Saturday, April 13, 2019

Underpants Gnomes in the Russia Investigation


Just to refresh everybody's memory, when Trump howls "They SPIED on me!!!" what he means is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved an order of federal surveillance on a former foreign policy adviser to candidate Donald Trump called Carter Page, in October 2016, on evidence that included some raw intelligence gathered by a former MI6 Russia expert called Christopher Steele for a firm called GPS Fusion which had a contract with the Democratic-connected Perkins Coie law firm to do opposition research on Trump, which is incontrovertible proof, according to certain Republicans, that the Democratic Party and the entire leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a plan (an "insurance policy") to remove Trump from office in the unlikely event he got elected, which they would accomplish by recording Carter Page's phone calls.

Let's just lay that out as an Underpants Gnomes scenario:
  1. FBI does electronic surveillance on Carter Page
  2. Trump wins the presidential election
  3. ???
This schema is what Attorney General Barr was referring to, not without a little healthy skepticism, when he was talking to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. A very little skepticism, so little a lot of people didn't even notice it, which may be what he intended, as we heard Thursday on NPR:

GREENE: So the attorney general, it would appear, is taking the president's claims seriously. I mean, what is exactly - what exactly does he want to investigate here?
LIASSON: Well, he says he has questions. And he wants to look into how the surveillance of the Trump campaign began. And in July of 2016, what we know is that a judge granted the FBI a secret surveillance warrant, a FISA warrant, to, quote, "spy" on a former Trump aide, Carter Page. He - Page had already left the campaign. But he had had a number of contacts with Russian intelligence officials. And the FBI wanted to look into this. Republicans in Congress, and the president, of course, have questioned the legality of that warrant, saying it was inappropriate because it was based, in part, on the information in that infamous document - the dossier that was put together by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer for Democratic oppo research arm.
Except Mara, sadly, got the date wrong: Page departed from whatever it was he was doing for the Trump campaign (not officially resigning but taking a "leave of absence") not in July but in September 2016, in the context of some surprising reports about his activities in Moscow in the previous July, as Josh Rogin wrote in the Washington Post on 26 September that year:

The foreign policy adviser at the center of the storm over accusations that the Donald Trump campaign has secret ties to the Russian government has decided to publicly fight back. He denies meeting with sanctioned Russian officials during a recent trip to Moscow. In a long interview, Carter Page also told me he is taking a leave of absence from his work with the Trump campaign due to the controversy.
“All of these accusations are just complete garbage,” Page said about attacks on him by top officials in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and unnamed intelligence officials, who have suggested that on a July trip to Moscow, Page met with “highly-sanctioned individuals” and perhaps even discussed an unholy alliance between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Some of those accusations were being circulated by Michael Isikoff in an article of 23 September for Yahoo News, whose "multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue", we now know, included Christopher Steele himself, so that could have been part of the Underpants Gnomes schema, though we don't know who the other sources were. Minority Leader Reid, in contrast, had sent a letter to FBI director James Comey nearly a month earlier on 27 August, requesting that Comey start an investigation of Russian interference in the ongoing US presidential campaign and suggesting a hard look at two American citizens, who Josh Rogin was able to identify (on 30 August) as Carter Page and our old Nixon-tattoo pal Roger Stone, who certainly did not figure in Steele's research.
Stone, Assange and Russian state media have all been pushing a conspiracy theory that the hack of the Democratic National Committee was related to the shooting death of 27-year old DNC staffer Seth Rich. There’s no evidence the events are linked. Reid wants the FBI to investigate whether the similar statements are a coincidence or if they are all working together on the leaks.
“The prospect of individuals tied to Trump, Wikileaks and the Russian government coordinating to influence our election raises concerns of the utmost gravity and merits full examination,” Reid wrote, referring to Stone.
Reid also said the FBI should investigate if there were any “complicit intermediaries” between the Russian government and Assange, including “any United States citizen.”
Since we now know that the DNC material published by Assange was indeed hacked by Russians, and that Stone was in fairly intensive communication with WikiLeaks, the coincidence of Assange, Russians, and the Trump confidant denying it in the same way, with contemptible reference to the same tragic and unrelated story, sounds more like what we call collusion than it did before. But the reference to Page as a possibly "complicit intermediary" also doesn't fit too well with the Underpants Gnomes:
Reid also wrote to Comey that “questions have been raised” about whether a senior Trump adviser with investments in the Russian state energy firm Gazprom met with “high-ranking sanctioned individuals” during a July trip to Moscow. The passage clearly refers to Page, who gave a speech in Moscow in July at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School that many observers viewed as a rebuttal of U.S. foreign policy.
“Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change,” Page said in the lecture.
Page declined to comment for this article but sources close to the issue told me Reid was briefed last week by a very senior U.S. intelligence official on the suspected Russian political interference and that Reid is particularly interested in Page’s activities while in Russia.
Because we don't know who that very senior US intelligence official was, other than that it wasn't Jim Comey, the person to whom the letter was addressed. This ties in with something I've written about before, that US intelligence services had a number of sources who could have been noticing who Carter Page was hanging out with in Russia without hearing about it from Steele, in particular the CIA, including its director, John O. Brennan, who in July 2016
started an investigation with a secret task force "composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI". At the same time, he was busy creating his own dossier of material documenting that "Russia was not only attempting to interfere in the 2016 election, they were doing so in order to elect Donald Trump ... [T]he entire intelligence community was on alert about this situation at least two months before [the dossier] became part of the investigation."
and has in fact been one of the most implacable proponents of the existence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy in his post-Obama life. I think what Reid was referring to, as he implored Comey in late August to open an investigation into US citizens' involvement in the Russian attack, could just possibly have been a briefing from Brennan. It was certainly somebody with access to foreign reports that the FBI agents in the Underpants Gnomes conspiracy theory (Ohr, McCabe, Strzok, L. Page, whoever) didn't have.

But in fact we also know now that an FBI investigation of Trump campaign involvement in the Russian attack had already started before that; with the questions raised when WikiLeaks began publishing the stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee on 22 July and High Commissioner Downer remembered that weird conversation he'd had in the Kensington Wine Rooms with young George Papadopoulos in the previous spring offering thousands of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign. In the slightly tendentious words of ex-Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who doesn't seem aware that he'd just answered his own question,
Incidentally, Papadopoulos still isn't being quite truthful about anything, in spite of his two-week imprisonment. First lie I notice in his Senate testimony is in answer to the first substantive question

In the sense that he knew very well he was not working for the Hudson Institute in the summer of 2015, as Linley Sanders reported for Newsweek:
But the conservative think tank said in a statement that Papadopoulos was just an unpaid intern in 2011 and only worked as a freelance contractor for one Hudson senior fellow in 2013 and 2014. A former manager for Papadopoulos did not respond to comment on the timeline inconsistencies, but the Hudson Institute said he exaggerated his time there.
“Mr. Papadopoulos was never a salaried employee of Hudson Institute,” the statement said. “We have had no relationship with him since 2014, and it would be inappropriate for us to comment on legal proceedings of which we have no knowledge and to which we are not a party.” 
The original lie was on his résumé submitted to the Ben Carson campaign, for which he worked from December 2015 until Carson dropped out of the race in February 2016, but as you see he was still lying about it in October 2018 when he was testifying to Congress (probably not perjury, as not material to the investigation).

Anyway, if General Barr needs some help determining where the investigation began, I'll be glad to help out. But I'm pretty sure the Underpants Gnomes theory is not going to hold up.

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