Tuesday, October 13, 2020

One step back, two steps forward

There was a big and humiliatingly stupid error in my Saturday post on DNI John Ratcliffe's attempts to use selective declassification of classified material to make it look as if Hillary Clinton had engaged in some kind of collusion with Russian intelligence agencies: when I said the meeting at which CIA director John Brennan took the handwritten notes released by Ratcliffe took place on 28 July 2016.

I think I must have gotten it, appropriately enough, from hack attorney Jonathan Turley, who said so in his post of last Wednesday:

Brennan’s handwritten notes would seem extremely serious on their face. It certainly indicates that Brennan considered the issue sufficiently serious to brief the President of the United States on July 28th. The notes state

“We’re getting additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED]. . . CITE [summarizing] alleged approved by Hillary Clinton a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”

But it also could have come from Dan Friedman at Mother Jones:

Acting on orders from Trump, Ratcliffe on Tuesday declassified notes from former CIA Director John Brennan indicating that on July 28, 2016, Brennan had told President Barack Obama about US intelligence findings related to Russia. These finding included information suggesting that Russian intelligence analysis said that Hillary Clinton had approved “a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.” This same intelligence was apparently the basis of documents declassified by Ratcliffe last week that describe Russian claims that Clinton’s campaign wanted to highlight Trump’s Russian ties as “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
Both probably got the idea from some bad editing at the Fox News website's version of the story, according to which
The notes state “on 28 of July." In the margin, Brennan writes "POTUS," but that section of the notes is redacted. (paragraph 7)
According to Ratcliffe’s letter, the intelligence included the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016, of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.” (paragraph 16)
Turley and Friedman both supposed Fox meant the first as the date of Brennan's meeting, but studying the document makes it clear that both actually refer to the same text, which is hard to read in Brennan's handwriting, 26 or 28 

(if it is Brennan's handwriting; somebody at DOJ seems to have added a lot of dates to scans of original documents, as Emptywheel has shown—this would be the fourth case to date).

In fact there's no indication anywhere in the documents Ratcliffe released of when Brennan's briefing of President Obama took place, and that kind of puts a hole in my argument that Brennan couldn't have learned from "Russian intelligence analysis" of Hillary's alleged plot in the fewer than two days between her alleged decision and his meeting with Obama. (But keep reading, because not all is lost.)

There's also no indication anywhere in the documents that the allegation has any connection to "Russian intelligence analysis". The handwritten notes merely say "We're getting additional insight into Russian activities from [gigantic block of redaction]", while the 7 September memo from the fusion cell to the FBI refers to "examples of information the CROSSFIRE HURRICANE fusion cell has gleaned to date [Source revealing information redacted]" (their brackets in this second quote). The idea that "Russian intelligence analysis" was the source was implanted in Ratcliffe's announcement of the declassification on 29 September, a week before the documents themselves were released:

The claim, contained in a letter from the director of national intelligence to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and described by Ratcliffe as deriving from US insight into a “Russian intelligence analysis,” alleges that Clinton “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal” against Trump in relation to his links to Putin and in light of the DNC having been hacked. If Russia concluded this, they don’t seem to have uncovered anything secret: Clinton’s highlighting of Trump’s ties to Russia, which were a subject of controversy during the campaign, was well known—she did so on the debate stage, as the campaign she directed pressed the case in other venues.

And as these guys (AJ Vicens and Dan Friedman/Mother Jones) pointed out at the time, it wasn't anything you'd have to go to Russia to find out. 

Though people familiar with the Senate Intelligence Committee thought Ratcliffe must be referring to something that really existed, though pretty much worthless—

a Russian intelligence assessment that was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis, according to two sources familiar with the matter [......... and] in his letter to Graham, Ratcliffe noted that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

(Andrew Desiderio and Daniel Lippman/Politico). 

So I guess there must be something hidden in the redactions that actually does refer to a notably unreliable Russian intelligence estimate that actually does refer to Hillary Clinton planning to "vilify" Donald Trump on advice from a foreign policy adviser (this seems to be the assumption Emptywheel is going on), though it seems as weird to me as ever—why would they, and why would Brennan think that was interesting in any way?

The really curious thing I've just learned is that Brennan did give Obama a quite significant briefing on 28 July 2016, which he briefly recounted in a Washington Post op-ed a few weeks ago:

Just a little more than four years ago, the United States faced a similar challenge — and met it a different way. President Barack Obama already knew the Russians were hacking into the networks of U.S. presidential campaigns, but on the afternoon of July 28, 2016, I informed him in a hurriedly scheduled meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized his intelligence services to carry out activities to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost the election prospects of Donald Trump.

“Mr. President,” I said, “it appears that the Russian effort to undermine the integrity of the November election is much more intense, determined, and insidious than any we have seen before.”

My reference to the unprecedented scale and scope of Moscow’s efforts to harm the integrity of the election quickly riveted the president’s attention. It also triggered the immediate concern of the others in the room — including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who asked, after I was done speaking, “What are you planning to do on the congressional front?”

As you see, on a much broader and more important set of subjects than whether the Clinton campaign might be "vilifying" Trump, or as the 7 September memo put it "a plan concerning presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server" (not that Trump and the hackers were trying to distract the public but that Clinton was), and yet I can imagine Brennan laying out the facts of identifying "Guccifer 2.0" as a GRU persona and reporting Russian counterclaims that "Hillary is just saying that to distract from emails issue". Could that be the "Russian intelligence analysis" we're talking about? We'll never be able to find out as long as Ratcliffe keeps those redactions as they are.

And I can imagine this could indeed be the meeting on which Brennan took notes, as well, except for an odd problem: the "JC" in the margin on p. 6:

While all the commenters have agreed that this should be a reference to James Comey of the FBI, that is almost certainly wrong; it ought to be James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence; Brennan explicitly reports in his brand-new memoir Undaunted: My Fight Against America's Enemies, at Home and Abroad (which, gods help me, I went out and bought this morning, but you know I've always been fond of Brennan) that Clapper was invited to the briefing, but he also reports that Clapper couldn't make it (p. 367). If these are the notes of the 28 July meeting, how come Clapper's initials are there?

On the other hand, Brennan goes on to say that he visited both Clapper and Comey the following day to report to them on his meeting with the president and share all the stuff he'd learned in preparing for it. And these notes aren't, I wouldn't think, Brennan's notes taken during the meeting (if only because he was himself doing practically all of the talking), but more of an aide-mémoire of what happened in all three meetings, not in the fulsome FBI style of a complete narrative such as we've seen from Comey but crabbed CIA-analyst style, jotting down in the order of memory rather than chronology, and maybe the Clapper notes got mixed into the middle because that's when he remembered them.

We'll never know, again, until Ratcliffe supplies a less redacted version (and I thought Big Donald had declassified them all, via Twitter, but DOJ is denying that, breaking story as I type, thanks Joanie, apparently they they claim the Twitter rescript isn't a valid imperial command) so it would be, as they say, irresponsible not to speculate. But I really like the idea that these could in fact be those notes.

Either way, the story itself hasn't become particularly different from the one I was trying to tell on Saturday: it still

  • establishes the important time sequence, revised from Saturday's, from the Trump campaign move to soften the Republican platform's language in Russia 11 July and WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails on the 22nd through the revelations on Papadopoulos and Guccifer 2.0 on the 26th, the Trump craziness on the 27th, Brennan's Obama briefing on the 28th and followups with Clapper and Comey on the 29th, and Comey's official opening of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation on the 31st, while Brennan is forming his "fusion cell" around the same time;
  • shows that the US agencies reacted in an entirely justified way to this piling up of suspicious information on Russia's election interference and Trump's and Putin's mutual admiration;
  • shows plainly that Hillary Clinton did nothing in any sense wrong, not even politically nasty, when she decided to make it part of her campaign to call out the relationship between the Russian active measures designed to help Trump win the election and Trump's welcoming of it, because the relationship was real—specifically, the theory that Guccifer 2.0 was not a creation of Russian intelligence (which Edward Snowden and a host of tech bros, Greenwald and another host of performative "leftists", continued to push forever, alongside Trump's own theory of the 400-pound hacker "on a bed"), was indefensible—and she was right, along with Brennan, Clapper, and Comey studying the evidence and keeping Obama informed; and
  • clarifies not only that whatever "Russian allegations" against Hillary Clinton Brennan may have been referring to were without merit, but also the precise date put on them in Brennan's notes may well be a product of the DOJ forgery expert.

And there's no reason to think Brennan himself took them as seriously as partisans like Turley and Ratcliffe seem to think he should have done, especially now that it's abundantly clear Russia was indeed working assiduously to get Trump elected, just as the Clinton campaign said it was, now that we know so much more than she could have imagined back then, about the Russian work with Papadopoulos, Stone, Manafort and Gates, Flynn, and Donald Junior, and Trump's own desperate attempts to stop the investigations, equally desperate attempts to diminish or kill economic sanctions on Russia, slavish behavior toward Putin in public, and mysterious interaction with him in private.  We can't do anything about it, for now, except to bear witness as well as we can, but all this stuff really happened, and this new effort on Ratcliffe's part to redact it all away will fail in the long run, if not sooner.

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