Note on a new book

On the Great Russia Caper

After the holidays, I’ll be starting a new serial book in this space, replacing Untitledgate with The Great Russia Caper.

I spent a good part of the last three years, and much of this past summer and fall, talking to people in and around the Russia investigation. Two themes kept emerging, in conversation with everyone from targets of the investigation to government investigators to reporters bylined on “bombshell” news stories.

One is rank comedy. Elements of this story involve serious abuses of power, but the defining characteristic of the Russia controversy is the proud American ignorance of the main characters. In that respect, it’s similar to the Iraq story. That was about oil, yes, but our Commander-in-Chief also didn’t learn there was a difference between Sunnis and Shiites until a year after the invasion, saying: “I thought Iraqis were Muslims!”

The subtext of Russiagate involves a Dr. Evil-style expansion of the surveillance state and the cynical commandeering of the news media for a xenophobic scare campaign. But the major plot twists are informed by slapstick cluelessness. 

The Russia “expert” whose dossier cripples a presidency doesn’t speak Russian (and hasn’t been there since the Buffalo Bills played in a Super Bowl). The FBI director has never heard of Gazprom. The ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee warms up for hearings on Russian interference by reading “Tolstoy and Nabokov.” 

National security officials explaining the need to arm Ukraine invoke the specter of communism, dead for thirty years; the former head of the DNC worries the “communists” are “dictating the terms of the debate”; belief that the Cold War is still on runs so strong that intelligence officials blame Russia for mysterious “acoustic attacks” on American diplomats in China, Cuba, and Uzbekistan. 

The idea of a Deep State plot to undermine Donald Trump is popular in Republican circles, but all this lunacy at least somewhat undermines that analysis. Russiagate turns out to be impossible to understand minus the element of sincere, if misguided or insane, belief. Investigators and then press figures reasoned themselves into one proposition, only to end up on a years-long roller-coaster embracing pee tapes and acoustic brain attacks and killer Putin-dolphins (trained for the inevitable trans-polar Russian assault). 

A section of the recently-released report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz exemplifies how key players became captive to their own mind loops. 

Horowitz found out key assertions about Trump-Russia collusion appeared to come from Russian oligarch and metals baron Oleg Deripaska, who in 2016 employed ex-spy Christopher Steele to help him in a lawsuit against Trump aide Paul Manafort. This was the same Deripaska whose ostensible ties to Russian intelligence would end up being central to Trump-Russia collusion theories, as he reportedly received polling data from the Trump campaign through a middleman.  

In other words: when information was going to OlegDeripaska, he was an FSB villain. When it came from Deripaska, it was trusted. Why? Horowitz quoted counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap:

Why the Russians, and [Deripaska] is supposed to be close, very close to the Kremlin, why the Russians would try to denigrate an opponent that the intel community later said they were in favor of who didn’t really have a chance at winning, I’m struggling with… I know from my Intelligence Community work: they favored Trump, they’re trying to denigrate Clinton, and they wanted to sow chaos. I don’t know why you’d run a disinformation campaign to denigrate Trump on the side. 

To dig into one of the most serious investigative questions the country had ever faced – the possibility that a presidential candidate was in league with foreign intelligence – the FBI turned to an ex-spy with a reputation for “poor judgment” and a “lack of self-awareness” who happened to be on the payroll of both the rival presidential campaign and a Russian plutocrat pal of Vladimir Putin. Asked why they had confidence in this person and his sources, the sincere answer was, “Why would they lie?”

Intelligence officials launched an investigation based on a series of assumptions, then used those assumptions as a reason not to question the assumptions. As one congressional investigator put it to me, “You can’t make this shit up.”

The second major theme is the other shoe finally dropping on a War on Terror domestic spying machine dating back decades, and reconstructed in the Bush-Cheney era. The scandal is not that agencies like the CIA and NSA decided on bogus pretexts to conduct broad-scale intrusive surveillance on a presidential candidate like Trump. It’s that they do this to everybody.

While the hubris in the way security officials felt so little compunction about injecting themselves into a presidential race is certainly telling, the larger story is the broad application of secret tools that appeared in this one case.  

Short of assassination, much of the domestic spying kit-bag came out in Russiagate: FISA, National Security Letters, confidential informants, monitoring of journalists, systematic illegal leaks of classified intelligence, the busting open of attorney-client communications, disinformation through the press, the non-discoverable use of counterintelligence tools in criminal prosecutions (i.e. “parallel construction”), even spying on members of congress. 

There’s no way for Americans, and especially progressives, to really appreciate what the Russia story means without going back to the domestic spying programs first exposed by reporters like Seymour Hersh in the mid-seventies. 

Originally tabbed the “Son of Watergate,” Hersh’s December 1974 report about “huge” spying operations – detailed in an internal CIA document known as the “Family Jewels” – led to revelations of wide-scale domestic surveillance of antiwar and black liberation movements, assassination attempts, misinformation campaigns, surveillance of reporters, a mail-opening program, human experimentation, and other activities so revolting that Henry Kissinger, not exactly a shrinking violent when it comes to such authoritarian stuff, called it the “horrors book.” Public disgust reached the point where there were calls for the abolition of spy agencies in general. 

But a second backlash after Watergate never happened. News agencies, concerned that investigative reporting had gone “too far” after unseating a president, backed off the domestic spy story. The Pulitzer Committee quietly decided not to consider Hersh’s report, because it was “over-written, overplayed, under-researched and underproven.” Of course, every last detail of the “underproven” story would turn out to be true, but that wouldn’t be known for sure until 2007, when the “Family Jewels” were finally declassified. By then, the agencies had regrouped, and the spy programs reinvigorated. 

When he returned to the White House as Vice President, onetime Ford administration official Dick Cheney rebuilt the secrecy bureaucracy. Intensely concerned with restoring the powers the executive branch lost in the seventies of his bitter experience, Cheney armed all the new or revived spying programs with a protective Catch-22. Extreme measures undertaken on national security grounds would henceforth also be protected from legal challenge on the same national security grounds. 

Anyone hoping to contest any of these activities – secret FISA monitoring, inclusion on a no-fly or even an assassination list, the receipt of a National Security Letter from the FBI demanding access to communications information, an ordinary criminal prosecution buttressed by secret evidence – first had to win a difficult battle to prove that any of these things had even taken place. 

Once past that hurdle, there would be a second battle to see the government’s reasons for taking these actions. Then, another battle to win the right to contest them. And so on.

Throughout the last three years, this pattern has repeated, often in absurd fashion. The lowlight was probably Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s indictment of a series of Russians connected to the Internet Research Agency. 

When lawyers for one of the defendants unexpectedly showed up in court, Mueller declared millions of pages of non-classified documents “sensitive,” and obtained a protective order preventing defense counsel sharing discovery evidence – with their own clients! Nobody in the ostensibly “liberal media” even blinked at this dystopian insanity. 

This is the metaphor still playing itself out as Connecticut Attorney General John Durham winds up his investigation of the investigation. We’re still at the stage of fighting over how much the public is entitled to learn what secret measures were undertaken on its behalf. That it takes this long and is this difficult for even the President of the United States to learn what tools were used to investigate him should be an enormous red flag, even to those who despise Trump. 

It’s my hope that if people see the long background of how such tools have been used against less prominent targets – from Muslims on the Watch List to inner-city drug defendants tried in “tip and lead” cases to Internet companies fighting long court battles just to publicly fight the secret subpoenas they’ve received from the FBI – they might start to think differently about this story.

Russiagate is like the Iraq story in another sense. Even after we found out there were no WMDs, the intellectual argument for pre-emptive war remained. The pretext vanished but the idea persisted; we’re still over there. In the same way, the core ideas of the Russia caper are almost sure to survive Donald Trump.

In early 2017, the outgoing Obama government issued an Intelligence Assessment about Russian interference. Coverage focused on the notion that a foreign country had helped elect Trump, but the paper pushed other themes. It talked about Russian determination to fuel “radical discontent” and “dissatisfaction” among us, in order to “undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.” 

The paper previewed concepts pundits would continue hammering for years:

  • “Discord” in America is foreign-inspired;

  • Complaints about financial inequality, wars, the inefficacy of American democracy, and other problems are also fueled by foreigners;   

  • There is danger in allowing crossover between the left and right populist movements appealing to these complaints;

  • The free press and an unregulated Internet are the devil’s playgrounds, and the vigilance of experts is needed to protect us from foreign “disinformation.”

These ideas have pushed us into an experience straight out of Orwell: a dramatic and almost instantaneous flipping of popular assumptions. Self-described “progressives” who just a decade ago rallied behind the Dixie Chicks now gobble up scare tracts written in faux-Cyrillic texts about “assets” in our midst. The same terror before unseen threats that gripped small-town Americans after 9/11 has now conquered our urban upper classes. Donald Trump is not sufficient to explain this.

Even if public opinion doesn’t change, it feels worth writing a history of this madness. I hope future generations will be sane enough to disbelieve it. 

Part one, next, begins with the Family Jewels, a War on Terror primer, and a pair of lawsuits. 

(Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

We're in a permanent coup

Americans might soon wish they just waited to vote their way out of the Trump era

I’ve lived through a few coups. They’re insane, random, and terrifying, like watching sports, except your political future depends on the score.

The kickoff begins when a key official decides to buck the executive. From that moment, government becomes a high-speed head-counting exercise. Who’s got the power plant, the airport, the police in the capital? How many department chiefs are answering their phones? Who’s writing tonight’s newscast?

When the KGB in 1991 tried to reassume control of the crumbling Soviet Union by placing Mikhail Gorbachev under arrest and attempting to seize Moscow, logistics ruled. Boris Yeltsin’s crew drove to the Russian White House in ordinary cars, beating KGB coup plotters who were trying to reach the seat of Russian government in armored vehicles. A key moment came when one of Yeltsin’s men, Alexander Rutskoi – who two years later would himself lead a coup against Yeltsin – prevailed upon a Major in a tank unit to defy KGB orders and turn on the “criminals.”

We have long been spared this madness in America. Our head-counting ceremony was Election Day. We did it once every four years.

That’s all over, in the Trump era.

On Thursday, news broke that two businessmen said to have “peddled supposedly explosive information about corruption involving Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden” were arrested at Dulles airport on “campaign finance violations.” The two figures are alleged to be bagmen bearing “dirt” on Democrats, solicited by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman will be asked to give depositions to impeachment investigators. They’re reportedly going to refuse. Their lawyer John Dowd also says they will “refuse to appear before House Committees investigating President Donald Trump.” Fruman and Parnas meanwhile claim they had real derogatory information about Biden and other politicians, but “the U.S. government had shown little interest in receiving it through official channels.”

For Americans not familiar with the language of the Third World, that’s two contrasting denials of political legitimacy.

The men who are the proxies for Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani in this story are asserting that “official channels” have been corrupted. The forces backing impeachment, meanwhile, are telling us those same defendants are obstructing a lawful impeachment inquiry.

This latest incident, set against the impeachment mania and the reportedly “expanding” Russiagate investigation of U.S. Attorney John Durham, accelerates our timeline to chaos. We are speeding toward a situation when someone in one of these camps refuses to obey a major decree, arrest order, or court decision, at which point Americans will get to experience the joys of their political futures being decided by phone calls to generals and police chiefs.

My discomfort in the last few years, first with Russiagate and now with Ukrainegate and impeachment, stems from the belief that the people pushing hardest for Trump’s early removal are more dangerous than Trump. Many Americans don’t see this because they’re not used to waking up in a country where you’re not sure who the president will be by nightfall. They don’t understand that this predicament is worse than having a bad president. 

The Trump presidency is the first to reveal a full-blown schism between the intelligence community and the White House. Senior figures in the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies made an open break from their would-be boss before Trump’s inauguration, commencing a public war of leaks that has not stopped.

The first big shot was fired in early January, 2017, via a CNN.com headline, “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.” This tale, about the January 7th presentation of former British spy Christopher Steele’s report to then-President-elect Trump, began as follows:

Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.

Four intelligence chiefs in the FBI’s James Comey, the CIA’s John Brennan, the NSA’s Mike Rogers, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, presented an incoming president with a politically disastrous piece of information, in this case a piece of a private opposition research report.

Among other things because the news dropped at the same time Buzzfeed decided to publish the entire “bombshell” Steele dossier, reporters spent that week obsessing not about the mode of the story’s release, but about the “claims.” In particular, audiences were rapt by allegations that Russians were trying to blackmail Trump with evidence of a golden shower party commissioned on a bed once slept upon by Barack Obama himself.

Twitter exploded. No other news story mattered. For the next two years, the “claims” of compromise and a “continuing” Trump-Russian “exchange” hung over the White House like a sword of Damocles. 

Few were interested in the motives for making this story public. As it turned out, there were two explanations, one that was made public, and one that only came out later. The public justification as outlined in the CNN piece, was to “make the President-elect aware that such allegations involving him [were] circulating among intelligence agencies.”

However, we know from Comey’s January 7, 2017 memo to deputy Andrew McCabe and FBI General Counsel James Baker there was another explanation. Comey wrote:

I said I wasn’t saying this was true, only that I wanted [Trump] to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands. I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them the excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

Imagine if a similar situation had taken place in January of 2009, involving president-elect Barack Obama. Picture a meeting between Obama and the heads of the CIA, NSA, and FBI, along with the DIA, in which the newly-elected president is presented with a report complied by, say, Judicial Watch, accusing him of links to al-Qaeda. Imagine further that they tell Obama they are presenting him with this information to make him aware of a blackmail threat, and to reassure him they won’t give news agencies a “hook” to publish the news.

Now imagine if that news came out on Fox days later. Imagine further that within a year, one of the four officials became a paid Fox contributor. Democrats would lose their minds in this set of circumstances.

The country mostly did not lose its mind, however, because the episode did not involve a traditionally presidential figure like Obama, nor was it understood to have been directed at the institution of “the White House” in the abstract.

Instead, it was a story about an infamously corrupt individual, Donald Trump, a pussy-grabbing scammer who bragged about using bankruptcy to escape debt and publicly praised Vladimir Putin. Audiences believed the allegations against this person and saw the intelligence/counterintelligence community as acting patriotically, doing their best to keep us informed about a still-breaking investigation of a rogue president.

But a parallel story was ignored. Leaks from the intelligence community most often pertain to foreign policy. The leak of the January, 2017 “meeting” between the four chiefs and Trump – which without question damaged both the presidency and America’s standing abroad – was an unprecedented act of insubordination.

It was also a bold new foray into domestic politics by intelligence agencies that in recent decades began asserting all sorts of frightening new authority. They were kidnapping foreigners, assassinating by drone, conducting paramilitary operations without congressional notice, building an international archipelago of secret prisons, and engaging in mass warrantless surveillance of Americans. We found out in a court case just last week how extensive the illegal domestic surveillance has been, with the FBI engaging in tens of thousands of warrantless searches involving American emails and phone numbers under the guise of combating foreign subversion.

The agencies’ new trick is inserting themselves into domestic politics using leaks and media pressure. The “intel chiefs” meeting was just the first in a series of similar stories, many following the pattern in which a document was created, passed from department from department, and leaked. A sample:

  • February 14, 2017: “four current and former officials” tell the New York Times the Trump campaign had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence.

  • March 1, 2017: “Justice Department officials” tell the Washington Post Attorney General Jeff Sessions “spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador” and did not disclose the contacts ahead of his confirmation hearing. 

  • March 18, 2017: “people familiar with the matter” tell the Wall Street Journal that former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn failed to disclose a “contact” with a Russian at Cambridge University, an episode that “came to the notice of U.S. intelligence.”

  • April 8, 2017, 2017: “law enforcement and other U.S. officials” tell the Washington Post the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge had ruled there was “probable cause” to believe former Trump aide Carter Page was an “agent of a foreign power.” 

  • April 13, 2017: a “source close to UK intelligence” tells Luke Harding at The Guardian that the British analog to the NSA, the GCHQ, passed knowledge of “suspicious interactions” between “figures connected to Trump and “known or suspected Russian agents” to Americans as part of a “routine exchange of information.”

  • December 17, 2017: “four current and former American and foreign officials” tell the New York Times that during the 2016 campaign, an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer told “American counterparts” that former Trump aide George Papadopoulos revealed “Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

  • April 13, 2018: “two sources familiar with the matter” tell McClatchy that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office has evidence Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was in Prague in 2016, “confirming part of [Steele] dossier.”

  • November 27, 2018: a “well-placed source” tells Harding at The Guardian that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

  • January 19, 2019: “former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation” tell the New York Times the FBI opened an inquiry into the “explosive implications” of whether or not Donald Trump was working on behalf of the Russians.

To be sure, “people familiar with the matter” leaked a lot of true stories in the last few years, but many were clearly problematic even at the time of release. Moreover, all took place in the context of constant, hounding pressure from media figures, congressional allies like Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, as well as ex-officials who could make use of their own personal public platforms in addition to being unnamed sources in straight news reports. They used commercial news platforms to argue that Trump had committed treason, needed to be removed from office, and preferably also indicted as soon as possible.

A shocking number of these voices were former intelligence officers who joined Clapper in becoming paid news contributors. Op-ed pages and news networks are packed now with ex-spooks editorializing about stories in which they had personal involvement: Michael Morell, Michael Hayden, Asha Rangappa, and Andrew McCabe among many others, including especially all four of the original “intel chiefs”: Clapper, Rogers, Comey, and MSNBC headliner John Brennan.

Russiagate birthed a whole brand of politics, a government-in-exile, which prosecuted its case against Trump via a constant stream of “approved” leaks, partisans in congress, and an increasingly unified and thematically consistent set of commercial news outlets.

These mechanisms have been transplanted now onto the Ukrainegate drama. It’s the same people beating the public drums, with the messaging run out of the same congressional committees, through the same Nadlers, Schiffs, and Swalwells. The same news outlets are on full alert.

The sidelined “intel chiefs” are once again playing central roles in making the public case. Comey says “we may now be at a point” where impeachment is necessary. Brennan, with unintentional irony, says the United States is “no longer a democracy.” Clapper says the Ukraine whistleblower complaint is “one of the most credible” he’s seen.

As a reporter covering the 2015–2016 presidential race, I thought Trump’s campaign was disturbing on many levels, but logical as a news story. He succeeded for class reasons, because of flaws in the media business that gifted him mass amounts of coverage, and because he took cunning advantage of long-simmering frustrations in the electorate. He also clearly catered to racist fears, and to the collapse in trust in institutions like the news media, the Fed, corporations, NATO, and, yes, the intelligence services. In enormous numbers, voters rejected everything they had ever been told about who was and was not qualified for higher office.

Trump’s campaign antagonism toward the military and intelligence world was at best a millimeter thick. Like almost everything else he said as a candidate, it was a gimmick, designed to get votes. That he was insincere and full of it and irresponsible, at first at least, when he attacked the “deep state” and the “fake news media,” doesn’t change the reality of what’s happened since. Even paranoiacs have enemies, and even Donald “Deep State” Trump is a legitimately elected president whose ouster is being actively sought by the intelligence community.

Trump stands accused of using the office of the presidency to advance political aims, in particular pressuring Ukraine to investigate potential campaign rival Joe Biden. He’s guilty, but the issue is how guilty, in comparison to his accusers.

Trump, at least insofar as we know, has not used section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor political rivals. He hasn’t deployed human counterintelligence “informants” to follow the likes of Hunter Biden. He hasn’t maneuvered to secure Special Counsel probes of Democrats.

And while Donald Trump conducting foreign policy based on what he sees on Fox and Friends is troubling, it’s not in the same ballpark as CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times engaging in de facto coverage partnerships with the FBI and CIA to push highly politicized, phony narratives like Russiagate.

Trump’s tinpot Twitter threats and cancellation of White House privileges for dolts like Jim Acosta also don’t begin to compare to the danger posed by Facebook, Google, and Twitter – under pressure from the Senate – organizing with groups like the Atlantic Council to fight “fake news” in the name of preventing the “foment of discord.”

I don’t believe most Americans have thought through what a successful campaign to oust Donald Trump would look like. Most casual news consumers can only think of it in terms of Mike Pence becoming president. The real problem would be the precedent of a de facto intelligence community veto over elections, using the lunatic spookworld brand of politics that has dominated the last three years of anti-Trump agitation.

CIA/FBI-backed impeachment could also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Donald Trump thinks he’s going to be jailed upon leaving office, he’ll sooner or later figure out that his only real move is to start acting like the “dictator” MSNBC and CNN keep insisting he is. Why give up the White House and wait to be arrested, when he still has theoretical authority to send Special Forces troops rappelling through the windows of every last Russiagate/Ukrainegate leaker? That would be the endgame in a third world country, and it’s where we’re headed, unless someone calls off this craziness. Welcome to the Permanent Power Struggle.

Image by Donkey Hotey

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