Change of narrative: Nellie Ohr and the deep dive back into 2015

Change of narrative: Nellie Ohr and the deep dive back into 2015
Nellie Ohr, social media. Bear, YouTube video; author graphic

After the release of emails from Bruce and Nellie Ohr in 2015-2016, which I wrote up last week, Jeff Carlson produced an excellent summary of Nellie Ohr’s October 2018 testimony to Congress at The Epoch Times this week.  Carlson was able to review the testimony in person, as he has done with other still-unreleased testimony in recent weeks. He learned several intriguing things.

Carlson emphasizes that Nellie Ohr did, in fact, work as a contractor for CIA’s Open Source Works from 2008 to about 2014.  I was not in doubt about that feature of her work history, and am not as convinced as some analysts are that it carries special import for Ohr’s role in the Fusion GPS/Steele dossier drama.  That possibility should not be excluded, but the mere fact of working for Open Source Works would not be the deciding factor.  Decisive factors would more likely be Ohr’s network of social and professional contacts, both in her own right and through her husband’s Justice Department career.

A couple of administrative points

That said, there are a handful of observations to be made based on Carlson’s latest article.  One is his very useful clarification of what Open Source Works (OSW) was established to be.  I was not fully clear myself that OSW was distinct from (and apparently not an offshoot of) the Open Source Center, which was the follow-on to the old Foreign Broadcast Information Service, recast under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

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ODNI is a relative latecomer in the structure of the U.S. intelligence community, established as a post-9/11 reform in 2004.  OSW, per se, was not formed until after ODNI had assumed some of the top-level policy and programming responsibilities previously consolidated under the Director of Central Intelligence.  OSW is a CIA program, whereas the Open Source Center – the FBIS follow-on – migrated to ODNI when the DNI function was established in 2004.

The Open Source Center has the charter to translate foreign media content.  OSW’s charter, on its creation, was to generate analysis for the CIA based solely on open-source information.  An important aspect of this, besides the point that OSW would want analysts (not just linguists), is that there would also be plenty of work to do in English.  In other words, it seems to be a comprehensive analytical shop, one that wouldn’t necessarily require or at least emphasize foreign-language ability.

Carlson notes that OSW disappeared off the public-notice radar in 2011. That is an interesting point, although we can’t assume what it means.  Since OSW apparently wasn’t designed to be a simple translation mill, there are functions it could be performing that aren’t about traditional spycraft but that the CIA nevertheless wants to keep quiet.  The most likely realm of endeavor would be something to do with Internet activity analysis and sleuthing.  Nellie Ohr has expertise in those areas, with a unique focus on Russia.

The bottom line on this topic is that it would be inaccurate to refer to Nellie Ohr as an “agent” of the CIA.  (Carlson doesn’t do that, but others have.)  It’s not even evident that she has a high-level clearance.

That leads to the second observation about what Carlson has unearthed.  Ohr’s career path, although it involves a usual-suspect list of contractors and agencies, is – if Carlson has read this accurately – somewhat unusual in one regard.  Here is the salient claim:

According to a transcript of an Oct. 19, 2018, closed-door testimony, which was reviewed by The Epoch Times, Ohr acknowledged to congressional investigators that she worked as an independent contractor for “various agencies in the United States Government.”

If Ohr was indeed an independent contractor in all her jobs – as distinct from an employee hired by contractor organizations like MITRE to fulfill government work contracts – that carries some special interest.  Independent contractors are typically the very last in line to get high-level clearances, especially if they didn’t start out with a clearance history; e.g., from working in a government job before moving to private industry.

Moreover, contractors have to pay for their own clearance investigations.  That’s quite expensive, running to the tens of thousands of dollars, and it’s a recurring expense as well.  The backlog for even the highest-priority investigations is also substantial.  Contracting companies, like MITRE, fare better in that hopper than individuals who contract independently – and that’s why independent contractors who need clearances may often arrange to be employees of companies when their investigations are due for renewal.  The company pays for it, and has slightly better priority in the backlogged pipeline.

Nellie Ohr may well have had a lower-level clearance based on less-intensive investigations, given her area of expertise and the likely use to which it has been put.  It’s also quite possible that she has had eligibility for a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information access level, or even Special Access Programs access.  She’s been at this for a long time (since 2000).

But nothing in what we can read of her work history indicates that must have been the case. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about Ohr being a secret-squirrel operative of the CIA.

On the other hand, in light of her expertise and the agencies with which some of the companies Ohr has worked for contracted – the Justice and State Departments, for example – it would be a limiting factor for her to not have a clearance.

Other intriguing implications

The most significant thing Jeff Carlson abstracted from Ohr’s testimony is that she says she began working for Fusion GPS in September of 2015.

If that’s true, it’s a piece of information that upends important elements of what has heretofore been an established narrative.

Previously, the narrative has been that Ohr came onto the Fusion team no earlier than the end of 2015.  Indeed, until Bruce Ohr’s deposition in August 2018, the assumption about Nellie was that she began working for Fusion in April or May of 2016.  Last August, Bruce Ohr dated her contract with Fusion to late 2015, which has been interpreted as late fall, probably little earlier than December, if any.

The disclosure from Nellie Ohr changes the narrative in two important ways.  One is that it now has her association with Fusion overlapping all of the period when Fusion’s opposition research on Trump was being funded by the Washington Free Beacon, and its big-donor backer Paul Singer.

According to reporting from the New York Times in 2017, WFB was paying Fusion GPS for research on Trump from October 2015 to April 2016.  (See the Daily Caller here as well.)

Christopher Steele didn’t begin his contracted dossier work with Fusion until after the funding source shifted to the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign, apparently in April 2016.  But Nellie Ohr seems to have been working for Fusion through all of the WFB-funded period – as much as seven months before the Democrats began funding Fusion’s oppo effort against Trump.  If she was already performing specifically Russia-related oppo research on Trump in that period, we have reason to question the premise that WFB wasn’t seeking that research focus in particular. (Alternatively, we could ask if WFB was paying for one work product and Fusion was pursuing its own priorities on WFB’s dime.)

Fusion was working for law firm BakerHostetler on the Prevezon Holdings money-laundering case in New York during that period as well.  Carlson doesn’t mention Prevezon at all in his article, so it’s hard to determine whether Ohr might have been hired initially to work on that, given its extensive implication of Russian oligarchs and officials.

Although the Prevezon portfolio looks unlikely at this point – it’s becoming obvious that the dirt-digging effort against Trump started even earlier in 2015 than many analysts already suspected – the possibility can’t be discounted that prior to April 2016, Nellie was working on Prevezon and not on Trump.

That said, her other testimony on this matter is the most curious point of all.  This is what she reportedly said about seeking work with Fusion:

Beginning in September 2015, Ohr began working for Fusion GPS. Ohr told investigators that she “read an article in the paper that mentioned Glenn Simpson. And I remembered because he had been a Wall Street Journal reporter, working on things like Russian crime and corruption, so I recognized the name. I was underemployed at that time and I was looking for opportunities.”

If Ohr read an article in the paper about Glenn Simpson around this time, the subject would have been Fusion’s attempt to impugn the Planned Parenthood videos made by the undercover team of the Center for Medical Progress, David Daleiden’s outfit.  Fusion was initially successful at convincing the media that the videos had been “doctored” (a court later determined otherwise), and Fusion’s work on that case generated considerable buzz in August and September of 2015.  The Washington Post and New York Times both ran features on the story.

It’s quite improbable that the Planned Parenthood videos story sparked professional enthusiasm in Ohr’s mind.  She says, according to Carlson, that she remembered Glenn Simpson’s connection with Russian topics at the Wall Street Journal.  But the WaPo story she is likely to have read (or the NYT story) doesn’t have that focus.

No other news articles from that period come up linking Fusion GPS to Russia-related political research.  Even if she put Simpson’s name together with his previous beat at WSJ, there was nothing in the news features on the Planned Parenthood videos to suggest that Fusion was actually working on anything that would interest Nellie.  Taking her narrative at face value, if she didn’t really know Simpson (as she also indicated in her 2018 testimony) and went only by what was in the papers, she had no reason to think he would have Russia-related work for her to do.

There seems to be a hint of disingenuousness in this that hasn’t cropped up before with Nellie Ohr.  It bears watching, as more information keeps trickling out.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.