The invention of the Trump-Russia conspiracy
New revelations implicate Hillary Clinton, Russian spies, and a British muckraker
Russia interfered in America’s general election of 2016, by stoking racial tensions on social media and hacking the Democratic Party’s emails. At the end of July 2016, the FBI launched an investigation (“Crossfire Hurricane”). A British former spy (Christopher Steele) soon persuaded Crossfire Hurricane to incorporate his allegations of a conspiracy between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Steele supplied information for which he had been paid already by agents of the Democratic Party.
The Trump-Russia conspiracy was actually an opposition conspiracy theory. The fact that the Trump campaign exploited the Russian hack doesn’t change the fact that the campaign wasn’t in on it. In late September 2020, the US government declassified a new tranche of evidence, suggesting that Hillary Clinton and Russian spies were involved in this conspiracy theory.
The fact that the Trump campaign exploited the Russian hack doesn’t change the fact that the campaign wasn’t in on it
In December 2019, the US Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a report of nearly 500 pages, after examining more than 1 million documents and more than 100 witnesses, including Steele. Parts of this report were redacted. The redactions and other evidence have been slowly declassified since then.
These declassifications make clear that Steele and some people working in the FBI were biased, dishonest, and unjust. These people do not represent the a-political and judicious FBI agents I have known over the last decade (although I was involved in the development of counterterrorism, not anything political). One of those agents told me he was “shocked and saddened” by the revelations. He described them as “a stain on our reputation that will take years to fade.” (I asked the FBI to review this article for comment before publication: it declined to do so.)
Honest criticism of the investigators does not absolve the Trump supporters who did not cooperate fully. The issue here is that Crossfire Hurricane was distracted from Russia’s interference by bias against Trump.
Crossfire Hurricane was dissolved when Robert Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, was appointed as a Special Counsel, with powers both to investigate Russian interference generally and to indict individuals, including foreigners. The criminal cases against four Trump campaigners dragged into March 2019, when Mueller submitted his final report. By then, two Trump campaigners had been convicted, essentially for failing to cooperate. Similar charges were dropped against two others. All claimed to be victims of a political conspiracy. At least one (Carter Page) was a victim, according to the official enquiries. And his tribulation started with a conscious smear campaign by the Democratic Party.
Political wonks knew by March 2016 that Hillary’s campaign was gathering dirt, when Wikileaks published emails written in late February by Hillary’s new director of communications (Jennifer Palmieri, formerly an aide to Barack Obama). She discusses the need to be ready after the primaries with “the Trump swift boat project” (named after the George W. Bush campaign’s demolition in 2004 of John Kerry’s war record).
The government’s latest declassifications reveal intelligence that on 26th July 2016 Hillary Clinton approved a foreign policy advisor’s plan to publicize an allegation that Trump was complicit in Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee. On 28th July, the Director of the CIA (John Brennan) briefed President Obama about the intelligence. Brennan’s hand-written notes prove this. (Nevertheless, in August this year Brennan portrayed Hillary as the victim. He wrote for a newspaper that he told Obama “that Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized his intelligence services to carry out activities to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.”)
On 31st July, the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane. The officials who opened it told the Inspector General that they were responding to the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee, and did not know about Steele’s dossier until weeks later.
These officials claimed also to be unaware that Trump’s political opponents were paying for Steele’s dirt. A conservative group that opposed Trump’s run for the Republican nomination in 2015 had paid for it first. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid for further development into the various reports subsequently known as Steele’s dossier. Throughout, Steele’s immediate client was an investigative firm, but he knew the identity of the ultimate consumers. The FBI knew the identity of the investigative firm and the owner (Glenn Simpson) of the firm, and that Simpson was handling Steele directly and was being paid by someone associated with the Democratic Party. The FBI could have subpoenaed any Americans holding the information, but did not press Steele to reveal who they were.
The FBI’s relationship with Steele goes back to at least 2007. By then, Steele was friendly with an attorney working with FBI agents to counter organized crime (Bruce Ohr). At the time, Steele was in charge of the Russia desk at MI6. In 2009, Steele left MI6 to co-found a private intelligence firm. In 2010, Steele became a source to the FBI. The only officially admitted topic from the early years was corruption at FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football). Nevertheless, strangely, the FBI did not designate Steele as a confidential human source (CHS) until 2013.
Ohr became Steele’s intermediary with the FBI when Steele wanted to share dirt on Trump. The Inspector General notes (without comment) that Ohr’s wife worked as a contractor at the investigative firm that had already paid Steele for the dirt.
The Inspector General “found that the FBI and Steele held significantly differing views about the nature of their relationship. Steele’s handling agent viewed Steele as a former intelligence officer colleague and FBI CHS, with obligations to the FBI. Steele, on the other hand, told us that he was a businessperson whose firm (not Steele) had a contractual agreement with the FBI and whose obligations were to his paying clients, not the FBI.”
Steele’s handling agent received two of Steele’s election reports more than 7 weeks before the Crossfire Hurricane team received any (19th September 2016).
Up to this time, the FBI claimed to find Steele’s information reliable, but later admitted that his election reports were not reliable.
Steele’s handling agent told the Inspector General that s/he realized upon first receipt of Steele’s reports in July 2016 that they were politically motivated. The supervisor of the intelligence squad within Crossfire Hurricane concluded the same. Ohr told Crossfire Hurricane that Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump [should] not get elected and was passionate about him not being the US President.”
Steele’s reports are best characterized as long lists of hearsay
Steele’s reports are best characterized as long lists of hearsay, including: Trump’s acceptance of bribes and prostitutes for business in Russia; Russia’s use of such information to influence Trump; Trump’s supply of private intelligence on Russian dissidents in America in return for Russian intelligence on his political opponents; and the Trump campaign’s conspiracy with Russia to defeat Hillary.
Steele had not directly observed anything in his reports. Almost all Steele’s content was attributed to one source. The government’s declassifications show that this source was a Ukrainian-born Russian lawyer (Igor Danchenko). He worked at the Brookings Institution in Washington from 2005 to 2010. In late 2008, he approached a colleague with an offer to make money selling classified information. (This colleague was a researcher for “an influential foreign policy advisor in the Obama administration.”) This approach prompted FBI counterintelligence agents to investigate. They established that Danchenko was associating with two other subjects of counterintelligence investigation, the Russian Embassy, and Russian intelligence officers, since at least 2005. In 2006, Danchenko discussed with a Russian intelligence officer entering Russia’s diplomatic service. Days later, he was supplying documents for diplomatic despatch to Russia. The FBI sought to surveil Danchenko in 2010, but he returned to Russia within two months. Consequently, the investigation was closed in 2011.
In January, March, and May 2017, the FBI interviewed Danchenko. From the start, the FBI found multiple inconsistencies with Steele’s reports. For instance, whereas Steele reported that a Russian official had corroborated Trump’s engagement in weird sexual practices with Russian prostitutes, Danchenko said it was rumour. Danchenko explicitly contradicted Steele’s allegation of a “well-developed conspiracy.” Yet as late as July 2018 the Department of Justice was still telling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Danchenko corroborated Steele.
Steel himself admitted to Crossfire Hurricane that a secondary source was a “boaster” and an “egoist” who “may engage in some embellishment.” The FBI would open a counterintelligence investigation into that person in September 2016.
September 2016 is a damning month for the FBI. On 7th September, the intelligence community formally referred its intelligence on the Hillary campaign’s plot, as a criminal matter, to the FBI’s Director (James Comey) and head of counterintelligence. Instead, the FBI persisted with Steele’s allegation alone.
In the same month, Crossfire Hurricane used Steele’s reports to seek authorization to surveil Carter Page. Every level of the FBI approved, all the way up to Director Comey. The Inspector General later blamed “the Crossfire Hurricane team failing to share all relevant information.” The team had neither corroborated any of Steele’s information, nor sought his handling agent’s approval, when it petitioned the court to grant a warrant given Steele’s words alone. The team misdescribed Steele’s prior information as “corroborated and used in criminal proceedings.” In fact, most of Steele’s information never was corroborated, and none was used in criminal proceedings.
Perversely, Crossfire Hurricane was offering Steele’s ethos as an intelligence source while omitting to mention that the subject of surveillance (Carter Page) was another intelligence source, albeit to a different agency. From 2008 to 2013, Page had supplied information about his contacts with Russian intelligence officers in Russia. Now one of those contacts was being used in the petition as probable cause to surveil Page!
Moreover, Page had already (in August 2016) told a separate FBI CHS, on the record, that he had never communicated with the alleged American ringleader of the international conspiracy (Paul Manafort). This information too was omitted from the petition.
Still, the Crossfire Hurricane team’s omissions and inaccuracies do not fully absolve the rest of the FBI (or the Justice Department). For instance, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the National Security Division dissented, having correctly suspected that Democratic Party campaigners were funding Steele. Why was his dissent drowned? The Inspector General does not attempt to answer.
In 2019, Carter Page was exonerated, and two of the four warrants to surveil him were ruled invalid. The Inspector General explicitly set out to find facts not blame, but makes no bones about the “multiple” procedural and factual errors in the petitions to surveil Page. “That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision”.
The Crossfire Hurricane team’s omissions and inaccuracies do not fully absolve the rest of the FBI (or the Justice Department)
Nevertheless, the Inspector General concluded that Crossfire Hurricane was not partisan. Comey’s most recent testimony to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee (on 30th September) repeatedly cited this conclusion. He admitted errors in Crossfire Hurricane, but strangely added: “I would say in the main it was done by the book. It was appropriate and it was essential that it be done.”
The Crossfire Hurricane team decided to pursue surveillance of Page within days of receiving Steele’s reports. At the same time, Steele leaked the decision to a left-wing publication (Yahoo News) for a prejudicial article (“US intel officials probe ties between Trump advisor and Kremlin,” 23 September 2016). Yet the FBI falsely absolved Steele at the time, without even asking him.
The warrant to surveil Page was signed in late October 2016. Within days, Steele told the story to another left-wing publication (Mother Jones), which entitled an article about him (“A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump”). Mother Jones did not name the “veteran spy,” but Steele admitted to the FBI he was one of the article’s sources. Steele was briefing many other news outlets at the same time. Such publicity was part of the Hillary campaign’s strategy. And the investigative firm was being paid to brief as well as investigate. In November 2016, the FBI terminated Steele’s status as a CHS. Nevertheless, Crossfire Hurricane continued to take his information through Ohr.
In November and December, FBI agents obtained both negative and positive information about Steele from his contacts abroad. The negative information included statements that he “[d]emonstrates lack of self-awareness [and] poor judgement,” “didn’t always exercise great judgement,” and “pursued people with political risk but no intelligence value.” Agents failed to place this information in either his CHS file or their petitions to renew their surveillance of Page.
In December, the FBI involved other agencies in the intelligence on Russian interference. The CIA opposed Steele’s information, which it characterized to the FBI as an “internet rumour.” However, the highest levels of the FBI maintained it.
The authorization to surveil Page was renewed three times, through June 2017. In the final renewal, a new supervisor insisted on confirmation that Page had not been a source for another agency. The other agency confirmed he had, but a legal counsel at the FBI inserted “not a source” into the liaison’s email before forwarding it on. In August this year, that counsel (Kevin Clinesmith) pled guilty to making a false statement to the supervisor. This is the first criminal case brought against anyone involved in Crossfire Hurricane, pursuant to an investigation that started in May 2019.
Last Sunday (27th September), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee (Lindsey Graham) told Fox News that he would be shocked if more officials of the FBI and Department of Justice were not indicted. He hinted at other targets yet to be disclosed: “There’s a day of reckoning coming, just stay tuned, and there’s more coming, there’s something else coming, more damning than this, believe it or not.”
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe