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)