The end of the Mueller investigation and the release of the brief summary of findings by Attorney General William Barr has brought a brief moment of sanity back to American politics — and a nanosecond of introspection to the NeverTrump weenies (go read The Bulwark if you doubt me) — as everyone realizes that we have come through what can only be described as a soft coup directed at the President of the United States. Whether it started out that way, or simply became that because the FBI and Justice are staffed with idiots, we have no way of knowing right now. The other thing that is being openly discussed is the origins of the so-called Steele Dossier. (This is the opposition research file composed by retired British spy Christopher Steele while operating under contract to the Clinton campaign.)
The Daily Caller poses an interesting proposition, based on interviews with various counterintelligence types. It posits that the Steele dossier should be viewed as possibly a Russian disinformation product. I like this idea because it conforms to my own conclusions from last year. (See The Steele Memo Is Much More Likely Russian Dezinformatsiya Than It Is Intelligence and How The CIA Spent $100,000 Chasing Bogus Information On President Trump.)
There are other theories for how Steele wound up publishing what appears to be false information.
One possibility floated by some Trump supporters, but that has no evidence, is that Steele or his paymaster, Fusion GPS, fabricated information in the dossier. A more charitable theory is that the dossier is based on half-baked rumors and innuendo provided to Steele through his network of sources within the Russian government.
But intelligence experts said the intelligence community should be on the lookout for a more nefarious scenario.
“Any time in the counterintelligence business you believe the U.S. intelligence community was duped by foreigners, that is a prima facie reason a counterintelligence investigation,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a constitutional attorney and intelligence expert who served in the Regan and Bush administrations.
“By definition, since there was no collusion, the dossier was disinformation, so the intelligence community was misled.”
Daniel Hoffman, a 30-year CIA veteran, said he believes the intelligence community has likely done an assessment of whether the dossier was the product of Russian disinformation, known as dezinformansiya or deza, for short.
Hoffman wrote on his suspicion that the dossier had its roots inside the Kremlin.
There is a third possibility, namely that the dossier was part of a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process. This is what seems most likely to me, having spent much of my 30-year government career, including with the CIA, observing Soviet and then Russian intelligence operations. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that Vladimir Putin continues in the Soviet tradition of using disinformation and espionage as foreign-policy tools.
There are three reasons the Kremlin would have detected Mr. Steele’s information gathering and seen an opportunity to intervene. First, Mr. Steele did not travel to Russia to acquire his information and instead relied on intermediaries. That is a weak link, since Russia’s internal police service, the FSB, devotes significant technical and human resources to blanket surveillance of Western private citizens and government officials, with a particular focus on uncovering their Russian contacts.
Second, Mr. Steele was an especially likely target for such surveillance given that he had retired from MI-6, the British spy agency, after serving in Moscow. Russians are fond of saying that there is no such thing as a “former” intelligence officer. The FSB would have had its eye on him.
Third, the Kremlin successfully hacked into the Democratic National Committee. Emails there could have tipped it off that the Clinton campaign was collecting information on Mr. Trump’s dealings in Russia.
If the FSB did discover that Mr. Steele was poking around for information, it hardly could have resisted using the gravitas of a retired MI-6 agent to plant false information. After hacking the DNC and senior Democratic officials, Russian intelligence chose to pass the information to WikiLeaks, most likely to capitalize on that group’s “self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity,” according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Simultaneously the Kremlin was conducting influence operations on Facebook and other social-media sites.
The pattern of such Russian operations is to sprinkle false information, designed to degrade the enemy’s social and political infrastructure, among true statements that enhance the veracity of the overall report. In 2009 the FSB wanted to soil the reputation of a U.S. diplomat responsible for reporting on human rights. So it fabricated a video, in part using real surveillance footage of the diplomat, that purported to show him with a prostitute in Moscow.
Similarly, some of the information in the Steele dossier is true. Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, did travel to Moscow in the summer of 2016. But he insists that the secret meetings the dossier alleges never happened. This is exactly what you’d expect if the Kremlin followed its usual playbook: accurate basic facts provided as bait to convince Americans that the fake info is real.
Let me lay out some key things to consider about this.
Christopher Steele has ties to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Deripaska, we know, acted as a cut-out working for the FBI on at least one occasion. (See There Might Be A Very Good Reason Why Mueller Is Not Indicting Paul Manafort’s Russian Business Partner). Deripaska was also a client of FusionGPS, the firm that hired Steele. The two Russians, Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who met with Donald Trump, Jr. and others at Trump Tower were employed by FusionGPS on the project to have sanctions lifted from Deripaska. Deripaska has close ties to the Kremlin because that is the only way a rich guy stays out of prison in Russia.
Steele used third parties to gather his material.
Steele is known to the Kremlin and can’t travel in Russia. To get around this impediment, Steele hired intermediaries to collect “intelligence” on his “target.” We don’t know who these people were or how they were read into the project, but, based on the Steele-Deripaska connection it is likely that Steele used Deripaska or someone close to him to identify the intermediaries. What we also don’t know is how these people approached their own interviews. Steele claims the sources, themselves, were not paid, but we have no way of knowing that and neither does Steele.
Most of Steele’s sources are current or former FSB/SVR thugs.
As I documented in The Steele Memo Is Much More Likely Russian Dezinformatsiya Than It Is Intelligence, the overwhelming majority of sources in Steele’s dossier are current or former members of Russia’s intelligence or counterintelligence services. When these people were questioned by Steele’s intermediaries one would think that, as current and former intelligence personnel, some of their antennae would have started to nervously twitch and they would have made their own inquiries. It was probably obvious to the FSB in a very short period of time that several people were all asking the same kinds of questions. If, as I think, Steele used Deripaska to find intermediaries, it is probable his project was disclosed to Moscow in real time and the sources were part of the disinformation.
The scenario above is much more likely the actual sequence of events than Steele being able to find intermediaries and have them ask very specific and highly charged questions of current and former intelligence operatives without attracting notice of any kind.
If the FSB did notice or were forewarned, then Hoffman’s surmise is exactly right. It would have been child’s play to dangle illusive but irresistible factoids in front of Steele mixing in just enough easily verifiable information to give leaven to the entire loaf of nonsense. If we take the CIA’s own assessment, that the Russians wanted to sow confusion and dissent in the US, Steele handed them the pitch-perfect instrument to accomplish that. Steele’s history with the FBI and his status as a respected (former, we hope) member of the British intelligence community added a stamp of approval on his product that few others would have received. His own confidence that he’d weighed and discounted the possibility that he was being played by the FSB and SVR gave comfort to US agencies. The fact that the CIA spent money trying to run down the particulars must have been particularly sweet validation to the Russians that their hook was set deep in the fish they were trying to land.
Oddly enough, the FBI and CIA being fooled by a Russian disinformation product is actually a best-case scenario.
Once the dossier was introduced and accepted, most of the rest of the tale makes sense. The FISA warrants on Carter Page, the secret press briefings, shopping the dossier to John McCain so he could bring it to the FBI, passing the dossier to Bruce Ohr, would have been the logical byproducts of a counterintelligence apparatus desperate to come to grips with what to do with the dossier as the owners of the dossier wanted to see it in play during the election. I say most for a reason. Steele not only had indirect contacts with the Kremlin via Deripaska; he had a relationship with current and former members of the CIA as well as an ongoing relationship with the FBI. The launching of FBI informant (and apparent British intelligence informant) Stephen Halper at members of Trump’s campaign to act as a provocateur, the contact between the Australian Andrew Downer and George Papadopoulos, the role of Joseph Mifsud, the $10,000 in cash given to Papadopoulos (reporting of which would trigger FinCen reports) before the return flight to the US and arrest at the airport, all reek of an operation run by one or more foreign intelligence services from allegedly friendly countries. Why, one wonders, would they do that unless they were doing it at the behest of John Brennan’s CIA? And, if they weren’t, why did it happen?
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