Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has come out swinging this week, determined to get an uncensored copy of the document that launched the FBI’s Russia probe in July 2016. He’s looking for a copy that has enough material in it to be informative – something the FBI has so far refused to provide.
Objectively, this can only be a case of unjustified stonewalling on the part of the FBI (and, by extension, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein). There cannot be a valid reason for the FBI or the Justice Department to withhold the information from Devin Nunes – especially when, as Nunes points out, so much has already been leaked by the FBI and/or DOJ to the media.
As regards whether Nunes would leak it or not, readers will have to make up their own minds. My opinion hasn’t changed since I saw how he handled the first big revelation that came through him in early 2017, when he got a glimpse of just what the National Security Council had been doing with its power to unmask U.S. persons using NSA telecommunications data.
Nunes characterized generically what he had found, and he didn’t leak it in a sneaky manner; he made a formal announcement about it. We still don’t know what he found, nor do non-experts know everything it had to entail. But I do know what it had to entail, as would others with my background.
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Nunes knows more than he has ever said. If he had disclosed it improperly, my ears know what we would have heard. He has evidently never done so, in any way that allowed it to get to the media in juicy detail. Whatever he may have disclosed to other members of his committee, moreover, they haven’t leaked either.
Nunes can be trusted not to compromise the operationally sensitive aspects of national intelligence.
What the DOJ and FBI leadership is worried about is the politically embarrassing aspect of whatever lies in that communication the House Intelligence members have never been allowed to see, except in heavily redacted form.
The question is what is so politically embarrassing. The recent work of some diligent investigative bloggers and independent journalists may be helping us to close in on that – although we got a preview of it a little over a year ago. (Yes, it’s what landed Andrew Napolitano in the penalty box at Fox.)
But to circle fully to center-mass on this, we need to tag, along the way, two major lines of inquiry on which the public has had little, if any, visibility.
Making the circle
Both have been pursued at length by our hard-working colleagues in the blogosphere. The first is the man who was Peter Strzok’s boss at the FBI, the Assistant Director of the FBI for Counterintelligence, E.W. “Bill” Priestap. Priestap had to know everything Strzok knew, and in fact had to approve everything Strzok did, and was accountable in the chain of command for everything Strzok did. But for some reason, as others have noted, we have heard next to nothing from or about Priestap since this whole thing started – and unlike almost everyone else, he’s still in his job.
The other major line of inquiry is one that some Brits have been following up on: namely, the connections of a secretive UK strategic intelligence firm, Hakluyt & Co., and through it MI6, to the actors in the George Papadopoulos sub-drama.
Regarding Priestap, one of the best compilations is from “sundance” at Conservative Treehouse (whose conclusions, as I have noted before, are sometimes problematic, but who gets a lot right, nevertheless).
Andrew McCarthy noted early on that it was strange how little we were hearing about Priestap, given that implications were coming out about everyone else. Priestap had to be involved in all the important decisions, whether we’re talking about unmasking Michael Flynn in a phone call with the Russian ambassador, or deciding to interview him, or – even earlier – launching the “Russia” probe in 2016, or making the FISA application for Carter Page. (This is in addition to his documented role in making key decisions about the Hillary email-server case.)
All of these counterintelligence actions clearly were Priestap’s to supervise. Yet there is zero evidence that he has been “cleared” of any untoward involvement, while at the same time, we’ve been afforded no substantial evidence that his activities are being looked at.
(In February, there was a brief, somewhat idiotic – sorry there’s no other word for it – flurry of news spurts about Priestap “singing like a bird” and being a cooperating witness…somehow. But it was never clarified whom he was being a witness for. It would mean one thing if it were Robert Mueller; quite another thing if it were the Republican-led probes in Congress. I’ve never seen anything that provides clarity on that.)
At any rate, sundance highlights the arresting point that James Comey, in televised testimony to Congress in 2017, wouldn’t even speak Priestap’s name. Comey referred to Priestap’s position in answer to some questions that required those allusions. But he seemed to go out of his way to avoid saying Priestap’s name, as if it were a state secret.
As with so many of the players in our drama, it turns out that it matters who Priestap’s wife is. He is married to Sabina Menschel, the daughter of Richard Menschel, one of the Menschel brothers of Goldman Sachs who have famously contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to all of Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, as well as high-profile Democratic PACs.
But Sabina Menschel also has a history not only at the FBI (in 2005-2006), but with the Kroll family intelligence business (father and son Jules and Jeremy), which has operated for many years as K2 Intelligence; and from there to the top Beltway investigative firm Nardello & Co., where Menschel was named president and chief operating officer in December of 2017. This is going to matter, so hang in there.
It’s a coincidence of more than passing interest that (a) she joined the firm within weeks, plus or minus, of when the Washington Free Beacon hired Fusion GPS, and the FBI reportedly knew about Russian intrusion attempts against both political parties’ IT systems (and advised them of those attempts) – and that (b) her husband, who had to know everything about Russia’s activities and the Russia investigation as it was happening, remains Mr. Invisible, never being publicly grilled, and still, in 2018, cruising on autopilot in his FBI job.
Menschel is still at Nardello, too. Paired with the timeline in 2015, these are noteworthy bookends.
Circling through London
Meanwhile, in the UK, Elizabeth Vos has done some diligent spadework connecting George Papadopoulos’ man-of-mystery pursuer Joseph Mifsud – along with FBI correspondent Alexander Downer, the Australian ambassador to the UK who provided the Mifsud-related Papadopoulos tip – to British intelligence.
Vos highlights Mifsud’s connections through his London Academy of Diplomacy, his University of Stirling appointment, and his affiliation with Link Campus (see my link below), to Ms. Claire Smith, for a number of years a member of the UK government’s Joint Intelligence Committee.
There is no exact counterpart in the U.S. government to the UK JIC. Our government performs the same functions, but doesn’t have them organized under the chief executive in the same way, with a single entity that makes so many operational and administrative level decisions for the intelligence community. The UK JIC, for example – which works for the prime minister – sets national intelligence collection and processing priorities, but also oversees the vetting process for personnel accessed into the secret intelligence services. In the U.S., we house those functions in a different way.
Claire Smith’s position was on the JIC’s Security Vetting Appeals Panel, which “oversees the vetting process for UK intelligence placement.” In other words, it’s an appeals panel for aspiring secret intelligence workers.
This directly recalls the point made in my latest post on Joseph Mifsud:
It starts to look like Mifsud and the study program brokerage operations [e.g., Link Campus in Rome, the Euro-Mediterranean University in Slovenia] are an elaborate front for recruiting of some kind.
But if Vos is correct, Mifsud wasn’t involved in recruiting on behalf of the Russians. (It may well have been Russians whom the recruiting operation was targeting.)
Vos, taking up clues reported earlier by outlets like Lifezette and UK media, found another link to British intelligence through Alexander Downer. Downer, whose tip on Papadopoulos was said to have launched the FBI investigation in July 2016, was for some time on the board of the strategic intelligence firm Hakluyt & Co., formed in the 1990s by three retired MI6 operatives, including the “legendary” Fitzroy MacLean. Hakluyt’s professional staff continues to be heavy on former MI6 agents, and it keeps its edge in the strategic consulting business by maintaining contact with the active personnel inside “Six.”
Downer was apparently so involved with Hakluyt that it was noticeable when he (a) resigned from the board in 2014 because he was appointed Australia’s ambassador to the UK, but (b) continued to join in company functions after formally severing his ties, which he did to conform with non-conflict rules.
The British intelligence connections of both Joseph Mifsud and Alexander Downer, who each played a direct role in provoking the FBI’s “Russia” probe, are hard to dismiss.
In my view, however, what those connections demonstrate, in and of themselves, is also a bit hard to link firmly to either Hillary Clinton or the larger Democratic Party apparatus, including the Obama inner circle. (Others have been laboring to do so.) Downer’s involvement in an Australian government commitment to the Clinton Foundation in 2006 is certainly of interest, but in the absence of additional information, can hardly be held up as evidence of a crony-type relationship.
The boresight on the UK
But there is a nexus of transatlantic involvement at which few, if any, have been looking so far. We need to at least consider that it may be the “big one” no one has been looking at.
There’s a hint of it in Mark Tapscott’s work at Lifezette. He lists several Americans who contributed to Hillary’s campaign, and who are also affiliated in some way with the firm Hakluyt & Co.: Jonathan Selib of Brooklyn, Holly Evans (also of New York), and Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who served in a civilian position on the Defense Department staff in 2015-2016. He joined Hakluyt in 2017, a few months after his departure from DOD.
Of these personages, it’s Jonathan Selib who is of interest. Tapscott notes that Selib worked for Montana Democrat Max Baucus, in fact serving as his chief of staff (until the end of 2012). But what Tapscott doesn’t mention is who Selib’s predecessor was in that job, and whom Selib made his name on Capitol Hill as a sidekick to.
That individual is Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager (as well as a key player in his 2008 campaign).
And the more we recall about Messina over the last 10 years, the less unimportant and merely coincidental it looks that Selib has been employed at Hakluyt in New York since December 2012, and also has connections of such longstanding to Messina.
I want to establish at the outset that I don’t view Messina himself as a deus ex machina, somehow pulling strings on the whole Russiagate thing. The number of government-level decisions that had to be involved in it makes that impossible. This operation, whatever its ultimate nature, was run by people at the very highest level.
What Messina’s role does is highlight, through its centrality and the connections he rolls back a curtain on, how much we need questions answered on what the Brits were doing.
There is no reason to imagine that elements of the UK government – under David Cameron at the time – were “plotting against the United States.”
At least not without the knowledge and invitation of the Obama administration.
But that, I suspect (more strongly now than at any point in the last year), is what Nunes and the House committee would begin to see clearly, if they got a view of the unredacted communication that launched the FBI “Russia” probe in July 2016.
Messina, the man in the middle
Jim Messina has been a rising star and consistently high-profile presence in the Democratic constellation since he made a name as a Hill enforcer for Baucus in the 1990s and 2000s. Baucus was the longest-serving Senate Democrat for much of that time, and after the 2006 election became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a powerful portfolio.
Baucus was key to getting Obamacare punched through in 2010, and Selib and Messina – who had worked together on Baucus’ staff until Messina joined the Obama campaign in 2008, and then collaborated on Obamacare when Messina moved to the White House as a deputy chief of staff to Obama – performed as an “enforcement” team.
As post-mortems of Baucus’ last years in office were written (he left the Senate to become ambassador to China in 2014), passages like this were common:
Former Baucus staff members such as Russ Sullivan, Jim Messina, and Jonathan Selib were respectfully feared for their ability to cut deals and potentially deliver retribution, leaving members more inclined to cooperate with Baucus.
Messina, from all appearances, focused on getting things done for Obama, rather than on being a “deep thinker” policy strategist. The UK Independent profiled Messina as “The most powerful person in Washington you’ve never heard of” just before the 2012 election, for which Messina was Obama’s campaign manager.
And then, in 2013, Messina left the White House and started his own consulting firm, the Messina Group. One of its highest-profile clients? The UK Conservative Party, which came knocking in the latter half of 2013, while preparing to get David Cameron reelected in 2015.
David Axelrod, of course, another top Obama adviser, worked in the same cycle for the Labour campaign of Ed Miliband. The point here is not that just working on a British political campaign put Messina in the middle of international skulduggery.
But: reserve judgment on what it did mean, until we’ve looked at some of the key places this part of the drama went.
First of all, Cameron’s 2015 campaign was a resounding success. He won handily, and Messina was invited back to help run the Remain campaign for the Brexit referendum in 2016. The Remainers, of course – of whom then-PM Cameron was the chief – wanted to keep the UK in the EU.
That’s where the heads of the top-line Tories were as the referendum approached: on the side of less nationalism and more EU integrationism. It seems that in quite a few other ways, Cameron, the Conservatives, and Messina were simpatico. That, at least, was progressive Democrat Messina’s story, and he was sticking to it.
Although the Brexit referendum went against Cameron and brought his government down, the Conservatives under Theresa May invited Messina back yet again to help with the snap election called for 2017. Again, Messina emphasized his sympathy with the Tories, even suggesting that in Britain, Labour was having a messy meltdown that made the party unfit to govern, in the same way he attributed to the GOP back home.
The election didn’t go well for May, although it’s doubtful that it would have done so under any circumstances. May herself was a hapless and uncharismatic candidate; her main opponent, meanwhile, Labour’s Jeremey Corbyn – lately revealed as bizarrely embedded with psychotic anti-Semites – is much too far left to have broad appeal. The British voter had no really appealing choices in the 2017 snap election.
But the important point here is how many times, and to what extent, Messina has been involved with the UK Conservatives in the last five years. Throughout that time, the Conservatives have controlled the government. Messina, to a seemingly unexpected degree, has become something of a fixture with them.
While all this was going on, Messina jumped in for Hillary with both feet in 2014. That’s when he took over the Priorities USA Action PAC, which was understood to be laying the groundwork for her 2016 run.
But he had had one foot in the pond already, as the chairman of Organizing for America, the follow-on to Obama for America that seamlessly took over the campaign’s money and staff the day after the 2012 election. As Howard Portnoy noted in 2013, OFA was devoting an awful lot of resources to political strategizing, for a supposedly non-partisan 501(c)(4) organization.
Although native Floridian Guy Cecil was brought in in the spring of 2016 to run Priorities USA Action, and Messina’s role there shifted to that of a board member, he remained a key presence at what was far and away the biggest-dollar PAC behind the Hillary Clinton campaign. Significantly, as Paul Blumenthal put it at Huffington Post, “Nearly all of the money has come from seven-figure donors.”
In the run-up to the fateful months of June and July 2016, that’s what Messina was doing: consulting with the Cameron government on the Brexit vote – which was held on 23 June 2016 – and doing the seven-figure-donor circuit on behalf of Hillary.
What might that have to do with the UK and the George Papadopoulos episode? We come to that question with one of the most interesting connections to date, one that links Messina, the Cameron government (as well as the May government, for that matter), and Alexander Downer, the Australian ambassador to the UK.
The individual in question is Mr. Lynton Crosby, an Australian political operative who was also hired as a consultant to the Tories in the UK national election campaigns (Cameron’s and May’s) worked by Jim Messina since 2013. Crosby, like his compatriot Downer, is a Liberal (i.e., in American terms, what passes for a political conservative). And the two of them don’t just go back. They go way back. They like to tell stories about coming into Liberal politics from the same town, at the same time, years ago.
So when you think about what transpired in the summer of 2016, the context was this. Joseph Mifsud, who had dangled bait in March and April for Papadopoulos in the form of supposed “Hillary emails,” was often in professional company, in all his usual haunts, with an official of the Cameron government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Claire Smith.
Alexander Downer, a man with informal but persistent links to MI6 through the firm of Hakluyt & Co., reportedly heard the drunken confession of Papadopoulos about what Mifsud had offered him, and passed it on to the FBI. Downer was long-time buds with political operative Lynton Crosby, who ran tame with the Cameron political team, and who, besides being known by Jim Messina, knew Jim Messina, and worked with him on the selfsame Cameron team before 2015, and on the May team the following year.
At the same time, Messina was involved with the Priorities USA Action PAC, the top money-holder for a Hillary campaign that – according to Donna Brazile (and other reporting at the time) – was strong-arming the DNC over control of Democratic money. (This was all happening while the DNC server was being “observed” for over a month by CrowdStrike during the April-June 2016 hacking intrusion on it. In the same period, the DNC was hiring Fusion GPS — for all we know using money that ultimately came through Priorities USA Action.)
Now fast-forward just a bit, to get a rearview mirror perspective on where some of these connections went. Consider, for example, that Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina are now joining forces at the UK-based data analytics company Outra, which took them both on in September of 2017. Clearly, they’re still in touch.
Consider that one of David Cameron’s closest friends and longest-serving political advisers, Sir Andrew Feldman, who was with Cameron throughout his time as prime minister, took on a role with none other than the Messina Group in March 2017, after the Cameron government was shown the door the previous year.
Consider that within weeks of the Cameron government’s departure, in late 2016, Feldman also assumed a role with consulting group Macro Advisory Partners – which numbers among its leading lights not only its chairman, former MI6 chief John Sawers, but Obama alumni Mona Sutphen (an Oval Office adviser) and now, as of March 2018, Alex Pascal (who worked for Susan Rice at the UN and then at the National Security Council).
Finally, consider – perhaps seemingly out of the blue – that Robert Hannigan, former head of Britain’s GCHQ, the electronic-surveillance counterpart to America’s NSA, came on in August 2017 with an exceptionally high-powered new U.S. corporate security and intelligence firm, BlueteamGlobal.
Hannigan is the GCHQ chief who resigned abruptly, for never-explained personal reasons, on 23 January 2017.
And who is BlueteamGlobal? It’s a U.S. firm launched by veterans of Morgan Stanley, which is probably where most of its $125 million in expansion funding is coming from. It’s formed from three preexisting companies: BitVoyant, K2G, and K2 Cyber Defense. BlueteamGlobal has as officials, among others, Daniel Ennis, former director of NSA’s Threat Operations Center; Ron Feler, former deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite cyber squad Unit 8200; and former FBI cyber officials Austin Berglas and Milan Patel (who have been go-to media commentators on all the best-known political cyber kerfuffles over the past three years, including Hillary’s emails and the DNC intrusion).
The former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, will chair the BlueteamGlobal advisory board. Jules Kroll, mentioned above as the founder of his own, industry-defining business intelligence company, will sit on the board of directors.
In case it’s not obvious, these are some of the biggest names you can get. This is a super-platinum company being put together. (Perhaps it may be premature to see it as someone’s lifeboat. But it would make a sensible person’s antenna twitch.)
Of special interest for our purposes: BlueteamGlobal will have a “strategic business alliance” with the firm Bill Priestap’s wife Sabina Menschel came from, when she moved to Nardello & Co. in late 2015 – Kroll’s K2 Intelligence.
Now we have context for 2016
In light of all this inter-movement and connectedness, a picture of fractured, disinterested happenstance as regards the U.S.-election events of 2016 gets harder and harder to maintain.
We’ve already looked at the George Papadopoulos episode. We can also reflect for a moment on whether it still looks meaningless that Jonathan Selib in Brooklyn, connected – like Alexander Downer – with Hakluyt & Co. and its ties to MI6, is a long-time associate of Jim Messina. My sense is not that Mr. Selib (or Messina) had anything to do with the UK playing a funny role in “Russiagate.” There’s no evidence for that.
But it is that Hakluyt runs in the circles in which the opportunity for such funny role-playing would present itself. The people links are the connecting dots. Any competent counterintelligence analyst would want to know more about all these links – especially with big piles of money, and job offers and high political stakes, lurking every two or three hops.
This, right here, is how RICO cases are built. These are the kinds of connections analysts identify and dig into.
The final thing we have to look at, now that we have some much-needed context, is the reporting from a year ago, that sources in UK intelligence were the ones who first communicated with then-CIA Director John Brennan to raise alarms about what they said were Trump connections with Russia.
It must stand out in strong relief that the signal event in that sequence was reported — by the Guardian — to be a secret visit to Brennan in the summer of 2016 (we can date it to late July, given other things we now know), by…Robert Hannigan, GCHQ director, who went on to resign abruptly three days after Trump took office, and is now with BlueteamGlobal.
The prior UK connections surrounding the Papadopoulos episode would, if validated, put that secret briefing in a most arresting light.
They also raise questions about the bona fides of the information supposedly sourced, through the Brits, to providers like Germany, Estonia, and the Netherlands.
Perhaps the most important thing those connections would do is suggest revisiting the allegation reported by UK media and Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano in early 2017: that in 2016, Britain’s GCHQ was unmasking Americans in electronic communications, on the Obama administration’s behalf.
It has never been infeasible for that to happen. It has been highly unlikely, to be sure. But it’s not impossible (nor historically unprecedented, as Accuracy in Media pointed out).
Napolitano, I note, clearly understood what he was talking about when he explained this allegation in March 2017. He never said the Brits physically bugged anyone in the U.S., or set any wiretaps.
What he did say was what is feasible – and, if it were to happen at all, what would be the most likely method. He described GCHQ pulling data from an already bulk-collected data store – implicitly theirs, or ours – and unmasking U.S. persons based on discriminators that would turn up individuals of particular interest, such as Trump associates.
(Remember, we’re talking about communications with Russians and/or other third-party foreigners at one end of them. So they’re fair game for either GCHQ or NSA to collect. It’s in the follow-on processing that national privacy rules kick in.)
NSA has the forensic capability to determine whether such a thing might have happened, using U.S.-collected data. We have never been given any sort of NSA response on that, and I wouldn’t expect one in public.
But between the Steele dossier, the Papadopoulos episode, and the shadowy reports about alarms being raised with Brennan by British intelligence, we’re being asked to take a lot of UK involvement on faith – for an investigation that keeps turning up no evidence of a targeted crime, but rather a whole lot of professional malpractice and bad faith by the supposed guardians of our own national security.
Devin Nunes is right. His committee needs to know what was in that electronic communication that set off the FBI “Russia” probe in July of 2016.
And so do we.