In a prior column, I addressed the public debate over Bill Barr’s authority to declassify intelligence regarding the Obama administration’s Trump-Russia investigation. Lurking behind this debate, we should understand, is that administration’s handling of the Steele dossier: a compilation of faux intelligence reports.
The dossier was, of course, generated by the Fusion GPS firm — principally, by British spy–turned–hack-for-hire Christopher Steele and journalist-turned-fabulist Glenn Simpson. The dossier is a slipshod, unverified opposition-research screed, sponsored by the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Its sensational allegations of a Trump-Putin conspiracy to undermine the 2016 election (including by hacking and disseminating Democratic emails) were never verified. Nor was its salacious claim that the Kremlin possessed a video recording of Trump engaging in sexual hijinks, and thus could blackmail him into doing Russia’s bidding if he were elected.
Suffice it to say that the Obama-administration officials involved in pushing the dossier are running for the hills to distance themselves from it, particularly after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report effectively rejected it. Most prominent in this regard is former CIA director John Brennan.
Brennan is as hyper-political an intelligence official as we have ever had. And when called on his excesses, such as the CIA’s spying on the Senate during his watch, his default mode is to misrepresent what was done and then frustrate the investigative process. On the dossier, he is playing to type.
As we noted here last week, a public spat has broken out between Brennan and the FBI’s former director, James Comey, over which of them advocated including the dossier in the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) — the report outlining Russia’s “active measures” to meddle in the campaign. We’ll come to why Comey has the better of that argument.
For now, let’s stick with Brennan. The evidence powerfully indicates that he was a vigorous dossier peddler. He nevertheless pretends to have been a dossier skeptic from the start. A big part of the declassification controversy involves his defense.
Brennan has bragged about his role as Russiagate catalyst. Now, he and his phalanx of unidentified intelligence operatives, who leak classified information while contending that the sky will fall if Barr discloses any classified information, maintain that the dossier was unrelated to the investigation’s genesis. Rather, our hero, through painstaking effort, reached into the shadows for a high-ranking, deep-cover Kremlin source that the CIA had spent years developing. Therefore, the story goes, if Barr declassifies and discloses the intelligence that would explain the true origin of the Russia investigation, he would expose our most vital source of information about the inner workings of our most vexing adversary — in the process ensuring that we become too untrustworthy ever again to recruit such a source.
The ‘Source’ . . . and the Informant
As is typically the case when Brennan and the CIA have a problem, there’s a big New York Times story putting their spin on it. It has to be parsed exactingly. And there’s some glossary you’ll need, or else you’ll miss the sleight of hand. The two words at issue are informant and source. In common parlance, they are often used interchangeably. But they are saliently different, especially in a story about spycraft. An informant is a cooperator who intentionally provides information to government agents. A source is whom or what the information comes from — often a person, sometimes an operation (like a wiretap). A source can be witting or unwitting. A source can also be the informant (which is why the terms are often conflated), but very often a source’s information is communicated to an informant through one or more intermediaries. An important example: Christopher Steele, who is often referred to as a source, was actually an informant, whose sources were multiple layers of hearsay removed from him.
With that in mind, here are the relevant passages from the Times story (my italics):
The president raised questions about C.I.A. involvement in the origins of the Russia investigation, and other officials said Mr. Barr wanted to learn more about sources in Russia, including a key informant who helped the C.I.A. conclude that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the intrusion on the 2016 election.
. . .
The most prominent of the C.I.A.’s sources of intelligence on Russia’s election interference was a person close to Mr. Putin who provided information about his involvement, former officials have said. The source turned over evidence for one of the last major intelligence conclusions that President Barack Obama made public before leaving office: that Mr. Putin himself was behind the Russia hack.
Long nurtured by the C.I.A., the source rose to a position that enabled the informant to provide key information in 2016 about the Russian leadership’s role in the interference campaign, the officials said.
Somewhat densely, this indicates that “a person close to Putin” was a “source” for intelligence that made its way to the CIA. The source was “long nurtured by the C.I.A.” But the article does not say this source was providing information directly to the CIA. Instead, the CIA was relying on “a key informant” for its conclusion that Putin personally ordered the election meddling. When the CIA’s “long nurtured” source “rose to a position of prominence,” that development “enabled the informant to provide key information” about Putin’s role in the scheme.
Note that last part. The Times does not say the source communicated directly with the informant. Rather, it says the source’s rise to prominence enabled the informant to learn information from the source. This implies that once the source moved up in the Kremlin pecking order, the source’s information became available to the informant, either through a third party or because something about the source’s new position gave the informant access to the source’s insights.
Why is all this written in such an obscure manner? I suspect the ball being hidden here is: The informant is either Christopher Steele or, more likely, someone in Russia who relayed source information to Steele; and the source is one of the Kremlin insiders close to Putin from whom Steele claimed to be getting information — most likely, Vladislav Surkov or Vyasheslav Trubnikov.
Steele’s Kremlin Sources
Steele was stationed in Moscow as an MI6 agent during the 1990s. But his cover was blown (apparently through no fault of his own), and he has thus not been in Russia for about 20 years. For intelligence about goings-on there, Steele relies on old contacts (“collectors”), who hear things of varying reliability from their sources and pass them along to him.
Steele started the dossier with a report dated June 20, 2016. He claimed that his sources included a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure” (Source A) and a “former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin” (Source B). This top intelligence officer was the source for the claim that Putin was personally directing the pro-Trump effort.
Steele was not getting information directly from Sources A and B. Instead, in a scenario similar to what is described in the Times story excerpted above, Steele or his informant had access to the source information indirectly: Steele’s Sources A and B spoke to “a trusted compatriot,” who passed the information along to Steele (or Steele’s informant; we don’t know if it went directly from the compatriot to Steele, or if there were other intermediaries). The sources almost certainly did not intend to betray Putin.
Steele also referred to “Source G,” described as “a senior Kremlin official,” who was in a position to know that Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, was in control of the supposed kompromat file the regime was holding on Hillary Clinton.
We should also note the following Steele-dossier reports from this relevant summer-2016 time frame, when Brennan was advising Obama administration national-security advisers and Congress:
• July 19 report: Steele relied on an “official close to Presidential Administration Head S. Ivanov” (i.e., Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff) who had “confided in a compatriot.”
• July 26 report (incorrectly dated “2015” instead of 2016): Steele relied on a “former senior intelligence officer” and a “senior government figure.”
• August 5 report: Steele relied on “two well-placed and established Kremlin sources.” One was “close to Ivanov” (likely the source mentioned on July 19), and the other close to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (Putin’s factotum who kept the president’s chair warm for him from 2008-12).
Let’s consider two regime figures whom Steele claimed as sources, and who fit the description of these sources in the dossier reports.
On October 11, 2016, Steele was interviewed in Washington by State Department official Kathleen Kavalec. In that interview, he identified two of his insider Kremlin sources as Vladislov Surkov and Vyasheslov Trubnikov.
Surkov has spent over a decade moving up in the regime. In 2013, he became Putin’s personal adviser, particularly on Georgia and Ukraine, where Putin has since made major territorial annexations. Kremlin-wise, Surkov is top-echelon; he’s sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Rasputin.”
Trubnikov is a longtime regime eminence who ran the SVR (Russia external intelligence service, analogous to the CIA) before Putin came to power. Since then, he has continued to be an insider, while moving on to critical positions: first deputy for foreign affairs, then ambassador to India. Interestingly, former SVR director Trubnikov has a longstanding relationship with Stefan Halper — a prominent foreign-policy thinker and longtime informant who was deployed by the FBI against several Trump campaign advisers. And what a coincidence: Halper is also tight with another former intelligence chief, MI6’s Sir Richard Dearlove, who, as it happens, is Steele’s mentor, adviser, and longtime boss — the man who encouraged Steele to share his Trump-Russia information with British and American intelligence agencies. (More coincidence: Also running in these same British intelligence circles is Alexander Downer — the Australian diplomat who claimed George Papadopoulos told him Russia was helping the Trump campaign.)
Trubnikov fits the description of Steele’s Source B, and Steele’s other references to a former top-level intelligence official. Surkov could be Source A or G, as well as other references to senior regime officials. “Source A” is a tougher fit because Surkov is not formally in the foreign ministry, but he does have a significant foreign-ministry portfolio; “Source G” would work because Surkov is a senior Kremlin official.
How Could the Dossier Be Unverified If Brennan Had an Independent ‘Bombshell’ Source?
Brennan clearly knew about the dossier. By July 2016, it was known to British intelligence, the State Department, and the FBI. (The claim that FBI headquarters did not know of it until mid-September — also an effort to distance the investigation from the dossier — is absurd, but I’ll get to that in an upcoming column.) There is no way the CIA director would have been in the dark about it and, as we shall see, he was peddling it. Moreover, Brennan’s position seems to be that he did not want to use the dossier because it was not refined, verified intelligence reporting. I do not understand him to be claiming he was uninformed about its existence.
Legend has it that, in this July–August 2016 time frame, Brennan developed what the Washington Post called “an intelligence bombshell.” It was “a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” In early August, Brennan sent this bombshell by courier from the CIA to the White House, sealed in an “eyes only” envelope, to be shown to President Obama and three senior aides. Over time, the circle was widened some.
Brennan’s “intelligence bombshell” was drawn from high-level Russian-government sourcing positioned to know that Putin himself was complicit in the cyber campaign.
And wouldn’t you know it: Steele claimed his dossier was drawn from high-level Russian government sourcing positioned to know that Putin himself was complicit in the cyber campaign.
Now that’s peculiar, wouldn’t you say? The one thing we know for sure about the dossier is that it was unverified. Director Comey said that in congressional testimony. Brennan’s unidentified spokesman has said so recently in explaining why he was purportedly opposed to the inclusion of the dossier in the aforementioned ICA.
Well, how could that be? If Brennan actually had his own high-level Russian government sourcing, then the dossier would have been corroborated. It would not be dismissed as unverified; it would be touted as matching up with the “intelligence bombshell” independently known to the CIA.
Was Brennan holding out on the FBI? That does not seem possible. As the former CIA director testified before the House Intelligence Committee, “It was well beyond my mandate as director of CIA to follow on any of those leads that involved U.S. persons.” Therefore, Brennan “made sure that anything that was involving U.S. persons, including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign, was shared with the bureau.” He elaborated:
I was aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion — cooperation occurred.
So, Brennan says he was sharing the information he had with the FBI. Yet the FBI does not seem to have been aware of any intelligence bombshell that could be used to verify the information in the dossier. And in October 2016, when it sought and obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FBI used the Steele dossier, not some independent bombshell intelligence provided by Brennan.
Brennan, Harry Reid, and the Dossier
Besides the FBI, with whom else was Brennan sharing information during the summer of 2016? Brennan was briefing Congress. He says that between August 11 and September 6, he individually briefed each member of the Gang of Eight — the bipartisan leadership of both houses of Congress, plus the majority and minority leaders of the two intelligence committees. The Senate minority leader was Harry Reid of Nevada, who has since retired.
After being briefed by Brennan, Reid fired off a letter to FBI director Comey on August 27. It was now clear, Reid said, not only that Russia was “tampering in our presidential election,” but that “the evidence of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign continues to mount.” After venting his spleen about the hacked DNC emails, Reid asserted (emphases mine):
Further, [t]here have been a series of disturbing reports suggesting other methods Russia is using to influence the Trump campaign and manipulate it as a vehicle for advancing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin. For example, questions have been raised about whether a Trump advisor who has been highly critical of U.S. and European economic sanctions on Russia, and who has conflicts of interest due to investments in Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom, met with high-ranking sanctioned individuals while in Moscow in July 2016.
Reid’s reference to a “series of disturbing reports” matches up perfectly with Steele’s compilation of dossier reports. And among the main allegations Steele was pushing at the time was Carter Page’s purported meetings during a July 2016 trip to Moscow with at least two high-ranking Russian regime figures — Igor Sechin, the head of the Rosneft energy giant who was under U.S. sanctions, and Igor Divyekin, an important official in Putin’s presidential administration.
Other Indications Brennan Pushed the Dossier
Finally, five other relevant matters:
• A portion of the Steele dossier was included in the annex to the ICA. In addition, at the behest of National Intelligence Director Clapper (and as agreed ahead of time by the relevant intelligence chiefs, including Brennan), Comey briefed Trump on that dossier portion when the intelligence chiefs gave the ICA briefing to the then-president-elect at Trump Tower on January 6, 2017. As I noted last weekend, Brennan’s unidentified spokesman maintains that Comey unilaterally decided to do this briefing. Comey, however, has been testifying for nearly two years that he was asked to do it. Moreover, in his recently released book, Facts and Fears, Clapper confirms Comey’s version of events — and Clapper adds that he learned about Steele’s “pseudo-intelligence” reports from Brennan about a week after President Obama ordered the ICA to be done.)
• Rand Paul tweeted on March 27, 2019: “A high-level source tells me it was Brennan who insisted that the unverified and fake Steele dossier be included in the Intelligence Report.”
• Journalist Bob Woodward reports, based on his network of sources, that it was Brennan’s CIA that pushed for the dossier to be included in the ICA.
• Former congressman Trey Gowdy, who had access to some of the documentary record, has indicated that the emails of Comey and Brennan from December 2016 are relevant to proving the dossier was used in the assessment. Picking up that lead, Fox News reported that there is email showing Comey informing his FBI subordinates that Brennan was insistent on including the dossier in the ICA.
• Special Counsel Mueller’s final report finds that there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. This certainly makes it unlikely that the CIA had solid intelligence, independent of the Steele dossier, indicating that there was such a conspiracy.
Christopher Steele claimed that his intelligence, showing that Vladimir Putin was directing a pro-Trump conspiracy that included the hacking and publication of DNC emails, was sourced to (among others) high-ranking Kremlin officials Vladislav Surkov and Vyasheslav Trubnikov.
The story coming from the Brennan camp is that he had some other “bombshell intelligence” sourced to the Kremlin. That seems unlikely: The record shows that he was promoting the Steele dossier. Surely, the Republic as we know it will not crumble if Attorney General Barr tells us whether Brennan is being forthright.
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