Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Will Russiagate Become Obamagate?

Obama appointees may have hoped Carter Page would be the smoking gun they needed to bring down Trump.

Russiagate’s latest celebrity is a former Donald Trump associate named Carter Page. Page, who worked for Merrill Lynch in Moscow and speaks Russian, is a banker and investor who early in 2016 was a part of the amorphous group that was advising Trump on foreign policy. There is no evidence to suggest that he was ever an insider with the Trump campaign—quite the contrary. The Washington Post reports that he made several efforts to meet directly with Donald Trump but that his entreaties were rejected.

So why the fuss? Page appears to have been a target of Russian intelligence for a time, even though he had no sensitive information to give anyone and the presumed relationship appears to have ended long before the 2016 campaign. The possibility that Page might have been some kind of Moscow-controlled agent of influence close to Donald Trump has nevertheless excited Democratic Party critics who have been looking for some solid evidence of Russian government subversion of America’s electoral process. It has also provided some insights into the never-ending spy vs. counterspy battle, while suggesting that the Obama administration was not quite a wide-eyed innocent regarding FBI investigation of anyone plausibly linked to Trump.

Bear in mind that intelligence officers make a living and get promoted based on the “scalps” they acquire, to use the CIA expression, which means recruitment of possible sources of information. Page was and is somewhat of an expert on energy issues and, by virtue of his time spent in Russia, something of a Russophile. The combination would be very attractive to a Russian case officer looking for a new asset, so it is perhaps no surprise that Page bumped into Russian diplomat Victor Podobny at an energy conference in New York. The two soon established mutual interests in energy-industry developments and Page, apparently looking for business and investment opportunities, eventually passed some unclassified papers he had prepared to the Russian.

The passage of documents is a key case-officer objective. The assumption is that once documents are provided by the target and suitable noises are made about how they could result in wonderful business opportunities, this will lead to receipt of papers that are more sensitive. Then the prospective agent would be hooked, leading to his or her eventual acceptance of money or something in kind that seals the deal. If the transaction is completely illegal, so much the better, as the target would be disinclined to reveal the depth of involvement for fear of being exposed.

So Page passed papers to Podobny, not knowing that he was an intelligence officer. Pobodny in turn did not think much of his new prospect, telling a colleague in an intercepted phone conversation that Page was an “idiot” who “wants to earn a lot of money.” Pobodny observed that he would be reeled in by trading “favor for favor,” allowing the Russian to exploit him for whatever information of value he possessed before discarding him. The Page saga ended when diplomatic-covered Podobny was exposed and expelled as “persona non grata” from the United States in 2013. Page was interviewed by the FBI but it was determined that he had not compromised any confidential information.

But the story did not end there. Three years later, in July 2016, the FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor the communications of Page, who was at the time associating with the Trump campaign. It has been alleged that Page became a person of interest after meeting with some unidentified Russians, but the only evidence that has surfaced possibly relating to that is a claim that in July 2016 he met with Igor Sechin, chief executive of the energy company Rosneft and a reported Putin crony. Page has reportedly denied that the meeting even took place. The Washington Post also claims that Page gave a speech in Moscow “harshly critical of the United States’ policy towards Russia.”

The FISA warrant was presumably granted based on that visit. As a former intelligence officer, I can attest that the recruitment of someone who is close to a potential presidential candidate in any country is a prize worth having. It is referred to as an agent in place or an agent of influence, but its value is that it provides a possible insight into what another foreign leader actually intends to do. It is far more valuable than a stack of emails. So the possibility that Russian intelligence realized what potential access Page might provide and acted upon it should not be dismissed. And, of course, it is also possible that nothing of the sort happened, that the Russians did not realize what they might have and slept through the entire Page visit.

In either case, we might someday know what happened or possibly not. But one other thing that is clear is that the Obama administration did not hesitate to go after someone presumed to be close to GOP candidate Donald Trump based on evidence that may or may not have been compelling. Page himself denounced the FISA warrant as “unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance.” Bear in mind that the FISA court tends to approve most surveillance requests, not making much effort to challenge the executive branch.

The arguments that President Obama and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice have been making, asserting that they knew nothing about politically charged and highly sensitive FBI investigations are, of course, nonsense. Rice’s request for the identities of Americans appearing on transcripts of communications intercepts reveals that there was very much a heightened sense of the political dimensions of what was taking place. And she would have undoubtedly conveyed as much to her boss, suggesting yet again that the latest chapter in Russiagate may turn out to be Obamagate after all.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.