In the Russian Collusion Debate, Who’s Fooling Who?
The New York Times has delivered a one-two punch to critics of the role played by the so-called “Steele Dossier” in influencing the FBI’s decision to launch a criminal investigation into the possibility of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
This two-pronged attack was delivered in the form of an article authored by investigative journalists Sharon LaFraniere, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo, and anop-ed written by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the co-founders of Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that commissioned former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who authored the eponymous dossier at the center of the controversy.
The narrative that emerges from these two sources is that Republican supporters of Donald Trump are overstating the role the dossier played in shaping the FBI’s investigation. This is being echoed, without question, in mainstream media as fact. Yet his narrative, however nicely packaged and rational it may seem, does not hold up to even the most basic scrutiny.
The heart of the New York Times’ story rests on the role played by an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, who since 2014 has served as Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, in triggering the FBI’s decision to investigate possible collusion. The genesis of this saga took place on April 26, 2016, when George Papadopoulos, a member of Trump’s foreign advisory team, met with Joseph Mifsud, an obscure former Maltese diplomat who taught international relations at the University of Sterling, in Scotland. Mifsud was a frequent attendee of the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual conference held in Sochi, Russia, where Russian President Vladimir Putin often spoke. In an email to Papadopoulos dated April 11, Mifsud claimed that he was travelling to Russia on April 18 to attend a Valdai meeting, and to meet with members of the Russian Parliament.
Papadopoulos and Mifsud had met several times since their introduction in March of 2016, where the focus of their efforts revolved around arranging a meeting between Trump and Russian officials to discuss the possibility of improving U.S.-Russian relations should Trump be elected. Despite push-back from senior Trump advisors, including current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who in effect told Papadopoulos to stand down on any attempt to arrange a meeting between Trump and the Russians), Papadopoulos continued to pursue the subject with Mifsud. At the April 26 meeting, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had just returned from Moscow where, among other things, he had been told by high-level Russian government officials that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails” (this description was provided by Papadopoulos to the FBI during an interview conducted on January 27, 2017—nine months after the fact). The next day, April 27, Papadopoulos emailed the Trump campaign about the meeting—no reference was made about the Mifsud’s explosive claims; indeed, there is no record of Papadopoulos ever communicating Mifsud’s information about “dirt” to anyone in the Trump campaign at any time.
Fast forward three weeks. Papadopoulos had sent a series of emails to the Trump campaign, pressing the issue of a meeting between Trump and the Russians; all had been ignored. Papadopoulos met with Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat, over drinks, during which time Papadopoulos allegedly passed on Mifsud’s claims that Russia had “dirt,” in form of “thousands of emails,” on Clinton. Downer was clearly not impressed with Papadopoulos’s information; it took two months before the Aussie diplomat put pen to paper, and dispatched a cable to Canberra where he reportedly recounted the conversation. The New York Times, citing four unnamed sources, claims that the Downer cable was forwarded by the Australian government to the FBI, where it, rather than the Steele dossier, served as one of the driving factors behind the FBI’s decision to investigate the Trump campaign. What gave the Downer cable its import, the New York Times claimed, was that it arrived in the FBI’s hands right around the same time—July 22, 2016—when Wikileaks began releasing thousands of emails sourced to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “It’s around this same time,” Mark Mazzetti, one of the journalists who broke the Downer story, told Rachel Maddow, “that the DNC emails are leaking out over the internet, so it is possible, although we haven’t confirmed this yet, that this becomes public, and the Australian government realizes what it is sitting on, and it notifies the US government.”
On the surface, the logic of the New York Times’ story appears unassailable—the cause-effect relationship alone would seem to justify alarms being sounded in the FBI. The problem with this narrative, however, is that this cause-effect relationship does not exist. Of the 27,500 emails sourced from the DNC that were eventually released by Wikileaks, 21,800 were written after April 29—three days after Mifsud allegedly informed Papadopoulos about the existence of Russian “dirt”. Indeed, nine of the ten “most damaging” emails released by Wikileaks were written after April 29. Whatever the source of the “dirt” Mifsud allegedly referenced during his April 26 meeting with Papadopoulos was, it was not referring to the hacked DNC emails, if for no other reason, that these emails had not even been accessed by parties outside the DNC at that time. There simply is no connection between the information contained in the Downer cable and the Wikileaks documents, no matter how hard the New York Times tries to make such a link stick.
That the FBI would have used the Downer cable as the catalyst around which it would launch a criminal investigation into Trump’s campaign is facially absurd—a single uncorroborated source, based upon an alcohol-fueled conversation that had transpired two months before the cable was drafted, is not the basis upon which such a politically sensitive initiative would be undertaken. One of the principle tenets of assessing raw intelligence information, such as that contained in the Downer cable, is whether the actors involved could plausibly have had access to that which is claimed. Russia, like the United States, treats intelligence derived from communications intercepts—including cyber operations—as among the most sensitive, and therefore highly classified, sources. The notion that the existence of information that would amount to the crown jewels of the Russian intelligence service would be handed over to an obscure non-Russian professor to share with a low-level American campaign advisor represents the kind of red flag that any intelligence analyst worthy of the title would raise when evaluating the Downer cable.
Despite this glaring reality, the New York Times reported that “once the information Mr. Papadopoulos had disclosed to the Australian diplomat reached the FBI, the bureau opened an investigation that became one of its most closely guarded secrets.” The impetus behind this investigation, the Times reported, “was not, as Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies.”
The conclusion reached by the paper was parroted three days later when it published an op-ed written by the co-founders of Fusion GPS, the firm that contracted the Steele dossier. “We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling,” Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch wrote. “As we told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August, our sources said the dossier was taken so seriously because it corroborated reports the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp.” It is presumed that the Fusion GPS founders were referring to the Downer cable.
“The intelligence committees,” Simpson and Fritsch stated, “have known for months that credible allegations of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia were pouring in from independent sources during the campaign. Yet lawmakers in the thrall of the president continue to wage a cynical campaign to portray us as the unwitting victims of Kremlin disinformation.”
“Kremlin disinformation” is the best way to describe the information contained in the Downer cable; it is clearly not linked to the DNC hacks (despite the New York Times’ efforts to establish such), and the premise underpinning its sourcing (that the Russian intelligence service provided access to what would be one of its most sensitive operations to a Maltese academic and a minor American advisor) is patently absurd. On its surface, the wild claims made by Papadopoulos, as reported by Downer, are of a similarly poor quality as the information that underpinned the pitch made by the British publicist, Robert Goldstone, that put the Fusion GPS-affiliated Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in contact with Donald Trump, Jr., on June 9.
The Goldstone information is eerily like the information provided by Christopher Steele himself in his report of June 20: “A dossier of compromising material on Hillary Clinton has been collated (sic) by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various trips to Russia and intercepted phone calls.” Mr. Steele was contracted by Fusion GPS sometime after June 17; less than three days later, he was able to produce a report that made use of no fewer than seven named senior sources, as well as making use of a “company ethnic Russian operative” to conduct an investigation inside Russia. This time frame is unrealistically short, suggesting that Steele himself was spoon fed a pre-packaged storyline—in short, “Kremlin disinformation.” Seen in this light, the Papadopoulos story is more about a Russian campaign to neutralize a future American president as part of its ongoing effort to undermine American power and prestige than it is about collusion between this candidate and Russia to get him elected. That the FBI, and others, would rely on such information to actively undermine the legitimacy of a duly elected American president remains a topic which Republicans in Congress would do well to continue to investigate.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).