, DOJ said it was “still engaged in internal discussions about the redactions necessary to release the requested records to the public.” In other words, a very recent review of these files has determined that files showing how FBI handled the mid-term discussions between Christopher Steele and Bruce Ohr may be released to the public.

The big possible exception pertains to details of the original conversation on Trump and Russia with Steele.

Steele’s initial conversation

The paragraph describing what Steele first told Ohr back on July 30, 2016 is redacted for b1, b3, and b7A reasons.

The redactions in this passage include the entirety of Steele’s explanation for the “over a barrel” comment, which is interesting because other agencies have released these details (which may name the people boasting they had kompromat on Trump). The paragraph also redacts part of the discussion of Deripaska preparing to bring details on Paul Manafort’s “theft” from him to US authorities. That may be for privacy reasons,  but — assuming the order is the same in the interview and the notes, but it seems Ohr was reading verbatim — both are redacted for ongoing investigation reasons in Ohr’s notes released in December.

If, as seems to be the case, Page was not redacted as part of an ongoing investigation in either of these suggests the early Ohr conversation is not one being scrutinized by DOJ IG on the FISA application (especially given the notes were released in December, well before the IG had come close to finishing, as has been reported).

Note, Ohr turned over notes from during and after the meeting with Steele to the Agent. Just these notes were released in December, meaning the notes he wrote after the meeting must be among the 6 pages of Ohr’s notes withheld in that December release, in part to protect an ongoing investigation (that could be consistent both with the known DOJ IG investigation into the origins of the investigation, and an investigation into those two allegations).

One other thing in that first interview pertains, per the redaction to an ongoing investigation: a discussion of a post-Ukrainian invasion meeting involving Ohr, Steele, and oligarchs (possibly, though not definitely, Russian).

 

The description seems to match a meeting Steele is known to have set up with Deripaska (though that meeting was in 2015).

Oleg Deripaska

The treatment of one known Deripaska reference and this reference to cultivating oligarchs as sources (earlier in 2016, Steele had been trying to get DOJ to use Deripaska as a source) is particularly interesting given that, what appear to be additional Deripaska references, are also redacted to protect an ongoing investigation.

A significant chunk of the 302 memorializing the February 6, 2017 interview protects an ongoing investigation.

There are good reasons to think this is a reference to Deripaska. Steele worked for Deripaska lawyer Paul Hauser, and Deripaska was interviewed in September 2016. Deripaska would be directly implicated in the election (two months after this interview, Deripaska was sanctioned).

This may reflect a conversation directly with Hauser though, as the Steele reference in this interview was covered in entirely in a WhatsApp chat. Given the redaction, it’s also possible that Ohr took notes, which would be among the 6 pages not turned over because of an ongoing investigation.

And while less definitive, this passage from the February 14 interview of Steele referring to which lawyers he was working for could also be the Hauser work.

Given the withholdings on Ohr’s note from the meeting, the ongoing investigation does pertain to Steele’s client.

If it is Deripaska, it would suggest that Steele was financially dependent on his Deripaska work, as the other client mentioned, Bilfinger, wasn’t paying him (which he complained about to Ohr).

[Note, this note also has what looks like a reference to “Snowden report,” which makes absolutely no sense to me, so I assume I’m misreading it.] Update: This is likely a reference to the report, from the day before, that Russia was offering Snowden to Trump.

It has long been troubling that Steele had an ongoing relationship with Deripaska during the time he worked on the dossier. It’s clear that Deripaska used Steele to misinform DOJ that he was upping the pressure on Manafort, hiding that Manafort was instead making a desperate — and somewhat successful bid — to get back on Deripaska’s payroll.

A good deal of the ongoing investigation redactions in these Ohr 302s suggest DOJ continues to be interested in all that, as well.

Alfa Bank

The other ongoing investigation redactions are far more surprising, as they suggest (though this is far less definitive than the Deripaska tie) that DOJ may continue to investigate … something pertaining to the Alfa Bank allegations.

The initial reference to Alfa Bank, from the November 22, 2016 interview and discussing his September 2016 meeting with Glenn Simpson, is not protected as part of an ongoing investigation — though what appears to be a continuation of a discussion of it is treated as classified.

But a follow-up reference to Alfa bank does seem to be redacted as part of an ongoing investigation. These two paragraphs from the December 12, 2016 interview of Ohr, at PDF 11, have just one exemption explanation, including the b7A ongoing investigation one.

It’s certainly possible that the second paragraph is unrelated, and that’s what pertains to the ongoing investigation. But treating them as the same FOIA exemptions suggests they’re related.

In the same interview, Ohr explained that when he asked Simpson if he was concerned about his personal safety, Simpson,

mentioned that someone called and asked him to find out where all of the Alfa Bank stories were coming from. Simpson did not state this was a threat from the Russians, but that was the impression made upon OHR based upon the timing of the comment and using that story as a response to OHR’s question.

This seems to suggest more than one Alfa Bank story.

Also note two things. First, when the NYT first got the story of Jared Kushner’s “back channel” meeting with Sergey Gorkov, they had it as a meeting with Alfa Bank (though they misspelled it in the same way that Steele’s dossier did). That meeting would take place four days after Simpson raised whatever crazy tip he got, on December 13.

Kushner agreed to meet with Gorkov. 1151 The one-on-one meeting took place the next day, December 13, 2016, at the Colony Capital building in Manhattan, where Kushner had previously scheduled meetings. 1152

Also, during this period, Petr Aven was trying to reach out to Trump’s people on direct orders from Putin.

In December 2016, weeks after the one-on-one meeting with Putin described in Volume I, Section IV.B.1.b, supra, Petr Aven attended what he described as a separate “all-hands” oligarch meeting between Putin and Russia’s most prominent businessmen. 1167 As in Aven’s one-on-one meeting, a main topic of discussion at the oligarch meeting in December 2016 was the prospect of forthcoming U.S. economic sanctions. 1168

After the December 2016 all-hands meeting, Aven tried to establish a connection to the Trump team. Aven instructed Richard Burt to make contact with the incoming Trump Administration

It’s highly unlikely that Simpson got wind of any of those things; we would have heard about it. I raise these other instances not because I think Simpson had them, but because it’s clear Mueller chased these Alfa leads much further than we otherwise knew, and the leads themselves still seem not to have amounted to anything (even while showing that Putin leveraged the threat of election-related sanctions on the one bank that was legally acceptable in the west at the time, Alfa, to get its oligarch to join his efforts to cultivate Trump).

These Alfa allegations all still seem to be fluff. But even so, the redactions in the second reference may suggest there’s something here of continued interest to the FBI.

Update: I’ve taken out Bill Priestap’s name, as that was incorrect reporting when this came out.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.