The gun debate has taken over the airwaves in the last couple of weeks, but flying under the radar is a set of developments in the congressional “Russiagate” probes which, taken together, could turn a definitive klieg light on the critical period before the 2016 election.
What the klieg light will illuminate is the coordinated operation within the Obama administration that used the Steele dossier.
The critical period runs from the very end of July to the end of October, when the FBI applied for the FISA warrant for surveillance of Carter Page. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) on the House Intelligence Committee, and Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), are separately pursuing information that would shed light on that period, and we’ll look at their queries in a moment.
Nunes, meanwhile, is reported to also be preparing another Intelligence Committee memo as a follow-on to the first one, published in February, which identified how the Christopher Steele dossier was used to obtain the FBI’s surveillance approval on Carter Page.
The next memo, according to Paul Sperry, is to outline the role of the Obama State Department in both assembling the dossier and shopping it around in the Obama administration.
Nunes plans to soon release a separate report detailing the Obama State Department’s role in creating and disseminating the dossier — which has emerged as the foundation of the Obama administration’s Russia “collusion” investigation. Among other things, the report will identify Obama-appointed diplomats who worked with partisan operatives close to Hillary Clinton to help ex-British spy Christopher Steele compile the dossier, sources say.
Sperry’s next passage is key:
“Those are the first two phases” of Nunes’ multipart inquiry, a senior investigator said. “In phase three, the involvement of the intelligence community will come into sharper focus.”
The aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said Nunes will focus on Brennan as well as President Obama’s first CIA director, Leon Panetta, along with the former president’s intelligence czar, James Clapper, and national security adviser, Susan Rice, and security adviser-turned U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, among other intelligence officials.
“John Brennan did more than anyone to promulgate the dirty dossier,” the investigator said. “He politicized and effectively weaponized what was false intelligence against Trump.”
Such “phase three” findings would effectively bring every relevant element of the Obama administration – the DOJ, the FBI, national intelligence and the NSC organization, and the State Department – into the apparently organized use of the Steele dossier to justify investigating Trump and his associates.
Collateral indications of a coordinated operation
This shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve had previews of this possibility from earlier investigative work, like that of Lee Smith, who laid out the case in February for John Brennan’s central role in using and pushing the dossier’s contents.
Moreover, the disclosure from Senate investigators of the Susan Rice “email for the record,” sent on Trump’s inauguration day to memorialize a high-level meeting with Obama on 5 January 2017, has already confirmed for us that the issue of “mistrusting Trump” – purportedly regarding him as a national security risk – had the highest level of visibility in the previous administration.
Partisans can interpret that point differently, but unless Susan Rice was simply making a false statement in her email, the point itself is undisputed.
The meeting she wrote about occurred immediately after a “briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election.” That means either DNI James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, or their high-level deputies, were present for the briefing. Rice’s email recorded that “President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.” It was in this follow-on conversation that the question of sharing information with Trump was discussed.
These are the actors and agencies whose presence clarifies that the “Trump-Russia” topic had the top-level visibility of the Oval Office.
Any suggestion that such centralized visibility didn’t exist cannot be credible. This is not a banal observation; it goes to the heart of the long-running, implicit narrative from Democrats and the media that agencies and officials in the Obama administration had little knowledge of what others were doing, and in particular, that no matter who knew about the Steele dossier, the dossier wasn’t a central document and was never really important.
Top Obama officials (e.g., John Brennan, James Comey) have at times been at pains to distance themselves and their agencies’ activities from the dossier. As each new piece of information comes out, whether it’s about the dossier or not, it is inspected by the media in isolation (or only in carefully chosen context), and often treated by the media and Democratic politicians as if institutional knowledge of it was severely restricted, and as if it is conspiracist nonsense to suggest what the implications would be of wider knowledge in the Obama administration, and action by the administration on such a basis.
Yet that is an absurd perspective, even if, after months of tendentious coverage, our minds may not be adjusted to see it.
Fresh questions from Congress
Correcting that perspective is a key reason why the questions Congress has sent out since the first of this year matter. The answers to Nunes’ recent questions to the FBI would begin to peel a crucial layer off the film sustaining the false perspective about what was going on inside the Obama administration. And the questions from Grassley and Graham, directed to officials of the Democratic Party, would shed light on how the actions of other Democrats outside the administration — potentially including the DNC and the Hillary campaign — may (or may not) have been connected.
Nunes’ questions for the FBI are about agency rules for the use of evidence in surveillance applications. The FBI’s procedural regulations are clear that unverified information should not be used in such applications. The issue is not even whether it should be relied on as primary; it’s that it shouldn’t be included at all, if it is not verified by the FBI.
Since the Steele dossier was unquestionably used in the FISA application for Carter Page, this is an important question. Nunes’ letter confines itself to asking whether the FBI had changed procedures from 2011 that prohibited the use of such unverified information.
But the congressman is also, in effect, keeping alive the implied follow-on questions. Why would the FBI use information it knew, at the time the application was submitted (around 21 October 2016), to be unverified?
Implicit in Nunes’ query is a basic point about which the public has no verifiable information. What else was there – apart from the dossier – to justify surveillance of Carter Page? If there was such evidence, it is remarkable that a year and a half later, we still have no clear idea what it was. (Lee Smith’s article, linked above, summarizes a likely – if suspiciously circular – possibility: a relay of intelligence from the British to John Brennan’s CIA. The original provenance of that intelligence – a non-British source – was reportedly considered dubious by others in the intel community. See the Washington Post story linked below.)
The “George Papadopoulos” story line had nothing to do with justifying surveillance of Page, nor did the “Russian hacking” story line, whether in terms of what the intel community believed, or in terms of what the FBI was said to be investigating at the time.
These separate pieces – Papadopoulos and “Russian hacking” – are said to have had specific catalytic effects in the overall drama. But apart from the dossier, neither of them pointed to Carter Page.
Why the FBI submitted a FISA application that included reference to the unverified dossier information is a core question, with implications about the role played by both the IC and the FBI.
That, in turn, is why the period from late July to mid-October 2016 is so critical.
Locus of coordination: The high-level task force
What makes it of supreme importance is the fact that – if the Washington Post is right – we already know that that’s when the highest officials in the Executive Office of the President, the intelligence community, the State Department, the DOJ, and the FBI began working together on a special task force to “analyze” whether Trump and his associates were “colluding” with Russia, and decide what to do about it.
The agencies, in other words, in which there was, verifiably, “separate” knowledge of the Steele dossier, were working together on a special task force convened on Obama’s order, meeting in the White House Situation Room, and accountable to the Oval Office.
The task force included the highest-level officials. But it also included “several dozen” hand-picked analysts from the CIA, NSA, and the FBI. The assembling of this band of analysts makes it impossible that the dossier – and other key elements of the putative brief against “Trump” and “Russia,” whatever they may have been – were known only within agency compartments, from which information was not being shared. It makes it impossible for the FBI to have been pursuing an “FBI investigation” that no one else had visibility on – about the very subject for which the task force had been convened.
The analysts have been alluded to in two interesting places: the WaPo story, and a quote from John Brennan in Paul Sperry’s article from February 2018.
Brennan spoke in testimony in 2017 about vetting the IC’s report on “Russian interference” in 2016 through a hand-picked group of analysts from the CIA, NSA, and FBI. The odds are low that this hand-picked group was someone other than the analysts on the Obama-convened task force – especially given the wariness of some of the intel agencies about the IC report’s findings.
We will see below the kind of task force the Post described. It is not reasonably possible that the dossier was being used inside agency stovepipes in such a task force, and that no one was communicating about it to people sitting across a conference table.
This is what Congress is effectively trying to get to the bottom of. The operations of this task force are what Nunes’ questions about the use of the dossier in the FISA application would begin to pry open.
Susan Rice’s email for the record from 20 January 2017 serves as a reminder that the task force existed – and thus as a mental corrective for any depiction of the Obama administration’s actions as decentralized, with offices and agencies unaware of what others were doing.
No ordinary operation
If you don’t remember hearing about this task force, you’re probably in good company. I had to be reminded of it in the course of research myself. The WaPo article emphasizes how secretive its activities were at the time:
The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.
The Situation Room is actually a complex of secure spaces in the basement level of the West Wing. A video feed from the main room courses through some National Security Council offices, allowing senior aides sitting at their desks to see — but not hear — when meetings are underway.
As the Russia-related sessions with Cabinet members began in August, the video feed was shut off. The last time that had happened on a sustained basis, officials said, was in the spring of 2011 during the run-up to the U.S. Special Operations raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
But the features of the task force’s inception and operation were reported as early as June 2017, and they dovetail with the other information we have.
To recount a brief timeline: the House Democrats’ counter-memo on the FBI and the FISA warrant gives us a date of 31 July 2016 for when the FBI launched its investigation of potential “collusion.”
The WaPo story then indicates that Obama’s order to convene the task force was given in the week before he went on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, which he departed for on Saturday, 6 August 2016.
According to WaPo, the catalyst for the task force was a briefing from Brennan, given in the Oval Office to Obama, Susan Rice, and two other senior officials.
In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan E. Rice aside after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and [White House Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough in the Oval Office.
The task force brought together the intel community and DOJ/FBI as it initial core.
Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI. …
They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.
Rice, Haines and White House homeland-security adviser Lisa Monaco convened meetings in the Situation Room to weigh the mounting evidence of Russian interference and generate options for how to respond. At first, only four senior security officials were allowed to attend: Brennan, Clapper, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey. Aides ordinarily allowed entry as “plus-ones” were barred.
Quickly added to it: the State and Defense Department leadership.
Gradually, the circle widened to include Vice President Biden and others. Agendas sent to Cabinet secretaries — including John F. Kerry at the State Department and Ashton B. Carter at the Pentagon — arrived in envelopes that subordinates were not supposed to open. Sometimes the agendas were withheld until participants had taken their seats in the Situation Room.
Next in the timeline is the “insurance policy” text between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, on 15 August 2016 after a meeting with (then) deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe. The events in the WaPo article suggest that some allusion to the task force of which the FBI formed an integral part, and to which it contributed some of the “several dozen” analysts, had to be on Strzok’s mind when he sent that text.
McCabe clearly had to know about the task force – as did Strzok (at least eventually), a top counterintelligence agent specializing in Russia. (He was shortly to be promoted, in fact, to the job he held when the FISA application was submitted in October 2016: Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI for Counterintelligence. His immediate boss, the Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, was Bill Priestap.)
It was 10 days after that text, on 25 August, that then-Senator Harry Reid got his first briefing on the supposed “collusion” information from John Brennan. Brennan’s centrality in instigating concern and making sure the contents of the dossier were spread in Washington must not be missed. Brennan has received little attention, but as Lee Smith’s Tablet article demonstrates, he was a key figure (quoting Smith’s bullet points):
In July 2016, Brennan, according to his own testimony, initiated the Russia investigation and pushed the FBI to get on the case.
In early August 2016, Brennan briefed Obama on Russian interference. He explained that Putin’s explicit purpose is to aid Trump. That assessment, according to the Washington Poststory describing the meetings, was not yet endorsed by other intelligence agencies, including the FBI.
In late August, Brennan briefed congressional leaders on the same topic.
As I recounted in February, Reid sent a letter to the FBI on 27 August expressing concern about what he had just been briefed on by Brennan – points that mirrored those in the Steele dossier.
Strzok and Lisa Page then had their next famous text exchange on 2 September, in which they referred to an upcoming meeting Strzok would attend – apparently about “Russiagate” – and Page stated that “potus wants to know everything we are doing.” The meeting in question took place on 7 September.
The high-level task force was several weeks old at that point, with representatives from the NSC, the intel community, DOJ, the FBI, and the State Department. On an unnamed date in September, State Department official Jonathan Winer – a friend of Christopher Steele’s since 2009 – met with Steele and perused portions of the dossier.
Winer had received copies of private intelligence reports compiled by Steele since Winer’s return to the State Department in 2013, when John Kerry became secretary of State. Winer had passed those reports around within the State Department. After meeting with Steele, he wrote a summary memo on the dossier information and forwarded it to Victoria Nuland. Winer says he and Nuland agreed that Kerry should be told about it, although he doesn’t explicitly state that Kerry was briefed.
On 23 September 2016, the now-famous article by Michael Isikoff was published at Yahoo! In that article, as Isikoff clarified in February 2018, he was quoting information Christopher Steele had given him about what the FBI was doing with the contents of Steele’s dossier.
That means the FBI was acting on the dossier prior to 23 September. In his article, Isikoff also mentioned a joint statement from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-FL) after a briefing they received from the intel community.
It was during September 2016 that Steele, at the behest of Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS, briefed not just Isikoff but other media outlets – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and CNN – according to Steele’s affidavit in a British court filing in May 2017.
In “late September,” Jonathan Winer – after previously meeting with Steele – met with Hillary Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal, who showed Winer notes from Hillary Clinton crony Cody Shearer, which “alleged the Russians had compromising information on Trump of a sexual and financial nature.”
Winer showed the information from Blumenthal to Steele, who, Winer later learned, “[shared it with] the FBI, after the FBI asked him to provide everything he had on allegations relating to Trump, his campaign and Russian interference in U.S. elections.”
The FBI has stated that it terminated its connection with Steele on 30 September 2016, after it learned that Steele had told Michael Isikoff about FBI activities with the dossier information for the 23 September Yahoo! article.
Thus, presumably, Steele’s dump of the Shearer-Blumenthal information to the FBI would have occurred right around that time (the end of September 2016).
The date associated with the FBI’s FISA submission on Carter Page was 21 October 2016, three weeks later.
This was top-organized and cannot have been decentralized in operation or decision-making
The takeaway from this timeline is that during the entire period when these things were happening, a high-level task force was operating under the direct supervision of the Executive Office of the President, with several dozen analysts from the FBI, the CIA, and NSA.
Cognizant officials on the NSC staff, at the State Department, at the Justice Department, at the FBI, and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA were all aware of what the task force was doing. The FBI, DOJ, and State Department all knew about the Steele dossier.
Indeed, let’s add one more timeline piece to this: what happened in the week before the FBI launched its “Russia” investigation on 31 July 2016. I have alluded to this several times (e.g., here and here), and it is extremely important to keep it in mind.
The media had been briefed before the task force was even convened
On 25 July 2016, just as the Democratic National Convention kicked off in Philadelphia, mainstream media outlets all at once put out a wide-scale flurry of articles retailing a series of points about Carter Page and Paul Manafort, among others, which interestingly mirrored points from the Steele dossier.
Lee Smith has written about the dossier’s odor of having been orchestrated, in terms of content, by Glenn Simpson based on his own prior research into the U.S. lobbying industry and its connection to shady Russians.
I wrote in January about Simpson all but drawing the Senate a picture of how he tried to force-feed the dossier to the media in the months before the election, with limited success. The flurry of articles on and just after 25 July – all containing the same set of points – looks very much like the fruit of a media blitz by Fusion GPS: just after the DCCC email release, and apparently timed to coincide with the Democratic convention.
This knowledge by the media doesn’t just clarify context. It tells us more. As Lee Smith recounts, it was in the “late summer” of 2016, presumably in the next month, that according to John Brennan (in Senate testimony in 2017), “there were some individuals from the various U.S. news outlets who asked [him] about [his] familiarity with [the Steele dossier].” (Emphasis added.) The media’s repetition in July of points from the dossier clarifies that it was the dossier they were asking Brennan about (whether they called it that or not). Just as clearly, Brennan understood the pattern in what he was being asked.
Conclusion: Everyone knew
Brennan made a subsequent claim that he never actually saw the dossier until December 2016. But Smith doesn’t think that holds water, and neither do I. Brennan’s own brief to Obama got the high-level task force started. Besides the facts that the dossier’s contents were known to news outlets as early as July 2016, and the media were asking Brennan about them by August 2016, the dossier’s contents were also known to the task force spearheaded by Brennan.
The dossier was clearly taken seriously by other agencies. It was known about in the FBI and DOJ from early July, and very possibly before that, given that DOJ official Bruce Ohr’s wife was working on the dossier project for Fusion GPS by May 2016. It was used as evidence in the FISA application on Carter Page, even though its information was not considered verified at the time (and some portion was still referred to as unverified by FBI Director James Comey in June 2017).*
The State Department knew about the dossier by September 2016. The knowledge of all these parties to the high-level task force, and the fact that high-level officials took its information seriously, make it (a) unreasonable in the extreme to suggest that knowledge of the dossier was not widespread across the entire task force, and (b) absurd to suggest that it was not being used by the task force in its investigative charter from President Obama.
The questions posed by Senators Grassley and Graham, and the questions Devin Nunes is asking the FBI, are not of mere administrative interest. Taken together, the answers to those questions would paint a big yellow arrow pointing to the task force launched in August 2016, and what it was doing in the weeks before the election.
As always, we are faced ultimately with the larger question. Why isn’t the story of the task force the story? If there is a good-faith story to be told about what Obama’s “Trump-Russia” task force was doing, why do the officials involved seem to diligently skirt telling it publicly?
* The Democrats’ counter-memo on the FBI FISA application for Carter Page suggests that Bruce Ohr’s knowledge of the dossier through his wife’s employment would not have been a conduit for wider cognizance of the dossier in the DOJ, because Ohr’s portfolio was organized crime and narcotics trafficking, not “counterintelligence,” per se.
But Ohr’s background in organized crime is exactly why he would have been a ready conduit for further dissemination of the dossier information. I wrote about this in December 2017. Organized crime – in particular, Russian links to organized crime – is the common thread connecting all the players in the Russiagate drama. It was through dealing with Russians in organized crime, in various capacities, that all the major figures knew each other, most of them from well before 2015.
It was also through links to Russians and organized crime that a handful of Trump associates came under suspicion, and the case was mounted to look for clues about political interference in the U.S. The Russians involved were the same ones the purveyors of the Steele dossier – and the officials of DOJ and the FBI – labored to link to Trump himself and the election.
Rather than functioning as an alibi for Bruce Ohr, his job title and expertise were what drove his connection, and his wife’s, to both the dossier and the theory of “Trump-Russia” collusion.