• Christopher Steele’s Other Job: He Ran an Info Op Against the United States (How to Steele an Election)

    February 18, 2018 // 4 Comments »

    Christopher Steele did far more than simply provide an opposition research dossier to the Democratic National Committee, his Job One. As a skilled intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States, aided either willingly or unwittingly by the FBI. His second job was the more important one: get his information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

    To understand how effective Steele has been in his op, we need to understand he had two jobs. The first was to create the dossier. The second job was to disseminate the dossier. Steele had to get the information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

     

    Job One: Create the Dossier

    Job One was to create the opposition research. “Oppo” is not a neutral gathering of facts, but a search for negative information that can be used against an opponent. The standards — vetting — vary with the intended use. Some info might be published with documents and verification. Some leads discovered might be planted in hopes a journalist will uncover more “on her own,” creating credibility. Some likely near-falsehoods might be handed out to sleazy media in hopes more legit media will cross report — the New York Times might not initially run a story about a sexual dalliance itself, but it will run a story saying “Buzzfeed reports a sexual dalliance involving…”

    Oppo research follows no rules; this is not peer-reviewed stuff that has to pass an ethics board. One goes out with bags of money shouting “Anyone got dirt on our opponent? We’re paying, but only for dirt!” You look for people who didn’t like a deal, people with an axe to grind, the jilted ex-wife, not the happy current one. So to say oppo research might be biased is to miss the point.

    You’re not required to look too far under a rock that hides something naughty — stop when you’ve got what you came for. It all depends how the information will be deployed. The less sure you are about the veracity of the information you acquire the more you need that info to be inherently palatable; it has to feel right to the intended audience. The old political joke is you need to find a live boy in bed, or a dead girl, to really smear an opponent with a sex scandal. So if you’re going to run with info that supports what the public already sort of believes, the standards are lower.

     

    What Does the Dossier Say?

    Turning to Christopher Steele’s dossier, it looks like he read the same espionage textbook as everyone else. So while it would have been a game-changer had Steele found unambiguous evidence of financial transactions between Trump and the Russian government, that would have required real evidence. Steele’s sources claim money changed hands, but never provide him with proof. On dossier (page 20) one source goes as far as to say no documentary evidence exists.

    That means instead of the complex financing scams you might expect out of Trump, the big takeaway from the dossier is the pee tape, sources claiming the Russians have video to blackmail Trump at any moment. The thing reaches almost the level of parody, because not only does the dossier claim Trump likes fetish sex, the fetish sex occurred in the context of an anti-Obama act (Trump supposedly for his pleasure employed prostitutes to urinate on a bed Obama once slept in.) As for other sex parties Trump supposedly participated in, the dossier notes all direct witnesses were “silenced.” You couldn’t do better if you made it all up.

    In fact, the thing reads very much like what lay people imagine spies come up with. In real intelligence work, documents showing transactions from cash to commercial paper to gold run through a Cayman Islands’ bank are much more effective than dirty video; the latter can be denied, and may or may not even matter to a public already bored by boasts of pussy grabbing and rawdog sex with porn stars. The former will show up in court as part of a racketeering and tax evasion charge that dead solid perfect sends people to jail. Intelligence officers who pay out sources maintain meticulous receipts; you think their own agencies trust them with bags of cash? And in the dark world, prostitutes don’t need to be “silenced.” They have no credibility in most people’s’ minds to begin with, and a trail of bodies just attracts attention. And unlike Steele’s product, real intel reporting is full of qualifiers, maybes, liklies and so forth, not a laundry list of certainties, because you know your own sources have an agenda. The dossier is also short of the kind of verifiable details of specific dates and places you’d expect. It is a collection of unverifiable assertions by second-hand sources, not evidence. Steele is a smart man, an experienced intelligence officer, who knew exactly what he was writing — a dossier that will read true to the rubes.

    So it is not surprising to date there has been no public corroboration of anything in the dossier. If significant parts of the dossier could be proven, there would be grounds for impeachment with no further work needed. At least one fact has been disproven –Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, produced his passport to rebut the dossier’s claim that he had secret meetings in Prague with a Russian official.

    Job Two: Run the Info Op, Place the Dossier

    Steele excelled at turning his dossier into a full-spectrum information operation, what some might call information warfare. This is what separates his work creating the dossier (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work infiltrating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of op. You want foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

    Steele’s skill is revealed by the Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream — his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA court.

    Steele admits he briefed journalists off-the-record starting in summer and autumn 2016. His most significant hit came when journalist Michael Isikoff broke the story of Trump associate Carter Page’s alleged connections to Russia. Isikoff did not cite the dossier or Steele as sources, and in fact denied they were when questioned.

    Isikoff’s story didn’t just push negative information about Trump into the public consciousness. It claimed U.S. intel officials were probing ties between a Trump adviser and the Kremlin, adding credibility; the feds themselves felt the info was worthwhile! Better yet for Steele, Isikoff claimed the information came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source,” suggesting it originated from a third-party and was picked up by Western spies instead of being written by one. Steele also placed articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Mother Jones, and others.

    At the same time, Steele’s info reached influential people like John McCain, who could then pick up a newspaper and believe he was seeing the “secret” info from Steele confirmed independently by an experienced journalist. And how did McCain first learn about Steele’s work? At a conference in Canada, via Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis, Christopher Steele’s research firm.

    A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department, an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed information from Clinton associates Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer (both men played also active roles behind in the scenes feeding Clinton dubious information on Libya) to and from Steele. The Grassley memo suggests there is was a second Steele document, in addition to the dossier, already shared with State and the FBI but not made public.

    The Gold Medal: Become the Source of Someone Else’s Investigation

    While seeding his dossier in the media and around Washington, Steele was also meeting in secret with the FBI (he claims he did not inform Fusion GPS, his employer), via an FBI counterintelligence handler in Rome. Steele began feeding the FBI in July 2016 with updates into the fall, apparently in the odd guise of simply a deeply concerned, loyal British subject. “This is something of huge significance, way above party politics,” Steele commented as to his motives.

    The FBI, in the process of working Steele, would have likely characterized him as a “source,” technically a “extra-territorial confidential human source.” That meant the dossier’s claims appeared to come from the ex-MI6 officer with the good reputation, not second-hand from who knows who in Russia (the FBI emphasized Steele’s reputation when presenting the dossier to the FISC.) Think of it as a kind of money laundering which, like that process, helped muddy the real source of the goods.

    The FBI used the Steele dossier to apply for a FISA court surveillance warrant against Carter Page. The FBI also submitted Isikoff’s story as collaborating evidence, without explaining the article and the dossier were effectively one in the same. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination, an amateur error. The FBI however, according to the Nunes memo, did not tell the FISA court the Steele dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee as commissioned opposition research, nor did they tell the court the Isikoff article presented as collaborating evidence was in fact based on the same dossier.

    Steele reached an agreement with the FBI a few weeks before the election for the bureau to pay him $50,000 to continue his “research,” though the deal is believed to have fallen through after the dossier became public (though an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele did in fact operate as a fully paid FBI asset.) Along the way the FBI also informed Steele of their separate investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos, a violation of security and a possible tainting of Steele’s research going forward.

    Gold Medal Plus: Collaborate Your Own Information

    The Nunes memo also showed then-associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr back-channeled additional material from Steele into the DOJ while working with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and her replacement, Rod Rosenstein. Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, on Steele’s project. Ohr’s wife would be especially valuable in that she would be able to clandestinely supply info to collaborate what Steele told the FBI and, via her husband, know to tailor what she passed to the questions DOJ had. The FBI did not disclose the role of Ohr’s wife, who speaks Russian and has previously done contract work for the CIA, to the FISA court.

    Ohr’s wife only began work for Fusion GPS in September/October 2016, as the FBI sought the warrant against Page based on the Steele dossier. Ohr’s wife taking a new job with Fusion GPS at that critical juncture screams of the efforts of an experienced intelligence officer looking to create yet another pipeline inside, essentially his own asset.

    Steele’s Success, With a Little Help From His Friends

    All talk of Russia aside, it is difficult to find evidence of a foreigner who played a more significant role in the election than Christopher Steele. Steele took a dossier paid for by one party and drove it deep into the United States. Steele’s work formed in part the justification for a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate, the end game of which has not yet been written.

    Steele maneuvered himself from paid opposition researcher to clandestine source for the FBI. Steele then may have planted the spouse of a senior DOJ employee as a second clandestine source to move more information into DOJ. In the intelligence world, that is as good as it gets; via two seemingly independent channels you are controlling the opponent’s information cycle.

    Steele further manipulated the American media to have his information amplified and given credibility. By working simultaneously as both an anonymous and a cited source, he got his same info out as if it was coming from multiple places.

    There is informed speculation Steele was more than a source for the FBI, and actually may have been tasked and paid to search for specific information, essentially working as a double agent for the FBI and the DNC. Others have raised questions about Steele’s status as “retired” from British intelligence, as the lines among working for MI6, working at MI6, and working with MI6 are often times largely a matter of semantics. Unless Steele wanted to burn all of his contacts within British intelligence, it is highly unlikely he would insert himself into an American presidential campaign without at least informing his old workmates, if not seeking tacit permission (for the record, Steele’s old boss at MI6 calls the dossier credible; an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele shared all of his information with MI6.) It is unclear if the abrupt January 2017 resignation of Robert Hannigan, the head of Britain’s NSA-like Government Communications Headquarters, is related in any way to Steele’s work becoming public.

    As for the performance of the DOJ/FBI, we do not have enough information to judge whether they were incompetent, or simply willing partners to what Steele was up to, using him as a handy pretext to open legal surveillance on someone inside the Trump circle (surveillance on Page may have also monitored Steve Bannon.)

     

    How to Steele an Election

    The Washington Post characterized Steele as “struggling to navigate dual obligations — to his private clients, who were paying him to help Clinton win, and to a sense of public duty born of his previous life.” The Washington Post has no idea how intelligence officers work. Their job is to befriend and engage the target to carry out the goals of their employer. When they do it right, the public summation is a line like the Post offered; you never even knew you were being used. In the macho world of intelligence, the process is actually described more crudely, having to do with using enough lubrication so the target didn’t even feel a rough thing pushed up a very sensitive place.

    Steele played the FBI while the FBI thought they were playing him. Or the other way around, because everyone was looking the other way. Steele ran a classic info op against the United States, getting himself inside the cycle as a clean source. Robert Mueller should be ashamed of himself if he uses any of Steele’s dossier, or any information obtained via that dossier. That’s where our democracy stands at the moment.

     

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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Oh Hell Yes the Nunes Memo Matters (But Not Why You Think It Does)

    February 10, 2018 // 6 Comments »

    California Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo details how the Department of Justice secured a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Many feel the memo raises questions about bias inside the FBI, and the legal and ethical use of a Trump opposition research dossier as justification for a FISA warrant. Others claim the memo is irrelevant, a dud.

     

    When you wave away all the partisan smoke, what is deeply worrisome is the Nunes memo confirms American intelligence services were involved in a presidential campaign and remain so in the aftermath. No more conspiracy theories. So forget what you “agree” with, and focus on what happened during the 2016 campaign.

    The FBI conducted an investigation, the first ever of a major party candidate in the midst of a presidential battle, and exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing over her private email server, a government-endorsed “OK” for her expected victory. No real investigation was conducted into the vast sums of money moving between foreign states and the Clinton Foundation, dead-ending those concerns to partisan media.

    A month before voting the Obama administration accused the Russian government of stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the leaked emails (which reflected poorly on Clinton) “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The FBI swung again and said well maybe there was something to see in Clinton’s emails, buried on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. The CIA/NSA meanwhile leaked like cheap diapers throughout the campaign. Trump owes money to Russia. Trump’s computers communicate with Russia. The Russians have sexy kompromat on Trump. That the newly-elected president is literally a tool of Russian intelligence became a common element in the national conversation (John McCain on the Nunes memo release: “We are doing Putin’s job for him.”)

    Leave aside the question of what in all of the above is actually true. Maybe Clinton’s private email server exposed no secrets. Maybe Trump’s real estate ventures have dirty Russian money in them. Or maybe not, it is doubtful any of us will ever know. What is important is each of those actions by the intelligence community affected the course of the election. They may not have always shifted votes in the intended way, or there theoretically may have been no intention per se, but the bare naked fact is unlike any previous presidential election the intelligence community played an ongoing public role in who ended up in the White House, and now, for how long the elected president remains there.

     

    And of course the intelligence community was deep in the Steele dossier, the focal point of the Nunes memo. Christopher Steele is a former British intelligence officer with a long history of close work with his American counterparts. He was commissioned first by a conservative website to develop dirt (“opposition research”) on candidate Trump. Funding swiftly shifted to Clinton surrogates, who saw the thing through to being leaked to the FBI. Steele’s product, the dossier, is a collection of second-hand gossip, dangling suggestions of entanglements between Trump and shadowy Russians, and of course, the infamous pee tape. Nothing in the dossier has been confirmed. It might all be true, or none of it. We will likely never know.

    The FBI nonetheless embraced the dossier and morphed it from opposition research into evidence. Per the Nunes memo, the Steele dossier, and a “collaborating” article actually derived from the same information leaked by Steele to the author, then became part the legal justification for a FISA surveillance warrant issued against Trump associate Carter Page. A product of unclear reliability created and promoted via the opponent’s campaign abetted by the western intelligence community justified the demand to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

    Much will be made of how influential, or not, the Steele dossier was in obtaining the original FISA warrant, and whether or not its use was legal at all. The Nunes memo states recently “retired” FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe confirmed no FISA warrant would have been sought without the Steele dossier; McCabe denies saying that during still-classified and still-unreleased testimony. Senior DOJ officials knew the dossier’s politics but left that information off their FISA application. Does any of that matter?

    We will never know. The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act court works in secret. The standards are secret, the results and decisions are secret. None of us knows what matters to a FISA judge in rendering a decision to spy on an American campaign associate. Someone can release the so-called “underlying documents” (they’re typically dozens of pages long) DOJ used for the FISA application but without knowledge of FISA standards, those documents won’t be of much help. The apparatus of spying in America, including the FISA court, is widely supported and authority to spy was just extended with support from both parties.

    If you want to assert the FISA warrant on Page was apolitical, issued only to collect on his possible role as a Russian agent, and no strategy, financial, or campaign information was collected, or that if it was it was simply discarded, well, that’s a beneficent view of human nature, never mind a bizarrely generous level of trust in government. Yet even if the intent was righteous and the people involved lawful, the information is stored. Which person or agency has control of it today is not necessarily who will control it in the future; information is forever.

     

    Remember, too, the Nunes memo addresses only one FISA warrant on one person from October 2016; investigations into Trump, et al, had been ongoing well before that. We do not know, for example, what information formed the basis of the July 2016 investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos the Nunes memo mentions; it may have been passed from the Australians via U.S. intelligence. Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian persons were “inadvertently” monitored and later “unmasked” (and leaked) by Obama administration officials. Jeff Session’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were collected and leaked. The Nunes memo tells us then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr unofficially funneled additional material from Steele into DOJ; Ohr’s wife worked for the company that first commissioned the dossier. As yet unsubstantiated reports say Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners, a common arrangement on both sides to get around domestic laws limiting such work on one’s own citizens, such as when a FISA warrant can’t be obtained, or one does not want to leave a paper trail.

     

    If you’re fine with the U.S. government using paid-for opposition research to justify spying on persons connected to presidential campaign staff, then nothing further I can write will help you understand how worrisome this disclosure is. Except maybe this. Switch the candidate’s name you hate with the one you like. That means President Trump surveilling staff from the Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign after a dossier commissioned by the Republican party links them to China. You’d trust Trump, and every future president, with that, right?

    The involvement of the intelligence community as in the 2016 presidential campaign, clumsy and disorganized as it appears to have been, will be part of the next election, and the ones after that. If you’re in search of a Constitutional crisis, it lies waiting there. After all, when we let George W. Bush create, and Barack Obama greatly expand, the surveillance state, what did we think it would come to be used for?

     

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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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