• Russiagate: “Why did this ever start in the first place?”

    March 30, 2019 // 20 Comments »


     
     

    The end of the Special Counsel’s investigation into the non-existent conspiracy between Trump and the Russians has created an army of “Mueller Truthers,” demanding additional investigations. But Republicans are also demanding to know more, specifically how the FBI came to look into collusion, and what that tells us about the tension between America’s political and intelligence worlds. In Rudy Giuliani’s words “Why did this ever start in the first place?”

    The primordial ooze for all things Russia began in spring 2016 when the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, through a company called Fusion GPS, hired former MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele to compile a report (“the dossier”) on whatever ties to Russia he could find for Donald Trump.

    Steele’s assignment was not to investigate impartially, but to gather dirt aggressively – opposition research, or oppo. He assembled second and third hand stories, then used anonymous sources and Internet chum to purported reveal Trump people roaming about Europe asking various Russians for help, promising sanctions relief, and trading influence for financial deals. Steele also claimed the existence of a “pee tape,” kompromat Putin used to control Trump.

    Creating the dossier was only half of Steele’s assignment. The real work was to insert the dossier into American media and intelligence organizations to prevent Trump from winning the election. While only a so-so fiction writer, Steele proved to be a master at running his information op against America.

    In July 2016 Steele met with over a dozen reporters to promote his dossier, with little success. It could not be corroborated. Steele succeeded mightily, however, in pushing his information deep into the FBI via three simultaneous channels, including the State Department, and via Senator John McCain, who was pitched by a former British ambassador retired to work now for Christopher Steele’s own firm.

    But the most productive channel into the FBI was Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the front company for Steele, having previously done contract work for the CIA. Nellie passed the dossier to her husband, along with her own paid oppo research, so that he could use his credibility at DOJ to hand-carry the work into the FBI. Bruce Ohr, despite acknowledging it broke all rules of protocol and evidence handling, did just that on July 30, 2016. He stressed to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe the material was uncorroborated and had been compiled by Christopher Steele, who wanted it used to stop Trump.

    The dossier landed in welcoming hands. The FBI immediately opened an unprecedented investigation called Crossfire Hurricane into the Trump campaign. It sent agents to London to meet Australian ambassador Alexander Downer, who claimed to have evidence George Papadopoulos, one of Trump’s junior-level advisers, was talking to Russians about Hillary’s emails. The FBI’s timing of the new investigation into Trump – only days after they closed their investigation into Clinton’s email server – can be considered a coincidence by those of good heart.

    Peter Strzok, the senior FBI agent managing the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, and Lisa Page, a lawyer on his team (the two were also lovers), purposefully kept investigation details from political appointees at DOJ to the extent that only five people actually knew the full measure of what was going on, ostensibly to prevent leaks.

    In fact, the point seems to have been to avoid oversight, given how weak the evidence was supporting something as grave as the Republican nominee committing treason. If you are looking behind the headlines for why Trump fired Andrew McCabe, besides his personal sympathies for Hillary, look there. Strzok and Page appear to have had an agenda of their own. In a text they wrote “Page: ‘[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Strzok: ‘No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.’”

    With a wave of a hand the dossier the FBI was warned was partisan bunk was transformed into evidence. Steele himself morphed from paid opposition researcher to paid clandestine source for the FBI, with the fact that he had recently retired from a foreign intelligence service, British or not, ignored. It was all just an excuse anyway to unleash the vast intelligence machine against Trump, the imagined Manchurian Candidate.

    Papadopoulos, the man in London, as a linchpin was also preposterous. He was a kid on the edges of the campaign, who “bumped into” a shady Russian professor who just happened to dangle the most explosive thing ever, Hillary’s emails. Papadopoulos then met the Aussie ambassador to Britain, Alex Downer. Papadopoulos gets drunk, tells the tale, which then falls whole into the FBI’s lap. Ambassador Downer, by the way, had previously arranged a $25 million donation to the Clinton Foundation. Papadopoulos was introduced to Downer by an Australian intelligence agent who knew him through her boyfriend, stationed at the Israeli embassy as a “political officer.”

    Carter Page’s case was more of the same. Page, as a key actor in the Steele dossier, wold serve as an early excuse to get FISA surveillance eyes and ears on the Trump campaign. The FBI had a paid CIA asset, University of Cambridge professor and American citizen Stefan A. Halper, contact Page and dangle questions about access to Clinton emails.

    Halper had earlier been trying separately to entrap Papadopoulos (the professor offered the inexperienced campaign aide $3,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to London to write a white paper about energy), and also met with Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis in late August, offering his services as an adviser. Clovis declined. Ultimately both Papadopoulos and Page also rebuffed Halper, though both would later encounter a young woman in London claiming to be Halper’s assistant who tried to reinterest the boys.

    Though to obtain multiple FISA warrants the FBI characterized him as an “agent of a foreign power,” Carter Page was never charged with anything. Halper dropped off the media’s radar, but is almost certainly a U.S. intelligence asset. He had earlier worked with British intelligence to pay for Michael Flynn to visit the UK. Halper’s main U.S.-based funding source is an internal Pentagon think tank. The Washington Post reported Halper had in the past worked for CIA directly. Halper was implicated in a 1980s spying scandal in which CIA officials gave inside information on the Carter administration to the GOP. Halper also married into a senior CIA official’s family.

    It is clear the FBI was desperately trying to infiltrate Halper into the Trump campaign as part of a full-blown intel op, recruiting against Trump’s vulnerable junior staff. Even though the recruitment failed, the bits and pieces learned in the process were good enough for government work. At issue was that Steele’s dossier formed a key argument in favor of a FISA warrant to spy on Trump personnel. The dossier was corroborated in part in the warrant application by citing news reports that later turned out to be themselves based on the Steele dossier. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination, a risky amateur error the FBI seems to have taken a chance on hoping the FISA judge would not know enough to question it. The gamble worked.

    The FBI needed something as backup, so their investigation into Trump, now focused on the FISA surveillance, could be said not to have rested entirely on the dubious Steele dossier. Surveillance, intended and incidental, would eventually include Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, Michael Cohen, and likely Trump himself.

    Had Hillary won the story would have ended there, in fact, likely would never have come to light. But with Trump’s victory, the dossier had one more job to do: prep the public for all to come.

    There has been no discussion as to why, in possession of information the FBI seemed to believe showed the Russians were running a global full-court press to themselves recruit inside Trump’s inner circle, Trump was never offered a defensive briefing. Such a warning – hey, you are in danger – is common inside government. But in Trump’s case it never happened. Instead, in echo of the dark Hoover years, the FBI used its information to try and take down Trump, not protect him.

    Though the dossier had already been widely shared inside the media, the State Department, and the intelligence community, it was only on January 6, 2017 Comey briefed it to president-elect Trump. No one really knows what was said in that meeting, but we do know after holding the dossier since summer 2016, only four days after the Trump-Comey meeting Buzzfeed published the document and the world learned about the pee tape. Many believe someone in the intel community gave “permission” to the media, signaling Brennan, Clapper, Hayden, et al, would begin making public statements the dossier “could be true.”

    John Brennan was a regular on television and other media claiming over two years there was evidence of contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, pimping off his time as CIA director to suggest he had inside information. He went as far as testifying before Congress in May 2017 that there was evidence of contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign figures, though now says he might have been given “bad information.”

    After that, no item that could link the words Trump and Russia was too small to add to the pile of pseudo-evidence.

    It would be easy to dismiss all this as a wacky conspiracy theory if it wasn’t in fact the counter-explanation to the even wackier, disproved theory Donald Trump was a Russian asset. It is possible to see Russiagate as a political assassination attempt, using law enforcement as the weapon. Someone might do well to double-check if Christopher Steele was in Dealey Plaza during the Kennedy assassination.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    So Why Did Trump Fire Comey?

    March 27, 2019 // 12 Comments »

     
     
    A media themelet is Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey because Comey would not let Michael Flynn off the hook. Flynn was caught in a perjury trap, lying about a legally-allowed meeting he held with the Russian ambassador. The FBI had the meet under surveillance and knew Flynn was not telling the truth later in an interview. Comey’s firing also forms a core tenet of the “obstruction truther” movement.

     

    We know a lot more about what was going on then now than we did then. Time for some thinking out loud.

    I think the Comey firing is tied to the Christopher Steele dossier. We may someday learn Trump fired Comey because the FBI acted on the dossier to surveil Trump’s team from July 2016 to January 2017 without giving Trump a defensive briefing the Russians might be inside his campaign, signaling the FBI wanted to take Trump down, not protect him or America. No president could have confidence in his FBI director after that.

    There has been no discussion as to why, in possession of information they seemed to believe showed the Russians were running a global full-court press to recruit inside Trump’s inner circle, Trump was never offered a defensive briefing by the FBI. Such a warning – hey, you may not know it, but here’s how you are in danger – is common inside government. But in Trump’s case it never happened and no one seems to want to formally ask (say at a Senate hearing) why.

    That the FBI withheld the dossier from Trump, did not provide him with a defensive warning, and then used the information to collect against him did happen, and Comey was in charge. It is a shameful episode that harkens back to the J. Edgar Hoover days of an FBI that used its power to manipulate government. While referring by name only to Comey’s equally shameful handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation(s), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in his letter recommending Comey be fired wrote:

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation has long been regarded as our nation’s premier federal investigative agency. Over the past year, however, the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice. That is deeply troubling to many Department employees and veterans, legislators and citizens.

    Donald Ayer, who served as Deputy Attorneys General under President HW Bush, along with former Justice Department officials, was “astonished and perplexed” by [Comey’s] decision to “break with longstanding practices followed by officials of both parties during past elections.” Ayer’s own letter noted, “Perhaps most troubling… is the precedent set by this departure from the Department’s widely-respected, non-partisan traditions.”

    Both men wrote only of Comey-Clinton, but one wonders if they did not have Comey-Steele-Trump in mind as well.

    On May 11, 2017, in an NBC News interview two days after firing Comey, Trump said perhaps more to the point of why he got rid of Comey “I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

    The media at the time was emphatic Trump was referring to firing Comey to end the investigation, when in hindsight another explanation is possible. Trump didn’t fire Comey to end the investigation; anyone would be aware the new FBI director or a Special Counsel would continue it. Trump may have fired Comey for his actions dating back to 2016.

     

    My guess is history will show by January 2017 the FBI likely knew there was nothing to the dossier (one of the first things to read for in the full Mueller report is a clue as to how early he came to understand there was no collusion.) It was only then Comey unveiled the dossier to then president-elect Trump in a 1:1 brief in Trump Tower. That was on January 6, 2017, some three months after using the dossier in part to obtain a FISA warrant against Trump aide Carter Page. Comey almost certainly mentioned while Trump may not have heard of it, the dossier had already been widely shared inside the media, the State Department, and the intelligence community.

    No one really knows what was said in that meeting, but we do know that after holding the dossier since summer 2016 four days after the Trump-Comey dossier meeting Buzzfeed published the whole document and the world learned about the pee tape and you had to explain what Golden Showers are to your mom. Many believe someone in the intel community gave “permission” to the media, signaling Brennan, Clapper, Hayden, Comey, et al, would be making supporting statements that the dossier “could be true.”

    It is possible Trump, paranoid, embarrassed, and defensive, saw Comey’s moves in their January 2017 meeting as a blackmail attempt. Or at least a show of force — look what the FBI can do if you make trouble. Comey’s firing may have had a lot more to do with the dossier than it did with Michael Flynn.

     

    That leaks about Flynn and the Russian ambassador, believed to be from the Obama White House after advisors Susan Rice and Samantha Powers unmasked the identities of various American persons inside intercepts collected incidentally, only added to a sense of paranoia.

    Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate Carter PagePaul Manafort and Richard Gates were also the subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance: they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, and then they were re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state. We now know Michael Cohen, Trump’s own lawyer, was surveilled for years in an operation that walked very close to violating the once-sacrosanct attorney-client privilege. Until more FISA paperwork is released, we do not know the full extent the FBI penetrated the Trump campaign.

    Officials on the National Security Council revealed that Trump himself may also have been swept up in the surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners.
     
    Trump’s March 2017 claims to have been “wiretapped” by Obama, ridiculed by the media at the time, take on new credibility. That surveillance was spearheaded by James Comey and Trump fired him for it.
     
    BONUS:
    A good guess is Mueller took over as Special Counsel already knowing the dossier itself was garbage, but that it had done its job(s) to inflame the media and of course secure the FISA warrants. On Day One Mueller had the intel take from those warrants, which showed no collusion, on his desk. Mueller is a careful guy, so my speculation is he needed a month or two to assure himself. I’ll call it summer 2017 when he had a pretty good idea he was not going to uncover any smoking gun.

      

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy, Trump