This one may have been staring us in the face for two years. But it took the information peel-backs of those last two years to make its potential import stand out.
On Friday, Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft pointed out that former CIA director John Brennan reportedly made a “secret” visit to Moscow in March 2016. The “secrecy” was really a matter of the visit being unheralded, apparently. No public to-do was made of it, but officials in both Russia and the U.S. answered media questions about it.
The alert on Brennan’s visit came from the Moscow Times, in a brief article on 28 March 2016. According to a Russian foreign ministry official, Brennan had indeed been in the country earlier in the month, and had met with the Federal Security Service (the FSB):
“It’s no secret that Brennan was here,” Syromolotov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Monday. “But he didn’t visit the Foreign Ministry. I know for sure that he met with the Federal Security Service (the successor agency to the Soviet KGB), and someone else.”
The Moscow Times pinpointed Brennan’s visit to 14 March:
It wasn’t clear why Brennan visited Moscow, but the trip appears to have coincided with President Vladimir Putin’s surprise March 14 announcement that Russia’s combat operation in Syria was ending, and Moscow would soon withdraw a portion of its forces from the country after conducting 167 air strikes.
News outlet Sputnik got its own response from the foreign ministry, and cited Oleg Syromolotov thus:
Earlier on Monday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said Brennan’s visit to Moscow had nothing to do with the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
Sputnik also got a statement from CIA spokesman Dean Boyd, which contradicted Syromolotov on the matter of why Brennan had been in Moscow:
“Director Brennan… reiterated the US government’s consistent support for a genuine political transition in Syria, and the need for [President Bashar] Assad’s departure in order to facilitate a transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people,” Boyd stated.
Much as we would ordinarily choose to take Boyd’s word for this, his statement doesn’t necessarily add up. For one thing, the FSB is not a service the U.S. would talk to about a geopolitical transition in Syria. Brennan might talk to the FSB about other things, but the story here doesn’t really track. Russian state policy on the succession in Syria is outside the FSB’s lane. For another thing, the chief of the FSB is not Brennan’s counterpart in Russia on such matters.
There isn’t a direct counterpart to the FSB in the United States. The FSB’s job is as much about counterintelligence, the regime maintaining power in Russia (i.e., internal security), and Putin holding whoever he wants to at risk abroad, as it is about foreign intelligence, in the terms we think of it with respect to the CIA.
The direct counterpart in Russia to the CIA, especially if the DCI is there to talk about the political future of Syria, is the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR. (Conveniently for quick reference, the heads of all three Russian intelligence services – including military intelligence, or the GRU – were in Washington, D.C. in January 2018 for meetings. Note that the formally announced meeting was between CIA Director Mike Pompeo and SVR chief Sergei Naryshkin. Those men are each other’s counterparts. It is by no means out of the question for the CIA director to meet with the head of the FSB, as Brennan reportedly did in March 2016, but it’s not an ordinary activity by protocol.)
Perhaps Brennan made the points about Syria that Boyd credits him with to someone else in Russia.
At any rate, a Reuters article on 28 March 2016 referenced state media agency RIA, and a quote it got from CIA spokesman Boyd, to place Brennan’s visit in “early March.”
Brennan was in New York on 3 March for a dinner address to some Navy SEALs, and in Washington, D.C. on 7 March for an address to the Global Partnerships Practitioners Forum. So if he wasn’t in Moscow on exactly 14 March, it could have been sometime between 7 and 14 March.
The remarkable thing about this is what else was going on at the time, relevant to the Russiagate timeline.
For this first look, and in the interest of getting this posted, I will dispense with a broader-scope timeline, and simply lay out March and April here.
But before I do, recall one thing. In late July and early August 2016, it was Brennan who rushed to the White House with his hair on fire about “Russia and Trump.” His urging was reportedly what prompted the establishment of the White House’s “Russia task force” in the first week of August 2016. It was Brennan who, that month, assembled the team of “several dozen analysts from the CIA, NSA, and FBI” that eventually produced the assessment about Russian interference on which the president and Congress were briefed (Congress in the first couple of days of December 2016).
That assessment was the one declassified and released publicly in the first week of January 2017. In the meantime, starting in late August 2016, Brennan had lobbied senior Democrats on the Hill to demand probes of Trump and Russia. He was the instigator of the push Peter Strzok referred to in a September 2016 text to Lisa Page as having Obama’s personal attention.
In sum, Brennan was right in the middle of the Obama administration’s activities regarding Russiagate. Those activities were in no way exclusive to the FBI, DOJ, or National Security Council (where unmasking of Americans was later uncovered, when Devin Nunes was alerted to it in early 2017).
Here is the timeline, with an arbitrary starting point of March 2016, and an ending point of April 2016. For some of the events, I am indebted to the useful timeline spreadsheet Doug Ross maintains at DirectorBlue.
“Early March” 2016: Fusion GPS contacted law firm Perkins Coie about doing opposition research work for the 2016 election.
6 March 2016: George Papadopoulos (who had left the Ben Carson campaign in January 2016, and begun an affiliation with the London Centre of International Law and Practice (LCILP) in February 2016), learns he will be a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisory team.
The odd wording of this – “learns he will be a member of” the team – may come from reports that Papadopoulos, like Carter Page, reached out to the Trump team and volunteered himself, and was accepted.
But “learns he will be a member of” the team is, curiously enough, the language used in Papadopoulos’ plea to making false statements to special prosecutor Robert Mueller. It seems as if the plea, intentionally but inexplicably, leaves vague the point of how Papadopoulos came in contact with the Trump team. This detail, very obviously left out of the plea, raises the big question: Why? It isn’t necessary to name any individual persons, to nevertheless clarify the circumstances in which Papadopoulos became affiliated with the campaign. For some reason, that wasn’t done.
Most of the timeline of Papadopoulos’ activities in March and April 2016, except where linked separately, comes from that plea document.
The LCILP is connected with Professor Joseph Mifsud, a key Papadopoulos contact in the plea document and timeline.
7-8 March 2016: Papadopoulos attends an LCILP conference in London. He is photographed at the conference in company with Saudi attorney Majed Garoub, who was on the legal committee of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer, during the period (2010-2015) when Christopher Steele (dossier author) was helping the FBI take down some of FIFA’s top mobbed-up figures, who included Russian oligarchs.
9 March 2016: Back in the U.S., an exceptionally important discovery is made. This discovery would not be known to the public until April 2017. That’s when an opinion from the FISA Court, issued in October 2016, was made public in redacted form.
The FISC opinion stated that on this date, 9 March 2016, the Department of Justice learned the FBI had been improperly disclosing “raw FISA information” (that is, information that would include unmasked U.S. person identifying information, or USPI) to an entity largely staffed by private contractors. (See also the discussion here, where Conservative Treehouse has done great work parsing this out.)
The significance of this is that it was a major catalyst in a review, initiated by NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, of FISA data-pulling practices.
The FISC opinion said that the access for contractors to FISA data was terminated on 18 April 2016.
But we can – and should – assume that the breach of proper FISA practices by the FBI was known to senior officials across the intelligence community within days of the DOJ’s initial discovery.
This period, March and April 2016, is one I have alluded to before (link above), in which concern about the level and urgency of oversight for FISA data retrievals ramped up dramatically. It’s when Admiral Rogers launched his investigation of what was going on with those data retrievals: the investigation that ultimately resulted in Rogers’ report to the FISA Court in October 2016 (referenced in the court opinion here).
It was when Rogers turned in that report that then-DNI James Clapper claimed to have lost confidence in him, and publicly said he wanted Rogers fired.
The effect of Rogers’ actions – this is what you must not miss – was to cut off ill-supervised access to FISA Section 702 data for almost everyone in government.
By ill-supervised, I mean just that. The change prompted by Rogers’ investigation wasn’t that cleared personnel could no longer pull the data. But the layer over them of career-employed (“GS” employee), oath-bound bureaucratic supervision was now on the alert. The data pulls would have been more closely watched – at NSA, and presumably within the other intelligence agencies too.
Between March and October 2016, the National Security Council effectively became the only place in government where staffers could continue to make FISA data pulls with solely political supervision – political appointees; Obama loyalists – guaranteeing their good behavior.
This is how I summarized it in March (last link above):
It takes [collaboration among government agencies] to circumvent the safeguards built into our surveillance laws. Each party has functions it can properly perform, but which it is not supposed to go beyond. And only one party, out of all the ones named above, can actually evade a true, meaningful audit of its activities, for long enough to keep this kind of enterprise going. That party is the one at the pinnacle: the NSC (and implicitly, the Executive Office of the President itself).
9 March 2016 was a huge date in this timeline. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. Given the significance of the DOJ’s discovery on that date, it is very probable that the Office of the DNI (ODNI; i.e., Clapper and his senior staff) knew within 48-72 hours – because either Justice or NSA would have told them, as their responsibilities required. (DOJ probably told NSA very soon after making the discovery, in part because auditing the data-pulls in question would require NSA’s involvement.) Clapper would have known, and I assume Brennan knew as well.
14 March 2016: On or shortly before this date, John Brennan meets with the FSB in Moscow.
14 March 2016: Papadopoulos first meets with Joseph Mifsud, in Italy. Mifsud initially has little interest in Papadopoulos, but warms up when he learns Papadopoulos has a connection to the Trump campaign.
19 March 2016: Hackers, eventually proclaimed to be Russian, gain access to John Podesta’s email account. Numerous emails between Podesta and Hillary Clinton are added to the Hillary emails previously made available by the “Guccifer” hack of Sidney Blumenthal’s email account.
The Podesta email heist would have added to the thousands of Hillary emails exposed to global hackers by her use of a private email server during her years at the State Department. Thus, from at least three potential sources, Russian state cyber actors could have had access to thousands of Clinton emails.
21 March 2016: The Trump campaign publicly names Papadopoulos as one of its foreign policy advisers.
24 March 2016: Papadopoulos meets with Mifsud in London, along with the Russian woman introduced to him at the time as “Putin’s niece.” (She is subsequently identified as Olga Polonskaya, former manager of a wine distribution company who was in London to discuss an internship with Mifsud. She is not Putin’s niece.)
28 March 2016: Paul Manafort is hired as Trump’s campaign manager. Manafort had been under FBI surveillance, using FISA justification, since 2014 (due to contacts in Ukraine), and reportedly was still under that surveillance at a time in 2016 when he was in contact with Trump.
According to CNN, Manafort was not under that surveillance when he attended the notorious meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya on 9 June 2016. However, Manafort came under new surveillance later in 2016. Corey Lewandowski has confirmed that the Trump campaign was never told Manafort was being watched by the FBI in 2016.
Basically, that means that during much of 2016, Trump’s own communications, along with others’ on his team, were subject to comprehensive surveillance due to the “two-hop rule.” Since data retrievals can go back to before the start date of a FISA warrant, it’s virtually certain that Trump’s communications on every single day of 2016 (and even before 2016) were retrieved.
In turn, the Manafort warrant means George Papadopoulos could well have come under FBI surveillance (in the form of “two-hop” retrievals on all his communications data, going back as much as five years), no later than very shortly after 28 March 2016. It could have been before that date as well, depending on when Manafort had been in communication with anyone on the Trump team before 28 March.
Joseph Mifsud, as a foreign national (Maltese), could have been instantly under surveillance upon the first recognition that he was in contact with Papadopoulos, as could Olga Polonskaya.
Keep that in mind. The mental image of Robert Mueller’s team needing to reconstruct those individuals’ activities in some other way, after the special counsel was set up in May 2017, is almost certainly invalid. With Manafort and Trump having been in contact at a time in 2016 when Manafort was under surveillance, most (perhaps all) of the actors in Trump’s orbit were probably the subjects of NSA data retrievals in 2016.
And as a reminder, that means they and Trump were under surveillance two years ago, with FBI knowledge of what they’d been doing going back years before that, and there is no evidence from all that surveillance that they ever did anything wrong, in relation to Russia and the 2016 election.
A final note on the Manafort surveillance. The Rogers investigation of FISA data use, initiated in the March-April timeframe in 2016, made the Manafort FISA warrant especially important. As the months went by in mid-2016, sensitivity in the U.S. intelligence agencies to what had been going on with ill-supervised NSA data retrievals increased. This was because Mike Rogers was making the noise about the problem that it’s his job to make.
We can assume that wherever such retrievals had been happening – e.g., FBI, perhaps CIA and even ODNI – it became less possible over time to perform them without questions being asked.
To keep the Trump campaign under effective, continuing surveillance, a hook like the Manafort FISA warrant would have been necessary, for formal justification. This helps explain the urgency of trying to get another warrant, reportedly applied for in June (said to have named Trump as the target, and turned down by the court), and the application made for Carter Page in October 2016.
We don’t know from CNN’s reporting (link above) when in 2016 the prior, long-running FISA warrant on Manafort expired. But it appears to have been after 28 March, but before 9 Jun 2016. See 25 April in the footnote.*
31 March 2016: Papadopoulos attends a Trump team meeting on national security and foreign policy. He talks up his prospects of arranging a meeting between Trump and Putin.
10-11 April 2016: Papadopoulos, in email contact with Olga Polonskaya and Mifsud, attempts to set up a “foreign policy trip to Russia.” Mifsud responds positively, stating that he will be in Russia for a meeting of the Valdai Club (a Russian foreign policy group) on 18 April. The implication is that he will seek to make arrangements during that trip.
12 April 2016: Law firm Perkins Coie hires Fusion GPS on behalf of the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign to do opposition research on the Trump campaign.
13 April 2016: A truly odd development: Robert Mueller and his former chief of staff Aaron Zebley (from when Mueller was FBI director) meet in the White House complex with Stefanie Osburn, executive director of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. (The meeting is in the New Executive Office Building.) Zebley, who is now on Mueller’s special counsel team, represented Hillary IT aide Justin Cooper in 2015 – the guy who set up her private email server and attacked her old Blackberries with a hammer.
Seems legit…FISA chat at the WH maybe? 👇
Hey @maggieNYT I heard you need investigative material. I revealed this in DEC.
April 13, 2016
Robert Mueller: S.C.
Aaron Zebley – Justin Cooper's (Hillary's IT guy) atty
Stefanie Osburn – Obama's Exec Dir Intelligence Advisory Board pic.twitter.com/4j2q1E7kiO
— Katica (@GOPPollAnalyst) January 26, 2018
The timing is curious for a White House visit by these two men, with a relatively obscure intelligence advisory official. Osburn’s job is not a policy position; she was appointed to it in 2005, and as executive director of the PIAB, basically keeps it going as presidential appointees from other walks of life cycle through it. (Foreign Policy magazine lamented in November 2017 that Trump had yet to appoint any members to the PIAB. But as far as can be discerned, the skeleton professional staff is still on the job. That would include Ms. Osburn.)
Why Mueller and his long-time associate Zebley were meeting with Osburn in April 2016 remains a mystery. Given everything else that was going on related to Hillary’s emails at the time, it’s not out of the question that they were addressing a policy issue connected with the intelligence aspects of that problem. Hillary’s use of the private email server exposed hundreds of emails with classified material on the Internet.
18 April 2016: From Russia, Joseph Mifsud connects Papadopoulos by email to a contact in the Russian foreign ministry. They begin a correspondence aimed at setting up a Putin-Trump meeting. At no time does the Trump campaign show any particular, focused interest in this effort. Nothing comes of it.
18 April 2016: In the U.S., the FBI discontinues access to raw FISA information for the entity staffed by private contractors. (See 9 March 2016 entry above.)
19 April 2016: In the U.S., the day after the FBI discontinues raw FISA access for the private contractors, Mary Jacoby, wife of Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson (and a fellow investigative journalist, who has covered Russian crime activities jointly with Simpson), visits the White House.
Did Obama see the Steele Dossier in August 2016? Maybe.
Mary Jacoby bragged on Facebook about the dossier.
Did she brag about going to the White House in April 2016, same month the DNC, Clinton hired Fusion GPS?
— Katica (@GOPPollAnalyst) December 22, 2017
(Note: The InsideGov.com website through which bloggers have long been querying the Obama White House visitor logs has been shut down. The links posted at blogs and social media no longer work. In my posts, I will only use records of White House visits that have been otherwise saved in full, e.g., by screen caps containing all the normally included information.)
Jacoby is an Arkansas native whose father has connections to Hillary and Bill Clinton going back to the late 1970s.
25 April 2016: Obama’s Organizing for Action PAC makes the first payment to the Perkins Coie law firm, in a series of payments that will total $972,000 in 2016.
26 April 2016: Papadopoulos meets Mifsud in London. Mifsud tells him he (Mifsud) met with Russian officials during his recent trip, and learned that they had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
(Papadopoulos would later, we are told, reveal this information to Australia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer. One point to keep in mind about that is that if Mifsud reported to a Russian contact that he had made this offer to Papadopoulos, or if Papadopoulos discussed it with anyone via personal communications, it’s a good bet both of them were under U.S. surveillance, and the FBI knew about this offer even without Ambassador Downer’s tip, reportedly delivered in July 2016.)
29-30 April 2016: The DNC reportedly becomes aware of a cyber intrusion on its IT system. For some reason, the DNC waits until 5 May to bring in CrowdStrike to deal with the attack. CrowdStrike then waits until 10 June 2016 to begin removing the malware – which the company attributes to Russian hackers – from the system. During the interim, CrowdStrike watches the hackers siphon off DNC files, with an emphasis on opposition research on Trump.
Exit points: As we know, the timeline went on robustly from there.
We, the public, know that now, although we didn’t know it then. But what’s in that timeline was not unknown to actors in the Obama administration, the Clinton campaign, and the Democratic Party at the time. That’s what we have to get our heads around. Those actors are not just now finding these things out. A core group of them knew much of this at the time. There may have been a handful who knew all of it.
Did John Brennan know, when he went to Moscow in mid-March 2016 to meet with the FSB, that George Papadopoulos had been added to the list of Trump advisers days before, and that the FBI had been caught out in its improper dissemination of FISA information to contract workers?
Who in government knew that Fusion GPS had approached Perkins Coie about working for the Democrats in the 2016 election, at about the same time Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign?
Which individuals in the Trump campaign were under surveillance by March 2016 because they’d been in communication with Paul Manafort? And how far back had the FBI retrieved data on their communications?
These are things we will only find out by asking. I’ve said this before: this is how RICO cases are uncovered. But it’s not a RICO case against the Trump campaign that could be made here. It’s a case against Obama, Hillary, and the DNC.
* 25 April 2016: In the U.S., a meeting is held by White House staff , the character of which remains ambiguous. (I am including it as a footnote, therefore, rather than an entry that I firmly believe to be related to Russiagate.)
The array of persons present from DOJ and FBI suggests the possibility of either FISA matters or Hillary Clinton email matters as the subject. (I doubt it was both; it would have been unwise to talk about FISA issues in front of people who were uninvolved in whatever may have been related to them. That tilts me toward thinking this was about Hillary’s emails, especially because some of the individuals had specific expertise in cyber crime and cyber vulnerabilities.)
The meeting was with FBI general counsel James Baker (for many years a FISA specialist for the Bureau), and the DOJ’s deputy assistant attorney generals for intelligence (Tashina Gauhar) and law and policy (John Wiegmann), who are closely involved in the submission of all FISA applications from DOJ/FBI. (See here if the first link above doesn’t work.)
Notably, James Baker is the senior FBI official who in 2017 was reassigned when it appeared that he had been involved in discussing the Steele dossier with David Corn of Mother Jones. So at the very least, Baker’s Russiagate connection – which presumably (given Baker’s job) also included a review of the FISA application for Carter Page – was more than incidental.
But all three of these top people could have been there to talk about the national security implications of Hillary’s emails. Remember that at this exact time, James Comey was working on his draft memo exonerating Hillary, even though she hadn’t been interviewed yet.
The presence of Trisha B. Anderson, the FBI’s principal deputy general counsel for national security and cyberlaw, and John T. Lynch, chief of the computer crime and intellectual property section in the FBI’s criminal division, seems to point more toward the “Hillary emails” theory. Associate Deputy Attorney General Iris Lan, who has given addresses on cyber security in the last several years, would also appear to fit that profile.
Christopher Hardee is (and was in April 2016) the DOJ chief counsel for policy in the national security division, in which Gauhar and Wiegmann were deputy assistant attorney generals.
Alan Rozenshtein was serving as an attorney adviser to John Wiegmann’s office at the time, and in January 2018 published an article in the Stanford Law Review about private companies – like Apple or Google – functioning as “surveillance intermediaries” for the government. He and Hardee could conceivably have been in the meeting for either FISA issues or to discuss the security implications and other aspects of Hillary’s email hemorrhage.
Another possibility – although the timing was not good for this, and the horsepower level of the meeting was pretty high – is that it was about the Apple phone-cracking case that arose after the terror attack in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. The problem with the timing is that by 25 April, there wasn’t much for the White House to still be talking about.
The FBI had sued Apple for access to Apple’s code in February 2016. But the suit had already been dropped in March 2016, when the FBI got help from a third party and cracked Syed Farook’s iPhone without Apple’s code. According to news reporting, the FBI was briefing Congress on how it cracked the phone three weeks before the 25 April meeting.
An oddity in this meeting is the identity of the host, Suhas Subramanyam. Mr. Subramanyam was a policy adviser and special assistant in the White House Office of Technology and Science Policy. He’s not a specialist in technology or science, however; he’s an attorney with a J.D. from Northwestern. The interesting thing to me is that he spent the summer of 2015 writing updates on the progress of the Iran nuclear “deal” negotiations for the policy blog of the high-powered Paul Hastings law firm (e.g., here; more samples at the last link).
The 25 April 2016 meeting remains a conundrum. A lot of blogger-analysts are convinced it was about FISA matters, but I’m not so sure. Since it could have been, I include it here in a footnote.