• 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

    Was It All Just Pilot Error? IG Report Says No Political Bias Found in FBI Investigation of Clinton Email

    June 21, 2018 // 25 Comments »



    What everyone will agree on: Comey and the FBI interfered with the election. What everyone will not agree on: Everything else.

    It will be easy to miss the most important point amid the partisan bleating over what the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General report on the FBI’s Clinton email investigation really means. While each side will find the evidence they want to find that the FBI, with James Comey as Director, helped/hurt Hillary Clinton’s and/or maybe Donald Trump’s campaign, the real takeaway is this: the FBI influenced the election of a president.

    In January 2017 the Inspector General (IG) for the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz (who previously worked on the 2012 study of the Obama-era gun operation Fast and Furious), opened his probe into the FBI’s Clinton email investigation, including statements by Comey made about that investigation at critical moments in the presidential campaign. Horowitz’s focus was always to be on how the FBI did its work, not to re-litigate the case against Clinton. Nor did the IG plan to look into anything Russiagate.

    In a damning passage, the 568 page report found it “extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to conceal his intentions from his superiors… for the admitted purpose of preventing them from telling him not to make the statement, and to instruct his subordinates in the FBI to do the same… by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.” Comey’s drafting of a press release announcing no prosecution for Clinton, written before the full investigation was even completed, is given a light touch though in the report, along the lines of roughly preparing for the conclusion based on early indications. We also learned Comey ironically used private email for government business.

    Attorney General Loretta Lynch herself is criticized for not being more sensitive to public perceptions when she agreed to meet privately with Bill Clinton aboard an airplane as the FBI investigation into Hillary unfolded. “Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance problem… and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment.” Her statements later about her decision not to recuse further “created public confusion and didn’t adequately address the situation.”

    The report also criticizes in depth FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged texts disparaging Trump, and then moved from the Clinton email to the Russiagate investigations. Those texts “brought discredit” to the FBI and sowed public doubt about the investigation, including one exchange that read “Lisa Page: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Rights?! Peter Strzok: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” Another Strzok document stated “we know foreign actors obtained access” to some Clinton emails, including at least one secret message.”

    Page and Strzok also discussed cutting back the number of investigators present for Clinton’s in-person interview in light of the fact she might soon be president, their new boss. Someone identified only as Agent One went on to refer to Clinton as “the President” and in a message told a friend “I’m with her.” The FBI also allowed Clinton’s lawyers to attend the interview, even though they were also considered witnesses to a potential set of crimes committed by Clinton.

    Page and Strzok were among five FBI officials the report found expressed hostility toward Trump before his election as president, and who have been referred to the FBI’s internal disciple system for possible action. The report otherwise makes only wishy-washy recommendations, things like “adopting a policy addressing the appropriateness of Department employees discussing the conduct of uncharged individuals in public statements.”

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated he will review the report for possible prosecutions. The IG previously referred former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for possible prosecution after an earlier report found McCabe leaked to the press and later “lacked candor” when speaking to Comey and federal investigators. Sessions fired McCabe him in March 2018.

    But at the end of it all, the details really don’t matter, because the report found no political bias, no purposeful efforts or strategy to sway the election. In aviation disaster terms, it was all pilot error. An accident of sorts, as opposed to the pilot boarding drunk, but the plane crashed and killed 300 people anyway.

    The report is already being welcomed by Democrats — who feel Comey had shattered Clinton’s chances of winning the election by reopening the email probe just days before the election — and by Republicans, who feel Comey let Clinton off easy. Many are now celebrating it was only gross incompetence, unethical behavior, serial bad judgment, and insubordination that led the FBI to help determine the election. No Constitutional crisis. A lot of details in those 568 pages to yet fully parse, but at first glance there is not much worthy of prosecution (though IG Horowitz will testify in front of Congress on Monday and may reveal more information.) Each side will point to the IG’s conclusion of “no bias” to shut down calls for this or that in a tsunami of blaming each other. In that sense, the IG just poured a can of jet fuel onto the fires of the 2016 election and walked away to watch it burn.

    One concrete outcome, however, is to weaken a line of prosecution Special Counsel Robert Mueller may be pursuing. To say Comey acted incompetently during the election, albeit in ways that appear to have helped Trump, does not add to the argument he is otherwise competent, on Russia or any other topic. An FBI director willing to play in politics with an investigation is simply that, an FBI director who has abandoned the core principles of his job and can’t be trusted. Defend him because it was all good natured bad judgment doesn’t add anything healthy to the question of competency.

    Mueller has just seen a key witness degraded — any defense lawyer will characterize his testimony as tainted now — and a possible example of obstruction weakened. As justification for firing Comey, the White House initially pointed to an earlier Justice Department memo criticizing Comey for many of the same actions now highlighted by the IG (adding later concerns about the handling of Russiagate.) The report thus underscores one of the stated reasons for Comey’s dismissal. Firing someone for incompetence isn’t obstructing justice; it’s the boss’ job.

    It will be too easy, however, to miss the most important conclusion of the report: there is no longer a way to claim America’s internal intelligence agency, the FBI, did not play a role in the 2016 election. There is only to argue which side they favored and whether they meddled via clumsiness, as a coordinated action, or as a chaotic cluster of competing pro- and anti- Clinton/Trump factions inside the Bureau. And that’s the tally before anyone brings up the FBI’s use of a human informant inside the Trump campaign, the FBI’s use of both FISA warrants and pseudo-legal warrantless surveillance against key members of the Trump team, the FBI’s use of opposition research from the Steele Dossier, and so on.

    The only good news is the Deep State seems less competent than we originally feared. But even if one fully accepts the IG report’s conclusion all this — and there’s a lot — was not intentional, at a minimum it makes clear to those watching ahead of 2020 what tools are available and the impact they can have. While we continue to look for the bad guy abroad, we have already met the enemy and he is us.



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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